Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare
June 1 1994
directed by Joel G. Fink

Viola and Sebastian, twin brother and sister, are separated during a shipwreck, and each believes the other has died. Cast upon the shores of Illyria, Viola disguises herself as a man and is employed as Duke Orsino's personal attendant, Cesario. Orsino is in love with the Countess Olivia. Olivia, in mourning over the death of her brother, refuses to consider any suitors, including Orsino. Orsino, impressed with Viola/Cesario's youthful good looks and charm, decides to use Cesario as his spokesperson to win Olivia. At the same time, Olivia's gentlewoman, Maria, keeps company with Olivia's drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch, as well as Feste, her "fool," and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, an elderly nobleman who wishes to woo Olivia. Malvolio, Olivia's steward, scorns the tomfoolery of Maria, Sir Toby, Feste and Sir Andrew, and they determine to get revenge on him. Cesario arrives at Olivia's house and so eloquently delivers Orsino's message of love that Olivia falls in love with Cesario. Further tangling this "knot," Cesario/Viola has fallen in love with Orsino. Meanwhile, Maria, Sir Toby, Feste and Sir Andrew proceed with their plan to get revenge on Malvolio. Maria devises a plan in which Malvolio will find a note, supposedly written by Olivia, in which Olivia confesses her secret love for Malvolio and asks him to wear absurd clothes and to smile continuously in her presence. Malvolio finds the note and is beside himself with joy over what he believes to be Olivia's secret declaration of love. To please Olivia, Malvolio arrives smiling and wearing yellow stockings. Olivia, surprised by Malvolio's peculiar behavior, decides he has lost his wits and confines him to a dark room. Sebastian, Viola's brother, has been rescued by Antonio, a sailor. When Sebastian decides to visit Illyria he is mistaken for Viola/Cesario and a complicated "comedy of errors" follows. Sir Andrew, still determined to woo Olivia, becomes aware that Olivia loves Cesario, and he challenges Cesario to a dual. Unfortunately, Sir Andrew ends up fighting Sebastian instead. As disguises are dropped and misunderstandings resolved, Sebastian and Viola are reunited. With Sebastian married to Olivia, and Viola engaged to Orsino, Twelfth Night concludes with a song by Feste. The steward, Malvolio, will not join in the festivities and exits with a pledge to be revenged on them all. As Shakespeare wrote, the course of true love never runs smooth, and in life, "the rain it raineth every day."

Date Time
Wednesday June 1 12:00 am
Closed

Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare's later comedies, is a play filled with unlikely happenings and coincidences. It begins with the premise that Viola and Sebastian, twins of different sexes, are mirror images of one another and that it is impossible to tell them apart. As the play develops, characters fall in love with one another at first sight, blind to the gender and true identity of the objects of their desire.

Viola and Sebastian, twin brother and sister, are separated during a shipwreck, and each believes the other has died. Cast upon the shores of Illyria, Viola disguises herself as a man and is employed as Duke Orsino's personal attendant, Cesario. Orsino is in love with the Countess Olivia. Olivia, in mourning over the death of her brother, refuses to consider any suitors, including Orsino. Orsino, impressed with Viola/Cesario's youthful good looks and charm, decides to use Cesario as his spokesperson to win Olivia. At the same time, Olivia's gentlewoman, Maria, keeps company with Olivia's drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch, as well as Feste, her "fool," and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, an elderly nobleman who wishes to woo Olivia. Malvolio, Olivia's steward, scorns the tomfoolery of Maria, Sir Toby, Feste and Sir Andrew, and they determine to get revenge on him. Cesario arrives at Olivia's house and so eloquently delivers Orsino's message of love that Olivia falls in love with Cesario. Further tangling this "knot," Cesario/Viola has fallen in love with Orsino. Meanwhile, Maria, Sir Toby, Feste and Sir Andrew proceed with their plan to get revenge on Malvolio. Maria devises a plan in which Malvolio will find a note, supposedly written by Olivia, in which Olivia confesses her secret love for Malvolio and asks him to wear absurd clothes and to smile continuously in her presence. Malvolio finds the note and is beside himself with joy over what he believes to be Olivia's secret declaration of love. To please Olivia, Malvolio arrives smiling and wearing yellow stockings. Olivia, surprised by Malvolio's peculiar behavior, decides he has lost his wits and confines him to a dark room. Sebastian, Viola's brother, has been rescued by Antonio, a sailor. When Sebastian decides to visit Illyria he is mistaken for Viola/Cesario and a complicated "comedy of errors" follows. Sir Andrew, still determined to woo Olivia, becomes aware that Olivia loves Cesario, and he challenges Cesario to a dual. Unfortunately, Sir Andrew ends up fighting Sebastian instead. As disguises are dropped and misunderstandings resolved, Sebastian and Viola are reunited. With Sebastian married to Olivia, and Viola engaged to Orsino, Twelfth Night concludes with a song by Feste. The steward, Malvolio, will not join in the festivities and exits with a pledge to be revenged on them all. As Shakespeare wrote, the course of true love never runs smooth, and in life, "the rain it raineth every day."

The theater critic Michael Billington tells us that "to realize Twelfth Night's complexities and contradictions requires five years' study or a repeated return to its problems in a succession of productions." Against these odds, Twelfth Night has enjoyed success as one of the most popular Shakespearean comedies, beginning with the first recorded performance on February 2, 1602. After Shakespeare's death in 1616, a performance at court by the King's Men took place on April 6, 1618 and on February 2, 1623 under the title Malvolio. After the Restoration, Twelfth Night was rewritten and rearranged by Sir William Davenant. This version was described by Samuel Pepys's as "[b]ut a silly play and not at all related to the name of that day"(Billington, xi). It wasn't until 1741 that Twelfth Night was again performed in something close to its original form. Since then the play has achieved continued popularity. In 1912 the Savoy theatre was graced with Granville-Barker's legendary production. With an understated set which combined beauty with intimacy, Granville-Barker mounted a production that got rid of three centuries of accrued interpretation and focused on the essential truth of character. In describing the production, Billington notes: . . . the women characters were never once allowed to drop to the dreamy and emotional; they were always high, clear and ringing, coming out of a passionate mood. Malvolio was a Puritan prig who flamed up in fury on "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you." Feste was cast not as a young, sprightly court jester, but as a sad, mature man who exhibited that vein of irony which is so often the mark of one of life's self-acknowledged failures. Since Granville-Barker's production a variety of directors have wielded their vision over the play. Time and time again, one finds one aspect of the play emphasized at the expense of another: usually prankish comedy at the expense of delicate melancholy. A 1950 production at the Old Vic, directed by Hugh Hunt, was filled with commedia dell'arte dances, clapping of hands, smacking of knees, and a clatter of noises that almost obscured the heartfelt performance by Peggy Ashcroft of Viola. In 1955 Sir John Gielgud directed a production starring Sir Laurence Olivier as Malvolio and Vivien Leigh as Viola. Gielgud himself described the challenges of staging the play, noting: "It is so difficult to combine the romance of the play with the cruelty of the jokes against Malvolio, jokes which are in any case archaic and difficult. The different elements of the play are hard to balance properly" (Billington, xvii). Peter Hall's 1958 production presented Olivia as a pouting, giggling, squealing woman affecting a love for her dead brother that she didn't really feel, and bored to death with acting the role of the great lady. In 1971 John Barton staged a production that presented the characters with all their contradictions intact. He invested Twelfth Night with psychological detail without depriving it of its magic. In 1987 Bill Alexander's Stratford-upon-Avon production made Malvolio a major focus of the play. Antony Sher's Malvolio was everywhere, spying on everyone and peevishly primping while waiting on Olivia. In the final scenes Malvolio appeared mad, as if he had been driven out of his wits. In the same year Kenneth Branagh directed a production in which a snowflake covered Christmas setting tended to veil the production in prettiness which left some of the darker areas of the play untouched. The 1994 Colorado Shakespeare production is set in the Victorian period at the end of the Christmas season. The dark, repressed sense of the Victorian era is highlighted by the set's theatrical self- consciousness. The Victorian costumes capture the elegance and style of the period, while the musical score combines traditional seasonal songs with more melancholy music. Against this backdrop the production looks at the power of love, the love of power, and at death as the overriding force in Twelfth Night.

The Ambiguous Flavor of Comedy in Twelfth Night 
by Margery Fernald Critical interpretations of Twelfth Night have exhibited a change over time, shifting from a lighthearted acceptance of its improbabilities to a more serious examination of the play's outlook on humanity. For example, earlier interpretations of the play suggest that we accept the improbabilities which pervade Twelfth Night's imaginary country of Illyria simply because the play is a comedy, a genre which, by its very nature, defies rational explanation. This interpretation is seen in the response of some critics to the surprising love matches and marriages which mark the play's final action. Anne Barton explains: "Olivia and Sebastian, Viola and Orsino confront us at the end less as representatives of a new society than as people who, by the special dispensation of comedy, have been allowed to escape from death and time" (Twelfth Night, Riverside Shakespeare, 407). Other critics who have adopted the "courtly world" interpretation of Twelfth Night tell us that Shakespeare is not interested in moral judgments at the end of the play. Instead, he is presenting and playing with literary conventions of love. In his introduction to the Pelican edition of Twelfth Night, Charles T. Prouty explains, "of course people fall in love at first sight; they always do in the love poems and romances of the age. Orsino, Viola, and Olivia all behave in thoroughly traditional fashion"(18). Historical reading tells us that the title of Twelfth Night places us at the feast of Epiphany. On January 6, the feast of Epiphany was observed in England and throughout Europe as the last day of the Christmas festivities. This was a boisterous, "mad" celebration in which it was customary to choose a "King" or "Lord of Misrule." The "Lord of Misrule" was often a servant who would act for one day as master of the household and preside at a feast in the great hall. Historians point out that Epiphany was an occasion for toasts, games, mock trials, dancing, processions, feasting and disguises; a perfect setting for the antics of Twelfth Night. Other critics have sought to explain the topsy-turvy world of Illyria by focusing on the idea of metamorphosis, or transformation. In this interpretation, various powers of metamorphosis govern Illyria: mysterious energies turn two into one and one into two, and strange forces lead people to become actors, donning disguises, willfully turning themselves into what they are not. According to these interpretations, the metamorphoses experienced when Olivia, Orsino and Viola fall in love dominate the play. Recent approaches to Twelfth Night question the accuracy of these lighthearted interpretations of the play. They also examine the earlier traditional position that "marriage in Shakespeare is an image of happiness that ends his comedies almost as invariably as death ends a tragedy. Shakespeare's comic vision is the firm assertion of basic harmony" (Arden, vii). As a result of this shift in perceptions of the play, characters are no longer simply functionaries of a comedy which inevitably ends in happy wedlock; rather they are individuals struggling with the puzzle of life. They have doubts, are vulnerable, want money, hope for love, and fear death. From this viewpoint, Twelfth Night becomes a story which examines and dramatizes realistic human concerns about society, sexuality, love, class struggles, cruelty and death. Through exploring the characters' motivations in this light, we see that Viola's choice to dress like a man carries more significance than to cause happy confusion on the stage. Viola adopts male dress as a practical means of survival in an alien environment and, perhaps, as a magical means of keeping alive a brother believed drowned. In short, for her, crossdressing is not so much a political act as a psychological haven, a holding place. Ultimately she realizes she must reveal her inner feelings for Orsino if she is to become fully human. Viola's revelation results in marriage with Orsino, but questions remain. When Orsino, who has been blindly and hopelessly in love with Olivia, turns his attention to Viola at the end of the play, his seemingly abrupt change of heart raises questions about the ultimate success of their marriage. The other two marriages at the end of the play raise similar doubts. Olivia and Sebastian are married but neither really knows the other. The third marriage, which we only hear about, occurs between Maria and Sir Toby, because Sir Toby is indebted to Maria for writing the letter deluding Malvolio. If comedy is defined by marriage and resulting harmony, the last scene of Twelfth Night might make us question what Shakespeare was trying to convey about marriage. Rather than resolve the unlikely happenings in Illyria, the unlikely is perpetuated with these three questionable marriages. Shakespeare does not provide solutions. He simply raises questions and issues for us to ponder.

Carroll, William C. The Metamorphoses of Shakespearean Comedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985. Directors' Shakespeare: Approaches to Twelfth Night. ed. Michael Billington. London: Nick Hern, 1990. Girard, Rene. "'Tis Not So Sweet as It Was Before': Orsino and Olivia in Twelfth Night." Stanford Literature Review. 1990, Spring-Fall, v7(1-2): 123-132. Howard, Jean E. "Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England." Shakespeare Quarterly. 1988 Winter v39(4): 418-440. Leech, Clifford. Twelfth Night and Shakespearian Comedy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965. Malcolmson, Cristina. "'What You Will': Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night." The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. ed. Valerie Wayne. Ithaca: Cornell University, 1991: 29-57. The Arden Shakespeare: Twelfth Night. Eds. J.M. Lothian and T.W. Craik. London: Routledge, 1991.