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Twelfth Night – Introduction

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(You can find this Introduction to Twelfth Night, in the Index to the play.  Click on ‘Introduction to Twelfth Night’ in the Index.)

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Introduction:

The Play:

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most popular Festive Comedies.

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The play revolves around a love-triangle between Orsino (a Duke), who loves Olivia (a Countess), loves Viola (a shipwrecked girl, disguised as a boy), who loves Orsino. The play explores three main topics: human sexuality and love (mostly unrequited) in various forms; cruelty; and how things are often not what they seem.

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Of course, being a Festive Comedy, everything ends happily – mostly.

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Act One, is given over to the introduction of the characters (A1S1 – Orsino; A1S2 – Viola; A1S3 – Sir Toby, Maria, and Sir Andrew; A1S4 – Viola (disguised as a boy, Cesario) meets Orsino; A1S5 – Olivia and Malvolio are introduced, and at last some action – Cesario /Viola courts Olivia on behalf of Orsino, and Olivia falls in love with him / her).

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The start of Act Two continues the introductions. In A2S1 we meet Sebastian and Antonio, and in A2S2, Viola finds out that Olivia has fallen in love with her, and the love triangle is complete.

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From A2S3 onwards, the action is underway, and except for 2 scenes (A2S4 at Orsino’s Palace and A3S3 -Antonio and Sebastian in town), the play takes place at Olivia’s house. This makes Twelfth Night a play set in a country-house, like Downton Abbey or Gosford Park – a country house narrative. “The English country house narrative typically affords the opportunity for social commentary and the drama’s interplay between multiple [social] spheres illustrates the complex relationships between the family and those in service.”

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The Context:

Twelfth Night, or What You Will was probably written in 1601 or 1602. It is known to have been performed on 2nd February, 1602 because there is a contemporary review by John Manningham, a fourth year law student, of a performance at Middle Temple on that date. There is the usual scholarly debate as to when the first performance could have been, the earliest plausible date being the 6th January (Twelfth Night) 1601 at Queen Elizabeth’s court with a Duke Orsini, Duke of Bracciano present, and a couple of other possible dates and locations between 6th January 1601 and 2nd February 1602, when Manningham saw the play. This date makes Twelfth Night contemporaneous with Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida.

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By 1600, Shakespeare had been a ‘sharer’ in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men since 1594. He was the first Elizabethan playwright to write his plays for his own Company, for known actors – the other members of The Lord Chamberlain’s men – and to act himself with the group. Of particular relevance to Twelfth Night, Robert Armin had replaced William Kemp as the chief comic actor and sharer) of the group (in 1600.

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Robert was a professional fool, very different from the clown Kemp. He was also a writer (e.g Fool upon Fool, and Quips upon Question) and a playwright (The Two Maids of More-Clacke). Fools in Armin’s books are treated cruelly. They are fired at by cannon balls, drugged, whipped and burnt. And after Armin’s arrival at The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, as Bart Van Es says in Shakespeare in Company, p. 179, “cruelty, insanity, and absurdist poetry would … become an element in the drama that Shakespeare produced.” The roles which Armin created make the point: Feste in Twelfth Night, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, Lavatch in All’s Well That Ends Well, and, amongst others, The Fool in King Lear. The character of Feste shows strong signs of Armin’s influence.

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What the Play is about

The play tells three or more stories: the story of identical twins (of different sexes?) separated by a storm, and re-united at the end of the play; the love triangle of Orsino, Olivia and Cesario / Viola; and the story of the fooling of Malvolio by Maria and Sir Toby. A case could be made for adding Sir Toby’s sponging on Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and ultimate rejection of him, and Feste’s confusion over Viola / Cesario / Sebastian.

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Before we explore these three stories, let’s look at the title of the play. It’s original title is not Twelfth Night, but Twelfth Night or What You Will”. It’s the only play of Shakespeare’s that has a double title, so it seems likely that has some significance. What might this double title have meant to an Elizabethan audience?

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Twelfth Night is the Feast of Epiphany on 6th January (the twelfth day of Christmas), when the wise men visit the Christ child in the stable. But the word ‘Epiphany’ has its own meaning – it is an “experience of sudden and striking realization”. Is there a sudden or striking realization in the play?

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Twelfth Night would also have meant something else to Elizabethans. It’s a day for a ‘Feast of Fools’ when convention and social structures are turned upside down. There is a description of an Elizabethan “Feast of Misrule” in the Middle Temple in Anthony Arlidge’s Shakespeare and the Prince of Love. This book proposes that Twelfth Night was commissioned by the Middle Temple for the Feast of Misrule in 1602 – the performance which John Manningham reviewed. The Fool in Twelfth Night is called Feste – Latin for a feast or festival.

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What you Will is also part of the title, and is more ambiguous in its meaning. It could mean ‘make what you will of this play’. Or, it could imply that the audience is self-consciously complicit in what goes on in the play. The audience laughs at Malvolio when he deceives himself into the fantasy that Olivia loves him, encouraged by Maria’s cunning letter, but can become uncomfortable at his imprisonment in the dark prison. The joke goes too far. In some productions Malvolio’s line: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” is played to the audience.

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Will also implies lust, sexual desire, and passion, and the play certainly shows the folly of people in love. And then, of course, the play’s author is ‘Will’.

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Does Twelfth Night make social commentary? It seems so. We have ‘multiple social spheres’ – class distinctions and discernment – in the interplay between Orsino’s court and Olivia’s more relaxed country home. We have different social levels: Orsino the Duke “[Olivia] will none o’ th’ Count. She’ll not match above her degree”: Olivia the Countess; and Cesario the Gentleman. Olivia only falls in love with Cesario after she has established his social status –

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“ ‘I am a gentleman’. I’ll be sworn thou art –
Thy tongue, thy face thy limbs, actions and spirit
Do give thee fivefold blazon.”

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Within the house there are different social levels: the Knights (Toby and Andrew); the high servants (Malvolio the steward, and Maria the lady’s maid); and the low servants (Feste, the Fool, and Fabian the gardener). When Sir Toby’s conflict with Malvolio is about to get underway, he says: ‘Am not I consanguineous? Am I not of her blood?’ This illustrates the complex relationship between Malvolio, the high servant, trying to maintain order and Sir Toby, the blood relative, who is of the house as well as being keen on his ‘Cakes and Ale’.

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The Folly of Love; Cruelty; and how things are not what they seem

Most of the main characters in the play are in love, or rather are constrained by one thing or another, from being in love.

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Viola, a young woman shipwrecked on the shore of Illyria, decides to disguise herself as a boy and get work at the local Duke’s court. She promptly falls in love with the Duke – Orsino, but is constrained from showing that love because she is a girl on her own in a strange country, and so at risk and disguised.

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Orsino thinks himself in love with Olivia, but he is really in love with love – a type of self-love, perhaps, – and this prevents him from loving anyone. Although he finds his new servant attractive, nearly the whole play unfolds before he realizes that Cesario / Viola is just the thing for him.

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Olivia is running her country house. Two deaths – the death of her father and the death of her brother – have brought about this unusual position for an Elizabethan woman. Like Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, she enjoys the power that comes with this independence. She uses the deaths of her father and brother to keep Orsino’s courtship at bay, but Viola / Cesario’s arrival upsets her plans when she falls helplessly in love with Cesario.

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Of course there’s a homo-erotic component in both these relationships. Part of the attraction of Cesario to Orsino is the cross-dressed male / female and Olivia is probably attracted to the underlying female nature of the go-between. This homo-eroticism is added to by the loving relationship between Antonio and Sebastian, two males.

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In the Elizabethan age, same-sex relationships provided an outlet for adolescent sexual drives, and realigning sexual orientation was one of the reasons festive comedies were needed to encourage marriage.

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Olivia is also courted by Malvolio. He is not in love with her, being absorbed in self-love. He wants to marry her for the power and status it will give him. Sir Toby and Maria have tricked him into thinking Olivia loves him by forging a letter from Olivia which plays to his fantasies and encourages him to interpret it as a love-letter to him. His desire for power and status convinces him that the cryptic meaning of this nonsensical letter is obvious. “Daylight and champaign discovers not more. This is open….. my lady loves me.”

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The cruel humour of his subsequent appearance before Olivia, is not just in his cross-gartering or in his smiling, but in the open display of his secret fantasy to Olivia and the rest of the household.

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The cruelty will get worse, when he is locked in a dark room and treated as a madman. Sir Toby takes his revenge on Malvolio in this way, to punish him for superciliously interrupting his late-night partying with Sir Andrew. There seems very little love (except self-love expressed in the over-consumption of Cakes and Ale), in Sir Toby. He takes his revenge on Malvolio; he lives on Sir Andrew’s money, amuses himself arranging duels between Sir Andrew and Cesario, and then dismisses Sir Andrew as “An ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave”. He does marry Maria, but it seems only as a reward. “Maria writ the letter, at Sir Toby’s great importance, In recompense whereof he hath married her.”

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Maria is trapped as the lady’s maid in Olivia’s house. She doesn’t get on with Malvolio, and she wants out. Her only possible escape is marriage, and Sir Toby is the only available option. This seems like a marriage of convenience. One hopes it worked out well.

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Of the lovers, this leaves Sebastian. He arrives at Olivia’s house to find everyone intimately engaging with him: Feste thinks he knows him well; Sir Andrew starts to fight him unprovoked; and the lady of the house is deeply in love with him. He wonders if he is mad, but Olivia is an attractive option, and he is happy to go along with her desire.

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In this play, things are not what they seem. It is not only the identical twins which cause confusion, but most of the characters are deluded about some important aspect of their world. In A2S2, when Viola becomes aware that Olivia has fallen in love with Cesario, who is not what he seems, she says

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“Poor lady, she were better love a dream.
Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness,
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.”

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Of course, Malvolio is the character who makes a major error in interpreting reality, by mistaking Maria’s forged nonsensical letter as a love-letter from Olivia to himself. Thereafter he is taken for mad and in his determination to prove himself sane makes further mistakes.

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Sebastian, too, mistaken for his identical twin Viola, disguised as Cesario, by Feste, Sir Andrew, and Sir Toby, wonders if he is mad:

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“What relish is in this? How runs the stream?
Or I am mad, or else is this a dream.”

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Even Feste’s sense of reality gets disturbed. When singing to Orsino, he sees Orsino and Cesario falling in love. Then it becomes clear that Olivia has fallen for Cesario, and finally Cesario (really Sebastian) denies that he knows Feste at all: “No, I do not know you, nor I am not sent to you by my lady to bid you come speak with her, nor your name is not Cesario, nor this is not my nose neither. Nothing that is so is so.”

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Feste, originally played by Robert Armin, is perhaps the most interesting character in the play. He is a solitary figure, but usually has something perceptive to say about the others. He mostly seems to want money. He begs it on every conceivable occasion. When he first appears in A1S5, it is clear that he has been absent without leave, and Olivia is cross with him, and likely to “hang him or send him away”. How does he recover her affections? By proving her a fool on a very sensitive issue – the death of her brother.

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In A2S4, when Orsino pays him after he has sung to him, he makes fun of Orsino’s melancholic pose and satirizes his inconstancy : “Now the melancholy god protect thee, and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is a very opal.”

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When Viola / Cesario suggests he might be a merry fellow who cares for nothing in A3S1, he pulls no punches: “Not so sir, I do care for something, but in my conscience, sir, I do not care for you.” Quite why Feste doesn’t care for Cesario is not immediately clear and may be worthy of another essay. He is perceptive about her/him, and seems to have seen through her disguise: “Now Jove in his next commodity of hair send thee a beard.” And Viola is equally perceptive about him:

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“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool,
And to do that well craves a kind of wit.”

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He is also content to cruelly tease the imprisoned Malvolio in A4S2, almost driving Malvolio mad when he plays Sir Topas, and only slightly kinder playing himself, when he brings Malvolio pen and paper. He seeks this revenge for Malvolio’s scathing remark to Olivia “Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascal, an you smile not, he’s gagged?” Only once is he discomforted, and that is when he mistakes Sebastian for Cesario, as discussed above.

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Of course, all becomes clear at the end of the fifth act when Viola and Sebastian are on stage together for the first time, and are re-united, their reunification the epiphany hinted at in the title. It is usually played as a rather magical moment, and Orsino and Olivia certainly seem to think it so:

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ORSINO:
One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons:
A natural perspective, that is and is not

OLIVIA:
Most wonderful!

 

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Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’
Players-Shakespeare.com

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