Twelfth Night; or What You Will was composed by William Shakespeare in either 1600 or 1601 as the last of his three "mature comedies" (the other two being Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It). Like his early comedies, The Comedy of Errors or The Taming of the Shrew for instance, Twelfth Night is essentially a celebration of romantic love and can be viewed as a traditional romantic comedy. The play has many of the elements common to Elizabethan romantic comedy, including the devices of mistaken identity, separated twins, and gender-crossing disguise, and its plot revolves around overcoming obstacles to "true" love. And, like other representatives of the genre, Twelfth Night also features a subplot in which a self-inflated "sour" or "blocking" character, the steward Malvolio, is brought to his knees through a trick orchestrated by a ribald if also self-inflated character in the person of Sir Toby Belch.
But unlike his early comedies, Shakespeare also strikes some discordant notes in Twelfth Night, including a conception of love and other themes that are not part of the conventional romantic comedy formula. Thus, for example, the subject of insanity surfaces as a salient theme and as a force within the plot. Indeed, while Twelfth Night concludes with tandem weddings, Shakespeare also speaks about the madness of love.
Synopsis of the Play
This is a play about love, placed in a festive atmosphere in which three couples are brought together happily. It opens with Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, expressing his deep love for the Countess Olivia. Meanwhile, the shipwrecked Viola disguises herself as a man and endeavors to enter the Duke’s service. Although she has rejected his suit, the Duke then employs Viola, who takes the name of Cesario, to woo Olivia for him. Ironically, Cesario falls in love with the Duke, and Olivia falls in love with Cesario, who is really Viola disguised.
In the midst of this love triangle are the servants of Olivia’s house and her Uncle Toby. The clown provides entertainment for the characters in both houses and speaks irreverently to them. He is the jester of the play. Maria, Olivia’s woman, desires to seek revenge on Malvolio, Olivia’s steward. To the delight of Sir Toby, Olivia’s uncle, and his friend Sir Andrew, Maria comes up with a plot to drop love letters supposedly written by Olivia in Malvolio’s path. When she does, they observe him, along with Fabian, another servant, as Malvolio falls for the bait. Believing that Olivia loves him, he makes a fool of himself.
The love plot moves along as Cesario goes to woo Olivia for the Duke. The second time that Cesario appears at Olivia’s home Olivia openly declares her love for Cesario. All along, Sir Andrew has been nursing a hope to win Olivia’s love. When he plans to give up on her, Sir Toby suggests that Sir Andrew fight with Cesario to impress Olivia. Cesario, however, refuses to fight.
In the meantime, Viola’s brother, who is also shipwrecked, makes his way to safe lodging in Illyria with Antonio the sea captain. After the fight between Cesario and Sir Andrew begins, Antonio intervenes to save Cesario, whom he takes for Sebastian. But the Duke’s officers promptly arrest Antonio for a past offense. Olivia later comes upon Sir Andrew and Sebastian wrangling at her house. Olivia, thinking Sebastian is Cesario, leads Sebastian to marriage in a nearby chapel.
The complications of identity are unraveled in the fifth act. Cesario finally reveals that he is Viola. Sebastian recognizes her as his sister. The Duke takes Viola up on her love offerings and proposes to her. Olivia assures Malvolio that she did not write the letter that so disturbed him. Sir Toby marries Maria in appreciation for her humiliating scheme.
Estimated Reading Time
You can read through Twelfth Night in about three and a half hours. But, when reading Shakespeare, you should plan to re-read at least one more time. When you read more carefully, paying attention to difficult words and Shakespeare’s exquisite use of language, your reading time will necessarily increase. Your more careful reading may take about six hours.