Twelfth Night | 2012, 2005
About the Play by John Dunlap
Composed about 1600, between As You Like It and Hamlet, when Shakespeare was approaching the summit of his poetic genius, Twelfth Night is among the most dazzling of the Bard’s seventeen comedies. The title suggests the festive mood of the play, an allusion to the evening before the twelfth day of Christmas, the Epiphany, when the Elizabethan celebration of the season reached its peak.
The exotic setting is Illyria, across from Italy along the east coast of the Adriatic, where Duke Orsino rules. The Duke has fallen in love with the wealthy countess Olivia–who, grief-stricken recently by the death of her father and brother, has determined to live in seclusion for seven years. The play opens with Orsino in his palace, reflecting dolefully on his unrequited love.
Into this world enters the well-born and resourceful maiden Viola, shipwrecked in a storm off the coast of Illyria. Believing she has lost Sebastian, her twin brother, to the storm, Viola is consoled somewhat by the ship’s captain, who tells her he had seen Sebastian strap himself to a mast and float away from the wreckage.
Viola also learns of the love-sick Duke Orsino, to whom the captain will introduce her, with Viola disguised as a young man named Cesario. Viola/Cesario soon becomes the Duke’s trusted page, and, at the Duke’s urging, agrees to intercede with Olivia on his behalf. The plot thickens very quickly when (1) Viola/Cesario realizes she has fallen in love with Duke Orsino and (2) the aloof Lady Olivia falls in love with Cesario/Viola when the latter is serving as the Duke’s charming and well-spoken intermediary. Early in the second act, Viola has already concluded that the entanglement is “too hard a knot for me t’untie.” And we are vaguely aware that any unraveling awaits the entry of Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian.
Meanwhile, in a subplot knottier still, we see that the sprawling household inherited by Lady Olivia is cluttered with characters eloquent of old money and high spirits: the Lady’s clever and mischievous attendant, Maria, Olivia’s dissolute hanger-on uncle, Sir Toby Belch, along with his simpleminded boon companion, Sir Andrew Aguecheek; the Lady’s shrewd gentleman-servant, Fabian, and her wisely clownish jester, Feste–all of them in counterpoint to Olivia’s fustian chief steward, Malvolio, whose prim humorlessness threatens their easy existence and whose own clownishness is all the more piquant for being inadvertent.
Although not necessarily set at the exact time of year suggested by the title, Twelfth Night evokes the tension one feels in moments of celebration—a touch of quiet melancholy beneath what Orsino calls “these most brisk and giddy-paced times.”