Twelfth Night, or What You Will
16 December 2023
Twelfth Night, or What You Will is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed comedies. It was written between 1600 and 1602 and first performed at the court of Queen Elizabeth I on Candlemas Eve in 1602.
The main character, a nobleman’s daughter Viola, is rescued from a shipwreck somewhere in Illyria and tries to make a living in a foreign place entering the service for the local nobility. Meanwhile, Countess Olivia, who is mourning her brother, refuses to see anyone, so Viola disguises herself as a man and takes a job with Duke Orsino as his valet Cesario. Obsessed by his love for the unattainable Olivia, the Duke begins to send his valet Cesario to help him in his courtship. Olivia, however, falls in love with Cesario, and Cesario-Viola falls in love with her master, Duke Orsino. This rather hopeless love triangle is encircled by a company of merry men, courtiers and servants who concoct a plot against Olivia’s haughty butler, the pompous Puritan Malvolio. The multi-layered plot is resolved when they are joined by Viola’s twin brother Sebastian, also a shipwreck survivor. The emotions, overt and hidden, secret identities, gender fluidity (currently so now popular), the same-sex affection, all is resolved in Shakespeare’s triple marriage, as befits a Renaissance comedy. But what remains recurrently appealing in the play for contemporary audience, is a wide range of obsessions, shifting emotions, rowdiness, rude jokes, all kinds of indulgences, and the fact that vicissitudes of love can torment anyone, regardless of their status in society.
By calling his play What You Will, Shakespeare perfectly encapsulated the essence of the situation in which his comical heroes find themselves, tormented by their amorous and other aspirations. Nowadays, the title sounds strikingly contemporary. We feel that everything is at our disposal, everything is allowed, and everything is possible. But the hardest thing is to work out what we actually want. And even then, no harm will be done if the magic of the Twelfth Night, the last night of the Twelve days of Christmas, will help us make our desires come true.