Twelfth Night

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Twelfth Night or What You Will

Ever thought that you could do your boss' job?  Or that the people running the government are completely clueless and that a chimp could do better?  Ever wish that magically, you could trade places, so you would be the big cheese and the top dogs would be low on the totem pole?  In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, such situations exist as the people in power positions are absolutely clueless about their personal lives or professional lives, and those on the low rung are the smartest out of the lot.  The term Twelfth Night comes from the 12th night of Christmas that was celebrated as a day where all of society's conventions were turned upside down.  The king became a pauper and the pauper became a king and was a holdover from pre-Christian times.  Though, not celebrated in the same fashion today similar holidays like England's Boxing Day, Mardi Gras and Halloween, all celebrate a day when business as usual no longer applies.  Twelfth Night also marked the last of what are known as Shakespeare's mature comedies of which Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It comprise the rest.  Afterwards he would explore darker faire with the tragedies and problem comedies.  Twelfth Night or What You Will is doesn't escape this dark tone that Shakespeare was taking.  While it is one of his more hysterical and lively comedies, it also explores cruelty, loss, betrayal and other themes that leave the audience pondering deeper issues.  The alternate title What You Will implies an anything goes or what you bring to the table attitude and such free reign exists in the kingdom of Illyria or modern day Croatia.

The play's first printing in the 1623 First Folio.

Twin sister and brother Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked during a violent storm.  Sebastian has disappeared and is feared dead, while Viola and the captain have washed up near the court of the ruling Duke Orsino.  Viola finding herself alone in a strange land figures that she would have a better time getting around disguised as a man and looks for employment at the court of the melancholy Orsino.  Passing off most affairs of state to his trusty assistant Valentine, Orsino spends most of his time pinning and unsuccessfully wooing for the lovely Olivia.  Olivia wants nothing to do with Orsino as she has sworn an oath to her dead brother, that she will not entertain marriage until 7 years after his death.  Such devotion on both parts leaves the Olivia's fool Feste, a professional comedian, commenting rather bitingly on how silly both of the two rulers are.  Olivia's house is occupied by two opposing forces, her ever drunk uncle Sir Toby Belch and her head of household the anal retentive Malvolio.  Toby, along with his friends the foppish and idiotic knight Sir Andrew, the precocious Maria, and the resourceful Fabian and Feste seek to party constantly and often lock horns with Malvolio who would nothing better than to throw the lot out and keep a polished order in his mistress' house. 

Orsino employs the disguised Viola, now going by the name Cesario, to help him woo Olivia.  Through Cesario, Viola helps both Orsino and Olivia come to terms with their respective melancholies.  Orsino sees "him" as a trusted friend, while Olivia falls in love.  Matters are further complicated when Sebastian turns up alive with the help of a criminal named Antonio.  Sebastian and Antonio venture further into Illyria and are separated, where Viola is mistaken for Sebastian and vice versa and Antonio is captured.  Sir Toby seeks to marry Sir Andrew to Olivia and get rid of Malvolio in the same swoop.  The merry gang plot to have Malvolio find a group of letters that Olivia supposedly has written professing her love for him.  Also that she prefers him to dress in manner that personally finds repulsive.  Malvolio is later jailed by Olivia for what appears to be lunatic behavior.  Later, seeing that Cesario is being favored by Olivia, Toby forces Sir Andrew have a duel with Cesario, leading to one of the more outrageous battles for honor in drama.  Sebastian arrives on the scene and becomes mixed up with the duel and Olivia, where recovered from her melancholy, takes matters in her own hands and promptly marries him, thinking that he is Cesario.  The culmination of all these mistaken identities, deceptive plots, and physical bashings come to a head as the true identities of Sebastian and Viola are revealed.  Though Malvolio is badly treated the play ends happily as Viola and Orsino and Sebastian and Olivia come together.

Set down after the first draft of Hamlet had been written and based on the romantic comedy Apolonius and Scilla by Barnabe Rich in his volume Farewell to Milatarie Profession, Twelfth Night follows the similar pattern of Shakespeare's high comedies but has a pervasive tone of sadness and loss.  Both rulers, Toby's gang, and Malvolio cannot get passed their own views of the world and its only through Feste the supposed fool who sees them for what they really are and with the exception of Viola is the only intelligent person in the play.  His songs while merry also evoke a longing that typify many comic actors, that carry a sad burden as they ply their comedy.  Even the villain Malvolio who seems to have a punishment coming for spoiling the fun is treated worse than he should and evokes a pity him that goes beyond the usual surface comedy.  Its first noted performance and perhaps first showing ever was for a group of law students at Gray's Inn Law School on February 2, 1602 during the festive winter season, keeping in line with the play's title.  Out of all the places where Shakespeare's plays were performed during his life, the Grey's Inn room has the distinction of being one of the few places that have survived until modern day, offering a unique perspective into the actual playing area of an original Shakespeare production.  Today, it is one Shakespeare's most popular and often done comedies and is a mainstay of many theatrical organizations.

Click below or on the side links to view the Play Text either as a full page or scene by scene format; a Directory of Characters with extensive descriptions and backgrounds; a Scene by Scene Synopsis of the play; and extensive Commentary on the show.     


Click here to see our production of Twelfth Night.


To view other Twelfth Night sections:

Main Play Page     Play Text    Scene by Scene Synopsis  

   Character Directory     Commentary 


To view the other Plays click below:

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All's Well the Ends Well Antony & Cleopatra As You Like It Cardenio Comedy of Errors Coriolanus
Cymbeline Edward III Hamlet Henry IV, Part 1 Henry IV, Part 2 Henry V
Henry VI, Part 1 Henry VI, Part 2 Henry VI, Part 3 Henry VIII Julius Caesar King John
King Lear Love's Labours Lost Love's Labours Wonne Macbeth Measure for Measure Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor A Mid Summer Night's Dream  Much Ado About Nothing Othello Pericles Richard II
Richard III Romeo & Juliet Sir Thomas More Taming of the Shrew The Tempest Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus Troilus & Cressida Twelfth Night Two Gentlemen of Verona The Two Noble Kinsman The Winter's Tale


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