Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or What You Will
"Most radiant, exquisite and unmatchable beauty" - Act 1, Sc. 5
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.
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.
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
Want to know what happens?
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.
"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.)
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
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 http://commons.wikimedia.org/
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.)
Further Helpful Links
- Twelfth Night Quizzes and Twelfth Night Trivia -- Fun Trivia
Twelfth Night trivia questions and quizzes. Thousands of quizzes and quiz questions and answers about Twelfth Night
- Providing the Musical Context for Shakespeare's Twelfth Night
A more in depth look at music in Twelfth Night (hub)
- The Twelve Days of Christmas, An Irish Code and 12th Night
Twelfth Night the celebration, in the context of Ireland and the banning of Christmas (hub)
- Open Source Shakespeare
Search Twelfth Night or any of Shakespeare's Works for words/phrases, and more...
- The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
There are a lot of sites for Shakespeare's works (being out of copyright) - this one is good for copying without losing format.
- Acting Shakespeare
A blog with practical help from me, Danielle Farrow of Discover Fine Acting
- Linking to labels within a hub, how?
This is a link to some very useful help, for any fellow hubbers wondering how to link within a hub