Olivia’s Sexuality: Contracted to a Maid

In discussing the duplicity of Cesario/Viola’s appearance during this reading of the play, it struck me what Cesario’s feminine appearance means for Olivia’s sexuality. It is stated several times before Olivia appears onstage that she is refusing admittance to men, and is remaining veiled in the presence of those she does see. In 1.4, when Orsino is giving Cesario their job to woo Olivia, Orsino makes a point of say to Cesario that anyone “shall belie thy happy years / That say thou art a man.” He points out specifically Cesario’s lips and voice and says that “all is semblative to a woman’s part” (1.4.28-33). In the next scene, Malvolio describes Cesario to Olivia as “not old enough for a man” and “as a squash before ‘tis a peascod” (1.5.139-144). There is a very heavy emphasis on Cesario’s femininity — or at least their lack of masculinity. In her speech at 261 Olivia first points out those parts of Cesario that Orsino described as the most feminine as the parts that she likes, namely his “tongue” or voice and his “face.”

In 3.1 Olivia fixates on Cesario’s voice, saying that she would rather hear Cesario speak that hear the planets move. This meaning that she cares more for them than for the innermost workings of the universe. Later in this same scene, she focuses on Cesario’s “lip” which in 1.4, Orsino described as “more smooth and rubious” than Diana’s (1.4.30-31;3.1.137). She then swears her love upon “maidenhood,” even after Cesario tells her “That you do think you are not what you are” and “I am not what I am.” In Cesario’s last speech in this scene, they say “I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth / And that no woman has, nor never none / Shall mistress be of it save I.”

While much of this could be excused in saying that Olivia simply likes effeminate men, there is something to be said for how she reacts to Cesario’s wooings. She consistently rejects the speeches that Orsino has given to Cesario. She specifically says that she “cannot love him,” something she repeats several times. Not that she will not, or does not, but that it is not possible, it is not within her ability. It is only after Cesario’s speech at 1.5.233 and 237, when they tell Olivia their own composition, that she reacts, and becomes nervous, asking “what is your parentage?” At the end of this scene Olivia says “I do I know not what, and fear to find / mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind” and “Ourselves we do not owe.” She acknowledges that her feelings are out of her control, and that she is surprised by them.

Olivia’s primal reaction to Cesario is based on her instinctual feeling of their feminine energy. Olivia is, at some level, aware that Cesario is different than other men, and though she cannot pinpoint why, I don’t think that it is a stretch to say that it is because she is reacting to the woman and not the man. Her strong reactions come from admiration of Cesario’s feminine qualities and affections. They are the opposite of every other suitor Olivia has had: rather than pushing her with aggressive masculinity and overly-poetic verses, Cesario enchants her with their high voice and sweet heart-felt words. Olivia is attracted to the femininity that she recognizes from herself, because Cesario can understand her in a way that men cannot.


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