Twelfth Night is considered to be Shakespeare’s greatest comedy. I think the play earns this accolade because although it is filled with the usual stretches of imagination that come with twins, mistaken identities and cross-dressing, it is also deliciously human and utterly contemporary in its sensibilities. The fact that William Shakespeare, four hundred years ago, was exploring themes of gender and sexual fluidity, class transition, the infinite divide between puritanism and hedonism and eternal themes of unrequited love and cultural displacement is an amazing thing to contemplate. Furthermore, the achingly familiar relationship dysfunctions that permeate the play result in deliciously hilarious circumstances.
Much of the humor finds its foundations in confusions of sexual desire. It is important to note that while Elizabethan attitudes towards sexuality were rather different than our own, in many ways they were remarkably similar which is why, I believe, we find the play so pleasing. It feels wonderfully contemporary. I occasionally receive emails when we produce plays with profanity, or sexually specific language suggesting that if Shakespeare didn’t use profanity, why should so many contemporary playwrights feel the need to write so explicitly? In fact, Shakespeare’s plays are brimming with the wit of bawdy language and Twelfth Night is no exception.
Here is one of the milder exchanges between Maria, Olivia’s serving woman, and Feste, the clown:
MARIA: My lady will hang thee for thy absence.
FESTE: Let her hang me. He that is well hanged in this world needs to fear no colors.
It is also worth noting that also not unlike today, there was a significant rift between the practices of Elizabethans and Jacobeans and the moral laws of the time. Codes for sexual indiscretions were strict but behavior was not even remotely curbed. Prostitution, sex outside of the bonds of marriage and sexually transmitted diseases were rampant (it is likely that Shakespeare himself died of venereal disease). In the Puritan Malvolio, Shakespeare seeks to illuminate the dangers of sexual repression and exploits it to maximum comedic effect. When Malvolio’s desires are unleashed, his passion knows no bounds and he makes an utter fool of himself—we cannot help but laugh at him. And yet this revelry leads to a rather ominous prophesy from him at the conclusion of the play.
Gender and sexual fluidity were very much a part of the Elizabethan conversation. Although they were not yet sophisticated enough in comprehension to engage in the conversations that are happening today, they were highly intrigued by androgyny owing, perhaps, to having such a strong Queen who was compelled to adopt male attitudes and titles (“Prince”) to rule a patriarchal culture. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with such ambiguities—particularly As You Like It and Twelfth Night (which has the alternative title What You Will).
In As You Like It famously, Rosalind, who would have been played by a young man or boy, is forced to dress as a man to disguise herself and then pretends to be a woman while still wearing male clothing to test Orlando whether he really loves her. In Twelfth Night, Viola dresses as Cesario to work in Orsino’s court and promptly falls in love with him. Orsino in turn is very confused when he starts to develop feelings for his young, seemingly male servant, and in the meantime, Olivia falls in love with Cesario as well. The gender confusion is delicious, hilarious and mindexpanding.
The more we explore gender identity in the modern world and move away from simple binary thinking, the more we start to see that gender identity runs along an infinite spectrum. Shakespeare seems to have fore-knowledge of this way of thinking and begins the conversation to enormous dramatic and wonderfully appropriate comedic effect.
In Twelfth Night, all of the characters are living in a state of extremity which, of course, creates some of the play’s greatest moments. Toby has slipped into a massively dysfunctional drunkenness; Olivia is extreme in her mourning for her dead brother and then extreme in her love for Cesario; Orsino refuses to accept that Olivia cannot love him and diminishes the ability of women to love when confronted with opposition; Viola/Cesario, relentlessly optimistic, head over heels in love with Orsino and near desperate with grief at the perceived death of her brother, slips into identity confusion—particularly when her presumed dead twin brother shows up, adding confusion on top of confusion; and when Malvolio’s passions are unleashed, he experiences the release of decades of repression in an instant and borders on madness. From all this pain and dysfunction Shakespeare gives us no small amount of laughter and yet leaves us thinking and pondering—particularly when it comes to love!
And what about love? In plotting that has been envied and emulated by many a modern playwright, most notably Chekhov, everyone seems to be in love with the wrong person (Orsino for Olivia, Cesario for Orsino, Olivia for Cesario, Malvolio for Olivia, Antonio for Sebastian) and unable to perceive the truth that lies before them. Only Toby and Maria seem to know that they are right for each other, but of course there is a significant class separation between the two, and although Toby is penniless, the fact that Maria is a serving woman would have been quite scurrilous for an Elizabethan audience. The title of Twelfth Night and its connection to the holiday season has particular relevance and connection to the story being told, and was one of the factors that contributed to our decision to stage the piece. You can read more about the meaning behind the title later in this magazine!
Finally, I’d like to share a few thoughts about the physical production. I’m not much of a fan of seeing Shakespeare in Elizabethan costumes. Firstly, Elizabethan fashion is incredibly unflattering and, in contemporary terms, unsexy. There’s a reason we no longer wear pumpkin pants and hoop skirts. In Shakespeare’s day, insofar as we can piece together, the actors showed up at the theatre in their finest street clothes and added pieces (a toga, a suit of armor) to convey a sense of time and place creating a hybrid look of both contemporary and historical design. Consequently, it is always best to find a period for production that helps tell the right story, but which lives in between now and then. Our design team and I decided to place the play somewhere between 1750 and the early 1800s. We were looking for a period in which iconic looks for men and women existed that could then be transgressed by the gender confusion that Viola’s decision to disguise herself as Cesario creates. However, we are embracing no small amount of modernisms to make sure that our world is defined by Shakespeare’s gorgeous and incredibly specific text. Plays are fictional, not living documents of a moment.
So what will your experience of the play be in the theatre? It should stir your heart with the beautiful words spoken about love. You should laugh at the follies of human beings and the blindness that sometimes draws us into ridiculous behavior. You should fall in love with the music written by Writers Theatre resident composer, the award-winning Josh Schmidt. You should revel in the beautiful costumes by Mara Blumenfeld who thrilled us with her designs for The Importance of Being Earnest, and William Boles’ beautiful set, as lit by John Culbert’s gorgeous lighting design. All this will play host to some of the most magnificent language ever written for the stage. You should therefore be completely entranced by the perfect engagement of word and artist as we say goodbye to 2018 and look towards 2019.