Twelfth Night

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AT: What You Will A: William Shakespeare Pf:c.1601–2, London Pb: 1623 G: Com. in 5 acts; blank verse and prose S: Illyria, Renaissance period C: 11m, 3f, extrasOrsino, Duke of Illyria, is in love with Olivia, who is mourning for her brother. Shipwrecked on the shore of Illyria, Viola believes that her identical twin brother has been drowned. She disguises herself as a boy Cesario, and finds employment with Orsino. Olivia's steward Malvolio, a puritanical guardian of decorum in his mistress's household, finds himself obliged to reprimand her drunken cousin Sir Toby Belch and his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who fancies himself as Olivia's suitor. The two knights plan to take revenge on Malvolio: they leave a letter for him to find, which purports to reveal that Olivia loves him and wishes to see him in cross-gartered yellow stockings. Meanwhile, Viola, as Cesario, is sent by Orsino to woo Olivia on his behalf. S/he performs this task so well that Olivia falls in love with Cesario, while Viola has by now fallen in love with Orsino. Malvolio approaches Olivia in his absurd attire and, since it is assumed that he must be mad, is locked away. Viola's brother Sebastian, who has survived the shipwreck, is set upon by the jealous Aguecheek, who takes him for his sister. Olivia intervenes and takes the only too willing Sebastian to the altar. When Orsino discovers that his Cesario is a woman, he offers his hand in marriage. Malvolio, now freed, threatens vengeance on them all.

AT: What You Will A: William Shakespeare Pf:c.1601–2, London Pb: 1623 G: Com. in 5 acts; blank verse and prose S: Illyria, Renaissance period C: 11m, 3f, extras

Shakespeare here exploits traditional theatrical devices, like the confusions arising from identical twins, used in The Brothers Menaechmus and The Deceived, and also employs elements of folk myth to produce a very sophisticated comedy, arguably his finest. The (albeit biologically impossible) identical twin sister and brother emerge from the sea to end both Orsino's desolate loving and Olivia's obsessive mourning, just as at Twelfth Night with its joyful celebrations, there is promise of an end to the deprivations of winter. Twelfth Night was also traditionally the day of topsy-turveydom, when servants were waited on by their masters. Here the steward Malvolio dreams of becoming Olivia's husband, just as Viola/Cesario longs to wed Orsino. That these aspirations are merely the stuff of comedy is seen when the happy end is undercut by the clown Feste's song: ‘the rain it raineth every day’. It is all too likely that Malvolio the Puritan will have the last word (and indeed the Puritans would order the closing of all the English theatres in 1642).

Subjects: Shakespeare Studies and Criticism.

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William Shakespeare (1564—1616) playwright and poet