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Twelfth Night: Permission to Play

To Be and Not To Be


Robin Bates, Professor of Englishby Robin Bates, Professor of English

Shakespeare’s tragedies get the publicity, but I’ve always preferred his comedies. A big reason goes back to an experience I had with Twelfth Night in seventh grade.

I had contracted a case of mononucleosis and had to miss several weeks of school. To keep me entertained, my father brought home several boxed record sets of Shakespeare plays. I fell in love with Twelfth Night and listened to it over and over.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story of mistaken identity and watching the separated twins get mistaken for each other, with chaos the result. I got a kick out of how Feste, the jester, had a ready joke for everything. I enjoyed the frustrated love triangle of Orsino loving Olivia loving Viola (passing as a man) loving Orsino. I entered into Maria’s plot against Malvolio, but also felt that the joke went too far and felt sorry for him in the end.

Above all, I loved the good-natured, free-spirited Viola, who attaches herself to the court of Orsino disguised as Cesario. I sympathized with her longings, shared her confusion, laughed at her predicaments, and celebrated when she rediscovers her brother and marries Orsino.

One scene in particular stood out. She/he is challenged to a duel by Sir Andrew, who has been goaded to prove his manhood by his unreliable friend Sir Toby. Needless to say, she is terrified and is only saved when Antonio, a friend of her brother, thinks she is he and comes to her defense. There is a follow-up scene later that I also enjoyed. Sir Andrew challenges her again, only this time he actually challenges her brother and is thoroughly pummeled.

The scenes we love best in literature provide us windows into ourselves. I’ve thought about why I loved those scenes so much and here is what I’ve come up with.

I always felt out of place growing up in 1950’s southern Tennessee. Although football was king and boys were expected to be tough, I was a shy, sensitive soul who preferred reading. I remember even being called a “sissy” by my sixth-grade teacher. (Not recommended pedagogical practice.)

Through the character of Viola, Shakespeare seemed to understand me. He knew that one can have a male exterior and yet be someone far more feminine within. I saw myself in Viola when Andrew and Toby set upon her. It happened to me all the time.

This also explains why I liked the follow-up scene so much. When Sebastian breaks the heads of the bullies, it was as though I was rising to the occasion. The wimp beats up the guy who has been kicking sand in his face.

So that’s why I love the play. But here’s what makes Twelfth Night magical. Everyone has his or her own favorite scene. The play is like a multifaceted diamond—depending on how you approach it, you see a different shimmering surface.

For example, one female colleague told me that, when she encountered Twelfth Night in middle school, she loved the fact that Viola could dress up as a man and do anything and go anywhere. For her, the play spoke to dreams of female empowerment.

My wife, who grew up as a tomboy on a 1950’s Iowa farm, enjoys the comradely scenes between Orsino and Cesario/Viola, where one’s gender doesn’t get in the way of friendship. The play allowed her to imagine being one of the guys. Viola hides her love for Orsino

A bisexual friend, when she saw the play as a child, loved the interplay between Lady Olivia and Cesario/Viola, and saw Viola using her male disguise as a vehicle to express her deepest desires. My friend was only 12 and didn’t know she was bisexual. But she found Viola’s admiration for Olivia’s beauty “entirely wonderful and thrilling.” It was her first inkling that one could be part woman and part man.

To make sense of these wide-ranging responses, some background is useful. In Shakespeare’s time, the festival of Twelfth Night (the twelfth night of Christmas) was a time when traditional roles were upended. A lord of misrule was chosen, lords became peasants and peasants lords, and many people cross-dressed. The subtitle for Twelfth Night is What You Will, and on this day you could be what you will.

The play gives us permission to “play” with different sides of ourselves. Maybe, in normal life, we have an official identity; but in this magic space of artistic carnival, we get to acknowledge parts of ourselves that are normally hidden from view. Maybe they are normally hidden even from ourselves. Twelfth Night provides deep self-knowledge.

More than any author, Shakespeare understood the complexity of human beings. He didn’t let social labels like “male” or “female” get in the way but held the mirror up to nature (to quote Hamlet) to show us who we really are. This capacity to enter into the full human spectrum resulted in three-dimensional figures that seem to have actually existed. Lear, Othello, Hamlet, the Macbeths, Rosalind, Cleopatra, and Viola are almost like actual historical personages. No other author has created so many memorable characters.

I end with one last note about Twelfth Night. Even though it opens our eyes to hidden sides, Shakespeare’s play is one of his autumnal comedies and ends on a melancholy note. When the festivities are over, traditional relationships reassert themselves, men and women go back to being men and women, and Feste is left singing about “the wind and the rain.” When I recovered from mononucleosis, I returned to school and discovered that the bullies were still there. But in that magical interim, the normal rules had been suspended and I discovered there were other ways of being.