By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions
In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare plays with the intersections of love and power. The Countess Olivia is presented to us at the play’s beginning as an independent and powerful woman. The sudden deaths of her father and her brother have left her in charge of her own household and have thereby given her power over such male relatives as Sir Toby Belch. Her status as a wealthy, aristocratic single woman makes her the focus of male attention, and she is especially attractive to Duke (or Count) Orsino, who, as the play begins, is already pursuing her. There also circle about her two other would-be suitors: the pretentious and socially ambitious steward, Malvolio, a man whose ambitions make him vulnerable to manipulation by members of Olivia’s household; and the weak and foolish Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who is altogether ignored by Olivia but whose delusions of possible marriage to her make him an easy victim of the flattering and swindling Sir Toby.
Onto this scene arrive the well-born twins Viola and Sebastian, and the love of power gives way to the power of love. The twins have been shipwrecked; each thinks the other is drowned; both are destitute. Without protection, Viola chooses to disguise herself as a page, call herself Cesario, and enter into the service of Orsino. In her role as the young Cesario, such is her beauty and her command of language that she immediately wins Orsino’s complete trust; he enlists her as his envoy to his beloved Olivia—only to have Olivia fall desperately in love with the beautiful young messenger. Sebastian, too, although without either power or wealth, is similarly irresistible. Antonio, for example, not only saves him from death in the sea but also risks his own life to remain in Sebastian’s company.
As is usual in comedy, the play complicates these tangled relationships before it finally and wonderfully untangles them. The title of the play suggests that there is a certain urgency to the need for this disentangling. “Twelfth Night” is the twelfth night after Christmas, the last night of what used to be the extended period of celebration of the Christmas season. Thus it marks the boundary between the time for games and disguisings and the business of the workaday world. The second part of the title, “What You Will,” suggests that this play gives us a world that we would all choose (or “will”) to enjoy, if we but could.
After you have read the play, we invite you to turn to “Twelfth Night: A Modern Perspective,” written by Professor Catherine Belsey of Cardiff University.