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Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

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  • Pages: 4
  • Word count: 910
  • Category: Play

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Never assume, for you run the risk of making an ASS out of U and ME. That is the underlying theme of the Shakespearean comedy The Twelfth Night. Mistaken identities and incorrect assumptions are the rule rather than the exception in the mythical land of Illyria.

A shipwreck has stranded identical twin brother and sister Sebastian and Viola. Each fears the other has perished in the wreck . Viola learns from the ship’s captain that they are in Illyria, where the Duke Orsino is pursuing the wealthy Countess Olivia, in mourning over the recent loss of her father and brother. Viola identifies with her grief over her brother and wishes to serve her. Told this was impossible as the Countess has resigned herself to seven years’ solitude due to her grief, Viola turns her attention toward the Duke. Understanding a woman is not allowed to serve male royalty, she convinces the ship captain to disguise her as a man., so she may join the Duke’s court. In her disguise she looks remarkably similar to her brother and the twins’ appearances form the foundation of the rest of the play.

Countess Olivia’s court also gets into the assumption game with the siblings as well as with one another. Her uncle Sir Toby is the leader of a trio that includes his wealthy, but dimwitted, friend Sir Andrew , and Fabian. Toby, rowdy and often drunken, is dependent on Andrew’s wealth for his livelihood. He convinces his benefactor to pursue his niece Olivia to prevent him from moving away and taking his fortune with him. Maria, gentlewoman to the Countess, has the added responsibility of supervising the fun-loving trio.

The vain and arrogant steward Malvolio is the object of ridicule for the rest of the court. Feste the Clown is the court jester, entertaining the others with humor and music. Some members of the court remind one of the Marx Brothers and can see them in the roles in a movie version of the play. Groucho would be a natural as Sir Toby, the ribald operator determined to milk his cash cow Andrew, who could be played by brother Harpo. Chico could handle the role of court jester/musician Feste. The brothers’ longtime comic foil Margaret Dumont would be perfect as the preening peacock Malvolio, the object of the trio’s taunts.

Upon arrival in Illyria, Viola has adopted the male name “Cesario”. Duke Orsino uses his new servant as a go-between for his hoped-for romance with Olivia. The grief-stricken Countess rebuffs his advances delivered by Cesario, but begins to take an interest instead in his new servant. Meanwhile, Viola does the same with Orsino, but is prevented from acting on her feelings due to her new role. The triangle deepens as the man refuses to take “no” for an answer and the women suffer with unrequited love.

Toby, Andrew, Maria, and Fabian take advantage of an opportunity against their nemesis Malvolio. After a night of revelry, the three men cause a disturbance at the Countess’ mansion. The steward orders her to rein in the partiers, lest he report all of them to Olivia. The quartet concocts a ruse to ensnare the self-loving Malvolio. Maria writes a love letter, ostensibly from the Countess, professing her love for her steward.

She asks that he don yellow stockings and cross-garters to win her hand. The letter is planted and all hide to watch their plan go into effect. Their mark falls for the scam much to their delight. When he arrives at the mansion wearing the ridiculous garb, he is adjudged by Olivia as mad, and ironically, put into the custody of his tormentors. Locked in a dark room, Malvolio is visited by Feste, disguised as a priest, who gets in on the act by proclaiming him to be insane.

Sebastian’s arrival in Illyria brings the confusion to a climax. Those who know only him and those who know only Viola justifiably confuse one for the other. The pirate Antonio, wanted in Illyria, nevertheless accompanies Sebastian there, giving the twin his wallet for safe-keeping. Later on, he saves Viola/Cesario from a swordfight with the jealous Andrew who has seen her/him with his pined-for Olivia. When the pirate asks for his wallet, Cesario is dumbstruck. Feste confuses the two, also. Later imprisoned, Antonio argues with Orsino, each claiming to have been in the recent company of Sebastian. To complicate matters even further, Olivia has secretly wedded Cesario.

The humorous confusion is finally resolved when Sebastian and Viola meet by accident. They ask each other a series of questions leading to their realizations that they are their long-lost siblings. Viola professes her love for the Duke, who takes her as his mistress. Sebastian falls for Olivia and assumes his sister’s role as her husband. And the imperious Malvolio is released from prison, only to discover he was duped by his colleagues. He leaves the otherwise happy scene, swearing vengeance.

In conclusion, confusion over the identical twins causes most of the major characters to make erroneous assumptions about the siblings and themselves. But, to borrow the title of another play penned by the Bard; All’s Well that Ends Well .

absoluteshakespeare.com. Retrieved from the Internet March 21, 2007.
Shakespeare Magazine. Volume 7, Issue 3, Fall 2003.
Shakespeare Magazine. Volume 1, Issue 3, spring 1997
William Shakespeare, The Complete Works. Reprinted 1991. Editors Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Oxford University Press.

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