The Play’s the Thing: Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, is in love with Olivia, a rich countess whose father and brother have both died recently. Olivia has refused all of the Duke’s advances and devotes herself to grieving. Meanwhile, Viola has just come on shore after surviving a shipwreck. Believing her twin brother, Sebastian has drowned, she decides to disguise herself as a man (more specifically, a eunuch) and serve in Orsino’s court until she figures out what to do. Viola, whose male alter-ego is called Cesario, ends up being Orsino’s favourite and selected for the job of wooing Olivia on Orsino’s behalf. Olivia still refuses the Duke’s advances but falls in love with Cesario instead, much to Viola’s dismay. Of course, Viola has fallen in love with Orsino. Meanwhile, Sebastian arrives in Illyria with Antonio, the pirate who rescued him, and thus begins many cases of Sebastian and Cesario being confused with each other. In the subplot, Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch and several of her servants decide to torture the insufferable Malvolio, one of Olivia’s servants, by convincing him that Olivia is in love with him and then taking him to the point where he appears mad and is locked up. Eventually, Sebastian ends up marrying Olivia, who thinks he’s Cesario. The Duke finally meets Olivia in the street and attempts to woo her at which point she tells him that she married Cesario. Viola is confused and tells Olivia that she didn’t marry him. The priest is brought in as a witness and then Sebastian himself shows up. There’s a lot of double-takes and Sebastian and Viola are overjoyed that the other is still alive. The prank against Malvolio is revealed and he is freed although he vows revenge against Sir Toby Belch and his cronies. Orsino realizes that Viola has been in love with him all along and decides to marry her.
Heroes and Villains: My favourite character in this play is definitely Viola who is perhaps the best incarnation of the Shakespearean trope of women disguising themselves as men. She’s bright and resourceful and deals well with all of the craziness that comes with cross-dressing. The runner-up for this category, is the Clown who is thoroughly entertaining and plays along the border of fool and wise man so deftly.
- Journeys end in lovers’ meeting/ Every wise man’s son doth know. (II.iii)
- a horse of that colour (II.iii)
- Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. (II.v)
- a heart of stone (III.iv)
Speech to Know: Orsino’s first speech that opens the play has a very well-known first line but the whole speech is worth knowing.
“If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die. –
That strain again; – it had a dying fall:
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet south,
that breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing, and giving odour. – Enough; no more;
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou!
that, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soever,
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute! so full of shapes is fancy,
that it alone is high-fantastical.” (I.i)
View from the Pit: Twelfth Night has always been one of my favourite comedies. The gender bending that Shakespeare is so fond of is particularly well done in this play, with Viola doing her best to play the part of a man and largely succeeding, although her reluctance to swordfight is the catalyst that leads to the play’s ultimate resolution. There’s a lot of debate within the play about whether men or women love more strongly, a theme that is fascinating as Orsino argues men love much more than women but is later the one to do an about-face and swiftly go from loving Olivia to loving Viola. While there is always a heavy need for suspension of disbelief that Viola’s male disguise makes her identical to Sebastian, we’re willing to let it go for the sheer joy of the hijinks that ensue while the reader remains in the know throughout. A delightful comedy with some more insightful strands interwoven, mostly from the Clown, this play is definitely one of the better comedies.