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Twelfth Night

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Twelfth Night is a much-loved and much performed Shakespearean tour de force that has all the generic features that one would expect from one of the bard's best comedies. With identity confusion, cross-dressing, and an ending that underlines that love can win out over all, Twelfth Night is funny and poignant--with a highly distinctive and insightful take on the battle of the sexes.
Twelfth Night presents one of Shakespeare's most attractive and powerful female characters in Viola. With this famous character, the play becomes a non-didactic argument for feminism that took place four centuries before its time--not to mention the basis for an enormously fun evening at the theatre.

The play begins, like many of Shakespeare's comedies, soon after a storm in which Viola, a noblewoman, has been cast ashore. Thinking that her brother Sebastian has been lost in the storm, she determines to dress as a man so as to travel more safely in the new and hostile land. She comes under the employment of the Duke, Orsino, who is in desperate, unrequited love with the beautiful lady Olivia. The Duke sends Viola (not knowing that she is a man), to try and convince Olivia of his love.

Unfortunately, Olivia falls in love with the fine specimen of a man that Viola portrays, and asks her to return so that they might get to know each other better. To add to the confusion, Viola has secretly fallen in love with Orsino and so the three leads seem as though they will be trapped in a hopeless love triangle within which none of them can be happy.
Alongside these events are set the play's comic characters, Oliva's uncle, Sir Toby, Andrew Aguecheek, a knight and the clever jester Feste. They manage to convince Olivia’s servant, a dour puritan called Malvolio, that Olivia is actually in love with him and wishes them to be married. Struck by the possibility of getting his hands on Olivia’s money and title, Malvolio wears ridiculous clothes and acts so strangely that the household think him mad.

Toby and Aguecheek lock him away in a cellar and torment him (supposedly in the hope of bringing him back to sanity). In the meantime, Viola's brother – who she thought had drowned – has arrived in the country, along with his friend Antonio. Toby and Aguecheek (who harbors romantic intentions towards Olivia himself), come across Sebastian and as they had challenged Viola to a duel, begin to fight him. This, understandably, confuses Sebastian somewhat, but he is even more confused when Olivia also arrives and (thinking he is Viola) asks him to marry her.

Completely bamboozled by this turn of events, Sebastian nevertheless thinks himself onto a good thing and accepts the beautiful stranger’s invitation. The confusion builds to a climax in which the two siblings are finally reunited, and Viola feels as though she can reveal her true sex, and her love for Orsino. The play ends in multiple marriages and happiness for everyone--apart, of course, for Malvolio, who is released from his dark hole and storms out of the house.
The beauty of Twelfth Night is that it requires a willful suspension of belief from its audience, and with its charm and humor is able to get it so beautifully. The crossed-wires, mixed genders, mistaken twins and hopeless love triangles are all indicative of Shakespeare’s comic talent, and his dramatic daring. Twelfth Night probably has enough of the staples of Elizabethan comic to fit into three such plays, and yet Shakespeare’s manages to hold together the numerous plot lines and confusing multiplicity of identities with a firm hand and a lightness of touch that is unequaled by any dramatist before or since. Not only that but he also manages to make the love stories he creates touching and affecting: despite the fact that the marriages seem to come out of nowhere (Orsino has to accept that his page is actually a woman he can fall in love with, Olivia takes her lovers brother as a husband despite the fact they have only just met).

However the true greatness of Twelfth Night is that it is hilariously funny to watch. Whether it is the humor created by the limited viewpoint of its characters stuck in a set of increasingly bizarre circumstances, or the satire on the hypocritical puritan character who truly gets his comeuppance, an audience watching Twelfth Night cannot help breaking into waves of laughter. Constructed by a genius, and with all the hallmarks of the greatest playwright who ever wrote, Twelfth Night is a gem of a play even for those who watch it four centuries after it was first performed.
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