Twelfth Night is one of my all-time favourite Shakespeare plays. It’s full title is actually Twelfth Night, or What You Will and was written in the first years of the 1600s. This comedy was written for the final night, or “Twelfth Night”, of the Christmas season, however it wasn’t published until 1623. It’s a wildly popular play and served as inspiration for several stage adaptations and movie versions. Here are my favourite movie versions:
- 1910: silent, short adaptation, Twelfth Night
- 1996: film adaptation set in 19th century, Twelfth Night or What You Will
- 2001: Disney Channel Original Movie adaptation in the world of motocross racing, Motocrossed
- 2006: a modern teenage comedy, She’s the Man
The story is about twins Viola and Sebastian who get separated in a shipwreck. To protect herself, Viola dresses up as a boy and becomes the page “Cesario” for Duke Orsino, who she soon falls in love with. Orsino is in love with Lady Olivia, who in her turn falls in love with “Cesario” when the Duke sends him as a go-between to win the Lady’s favour. When Sebastian come to the same shores, looking for his sister, confusion ensues. Lady Olivia mistakes him for “Cesario” and asks him to marry her. Sebastian accepts and Olivia and Sebastian get married. When the newlyweds meet the Duke and his page “Cesario”, they marvel at how similar “Cesario” and Sebastian look, at which point “Cesario” reveals that he is really Viola. The lost twins reunite and at the end of the play, the Duke asks Viola to marry him.
Shakespeare plays with the mistaken identities, which is one of the major themes of this comedy. I think that this is one of the reasons has stayed so popular over the years, and is still being performed and adapted. It’s a very universal feeling of being mistaken for someone else, and it is taken a step further through the cross-dressing of the main character. At the time of Shakespeare however, this added an extra comedic layer. During Shakespeare’s time, women were not allowed on the stage. All female roles were played by men cross-dressing as women. So in Twelfth night, the character of Cesario was in fact a man, playing a woman, playing a man. Talk about complicated!
Because of the recognizable themes of this play, the comedic plots and storylines and the overall likeable characters, this is one of the more accessible Shakespeare plays. I read it both in Shakespearian English, as in a modern English translation. If you have seen any of the modern movie or play adaptations, I would recommend you read it in the original English, as it will add an extra layer to the story.
Have you read Twelfth Night? Or seen any of the contemporary adaptations? What did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!