Monday, March 7, 2016

A Series of Confusing Events and Gender Swapping

Over the course of my education, I have gained a new found respect for Shakespeare that I previously lacked. That being said, I must admit that I definitely prefer his tragedies over his comedies. Twelfth Night is funny, but it is also a bit confusing to read and understand who is disguising themselves as what gender. I had the privilege of seeing the play performed onstage and the dialogue and wit was much more apparent spoken aloud as opposed to merely reading it. Being a movie buff, I cannot help but think of the 1998 film, Shakespeare in Love, which fictionally depicts Joseph Fiennes penning Twelfth Night in honor of Gwyneth Paltrow's character, Lady Viola De Lesseps. If you have not seen the film, I highly recommend it.

Aside from this, as I read Shakespeare's comedic work, I found myself consistently taking and updating notes on who was in disguise and who was in love with who. Frankly, the process was exhausting, but greatly increased my appreciation of the writer's comedic genius. At first, I did not understand why this play was selected for the course. However, upon analyzing it, I realized that this play, even centuries later, has modern implications that can be readily discussed. One major theme is the uncertainty of gender. Obviously, disguise plays a major role in the plot as multiple characters must hide their respective genders for various reasons. Viola dresses up as a man and ends up falling for Orsino, but is obviously unable to tell him. The plot is made even more complicated when Olivia falls for Viola in her disguise as Cesario. This leads to questions of homoeroticism and its place in Shakespeare's play. Olivia is in love with a woman, despite the fact that she believes Cesario to be a man. Regardless of Viola's appearance, her manners and characteristics remain the same, and there are numerous remarks on Cesario's beauty by Orsino, suggesting that Orsino is attracted to Viola well before her male disguise is removed. Shakespeare even goes so far as to leave the ending slightly murky concerning Orsino's attraction to Viola. He states at the end, "Cesario, come;/For so you shall be, while you are a man;/But when in other habits you are seen,/Orsino's mistress and his fancy's queen" (Act V Scene I). Even after Viola has revealed herself to be a woman, Orsino still calls her by her male name, leaving the audience questioning who Orsino is truly in love with: Viola or Viola's male persona.

All in all, it is easy to see why this play has caused controversy as it deals with issues of cross dressing and is often labeled as one of Shakespeare's transvestite comedies. This is a topic that is still highly relevant in modern times, and it is obvious that Shakespeare was writing beyond his time.

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