Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Title: Twelfth Night
Author: William Shakespeare
Published: 2016 (originally 1601)
Language: English
Pages: 144
Rating: 5/5

After Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I picked up another Shakespeare comedy. During my last two years at school, I helped designing the decor and costumes of the annual Shakespeare play. One of the plays was Twelfth Night (slightly altered and modernised)  so I new the play quite well already. (The other was Othello, so that’ll probably be my next play – after my current read Macbeth. I think they alternated comedy and tragedy every year.)

If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sickening, and so die.

The play is titled Twelfth Night, or What You Will and was originally performed as Twelfth Night’s entertainment. It is the night before Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day and marks the end of the Christmas season. If you’ve seen the film Shakespeare in Love with Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow, you’ve probably noted that at the end of the film, Fiennes as Shakespeare is commissioned a play ‘a little more cheerful next time, for Twelfth Night’. As his lover Viola and he say their goodbyes (she has to marry another man and is leaving for the New World), he promises to immortalise her. The film ends with Shakespeare imagining Viola as a castaway on a faraway peninsula, disguised as a man.

Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.

Recap: this is exactly where the play begins. The story follows both Viola and Sebastian who are twin brother and sister. They’re separated in a shipwreck and they both believe the other has died. Viola disguises herself as a man, calling herself Cesario, but falls in love with her new found ‘friend’ Duke Orsino. In turn, Orsino is in love with the beautiful Countess Olivia, who is still mourning her late father and brother. Orsino asks Cesario/Viola to plead his (Orsino’s) cause/love before Olivia. And of course Olivia falls head over heels with Cesario/Viola. Other characters are, amongst others, Malvolio (Olivia’s haughty steward), Sir Toby Belch (Olivia’s uncle) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Toby’s friend and suitor to Olivia).

OLIVIA: ‘How does he love me?’
VIOLA: ‘With adorations, fertile tears,
With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire.’

This play has got it all: romance and both light and dark comedy. The subplot, in which Sir Toby and Andrew, together with Olivia’s servants and the fool Feste, convince Malvolio that Olivia is secretly in love with him, is hilarious. It starts out light and playful, but it eventually changes into somewhat darker comedy as they keep on mocking Malvolio, even in his subsequent phase of insanity.

If ever thou shalt love,
In the sweet pangs of it remember me;
For such as I am all true lovers are,
Unstaid and skittish on all motions else
Save in the constant image of the creature
That is beloved.

Because Viola disguises herself as a man, the play has featured in many gender studies (also including other Shakespearian heroines like Portia and Rosalind who likewise have disguised as a man). Although one could argue that Viola, even when dressed as Cesario, shows little evidence of active agency, she is still more positively depicted than other Shakespearian women like, say, Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew. She may not actively strive for what she wants (Orsino), leaving this to fate, but she is nevertheless brave, kind and loyal. She’s brave in starting a new life after the tragic ship wreck in which she believes she has lost her brother and she’s kind and loyal in her new friendships. Ultimately, she finds true happiness as the wife of Orsino (not very emancipated), but as a character she has already shown bravery and perseverance.

He does smile his face into more lines than is in the map with the augmentation of the Indies.

I loved this comedy more than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was definitely a 5 star read for me. I’m curious as to what I will think of his other comedies!

Amber Linde


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