Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night

In my 2020 quest to read (and better understand) the complete works of Shakespeare, (Shakespeare 2020 Project) I just finished reading, and discussing Twelfth Night. Here, mostly for myself, is a summary much of which was written before I watched the GlobePlayer video with Mark Rylance as Olivia … more on that later, but watching it strengthened my opinion that Shakespeare should be seen and not read!

Written by the Bard sometime between the death of his 11 year old son Hamnet, (twin to sister Judith) in 1596 and the play’s first performance in 1601, this is a play about twins, Viola and Sebastian who, separated by a shipwreck, each believe the other is dead. I had hoped to find some allegory that related to losing a son, or the death of a twin sibling, but the group’s consensus was that wasn’t the case.

There are a triangle of love stories taking place between some citizens of Illyria, where the shipwreck takes place, and then between some of those citizens and the newly shipwrecked. The falling in love parts seem to be rushed, and superficial. At the heart of this play though, are two women each dealing with the death (real or assumed) of their brothers… each handling that differently, but each choosing to give up their own identity in different ways. Olivia, a lady of Illyria, vowing to outwardly mourn her definitely dead brother for seven years, and Viola, newly shipwrecked, dressing as a man, and looking for all the world just like her thought-to-be-dead twin, throwing herself into her new role as male advisor to Count Orsino.

In simply putting on men’s clothes, Viola becomes Cesario, but falls in love immediately with her boss, Count Orsino, who sends her/him to plead his case with Olivia who he thinks he’s in love with, but who won’t have anything to do with him because she’s committed to mourning. When Olivia meets Cesario/Viola she immediately falls in love with him and starts to regret her seven years of mourning goal. During the course of their conversations, Viola and Olivia (see the similarities in their names?) both let down their masks/veils/identities a little bit and maybe realize that they are trying to fill a void in their lives left by their dead (or thought to be dead) brothers. That’s about as close as this play gets to delving into the dead twin issue.

There is a subplot involving some comedic characters; an overly serious dude named Malvolio (which literally translates to bad intent), Sir Toby Belch (Toby is British slang for bottom), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (his last name means ague=violent fever), and Feste (the French form of fest, or party) the fool.  At first, I didn’t think they added much to advancing the plot… (before I watched the video).

Viola’s twin, Sebastian, who is not dead, shows up in a comedic case of mistaken identity involving a sword fight with some of the other characters. There’s an elaborate joke played on Malvolio that involves yellow stockings and crossed garters (the meaning of which is sadly lost in the mists of time). Olivia runs into Sebastian, mistakes him for Cesario, and convinces him to marry her on the spot. There are a few instances of mistaken identity before Cesario is revealed to be Viola and then she, already in love with Orsino is free to marry him. He then is free to give up his fruitless quest for Olivia, and act upon or justify his homoerotic feelings for Cesario, who is now Viola.

I don’t see really what the title has to do with the religious celebration of 12th Night, even the subtitle What You Will, is not clear. This feels like a sitcom that has run out of time and must end happily. The mourning of the dead brothers ends, people marry without even knowing anything about the other. And, apparently everyone lives happily ever after. Except Malvolio who vows revenge because of the whole yellow stockings/crossed garters scenario.

…then I watched the video.


In 2014 the Globe put on a version of the play with an all-male cast, just as it would have been done back in Shakespeare’s day. Mark Rylance is hilariously exquisite as Lady Olivia. He absolutely OWNS the huge, black, hooped-skirt dress he wears throughout, gliding across the stage as if he is on wheels. His expressive face is even more eloquent made up like a ghostly Lucille Ball. The maid Maria, who I didn’t even mention in my summary, was absolutely hilarious and carried much of the subplot. So, for the next play we read, Henry VI, Part 1 – I’m going to read, and join in the discussions and write a summary… but then I’m going to find a Globe Player video and see what I missed!

Add Your Comment

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.