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Twelfth Night, or What You Will

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

For other uses of "Twelfth Night", see Twelfth Night (disambiguation).

Twelfth Night, or What You Will is a comedy by William Shakespeare, named after the Twelfth Night holiday of the Christmas season. It was probably written in 1600-01; the name of its male lead, "Orsino," probably was suggested by that of Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, an Italian nobleman who visited London in the winter of 1600-01.[1]

Performance and Publication

Twelfth Night was probably performed at Candlemas, February 2, 1602 which was then the culmination of the long winter feast, at Middle Temple Hall, London by Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. It may have been performed earlier as well, before the Court at Whitehall Palace on Twelfth Night (January 5) of 1601.[2] Twelfth Night was also performed at Court on Easter Monday, April 6, 1618, and again on Candlemas of 1623.

The play was not printed until its inclusion in the First Folio in 1623.

The play was also one of the earliest Shakespearean works acted at the start of the Restoration; Sir William Davenant's adaptation was staged in 1661, with Thomas Betterton in the role of Sir Toby Belch. Samuel Pepys thought it "a silly play," but saw it three times anyway (Sept. 11, 1661; Jan. 6, 1663; Jan. 20, 1669). Another adaptation, Love Betray'd, or, The Agreeable Disappointment, was acted at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1703.[3]

List of characters

  • Orsino, Duke (or Count) of Illyria
Orsino is a powerful nobleman who governs here (either all of Illyria or at least the country round)(1.2). As the play opens, he has been pining for the Lady Olivia.
  • Sebastian, twin brother to Viola
When Sebastian arrives in Illyria he is constantly mistaken for his sister Viola, who has been going about disguised as a man.
  • Antonio, captain, a friend to Sebastian
Antonio rescued Sebastian from the shipwreck. He is much taken with Sebastian, and accompanies him into Illyria, although he is a wanted man there.
  • Captain, a sea captain who helps Viola
The captain of the wrecked vessel. He helps Viola by getting her — in her disguise as "Cesario" — to Orsino's court.
  • Valentine and Curio, gentlemen attending Orsino
  • Sir Toby Belch, a kinsman of Olivia's
Sir Toby is related to Olivia, probably her uncle ("what a plague means my niece..." (1.3)). She puts up with his drinking and rowdy behavior, but does not really care for it.
  • Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a companion of Sir Toby's
A foolish knight from the country who is staying with Toby in hopes of wooing Olivia, but in reality is wasting his money in incessant revelry promoted by Sir Toby.
  • Malvolio, steward to Olivia
Lady Olivia's sour and straitlaced head servant is at odds with the rest of her household.
  • Feste
Feste is a jester in Olivia's household. The Fool moves between Olivia's and Orsino's homes, making jokes, singing songs, and cadging coins from those that have them.
  • Fabian
Fabian is attached to Olivia's household in some unspecified capacity. He comes in where we expect Feste (2.5), and so seems an afterthought. But he develops as a character as the play goes on.
  • Viola, twin sister to Sebastian, later called Cesario
Viola is young woman of aristocratic birth from Messaline, and the play's primary protagonist. She spends the entire play, after the early shipwreck scene, disguised as a young man, "Cesario".
Olivia (1888) by Edmund Blair Leighton
Olivia (1888) by Edmund Blair Leighton
  • Olivia, a countess
Olivia's father and brother have recently died, so she is mistress of her grand house and of whatever else an unattached countess can command. She is in mourning for her brother as the play opens, and uninterested in Orsino's attempt at courtship.
  • Maria, a gentlewoman in Olivia's household
Maria is unassuming, competent, kind, cynical, and clever, with a reckless streak. She and Toby have an understanding, so she can nag him about his behavior, and she worries about Feste, whom she has gotten to care about over the years.
  • Priest, a Holy Father
The Priest is a minor character who performs the wedding ceremony in the last scene of the play.

Musicians, Lords, Sailors, Officers, and other attendants

The story

The setting of Twelfth Night is especially important to the play's romantic atmosphere. While "Illyria" now refers to a place on the east coast of the Adriatic Sea (what is nowadays Albania), in Shakespeare's time the name did not suggest any real country. Illyria was likely a fictitious island, as suggested by the shipwreck that strands Viola and Sebastian there, as fantastical a place as Camelot.

Like so many of Shakespeare's comedies, this one centres on mistaken identity. The leading character, Viola, is shipwrecked in the shores of Illyria during the opening scenes. She loses contact with her twin brother, Sebastian, whom she believes dead. Masquerading as a young page under the name Cesario, she enters the service of Duke Orsino. Orsino is in love with the bereaved Lady Olivia (whose brother has recently died), and decides to use Viola (dressed as a man) as an intermediary. Olivia, believing Viola to be male, falls in love with the handsome and eloquent messenger. Viola, in turn, falls in love with the Duke, who also believes Viola is male and has regarded her as his confidante. When Sebastian arrives on the scene, confusion ensues. Mistaking Sebastian for Viola, Olivia asks him to marry her; they were secretly married by a priest. Finally, when the twins appear in the presence of both Olivia and the Duke, there is more wonder and awe at their similarity, at which point Viola reveals she is really a female and that Sebastian is her lost twin brother. The play ends in a declaration of marriage between the Duke and Viola, Toby and Maria, and Olivia and Sebastian, though the marriage is never actually seen.

Much of the play is taken up with the comic subplot, in which several characters conspire to make Olivia's pompous head steward Malvolio believe that the lady Olivia wishes to marry him. It involves Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch; her would-be suitor, a silly squire named Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek; her servants Maria and Fabian; and her father's favorite fool, Feste. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew disturb the peace of their lady's house by keeping late hours and perpetually singing catches at the very top of their voices.

The company convinces Malvolio that Olivia is secretly in love with him, and writes a letter in Olivia's hand, asking Malvolio to wear yellow stockings cross-gartered, be rude to the rest of the servants, and to smile under all circumstances. Olivia, saddened by Viola's attitude to her, asks for her chief steward, and is shocked by a Malvolio who has seemingly lost his mind. She leaves him to the contrivances of the group above.


This section may contain original research or unverified claims.
Please help Wikipedia by adding references. See the talk page for details.

In fact, many characters in Twelfth Night assume disguises, such as Viola and Feste. Shakespeare uses it to raise questions about human identity and whether such classifications as gender and class status are fixed entities or can be altered with a simple shift of clothes. Although this is one of Shakespeare's most popular and funniest comedies, it has a dark side, as the behaviour of Sir Toby and Feste towards Malvolio becomes increasingly cruel towards the end. Malvolio is locked in a dungeon for alleged madness and forced to swear his submission to the heretical doctrines of Pythagoras. Malvolio departs in a bad humour, vowing revenge "on the whole pack of you." Orsino dispatches several servants to attempt to placate him.

Shakespeare explores identity through the genre of comedy in ‘Twelfth Night’, this dramatic convention allows Shakespeare to present a variety of characters as their relationships develop in extreme circumstances. These relationships are made further complicated by the guise used in many cases to deceive other characters, which in turn allows Shakespeare to challenge the mostly accepted notion of love by harnessing the cross – dressing potential of the Jacobean stage.

The play on the stage

Malvolio and Olivia, in an engraving by R. Staines after a painting by Daniel Maclise
Malvolio and Olivia, in an engraving by R. Staines after a painting by Daniel Maclise

The earliest known performance took place at Middle Temple Hall, one of the Inns of Court, on Candlemas night, February 2, 1602. The only record of the performance is an entry in the diary of the law student John Manningham, who wrote

Clearly, Manningham enjoyed the Malvolio story most of all, and noted the play's similarity with Shakespeare's earlier play, as well as its relationship with one of its sources, the Inganni plays.

After holding the stage only in the adaptations in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the original Shakespearean text of Tweflth Night was revived in 1741, in a production at Drury Lane. In 1820 an operatic version by Frederic Reynolds was staged, with music composed by Henry Bishop. Influential productions were staged in 1912, by Harley Granville-Barker, and in 1916, at the Old Vic.

When the play was first performed, all female parts were played by men or boys, but it has been the practice for some centuries now to cast women or girls in the female parts in all plays. The company of Shakespeare's Globe, London, has produced many notable, highly popular all-male performances, and a highlight of their 2002 season was Twelfth Night, with the Globe's artistic director Mark Rylance playing the part of Olivia. This season was preceded, in February, by a performance of the play by the same company at Middle Temple Hall, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the play's premiere, at the same venue.

Twelfth Night in film and television

See also Shakespeare on screen (Twelfth Night)


In 1910, Vitagraph Studios released the silent short adaptation Twelfth Night starring actors Florence Turner, Julia Swayne Gordon and Marin Sais.

On May 14, 1937, the BBC Television Service in London broadcast a thirty-minute excerpt of the play, the first known instance of a work of Shakespeare being performed on television. Produced for the new medium by George More O'Ferrall, the production is also notable for having featured a young actress who would later go on to win an Academy Award – Greer Garson. As the performance was transmitted live from the BBC's studios at Alexandra Palace and the technology to record television programmes did not at the time exist, no visual record survives other than still photographs.[5]

The entire play was produced for television in 1939, directed by Michel Saint-Denis and starring another future oscar-winner, Peggy Ashcroft. The part of Sir Toby Belch was taken by a young George Devine.

The 1996 film adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn, is set in the 19th century, stars Imogen Stubbs as Viola, Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia, and features Mel Smith as Sir Toby, Richard E. Grant as Sir Andrew and Ben Kingsley as Feste.

A 2003 telemovie adapted and directed by Tim Supple is set in the present day. It features David Troughton as Sir Toby, and is notable for its multi-ethnic cast including Parminder Nagra as Viola. Its portrayal of Viola and Sebastian's arrival in Illyria is reminiscent of news footage of asylum seekers.

The 2006 film She's the Man modernises the story as a contemporary teenage comedy (as 10 Things I Hate about You does to The Taming of the Shrew, O does to Othello, and Get Over It does to A Midsummer Night's Dream). It is set in a prep school named Illyria and incorporates the names of the play's major characters (for example, "Duke Orsino" becomes simply "Duke" and his last name is Orsino.) The pizza place in it is named "Cesario's" and there are many references in the movie to minor characters in Twelfth Night, such as Sir Toby, Feste, Valentine, and Malvolio.

The climax of the film Shakespeare in Love dramatises a fictional inspiration for Twelfth Night.

The film V for Vendetta contains significant references to the play, including the fact that the female lead, Evey (Natalie Portman), played the role of Viola.


  1. ^ Halliday, p. 71.
  2. ^ Hotson
  3. ^ Halliday, p. 505.
  4. ^ Qtd. in Smith, 2001, p. 2
  5. ^ Vahimagi, p.8


  • Twelfth Night, Elizabeth Story Donno, ed. Cambridge 1985,2003. (New Cambridge Shakespeare)
  • Halliday, F. E., A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964
  • Hotson, Leslie, The First Night of Twelfth Night, London, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954.
  • Twelfth Night, M. M. Mahood, ed. Penguin 1968, 1995. (New Penguin Shakespeare)
  • Pennington, Michael, Twelfth Night: a user's guide. New York, 2000.
  • Smith, Bruce R., Twelfth Night: Texts and Contexts. New York: Bedford St Martin's, 2001
  • Vahimagi, Tise. British Television: An Illustrated Guide. Oxford. Oxford University Press / British Film Institute. 1994. ISBN 0-19-818336-4.

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Twelfth Night, or What You Will
Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Twelfth Night
  • Searchable Twelfth Night Etext Unattributed edited version: bare bones, but with a long summary that is essentially a scene-dump.
  • Twelfe Night A cumbersome dump of the Folio version, uncommented.
  • Twelfth Night Another dump of the Folio, in a better format. It is not necessarily accurate, though Project Gutenberg does try to enlist proofreaders.
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