New Time Period, New Medium, New Meaning: How Twelfth Night Is Altered by Its Presentation as She’s the Man.

Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night epitomizes the patriarchal society of the 17th century, rooted within the comedic elements customary to plays during the era. Its modern film adaptation, Andy Fickman’s She’s the Man, encapsulates the essence of the original text and is established on the basis of Shakespeare’s concepts. However, there are notable differences, at depth, within the film – ascribed to the addition and omission of certain elements, ultimately modernizing the play and reconstructing its meaning.

A hugely discernible distinction from play to film is the malleability of what gender is within the modern adaptation as opposed to its definitive denotation within the original. Duke’s pursuit of Olivia within the play is audaciously persistent – his covet is relentless despite Olivia’s sustained rejection. He encourages Viola to “leap all civil bounds” to gain the attention of Olivia – her initial spurn being impermissible to him. This is the engrained masculinity representative of the era’s patriarchal beliefs – an expectation that because he is male, one of high class, and because he takes interest in Olivia, her compliance to his pursuit is indisputable. This is stereotypical masculinity in the form of male dominance, power and entitlement. Alternatively, within the film, it is this fear of rejection that prevents Duke from pursuing Olivia all together. There is a suggestion of intimidation – “I’m not really good at talking to girls” – and a definite implication of feminine power, only possible due to the absence of the patriarchal society at basis of Twelfth Night. The idea of males possessing an inarguable power is no longer present. In its place, a theme that dominates is the fragility of a male’s masculinity, and the narrower distinction between attributes that make an individual distinctively male or female. Through Viola’s (Sebastian’s) conversations with Duke about his feelings, she allows him to open-up to reveal the sensitive side of man that has been suppressed in adherence to male expectations throughout history.

The portrayal of a central theme, love, differs immensely from play to film as a result of varying audience, and correspondingly, the platform on which the story is presented. The play presents a hyperbolic portrayal of love – th’e dialogue abundant in passion and desire. This stems from the basis that it is a stage play – a form in which melodrama and accentuated emotion is crucial in the presentation of dialogue. The exaggeration of speech creates potency – captivating audiences despite the lack of cinematic conventions. Contrastingly, there is a rational portrayal of love within the film – the potency lies in neighboring factors, such as the acting and music. Romance within the film is limited to an infatuation between college students – the romantic soliloquys within the play reduced to relatively wholesome conversations about the character’s feelings for one another. This is exemplified in the exchange between Duke and the disguised Viola in their dorm – whilst in the play Duke Orsino speaks of “lying on sweet beds of flowers” dreaming of Olivia and that her presence “purged the air of pestilence”, the film adaptation presents a clichéd yet endearing discussion of Olivia – that she is enchanting to Duke, yet equally unapproachable. What further differs from play to film in relation the target audience is the amplified theatrics – the extreme characters and animated expressions depicted in the film are blatantly targeted to appeal to a younger audience that arguably needs dramatization of acting in order to understand and therefore enjoy the comedy. Within the play, the dramatization sits instead in the poetic orchestration of words.

Twelfth Night, and its adaptation are undeniably comedy’s, by definition. This comedy is attributable to Viola’s decision to disguise herself as a male, initiating a series of events caused by the deception. What differs substantially within the film, is the reasoning behind this decision, and ultimately its effect on the depth of the play and its introduction of ideological concepts outside of the boundaries of comedy. The play depicts Viola disguising herself as a man in order to pursue a life in Illyria she otherwise could not have as a woman. Similarly, the film depicts Viola altering her gender with the understanding that it will give her the opportunity to achieve her dream. Whilst Viola becoming a man in order to work for Orsino is the basis of the comedy that transpires within the play, the film offers a more extensive depiction of the gender roles by exploring the limits society has established for individuals on the basis of their gender. The introduction of Viola’s passion for soccer is more than simply the basis on which Fickman decided to adapt Twelfth Night to a modern setting – it is the introduction of a necessary moral theme that was not present within the original. It allows for the exploration of feminism in the form of a female pursuing and ultimately succeeding in a dominantly male sport. Within the film, her mother expects her to be feminine in order to be a debutante – a definitively “girly” role, despite her lack of stereotypical femininity. Adversely, her coach, representative of the other half of society, tells her that “girls can’t play soccer” and in turn represents the sexism that forces her to suppress any femininity she does have in order to have a chance at playing the sport.

In addition to acquiring the interests of Duke, the film provides relief for either side of Viola’s confusion. She takes part in the debutante, fulfilling her mother’s expectations and conforming to society’s idea of femininity, and she succeeds in joining to boys soccer team – disputing the sexism faced by her coach. The play is absent of this concept entirely. Viola’s resolution coming only in Orsino’s decision for her to become “Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen.” This lack of gender exploration is attributed to the lack of conversation about gender during the time period in which it was set.