“Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare

“Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare (1601) – 61 pages

It was the twelfth night of Christmas.  The  celebration has gone on for the full twelve days with great reverence and with religious ceremony in honor of the holy mother Mary and her son Jesus.   Now Christmas is over, and it is time for some wild fun.  In Shakespeare, wild fun takes the form of too much alcohol, excessive eating, cruel practical jokes played on one another, women dressing up like men, music, and a lot of romance.  This is Merrie Olde England after all.

“Twelfth Night” is one of William Shakespeare’s comedies.  According to the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays, “Twelfth Night” was written in 1601, immediately after he had completed “Hamlet”.

“Twelfth Night” takes place in the far away land of Illyria which is in modern day Albania.  The ship carrying twin brother and sister Sebastian and Viola has just been wrecked off the coast of Illyria, and neither knows what happened to the other.  Viola has lost all her clothes in the shipwreck, and that is when she decides to start wearing men’s clothes.  Dressed as a man and now with the name Cesario she gets a position working for the Duke Orsino and becomes his intermediary in wooing Lady Olivia.

Besides all the romantic complications, “Twelfth Night” has a wide variety of broad comic characters.  These include Olivia’s fool Feste and her ne’er-do-well uncle Sir Toby Belch and his drunken friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek.   Sir Toby and Sir Andrew cause so much trouble that Olivia’s steward Malvolio wants to kick them out of the house.  Later though, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew get their revenge on Malvolio with an elaborate cruel practical joke.

It is mentioned in the play that Malvolio is a Puritan.  That got me to thinking that Shakespeare lived until 1616, and the Pilgrim ship the Mayflower came to Massachusetts in 1620, so there was likely some overlap between the Shakespeare era and the Puritan era in England.  Shakespeare definitely comes out in “Twelfth Night” on the side of Merrie Olde England over the Puritans, as Malvolio is severely mistreated in the play for humorous effect.

The most famous line in the play is the following.

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

This line is used as a cruel joke to make a buffoon out of Malvolio who takes excessive pride in himself.  Yet now I hear this same line spoken on television praising someone in all seriousness.  From now on, I will realize that the person so praised is being made into a buffoon by this over-praise.

I listened to “Twelfth Night” on audio disk.  I find audio disk the ideal format for listening to Shakespeare’s plays, because the dialogue in the plays was meant to be spoken anyway, and with audio disk you can listen over and over as many times as you need or want to fully understand the play.  I usually find it great fun to listen to Shakespeare, and the play “Twelfth Night” was no exception.  The only disadvantage to listening to “Twelfth Night” on audio disk is that you can hear the comic character Sir Toby Belch actually belch.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Not having an English language upbringing, I’ve never had to read any Shakespeare, and I still haven’t. People say it’s fun and not all that difficult, so maybe I just should. The idea to listen to audio might work for me – thanks!

    My son (doing a bilingual education with English as his second language) did a sort-of performance of Twelfth Night at school so I know a bit about the story already. This may be a good story to start with.



    • Hi Leeswammes,
      It was the Kenneth Branaugh/Emma Thompson movie “Much Ado About Nothing” that got me hooked on Shakespeare comedies. That movie was so much fun. Like many, I started with the four major Shakespeare tragedies (Hamlet, MacBeth, King Lear, and Othello), then some of the historical plays (Henry IV Parts I and II, Richard III, etc). I came to the comedies last, but have found them to be good fun.



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