Introduction: Twelfth Night

November 19, 2009 in Introduction

Reliant as it is on cross-dressing, identical twins and plenty of fast-moving wordplay, Twelfth Night looks like the archetypal Shakespeare comedy – but one which begins with two characters mourning for their lost brothers and ends with another swearing revenge “on the whole pack of you”. Shakespeare gives the last words to Feste the clown, whose world-weary song about “the wind and the rain” perhaps reflects Shakespeare’s own weariness with traditional comedy, as he moves onto the greyer shades of the problem plays and late romances.

The play reworks the case of confused twins from The Comedy of Errors but, partly inspired by Barnabe Rich’s short story Of Apollonius and Silla, the twins are no longer of the same gender and Shakespeare piercingly explores the embarrassment this brings. While disguised as Cesario, Viola cannot quite believe that Olivia, whom she is courting on behalf of Duke Orsino, has been “charm’d” by her superficial “outside” appearance. Many contemporary productions of the play have taken this embarrassment even further: the ambiguous nature of Antonio’s wish to be “servant” to Viola’s brother Sebastian has been exploited and, in 2002, the RSC’s Olivia could not resist one last kiss from Viola even when revealed as a man.

However, the characters of the play’s subplot, in which Olivia’s condescending steward Malvolio is tricked by the rest of her household, not only get more lines than the principal parts, but were also responsible for the play’s contemporary popularity. The play was briefly retitled Malvolio and a poem of 1640 describes how “the Cockpit galleries, boxes are all full / to hear Malvolio, that cross-gartered gull”. After a lull in popularity during the Restoration, the play returned to critical attention when Lamb realised that Malvolio’s priggishness could in fact be founded on a tragic “sense of worth”. Certainly the character’s imprisonment on account of his madness in Act IV betrays the hand of a playwright soon to produce Hamlet.

Although the title refers to the Feast of the Epiphany and its subversive revelry, the characters are said to be affected by “midsummer madness” and there is no evidence that the play was written for the feast – the first recorded performance was in February 1602. In many ways, its subtitle What You Will suits it better: it is the play’s self-conscious refusal to signal a definitive message that has kept it fresh for directors, critics and audiences.

Contributed by Jack Belloli

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