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What Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night' Taught Me About Love

HAYLEY ZHAO, HOST: And now, in the latest in our commentary series, Katie Anastas shares how a 400 year old play helped her embrace her identity.

KATIE ANASTAS, BYLINE: One day, when I was around 12 years old, my parents and I were in the living room, flipping through TV channels.

We came across the 1996 movie version of Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare. My dad jumped up and got a book of plays off the shelf so I could follow along. I’d never seen a Shakespeare play, and the language was intimidating, but I wanted to give it a try.

Twelfth Night tells the story of two twins -- a man and a woman -- who are shipwrecked. The woman, Viola, washes up on the shore of an unfamiliar country. Unable to find work as a woman, Viola disguises herself as a man and goes to work for Duke Orsino, who rules the country.

As I sat with my parents, I watched Viola carefully glue on a fake mustache, bind her chest, smoke cigarettes and learn to sword fight. She walks like a man, with her hands in her pockets and a cool, confident stride. To 12-year-old me, it looked like a lot of fun.

Some part of me wanted to be Viola. I wanted her confidence, her wit...and her cool outfit.

Later in the film, the Duke and Viola run into a barn to escape the rain. The fool sings a song for them.

BEN KINGSLEY: Come away, come away, death...

ANASTAS: As he sings, the Duke puts his arm around Viola. The camera sweeps around them. Their faces draw closer. And you realize that these two "men" are into each other.

Up until this moment in Twelfth Night, the only other queer people or queer relationships I’d seen on screen were either played for laughs or demonized.

In this scene, it wasn’t treated as a joke. It was just two people in love.

And, to be honest, it stressed me out. At Catholic school, my teachers were telling us that homosexuality was a sin. That desire -- particularly same-sex desire -- was something to be ashamed of. I look back on that discomfort and realize that Twelfth Night was speaking to a part of me I didn’t have words for yet.

At my all-girls high school, I gladly donned a fake mustache to play a boy in class skits. I started realizing what crushes felt like. I went to college and dated a woman for the first time. I tried dressing masculinely, femininely, and somewhere in between. I came out. Twelfth Night was a touchstone for me through it all.

Viola explores everything a woman can be. She can woo and be wooed. She can attract and desire. She can be confident and shy. She can be masculine and feminine.

Today I have my pick of movies and TV shows when I want to find a character who reminds me of me. But I still make time for Twelfth Night.

I’ve seen adaptations set in India and in American beach towns. I’ve seen all-male productions and all-female productions. Every time I see it on stage or watch the movie, I think about my 12-year-old self, confronted with the idea that gender and sexuality was a lot more complicated than I thought.

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