My mother wanted to take me to a summer, outdoor production of Twelfth Night for my birthday, which I thought was a great idea. My reading of Shakespeare is a little light. I’m very familiar with Romeo and Juliet and I’ve read Othello, but that’s about it. In order to adequately prepare for the show, I decided to read the play.
My only knowledge of Twelfth Night before I read the play came from the end of Shakespeare in Love. Shakespeare is saying goodbye to Viola and says he’ll write a play for her. And then he begins Twelfth Night. I loved the sad romance of that scene and Twelfth Night stuck in my head because of that movie.
The play begins when Viola is washed up on shore of Illyria after a storm. She decides to dress up as a man (named Cesario) until she can get the lay of the land. She goes to Orsino, the powerful nobleman in charge of the area. Orsino is in love with Olivia, another noblewoman. Olivia has zero interest in Orsino, but develops a serious crush on Cesario when she comes to beg for her on behalf of Orsino. At the same time, Viola develops her own feelings for Orsino.
This puts Viola in a remarkably awkward position. She is hiding her feelings from Orsino because he views her as a man, and she can’t fully explain why she is not interested in Olivia. Things get even more complicated when Viola’s twin brother–assumed drowned–shows up, and no one can tell the two apart.
There is a side plot of this play that concerns Malvolio, a servant at Olivia’s house. Malvolio had me cringing as I read. He’s a very annoying, unlikable character. He prances around, telling everyone else what to do. He thinks he’s above the others and is rude to everyone below him. Some others from Olivia’s household, including her uncle, devise a cruel scheme to get back at Malvolio. They leave a letter in his path, making it look like Olivia is secretly in love with Malvolio. When Malvolio discovers the letter, he imagines a life with him and Olivia. It is pretty painful to see someone play such a cruel joke, exploiting Malvolio’s greatest weakness. This becomes even worse later in the play when they get him locked up for being crazy.
The introduction discussed the push and pull of drunken, festive fun and the pious responsibility of those like Malvolio and Olivia. It definitely made it a more interesting play than just a simple comedy. I’m curious what Shakespeare felt about this push and pull because he does not end the play with a clear moral viewpoint.
Orsino was one of my least favorite characters, and I couldn’t understand what Viola saw in him. He was really whiny when he was pining after Olivia. He said that women don’t have strong feelings like men do. And he switched his allegiance to Viola immediately after learning she was a woman. He was rich and powerful, I guess, but his character didn’t impress me.
Anyway, I enjoyed the play and thought it was well done, despite the smattering of rain in Act I that had me wishing for a poncho.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.