Shakespeare liked to wear girls’ clothes

Shakespeare had a sense of humour. Though he was best-known for his tragedies, where nearly all the major characters die, the legendary playwright actually wrote a good deal of comedies–seventeen, to be precise. The University of Calgary’s drama department has decided to put on one of the Bard’s most popular comedies, Twelfth Night, complete with plenty of cross-dressing, homosexual urges and a good helping of trickery.

The story begins when twins Viola and Sebastian are involved in a terrible shipwreck. Viola washes up on the shores in the foreign land of Illyria, and finding herself alone, dresses as a man to find work in one of the noble’s houses. Creating the new identity of a man called “Cesario,” she becomes the love interest of both the Count Orsino–who doesn’t understand his feelings for a man–and the noble lady Olivia. When Sebastian turns up and is mistaken for Cesario, the only thing missing is the Benny Hill music.

“It is a play I haven’t directed before,” explains co-director Dawn McCaughtery. “I think it is a pertinent play for young actors because they can play characters in their age-range. Love, mixed-up love, unrequited love and identity are all themes that people in their twenties can identify with.”

Although many of Twelfth Night‘s themes are timeless, staging a play written at the turn of the 17th century presents many challenges. Some of Shakespeare’s original jokes have aged less than gracefully, and the drama department has faced the difficult task of updating some of the humour.

“Humour is very topical,” McCaughtery explains gently. “It is determined by societal practice, current affairs and popular culture. Imagine Seinfeld in 400 years. In every Shakespearean play some of the humour is hard to work out. We have to understand what Shakespeare meant and then we have to think how we can make that understandable for 2007.”

Like many of Shakespeare’s works, the play wouldn’t be complete without a darker side. Lady Olivia’s head servant, the wet blanket Malvolio, is contemptuous towards all things fun–like drinking, singing and acting foolish. However, Malvolio gets his comeuppance when he’s tricked into believing Olivia has the hots for him, and must act like a fool in order to prove his love to her. The trick eventually leads him to being locked up for being insane and fun reigns again!

“It’s not solely a ‘ha-ha’ comedy,” says McCaughtery. “There are many dark elements and much of the humour is based around a kind of cruelty, such as Malvolio’s trickery. Malvolio is ambitious and loves himself. When we see him so self-righteous we still recognize people [like him] in society. We might take great delight in them being taken down to earth.”

Whether it’s vague homosexuality, cross-dressing or mistaken identities, Twelfth Night is one of those plays that will always hold mass-appeal. So long as the drama department’s changes translate, it looks as though it could have even more.