The title Twelfth Night suggests the final day of the Christmas season, a traditional time of feasting and revelry. Accordingly, the play has certain entertaining elements that we might see as typical of Shakespearean comedy: self-involved lovers, mistaken identity, a large measure of boisterous humor, and a comic villain who is appropriately punished. But the alternative title, What You Will, the only such subtitle Shakespeare provided, suggests a more subtle vision. Indeed, this play is about excess, the abuse of "will," and despite the surface good humor, something ugly permeates the characters and their world. Although the plot complications and situations offer a great deal of laughter, this work may be seen as the transition between Shakespeare's lighter, more traditional comedies and the three "problem" comedies to follow. The primary source of the main plot is the story of Apolonius and Silla, in Farewell to Militaire Profession ( 1581) by Barnabe Riche.
We sense this darker quality from Duke Orsino's opening lines:
If music be the food of love, play on, Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die. That strain again, it had a dying fall; O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound That breathes upon a bank of violets, Stealing and giving odor. Enough, no more, 'Tis not so sweet now as it was before. (I, i, 1-8)
Initially he seems the conventional lovestruck young romantic, like Orlando in As You Like It or Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. But the words "excess," "surfeiting," "sicken," "die," and "dying" betoken passion that borders on decadence. Orsino seems not simply to seek pleasure but to wallow in it. When the music temporarily loses its charm, he angrily grows bored and cuts off the sound. He requires constant stimulation, and when that stimulation is not fulfilling, he grows impatient.