“A show of hands,” Professor Berryhill directed, pacing back and forth in the front of the room in high heels. “How many of you have pretended to be something you’re not, in order to get what you want?”
Only a dozen of the hundred or so students seated in the lecture hall for the two p.m. Introduction to Literature course raised their hands.
The instructor, fashionably clad in a crisp white blouse and charcoal grey pencil skirt, scrutinized the audience over the tortoiseshell brim of her reading glasses. “Come now,” she coaxed, “I’m not going to tell your parents.”
Julie, seated in the third row, thought about it. There was that time, her junior year in high school, when she’d professed to be interested in a career in forestry, of all things, so she could attend a free, four-day wilderness excursion to Yosemite. She’d always found Biology to be a bore, but the trip afforded the chance to go white water rafting and try mountain climbing, which had sounded like fun. And was, she reminisced guiltily, raising her hand to be recognized for her past sin, along with twenty or so other classmates.
The increased number didn’t succeed in satisfying the professor, however. Crossing her slender arms, she challenged snidely, “So I take it the rest of you have never touched a drop of alcohol at a campus party, since you’re all under the age of twenty-one.”
Busted. Laughter erupted, and nearly every student threw up a hand. Some, enthusiastically, raised two.
“Ah, I knew you were a bunch of sneaky impersonators,” Professor Berryhill playfully scolded, shaking a finger at the crowd. “False identities and disguises are what drive our play, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The heroine, Viola, dresses up as a man and calls herself Cesario, in order to serve the Duke of Illyria, Orsino.” Overhearing several sniggering comments, she added saucily, “That’s right; it’s a seventeenth century transvestite comedy.” The reference to cross-dressing got everyone going, and a chorus of nervous laughter, sprinkled with excited chatter, ensued.
“As you can imagine, this situation creates quite a sexual mess,” Professor Berryhill continued once the hoopla died down. “Viola winds up falling in love with Orsino, but can’t tell him because the Duke thinks he’s a man. Meanwhile, Lady Olivia, whom Orsino is pursuing, falls head-over-heels for Cesario-slash-Viola.”
The instructor approached the blackboard and jotted down the characters’ names. Next, she constructed a box around each one, and then connected them by drawing lines. Pointing at her work, she explained, “What we wind up with is a basic love triangle.” Waiting a beat, she tossed in, “Dressed in drag.” The racy qualifier, perfectly timed, resulted in some hardy chuckles.
Julie was enjoying herself. When she’d seen Shakespeare’s name on the course syllabus, she’d groaned. It had immediately brought back memories of being tortured by her tenth grade English teacher, Mrs. Pendergrass, whose uninspired recitations of The Bard’s tricky text had lulled her to sleep on more than one occasion. But Professor Berryhill really knew how to squeeze the juice out of the gibberish. She brought the material to life.
“There is a clear homoerotic subtext here,” the professor spouted from the floor.
Julie shifted in her chair. And it was getting more interesting by the second. She doubted whether Mrs. Pendergrass had ever uttered the word ‘homoerotic’ in her classroom.
“Olivia is in love with a woman, even if she thinks he is a man,” Professor Berryhill continued. “And Orsino often comments on Cesario’s beauty, suggesting he is attracted to Viola even before her male disguise is removed. But I don’t want to make too much of that aspect,” she conceded. “I think Shakespeare’s intention was to pose the question: What makes us who we are? Are things like gender and class set in stone, or can they be altered with something as simple as a change of clothing?”
She paused to give the students time to think about it, before concluding, “And therein lies the moral of the story: Appearances and first impressions can ultimately be deceiving.” Leveling her gaze at the audience, she warned, “Beware.”