Twelfth Night, or What You Will is a comedy by William Shakespeare.
The play is named after the Twelfth Night holiday. It was written to be performed as part of Twelfth Night celebrations and first performed at Candlemas, February 2, which was then the culmination of the long winter feast at Middle Temple Hall, London by Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The presumed time of the play's composition is between 1599 and late 1601.
The setting of Twelfth Night is especially important to the play's romantic atmosphere. "Illyria" refers to a place on the east coast of the Adriatic Ocean (between what is now Greece and Albania), but in Shakespeare's time the name may not have suggested a real country. Illyria may have been as fantastical a place as Camelot. Like so many of Shakespeare's comedies, this one centres on mistaken identity. The leading character, Viola, is shipwrecked in the shores of Illyria (today Albania) during the opening scenes. She loses contact with her twin brother, Sebastian, whom she believes dead. Masquerading as a young page under the name Cesario, she enters the service of Duke Orsino. Orsino is in love with the bereaved Lady Olivia, and unsuccessfully uses Viola as an intermediary. The latter thenceforth poses as a male.
Olivia, believing Viola to be male, falls in love with her. Viola, in turn, falls in love with the Duke, who believes that Viola is male. When Sebastian arrives on the scene, confusion ensues. Mistaking Sebastian for Viola, Olivia asks him to marry her. The play ends in a declaration of marriage between the Duke and Viola, Toby and Maria, and Olivia and Sebastian, though the marriage is never actually seen.
Much of the play is taken up with the comic subplot, in which several characters conspire to make Olivia's pompous head steward Malvolio believe that the lady Olivia wishes to marry him. It involves Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch; her would-be suitor, a silly squire named Sir Andrew Aguecheek; her servants Maria and Fabian; and her father's favorite fool, Feste. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew disturb the peace of their lady's house by keeping late hours and perpetually singing catches at the very top of their voices.
The company convinces Malvolio that Olivia is secretly in love with him, and writes a letter in Olivia's hand, asking Malvolio to wear yellow stockings cross-gartered, be rude to the rest of the servants, and to smile under all circumstances. Olivia, saddened by Viola's attitude to her, asks for her chief steward, and is shocked by a Malvolio who has seemingly lost his mind. She leaves him to the contrivances of the group above.
In fact, many characters in Twelfth Night assume disguises, such as Viola, Malvolio and Feste. Shakespeare uses it to raise questions about human identity and whether such classifications as gender and class status are fixed entities or can be altered with a simple shift of clothes. Although this is one of Shakespeare's most popular and funniest comedies, it has a dark side, as the behaviour of Sir Toby and Feste towards Malvolio becomes increasingly cruel towards the end. Malvolio is locked in a dungeon for alleged madness and forced to swear his submission to the heretical doctrines of Pythagoras. Malvolio departs in a bad humor, vowing revenge "on the whole pack of you." Orsino dispatches several servants to attempt to placate him.
Twelfth Night in film and television
There have been a number of notable film adaptions of the play.
In 1910, Vitagraph Studios released the silent short adaptation Twelfth Night starring actors Florence Turner, Julia Swayne Gordon and Marin Sais.
On May 14, 1937, the BBC Television Service in London broadcast a thirty-minute excerpt of the play, the first known instance of a work of Shakespeare being performed on television. Produced for the new medium by George More O'Ferrall, the production is also notable for having featured a young actress who would later go on to win an Academy Award – Greer Garson. As the performance was transmitted live from the BBC's studios at Alexandra Palace and the technology to record television programmes did not at the time exist, no visual record survives other than still photographs.
The entire play was produced for television in 1939, directed by Michel Saint-Denis and starring another future oscar-winner, Peggy Ashcroft. The part of Sir Toby Belch was taken by a young George Devine.
The 1996 film adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn, is set in the 19th century, stars Imogen Stubbs as Viola, Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia, and features Mel Smith as Sir Toby, Richard E. Grant as Sir Andrew and Ben Kingsley as Feste.
A 2003 telemovie adapted and directed by Tim Supple is set in the present day. It features David Troughton as Sir Toby, and is notable for its multi-ethnic cast including Parminder Nagra as Viola. Its portrayal of Viola and Sebastian's arrival in Illyria is reminiscent of news footage of asylum seekers.
The 2006 film She's the Man modernises the story as a contemporary teenage comedy (as 10 Things I Hate about You does to The Taming of the Shrew and O does to Othello). It is set in a prep school named Illyria and incorporates the names of the play's major characters (for example, "Duke Orsino" becomes simply "Duke" and his last name is Orsino.) The pizza place in it is named "Cesario's" and there are many references in the movie to minor characters in Twelfth Night, such as Sir Toby, Feste, Valentine, and Malvolio.
The climax of the film Shakespeare in Love dramatises a fictional inspiration for Twelfth Night.
The film V for Vendetta contains significant references to the play, including the fact that the female lead, Evey (Natalie Portman), played the role of Viola.
The play on the stage
When the play was first performed, all female parts were played by men or boys, but it has been the practice for some centuries now to cast women or girls in the female parts in all plays. The company of Shakespeare's Globe, London, has produced many notable, highly popular all-male performances, and a highlight of their 2002 season was Twelfth Night, with the Globe's artistic director Mark Rylance playing the part of Olivia. This season was preceded, in February, by a performance of the play by the same company at Middle Temple Hall, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the play's premiere, at the same venue.