1. Twelfth Night is the height of Shakespeare's achievement in comedy. We all have our favorites, but this mix of character depth, clever plotting, boisterously funny scenes, and beautiful language is truly remarkable. Since A Midsummer Night's Dream about five years earlier, Shakespeare has experimented in both romantic comedy and "comicall history," as the Elizabethans put it. He has employed darker tones and bitter emotions in The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing. Lighter touches have marked As You Like It and the Falstaff plays, although there's little to laugh about in Falstaff's demise.

2. We might take a moment here to mention that Twelfth Night has a subtitle, "What You Will," that seems at first just another joke about the frivolity of comedy (As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing). But there's more to this play than what first meets the eye. Consider that the main title refers to the finale of Christmas feasting, January 6, after which the winter sets in with a vengeance. Some of the characters fail to achieve what they will, and live on in cold isolation while the romantic couples dance off to their new lives.

3. Twelfth Night is a romance, a kind of comic story Shakespeare had toyed with in The Comedy of Errors, and to which he would return at the end of his career. This literary type was as old as the Greeks, and has as its offshoots fairy tales and folk tales. Long-lost children, families cruelly divided by fate, miraculous revelations, secret tokens, far-fetched endings are the stuff of romance. This kind of tale allows Shakespeare freedom to play endlessly with comic conventions like identical twins and to fashion a complicated ending with both romantic and realistic resonances, as he returns to a more disguised form of the metadrama he used in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Interpretation: performance and the text.

4. Many productions of Twelfth Night delay or cut Orsino's opening speech in 1.1, because it seems odd to a modern audience unused to the suffering lover type. He is a passive character in a static scene, lovesick and inert. A typical directorial change is Trevor Nunn's decision to delay Orsino's appearance until Viola has landed a place in his household:


Even then some lines are cut:

O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity,
Receiveth as the sea. Nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute. So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

Curio. Will you go hunt, my lord?

Duke. What, Curio?

Curio. The hart.

Duke. Why, so I do, the noblest that I have.
O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence.
That instant was I turn'd into a hart;
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,

E'er since pursue me.

Enter Valentine.

The image of the suffering lover was familiar to Shakespeare's audience. but we are perhaps more impatient with Orsino. Delaying his appearance and rationing his protests makes him more palatable.

5. So we begin with a more vigorous and spirited scene, Viola shipwrecked on the shores of that mythical kingdom, Illyria:


Trevor Nunn's film emphasizes the danger and risk of the romance story, and by doing so identifies Viola as the active emotional center, even if her situation requires her to wait for circumstances that will make her wish come true. That wish is expressed first as a glancing remark:

Orsino! I have heard my father name him.
He was a bachelor then. (1.2.28-29)

It becomes clear that the outsiders who land in Illyria are more open to taking risks than the native inhabitants, as expressed in the BBC version of 1.2:


Viola has heard of Olivia's reclusive mourning from the Captain (and even seen her in the Nunn version we saw in paragraph 5). Orsino's lovesickness and Olivia's mourning give Illyria its basic emotional color, as even the drunken Sir Toby expresses to Maria in the first lines of 1.3:

What a plague means my niece, to take the death of her brother thus? I am sure care's an enemy to life.

6. The appearance of Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's uncle, sets up the subplot of the play, the downstairs life of Maria, Malvolio, the servants, Toby, Sir Andrew, and even Feste, the "Clown," or wise fool. It might be useful to see a sketch of the social groups in the play. Toby and Andrew are drawn into the foolery of the servant class because they make common cause against Malvolio, the Puritanical steward. Feste is happy to join in. Maria is in love with Toby: she seems intimate with him in the BBC version (above), but more commonly is alone in her passion, at least until the end of the play:


As the downstairs folk and the dissolute gentlemen waste their lives away in drink and pranks, so Orsino and Olivia are self-indulgent too, in a more refined manner. All these Illyrians will have their preoccupations and pretensions shaken by the strangers who even now are invading their closed world.

7. Feste deserves a special mention. He is Shakespeare's newly minted comic character (with Touchstone in As You Like It) to replace the more bluff and physical clowns of earlier plays. Will Kempe left Shakespeare's company and was replaced by Robert Armin, whose talents helped create the new type:

Viola. This fellow is wise enough to play the fool,
And to do that well craves a kind of wit.
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time;
And, like the haggard, check at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practice
As full of labor as a wise man's art;
For folly that he wisely shows is fit;
But wise men, folly-fall'n, quite taint their wit. (3.1.61-69)

Feste has been away, and has fallen out of favor with Olivia:


As he charms her into humor, and lifts her mourning mood, he runs afoul of the sober and self-righteous steward Malvolio. Their bitter enmity evokes the extremes of Apollonian and Dionysian values and prompts the famous revenge to come.

8. In two contrasting dramatic versions, we can watch Viola's love for Orsino unfold even from the depths of her disguise as Cesario. The BBC version is faithful to the text in 1.4:


We begin to see the gender jokes and confusion as Orsino comments on how "all is semblative a woman's part" in Cesario/Viola. We know that Viola has a twin brother she thinks has drowned, and we know that young men played female roles on Shakespeare's stage. Later in the play there is richly ironic dialogue about how men and women are different in love. The same gender images appear in the Nunn version of this scene, but Viola holds back her confessed aside that "myself would be his wife." The film delays as long as possible Viola's expressions of love so we will not be put off by the arbitrary suddenness of the comic convention. Watch this clip again:


The first scene of the play is grafted unto 1.4, and Viola's longing for Orsino grows more slowly than in the BBC version.

9. The richest gender joke begins in 1.5, when Olivia is attracted to Viola/Cesario. Shakeapeare uses the same comic situation in As You Like It, where the boy actor playing Rosalind takes on the male role of Ganymede, only to pretend to be Rosalind in a mock wooing scene with Orlando. It is also quite likely that Sonnet 20 has been written by now:

A woman's face, with Nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure.

What I and many others take to be a pun in line 12, "women's" for "we men's" pleasure, is used also in Twelfth Night, as we shall see later. The Trevor Nunn version of this scene begins with an inventive moment where Olivia reveals her true grief to an old familiar face in her father's household, Feste. Then comes the fateful meeting of the two women:


Olivia's attraction to Viola/Cesario is immediate, and establishes that her mourning will be put quickly aside. It also creates images of same sex attraction, seconded in 2.1 where Antonio is enamored of Sebastian, Viola's twin, whom he has rescued from the shipwreck:


Two articles linked on our course page discuss our two main sources for clips from Twelfth Night, the BBC studio production and Trevor Nunn's film:

"The BBC Twelfth Night: Relationships Revealed"
"Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night: Contemporary Film and Classic British Theatre"

There is an interesting discussion of gender images and behaviors in the first of these articles. In the second, Nunn's film receives a very thorough specific analysis. Don't be put off by the lukewarm quote from another source which begins this article. As the ensuing discussion shows, Nunn's film is a particularly rich and faithful adaptation of the play. I think it's the best film of a Shakespeare play ever made.

10. The BBC version of 2.2 is more faithful to the text of the play than Nunn's film. It gives us Viola's full speech after Malvolio delivers the ring from Olivia, which alerts her to Olivia's infatuation. In the film this scene is spliced onto 1.5 to keep the action seamless, but much of Viola's speech is withheld and used later, in small bits:


As upper class characters like Orsino and Olivia fall deeper into their fantasies, Toby and Andrew pursue their own excesses, abetted by Maria, and are confronted by Malvolio in their drunken revel. While this is a famous confrontation between the Puritan ethic (despised by the playwrites and actors) and a more free spirited attitude, at the same time there is a certain sadness in the song which laments lost youth. Toby, Maria, Andrew, and Feste are no longer young. Nunn cleverly pulls in the story of Viola by using the theme of music, and he splices in lines from Orsino's initial appearance in 1.1 and from 2.4 as he lets the relationship between Orsino and Viola/Cesario ripen slowly. The scenes are knit together by the expression of romantic longing in music:


And as Maria notices Malvolio's yellow stockings and hears him say, "She shall know of it, by this hand," the plot stirs that will make Maria's handwriting skills lead to Malvolio's ruin.

11. Let's compare the BBC version of 2.4 with the second half of the Nunn version. (The first half we saw in the previous clip.) The tone is lighter in the BBC scene, with only a moment's close-up on Viola showing her emotional tension:



It's also hard to think that Orsino does not see the female identity of this Viola, although we need to remember that a young male actor played in role in 1600. The Nunn film is much more complex and emotionally taut. Orsino and Viola/Cesario are first in the billiard room, then in an outbuilding where Feste sings "Come away, come away, death," an abandoned lover's lament. Nunn makes the most of gender confusion in this scene, perhaps taking his cue from the unconscious pun in Orsino's dialogue:

For, boy, however we do praise ourselves,
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,
Than women's are. [Than we men's are.] (2.4.32-35)

Viola speaks to him in code, as always, and she is perhaps conscious of the pun:

We men [women] may say more, swear more; but indeed
Our shows are more than will; for still we prove
Much in our vows but little in our love. (117-119)

Feste is allowed to observe to erotic moment between Orsino and Olivia. Remember that as a special observer he saw the survivors washed ashore in 1.2, and will soon encounter Sebastian for the first time. Nunn divides the last part of the scene and shifts to an outdoors shot, then puts in a time transition as he finally completes Viola's emotional arc by bringing in the last lines of 1.4:

I'll do my best
To woo your lady. [Aside] Yet a barful strife!
Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife.

12. For many audiences the pièce de résistance is the gulling of Malvolio in 2.5. Toby and Andrew have their revenge by playing on his conceit and his ambition:


It's a magnificent performance by the late Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio. There's also a classic version with Alec Guinness as Malvolio and Ralph Richardson as Toby:


I think we all need to know Sir Alec as more than Obi-Wan Kenobi.

13. Olivia and Viola have a second major scene in 3.1, where Olivia appears as frustrated by Viola/Cesario's resistance as Orsino is by hers, not to mention Sir Andrew's forlorn state. This is the second great duet between these two characters:


But Sebastian is at hand, pursued in vain by the smitten Antonio, unknowingly poised to turn many lives upside down. This sudden insertion of a lost family member is typical of the romance story, and is especially interesting to a Shakespeare who plays with his comic closures in complicated ways. Sebastian will trigger so many different emotional responses that the play will seem an impossible tangle of conflicts:


Before we can proceed to the comic closure, however, Malvolio must be disposed of. His humiliation brings to a close the disorderly lives downstairs at Olivia's household. Their days are all numbered. Notice the glimpses Feste gets of Toby, Maria, and the priest in the chapel, and his confusion at the sight of Olivia embracing Viola/Cesario (actually Sebastian):


14. Sebastian is the catalyst that makes a comic closure possible in Twelfth Night. He is the perfect innocent, a Candide who wanders into a strange world and is overwhelmed by beauty and riches. It might as well be El Dorado:


Olivia has rescued him from the assault by Toby and Andrew. and finds in his acquiscence the perfect joy that is her dream. (We must of course accept the comic convention that she cannot tell one twin from the other.) Here is the Nunn version of the Sebastian sequence, beginning in 3.4:


When Viola/Sebastian hears her brother's name from Antonio, she can hope that he is alive and her life transformed:

He named Sebastian. I my brother know
Yet living in my glass. Even such and so
In favor was my brother, and he went
Still in this fashion, color, ornament,
For him I imitate: O, if it prove,
Tempests are kind, and salt waves fresh in love! (3.4.391-396)

Sebastian's appearance enables the traditional ending of the romance tale: long lost family restored, fantasies fulfilled, cruel fate overcome. Feste even produces the secret token of identity, the necklace he picked up on the beach and returns to Viola in the final scene.

15. Act 5 has only the one scene, testing Shakespeare's ability to tie up many plot and character threads with remarkable economy.


Twelfth Night has a fantasy ending for the lucky ones, like Orsino and Viola, and Olivia and Sebastian, but others leave this happy scene alone and unhappy: Antonio, Malvolio, Andrew. Toby and Maria leave together, but we wonder whether their voyage is well provided for. Even for the two happy couples questions remain with us: Do they know their new partners truly? Can these matches so suddenly clapped up last forever? Do we believe that Orsino can so easily realize his affection for Viola after he has been attracted to Cesario?

Twelfth Night deals with ironies, not perfection. As Feste observed back in Act 1:

Anything that's mended is but patched; virtue that transgresses is but patched with sin; and sin that amends is but patched with virtue. (1.5.45-48)

Everything seems relative and precarious in Illyria. Feste's final song resonates with sad images of the rain and wind, and ages of man that are less than joyous. Nevertheless, the last stanza sounds like Shakespeare once more using a character as his own voice, like Oberon and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. For the moment everything is secure, and the play holds together:

A great while ago the world begun,
Hey, ho,the wind and the rain;
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.




Consider the idea of excessive behaviors in the characters in Twelfth Night. Unlike A Midsummer Night's Dream, this play has a stable hero in Viola. Feste also is wise and seemingly well balanced, although by profession and perhaps inclination he is a loner. There are many combinations of characters to be studied and written about here. Look again at this sketch. Mix and match outsiders and insiders, men and women, upper and lower classes.

There are fine articles by Bamber, Kimbrough, and Howard in the Signet edition, and a particularly good Introduction by Herschel Baker. We also have a fine selection of websites on the main course page.

Remember to quote your sources, and give the page number or web address. Here's a section from the bottom of my home page:

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Research and Documentation Online

A Guide for Writing Research Papers (MLA style)


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