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Definition: Twelfth Night from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Comedy by William Shakespeare, first performed in 1601–02. The plot builds on misunderstandings and mistaken identities, leading to the successful romantic unions of Viola and her twin brother Sebastian with Duke Orsino and Olivia respectively, and the downfall of Olivia's steward Malvolio.


Shakespeare, William: Twelfth Night; Or What You Will, I i

Shakespeare, William: Twelfth Night; Or What You Will, from I v


Wheatley, Francis Twelfth Night


Shakespeare, William Twelfth Night

Summary Article: Twelfth Night: or What You Will
from Dictionary of Shakespeare, Peter Collin Publishing

One of Shakespeare's late comedies, written around 1599-1600 and first published in the First Folio edition of 1623, Twelfth Night was probably first performed in 1601. Principal sources of the play were the story of Apolonius and Silla in Farewell to Militarie Profession by the soldier and writer Barnabe Riche (c. 1549-1617) and a version of an earlier short story by François de Belleforest (1530-83). The play explores themes of delusion and disguise and different kinds of love.


Identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, are shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria. They are separated and each thinks the other is dead. Viola, intrigued by a romantic story she hears surrounding Duke Orsino, disguises herself as a boy and calling herself 'Cesario', enters the Duke's employment as his page. Orsino is in love with Olivia and instructs Viola/Cesario to court her on his behalf. Unfortunately, Olivia falls violently in love with Viola/Cesario, while at the same time Viola is falling in love with her master, Orsino. A farcical situation develops and becomes increasingly complex when Sebastian appears on the scene and is mistaken by everyone for his twin sister. Olivia, believing he is Cesario, easily persuades Sebastian into getting married and angers Orsino as a result. In a happy resolution, Viola's identity is revealed and she and Sebastian are reunited. Orsino realizes that it is Viola whom he truly loves and they are married.

A comic subplot centres on members of Olivia's household, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Maria and Feste. They have a long-running quarrel with the

Puritan Malvolio, Olivia's self-important and disapproving steward. They contrive his downfall in a plot involving a forged letter, apparently written by Olivia, inviting him to make love to her. His subsequent behaviour is so bizarre that he is treated as if he were a lunatic, and locked up. When Malvolio is eventually released, he swears vengeance on everyone.

The comedy in Shakespeare's time would have been heightened by the fact that the actor playing Viola would actually have been a boy, who was acting the part of a girl playing a boy.

See alsoAguecheek, Sir Andrew, anagnorisis, Antonio, Armin, Robert, Belch, Sir Toby, Belleforest, François de, Captain, Cesario, Clown, Curio, enjambement, Fabian, Feste, fool, Granville Barker, Harley, Hermia, heroine, impersonation, Inns of Court, Lord Chamberlain's Men, The, madness, Malvolio, Maria, music, Olivia, Orsino, Duke, Page, play production and performance, Priest, Puritan, refrain, rhyme, Riche, Barnabe, satire, Sebastian, Shakespeare, William, Shakespeare's Plays, sources, Topas, Viola, wit

Dictionary of Shakespeare, Peter Collin Publishing, © Louise McConnell 2000

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