Orsino is in love with Olivia, and spends his days sending gifts & messages to her, pining away in his own home. Olivia does not love him, and so refuses him every time – even news that she will remain in mourning for both her father and brother for seven years doesn’t put him off! Especially when new recruit Cesario ingratiates himself at Orsino’s court and is sent to woo on his behalf; the only snag here is that Cesario is really a disguised Viola, shipwrecked on Illyria and separated from her (presumed dead) twin brother Sebastian. It becomes even more of a pickle when Olivia falls for her wooer… Particularly as there is one more suitor vying for her hand: Sir Andrew Aguecheek. He’s been invited to stay by Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch, and the pair spend most of their time drinking & generally having a good time – annoying steward Malvolio into the bargain.
As ever, there’s no definitive date of writing, though as the first likely performance would have been at Whitehall on 6 January 1601 as part of Elizabeth I’s festive celebrations – and the first recorded public performance took place at Middle Temple Hall on 2 February 1602 – it’s likely that it was written sometime between 1599 & 1601. It also had further court performances on Easter Monday 1618 and Candlemas night 1623. It is thought to be named according to when the play would first be performed (Twelfth Night is another term for Epiphany in the Christian calendar), though you can also make links between the play’s content and the themes of the Feast of Fools – it certainly seems as though the Lord of Misrule is at play, and Sir Toby & Sir Andrew’s antics definitely fit with the kind of revelry you might expect in the less religious celebrations of the time.
The play is subtitled What You Will, making it the first Shakespeare play to contain a subtitle upon its first publication. This is perhaps surprising, given the fashion for subtitles in Elizabethan theatre, and also Shakespeare’s output up until this point in his career; thinking about it, though, which plays could you feasibly give a subtitle without making it too unwieldy?
The Show Must Go Online begins a new ‘season’ with this production, featuring a mostly brand new cast of: Lydia Bakelmun (Viola), Comfort Fabian (Olivia), Michael Perez (Orsino), Jeffrey Weissman (Sir Toby), Carys McQueen (Feste), Fiona Tong (Malvolio), Liam Alexandru (Antonio), Clive Keene (Sebastian), Lewis Allcock (Sir Andrew), Chi-Chi Onuah (Fabian), Julie Baber (Maria), Christine Atieno (Ensemble), John D. Huston (Ensemble), Henry Charnock (Swing), Larissa Oates (Swing).
- “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon ’em!”
- “If music be the food of love, play on”
- “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit”
- “I was adored once too”
- “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction”
- “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”
I have seen this play a lot. And not just because it’s my favourite Shakespeare play! It’s a very popular piece, especially as it can be fairly easily done with a small cast, if necessary. I don’t care if Samuel Pepys thought it was “silly” – as far as I’m concerned, he just didn’t get it!
Twelfth Night premières on 19 August 2020. The Show Must Go Online runs every Wednesday at 7pm and is also available to watch afterwards. Become a Patron at The Show Must Go Online’s Patreon page. The Show Must Go Online merchandise is available from Redbubble.