You Can Deal With This, or You Can Deal With That: Gender Bending in the Play
You can't talk about comedy in Twelfth Night without a discussion of the way the characters play games with gender, and the hilarity that results. Viola dresses as a man, but then she falls hard for Orsino. Since Orsino believes she is a man, though, she can't profess her love. Orsino instead loves Olivia, but Olivia doesn't requite his feelings, since she loves Cesario (Viola's male disguise).
Things aren't quite that simple, of course. There is some homoeroticism at play here, since Orsino compliments Cesario's appearance -- intimating a level of attraction before he finds out who Cesario really is. Antonio's feelings for Sebastian echo this idea, but Antonio isn't as lucky as Orsino, since Sebastian has no disguise to remove.
All of the hijinks that this series of attractions sets into motion leads to multiple comedic misunderstandings. Every now and then, a situation comedy in our own time (Frasier comes to mind), or a motion picture (Tootsie or Victor/Victoria) deals with similar comedic themes. Even when the play comes to an end, things between Viola and Orsino are not etched in stone, as it were. Orsino continues to call Viola by her male name!
Further Things to Think About
Here are some questions to consider that go along with this theme.
1. What makes this sequence of disguises and misunderstandings funny? Why do we laugh about this?
Note: This question isn't meant to make you shy away from this theme for fear of offending others in your class. What about human nature makes this humorous? Your answers may vary, but if you and your classmates are honest, you will end up with a brisk, rewarding discussion.
2. What are some differences in theater production between Shakespeare's time and our own that might make this even funnier?
It would be good to point out that women weren't permitted to play on the stage, which made for gender-bending chicanery with every production.
Pop quiz names to know for this theme: Viola/Cesario, Orsino, Olivia, Antonio, and Sebastian