Twelfth Night (play)

From Academic Kids

Twelfth Night, or What You Will is a comedy by William Shakespeare.

The play is named after the Twelfth Night holiday. It was written to be performed as part of Twelfth Night celebrations and first performed at Candlemas, February 2, which was then the culmination of the long winter feast, at Middle Temple Hall, London by Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

Like so many of Shakespeare's comedies, this one centres on mistaken identity. The leading character, Viola, is shipwrecked in the shores of Illyria (today Albania) during the opening scenes. She loses contact with her twin brother, Sebastian, whom she believes dead. Masquerading as a castrated boy under the name Cesario, she enters the service of Duke Orsino. Orsino is in love with the bereaved Lady Olivia, and unsuccessfully uses Viola as an intermediary.

Missing image
Orsino and Viola by Frederick Richard Pickersgill

Olivia, believing Viola to be male, falls in love with her. Viola, in turn, falls in love with the Duke, who believes that Viola is male. When Sebastian arrives on the scene, confusion ensues. Mistaking Sebastian for Viola, Olivia asks him to marry her. The play ends in a declaration of marriage between the Duke and Viola, and Olivia and Sebastian, though the marriage is never actually seen.

Much of the play is taken up with the comic subplot, in which several characters conspire to make Olivia's pompous head steward Malvolio believe that the lady Olivia wishes to marry him. It involves Olivia's uncle Sir Toby Belch, her would-be suitor the silly squire Sir Andrew Aguecheek, her handmaiden Maria, and her father's favorite fool, Feste. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew disturb the peace of their lady's house by keeping late hours and perpetually singing catches at the very top of their voices. Sir Toby even attempts to provoke Sir Andrew (whose hair "hangs like flax upon a distaff") to make a sexual overture towards the prickly Maria.

Although this is one of Shakespeare's most popular and funniest comedies, it has a dark side, as the behaviour of Sir Toby and Feste towards Malvolio becomes increasingly cruel towards the end. Malvolio is locked in a dungeon and forced to swear his submission to the heretical doctrines of Pythagoras. Malvolio departs in a bad humor, vowing revenge "on the whole pack of you."

Film and television adaptions

There have been a number of notable adaptions of the play, including two recent versions, both of which modernise the setting. The first, a 1996 film adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn, was set in the 1920s and starred Helena Bonham-Carter as Olivia, and featured Mel Smith as Sir Toby, Richard E. Grant as Sir Andrew and Ben Kingsley as Feste. The second, a 2003 telemovie adapted and directed by Tim Supple, was set in the present day. It featured David Troughton as Sir Toby, and was notable for its multi-ethnic cast. Among other interesting touches, its portrayal of Viola and Sebastian's arrival in Illyria is reminiscent of news footage of asylum seekers. Also, an upcoming film entitled She's the Man modernizes the story, as 10 Things I Hate About You did to The Taming of the Shrew.


When the play was first performed, all female parts were played by men or boys, but it has been the practice for some centuries now to cast women or girls in the female parts in all plays. The Men's Company at Shakespeare's Globe, Bankside has produced many notable, highly popular all-male performances, and a highlight of their 2002 season was Twelfth Night, with the Globe's artistic director Mark Rylance playing the part of Olivia. This season was preceded, in February, by a performance of the play by the same company at Middle Temple Hall, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the play's premiere, at the same venue.

External links

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