Monday, December 25, 2017

Twelfth Night; or What You Will by William Shakespeare

Twelfth Night; or What you Will by William Shakespeare

Twelfth Night is a comedy by Shakespeare, written and performed around 1601-02. The setting is early 17th Century Illyeria (Western Balkans).

I am including this play in the Literary Christmas Challenge, because even though it is not a Christmas story, Shakespeare wrote it as a Twelfth Night celebration to close the Christmas season – hence the title.

It is indeed a comedy. I have not read many of Shakespeare’s comedies yet, but this was by far the most comical. As with any play, something is lost in reading. I’d love to see it in its proper form – a stage play.

The main characters, Viola and Sebastian, twin brother and sister are separated in a shipwreck and each assumes the other drowned.

Viola, assumes a male identity, Cesario, and enters the employ of a nobleman of Illyeria. The cross dressing motif is one Shakespeare uses frequently, and in this instance, it works particularly well as Viola, posing as Cesario, resembles her brother Sebastian, and is often mistaken for him.

In one comical encounter, Viola offends some gentlemen who threaten her with violence and are subsequently emboldened when she cowers before the threat. They mock him (her), and Viola laments to herself:
Pray God defend me! A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man.
Later, when they encounter Sebastian, convinced of his cowardice they make sport of him, only to find they’ve twisted the tail of a tiger.

There is an absurd love triangle. Cesario (Viola) delivers messages from her Lord Duke Orsino to the Countess Olivia to express his love. The Countess, however is smitten by Cesario (Viola), who cannot reciprocate by reason of nature and duty.

Viola, meanwhile falls in love with Duke Orsino – but similarly cannot express her feelings.

And well – it’s great fun, and a comedy – all turns right in the end.

Phrases from Twelfth Night that are now part of English vernacular:

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.


  1. Wow! This surely sounds like a fun play. Honestly, I don't even think I'd heard of it before -- but then again, I haven't read any Shakespeare. Great review!


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