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ClassicsOnline Home » SHAKESPEARE, W.: Twelfth Night (Unabridged)
Twelfth Night, first performed around 1600, probably at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, is the tale of separated brother and sister twins—Sebastian and Viola—and their love entanglements. It also offers the rich comic colours of Sir Toby Belch, Malvolio and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Twelfth Night is part of Naxos AudioBooks’ exciting new series of complete dramatisations of the works of Shakespeare, in conjunction with Cambridge University Press. It uses the New Cambridge Shakespeare text, as used by the Royal Shakespeare Company and educational institutions across the world.
or What You Will
Twelfth Night, nowadays one of Shakespeare’s best-loved and
most-admired comedies, was not always so regarded: Samuel Pepys saw the play
three times in the 1660s and judged it ‘silly’. Modern audiences, critics and
directors seem better attuned to its delicate counter pointing of romance and
realism, to its ambivalent ending and to the poetic suggestiveness of Feste’s
The Date and Sources Leslie Hotson’s attractive theory that
the play was specifically composed for the visit to court of Don Virginio
Orsino on January 6, 1601, has now been rebutted: Elizabeth Story Donno (New
Cambridge Shakespeare) suggests that Shakespeare wrote his comedy ‘sometime
after the visit of the duke in January 1601, and that the mood Shakespeare
established in the play prompted him to recall both the name of the visitor and
the time of his visit’. Twelfth Night is nevertheless undoubtedly
festive—almost anarchic at times—in spirit, and thus suits its title’s
suggestion of the celebrations marking the last night of the Christmas season.
The alternative title —‘What You Will’—also implies a mood of careless
mischief, even misrule. The season Shakespeare actually intends for the setting
of his play is in fact early summer—‘more matter for a May morning’—which is
appropriate for the prevailing atmosphere of youthful excitement and passion.
Shakespeare’s immediate source for Twelfth Night was
probably ‘Apolonius and Silla’ in Barnaby Riche’s Farewell to Military
Profession, first published in 1581 and itself based on the Italian play
Gl’Inganni (1562). Here the themes of disguise, deception and cross-wooing all
appear. Shakespeare softens some of the more outrageous or shocking elements,
but is perhaps at one with Riche’s claim that his tale is ‘forged onely for
delight, neither credible to be believed, nor hurtful to be perused’.
Synopsis of the Play
Act 1, Scene 1: Orsino, Duke of Illyria, is sick with
unrequited love for the beautiful Olivia who is in mourning for her father and
brother and has vowed to veil her face, nun-like, for seven years. Scene 2:
Viola, shipwrecked in a hostile country and fearing that she has lost her
identical twin brother Sebastian in the storm, is helped by the kindly Captain
and decides to enter the Duke’s service disguised as a page. Scene 3: Sir Toby
Belch, disreputable uncle of Olivia and staying in her house with his foolish
friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, is warned by the serving-gentlewoman Maria to
moderate his behavior. Sir Andrew, it seems, intends to court Olivia. Scene 4:
Viola, calling herself Cesario and already a favorite with the Duke, is asked
to woo the unyielding Olivia on his behalf. Scene 5: Feste, the Clown (or
Fool), has reappeared in Olivia’s household in spite of the disapproval of
Malvolio, Olivia’s pompous steward. Viola (Cesario) talks her way into the
presence of Olivia, who almost immediately falls hopelessly in love with the
Act 2, Scene 1: Sebastian, followed by the faithful Antonio,
mourns the loss of his sister and resolves to go to Orsino’s court. Scene 2:
Malvolio delivers a ring to Viola, supposedly dropped by her. Scene 3: in a
vain attempt to restrain their behavior, Malvolio interrupts Sir Toby, Sir
Andrew and Feste, noisily drinking and singing late at night. Affronted, they
seize on a plan of Maria’s to humiliate Malvolio by convincing him through a
forged letter that Olivia is in love with him. Scene 4: Viola and Orsino
exchange intimate reflections on love; Viola must painfully suppress her own
growing infatuation with the duke. Scene 5: Malvolio, walking in the garden,
discovers the forged letter, is convinced by it, and decides to follow its
instructions: he will ‘be strange, stout, in yellow stockings, and
cross-gartered…’ he ‘will smile’.
Act 3, Scene 1: Viola, paying her second visit on the Duke’s
behalf, is forced to reject an outright declaration of love by Olivia. Scene 2:
Sir Andrew, jealous of Viola’s effect on Olivia, is incited by Sir Toby to
challenge the page to a duel. Scene 3: Antonio has followed Sebastian to the
town in spite of the danger to himself: the Illyrians want him for grievous
damage inflicted on them in a sea-fight. Scene 4: Malvolio appears before his
lady, grotesquely obeying the injunctions in the letter. Olivia judges him mad,
and his enemies take advantage of this to have him effectively imprisoned.
Mischievously provoked by Sir Toby, the two equally reluctant and incompetent
duelists (Aguecheek and Viola) are forced to draw their swords but are
prevented from fighting by the sudden appearance of Antonio, who imagines that
he is saving Sebastian’s life. A baffled Viola prompts his bitter resentment by
saying (truly) that she does not know him as he is arrested and carried off by
Act 4, Scene 1: An enraged Sir Andrew who, striking
Sebastian in error for Viola/Cesario, is soundly beaten, interrupts Sebastian
and Feste. Further brawling is prevented by the arrival of Olivia who, seeing
Sebastian and likewise mistaking him for Cesario, leaves with him. Scene 2:
Feste, disguised as a priest, torments Malvolio in prison but finally agrees to
provide him with pen and paper so that he may write to Olivia. Scene 3:
Sebastian is readily persuaded by Olivia (who mistakes him for Cesario) to
enter with her into a ceremony of betrothal.
Act 5, Scene 1: All are now present at Olivia’s house and
the disguises begin to unravel: Antonio, pointing out Viola as the ‘most
ungrateful boy’ he has been accompanying for the last three months, prompts the
discovery of true identity, but not before both the Duke and the Countess
Olivia have been briefly enraged by the apparent perfidy of their followers.
Orsino then belatedly realizes what has been hinted to the audience
before—namely, that he in fact loves Viola/Cesario rather than Olivia. All
appears to end happily, if we discount the rejected Sir Andrew—even Sir Toby
and Maria are now married—but the celebrations are marred by the furious
departure of Malvolio who, now released, cannot forgive his tormentors and vows
‘to be revenged on the whole pack of [them]’.
The play revolves—humorously, affectionately, and at times
painfully —around the follies of youth as it pursues love and happiness in a
world, which is half-fantasy, half-real. Disguise and deception may
paradoxically lead to truth, as in the infatuated Orsino’s eventual discovery
that he really loves Viola/Cesario, not Olivia, but they are equally capable of
producing pain and humiliation: Malvolio, ‘sick of self-love’, is tricked by
his own vanity into believing that his lady is besotted with him, and must
suffer for this foolish presumption. Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the butt of
everyone’s humor, was ‘adored once’; and what are we to make of the enigmatic,
melancholic Feste? Some directors like to develop the faint hints that he
nurses a hopeless passion for Olivia (who certainly seems dependent on him),
and his songs lend a distinctively plangent note to the play, with their stress
on transience and death—‘youth’s a stuff will not endure’ … ‘for the rain it
raineth every day’. His often sardonic, reductive commentary on the behavior of
those around him is, however, challenged by Viola, who seems to promise a
maturity and constancy not found in others—her poignant evocation of one who
‘never told her love’ and ‘sat like Patience on a monument / Smiling at grief’
counters the flightiness and self-indulgence around her. Yet we should beware
of making something too serious and solemn out of this most captivating
play—for all its darker hints and sharp mockery of folly, the prevailing
impression is surely positive: the puritanical world of Malvolio, where there
‘shall be no more cakes and ale’, is rejected, as is the distorted world of the
infatuated lover Orsino who, at the start of the play, has not yet learned to
understand his own heart, and would prefer to cultivate his emotional
suffering—‘give me excess of it’.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
Twelfth Night as a Microcosm
of Elizabethan England
Although the play takes place in the fantastical world of
Illyria, it seems to be rooted in late Elizabethan England; and it is not too
far fetched to believe Shakespeare is examining and satirically portraying the
state of the nation c.1600. We are shown in Olivia a critical portrait of
Elizabeth I, a single lady, mistress of her house, though not of her emotions,
rejecting all suitors. Orsino’s obsessive ardor for Olivia puts in mind the
headstrong Earl of Essex, whose unsuccessful and fatal rebellion, an attempt to
upset the balance of the realm, in 1601, was a recent memory. Shakespeare seems
to be implying that power without responsibility leads to
anarchy: the kind of misrule exemplified by Sir Toby and his followers, who
live only for pleasure. By this time Elizabeth I was in her 60s, and an
elaborate fantasy was being played out at court where poets glorified her as Gloriana
the Virgin Queen, whilst she hid the ravages of time behind inches of make-up.
A Court so out of touch with reality leaves the way open for a new class to
take up the reins of authority. Malvolio represents the worst aspects of the
emerging middle-class, materialistic, ambitious, philistine, a figure of fun in
the early 1600s, but Shakespeare in creating this ‘kind of a Puritan’ who will
be ‘revenged on the whole pack of [them]’ seems to have a foreboding of the
Civil War of the 1640s when the old order and the new fought it out for
The Cast of Twelfth Night
Curio/Second Officer Daniel
Sir Toby Belch Gerard
Sir Andrew Aguecheek Malcolm
Stage Management Alison
Scribe Beth Hammond
Recorded at Motivation Sound Studios, London
JONATHAN KEEBLE’s (Orsino) theater appearances include
leading roles at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, Coventry, Liverpool, Exeter,
Lancaster and West Yorkshire Playhouse. Television includes People Like Us, The
Two Of Us and Deptford Grafitti. Jonathan has featured in over 250 radio plays
for the BBC and was a member of the Radio Drama Company.
NICK FLETCHER (Valentine) began his career in Henry V and A
Chaste Maid in Cheapside at Shakespeare’s Globe. Other theater work includes A
Difficult Age for English Touring Theatre, seven plays at the Orange Tree in
the’98/’99 company and Silence at the Birmingham Rep. Also, After the War for
DANIEL PHILPOTT (Curio/Second Officer) trained at LAMDA and,
after success in the prestigious Carleton Hobbs Award for Radio Drama, has been
prolific in BBC Radio and the Spoken Word industry. His theater work includes
numerous productions on the London fringe.
LUCY WHYBROW (Olivia) credits include Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia
and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Company. She won the
Ian Charleson Award in 1996 for her role in Katie Mitchell’s Easter. For
Carnival Films she played Lucy Deane in The Mill on The Floss. For radio she
has recorded Dombey and Son and Alice in Wonderland.
GERARD MURPHY (Sir Toby Belch) is an associate artist of the
Royal Shakespeare Company where he has worked extensively as an actor and
director. He has performed in many theaters throughout Great Britain, in the
West End, on television, in films and on the radio.
CHRISTOPHER GODWIN (Malvolio) worked extensively for Alan
Ayckbourn in the 70s. At the Royal Shakespeare Company he played in The
Relapse, The Devil is an Ass and Woyzeck. Plays in the West End include Hay
Fever, Noises Off, School for Scandal, What A Performance and two seasons at
the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park (including the role of Malvolio).
DAVID TIMSON (Feste) has performed in modern and classic
plays across the UK and abroad, including Wild Honey for Alan Ayckbourn,
Hamlet, The Man of Mode, and The Seagull. He has been seen on television in
Nelson’s Column and Swallows and Amazons, and in the film The Russia House.
JANE WHITTENSHAW (Maria) trained at Guildhall. She has
worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company touring the USA in The Life And
Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and has also worked extensively in radio drama
for the BBC. Her television credits include Eastenders, Silent Witness, Peak
Practice and Kiss Me Kate.
BRIAN PARR (Fabian) trained at RADA and has since played
many parts including seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company as mostly
killers and clowns, Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Launcelot Gobbo in The
Merchant of Venice. He has also worked for the BBC Radio Drama Company. TV
credits include Eskimo Day, Midsomer Murders, and Summer in the Suburbs. In
addition, he writes and directs pantomimes.
STELLA GONET’s (Viola) series of key roles have placed her
in the forefront of young British actresses. These included Titania and
Isabella for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Roxanne in Cyrano de Bergerac and
Ophelia in Hamlet at the National Theatre.
BENJAMIN SOAMES (Sebastian) trained at LAMDA. He has
appeared in the television series Sharpe and Absolutely Fabulous as well as the
films Heavy Weather and England, My England. He toured worldwide in the
acclaimed Cheek By Jowl production of Measure For Measure.
MALCOLM SINCLAIR (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) has worked
extensively for the National (Racing Demon, Richard III). His most recent
London appearances include Hay Fever (Savoy), Uncle Vanya (Young Vic/Royal
Shakespeare Company), Heartbreak House (Almeida), and the title role in By
Jeeves (Duke of York). On television he was in four series of Pie In The Sky.
He has narrated Schoenberg’s A Survivor In Warsaw for the Boston Symphony and
the LPO, and Bliss’s Morning Heroes for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
ADAM KOTZ (Antonio) has worked extensively in leading roles
with, in particular, The Royal National Theatre and Cheek by Jowl Theatre
Company. Plays include Racing Demon, Measure for Measure, and A Family Affair.
Television and film work includes Band of Gold, Touching Evil and
Shot Through The Heart.
PETER YAPP (Servant/Captain/Priest) has appeared in plays
and theaters across Britain and in the West End including Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern are Dead at the Piccadilly, and The Black Prince at the Aldwych,
and spent a year with the BBC Radio Drama Company. His television credits
of Elliot, Martin Chuzzlewit and Poirot.
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SHAKESPEARE, W.: Twelfth Night (Unabridged)