Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Posted March 11, 2021 by Amber in Reviews / 2 Comments

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare

Publisher: John Heminge & Henry Condell on July 1, 1601
Genre: Classics, Plays, Romance
Target Age Group: Adult, New Adult, Young Adult
Content Warnings: Death of Parent, Grief, Homophobia, Transphobia, Violence

Rating: ★★★½

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Named for the twelfth night after Christmas, the end of the Christmas season, Twelfth Night plays with love and power. The Countess Olivia, a woman with her own household, attracts Duke (or Count) Orsino. Two other would-be suitors are her pretentious steward, Malvolio, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Onto this scene arrive the twins Viola and Sebastian; caught in a shipwreck, each thinks the other has drowned. Viola disguises herself as a male page and enters Orsino’s service. Orsino sends her as his envoy to Olivia—only to have Olivia fall in love with the messenger. The play complicates, then wonderfully untangles, these relationships.


Twelfth Night ranks up with A Midsummer Night’s Dream when you are looking at Shakespeare’s comedies that have been produced and adapted to death.  While this play about disguising your gender and falling in love and mistaken twins play have played better in he 1600s, these days there’s a lot to say about the underlying sense of homophobia, bullying, and implied transphobia of having a character dress in drag for the audience’s entertainment.  Fortunately because it’s a play, there are ways of interpreting this for the stage that can alleviate some of the problematic elements.

While Twelfth Night isn’t my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, it is a familiar one.  Viola and Sebastien are shipwrecked separately in a strange land.  Each assumes the other is dead.  Viola seeks employment with Count Orsino as a boy after being denied as a lady in waiting for Olivia, and Sebastien takes his sweet time coming to town with the wanted man Antonio.  The last two acts of the play are all about confusion of identity and proclamations of love.  It’s a bit unbalanced, leaning heavily into Viola’s charade for much of the early par of the book.. What’s more, I was a little bit surprised to find that Sir Toby Belch et al made up quick a lot of the scenes.  Shakespeare’s comedic trios more often support the lovers than upstage them (in my interpretations).

As when any play, I found myself assessing the characters and asking myself who I’d want to play.  For me, I still fall into the comedy instead of the leads – Viola is very flat and Olivia too changeable for my tastes.  This comedic trio was certainly not my favorite, and even though I pinpoint Maria as the mastermind… they’re all bullies.  Each of these characters spend a lot of time complaining about Olivia’s court, and go to great pains to make a fool of Malvolio… to the point where’s essentially locked up.  It’s in poor tastes, especially from a mental health perspective.

All this said, I am impressed by the care taken in the language.  Twelfth Night is certainly witty, for all its flaws.  Sometimes, I would find a single line would make me chuckle.  Even though the plot is quite predicable (all these comedies follow the same line of new people arrive + avoidable confusion and trickery = marriages galore), the language is impressive even this many years later.  Because I’ve read quite a lot of Shakespeare, I don’t have much trouble with the language and some of the antiquated terms, but the Folger’s editions have wonder accompanying explanations for anyone less comfortable with the work.

As a raw piece of material, Twelfth Night is lacking sheerly due to its reliance on problematic material to produce the comedic elements.  However, there are some things to be appreciated in the language of the play.  It also must be noted that this play is approximately 400 years old, and as such even the problematic elements are ripe for discussion and analysis.  If you haven’t experienced Twelfth Night, I would still recommend it as long as you are going in with the knowledge of how outdated the material is, just to experience Shakespeare’s witticism.  It’s a short book because it’s a play, so all dialogue.  I tend go into most plays with a director’s mindset, imaging the possibilities of how it could unfurl on stage.  Twelfth Night is ripe with possibilities.

Ratings Breakdown

Setting: ★★★
Plot: ★★ 1/2
Characters: ★★★
Writing: ★★★★★
Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
Personal Enjoyment: ★★★★

three and a half star rating


Twelfth Night Stays on the Shelf

Twelfth Night stays on the shelf… not so much because it’s a brilliant piece of work that I will revisit over and over again, but because it’s a story that incites my imagination.  I see so many ways Twelfth Night could be retold in a modern context and address the more problematic elements within.

Also, just as a rule… I like Shakespeare?  I know the plays did not necessarily age well, but the comedies are hilarious, the tragedies dramatic and heartbreaking, and the histories fascinating.  I go into these plays with the knowledge of their shortcomings, but I still enjoy the clever writing.


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If you are familiar with Twelfth Night, what character would you want to play?  Are you a fan of the besotted Count Orsino?  Or are you more of a boisterous character like Sir Toby?  Let me know in the comments!

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2 responses to “Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

  1. Jan

    I’m a fellow Shakespeare fan and although I haven’t read Twelfth Night I’ve acted in few of the dramas. Some of them are extremely problematic in today’s point of view – cough* Taming of the Shrew* – but his witty dialogue is excellent. I loved reading this post!?

    • Amber

      Oh my goodness yes – Taming is a piece of work. And it’s SO highly adapted, while often NOT fixing the sexist elements. *sigh*. The dialogue patterns and wordplay are timeless – worth studying for the craft of not the content.