Final paper for a course on Shakespeare in Cinema.
Cross-gender behavior and identity
in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
as seen in contemporary film.
The Rapturous Twelfth Night
FESTE: What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter…
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is incredible fun. Despite its many moments of dark thoughtfulness, there is a DNA of festivity at its core. However it is performed, there is an inherent sensuality to its joys and native triumph in Viola’s movements between worlds.
The title of the play is absolutely meaningless if taken to be a description of the play itself. There is no mention of a twelfth or night in the text, and the mood certainly doesn’t have the nocturnal mysteriousness that makes A Midsummer’s Night Dream so aptly named. The title comes, of course, from the Elizabethan Nativity, in which what the modern world regards as Christmas Day was merely the beginning of a twelve-day celebration culminating in the ‘twelfth night.’ This final festal event was marked by gift-giving and the temporary suspension of otherwise impervious social manners. Twelfth Night was written as one event among the day’s many festivities, so it should not be surprising that the play breathes with a tangible love of life. It is in all appearances a play of “present mirth” that has no preoccupation with the “hearafter.” And yet, as we are wont to do from our centuries of experience with the Bard, we must pay attention to the depth of this vision of life. Like most – if not all – Shakespeare text, it begins on the foundation of popular entertainment, here the festal pastimes of a courtly Christmas, but rises to heights of human joy and dives to depths of human anxiety that far exceed its mandate. It is this emotional nuance, social profundity, and almost mystical extension of the frivolous twelfth night experience to life itself that makes Twelfth Night, Or What You Will worth considering in relation to human nature and gender identities.
As Shakespeare scholar Peter Holland observes in his article on the 1996 film rendition of Twelfth Night, the film industry, which otherwise regards Shakespeare as an accessible source material, practically boycotts his comedies. Only particular instances seem to enjoy time on the silver screen, the most common being Much Ado About Nothing, which was popularized by its Kenneth Branaugh adaption. Other than Much Ado and to some extent Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night is unique in the relative frequency of its appearance on screen.
This paper looks at the nature of gender in three of these film adaptations: Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night (1996), John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998), and Andy Fickman’s She’s the Man (2006). The three different depictions of Viola speak in distinct but complimentary ways about the dynamics of gender and sexed identities. The synthesis of the collective message of all three movies provides a fuller picture of the multi-layered identity/gender commentary operating in the play itself.
A Cross-gender Reading
Some work has already been done in interpreting Twelfth Night as a psychic text that transcends ‘mere’ comedy, mostly in the name of feminist film theory by individuals such as Jean Howard and Catherine Belsey, but a broader analysis is still wanting. The obvious interest of Twelfth Night is its preoccupation with Viola’s crossdressing; this has been analyzed from the standpoint of feminist gender politics, but not from the perspective of a broader gender theory.
I tentatively call this broader theory the ‘cross-gender’ reading. There is one specific flavor of gender theory as developed largely for feminist interests that questions the vexing barriers between sexes. However, gender theory more essentially asserts a simple difference in definition: that (biological) sex and (psychological) gender are distinct realities that may or may not correspond with each other, and that gender expression/role must contend with which of these realities to conform to. Feminist gender theory has a tendency to focus on the ambiguity of difference between men and women for the sake of social emancipation, whereas this ‘cross’-gender approach focuses on the issues of identity and definition when a conflict exists between internal being-in-the-world and external being-to-the-world.
Since film is a modern medium and therefore to some extent an inherently modernizing one, it provides a perfect launching-off point for a contemporary look at the play. Any film interpretation of Shakespeare, no matter how conscious of historical accuracy, is by the constraints of time and technology crafted for the attention span (both literal and ideological) of a present-day audience. Since gender theory in its current incarnation is a product of modernity, Shakespeare film provides a ready crossroads at which we can translate the traffic of the Shakespearean path into that of modern gender anxieties.
Twelfth Night – The Great Longing
OLIVIA: I am as mad as he,
If sad and merry madness equal be.
Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night (1996) is set in late 19th century England as opposed to the ‘historical’ 1600s because of the clarity of demarcation between men and women in that era. Howard references the Renaissance scholarship of Greenbalt which suggests that Renaissance gender differences might have been on a continuum of psychological characteristics (mostly activity versus passivity and reason versus emotion) as opposed to a biologically dichotomy. Nunn’s placement of the film in the 1800s puts it firmly in the time when such biological bases were absolute. Whereas there is the possibility that a Renaissance reading might see female crossdressing as an actual stepping into or toward maleness, a 19th century reading would see it as an illusion hiding the actual biological reality.  However, the film’s voice does not seem to speak to this distinction so much as the social stratification of society at the time.
This film lends itself with special ease to this interpretive work. In contrast to the inherent joviality of the text I asserted at the outset, this particular adaption spends much of its cinematic energy on containing the play and allowing the darker undertones to simmer. There is something decidedly melancholic about the landscape of this movie with its bare beaches, grayish heaths, and cold gothic mausoleums. While in Sir Toby’s Dickensian magnanimity there is still a hint of the twelfth night hilarity, even the clown Feste (brilliantly played by Ben Kingsley) emotes an uncanny human sensitivity.
Imogen Stubb’s portrayal of Viola never takes for granted her journey through cross-gender spaces in the film. The movie maintains a strange dynamo between the transience of gender roles and yet the difficulty of transgressing/transcending them. It begins with an extra cross-gender gag not in the play in which Viola and Sebastian sing one of Feste’s songs together in drag:
O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear; your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low:
This sets up a two-way gender fluidity between the twins. Not only is Viola mistaken for Sebastian, but Sebastian at one point for Viola. They are tied together as halves – sometimes interchangeable – of the same whole. They together “sing both high and low,” although their interchangeability somehow locates the “high and low” of feminine and masculine as existing in both of them.
In speaking of her twin’s death to Orsino, Viola laments that
I am all the daughters of my father’s house,
And all the brothers too: and yet I know not.
It is as if her and her brother comprise a yin and yang, and with the brother absent she feels she must take on both parts. There is a longing for her other half, the masculine half she deems to be dead, and a confusion about the resulting demands to be both halves of the whole. With her masculine half demanding expression apart from her brother, she becomes an androgynous being. She dons her brother’s clothes for the safety they afford as if he were traveling with her, as well as to bring out and keep alive the masculine potential in her that resembles him.
Howard unwittingly supports my theory through her feminist critique, which in seeking to undermine the play’s value, accuses it of implying that “crossdressing is not so much a political act as a psychological haven, a holding place.”  This is exactly what I am getting at. The interest of the play is not because of its socio-political ramifications, but because of its journey into the dynamics of inner masculinity-femininity and the need to freely express these dynamics while maintaining an authentic stable identity before others and in the world. Gender politics are a relatively modern phenomenon, whereas gender anxieties are universal. Viola’s crossdressing is thus less the kind of social statement stereotypic to a certain era of feminism where ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’; it is more the kind of social odyssey central to transgender issues, whether it’s gender role expectations, transsexed identity, or femininity-masculinity expressions.
Viola’s transformation is not merely a theatrical reveal from behind the curtain, but an extremely physically involved process (she moans as she frees her breasts from their binding). She must study how to walk, how to bear herself, how to dress, how to appear; what Nunn calls “the dress silhouettes” or what modern lingo might call “passability.” The transformation is a concerted effort. Evidently exhausted by what she must endure to maintain the illusion, she leans in to a dim mirror at one point and mutters through gritted teeth: “Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness.”
Where a feminist theory might consider this depiction as asserting patriarchal barriers, a broader gender theory cannot help but consider issues of identity and authenticity. While Viola’s passage through the male world takes considerable effort to maintain, she is certainly portrayed as capable of doing so. Not only does she fool everyone to the very end, but her performance is effective enough to gain Olivia’s love and Orsino’s trust. She certainly would never have elected to disguise herself as a man if she didn’t expect to gain certain advantages, so any interpretation that reads the play as patriarchal propaganda seems too simplistic to me. Her distress doesn’t come from the freedom to travail as a man, but from her mistook identity. When questioned by Orsino about her “sister” – that is, her hidden female self – she tells him:
She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.
What causes her grief is the masking of her identity from Orsino. Even the fact that she refers to herself as ‘my sister’ is a concealment; her nature is obscure to the one she loves, and therefore she cannot be loved as herself. With Olivia too there is anxiety about being mistook as a potential love interest, when in fact what she wants is what is accomplished at the end when Olivia acknowledges her as ‘sister,’ thereby seeing the relationship as Viola herself sees it.
Orsino’s final speech can have a troubling feminist reading since it seems to unempower Viola, but Nunn’s interpretation turns the text toward a different end.
Your master quits you; and for your service done him,
So much against the mettle of your sex,
So far beneath your soft and tender breeding,
And since you call’d me master for so long,
Here is my hand: you shall from this time be
Your master’s mistress.
According to Nunn and an otherwise underwhelming but here extremely nuanced performance by Toby Stephens, these words are not stripping Viola of her active role by taming her to a domestic position, but affording her the identity-consistent relationship with Orsino she desires in reward for her good service. She consolidates her two conflicting realities: the male role required of her if she is to survive activity as an independent person, and the heterosexual female identity that allows for a relationship with Orsino. Stephens’ delivery of the speech allows both these realities to be acknowledged and joined, permitting an end to role-play. One could assume that Viola’s future will be characterized by “feminine” passivity, but doing so stretches beyond the concerns of the play, which is fixated only on “present mirth.” This joy is one in which Viola has done well as a man and is now recognized as a woman, a win-win situation.
While the play can certainly be read as ‘fixing’ Viola’s momentary gender transgression with a domestic ending, it can also be read as a moving odyssey of self-identity (expression) versus practicality (use). In proving she can play the masculine role as needed, she demonstrates the unfairness that she must disguise herself in the first place to be secure in Orsino’s kingdom. In finally resolving this accomplishment of activity with her desire for authenticity, she allows for a complex personhood that has both usurped the gender norms and affirmed her own self-identified gender identity.
Nunn’s Twelfth Night has an incredibly light touch, which allows for profound sensitivity and sensibility. Stubb’s Viola is delightfully inextricable as the dynamics of masculinity and femininity between her and Sebastian/Cesario dance around the issue of her gender identity.
She’s the Man – Border Crossing
“If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em!”
Fickman’s She’s the Man with Amanda Bynes is an incredibly versatile commentary on gender roles and divisions. The genius of the way this film operates lies its use of the sex dichotomy against itself. The pre-assumed status quo is about as gender binary as possible, with almost every apparent puzzle-piece in its proper social place except the tomboyish Viola. The world in which the story is situated is, as Principle Gold says, all about “male-female dynamics, sexual tension, and all that.”
Case in point, the sexual dynamics of high school are stereotypically primed. Viola-turned-Sebastian assumes that she must talk vulgar ‘boy talk’ about other girls, and the guys cringe when she describes her “sister” as having a great personality. This stereotype is impressively subverted during a heart to heart between Duke and Viola. Duke accuses Viola’s Sebastian-persona of “having issues” for “always talk[ing] about girls in such graphic terms.” The message is clear: not all guys treat women as sex objects. The effectiveness of the subversion is that the stereotype is assumed before it is supplanted. Its upheaval is therefore more striking.
Viola’s passage into the male world is, similar to the Nunn Twelfth Night, a huge ordeal. However, unlike the determined transition of Imogen Stubbs, Amanda Bynes undergoes a typical teen comedy metamorphosis reminiscent of She’s All That or Mean Girls. Like all such high school transformations, the emphasis is on creating a new appearance in order to move with ease in the school environment and achieve some social accomplishment. In this case the stakes are that Viola must demonstrate she is on equal footing with the male soccer players. Her transformation removes the obstacles put in place by gender expectations and social exclusion so she can move freely toward this goal.
Even more so than Nunn’s Twelfth Night, the Viola in She’s the Man has trouble really fitting into the male world. Although the male characters seem to be convinced by her performance, most of the film’s laughs come from her ridiculous caricature of male behavior. However, she succeeds just as much if not more at the things the male characters are supposed to accomplish. Although the initial gag with her friends to convince the guys in the restaurant that all the ladies are into Sebastian is a setup, Olivia’s falling for her is not. In fact, the physically potent Duke Orsino never really woos the girl whereas Viola is apparently irresistible to everyone.
The commentary is even further complicated by the fact that Viola does not fit into the female stereotype either. She prefers cleats to gowns and dirt to etiquette lessons. At the debutante dinner she deliberately devours her food in about the most disgusting manner possible, and when instructed to eat “like you have a secret,” contorts her face into a mischievous ‘secret-keeping’ expression and resumes her audible chomping. She demonstrates a distinction between having a female identity and ‘being a lady.’
Since the Amanda Bynes’ Viola is so deft at switching between her two roles (as opposed to the more permanent predicament of Stubbs), she never suffers from the same anxieties of confinement. In a hilarious scene of rapid successive transformations, Bynes navigates the carnival fair while switching several times between her Viola and Sebastian personas. At one point she does so while on a carnival ride. This fluidity prevents her from being used as the same kind of symbol of cross-gender ideas. Instead she represents the stability of sexed identity despite superficial ideas of what constitutes social maleness and femaleness. Despite her tomboyishness, there is never a moment when Bynes’ status as a woman is jeopardized. The subterfuge is never more than what meets the eye. At the end of the movie she is in a dress and with her man, but on her own terms in her own timing. She is not contained in the small box of southern belle femininity, but rather emerges unphased from her spell as Sebastian to be in a sexual relationship with Duke.
In fact, this is the only of the three movies where the emphasis is on anatomical identity. Viola has to remember that being a man means having vulnerable genitalia, and thus must fake the pain of being shot at in the nuts. When Principle Gold tries to expose the real Sebastian as Viola, a simple genital check settles the matter. Likewise, when Viola wishes to prove her status as woman, she simply lifts her shirt and shows off her feminine assets.
Unlike the more subtle Nunn Twelfth Night, sex identities are completely straightforward in this film. As the coach triumphantly proclaims at the end of the movie: “This is Illyria. We don’t discriminate based on gender!” What he means is the school doesn’t discriminate based on sexual anatomy. In this film the issue is not about inherent maleness or femaleness, which remains cisgenderedly stable, but about what social allowances are given men and women based on behavioral expectations.
Shakespeare in Love – The Active Woman
…but I know something of a woman in a man’s profession, yes, by God, I do know about that.
The Viola in Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is not strictly the same character as her namesake in the play since the film is more an adaption of Romeo & Juleit than Twelfth Night, but we are certainly meant to read her as the real-life inspiration for the cross-dressing heroine. Like the Twelfth Night Viola, she disguises herself as a man in order to move in certain social circles and active roles that would otherwise be closed to her. This masculine mask is an ugly necessity generated by the unjust gap between male and female social realms. Viola as the ‘active’ (or literally ‘acting’) woman has to switch genders whenever she wants to move between activity and passivity.
The movie reaches true sublimity in its final scene in which Shakespeare begins to pen the play that will become Twelfth Night. He makes Viola his “heroine for all time,” which in the context of this movie implies her being a woman of action, a protagonist, a person of interest. She is raised up as the ideal woman (the ‘muse’).
Viola is cast onto a strange land of great open beaches after coming forth from the clear water as if from a womb. The narrative emphasis is on the shipwreck itself, which is not death in a dark tempest but resurrection and a sunlight-dappled emergence through Caribbean blue.
The wild waters roar and heave…the
brave vessel is dashed all to pieces,
and all the helpless souls within her
drowned, […] all save one … a lady
whose soul is greater than the ocean …
and her spirit stronger than the sea’s
embrace … not for her watery end, but
a new life beginning on a stranger shore.
She, the ideal woman, is as strong and independent as a man without compromising her feminine identity. She is compared to the sea, one of the most universal feminine images, and her strength is tied to this metaphor and therefore to feminine energy.
Her emergence from the shipwreck into new life in the strange “country” of Illyria is stirringly poetic. As she walks alone along the vast wideness of the beach, there is a knowledge of what is to come next: that she will fall in love with the mysterious king Orsino but not be able to profess her love because of her necessary disguise as a man. The plight of identity becomes more poignant, reminiscent not so much of female suppression as the human yearning for freedom in authenticity. The necessity of this new adventure – which is perhaps an emblem of life itself – is the playing of a role for survival. However, the role takes on a theatrical grandeur backdropped by the vista of her life’s destiny. Even if it is nothing but an actor’s part, her life as Cesario will be a worthwhile adventure that will end in authenticity and love. How? “It’s a mystery.” It’s the mystery of how life’s energy makes what is otherwise a stilted performance come alive at the last minute. Viola’s fake identity of Cesario the strong man will consolidate with her real identity of Viola the constrained female to produce Viola the heroine.
While there’s certainly much that could be said about the social commentaries built into Shakespeare in Love, the quest for full, authentic living seems to be more profound if albeit more subtle. The interplay of gender roles and identity are complex. Viola must act on stage if she is to fully express herself, and yet she must also act as a man to get up on the stage in the first place. This is a poignant problem: how to navigate both the gender norms of society and your own values while maintaining your identity. It is these kinds of resonances that make Shakespeare in Love more than a social commentary.
The Big Picture, Or What You Will
What these three films give us is a glimpse of the depth of Twelfth Night’s gender issues. The 1996 Twelfth Night is philosophical enough to leave the question of sex-gender-role relationships in a nebulous state. The many moments of plaintive longing in the film express an almost Platonic anxiety about love, gender, and identity. This is the androgynous Viola who seeks to be identified according to her internal self-image, but whose external self requires a particular expression for practical social reasons.
She’s the Man offers a more traditional cisgendered predicament where anatomical form and inner identity are presumed to be stable and the same, but where social roles attached to these realities become constraining. It takes a middle ground between radical feminist theory and cross-gendered readings; the sex dichotomy is straightforward as pertaining to one’s physical and mental makeup, but the social inequalities between the two sexes is clearly constructed.
Shakespeare in Love voices many of the same social observations as She’s the Man, but the ending scene evokes a more sublime reading. Viola becomes elevated to the status of goddess. There is a sense that the land of Illyria is or will become her natural element and subject to her. The wide vistas open up endless possibilities of gender expression and self-expression, and her solitary form gliding alone toward the horizon assures the audience that she is an immovably secure identity. No matter what role she performs to please others, her self-confidence is so proven that no social stricture can suppress her divine feminine.
The realities that Twelfth Night deals with are too human to properly define. As always, Shakespeare opens up and suggests sublimities that can begin a process of self-discovery, but that can hardly end in stuffy academic categorization. Twelfth Night is large as life is large and mysterious as gender is mysterious, and therein lies its perfection.
Doblas, Maria. “Gender Ambiguity and Desire in Twelfth Night.” Academia.edu. https://www.academia.edu/2424876/Gender_Ambiguity_and_Desire_in_Twelfth_Night.
Finch, Andrew. “Cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s comedies – and beyond.” Finchpark.com. Accessed December 9, 2013. http://www.finchpark.com/ppp/crossdressing/crossdressing-handout.pdf
Hanţiu, Ecatarina. “She’s the Man: Gender Dynamics in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.” Gender Studies. Volume 11, Issue 1, Pages 100–113. http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/
Holland. Peter. “The Dark Pleasures of Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night.” Shakespeare Magazine. http://lomonico.com/uploads/The_Dark_Pleasures_of_Trevor_Nunn_s_Twelfth_Night.pdf.
Howard, Jean E. “Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England.” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4. (Winter 1988), pp. 418-440. http://home.uchicago.edu/
Shakespeare, William. “Twelfth Night, Or What You Will.” Open Source Shakespeare. Accessed December 9, 2013. http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/
Stoppard, Tom & Mac Norman. “Shakespeare In Love.” Screenplay. CalPoly.edu. http://cla.calpoly.
 Twelfth Night II, 3, 747-48
 Peter Holland. The Dark Pleasures of Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night.
 The ‘feminist’ theories referred to are specifically radical and critical approaches. There are many forms of feminism, but the ones in question are those that preoccupy themselves with deconstructing gender realities.
 I was tempted to call this reading a ‘trans-gendered’ interpretation, but given the ambiguity of the word (both its charged specificity and subjective usage), ‘cross’-gender seems preferable. ‘Transgender’ can mean the specific phenomenon of non-matching gender identity and physical sex (transsexed), in which case crossdressing and drag culture (transvestism) is excluded; but it can also be an umbrella term for any cross-gender behavior, including drag queens and transvestites. Since the play most explicitly deals with cross-dressing over cross-identifying, it seemed necessary to manufacture ‘cross-gender’ as a sufficiently broad term.
 Jean E. Howard. Crossdressing, the Theater, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England. 423.
 II, 3, 739-42
 II, 4, 1021-23
 Howard 431. Howard’s ideologies are definitely that of the radical feminist or gender warrior who wants to remove any idea of differences between the sexes because of a fear of inequality; in other words, to combat chauvinism with egalitarianism. This is a perfect example of the divergence between radical feminist gender theory and the cross-gender theory being explored here. Howard practically fumes while she denounces the supposed sins of what this play advances.
“The whole thrust of the dramatic narrative is to release this woman from the prison of her masculine attire and return her to her proper and natural position as wife. Part of the larger ideological consequence of her portrayal, moreover, is to shift the markers of sexual difference inward, from the surface of the body and the apparel which clothes that body, to the interior being of the gendered subject. The play shows that while cross-dressing can cause semiotic and sexual confusion, and therefore is to be shunned, it is not truly a problem for the social order if ‘the heart’ is untouched, or, put another way, if not accompanied by the political desire for a redefinition of female rights and powers and a dismantling of a hierarchical gender system” (431-32).
While Howard sees this move to the inward self as destructive, I see it as essential and profound. While it does not promote the sort of gender-neutral mental/social egalitarianism that Howard seems to want, it does promote a critique of social roles that confine and define a person’s internal gender.
 qtd. in Holland.
 II, 4, 1011-16.
 V, 1, 2528-33
 II, 3, 748
 Mac Norman and Tom Stoppard. Shakespeare in Love. Screenplay.