If music be the food of love, play on.
—Orsino, who is In Love with Love, music, and, ostensibly, the Countess Olivia. And bad puns. (Twelfth Night I.i.1)
One of the weakest plays that I ever saw on the stage
A woman gets shipwrecked, dresses as a boy to get a job, and gets involved in a bizarre Love Dodecahedron. A subplot involves yellow stockings.
Actually, that sums up Shakespeare's play pretty well. Viola has been shipwrecked in Illyria, and the captain tells her that the wreck carried off her twin brother as well. Being a gentlewoman, Viola is bereft of skills aside from singing and other musical arts (at which she says she is proficient), and so decides to dress up as a young eunuch so she might find employment under the Duke Orsino (see above), of whom she has heard good things (she would rather serve the Countess Olivia, but the lady, heartbroken by the loss of her father and brother, has sworn off male company and presumably is not hiring).
After a mere three days in Orsino's service, the Duke is so charmed with the "boy" Cesario that he sends him off to woo the Countess on Orsino's behalf (citing how
suspiciously innocently feminine he is). Olivia is not pleased to see Cesario as she has grown sick of Orsino's wooing, and answers sarcastically to the Duke's sentimental verses. Viola, however, can hold her own on the field of snarking, and refuses to see Orsino's suit so answered (in case one has not inferred, she has fallen hard for Orsino). She banters with and challenges Olivia, who finds herself falling in love with the spirited "chap." When Viola's Half Identical Twin brother shows up, the fun just gets started...
Now the subplot: [deep breath] Olivia has given over the management of her household to her Puritan steward Malvolio, whose new position causes him to look down on Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch. Sir Toby is taking advantage of a brainless rich boy named Andrew Aguecheek, by convincing the hapless Sir Andrew that Olivia would like to marry him. However, Olivia has no intention of the kind, and Sir Toby simply likes to use Andrew's money to fund his drinking and revelry. Malvolio comes down hard on Sir Toby, who, along with Olivia's handmaid Maria, decides to play a little trick on the lecherous social climber Malvolio...
Meanwhile, Feste, Olivia's father's jester, has returned to seek employment, and is tasked by Olivia to watch over Toby, but wanders here and there, watches everyone, and laughs in his sleeve and out of it.
All in all one of Shakespeare's lighter, sillier plays (albeit one with quite a dark undertone), but a classic of English literature nonetheless. It's been adapted as a movie twice--a silent version in 1910 and, more notably, Trevor Nunn's entertaining 1996 version which transported the characters into a setting reminiscent of Victorian England and/or Wilhelmine Germany. The plot was also the basis for the 2006 teen comedy She's the Man.
- Aerith and Bob: Viola, Cesario, Sebastian, Orsino, Olivia, Malvolio, Feste, Curio, Fabian, Antonio... Andrew and Toby.
- All Love Is Unrequited: Viola loves Orsino, who loves Olivia, who loves Cesario, who is Viola. Eventually, they get it all sorted out happily, though.
- Angsty Surviving Twin: The premise, though, not the conclusion.
- Berserk Button: Orsino very nearly loses it when he hears that his lady-love Olivia has married his page. However, careful listening to his monologue reveals that what he's really mad about is losing Cesario.
- Bifauxnen: Viola.
- Bittersweet Ending: Feste's melancholic ending song aside, most everyone got a happy ending, except for Antonio, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Malvolio.
- Boisterous Weakling: Sir Andrew.
Maria: ...besides that he's a fool he's a great quarreler, and but that he had the gift of a coward to allay the gust he hath in quarreling, 'tis thought among the prudent he would quickly have the gift of a grave.
- Butt Monkey: Malvolio and Andrew Aguecheek.
- Childfree Is Not Allowed: One argument why Olivia should marry.
- Compressed Hair: Not universal, but very common for Viola.
- Conveniently an Orphan: All we know about Viola and Sebastian's family is that their father is dead. By the sounds of it, they're all that each other has in the world.
- Cover Changes the Meaning: Feste's song at the end. Trevor Nunn's version makes it a fairly jubilant little number, but other versions range from bittersweet to plain sorrowful.
- Deadpan Snarker:
- Feste. "Corrupter of words" indeed.
- Not to mention Olivia. Her first appearance.
Olivia: Give us the place alone: we will hear this divinity. Now, sir, what is your text?
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Olivia, who thaws out pretty quickly.
- Dispense with the Pleasantries: Olivia will not allow Viola to continue with Orsino's declaration of love to her.
Viola: Most sweet lady...
- Disproportionate Retribution: Feste, Sir Toby Belch, and Fabian have Malvolio locked up in a small, completely darkened room with no candle or food or water, because he's a presumptuous stick-in-the-mud who hates parties.
- Driven to Villainy: After getting yanked around the entire play, Malvolio loses it at the happy ending and vows revenge on the whole lot of them.
- Dropping the Bombshell: When Olivia calls Cesario/Viola "husband" in the last scene.
- Due to the Dead: Olivia even overdoes it.
- The Dulcinea Effect: How well Orsino actually knows Olivia is questionable.
- Either or Title: Played with.
- Everyone Is Bi: Averted, but just barely. With all the (misaimed?) crushes going on, the audience is definitely invited to wonder.
- Foil: Feste and Malvolio. See also Meaningful Name below.
- Freudian Slip: When Orsino's Berserk Button is pushed (he finds out that Olivia loves Cesario), he threatens to murder Cesario, comparing himself to an Egyptian thief who murdered his own lover to keep her from being tortured. He's inadvertently revealing that Cesario is the one he's in love with.
- Gender Bender: You better believe it. (On top of everything else, all stage roles in Shakespeare's day were played by men... so Cesario, for example, would be a man dressed up as a woman dressed up as a man. Got it?)
- Girls with Moustaches: In many productions, Viola dons a fake moustache as part of her Cesario disguise.
- Half-Identical Twins: Viola and Sebastian seems to be this since many characters mistake them for one another when Viola masquerades as Cesario.
- Heterosexual Life Partners: Antonio and Sebastian, although not necessarily heterosexual on Antonio's part, depending on the presentation.
Hide Your LesbiansTrick Your Lesbians Into Marrying Guys: Scholars have debated about Olivia for a long time: she married "Cesario" thinking he was male, but she fell in love with the female Viola. Fortunately, Viola and Sebastian are similar in temperament and character as well as looks - this is possibly Lampshaded with the line "You are betrothed both to a man and maid."
- Hourglass Plot: Antonio saved Sebastian's life after a horrific storm, when they were both mired in a strange country. Antonio grew very close to Sebastian, and even got into a duel in Sebastian's defense. When Antonio was placed under arrest by Orsino, his old rival, he expected that Sebastian would help him out — only for Sebastian to act like he's never met Antonio before. Fortunately, that wasn't actually Sebastian.
- Hypocritical Humor:
Sir Toby: I hate a drunken rogue.
- If I Can't Have You: Orsino's reaction when he figures out that Olivia is in love with Cesario, more or less:
Come, boy, with me; my thoughts are ripe in mischief:
- If I Were a Rich Man: Malvolio, in a daydream that he reveals to the audience.
- I Have This Friend: An interesting variant, in that Viola says a bunch of things that are literally true, but meant to be taken this way:
My father had a daughter loved a man,
- Incredibly Lame Pun: They're all over the place, along with some not-so-lame puns as well.
Viola (asking Feste if he makes a living playing music): Dost though live by thy tabor?
- Informed Ability: Viola tells the captain that she can sing well, and thus she inveigles herself into the court of the music-loving Orsino, but we never see her sing within the context of the play.
- This being theater, it depends on the production-- the recent Shakespeare in the Park production with Anne Hathaway specifically cast singers, had the band Hem compose music for the in-show songs, and in general had so much music that they released an (excellent) soundtrack.
- In Love with Love: The Duke Orsino.
- Insistent Terminology: Used humorously by Feste. He's not Olivia's fool, he's her "corrupter of words".
- Ironic Echo: One of the most memorable ever employed.
Malvolio: I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal: I saw him put down the other day with an ordinary fool that has no more brain than a stone. Look you now, he's out of his guard already; unless you laugh and minister occasion to him, he is gagged...
- In the final scene:
Feste: "By the Lord, fool, I am not mad." But do you remember? "Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascal? And you smile not, he's gagg'd." And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.
- Karmic Trickster: Feste the jester embodies this role. He points out the logical flaws in Olivia's mourning, sees through even Viola's clever wordplay, and cuts the pompous, Puritan Malvolio down to size... and then some.
- Kick the Dog: The severity of Malvolio's imprisonment varies with production, but in general the level of Mind Screw that Feste and the others put him through is a little bit excessive, even if he is a Jerkass.
- Lampshade Hanging of the "Message from Fred" variety:
Fabian: If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.
- Love Dodecahedron: Orsino is pining after Olivia, who's got a thing for "Cesario", his actually-female servant, who invokes the ire of Malvolio, Olivia's steward who dreams of marrying her, meanwhile Cesario-actually-Viola tries to suppress her love for Orsino while dodging challenges from Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who is also courting the Countess, but who accidentally runs into Viola's twin brother...
- The tagline for She's the Man pokes fun at this, in full, it goes: "Duke wants Olivia who likes Sebastian who is really Viola whose brother is dating Monique so she hates Olivia who's with Duke to make Sebastian jealous who is really Viola who's crushing on Duke who thinks she's a guy..."
- Loving a Shadow: Orsino for Olivia. He even says as much - he says he doesn't care about her fabulous inheritance and wealth, but for her beauty, without a hint of self-consciousness. Well done, dude.
- In the 1996 movie, Orsino seemed to imply that what made him fall in love with Olivia was her dedication to upholding her vow of not loving a man for seven years after. He loves her because he admires her dedication towards NOT loving anyone out of love for her father and brother, and so decided to woo her while she's still mourning. YMMV, but this made him seem very stupid since the whole reason he "loves" her is because she's refusing to love anyone!
- Possibly lampshaded when Maria refers to Malvolio "practicing behavior to his own shadow".
- Meaningful Name: Malvolio is derived from the term "ill-wisher" and Feste has the same root as "festival". Guess which roles they play in the story.
- Men Are Better Than Women: A belief of Orsino's, not uncommon in Elizabethan England. He's set straight by the end of the play.
- My Sibling Will Live Through Me: Olivia marries Sebastian, thinking that he's Viola.
- Narcissist: A running theme. Orsino thinks he's in love with Olivia, but actually he's in love with himself ("my desires, like fell and cruel hounds/E'er since pursue me."). Viola, hopeless in her love for him because he doesn't know that she's a girl, plays the role of Echo. In the subplot, Malvolio is also this. Even Olivia's excessive mourning is treated as being selfish. One professional production drove the point home by using a gigantic illustration of Narcissus as a backdrop.
- No One Could Survive That: Shipwreck at sea, according to the old Sea Captain.
- No Periods, Period: Averted, if only in a minor way. Olivia dismisses "Cesario" by snapping, "'Tis not that time of moon with me to make one in so skipping a dialogue." Cue Olivia's handmaid Maria trying to usher Cesario out: "Will you set sail sir? Here lies your way!"
- Not So Above It All: Malvolio, who turns to the frivolity that he condemns when he believes that it is the way to win over Olivia.
- Orphan's Ordeal: A mild example, but Olivia has recently inherited the title of Countess from her dead father and brother, and at the start of the play is deeply mourning them both, and plans to spend the next seven years in mourning.
- Paper-Thin Disguise: Viola as Cesario.
- Playing Cyrano: Orsino wants "Cesario" to act as such, not because Orsino is bad with words (far from it) but because Olivia might be more receptive to Cesario's delicacy.
- Rags to Royalty: Neither Sebastian nor Viola are stated to be of any great lineage and yet they marry a Duke and a Countess.
- The Reveal: To someone just watching the play, sans playbill, Viola's name is not revealed until towards the end of the very last scene.
- Servile Snarker:
- Maria... although she doesn't snark at Olivia, her employer. She does snark at Olivia's freeloading uncle Toby and his drinking buddy, since she's also stuck working for them ("A stoup of wine, Maria!").
- And, of course, this is The Fool's job.
Feste: Lady Olivia has no folly: she will keep no fool, sir, till she be married.
Sir Andrew: To be up late is to be up late!
Olivia: Go you, Malvolio: if it be a suit from the count, I am sick, or not at home; what you will, to dismiss it.
- A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: In the later acts, Sir Toby baits on Sir Andrew to attack "Cesario" on sight. This backfires on them when they attack Sebastian, who, unlike Cesario, is a good fighter. Anthony, who loves Sebastian, enters the fray, which gets him into trouble with the local Duke, who is the real Cesario's employer. And the Duke loses his temper when he finds out that his beloved, Olivia, has married Cesario. This being a comedy, however, things work out all right.
- Tree Cover: Maria, Toby and Andrew hide in or behind a box tree according to the stage directions. Given boxwood refers to a small shrubbery or tree, this verges on Mobile Shrubbery in some productions.
- Twelfth Night Adventure
- The Un-Smile: Malvolio. Puritan fellow. Doesn't smile a lot. If he doesn't give off at least one horrifying grimace by the end of this line, you're doing it wrong.
Jove, I thank thee: I will smile; I will do everything that thou wilt have me!
- Uncanny Family Resemblance of the Half-Identical Twins variety (Sebastian and Viola).
- Upper Class Twit: Andrew Aguecheek. Though with a name like that...
- Upper Class Wit: Duke Orsino.
- Sir Toby, too, though he's far less classy.
- Walk On the Wild Side Episode: The rigid Puritan Malvolio lets it all hang out by dressing in flamboyant fashions meant for somebody twenty years younger and protests his love for his shocked female employer.
- Who Is This Guy Again?: Viola doesn't get named in the play itself -- as opposed to the stage directions -- until the very last scene. It doesn't hurt that she spends most of the play as "Cesario"...
- Similarly, Feste has exactly one use of his name in the show, and that over halfway through.
- Wholesome Crossdresser: Viola.
- Wimp Fight: Viola vs. Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Then subverted when Andrew's ready for a rematch -- only to meet Viola's actually competent Half Identical Twin instead.
- Women Are Wiser: In Orsino and "Cesario"'s dialogue, Orsino seems to be much less mature in his love than Viola, who is entirely capable of actually working for her love rather than sitting around and moping.
- Word Salad Title: Twelfth Night refers to its first performance.