Twelfth Night

The play Twelfth Night was written by William Shakespeare (1564-1616). It is one of his most celebrated comedies, along with Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It and A Midsummer's Night Dream.

Twelfth Night, which is still being successfully performed in theaters around the world, shares certain characteristics with all other Shakespearean comedies. These include a happy ending, several sub-plots, young lovers facing different obstacles, a clever servant, puns, deception, a pastoral setting and separation followed by reunification. It is believed that Twelfth Night was completed in 1601 or 1602.

The full title of the play is Twelfth Night, or What You Will. Most critics consider it a reference to Epiphany, the 12th night of Christmas, which happens on 6 January. In the Middle Ages, Epiphany was an important holiday, marking the end of the Christmas season. It celebrates the arrival of the Magi and the three miracles that manifested the divinity of Christ. Ordinary people often used this holiday to disguise as somebody else, so men dressed like women and servants dressed like their masters. Disguise is aptly a central theme in the play.

The exact date of Twelfth Night's premier has not been agreed upon. According to Elizabethan literature scholar Leslie Hotson, the play was first presented as a gala entertainment on 6 January, 1601. However, solid proof could not be provided, as neither he, nor other scholars have succeeded in identifying the play performed on the occasion mentioned.

Another date suggested as a possible premier of Twelfth Night is 2 February 1602. John Manningham, a student at the Middle Temple law school, wrote in his diary: "at our feast wee had a play called Twelve Night or What You Will… a good practice in it to make the Steward beleeve his Lady widdowe was in Love with him by counterfeyting a letter as from his Lady in generall tearmes…" It is certain that this entry in the diary refers to the play in question but there is no other evidence that it was performed for the first time that night.

Twelfth Night is set in Illyria, an ancient region on the Adriatic coast that encompassed parts of modern Albania, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia. The plot relies on mistaken identity, a concept that Shakespeare readily exploits in other comedies. The protagonist, Viola, and her twin brother, Sebastian, are shipwrecked near the Illyrian coast. Viola manages to get to the shore but there is no trace of her brother. She assumes that he has died and decides to look for a job in the new country.

Viola disguises herself as a man, calls herself Cesario and becomes the page of Duke Orsino. The Duke favors his companion, unaware of the fact that he is a woman, and soon Viola/Cesario falls in love with her master. Orsino loves the beautiful but conceited Olivia. One day, Orsino asks Cesario to deliver a message from him to Olivia and then she falls for the young page.

Olivia lives with her servants Maria and Fabian, her uncle Sir Toby, his friend Sir Andrew, her steward Malvolio and the family clown Feste. Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste decide to trick Malvolio into believing that Olivia is in love with him. Maria writes a letter to Malvolio, signing it as Olivia, asking him to wear yellow stockings and crossed garters and be rude to others but constantly smile at Olivia. Malvolio does everything exactly as the letter says, hoping that Olivia will marry him but is later shut in a dark room because Olivia thinks he has gone mad.

The story becomes more intriguing with the arrival of Sebastian, who has survived the shipwreck and believes that Viola had drowned. Mistaking him for Cesario, Olivia proposes to him and Sebastian agrees to marry her, as she is obviously rich and beautiful. Orsino and Viola visit Olivia and meet Sebastian there and after a brief scene of confusion, the mystery is disclosed. The twins are finally reunited and Orsino admits that he loves Viola and asks her to marry him. Toby and Maria confess that they had married in secret and Malvolio is eventually released from his cell.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

FREE! Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will
William Allan Neilson; William Shakespeare.
Scott Foresman, 1903
The Twelfth Night of Shakespeare's Audience
John W. Draper.
Stanford University Press, 1950
The First Night of Twelfth Night
Leslie Hotson.
Macmillan, 1954
Shakespeare the Playwright: A Companion to the Complete Tragedies, Histories, Comedies, and Romances
Victor L. Cahn.
Praeger, 1996
Librarian’s tip: "Twelfth Night, or What You Will" begins on p. 665
Shakespeare and the Question of Theory
Patricia Parker; Geoffrey Hartman.
Methuen, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Shakespeare's Poetical Character in Twelfth Night"
Shakespeare and the Poets' War
James P. Bednarz.
Columbia University Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Shakespeare at the Fountain of Self-Love: Twelfth Night at the Center of the Poets' War"
As She Likes It: Shakespeare's Unruly Women
Penny Gay.
Routledge, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Twelfth Night: Desire and Its Discontents"
Shakespeare without Women: Representing Gender and Race on the Renaissance Stage
Dympna Callaghan.
Routledge, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "'And All Is Semblative a Woman's Part': Body Politics and Twelfth Night"
The Serious Comedy of Twelfth Night: Dark Didacticism in Illyria
Marciano, Lisa.
Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Vol. 56, No. 1, Fall 2003
"Slander in an Allow'd Fool": Twelfth Night's Crisis of the Aristocracy
Coddon, Karin S.
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring 1993
Speech and Performance in Shakespeare's Sonnets and Plays
David Schalkwyk.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Embodiment: The Sonnets, Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night"
Shakespeare's Brain: Reading with Cognitive Theory
Mary Thomas Crane.
Princeton University Press, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Twelfth Night: Suitable Suits and the Cognitive Space Between"
Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture
Patrice Pavis.
Routledge, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Interculturalism in Contemporary Mise en Scene: The Image of India in the Mahabharata, The Indiade, Twelfth Night, and Faust"
Design and Closure in Shakespeare's Major Plays: The Nature of Recapitulation
William B. Bache.
P. Lang, 1991
Librarian’s tip: "Twelfth Night" begins on p. 73
Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women's Alliances in Early Modern England
Susan Frye; Karen Robertson.
Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Female Alliance and the Construction of Homoeroticism in As You Like It and Twelfth Night"
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