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Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or What You Will

Updated on May 29, 2014

"Most radiant, exquisite and unmatchable beauty" - Act 1, Sc. 5

The Countess Olivia, by Edmund Blair Leighton (1853-1922)
The Countess Olivia, by Edmund Blair Leighton (1853-1922)


First Folio Twelfth Night , 1623
First Folio Twelfth Night , 1623

Twelfth Night - The Play

Twelfth Night, or What You Will (the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to have an alternative title), is a fascinating mixture of comedy with tragic elements, the latter having gained stronger focus through the centuries.

The only source for William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in print is the First Folio of 1623. It is known to have been performed early on in 1602, though, so was probably written in 1601 (and may have been performed in that year - various theories abound).

The 1602 performance was described by a lawyer present in the audience and took place on the 2nd of February at the Inns of Court’s Middle Temple.

Middle Temple

Middle Temple Hall at the Inns of Court
Middle Temple Hall at the Inns of Court | Source
The Holly Man wassails the Thames on the South Bank - Twelfth Night Celebrations
The Holly Man wassails the Thames on the South Bank - Twelfth Night Celebrations | Source

Twelfth Night - The Festivity

Twelfth Night is the evening of 5th January (the 6th being Twelfth Day), a time when modern celebrants are taking down Christmas trees and decorations.

In Shakespeare’s day, Twelfth Night still included the Feast of Fools, a festival of misrule. Someone of lowly rank would be chosen to play the lord and be served by the master. At this time, all things carnival are licensed – as Feste is an “allowed” or licensed fool in Shakespeare’s play.

The Bard’s Twelfth Night includes the switching of roles, with the fool Feste the one who seems to understand the most (rather than his ‘betters’) and with a favourite trick of romantic comedy: the gender-swap.

Shakespeare's Story

The story of Twelfth Night involves twins, romance, reveling, puritanism and a great many mix-ups.

The basic plot revolves around a young woman, Viola, who - dressed like her twin brother Sebastian (whose recent death she is mourning at the start) - serves a master she loves (Duke Orsino) while taking his messages of love to the Countess Olivia, who is herself in mourning for her father and brother and who... wait for it... falls in love with this messenger, 'Cesario' (Viola in disguise).

Don't worry, this is a comedy: the various 'knots' do get untied (reference to something Viola says, in a famous monologue). In fact, all those just mentioned end up happily with a beloved. Yes, even Sebastian turns up alive and well... to be mistaken for Cesario, of course!

Olivia falls for the disguised Viola

Frederick Richard Pickersgill (1820-1900)
Frederick Richard Pickersgill (1820-1900)

Want to know what happens?

Script with Glossary and Play Synopsis - from the extremely helpful site 'Shakespeare's Words', well worth visiting!

Sources for the story of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

Reluctant Duellists

Act 3, Sc. 4 - Viola as Cesario, as reluctant to fight as Sir Andrew Aguecheek is - Francis Wheatley
Act 3, Sc. 4 - Viola as Cesario, as reluctant to fight as Sir Andrew Aguecheek is - Francis Wheatley

Darkness in the Light

Around these main romantic characters, there are boisterous and melancholic comedy ones, with one major party-pooping influence: Malvolio, Olivia’s steward. Malvolio started as a comedy character but became increasingly played in more recent times with pathos, bringing out a darker theme of harsh treatment. (We return to Malvolio later.)

Darker aspects of revenge and the agonies and doubts of love are themes that can be strongly played, if wished, as can the various sexual ambiguities of the characters’ relationships.

Above all, though, there is a lot of fun in Twelfth Night, with its romantic entanglements and a fabulously manipulated duel, involving Viola as Cesario, where neither combatant actually wants to fight. In fact, the play translated well into the BBC Shakespeare Animated Tales series for children (and adults!).

There is also revelry aplenty with Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby, his hanger-on / hanged-upon Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and other servants, in despite of Malvolio’s displeasure at their antics. The lovers, too, can be brilliantly hilarious, as seen in Trevor Nunn’s film, focusing on the laughs of this comedy.

Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night
Two different links to remind you to check the DVD format, make sure it will work for you! (Amazon links open in same page, unless you RIGHT CLICK and open differently)
Twelfth Night: Or What You Will
Twelfth Night: Or What You Will
Trevor Nunn's film, with Helena Bonham Carter, Imogen Stubbs, Ben Kingsley, Nigel Hawthorne, Richard E Grant, Toby Stephen and many more familiar faces on!"

Act 2, Sc. 4 - Orsino listens to Feste, watched by Viola in disguise - by Walter Deverell
Act 2, Sc. 4 - Orsino listens to Feste, watched by Viola in disguise - by Walter Deverell
Playing Shakespeare (Performance Books)
Playing Shakespeare (Performance Books)
Also available in UK - see

"If music be the food of love...

Another strong element of the play is found in music. The very opening scene sees Orsino indulging in his love of love, calling for music in the famous lines that start: “If music be the food of love, play on…”

The fool Feste, as well as salting scenes with humorous wit and wisdom, also provides the well known songs of the play, which reflect and even inform the action, rather than being mere pretty interludes. The way in which the song “Come away, come away, Death” can work in Act 2, Sc. 4 - particularly sensual in this link to Nunn's film - is also explored by director John Barton in his Playing Shakespeare series (and book), with Judi Dench as Viola, a part she played to great acclaim in Barton’s 1969 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company. (You can see her working on the 'ring speech' further down this page.)


Malvolio thinks this outfit will please his lady, but Olivia hates it!
Malvolio thinks this outfit will please his lady, but Olivia hates it!


While both Viola and Olivia have proven great showcases for actresses, leading actors through time have chosen to play Malvolio rather than a romantic lead. Many greats have all experimented, under equally impressive direction, with Twelfth Night’s mixture of tragedy and comedy.

Malvolio, tricked in revenge for his behaviour to Sir Toby and his crew, comes to believe that his mistress Olivia loves him and behaves, as instructed by a forged letter he has found, in such a bizarre manner, and dresses so peculiarly, that he winds up kept captive as a madman.

There are huge laughs in the gulling of the kill-joy steward, but there can also ensue a great deal of pain and discomfort. While Malvolio is released at the end, his final line is “I will be revenged on the whole pack of you!” The shifts between comedy and darker aspects in the playing of Malvolio is beautifully explored by Tim Crouch in I, Malvolio, a play that uses great humour and pathos to expertly manipulate its audience.

I, Malvolio - a one man play by Tim Crouch

Edinburgh Festival Fringe Review - written by me for Edinburgh Spotlight

Tim Crouch Theatre - where you can see more about I, Malvolio and other projects

Monologues and Scenes

While Twelfth Night is actually written in prose more than verse and does not include soliloquies famous for deep introspection or examination of the human condition, along with its famous songs (“Come away…” and “The rain it raineth every day…” [starts at 1.15]), it has its share of renowned phrases and speeches.

"A plague o' these pickle herring!" [with accompanying burp] and "How now, sot!" are just two (in one line) of some popular sayings that come from Sir Toby, and Feste’s wit can still shine for modern audiences.

As well as the famous opening lines from Orsino (though sometimes productions start with the – unwritten by Shakespeare – shipwreck that parts Viola from her brother), there is Viola's famous “ring speech” used very often (too often?) for auditions, where she examines her complicated romantic situation. (Please ignore subtitles in this clip, there are some very strange spellings - I wonder if they are meant to reflect 'ye olde worlde'.)

Judi Dench - Viola's Ring Soliloquy - from John Barton's Playing Shakespeare

Viola also has another famous monologue, which follows these lines:

My father had a daughter loved a man,
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship. (Act 2, Sc. 4)

She speaks to Orsino about her own love (for him), while cloaking this truth under the guise of describing a sister, and this is a very moving section. Again, Episode 8 of Barton’s Playing Shakespeare looks at working with the humour and pain of this scene, with Dame Judi in very fine form.

While that particular episode is not available online, here you can see Frances Barber as Viola, Christopher Ravenscroft as Orsino and Anton Lesser as Feste (in contrast to Imogen Stubbs, Toby Stephens and Ben Kingsley, seen via link above for "Come away, come away, Death"):-

RSC's 1988 version - The Pains of Love: from Act 2, Sc.4 and Act 5, Sc.1

Twelfth Night - The Play

The tension between comedy, beautifully served in both obvious and subtle manner, and tragedy, explored in how characters treat each other and their ability – or lack thereof – to forgive, is part of why Twelfth Night is such a popular play for companies to perform today.

Is Malvolio truly tortured beyond what should be tolerated, or is he an idiot who cannot rise above taking himself far too seriously, one unable to find enjoyment in life as it really is? How cruel are the jests of Sir Toby and the others working with him? How true are the love matches and how deep do the gender swaps go in exploring sexuality?

See it and seek - or read it and reckon - for yourself: you can make it What You Will!

Images - where image is not linked above - are all from Wikimedia Commons

Questions? Suggestions?

I am an actress (who has played Viola) and acting coach who specialises in Shakespeare, so I LOVE to talk all things Bard of Avonish.

I am very happy to answer any questions you may have about Twelfth Night (or other works of Shakespeare / acting-related aspects) and to engage in general discussion.

So - any suggestions or questions: COMMENT! (Or get in touch.)

Feel free to add info too!

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    • singer4freedom profile image


      4 years ago from Brazil

      Orsino is lovesick; he is, in fact, in love with the idea of being in love, rather than the person he is directing this love at. Only towards the end of the play, he comes to know that Olivia is already married to Sebastian, and can't be united with him; he also understands that Cesario is female (Viola). He puts together all the little things Viola said about her love for Orsino, and only then, realizes the love of Viola for him. And this lovesick, fickle minded man, Duke Orsino, easily switches his former love, Olivia with Viola.

    • Danielle Farrow profile imageAUTHOR

      Danielle Farrow 

      8 years ago from Scotland, UK

      Thank you, Wayne - glad you found it informative and with elements to like!

    • Wayne Adam profile image

      Wayne Adam 

      8 years ago from Parrish,FL

      Well done and very informative. I like that you broke down the characters and general plot.

      All the best,


    • Danielle Farrow profile imageAUTHOR

      Danielle Farrow 

      8 years ago from Scotland, UK

      Hi, Andy - Orsino is a great character to allowably indulge in, isn't he? There are some aspects of Nunn's production I'm not so keen on, but the lovers work really well for me. In particular, the Orsino-Viola relationship while she is Cesario makes the ending far more believable than often happens. Were you able to play with those aspects yourself? As for Malvolio - oh yes, the prison scene offers a great deal to play with in light of the shadows of the play. Thanks for commenting!

    • profile image

      Andy Corelli 

      8 years ago

      A wonderful in-depth summary of one of the Bard's finest with great links too! I once played Orsino and had such fun with the 'lovegod' role. Tho there are laughs aplenty, the entrapment & humiliation of Malvolio can be very dark and menacing. Always interesting to see how this scene is played. Congrats on a splendid piece of writing!

    • Danielle Farrow profile imageAUTHOR

      Danielle Farrow 

      8 years ago from Scotland, UK

      Thank you, Website Examiner, for checking out a hub whose subject matter is not directly in line with your interests, and for showing your appreciation. I'm looking forward to exploring your hubs for writers!

    • profile image

      Website Examiner 

      8 years ago

      Let me be honest and say that I'm out of my depth here. I simply know too little about the artist, the history, the genres involved. But it is pleasing to see the diligence and passion you've put into composing this well-structured, informative, and visually appealing hub.


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