The complex plot – full of mistaken identities, misdirected passions, high comedy, low tricks, andunexpected poignancy – begins as a ship, carrying the identical twins Viola and Sebastian is wreckedoff the coast of a fictional country, Illyria. Viola is washed ashore on this alien coast and becomesconvinced that her beloved brother is dead. She learns that she is near the home of Olivia, a youngcountess who is also in mourning, for her recently dead father and brother. Accordingly, Olivia hassworn to have no contact with men for seven years, and in particular she is rejecting the amorousadvances of the young Duke OrsinoDesperate to know how to survive, and to keep the spirit of her twin brother alive, Viola decides todisguise herself as a boy. She transforms herself into Cesario, enters into the service of Orsinoand is soon sent to woo Olivia on the Duke’s behalf. Olivia remains unmoved by Orsino’s attentionsbut finds herself instead attracted to young Cesario, who in turn begins to fall in love with Orsino.
As Viola says, My master loves her dearly; And I, poor monster, fond as much on him. And she,mistaken, seems to dote on me. When Viola’s twin Sebastian suddenly emerges, alive and well, thistriangle is complicated almost to a breaking point.
While Orsino, Viola, Olivia, and Sebastian are preoccupied with their romantic destinies, Olivia’shousehold is equally occupied with a power struggle between the ill-tempered, repressive steward,Malvolio, and her boisterous and bibulous uncle, Sir Toby Belch, accompanied by his vacuous, misfitfriend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Olivia’s maid, Maria. For his own financial ends, Sir Tobyencourages Sir Andrew to woo Olivia, while plotting Malvolio’s humiliation. Throughout, Feste, themost enigmatic of entertainers, comes and goes between the two households, sparing no one hemeets his barbed insights and his wit.
Written in 1600 or 1601, this play is Shakespeare’s last romantic comedy. The comedies whichfolloware much darker. Twelfth Night embodies many of the themes from his earlier comedies. Forinstance, he employed the device of having a woman fall in love with another woman disguised as aman. In some ways, Twelfth Night can be termed Shakespeare’s apology to Phebe.
Whereas Rosalind dominates As You Like it, we have many centers of interest in Twelfth Night.
Orsino continues the theme of overly idealistic love we have seen in Orlando. The setting has adifferent feeling from Merchant of Venice and As You Like It–two plays in which Shakespeareclearly contrasts the world of reality with some more tranquil environment. Instead (rather like thesingle setting of Much Ado About Nothing), we see in Twelfth Night the twin centers of power–theestate of Orsino and the estate of Olivia. Illyria itself is a very different place from the Forest ofArden, and before the play began, Antonio has been in battle against the forces of Orsino.
The interpretation of Malvolio will be crucial to your overall response to the play. I would observethat his appearance cross-gartered with yellow stockings almost inevitably delights audiences. Buthow much sympathy do you give to Malvolio? Unlike Jaques and Duke Frederick, he is an unwillingscapegoat. I propose that the older the actor playing Malvolio, the more seriously and tragically theaudience will take him.
One must also consider the similarities and differences between two other sorts of characters fromAs You Like It: Viola vs. Rosalind and Feste vs. Touchstone.