Theatre: Twelfth Night

Why, this is very midsummer madness!

If music be the food of love, play on.
Orsino, who is In Love with Love, music, and, ostensibly, the Countess Olivia. And bad puns. (Twelfth Night I.i.1)

Twelfth Night, or What You Will is a comedic play by William Shakespeare.

A woman gets shipwrecked, loses her Half Identical Twin, dresses as a boy to get a job, and gets involved in a bizarre Love Dodecahedron. A subplot involves yellow stockings.

Actually, that sums up William Shakespeare's play pretty well. Viola has been shipwrecked in Illyria, and the captain tells her that the wreck carried off her twin brother as well. Being a gentlewoman, Viola is bereft of skills aside from singing and other musical arts (at which she says she is proficient), and so decides to dress up as a young eunuch so she might find employment under the Duke Orsino (see above), of whom she has heard good things. (She would rather serve the Countess Olivia, but the lady, heartbroken by the loss of her father and brother, has sworn off male company and presumably is not hiring.)

After a mere three days in Orsino's service, the Duke is so charmed with the "boy" Cesario that he sends him off to woo the Countess on Orsino's behalf (citing how suspiciously innocently feminine he is). Olivia is not pleased to see Cesario as she has grown sick of Orsino's wooing, and answers sarcastically to the Duke's sentimental verses. Viola, however, can hold her own on the field of snarking, and refuses to see Orsino's suit so answered (in case one has not inferred, she has fallen hard for Orsino.) She banters with and challenges Olivia, who finds herself falling in love with the spirited "chap." When Viola's Half Identical Twin brother Sebastian shows up, the fun just gets started...

Now the subplot:[deep breath] Olivia has given over the management of her household to her Puritan steward Malvolio, whose new position causes him to look down on Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch. Sir Toby is taking advantage of a brainless rich boy named Andrew Aguecheek, by convincing the hapless Sir Andrew that Olivia would like to marry him. However, Olivia has no intention of the kind, and Sir Toby simply likes to use Andrew's money to fund his drinking and revelry. Malvolio comes down hard on Sir Toby, who, along with Olivia's handmaid Maria, decides to play a little trick on the lecherous social climber Malvolio...

Meanwhile, Feste, Olivia's father's jester, has returned to seek employment, and is tasked by Olivia to watch over Toby, but wanders here and there, watches everyone, and laughs in his sleeve and out of it.

All in all one of Shakespeare's lighter, sillier plays (albeit one with quite a dark undertone), but a classic of English literature nonetheless. It's been adapted as a movie twice—a silent version in 1910 and, more notably, Trevor Nunn's entertaining 1996 version which transported the characters into a setting reminiscent of Victorian England and/or Wilhelmine Germany. The plot was also the basis for the 2006 teen comedy She's The Man.

Tropes in Twelfth Night:

  • Adapted Out: Fabian, a lot, even in stage versions. His lines are usually given to Feste.
  • Aerith and Bob: Viola, Cesario, Sebastian, Orsino, Olivia, Malvolio, Feste, Curio, Fabian, Antonio...Andrew and Toby.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Viola loves Orsino, who loves Olivia, who loves Cesario, who is Viola. Eventually they get it all sorted out happily, though.
    • Depending on your interpretation, this is permanent for Antonio.
  • Angsty Surviving Twin: The premise, though, not the conclusion.
  • Artifact Title: Twelfth Night refers to its first performance.
  • Artistic License - Geography: Averted, due to contemporary history: while Bohemia had no coastline of its own, the "Bohemian Empire" once extended to the ocean, under the King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, from 1575–1608, the period of Shakespeare.
    • Illyria is what balkanized into modern day Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia.
  • Bifauxnen: Viola
  • Bittersweet Ending: Feste's melancholic ending song aside, most everyone got a happy ending, except for Antonio, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Malvolio.
  • Boisterous Weakling: Sir Andrew.
    Maria: ...besides that he's a fool he's a great quarreler, and but that he had the gift of a coward to allay the gust he hath in quarreling, 'tis thought among the prudent he would quickly have the gift of a grave.
  • Break the Haughty:
    • Maria, Feste, and a few other rabblerousers agree to take the arrogant steward Malvolio down a peg, and they arrange a fake letter to fall his way, saying his employer, Olivia, is in love with him. Under this delusion, he behaves and dresses like a lovesick loon, all the while thinking this is exactly what she wants, and ends up being locked in a dungeon for lunacy, before being released and told the letter was a sham. It started out funny, but by the end, even the rabblerousers aren't laughing.
    • Olivia herself goes through a downplayed version of this. At the beginning, she is stately, composed, and implacable, and, yes, very proud. But by the time the play is ended she has fallen head over heels in love, and has almost completely lost her dignity on account of it.
  • Butt Monkey: Malvolio and Andrew Aguecheek.
  • Childfree Is Not Allowed: One argument why Olivia should marry.
  • Compressed Hair: Not universal, but very common for Viola.
  • Conveniently an Orphan: All we know about Viola and Sebastian's family is that their father is dead. By the sounds of it, they're all that each other has in the world.
  • The Cover Changes The Meaning: Feste's song at the end. Trevor Nunn's version makes it a fairly jubilant little number, but other versions range from bittersweet to plain sorrowful.
  • Covert Pervert: Despite his Puritanical tendencies, Malvolio's imagination is pretty deep in the gutter as regards Olivia: the letters he notices in her handwriting are "C's, U's, and T's" (try saying that aloud), and daydreams about being married to her. The Trevor Nunn film has Malvolio wearing yellow stockings to sleep before he gets the fraudulent letter, treating yellow stockings as a kind of odd Illyrian kink.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • Feste. "Corrupter of words" indeed.
    • Not to mention Olivia. Her first appearance.
      Olivia: Give us the place alone: we will hear this divinity. Now, sir, what is your text?
      Viola: Most sweet lady—
      Olivia: A comfortable doctrine, and much may be said of it. Where lies your text?
      Viola: In Orsino's bosom.
      Olivia: In his bosom! In what chapter of his bosom?
      Viola: To answer by the method, in the first of his heart.
      Olivia: Oh, I have read it: it is heresy...
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Olivia, who thaws out pretty quickly.
  • Dirty Old Man: Malvolio chases after a woman twenty years his junior.
  • Diseased Name: Andrew Aguecheek has a name that evokes feverish ill-health ("ague" being an Elizabethan word for fever with shivering and chills). It would just mean numbed as an adjective, suggesting a slight facial impairment, as if Sir Andrew has had a stroke: one side of his face being without motion, which explains some of his speech.
  • Dispense With The Pleasantries: Olivia will not allow Viola to continue with Orsino's declaration of love to her.
    Viola: Most sweet lady...
    Olivia: ... a comfortable doctrine, and much may be said of it.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Feste, Sir Toby Belch, and Fabian have Malvolio locked up in a small, completely darkened room with no candle or food or water, because he's a presumptuous stick-in-the-mud who hates parties.
    • Feste gets bonus points here. Sir Toby has a rational reason to act against Malvolio (Malvolio hates him, and is trying to cut him off from Olivia, who is both his niece and his source of support) - even so, by the end of the play, Toby has had his fun and wants to let Malvolio go and move on. Feste, by contrast, is spiteful and mocking even then... and while Toby only arranged for Malvolio to be publically mocked and imprisoned for a time, Feste made the poor man think he was to be executed. So, what did Malvolio do to make Feste hate him so much? He doesn't like Feste's jokes. That is truly the only reason given.
      • Keep in mind that as Olivia's fool, or "corrupter of words", telling jokes was basically Feste's job. If Feste stopped telling jokes, as Malvolio desired, he'd have no reason to be in Olivia's employ, and possibly been kicked out onto the streets. Feste wanted to keep his income just as much as Toby did.
  • The Ditz: Sir Andrew. Fortunately for him, he's too stupid to realize how little everyone thinks of him.
  • Driven to Villainy: After getting yanked around the entire play, Malvolio loses it at the happy ending and vows revenge on the whole lot of them.
  • Dropping the Bombshell: When Olivia calls Cesario/Viola "husband" in the last scene.
  • Due to the Dead: Olivia even overdoes it.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: How well Orsino actually knows Olivia is questionable.
  • End of an Age: The theme of the play, as evidenced by the Bittersweet Ending.
  • Either/Or Title: Played with, as the alternate title is What You Will — meaning it's left up to the director if s/he wants to call it something other than Twelfth Night.
  • Everyone Is Bi: Averted, but just barely. With all the (misaimed?) crushes going on, the audience is definitely invited to wonder.
  • Foil: Feste and Malvolio. See also Meaningful Name
  • Forged Letter: Maria writes a letter ambiguously making it seem that Olivia is in love with Malvolio, to trick him.
  • Fourth Date Marriage: Even for an Elizabethan comedy, in which this trope was expected, Twelfth Night stands out: Orsino proposes to Viola the instant he learns that she is a woman, and more ridiculously still, Sebastian marries Olivia, a woman he has literally just met, without even telling her his real name.
  • Freudian Slip: When Orsino finds out that Olivia loves Cesario, he threatens to murder Cesario, comparing himself to an Egyptian thief who murdered his own lover to keep her from being tortured. He's inadvertently revealing that Cesario is the one he's in love with.
  • Gaslighting: Feste, Toby and Maria try to pull this on Malvolio during his mock-exorcism.
  • Gender Bender: You better believe it. (On top of everything else, all stage roles in Shakespeare's day were played by men ... so Cesario, for example, would be a man dressed up as a woman dressed up as a man. Your basic Shakespearean Recursive Crossdressing. Got it?)
  • Girls with Moustaches: In many productions, Viola dons a fake moustache as part of her Cesario disguise.
  • Green-Eyed Epiphany: Orsino has one as regards Cesario.
  • Hide Your Lesbians Trick Your Lesbians Into Marrying Guys: Scholars have debated about Olivia for a long time: she married "Cesario" thinking he was male, but she fell in love with the female Viola. Fortunately, Viola and Sebastian are similar in temperament and character as well as looks - this is possibly Lampshaded with the line "You are betrothed both to a man and maid."
  • Half-Identical Twins: Viola and Sebastian seems to be this since many characters mistake them for one another when Viola masquerades as Cesario.
  • Happy Harlequin Hat: Feste wears one in some versions.
  • Hello, Sailor!: Antonio, a former pirate, has some pretty strong feelings for young Sebastian.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Antonio and Sebastian, although not necessarily heterosexual on Antonio's part, depending on the presentation.
    • At the end of the play, Antonio mentions:
    "Antonio": Today, my lord, and for three months before, No interim, not a minute’s vacancy, Both day and night did we keep company.
  • Hilarity Ensues: It's Shakespeare. It always does.
  • Hourglass Plot: Antonio saved Sebastian's life after a horrific storm, when they were both mired in a strange country. Antonio grew very close to Sebastian, and even got into a duel in Sebastian's defense. When Antonio was placed under arrest by Orsino, his old rival, he expected that Sebastian would help him out — only for Sebastian to act like he's never met Antonio before. Fortunately, that wasn't actually Sebastian.
  • Hypocritical Humor
    Sir Toby: I hate a drunken rogue.
  • If I Can't Have You: Orsino's reaction when he figures out that Olivia is in love with Cesario, more or less:
    Come, boy, with me; my thoughts are ripe in mischief:
    I'll sacrifice the lamb that I do love,
    To spite a raven's heart within a dove.
  • If I Were a Rich Man: Malvolio, in a daydream that he reveals to the audience.
  • I Have This Friend: An interesting variant, in that Viola says a bunch of things that are literally true, but meant to be taken this way:
    My father had a daughter loved a man,
    As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
    I should your lordship.
  • In Love with Love: The Duke Orsino.
  • Incredibly Lame Pun: They're all over the place, along with some not-so-lame puns as well.
    Viola (asking Feste if he makes a living playing music): Dost though live by thy tabor?
    Feste: No, sir, I live by the church.
    Viola: Art thou a churchman?
  • Informed Ability: Viola tells the captain that she can sing well, and thus she inveigles herself into the court of the music-loving Orsino, but the play never calls for her to demonstrate her ability. Some productions will create opportunities for her; Trevor Nunn's film has her performing for Orsino several times (even rearranging the early scenes to let her be the musician in the "music be the food of love" scene), and the 2009 Shakespeare in the Park production with Anne Hathaway specifically cast singers, had the band Hem compose music for the in-show songs, and in general had so much music that they released a soundtrack album.
  • Insistent Terminology: Used humorously by Feste. He's not Olivia's fool, he's her "corrupter of words".
  • Ironic Echo: One of the most memorable ever employed.
    Malvolio: I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal: I saw him put down the other day with an ordinary fool that has no more brain than a stone. Look you now, he's out of his guard already; unless you laugh and minister occasion to him, he is gagged...
    • In the final scene:
    Feste: "By the Lord, fool, I am not mad." But do you remember? "Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascal? And you smile not, he's gagg'd." And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.
  • The Jester: Feste is one of Shakespeare's finest takes on this trope.
  • Karmic Trickster: Feste the jester embodies this role. He points out the logical flaws in Olivia's mourning, sees through even Viola's clever wordplay, and cuts the pompous, Puritan Malvolio down to size... and then some.
  • Kick the Dog: The severity of Malvolio's imprisonment varies with production, but in general the level of Mind Screw that Feste and the others put him through is a little bit excessive, even if he is a Jerk Ass.
  • Lampshade Hanging of the "Message from Fred" variety:
    Fabian: If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Orsino is pining after Olivia, who's got a thing for "Cesario," his actually-female servant, who invokes the ire of Malvolio, Olivia's steward who dreams of marrying her, meanwhile Cesario-actually-Viola tries to suppress her love for Orsino while dodging challenges from Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who is also courting the Countess, but who accidentally runs into Viola's twin brother...
  • Loving a Shadow: Orsino for Olivia. He even says as much - he says he doesn't care about her fabulous inheritance and wealth, but for her beauty, without a hint of self-consciousness. Well done, dude.
    • In the 1996 movie, Orsino seemed to imply that what made him fall in love with Olivia was her dedication to upholding her vow of not loving a man for seven years after. He loves her because he admires her dedication towards NOT loving anyone out of love for her father and brother, and so decided to woo her while she's still mourning. YMMV, but this made him seem very stupid since the whole reason he "loves" her is because she's refusing to love anyone!
    • Possibly lampshaded when Maria refers to Malvolio "practicing behavior to his own shadow".
  • Meaningful Name: Malvolio is derived from the term "ill-wisher" and Feste has the same root as "festival". Guess which roles they play in the story.
  • Men Are Better Than Women: A belief of Orsino's, not uncommon in Elizabethan England. He's set straight by the end of the play.
  • My Sibling Will Live Through Me: Olivia marries Sebastian, thinking that he's Viola.
  • Narcissist: A running theme. Orsino thinks he's in love with Olivia, but actually he's in love with himself ("my desires, like fell and cruel hounds/E'er since pursue me.") Viola, hopeless in her love for him because he doesn't know that she's a girl, plays the role of Echo. In the subplot, Malvolio is also this. Even Olivia's excessive mourning is treated as being selfish. One professional production drove the point home by using a gigantic illustration of Narcissus as a backdrop.
  • No One Could Survive That: Shipwreck at sea, according to the old Sea Captain.
  • No Periods, Period: Averted, if only in a minor way. Olivia dismisses "Cesario" by snapping, "'Tis not that time of moon with me to make one in so skipping a dialogue." Cue Olivia's handmaid Maria trying to usher Cesario out: "Will you set sail sir? Here lies your way!"
  • Not So Above It All: Malvolio, who turns to the frivolity that he condemns when he believes that it is the way to win over Olivia.
  • Only Sane Man: Sebastian thinks—not without cause—that everyone around him has gone mad.
  • Operation Jealousy: It's possible to play Mariah, during the scene when she meets Sir Andrew for the first time, as deliberately leading Sir Andrew on to try and make Toby Belch jealous.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: A mild example, but Olivia has recently inherited the title of Countess from her dead father and brother, and at the start of the play is deeply mourning them both, and plans to spend the next seven years in mourning.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Viola as Cesario
  • Playing Cyrano: Orsino wants "Cesario" to act as such, not because Orsino is bad with words (far from it) but because Olivia might be more receptive to Cesario's delicacy.
  • Pride: Viola's first appraisal of Olivia's character is, "I see you what you are, you are too proud." Viola might be speaking out of personal frustration, to see Olivia laughing at the man Viola loves, but the line does open up a suggestion that Olivia's arc from then on becomes a Break the Haughty plotline.
    • Malvolio's pride is his downfall, starting with his holier-than-thou attitude and presumptuous ambitions.
  • Rags to Royalty: Neither Sebastian nor Viola are stated to be of any great lineage and yet they marry a Duke and a Countess.
  • The Reveal: To someone just watching the play, sans playbill, Viola's name is not revealed until towards the end of the very last scene.
  • Servile Snarker:
    • Maria...although she doesn't snark at Olivia, her employer. She does snark at Olivia's freeloading uncle Toby and his drinking buddy, since she's also stuck working for them ("A stoup of wine, Maria!")
    • And, of course, this is The Fool's job.
    Feste: Lady Olivia has no folly: she will keep no fool, sir, till she be married.
  • Shaped Like Itself: Almost to the extent of being a Running Gag.
    Sir Andrew: To be up late is to be up late!
    Feste: As the old hermit of Prague, that never saw pen and ink, very wittily said to a niece of King Gorboduc, 'That that is is;' so I, being Master Parson, am Master Parson; for, what is 'that' but 'that,' and 'is' but 'is'?
    Olivia: Tell me what thou think'st of me.
    Viola That you do think you are not what you are.
    Olivia: If I think so, I think the same of you.
    Viola: Then think you right; I am not what I am.
    Olivia: I would you were as I would have you be!
  • Shout-Out: Tybalt is named after Tybalt the cat from Reynard The Fox.
  • Sweet on Polly Oliver: Orsino to Viola
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Viola
  • Title Drop:
    Olivia: Go you, Malvolio: if it be a suit from the count, I am sick, or not at home; what you will, to dismiss it.
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: In the later acts, Sir Toby baits on Sir Andrew to attack "Cesario" on sight. This backfires on them when they attack Sebastian, who, unlike Cesario, is a good fighter. Antonio, who loves Sebastian, enters the fray, which gets him into trouble with the local Duke, who is the real Cesario's employer. And the Duke loses his temper when he finds out that his beloved, Olivia, has married Cesario. This being a comedy, however, things work out all right.
  • True Art Is Ancient: In-Universe; Orsino describes the melancholy song that he has Feste sing as "antique," and he praises it for recalling the innocence of love, "like the old days."
  • True Art Is Angsty: In-Universe, for the same song, "Come Away, Come Away, Death." Orsino is very pleased when Cesario praises the song highly.
  • Tree Cover: Maria, Toby, and Andrew hide in or behind a box tree according to the stage directions. Given boxwood refers to a small shrubbery or tree, this verges on Mobile Shrubbery in some productions.
  • Twelfth Night Adventure: Trope Namer
  • The Un-Smile: Malvolio. Puritan fellow. Doesn't smile a lot. If he doesn't give off at least one horrifying grimace by the end of this line, you're doing it wrong.
    Jove, I thank thee: I will smile; I will do everything that thou wilt have me!
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance of the Half-Identical Twins variety (Sebastian and Viola)
  • Upper-Class Twit: Andrew Aguecheek. Though with a name like that...
  • Walk On The Wild Side Episode: The rigid Puritan Malvolio lets it all hang out by dressing in flamboyant fashions meant for somebody twenty years younger and protests his love for his shocked female employer.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Even the stage directions seem to forget about Antonio by the end. While it's unlikely his love will be requited, we still don't know whether he'll escape punishment for his actions in the war.
  • Who Is This Guy Again?: Viola doesn't get named in the play itself — as opposed to the stage directions — until the very last scene. It doesn't hurt that she spends most of the play as "Cesario"...
    • Similarly, Feste has exactly one use of his name in the show, and that over halfway through.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Viola
  • Wimp Fight: Viola vs. Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Then subverted when Andrew's ready for a rematch — only to meet Viola's actually competent Half Identical Twin instead.
  • Women Are Wiser: in Orsino and "Cesario"'s dialogue, Orsino seems to be much less mature in his love than Viola, who is entirely capable of actually working for her love rather than sitting around and moping.