As Secret as Maidenhead: The Profession of the Boy-Actress in Twelfth Night


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

When Duke Orsino, in Liv of Twelfth Night, speaks to Viola, disguised as Cesario, of his attractions, it is in a language loaded with suggestion: .. Diana's lip/ Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe/ Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound,/ And all is semblative a woman's part" (I.iv.30-33). Modem audiences immediately understand what is happening here: the duke is unconsciously responding to the sexual potentiality visually represented to us by a sexually mature actress wearing boy's clothes. The key to Viola's virgin mystery ("A blank, my lord," is how she describes her history [Il.iv.109]) lies in visualizing the woman's body wrapped in inappropriate costume: one kind of "worm i'th'bud" (II.iv.110). Her growing to "perfection" (II.iv.40), like the unfolding of a rose, is an unclothing. Wistfully, Viola seems to recognize that her blooming as a woman necessarily implies the violation and death of her virginity- again represented in terms of costume by those "maiden weeds" (V .i.24 7) whose recovery is blocked by Malvolio's suit against the captain at the end of the play. Orsino's refusal to kiss Viola until she dresses appropriately in "other habits" (V.i.376) suggests a kind of stalemate.

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