An overview of the play by Shakespeare

This document was originally published in Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan and Co., 1889.

Midsummer Night's Dream

An original painting by Daniel Maclise
TWELFTH NIGHT, though so far as we know, printed for the first time in the Folio of 1623, was probably written about 1600. That it was not earlier than 1598 is proved by the fact that Meres in his list of Shakespeare's plays, published in that year, makes no mention of it. On the other hand, in the autograph diary of John Manningham, a student of the Temple, discovered by Mr. Hunter, we have the following entry:

"1601. Feb. 2. At our feast we had a play called Twelve Night, or What you Will, much like the Commedy of Errors or Menechmi in Plautus, but most like and neere to that in Italian called Inganni. A good practise in it to make the steward beleeve his lady widdowe was in love with him, by counterfayting a lettre, as from his lady, in generall termes, telling him what shee liked best in him, and prescribing his gesture in smiling, his apparraile, etc., and then when he came to practise, making him beleeve they tooke him to be mad..."

Until the discovery of this entry, it was supposed that Shakespeare had derived his materials for the more serious portions of the play from Barnabe Riche's Historie of Apolonius and Silla, which again was founded on Bandello's Thirty-sixth Novella. Manningham's mention of the Inganni led to a search among Italian plays, and two comedies of this name were discovered, the one by Niccolo Secchi, printed in 1562, the other by Curzio Gonzago, printed in 1592. "Both these," observes Mr. Hunter, "it may seem were read by Shakespeare when he was engaged upon this play. In both he found a brother and a sister, the latter-clothed in man's attire, and bearing to each other so near a resemblance as to produce entertaining embarrassments, which is the pivot on which the main incidents in the serious part of the Twelfth Night turn. The name assumed by the lady in Gonzaga's play is Cesare, which will easily be admitted to have suggested the name Cesario in Shakespeare adopted by Viola in her disguise. Beyond this, however, the resemblance is not striking.... Shakespeare can hardly be said to have been indebted to Secchi's play for a single passage in the dialogue, or a single situation in the acting." A third comedy, called Gl' Ingannati, and printed about 1537, was also discovered, and "that it was on the model of this play," continues Mr. Hunter, "and not on any of the _Ingannis_, that Shakespeare formed the plan of the serious parts of Twelfth Night, will appear evidently by the following analysis of the main parts of the story. Fabritio and Lelia, a brother and sister, are separated at the sack of Rome in 1527. Lelia is carried to Modena, where resides Flamineo, to whom she had formerly been attached. Lelia disguises herself as a boy, and enters his service. Flamineo had forgotten Lelia, and was a suitor to Isabella, a Modenese lady. Lelia, in her male attire, is employed in love-embassies from Flamineo to Isabella. Isabella is insensible to the importunities of Flamineo, but conceives a violent passion for Lelia, mistaking her for a man. In the third act, Fabritio arrives at Modena, where mistakes arise owing to the close resemblance there is between Fabritio and his sister in her male attire. Ultimately recognitions take place, the affections of Isabella are easily transferred from Lelia to Fabritio, and Flamineo takes to his bosom the affectionate and faithful Lelia. We have in the Italian play a subordinate character, named Pasquella, to whom Maria corresponds; and in the subordinate incidents we find Fabritio mistaken in the street for Lelia by the servant of Isabella who takes him to her mistress' house, exactly as Sebastian is taken for Viola, and led to the house of Olivia. The name of Fabian given by Shakespeare to one of his characters was probably suggested to him by the name of Fabio which Lelia in the Italian play assumed in her disguise. Malvolio is a happy adaptation of Malevolti, a character in the Il Sacrificio [the title of the Induction to Gl' Ingannati]"...

So closely does the main action of Twelfth Night correspond with that of Gl' Ingannati that a very brief outline will be all that is required. The scene of the greater part of the play is laid in a city in Illyria in which resides a Duke, Orsino, who for some time past had been deeply in love with a noble lady of the place, named Olivia. His love, however, is not returned; nor will Olivia, whose brother has lately died, allow any suitors to approach her. She declares indeed, in answer to the Duke's solicitations, that she is resolved to mourn her brother for seven years, not allowing "the element itself" to "behold her face at ample view" during that period. At this point we are introduced to Viola, the twin sister of a well-born gentleman of "Messaline," named Sebastian, who is supposed to have perished in a storm at sea, while Viola was rescued from the waters by the captain of the vessel. Viola, hearing of the Duke, conceives the idea of serving him as a page; and, dressing herself in imitation of her brother, is presented to the Duke by one of his gentlemen-attendants. The Duke takes a great fancy to her, tells her of his love for Olivia, and employs her to plead his cause with that lady. At their first interview, Olivia, fascinated by the looks and manners of the seeming page, falls in love with her, and though refusing to hear any more of the Duke's protestations, invites Viola to visit her again, ostensibly to tell her how her refusal has been taken by the Duke, but really in order that she may have the pleasure of seeing her again. Viola, who has herself fallen in love with the Duke, quickly guesses at Olivia's mistaken passion; and at their second interview that lady, stung by Viola's coldness and insensibility to the hints she has given, plainly avows her love. Viola, unable to reveal her identity, quits Olivia, declaring that she will never more "my master's tears to you deplore." Shortly afterwards Sebastian, who also had been saved from drowning, and who is so like Viola that when similarly dressed they are mistaken for each other, appears on the scene, and is met by Olivia. Believing him to be Viola, she takes him into her house, and again (as she fancies) endeavours to persuade him to marry her. Sebastian, struck by her beauty, though wondering at her proposal, is ready enough to meet her wishes, and they are speedily betrothed in the presence of Olivia's private chaplain. Leaving Olivia for a time, apparently to seek for the sea captain by whom he had been rescued, Sebastian returns to find Olivia, Viola, and the Duke together; the brother and sister recognize each other, the mystery is cleared up, and the play ends with the marriage of the Duke with Viola and of Sebastian with Olivia. This is the main plot of the comedy; but there is an underplot which, except for one suggestion, is, so far as we know, entirely of Shakespeare's own creation. The chief characters in this are Malvolio, Olivia's steward; Sir Toby Belch, a drunken knight, her cousin; Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a foolish friend of Sir Toby's, and suitor to Olivia; Feste, the Clown; and Maria, a quick-witted waiting maid. Malvolio by his interference with the inferior servants, by his conceited airs, and by his affectation of rigid propriety, has made himself generally disliked; and, at the insistence of Maria, the above-mentioned characters engage in a plot to persuade him to the belief that he is beloved by Olivia. With this object Maria, imitating Olivia's hand, writes a letter in which that lady is made to hint in no very obscure terms at her love for Malvolio, and this letter is dropped in his way, the conspirators concealing themselves behind a bush so as to be witnesses to his behavior when he finds it. Together with the hints of Olivia's regard which are to lure Malvolio on, the letter contains directions as to the dress and demeanour he is to assume before Olivia if he reciprocates her feelings. Malvolio readily falls into the trap, arrays himself in the fantastic fashion prescribed to him, and, when next appearing before Olivia, behaves in such an extravagant way that she is persuaded he is out of his mind. This is exactly what the conspirators aim at, and they now have him carried off to a dark room (the usual treatment of lunatics in those days) and bound there. In this condition he is visited by the Clown in the disguise of a curate, and a most amusing scene takes place, to the great delight of Sir Toby and Maria who are unseen spectators. Ultimately the Clown, appearing in his own person, is induced by Malvolio to give him pen and paper to write a letter to Olivia. Thus discovering the trick that has been played upon her steward, Olivia indignantly orders his liberation and, on his appearance before her, promises that he shall be "both plaintiff and the judge of his own cause." She is, however, persuaded not to mar the festivity of the marriage ceremony by any harsh measures, and the offenders are therefore pardoned.

In this underplot Malvolio, to justify to himself his hopes of marrying Olivia, refers to "the lady of the Strachy" having married the yeoman of the wardrobe"; and here doubt Shakespeare had in his mind a story told by Bandello, the Italian novelist, in which the widowed Duchess of Amalfi falls in love with and marries her majordomo, Antonio Bologna. On this story Webster founded his tragedy of The Duchess of Malfi, published in 1616, and in it there are passages which seem to be echoes of Twelfth Night. Thus, the forged letter with its hints and riddles is recalled in the Duchess' speech to Antonio after she has made known her love, though in the Italian there is nothing to correspond with the indirect means she employs:

"The misery of us who are born great!
We are forc'd to woo, because none dare woo us;
And as a tyrant doubles with his words,
And fearfully equivocates, so we
Are forc'd to express our violent passions
In riddles and in dreams."

Again, in the same scene, Malvolio's confinement, resulting from his ambition, seems to be hinted at in the words--

"Ambition, madam, is a great man's madness,
That is not kept in chains and close-pent rooms,
But in fair lightsome lodgings, and is girt
With the wild noise of prattling visitants,
Which makes it lunatic beyond all cure."

Further on, iii. 2., one of the officers before whom the Duchess pretends to accuse Antonio of having robbed her, says of him, "How scurvy proud he would look when the treasury was full! Well, let him go"; to which another answers, "Yes, and the chippings of the buttery fly after him, to scour his gold chain," an evident echo of Sir Toby's words, "Go, rub your chain with crumbs," ii., 3. Of the word "Strachy" no satisfactory explanation has yet been made, though numerous emendations of the wildest character have been proposed. Possibly it is nothing more than an endeavour to represent in English spelling the pronunciation of an Italian name, such as "Stracci" or "Strozzi" (as conjectured by Lloyd and Collier respectively); but if so, it is strange that Shakespeare should not, like Webster, have given the name of the family in Bandello's novel.

According to Mr. P.A. Daniel, "the time represented by this play is three days, with an interval of three days between the first and second.

Day 1. Act I. sc. i.-iii.
Interval of three days.
Day 2. Act I. sc. iv. and v.; Act II. sc. i.-iii.
Day 3. Act II. sc. iv. and v.; and Acts III., IV., and V.

There remains to notice in Act V. a statement inconsistent with the Plot of the Play as revealed in the previous scenes. Viola and Sebastian both suffered the same shipwreck, and when they arrive in Illyria, it is evident that but a very few days can have elapsed since their escape. Yet, when Antonio is brought before the Duke in Act V., he asserts that Sebastian has been in his company for three months. It might indeed be said that this inconsistency is merely imaginary, and is founded on too strict an interpretation of the dialogue in Act I. sc. ii. and Act II. sc. i.; but the Duke makes a similar assertion with regard to Viola--

'Three months this youth hath tended upon me.'

And this is in absolute contradiction to Valentine's speech on the second day of the action (Act I. sc. iv.), where he says that the Duke 'hath known you [Viola] but three days.'

While we are thus engaged in ferreting out spots in the sun, attention may also be directed to Fabian's last speech. Speaking of the plot against Malvolio, he says--

'Maria writ
The letter at Sir Toby's great importance;
In recompense whereof he hath married her.'

Now Maria writ the letter at the 'importance' of her own love of mischief; the plot originated entirely with her, though Sir Toby and the rest eagerly joined in it. And when could Sir Toby have found time for the marriage ceremony on this morning which has been so fully occupied by the plots on Malvolio and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.' It could not have been since he last left the stage, for he was then drunk and wounded, and sent off to bed to have his hurts looked to."...

Objecting to the present arrangements of the Acts and Scenes, Mr. Spedding remarks, "At the end of the first Act, Malvolio is ordered to run after Cesario with Olivia's ring: in the second scene of the second Act, he has but just overtaken him. 'Were you not even now' (he says) 'with the Countess Olivia?' 'Even now, sir (she answers), on a moderate pace I have since arrived but hither.' Here, therefore, the pause is worse than useless. It impedes the action, and turns a light and swift movement into a slow and heavy one.

Again, at the end of the third Act, Sir Andrew Aguecheek runs after Cesario (who has just left the stage) to beat him; Sir Toby and Fabian following to see the event. At the beginning of the fourth, they are all where they were. Sir Andrew's valour is still warm; he meets Sebastian, mistakes him for Cesario, and strikes him. Here again the pause is not merely unnecessary; it interrupts what was evidently meant for a continuous and rapid action, and so spoils the fun...

I have little doubt that the first Act was meant to end with the fourth scene--the scene between the Duke and Viola:

'Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife.'

the second with Viola's soliloquy upon receiving Olivia's ring:

'Oh, time, thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me to untie.'

--Act II. sc. ii.

The third might end where, according to the received arrangement, the second does; only that the underplot would in that case become rather too prominent, and the main action stand still too long. To avoid this, I would not have the curtain fall till after the second interview between Olivia and Viola, in which Olivia declares her passion:

'Yet come again; for thou perhaps may'st move
The heart which now abhors to like his love.'

--Act III. sc. i.

The fourth Act may end where it now does, with the contract between Olivia and Sebastian; and the fifth will remain as it is."

The play has a double title, Twelfth Night, or What you Will; and in regard to the former title Halliwell-Phillipps conjectures that it arose from the first performance being on Twelfth Night, i.e. the night of the twelfth day after Christmas, when the festivities of that season came to an end. The alternative title is also that of one of Marston's comedies, published in 1607, in the induction to which we have the following dialogue:

ATTICUS: What's the play's name?

PHILOMUSE: What you Will.

DORICUS: Is't comedy, tragedy, pastoral, moral, nocturnal, or history?

PHILOMUSE: Faith, perfectly neither, but even What you Will,--a slight toy, lightly composed, too swiftly finished, ill plotted, worse written, I fear me worst acted, and indeed What you Will.

This confirms Wright's idea that the second title "may possibly have been Shakespeare's expression of indifference when asked what the play should be called."


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