Twelfth Night; or, What You Will

Definition

Theater

  • Shakespeare's last romantic comedy, often regarded as his finestwork in the genre. It was written in about 1600, probably for Twelfth Nightfestivities, and is known to have been acted in 1602 in London. The playhas been consistently popular. Granville-barker produced the comedy in 1895on a reconstructed Elizabethan stage and then in 1912 in black-and-white atthe Savoy Theatre. Productions of the play opened the Sadler's Wells Theatrein 1931 and the Regent Park's Open Air Theatre in 1933. Modern players inTwelfth Night have ranged from Peggy Ashcroft (1950) to the comedianKen Dodd (1971) and Mark Rylance (2002), who made a notably attractive Olivia.In 1968 it was adapted as the rock musical Your Own Thing.

    The main story, which derives ultimately from an Italian play calledGl'ingannati (1531), involves the twins, Viola and Sebastian,who are separated by a storm at sea. Viola disguises herself as a boy, andbecomes page to Orsino, Duke of Illyria, with whom she falls in love. Theduke loves Olivia, but she becomes enamoured of the disguised Viola. Eventuallythe twins are reunited, Olivia marries Sebastian and Orsino Viola. Theromantic plot is offset by a comic subplot involving the revenge of Sir TobyBelch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek on Olivia's pompous stewardMalvolio. Tricked into believing that Olivia is secretly in love withhim, he behaves so absurdly that he is taken for a madman and imprisoned. Themelancholy tone of the play, which in places seems to anticipate the tragediesthat Shakespeare would write in the next few years, is perfectly encapsulatedin the three songs of Feste the clown: 'O Mistress Mine', 'Come Away Death',and 'When that I was and a Little Tiny Boy'.

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