Separated in a shipwreck, twins Viola and Sebastian are washed ashore on different parts of the coast of Illyria, each believing the other to have been drowned. To protect herself in this unknown land, Viola disguises herself as a young man, takes the name Cesario and enters the service of Duke Orsino.
Orsino, pining with unrequited love for the Countess Olivia, employs “Cesario” as his go-between – a task that Viola diligently fulfils, despite her own growing feelings for Orsino. Her position becomes even more awkward when she realizes that Olivia, deceived by her male disguise, has fallen in love with her.
Meanwhile, Olivia’s uncle, the riotous Sir Toby Belch, holds nightly revels with Sir Andrew Aguecheek, another hapless suitor for Olivia’s hand. As a jest, Sir Toby persuades Aguecheek to challenge Cesario to a duel, assuming that each will be too timid to engage the other. He also, along with the maid Maria and the troubadour Feste, plays a practical joke on Malvolio, Olivia’s strict and disapproving household steward. Tricked into thinking Olivia is in love with him, Malvolio makes a fool of himself and they confine him as a madman.
Program notes by Robert Blacker
In Twelfth Night, a drunken Sir Toby
reminds us of the twelve days of Christmas when he misquotes the old song,
which begins, “On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me. . . .”
Twelfth Night was the last day of the Christmas holidays; the next day people
went back to work.
In his earlier comedies Shakespeare sends his lovers into the
woods – the forests of As You Like
It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example – where they discover their true selves. In Twelfth Night, Viola and
Sebastian set foot on equally magical ground, a holiday state of the mind
called Illyria, where parents and affairs of the state do not exist and
everyone is beset and infected by love. Although Shakespeare does not literally
set his play during Twelfth Night, the spirit of holiday revelry and holiday excess pervades the play. More ...
The atmosphere of overindulgence is established right at the
beginning, where the lovesick Duke speaks his famous lines:
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
In the holiday revels Shakespeare would have witnessed as a child,
a Lord of Misrule was selected to indulge the excess. Mardi Gras is a remnant
of those traditions that is still with us today. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare
evokes the Lord of Misrule in the figure of Sir Toby Belch. Like Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Sir Toby is an unemployed knight and he must depend on the
largess of his wealthy niece. To quote Ralph Berry, “he has rank and nothing
else, hence his addiction to spectator sports, conversation, drinking and
practical jokes. . . . His is the classic ennui of the
unemployed.” Sir Toby’s nemesis is Malvolio, and their opposition reflects a
profound change in Elizabethan society.
Sir Toby is a remnant of an England that under Elizabeth I moved
from its medieval past into the modern world. That world, with its emerging
middle class and work ethic, has no place for a knight-errant bon vivant, who has no
function in this new society. For his part, Malvolio is a model of cool,
upwardly mobile efficiency that is still with us today. He may be foolish, but
he is no fool. As Steward, he has charge of Olivia’s household. Whether
Malvolio is a true Puritan or merely a “time-pleaser” as Maria calls him –
someone who is religious because it is fashionable – he and Sir Toby are
natural enemies in a changing social order.
Toby rages when Malvolio tries to put an end to a late-night binge
with his companions: “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be
no more cakes and ale?” Their volcanic confrontation sets off much of the
action of the play. What makes the scene so memorable and so utterly
Shakespearean in its complexity is the intimation that the excess we see here
and elsewhere in the play masks the loneliness underneath.
Indeed, melancholy runs underneath the entirety of this sparkling
comedy. Shakespeare’s earlier love comedies may present us with a man who
remains single, notably Jaques in As You Like
It, but four bachelors remain
alone at the end of Twelfth
Night. For their part, the three
couples who are to be married are examples of movement up and down the social
ladder. Shakespeare shows us a cross-section of Elizabethan society at a time
when there was unprecedented social mobility in England, and it is the
potential couplings that are closest in class – Orsino/Olivia or
Olivia/Aguecheek – that are thwarted.
In good holiday tradition, the Lord of Misrule must be overthrown
before we return to the serious world of work. And so Sir Toby is beaten by
Sebastian, who everyone believes is Cesario, a name derived from Caesar. The
emergence of this new king is another layer of the play’s title, for Twelfth
Night, January 6, is also the Feast of the Epiphany, when the new king was
revealed to the three Wise Men.
Wisdom and folly in love are recurring motifs in the play, and
Feste, the professional fool, reminds us that the truly wise man admits that he
is a fool. He is another example of the changing Elizabethan world. In an
earlier time, he would have been attached solely to one household, as
Touchstone is in As You Like
It. Although Feste lives in
Olivia’s house, he also seems to freelance, working for both Olivia and the
Duke, and he must constantly ask for money.
Feste also reminds us that words can be twisted to mean their
opposite. And deception in all its forms runs rampant through Illyria, as the
lovers of the play must indulge their individual follies to excess before they
learn the lessons of love. Mad and madness are also recurring words in Twelfth Night, and from
its half-way point through to the end, its love-sick characters ask if they are
Only Malvolio refuses to admit that he is, and only he remains
outside the new social order that is established at the play’s end. His parting
shot, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,” however, reminds us that he
will not remain low on the social ladder for very long. Forty years after
Shakespeare wrote Twelfth
Night, the Puritans, under
Cromwell, would overthrow the British monarchy – and close the theatres.
Twelfth Night is the last party of the
Christmas season, and Twelfth Night is a farewell to an England that is now on the brink of the Queen’s
death. The word carnival means farewell to things of the flesh. Feste ends the play with a song
When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.
That melancholy song goes on to list work and love among the
foolish things of the world of adults, where the constant wind and rain are
alleviated only by fleeting entertainments such as the glorious one Shakespeare
gives us here.
Robert Blacker is Dramaturge for the Stratford Shakespeare
Director’s notes by Des McAnuff
So many different cultural and historical influences enrich our
lives nowadays that we seldom give them a moment’s thought. We see nothing
strange in the idea of enjoying an Indian or Chinese meal (accompanied perhaps
by a Spanish or Chilean wine and rounded off with an espresso or an Irish
liqueur), followed by, say, a French film adapted from a Russian novel. Yet the
same eclecticism we take for granted in our everyday lives can perplex some of
us when we encounter it in art.
Eclecticism – the mingling of styles from different periods or
different cultures – is one of the defining features of what today we call
“postmodernism,” a term associated with the avant-garde. Yet this mode of
creative juxtaposition is hardly new; indeed, it is one of the most striking
characteristics of Shakespeare’s art.More ...
In play after play, Shakespeare combines elements from different
eras, blends historical fact with obvious fantasy, and juggles styles that
range from the highest flights of poetic fancy to the authentic voice of the
common man. A Midsummer
Night’s Dream is an
obvious example, bringing together as it does figures from classical Greek
mythology, a supernatural world of fairies and sprites, and a comic troupe of
“Athenian” tradesmen who hail unmistakably from Shakespeare’s own England.
Even at his most self-consistent, Shakespeare is always writing as
much about his own time and place as about his story’s nominal setting, whether
it be eleventh-century Scotland or ancient Rome, and this dual focus was
reflected in the costuming of his actors. On the Elizabethan and Jacobean
stage, modern dress was the norm, with the theatre companies of the time
relying heavily for their regal wardrobes on cast-off finery from the
There is evidence, though, that the contemporary clothing was
sometimes combined with elements from other eras to evoke remote or exotic
settings. In a pen-and-ink drawing from the late sixteenth century, one Henry
Peacham left us what is believed to be the only contemporary illustration of a
Shakespearean performance. The drawing is of Titus Andronicus, and it
shows Titus wearing a rough approximation of a Roman toga with the other
characters in full Elizabethan attire. We can only assume that Shakespeare’s
original audiences saw nothing untoward in such a “mash-up” of periods.
The use of deliberate discrepancy seems particularly appropriate
to the world of Twelfth
Night – a play whose alternative
title, What You Will (or, as a teenager might say today, “Whatever”), practically
dictates a postmodernist approach. Certainly the “Illyria” where the action
takes place is not so much an actual geographic setting as it is a confused and
ever-changing state of mind. In this topsy-turvy fairy-tale world, the
hierarchy has been turned upside down: the ruler, Duke Orsino, has essentially
abdicated his responsibilities in order to moon over a woman who won’t give him
the time of day, leaving a power vacuum that allows the likes of Sir Toby Belch
to become a “lord of misrule.”
The play’s title refers to the Twelfth Night of Christmas, though
nothing else in the text points to that time of year. We instinctively feel
that its action, which covers a span of three days (or three months; here too
the play contradicts itself), is taking place in the summer. But the meaning of
the title is conceptual, not literal. The idea of Twelfth
Night suffuses the play: the last giddy day of holiday time before you go back
to work. This is a world of play – of eating and drinking, of gambling and
sport and, particularly, of music. Music abounds, not only in the
multitude of songs but in the poetic imagery as well. Mellifluous sounds drift
through the air and at times Illyria seems to float in space, as if we’ve all
entered some kind of musical dream.
To provide a framing device for this eclectic world of
imagination, I have turned to the past sixty years of popular music. Since the
middle of the twentieth century, diverse genres from various eras and cultures
have been adapted, combined and reinvented to produce some of the most exciting
music in the world – whether folk, rock, blues, country, folk-rock, country
rock, electro-pop, electric-country-blues, reggae or zydeco, as Polonius might
have put it. Popular music has informed the production by giving us an eclectic
style that serves costumes, lighting and scenery. In our production, Illyria is
the magical world of music on a holiday weekend.
If music, as Orsino says, be the food of love, then perhaps the
songs that dominate Twelfth Night have a central role to play in advancing the emotionally mixed-up
inhabitants of Illyria toward a more balanced and integrated state of mind in
which love can be trusted again so we can all go back to work.