Musings on Twelfth Night, or What You Will


An engraving by R. Staines depicting Malvolio courting Olivia and Maria covers her face.  A scene from "Twelfth Night or What You Will".

An engraving by R. Staines depicting Malvolio courting Olivia and Maria covers her face. A scene from “Twelfth Night or What You Will”.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will is one of the many comedies attributed to William Shakespeare and is the only one of the plays attributed to him that bears an alternate title.  The comedy functions in much the same fashion as other comedies attributed to Shakespeare; cross-dressing and multiple weddings abound.  It is like a cross between Comedy Of Errors and As You Like It.  The narrative is n keeping with the style of many of Shakespeare’s comedies and tells the story of twin siblings, a young woman named Viola and a young man named Sebastian, who each presumes the other to be dead after their ship is destroyed at sea.  After being rescued by different parties, some months later they find themselves in the same city. Viola is dressed as a boy and has been hired as a servant to Orsino, while Sebastian works under a captain named Antonio. Antonio is in love with Sebastian, much as the Antonio, the character from Merchant Of Venice loves his friend Bassanio.  Viola falls in love with Orsino, who is pursuing Olivia, who herself falls in love with Viola (who is disguised as a young man) and Shakespeare’s famous brand of comedy ensues and marriages will abound, and as with As You Like It, Shakespeare takes ‘the more the merrier’ approach.  Of course, Twelfth Night or What You Will comes up one wedding short of matching the ceremonies in As You Like It.  Though it has clichéd elements, the play is not without its merits, and live performances are always worth seeing as actors bring a life to the words that simple is not present on the page.


William Shakespeare, the man accredited as the author of "Twelfth Night, or What You Will".

William Shakespeare, the man accredited as the author of “Twelfth Night, or What You Will”.

One of the more interesting aspects of the work is the title.  It is the only play among those attributed to Shakespeare to have an alternate title, which seems to beg for examination.  Many assume that the first title is a reference to the Feast of the Epiphany, which is a Christmas celebration.  Consequently, some speculate that the play was written for the celebration, though it is devoid of any reference to the Feast of the Epiphany.  This does seem to fit to a degree as the festival itself was characterized by an inversion of moral codes, featuring heavy drinking, and eating.  It was like an Elizabethan version of Mardi Gras.  Though the actual celebration is absent from the play, its practices are pervasive.  Sir Toby, for example, is a heavy drinker encouraged by his friends, who rails against Malvolio as he adopts a more conservative view on drinking. Viola also turns socially assigned gender roles on their head by adopting the persona of a young man, further challenging the traditional moral code.  Further allusions of the feast can be found in the name of the play’s clown, who Shakespeare named Feste, which is phonetically similar to feast.  This, then, may be an allusion to the Feast of the Epiphany.  It is like an early example of the carnivalesque, or rather, proto-carnivalesque, which has been defined as a work that “subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos.”  This play certainly fits the bill.



Imogen Stubb (left) and Helena Bonham Carter as Viola and Olivia respectively in the 1996 film adaptation of "Twelfth Night or What You Will".

Imogen Stubb (left) and Helena Bonham Carter as Viola and Olivia respectively in the 1996 film adaptation of “Twelfth Night or What You Will”.

The other half of the title is equally interesting.  “What you will” could be a play on the author’s name (Will being short for William), or more likely it could be read as a cast off, suggesting the play can be called whatever you might like to call it.  This title encourages the audience to acknowledge the fact that it is a contrived work of fiction, which is consistent with a metatheatrical tool. This seems a reasonable reading given that there are several instances of metatheatrics in the play.  Olivia, for instance, asks Viola (who is in disguise as Cesario) if she is a “comedian”, a term that was interchangeable with actor in that  era (it referred to actors who played in comedies), to which Viola replies “I am not what I play.”  This works in the narrative, but also in the context of a metatheatrical tool, signalling to the audience that this is a play.  Malvolio notes after one scene that “If this were play’d upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction”, calling the audience’s attention to the improbability of the narrative and encouraging them to realize that the play, and perhaps the gender roles there within, are not authentic, but rather a performance.   Considering these aspects of the play, along with the title, it seems that the playwright responsible for the work was quite conscious of the metatheatrical aspects of the play and drew them out in the title.


Helena Bonham Carter who played Olivia in the 1996 film adaptation of "Twelfth Night or What You Will".

Helena Bonham Carter who played Olivia in the 1996 film adaptation of “Twelfth Night or What You Will”.

This challenging of gender roles through metatheatrics invites a feminist reading as well.  Since Viola disguises herself as a man and manages to demonstrate many characteristics of a man, the play suggests that socially assigned gender roles are capable of being performed by either sex.  Writing poetry, for example, was something assumed to belong exclusively to the masculine realm in the era.  When Orsino, for instance, wishes to express his love for Olivia through poetry, he gives the task of actual writing to Viola who is more than equal to fulfilling the request.  Olivia, for her part, takes on the ‘masculine’ role of suitor, as she falls in love with Viola (who is disguised as a young man named Cesario) and pursues her/him.  When she meets Sebastian, whom she assumes is Cesario, she proposes to him, a task that was supposed to be performed by the man.  Olivia also has great fortune and personal property, rare for a woman of the era.  Olivia’s unconscious falling in love with a female form demonstrates that love for women is no lower than love for men, in stark contrast to what was commonly believed at the time as homosocial relationships between men were valued about romantics relationships between men and women, as demonstrated in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  This presents the female form on equal terms with the male form.  There is also a queer theory reading here. Olivia falling in love with Viola, as well as Orsino marrying Viola, who had been disguised as a boy, suggests homosexual attraction to be natural and normative behaviour.  Orsino even opts to call Viola Cesario even after he discovers that she is a woman and alludes to the fact that he will call her such when she is dressed as a boy.  Antonio’s affection for Sebastian can be read in much the same fashion, and, like with Antonio of Merchant of Venice, can be interpreted as a romantic love.



The most sympathetic characters of the play seem to be Antonio and Malvolio.  Though self-righteous, Malvolio does seem to be well-mannered and well-intentioned, and to have Olivia’s interests at heart.  Sir Toby and company though, who are far more self-serving than Malvolio, abuse him greatly, forging a letter to make him believe that Olivia is in love with him and then professing that he is crazy and locking him up.  When their plot comes out during the play’s climax, Malvolio is made a fool. He exits, but not before saying that he will “be revenged on the whole pack” of conspirators.  His affections for his mistress seem sincere, and the apex of the play is more problematic because Sir Toby has been gifted with a bride while Malvolio, the man he wronged, exits alone.   There is of course his name.  Olivia and Viola share similar names, and Malvolio’s name is similar as well, but with a “mal” being added at the front, which of course is a Latin prefix meaning “bad” or “ill” or “wrongful” (We see this in words like “malicious”, or “malware”, or “malevolent”).  So we get the impression that Malvolio is a corrupt version of Viola or Olivia, but it is hard not to sympathize with him.   Antonio, who makes every effort to assist Sebastian, seems like a kind and relatable character.  However, as with Malvolio, there is nothing in the climax of the play to offer Antonio.  His love is unrequited and he is alone when the curtain closes.  Shakespeare’s construction of Antonio and Malvolio has something wanting, especially in the context of the fact that less ethical characters receive rewards.  It almost seems as though there is an entire act missing from the play.


Because the work lends itself to feminist readings, queer theory readings, and carnivalesque readings, it can be examined critically from many points of view.  That makes it an intriguing read, even though as a narrative it may seem uninspired and not entirely original.  The likable and entertaining characters, like Viola and Olivia, allow the reader to enjoy the comedic elements of the narrative, while the more annoying Sir Toby seems undeservedly rewarded while Malvolio seems a victim of Elizabethan bullying.  The metatheatrics certainly serve to enhance the work, and though the words on the page don’t inspire laughter when read, the humour in them comes alive during live performances.


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Great lines:

“there is not darkness but ignorance”.

“Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage.”

“The more fool, Madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven.”

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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