Twelfth Night

She's the Man

‘Twelfth Night, or ‘What You Will” is a comedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written around 1601–02 for a festival marking the close of the Christmas season, on the twelfth night after Christmas Day, called the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany. The play centers on the twins Viola and Sebastian, who are separated in a shipwreck. Viola (who disguises herself as Cesario) falls in love with Duke Orsino, who in turn is in love with the Countess Olivia. Upon meeting Viola, Countess Olivia falls in love with her thinking she is a man.

The play expanded on the musical interludes and riotous disorder expected of the occasion, with plot elements drawn from the short story ‘Of Apollonius and Silla’ by English author Barnabe Rich, based on a story by Italian writer Matteo Bandello. 

Illyria, the setting of Twelfth Night, is important to the play’s romantic atmosphere. Illyria was an ancient region of the Western Balkans whose coast (the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea which is the only part of ancient Illyria which is relevant to the play) covered (from north to south) the coasts of modern-day Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Albania. It included the city-state of the Republic of Ragusa which has been proposed as the setting.

Illyria may have been suggested by the Roman comedy ‘Menaechmi,’ the plot of which also involves twins who are mistaken for each other. Illyria is also referred to as a site of pirates in Shakespeare’s earlier play, ‘Henry VI, Part 2.’ The names of most of the characters are Italian but some of the comic characters have English names. Oddly, the ‘Illyrian’ lady Olivia has an English uncle, Sir Toby Belch. It has been noted that the play’s setting also has other English allusions such as Viola’s use of ‘Westward ho!’, a typical cry of 16th-century London boatmen, and also Antonio’s recommendation to Sebastian of ‘The Elephant’ as where it is best to lodge in Illyria. ‘The Elephant’ is the name of a pub not far from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

Along with Barnabe Riche’s story, the play is believed to have drawn extensively on the Italian production ‘Gl’ingannati’ (or ‘The Deceived Ones’), collectively written in 1531 by the Accademia degli Intronati, the center of intellectual life in Siena, Tuscany at that time. It is conjectured that the name of its male lead, Orsino, was suggested by Virginio Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, an Italian nobleman who visited London in the winter of 1600 to 1601.

Twelfth Night festivals were originally Catholic holidays and therefore, like other Christian feast days, an occasion for revelry. Servants dressed up as their masters, men as women, and so forth. This history of festive ritual and Carnivalesque reversal, based on the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia at the same time of year (characterized by drunken revelry and inversion of the social order), is the cultural origin of the play’s gender confusion-driven plot.

The actual Elizabethan festival of Twelfth Night would involve the antics of a ‘Lord of Misrule,’ who before leaving his temporary position of authority, would call for entertainment, songs and mummery (costumes and dancing); the play has been regarded as preserving this festive and traditional atmosphere of licensed disorder. This leads to the general inversion of the order of things, most notably gender roles. The embittered and isolated Malvolio can be regarded as an adversary of festive enjoyment and community, led by Sir Toby Belch, ‘the vice-regent spokesman for cakes and ale’ and his partner in a comic stock duo, the simple and constantly exploited Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Viola is not alone among Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroines; in Shakespeare’s theater, convention dictated that adolescent boys play the roles of female characters, creating humor in the multiplicity of disguise found in a female character who for a while pretended at masculinity. Her cross dressing enables Viola to fulfill usually male roles, such as acting as a messenger between Orsino and Olivia, as well as being Orsino’s confidant. She does not, however, use her disguise to enable her to intervene directly in the plot (unlike other Shakespearean heroines such as Rosalind in ‘As You Like It’ and Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’), remaining someone who allows ‘Time’ to untangle the plot. Viola’s persistence in transvestism through her betrothal in the final scene of the play suggests the possibility of a homoerotic relationship between Viola and Orsino.

As the very nature of Twelfth Night explores gender identity and sexual attraction, having a male actor play Viola enhanced the impression of androgyny and sexual ambiguity. Some modern scholars believe that ‘Twelfth Night,’ with the added confusion of male actors and Viola’s deception, addresses gender issues ‘with particular immediacy.’ They also accept that the depiction of gender stems from the era’s prevalent scientific theory that females are simply imperfect males. This belief explains the almost indistinguishable differences between the sexes reflected in the casting and characters.

The 2006 film ‘She’s the Man’ modernizes the story as a contemporary teenage comedy (as ’10 Things I Hate About You’ did with ‘The Taming of the Shrew’). It is set in a prep school named Illyria where Viola, the main character, pretends to be her brother Sebastian, and a girl named Olivia falls in love with her.

‘Shakespeare in Love’ contains several references to ‘Twelfth Night.’ Near the end of the movie, Elizabeth I (Judi Dench) asks Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) to write a comedy for the Twelfth Night holiday. Shakespeare’s love interest in the film, Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), is the daughter of a wealthy merchant who disguises herself as a boy to become an actor; while Shakespeare, a financially struggling playwright suffering from writer’s block is trying to write ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ In a nod to the shipwrecked opening of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night,’ the movie includes a scene where the character Viola, separated from her love by an arranged marriage and bound for the American colonies, survives a shipwreck and comes ashore to Virginia.





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