Twelfth Night: Gender, Sexuality, and the Theater of Identity

The song “Closing Time,” by Semisonic, comes on at 2 a.m. at the bar. If you’ve ever closed out your local drinking hole with friends and heard this song, as the staff brings up the harsh lighting, you’ve experienced something essential that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is attempting to capture. Can you have too much of a festive thing? When does jesting tip over into danger? While scholars have long noted that Shakespeare’s comedies offer up a festive, chaotic middle section in which different individuals can entertain alternative forms of identity before returning to everyday life, Twelfth Night presents these same identity experiments, yet also asks what happens when the return to sober, everyday life is delayed for too long. In this seminar we will consider how the play offers audiences experimentations with gender, sexuality, and other identity categories through theatrical/festive modes like cross-dressing, role-play, and figurative language within the context of play that goes “too far.” We will use the Globe’s 2002 production of Twelfth Night as a central reference point for our discussions.