Twelfth Night

Hello friends! This post’s a bit late; I’m afraid life happened. I regret nothing. But! This week is one of my favorite plays. It’s a breath of fresh air after the wonderful monster that is Hamlet from last week.

I saw Twelfth Night when it was performed in NYC in 2013. It was an all-male cast and Stephen Fry played Malvolio and it was glorious. The entire play was glorious, in fact. I believe I read this play first in high school during my “I’m going to read Shakespeare on my own!” kick. I also saw a production of it at a local community college many years ago.

So without further delay, onto the play!


Count Orsino of Illyria is in love with Olivia, the daughter of a count whose brother and father have recently died. She’s in mourning and intends to keep her face veiled and remain unmarried for seven years, and so she refuses Orsino’s declarations of love. Not one to be put off, Orsino continues to pursue her. Meanwhile, Viola is rescued from a shipwreck by a kind captain and brought to Illyria. She believes her twin brother, Sebastian, died in the wreck and she is homeless. Viola finds out about Olivia and Orsino and remembers that her father used to speak well of the Duke. She first hatches a plan to work for Olivia but the captain tells her that Olivia is in mourning and refuses to receive visitors for seven years. So, Viola decides to work for Orsino disguised as a young man named Cesario; she swears the captain to secrecy.

Orsino takes Viola (as Cesario) into his employ and has her try her hand at wooing Olivia for him. After Viola has a standoff with Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, Olivia decides to receive her (veiled at first) and promptly falls in love with Viola; meanwhile, Viola has fallen in love with Orsino. It’s a pickle.

Olivia’s household includes her uncle, Sir Toby Belch, her maid Maria, her servant Fabian, Malvolio, and her fool Feste. Sir Toby brings a knight named Sir Andrew Aguecheeck into the household to woo Olivia. During a late night of drunken carousing and shenanigans Malvolio reprimands the lot for not allowing the rest of the household to sleep in peace. The group hatches a plot: Maria handwriting resembles Olivia’s and she will write a letter which will profess her (Olivia’s) love for Malvolio. Amongst other things, it asks Malvolio to wear yellow stockings cross-gartered, to be rude to servants, and to constantly smile. All this is meant provoke Olivia; she hates the color yellow and cross garters. Malvolio falls for the prank and begins to enact everything the letter asked him to do, as well as reciting bits of it to Olivia. Olivia is shocked and Maria informs her that Malvolio has gone a bit crazy. The pranksters lock Malvolio up in a dark chamber and gaslight him.

Meanwhile, Viola’s twin brother Sebastian arrives in Illyria with his friend Antonio, a sea captain who’s a wanted man in Illyria. Sir Andrew and Sir Toby find out that Olivia is in love with Cesario (Viola) and Sir Andrew decides to challenge her to a duel. They approach Viola and she attempts to appease them with words, trying her best to get out of the situation since she has no experience fighting. She finally escapes the two men with the help of Antonio, who thinks she’s Sebastian. Antonio is then arrested for past crimes and is angered when Viola doesn’t give him the money he knows Sebastian has.

Feste happens upon Sebastian and, believing him to be Cesario, brings him to Olivia’s house. Sebastian is confused but follows. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew then happen upon Sebastian and, assuming he’s Cesario and just as meek as Viola was, Sir Andrew attacks him. Sebastian fights back with his dagger and Sir Andrew begs for mercy. Sebastian goes to leave the craziness (remember, he thinks he’s just been attacked without any preamble) but Sir Toby stops him and the two trade insults before drawing their swords to fight.

Olivia then enters and orders Sir Toby to leave. She asks Sebastian to come into her house and, happily confused, he does. Olivia proceeds to give Sebastian gifts and says she wants to marry him, which confuses and delights him further. After Sebastian returns from looking for Antonio at the inn Olivia approaches him with a priest and the two head off to be married.

Soon after Viola and Orsino are traveling to Olivia’s house when officers approach them with Antonio in tow. Antonio is angered that Viola still doesn’t acknowledge him or give him money to help him and Viola is genuinely baffled. Olivia then enters and mistakes Viola for Sebastian, whom she’s just married. Olivia tells Orsino this and Orsino becomes angered that Viola would betray him; he threatens to kill her which, claiming innocence, Viola gladly accepts while professing her love for Orsino. Olivia is understandably shocked and calls the priest over to them and he confirms that he married Olivia and Viola (mistaking her for Sebastian). Orsino orders both Olivia and Viola to leave and never return to Illyria.

Sir Andrew then approaches and calls for aid and a doctor for him and Sir Toby, stating that they’ve been in a fight with Cesario; he then sees Viola and accuses her of starting the fight. Viola, even more confused now, says she’s innocent. Olivia sends Sir Andrew and Sir Toby away to the doctor.

Sebastian then enters, confusing everyone. Not realizing the situation nor seeing his sister, Sebastian proceeds to apologize to Olivia for fighting with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. He then sees Antonio and is elated, stating that he’s been searching all over for him. Finally, Sebastian and Viola see each other. They question each other and finally realize they’ve found their twin and Viola finally reveals that she’s female. Orsino, it appears, has fallen in love with Viola and they decide to get married as well. Olivia finally thinks to ask where Malvolio is and Feste comes clean on the whole prank. Maria, it would seem, is absent because she and Sir Toby have gotten married. Olivia orders Malvolio released and he swears to get revenge on the pranksters. Orsino sends Fabian after him to try to mollify the man.

And thus the play ends.

Of Interest

In this play we see another woman cross-dressing and pretending to be a man. So far this has also happened in The Two Gentlemen of Verona , As You Like It, and The Merchant of Venice. While this is partially meant for humor it says a lot about gender roles in the Elizabethan era. Women, while apparently capable of taking care of many issues, were not allowed to do certain things because of their gender. If Viola hadn’t cross-dressed she would certainly never have been employed by Orsino, and she also probably would have been in a lot of trouble without any male “protection”. However, Viola doesn’t use her own agency to advance the plot; time and circumstance does that for her.

There’s also the interesting bit about Orsino proposing marriage as soon as Viola is revealed as being female. Did Orsino have feelings for Viola before that moment? That’s certainly how the situation as portrayed in the performance I saw on Broadway. (Which goes to show just how important stage directions are and just how much interpretation one can make in Shakespeare plays.) Apparently there was an Elizabethan belief that women were merely imperfect males, which we can definitely see in this play.

(Interesting tidbit: when I wrote that last line I accidentally wrote “men were merely imperfect females”; it took me a second to realize how I inverted that phrase. Obviously my subconscious has its own opinions.)

 Nota Bene

Did you notice that I said the performance of Twelfth Night that I saw on Broadway was an all-male cast? Confused? Well, in Elizabethan times women didn’t act (at least, not in troupes like Shakespeare’s). The female roles would have been played by young men instead. This is perhaps one reason for all the cross-dressing in Shakespeare plays.


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