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She Is the Man As a Reinterpretation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

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Not Another Teen Movie

Girl dresses like a guy; she falls in love with a guy, but all while a girl falls in love with her dressed as a guy. It’s a story we have all heard before, that is if you have read the Twelfth Night. Recently I saw a film entitled She’s the Man and a friend told me it was an adaption of a Shakespeare play called Twelfth Night. Since I have had to go to Shakespeare plays I was intrigued enough to read the play. Reading this play and watching this film made me coherent to the fact a few the teen films made in America during the late ’90s and early 2000s are based on a few of Shakespeare’s plays. This leads me to watch and read the play. At first, I watched a few clips online and did not exactly pay attention to the plot as much as I did the action and follies that ensued. But, when I read the play and after analyzing a few scenes I was able to further examine several themes that the play and the adaptation have in common. Using Twelfth Night and She’s the Man I will show the connection of structure, language, and reinterpretation in both mediums.

First, this film uses the structure of Twelfth Night but changes it a little bit. Making it easier to follow if you have read the original text for new views. Elizabeth Klett writes that She’s the Man was written by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, “the two seamlessly mirrors the play in a way that viewers in their in teens to earlier twenties are able to watch and not be bored.” (70). The duo also wrote an adaptation of Taming of The Shrew entitled 10 Things I Hate About You. Another film released in the 2000s for tweens and teens, that also does the job of telling the story, but gearing it towards their audience. Their screenplay almost makes you forget that this is actually a play and answers Goethe’s question of whether or not this, and others like it were worth producing (Flannery 282). The writers keep most of the main characters but add a few, In my opinion, to thicken the plot: Viola played by Amanda Bynes, her twin brother Sebastian played by James Kirk, her roommate Channing Tatum as Duke Orsino, the pretty and popular Olivia played by Laura Ramsey, Olivia’s friend Katie Stuart as Maria, and Duke’s friends Toby and Andrew played by Brandon Jay McLaren and Clifton Murray. Malvolio’s role is taken by Malcolm Festes (James Snyder), a dorm director who talks about his love for Olivia to his spider Malvolio. Which is an interesting thing because a few of the adjectives used to describe spiders are some that I would give to Shakespeare’s Malvolio. Malcolm’s last name is the only reference to the clown in the film. Maria’s role is shared with Eunice (Emily Perkins), an uncool girl who dating Toby. Finally, Viola’s friend Paul Antonio played by Jonathan Sadowski embodies both the Captain (in helping Viola transform herself into a boy) and Antonio (through his surname and suggestions that he is gay, which we will get to later). The film like the play has a lot going on, but with the visuals and the easy modern-day language, it’s easier to keep up with. Like for instance the beginning when Shakespeare’s Viola is about to be turned into a man if I didn’t have the little footnotes helping me I wouldn’t have caught on to what was really happening. While in She’s the Man I knew instantly. It is a marriage of visual aid and modern language that makes this happen. There are a few characters that don’t have equals in the film like Viola’s ex-boyfriend Justin and Sebastian’s girlfriend Monique. The screenplay keeps the general outline of Twelfth Night’s romantic plot intact. The main tag line of the film is that ‘Duke wants Olivia who likes Sebastian who is really Viola whose brother is dating Monique so she hates Olivia who’s with Duke to make Sebastian jealous who is really Viola who’s crushing on Duke who thinks she’s a guy …’ The roundaboutness of this voices Viola’s summation of Shakespeare’s plot in her soliloquy: ‘What will become of this? As I am a man, My state is desperate for my master’s love” (2.2.33-35). The question implied by the She’s the Man ads and articulated directly by Viola is: ‘What will become of this?’ (2.2.36). “inspired by the play Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare.’ By contrast, films that cite Shakespeare include references to the plays, either in passing or in a more extended way, but do not use Shakespeare to shape the larger structure. The play is used not only when it comes to character names like above it is used to reference all sorts of things like the school, Illyria and the pizza place Cesario. It kept a lot of things that parents and younger viewers would recognize. That helped the movie be a great adaptation and worth the painstaking task of reworking and creating of the film like Goethe ask.

Next, the way language is used. In the play, the language was used to convey a sort of intellectual superiority which at times makes it harder for the average person i.e. me to understand. But after further examination, the language and storyline are used to overshadow a large central theme: feminism. The modern text does the same thing. Laurie Osborne says:

“The Viola character’s cross-dressed disguise is not motivated by grief or by self-protectiveness, as in Shakespeare’s play; instead her cross-dressing becomes the overt strategy for dealing with parallel, though very different, encounters with sexist assumptions and the attempted exclusion of female characters from ‘masculine’ occupations.” (23)

Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is thought at times to have dressed like her brother as a form of grief whereas in She’s The Man it is done to show equality. Fickman’s Viola wants to show her former school and former boyfriend that she and other women should have as many chances as her male counterparts. Another would be when Viola turns into her brother. In the play the text reads:

“…I will believe thou hast a mind that suits With this thy fair and outward character. I prithee—and I’ll pay thee bounteously Conceal me what I am, and be my aid For such disguise as haply shall become The form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke. Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him…” (1.2.48-52)

This is the part that does, of course, say that Viola wants to be turned into a man and she asks for the help of the sailor and as we know he does help her. In comparison, the film does this the Viola and her friends going to see their friend Paul Antonio to help.

Viola’s Friend: They wouldn’t know the difference

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Paul: They’ll know he’s a girl

Viola: Oh come on Paul.

Viola and Friends: Awe come on Paul.

Older Women: Yeah come on Paul.

Paul: Ok. Ok. I’ll see what I can do.

The film makes it easier to follow with language and visual aid. The film, of course, like every movie the visual aids, told the story along with the language making it easier to follow. I’m not sure as to why but one thing I guess is the action on film instead of having to use our imagination.

Then, the way She’s The Man reinterprets that text. Unlike many films with a female character on a journey, the writers do not leave her as a helpless woman but instead argues that a woman can do anything a man can (and sometimes even better). Granted, Viola (in the original text) is not that helpless but in fact a heroine of her time. She was extremely brave and did what she had to do, but in the same, I’m left wondering had she gotten a chance to meet with Olivia would it still have all worked out the same way? That’s something I will never know because the play and the film are not written like that. Also, She’s the man reinterprets the text by saying that both Viola’s will do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals. Whether it be playing soccer or just getting a job until you find your brother. Both violas are game to do what it takes, which we know is dress like a boy. Viola in Shakespeare becomes Cesario to get a job and make living while waiting for her brother to come back or really just to be alive. While in Fickman’s She’s the Man Viola does this at firth to help her brother but then comes to the conclusion that she can do some good for girls at her school.

In conclusion, these are all looks at why dressing like a man isn’t as funny as it seems. I’m sure if we looked closely at most of all the instances that men or women have crossed dressed we would all see that it’s not as funny as you think. Personally, until I started looking and doing research on this I didn’t think about what Shakespeare’s play meant to feminism. I thought at first it was marriage choice like most of the other plays we read but digging deeper I found that is just the surface. It makes me want to take a closer look at all the other plays and see what is the smaller theme or just wait for an adaptation to come out and watch it.

Works Cited

  1. “Chapter V. Prometheus: Young Goethe.” Aesthetic Paganism in German Literature, doi:10.4159/harvard.9780674498662.c5.
  2. “Index to Volume 26.” Shakespeare Bulletin, vol. 26, no. 4, 2008, pp. 155–160., doi:10.1353/shb.0.0027.
  3. Klett, Elizabeth. “Reviving Viola: Comic and Tragic Teen Film Adaptations of Twelfth Night.” Shakespeare Bulletin, vol. 26, no. 2, 2008, pp. 69–87., doi:10.1353/shb.0.0004.
  4. Osborne, Laurie E. “Twelfth Night’s Cinematic Adolescents: One Play, One Plot, One Setting, and Three Teen Films.” Shakespeare Bulletin, vol. 26, no. 2, 2008, pp. 9–36., doi:10.1353/shb.0.0014.
  5. Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will. The Floating Press, 1753.

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She Is the Man As a Reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from
“She Is the Man As a Reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.” Edubirdie, 18 Mar. 2022,
She Is the Man As a Reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 31 Jan. 2023].
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