Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Justice

Globe’s ‘Twelfth Night:’ The Bard, Caitlyn Jenner And Gender Fluidity

Shakespeare’s romantic comedy proves more resonant than you might expect

Rutina Wesley as the disguised Viola woos Sara Topham as Olivia in The Old Gl...

Credit: The Old Globe

Above: Rutina Wesley as the disguised Viola woos Sara Topham as Olivia in The Old Globe's 2015 Summer Shakespeare Festival production of "Twelfth Night." Photo by Jim Cox.

What do Caitlyn Jenner and the Bard have in common? Quite a bit, according to The Old Globe’s Artistic Director. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando looks at how William Shakespeare’s take on gender issues proves surprisingly resonant amidst the current media buzz of Bruce Jenner making the transition to Caitlyn Jenner.


Companion Viewing

Twelfth Night” (1980, with Alec McCowen as Malvolio)

Twelfth Night or What You Will” (1996, directed by Trevor Nunn)

She’s the Man” (2006)

What do Caitlyn Jenner and William Shakespeare have in common? Quite a bit, according to The Old Globe’s artistic director. Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” (running through July 26) takes on gender issues in a surprisingly resonant manner amidst the current media buzz of Bruce Jenner making the transition to Caitlyn Jenner.

Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein said the bard had the uncanny ability to anticipate things that happen in modern society.

“Here we are doing ‘Twelfth Night,’ which is a play about gender fluidity, and that’s the conversation the country is having at the moment because of Caitlyn Jenner,” Edelstein said. “You listen to these conversations that the country is having about what makes a man a man, and what makes a woman a woman, and how do those two things relate and are they ever interchangeable? And there’s Shakespeare talking about exactly that.”

But talking about it in his own unique way in “Twelfth Night” through the story of Viola, Shakespeare has a woman who assumes the disguise of a man named Cesario and then is asked by her lord, Orsino, to woo the Lady Olivia, whom he loves. But along the way, Viola falls in love with Orsino and Olivia falls in love with Cesario. You still with me?

Shortly after Viola adopts her disguise as Cesario, she finds herself in a difficult situation and offers this soliloquy:

I am the man: if it be so, as 'tis,

Poor lady, she were better love a dream.

Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness,

Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.

How easy is it for the proper-false

In women's waxen hearts to set their forms!

Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we!

For such as we are made of, such we be.

How will this fadge? my master loves her dearly;

And I, poor monster, fond as much on him;

And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.

What will become of this? As I am man,

My state is desperate for my master's love;

As I am woman,—now alas the day!—

What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!

O time! thou must untangle this, not I;

It is too hard a knot for me to untie!

“There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the play,” actress Rutina Wesley offered with a laugh. Wesley gained fame playing Tara in HBO’s “True Blood.” Now she plays both Viola and her male alter ego, Cesario, with delightful gusto in the Globe’s production of “Twelfth Night.” She endows Viola with a masculine strength, and Cesario with a feminine sensitivity. And that adds to the romantic confusion. According to the play’s director, Rebecca Taichman, the playful gender bending explores the many incarnations love can take.

“It’s a play that celebrates the idea that you just fall in love with a spirit, a soul, not a gender,” Taichman said. “And that this woman, Olivia, falling in love with a woman — though she thinks it is a man — is still a deep true experience, as much as it’s based on a falsehood. Though there is something true about their connection.”

Wesley agrees: “You fall in love with the essence of a person, not necessarily them being male or female. So I like the ambiguity of it. I like that Olivia can actually fall in love with Cesario even though I am a woman, and she has no idea but she’s probably just falling in love with my spirit. And I just think that’s kind of a wonderful way to look at it.”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: The Old Globe

Rutina Wesley as Viola, in her disguise as Cesario, is asked by Terence Archie's Orsino (seated) to woo the Lady Olivia for him. They are pictured with Manoel Felciano as Feste in The Old Globe's 2015 Summer Shakespeare Festival production of "Twelfth Night." Photo by Jim Cox.

Meanwhile, Orsino is more in love with the idea of love than with the person Olivia is.

Orsino opens the play with this famous line: “If music be the food of love play on.”

But many may forget the lines that follow: “Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die. That strain again! It had a dying fall.”

As Taichman pointed out, he wants to consume such excess of love that he will “vomit it up.”

Terence Archie plays Orsino, and he confessed he is a man “with an addiction to love."

"He is in love, and he spends a great deal of the play trying to figure out what that really means for him,” Archie said.

Orsino comes to discover what it means through the unexpected intimacy he develops with Cesario.

Taichman explained, “That she’s a boy frees him up emotionally but he’s falling in love with the person.”

As Orsino sends Cesario off to woo Olivia, the Duke notes:

Dear lad, believe it.

For they shall yet belie thy happy years

That say thou art a man. Diana’s lip

Is not more smooth and rubious. Thy small pipe

Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound,

And all is semblative a woman’s part.

Orsino acknowledges Cesario’s lack of clear gender definition. But he starts to get confused as Viola falls in love with him but must conceal her love while maintaining her male façade.

“When Cesario is with Orsino, what are those times when you see Viola as an audience member?” Wesley said. “She melts maybe for a second. He doesn’t see it though, then she’s back to being a man. And how that plays out for her. And it’s incredibly hard because she’s so in love with him.”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: The Old Globe

The cast of The Old Globe's 2015 Summer Shakespeare Festival production of "Twelfth Night." Photo by Jim Cox.

But there’s a limit to how far Shakespeare will explore themes of gender fluidity in a play written at the beginning of the 1600s. So “Twelfth Night” ends — as all his romantic comedies do — with heterosexual marriages all around.

“I find it very moving and powerful that he’s saying it’s the person and not the gender that you fall in love with,” Taichman said. “So he explores it, and it’s very fun to explore in the process. But I have found that the play will only bear the weight of so much, and then you start to break the back of it if you try to make it too much about that. But we certainly tested its limits.”

And with results that prove how resonant Shakespeare can be for a contemporary audience. He didn’t anticipate our U.S. Supreme Court making gay marriage legal, and he doesn’t tackle gay issues head on. But his play certainly understands the maddening complexity of human emotions and how important it is to be honest about those feelings.

“Twelfth Night” runs through July 26 on the Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival stage in Balboa Park. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office at (619) 234-5623.


San Diego News Now podcast branding

San Diego news; when you want it, where you want it. Get local stories on politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings. Hosted by Anica Colbert and produced by KPBS, San Diego and the Imperial County's NPR and PBS station.

  • Your curated weekly guide to local arts and culture in San Diego, from Arts Calendar Editor Julia Dixon Evans, delivered to your inbox every Thursday afternoon.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Curious San Diego banner

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.