Notes on Twelfth Night

English playwright William Shakespeare wrote the Twelfth Night or What You Will during the 1601-1602 winter season. The Twelfth Night was originally written to be performed as a special Christmas play, although its publication had to wait until 1623, when Shakespeare's first compilation of plays was published under the name of The First Folio.

The play's name is thought to have been taken from a medieval festival that later became part of the Christian tradition. The original holiday was linked to the upheaval brought about by the Lord of Misrule, who, as his name suggests, had a penchant for turning roles and situations upside down. This point is essential to understand one of the main characters of the play, cross-dresser Viola, as her transformation into a male can be interpreted as an example of "misrule".

Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: a summary of the plot

The play begins with a shipwreck, in which Viola and her brother Sebastian are involved. Sebastian is nowhere to be found, and as result, Viola assumes that he has died at sea. Captain Antonio rescues Viola, and once ashore she adopts the name of Cesario and begins to work for the Duke of Illyria feigning to be a male. As the play progresses, several unrequited love stories emerge: the Duke of Illyria tries to conquer the affection of Countess Olivia and sends Cesario (Viola) as an intermediary. However, the Duke's strategy does not work as he intended, as Olivia falls in love with the messenger (unaware of the fact that Cesario is actually a female), while at the same time Viola falls for the Duke.

There is also the presence of Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby, who arrives at the Countess' home to help his friend Andrew earn Olivia's love. However, not only he does not achieve his objective, but with the involvement of servant Maria, Olivia ends up with yet another suitor, steward Malvolio.

Things get even more complicated when Viola's brother Sebastian is rescued by captain Antonio. When he enters the Duke's court, Olivia declares her love for him thinking that she is talking to Cesario. Rather taken aback, but nonetheless happy with his luck, Sebastian accepts Olivia's marriage proposal. The play ends with the revelation of Sebastian and Viola's true identities, and with the wedding between Duke Orsino and Viola and between Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby, and servant Maria.

Main Characters

This comedy features eleven characters. The leading roles are twins Viola and Sebastian; Antonio, a friend of the two brothers who is also a ship captain; Orsino, the Duke of the ancient Mediterranean region of Illyria; Countess Olivia, the Duke's love interest; Maria and Malvolio, a couple of servants at Countess Olivia's home; Feste, a clown and entertainer at the Countess household; Sir Toby, Olivia's fun-loving uncle; Sir Andrew, a friend of Sir Toby's; and Fabian, Sir Toby's servant.

Themes and Symbols

As it is the case with other plays written by Shakespeare, there are several themes that underline the main plot of The Twelfth Night. Obviously, love and desire are key subjects in this comedy, as every character seems to be affected by them in one way or another. However, the play is not simply a collection of love stories, since throughout the play Shakespeare highlights the fleeting and foolish nature of romantic love.

The play also deals with the subject of loyalty, as it can be seen from the relationship between Viola and her brother Sebastian, or between Maria and Olivia and Antonio and Sebastian. Despite the numerous love stories that form the bulk of the play, Shakespeare hints at blood or friendship ties as more lasting and genuine than romantic love.

The Twelfth night depicts class differences too, and illustrates how they work to sustain a particular social order. However, the author created characters that were able to trascend social classes as well as gender roles. Perhaps Shakespeare's objective when writing this comedy was to suggest that not all boundaries are as fixed as we believe them to be.

The characters of Viola, Feste, Sir Toby, and Maria are also built around themes of deceptiveness and insincerity. Pranks, several instances of mistaken identities, and intentional deception appear throughout the text, perhaps suggesting that every role we adopt in our interactions with others can be interpreted in more than one way, or that we should not always take things at face value.

Memorable Quotes Taken from the Twelfth Night

"Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage"
"Better a witty fool than a foolish wit"
"Foolery does walk around the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere"
"In Nature there is no blemish but the mind"
"If music be the food of love, play on"
"Love sought is good, but given unsought is better"