“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool

And to do that well craves a kind of wit (3,i,24-5)


In one of my favorite scenes in Twelfth Night, Feste, a jester employed by the household of the Countess Olivia and usually referred to as the Fool, returns from an unexplained absence.

“Take the fool away,” says Olivia.

But the Fool, knowing she needs to placate her boss, proposes the kind of game she knows will engage her because, after all, she has known her since she was born. She suggests that Olivia is in fact the fool: “Do you not hear, sir?” she says to the attendant servant Malvolio, “Take away the lady.”

The Lady responds with an acknowledgement of the game but she delivers it with a reprimand: “Go to, you’re a dry fool. I’ll no more of you. Besides, you grow dishonest.” And by “dishonest”, in Elizabethan English, she means unreliable because he has not been around for a while.

Feste replies: “Two faults, Madonna, that drink and good counsel will amend. For give the dry fool drink, then is the fool not dry … If that this simple syllogism will serve, so. If it will not, what remedy? The lady bade take away the Fool: therefore, I say again, take her away.” He goes on, via a little dabbling in Latin (“cucullus non facit monachum” – or “the hood does not make the monk”), to claim that he will prove her to be a fool:

Feste: Good Madonna, give me leave to prove you a Fool.

Olivia: Can you do it?

Feste: Dexteriously, good Madonna.

Olivia: Make your proof.

Feste: I must catechize you for it, Madonna. Good my mouse of virtue, answer me.

And so it goes. Feste is close to Olivia. She would have been an interesting, neutral and probably quite liberal companion at times during the childhood of the young noblewoman, and that closeness and affection are evident in the playful endearment “my mouse of virtue”. Throughout Twelfth Night the relationship between Feste and  Olivia is a kind of emotional bedrock. Feste knows his Lady well enough to be able to joust with her about her dead brother, and later in the play he challenges her in a way that does not undermine but supports her.

The tradition in which noble households employed a Fool, or a jester, as a kind of TikTok or Instagram, lasted through the medieval and tudor periods to the middle of the 17th century in England – longer in some European countries. Fools were originally entertainers, making jokes, singing and clowning. And almost all fools were men, though there are a few examples of women as fools, for example La Jardinière who was jester to Catherine de Médicis in the 16th century, and Astaude du Puy who was jester to Henrietta Maria, Wife to Charles 1 of France in the 17th century; some historians include Jane the Fool, who served Ann Boleyn, Princess Mary and Katherine Parr. So if you experienced a jolt when I used the pronoun “she” when I was referring to Feste at the top of this article (as I do), the reason is that in Curtain’s production this year Feste is played by a woman. Of the streamable productions mentioned in my blog on Editions and Resources for this production, only one has a female Feste, played by Doon Mackichan, who matches the female Malvolia played by Tamsin Greig in the National Theatre production of 2017.

The historical Fools may well have been close to their families of employment, rather in the way childminders are now. But the tradition took on a wider and more complex significance in literature, notably in the work of William Shakespeare. We can see that in the familiarity, at times quite intimate, between Feste and Olivia. Feste frequently calls her Madonna, or Good Madonna, and he uses the epithet as a kind of cord bringing her closer or turning her sideways, opening her up or drawing her attention. “Madonna” literally means “My Lady”, but in Elizabethan England as now it will have referred to an ideal Lady along the lines of the Virgin Mary; Feste’s reverence for Olivia is evident in the way he addresses her. 

The nature of the Fool in Shakespeare evolved. Shakespeare’s sophistication as a writer developed, allowing him to treat a wide range of themes and deal with multiple character traits deftly in a single character or exchange between characters. And during the rich and dynamic period in which Shakespeare’s plays were written and first performed there was an efflorescence of actors as Fools, who brought with them their own kinds of foolery and influenced Shakespeare in the way he wrote their parts. At least one of them, it seems, caused offence by over-stepping the mark. In Hamlet, when introducing the play-within-a-play to the small troupe of players, the eponymous prince gives this advice:

…let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the Fool that uses it. (Hamlet, 3,ii,38-9)

Theater historians wonder whether Shakespeare was directing his words at one of the regular fool-actors of the 1590s, and of course they tend to point their finger at Will Kemp, who was very popular, known for his ability to get a laugh out of the audience, and whose talent was grounded in physical strength and dexterity. He played Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream and Falstaff in Henry IV and Merry Wives; I don’t include Falstaff in a list of Shakespeare’s Fools, but there are critics and historians who do.

Though physical humor and music were hallmarks of the Fool in the earlier plays, the humor of Shakespeare’s Fools became more verbal (for example, the malapropisms of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing) and ultimately philosophical. Twelfth Night’s Feste is a much-discussed example of the philosophical fool, along with poor Tom in King Lear; and Robert Armin, who appeared in many of Shakespeare’s later plays, performed them both. An interesting article on the men who performed as Shakespeare’s fools can be found in the British Library’s online article “Shakespeare’s Fools” by Eric Rasmussen and Ian deJong: https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/shakespeares-fools

Feste is one of the complex fools, a great character who has been used in different ways by different directors. In Trevor Nunn’s film of the play (1996), Ben Kingsley plays the omniscient Fool, aware of everyone’s secrets and given to a melancholy commentary on the behavior and speech of the other characters; there is something a little existential about the way he is played. Tommy Steele, in the 1970 TV version with Joan Plowright, Alec Guiness and Ralph Richardson, does little more than make a few jokes and play music, which in its way is okay since this is one of the more substantially musical of Shakespeare’s plays. And Doon Mackichan in Simon Godwin’s production for the National Theatre in London combines wise-cracking and music as a way of amplifying the zany fluidity of the central plots – the love between the two central women, and the household’s rebellion against Malvolia who simply can’t stop herself from adjusting the furniture.

In any decent production Feste is a kind of amplifier. She does not initiate actions or thoughts or speech, but draws attention to their themes and meanings and joins the other characters in carrying plots through to their ultimate consequences. She engages with the other characters, turns the gain control on their words, comments on their actions, and draws a line of mascara beneath their quirks and quibbles. Indeed, she ironically draws attention to herself in this way, playing with one of the key jokes about late Shakespearean Fools, the fluid boundaries between foolery, madness, truth and deception. In her relationships with Olivia, Viola (as Cesario, a secret of identity that Feste seems to know) and Orsino she toys with their status using their honorifics, by drawing out their pronunciation or using them like punctuation points.

For example, when Viola, in the guise of Cesario, meets Feste on her way to Olivia, and asks if she is not Olivia’s Fool, Feste is playful yet cleverly accurate in her reply:

No, indeed, sir, the Lady Olivia has no folly. She will keep no fool, sir, til she be married, and fools are as like husbands as pilchards are to herrings – the husband’s the bigger. I am indeed not her Fool, but her corrupter of words. (3,i,30-35)

One of the things I find most interesting about an exchange like this is that it is not merely an example of banter between the Fool and the characters but an arrow of truth, indicating also a kind of darkness that pervades Twelfth Night, perhaps as a result of its place in a social world consumed by pestilence.

As part of her sly pursuit of the truth Feste plays with the role of being a philosopher – a kind of decoy, as it happens. She plays with logic: “If that this simple syllogism will serve, so”, she says to Olivia, who proceeds with a quasi logical debate about who’s the fool. She continues in the same vein with Orsino, in an exchange that touches on the relationships in the play which are not always as they appear on the surface, harboring a somewhat sinister thread of tension and menace:

Feste: Truly sir, the better for my foes and the worse for my friends.

Orsino: Just the contrary: the better for thy friends.

Feste: No, sir, the worse.

Orsino: How can that be?

Feste: Marry, sir, they praise me and make an ass of me. Now my foes tell me plainly I am an ass; so that by my foes, sir, I profit in the knowledge of myself, and by my friends I am abused. So, if your four negatives make your two affirmatives, why then the worse for my friends and the better for my foes. (5,i,11-22)

In a similar vein, Feste plays with the theme of disguise and appearance throughout the play. For example when she meets Sebastian, thinking perhaps that he might be Cesario, she says:

No, I do not know you, nor I am not sent to you by my Lady, to bid you come speak with her, nor your name is not Master Cesario, nor this is not my nose neither. Nothing that is so is so. (4,i,5-9) 

And later, when she is talking to Sir Toby and Maria just before appearing to the imprisoned Malvolio as the parson Sir Topaz, she quips: “For, as the old hermit of Prague, that never saw pen and ink, very wittily said to a niece of King Gorboduc, ‘That that is, is’; so I, being Master Parson, am Master Parson; for, what is ‘that’ but ‘that,’ and ‘is’ but ‘is’? (4,ii,12-16)

With most characters in the play Feste adjusts her levels and angles of address and debate to suit people and circumstances. She rarely makes a comment that can be taken as offensive or overly personal. The one exception is Malvolio. Early in the play, when Olivia and Feste are bantering with thoughts about who is more the Fool, Olivia asks Malvolio what he thinks of Feste. After a brief exchange of insults Malvolio says: “I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal. Look you now, he’s out of his guard already. Unless you laugh and minister occasion to him, he is gagged.” (1,v,80-85) Those words have stung Feste, who holds on to them and in the last moments of the play quotes them to explain why Malvolio’s punishment has been so steep.

But the animosity is not just personal. Feste is very protective of the good Madonna, his mistress Olivia. So she takes exception to Malvolio’s creepy designs on her and his upstart presumption that he will rise from the ranks of servitude, as it were, and enter the aristocracy as Olivia’s count. I would like to think that Shakespeare was resistant to the claims of the Elizabethan social order, that he was somehow as opposed then as I am now to aristocratic privilege. But in this case he was not. Feste is incensed by this social- climbing aspect of Malvolio’s demeanour. She also appears to agree with Maria in judging Malvolio to be “some kind of Puritan”. The steward’s attempt to impose a moral order on Sir Toby, Andrew Aguecheek and the rest of the gang rubs all of them up the wrong way, and though Feste doesn’t find it an altogether pleasant task she takes on the role of Malvolio’s torturer.

One of my favorite stories in the world of literature is Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. First published in 1837, it’s essentially a tale of innocence and hypocrisy, sycophancy and truth (wouldn’t it be good to have a version for the Trumpian present?) The emperor is a vain and foolish man who longs for clothes that will astound a public that he wants to adore him. He is tricked by a pair of fraudulent weavers who tell him that they have invented a cloth that is invisible to stupid people, and present him with a robe that they claim is made from it. Of course the cloth is in fact no cloth at all but the footmen who drape the emperor do not want to be thought idiots so they join in with the charade. When he goes out among the people, no one wants to be thought stupid – they all fear the executioner’s blade – and praise the quality of his new clothes despite the embarrassing evidence of his naked self. However, a young boy who is unimpressed with unscientific conspiracy theories and false claims is the exception. He points to the naked emperor and calls him out, and in the words of Frank Loesser and Danny Kaye he says “The king is in the altogether…”, thus levelling the moral altitude of the story. The Fool in Twelfth Night – like the fool in Lear – is like the boy. Knowingly, Feste points to the way we might find the truth through the barriers of disguise and deception- third party and self deception – that take place in the play.

Feste offers a sardonic commentary on the action of the play. She is, as Olivia describes him in Act 1, an “allowed Fool” for whom the ordinary rules of discourse do not apply. She has interesting and rich relationships with each of the main characters – from Olivia and Orsino to Cesario/Viola and Maria – and also, in a series of addresses and asides, with the audience. She moves apparently seamlessly between the world of the play and the real world. She can be everywhere, an observer or a catalyst, invisible or visible, permitted but not feared. In that wonderful scene where she meets Viola, dressed as Cesario, who is on her way to meet Olivia to find the truth behind the ring, Feste says:

Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere. (3,i,37)

The Fool is a remarkable tool for a playwright and as he did with so many tools Shakespeare makes the most of her. She is in some ways like a modern psychoanalyst, drawing out the truth that lives in the things that people say. Feste is one of the most complex and rich of Shakespearean Fools. And she is knowledgeable. In one of her songs, “Come Away Death” she is able to throw back at Orsino the memes and formal techniques of the inflated love sonnets the Duke is so fond of. And she banters with an apparent stranger whom she believes to be an enigmatic Cesario (who is in fact the brother Sebastian) who uses a word that would have only recently been introduced to the English language, “vent”, from the French word meaning “wind” or “:exclaim”. Feste plays with the word, and I will finish this brief blog with this wonderful illustration:

Sebastian: I prithee vent thy folly somewhere else. Thou know’st not me.

Feste: Vent my folly! He has that word of some great man and now applies it to a fool. Vent my folly! … I prithee now, tell me what I shall vent to my lady. Shall I vent to her that thou art coming? (4,i,10-15)

“Queer has been defined theoretically as ‘whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant …, as that which is ‘not yet conscious’ …; as the very status of unthinkability’.”

Clara Bradbury Rance, Lesbian Cinema After Queer Throry, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2019, p.10

In my post on this website, Master-Mistress: Love, gender and disguise in Twefth Night, I commented that the main erotic charge in the play is between Viola and Olivia. It has always seemed to me that Olivia is aware that the young man with “Diana’s lip” and the “small pipe” – Orsino’s boy as other characters call her/him – is in fact a woman. In Shakespeare’s England sexuality and desire were far more fluid than they have been since, though the superficial social rules of gender were perhaps more rigid. We know that Shakespeare’s work was remarkable in embracing a wide range of eroticisms. The Sonnets as a sequence includes acute renderings of desire for men, for women (a man, a woman, some might say) and for the androgynous being of Plato’s Symposium. Indeed, i would go so far as to say that one of the abiding tones in Shakespeare’s work, his poetry and his theater, is androgynous, and that one of the most open and productive ways of seeing Shakespeare is through a queer lens.

My purpose in the Master-Mistress post was to explore the ramifications of gender and disguise in the play. While my thinking these days is influenced by the open and fluid framework of queerness, I have not yet formulated a way to write about the nuanced differences this might make to my own writing about the play, so I was pleased to come across an essay by Miranda Fay Thomas in the British Library’s really, really useful online series Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and Renaissance. I will continue to work on a queer discussion of aspcts of Twelfth Night but inthe meantime here is Dr Thomas’ essay:


A Queer Reading of Twelfth Night


Miranda Fay Thomas explores how Twelfth Night interrogates conventional ideas about gender and sexuality, portraying gender as performative and suggesting erotic possibilities between same-sex pairs.

At the end of the film Shakespeare in Love, a heartbroken Shakespeare bids farewell to his lover and immortalises her in a new play that he begins to write as the film credits roll. When he first meets her, she is dressed as a boy as she is determined to act upon the Elizabethan stage despite its ban on female performers. Shakespeare writes his lady into a plot where, once again, she must disguise herself as a man, only to fall in love and be unable to declare it due to her newly assumed gender.

Of course, the plot of Shakespeare in Love is fictional: there is no evidence that Shakespeare based the character of Viola upon a real person. But the film introduces us to one of the key elements of Twelfth Night: the way in which gender can be constructed, or performed, by anyone with the means to do so. However, while Shakespeare in Love toys but briefly with the queerness of Shakespeare having a relationship with a person who dresses as a man, the plot ultimately reinforces heteronormativity (that is, traditional expectations of gender and sexuality) in a way that Twelfth Night more actively questions.

Gender as performance

Because female performers were banned from the English stage in Shakespeare’s day, all of a play’s characters – be they male, female, or somewhere in between – were played by men. While the audience would certainly suspend their disbelief over the actual gender identity of the actors, the effects of this casting should not be underestimated. First of all, it would have inevitably lent an extra frisson to the heterosexual relationships portrayed onstage, which would only be further enhanced by a play like Twelfth Night, where you have a boy actor pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man. But secondly, as Bruce R Smith has noted, it implies that gender,

is more like a suit of clothes that can be put on and taken off at will than a matter of biological destiny … However temporary such cross-dressing may be, it serves to remind audiences that masculinity is a matter of appearances.


When Viola dresses as Cesario, one of their most poignant lines is, ‘I am all the daughters of my father’s house, / And all the brothers too’ (2.4.120–21). Believing her brother to be dead, Viola keeps him alive by dressing in drag and assuming his identity. It is a beautifully genderqueer moment, and different productions of the play may interpret Viola’s gender presentation in a number of different ways. It could be interpreted as a new lifestyle choice, reflecting a truer version of the person that Viola/Cesario is but has never before had the opportunity to present; or more simply, it could be a plot device and part of the means to an end for the play’s storyline of confused lovers. But, as Valerie Traub notes, ‘it is as object of another woman’s desire that Cesario finds her own erotic voice’.[2] When Olivia falls for Cesario, she does so in the full belief of the servant’s masculinity. As famously declared by the gender theorist Judith Butler, ‘there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender … identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results’.[3] Cesario dresses as a man, and therefore for all intents and purposes is a man in the eyes of the other characters. Cesario is both beloved of Olivia and infatuated with Orsino: gender fluidity, then, serves as the play’s central dramatic irony.

In her introduction to Shakesqueer, Madhavi Menon describes queerness as a concept which, ‘recognizes the absurdity of limits and interrupts the ways in which we live our lives and write our texts’.[4] While it is true that straightness (either in terms of sexual orientation or gender identity) as a category did not fully exist in Shakespeare’s day, some were outspoken against what would now be described as cross-dressing. The prolific pamphleteer Philip Stubbes writes in his Anatomy of Abuses (1584) that:

our apparell was given as a sign distinctive, to discern betwixt sexe and sexe, and therefore one to wear the apparell of an other sex, is to participate with the same and to adulterate the veritie of his own kind.[5]

But of course, that is the whole point of Cesario’s transformation: Twelfth Night depicts one’s gender as essentially a performed role, a simple change of costume marking a change in identity.

Shakespeare’s sources for Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night was written around 1601 and first performed in 1602. Composed at the end of the Elizabethan era, its plot is thought to spring from a number of possible sources, many of which influence Twelfth Night’s fixation with sexual identity and gender. The first of these sources is Plato’s Symposium, where Aristophanes describes the origin of love. Originally, he says, humans were conjoined, with each pair making a complete person. Some of these pairs were both male, some both female, and some partnerships contained a male and a female. However, Zeus decided to punish humans for their arrogance, splitting the creatures down the middle and detaching ourselves from our literal ‘other halves’. At the conclusion of Twelfth Night, Antonio uses language which recalls this story. Upon gazing at the identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, he is agog:

How have you made division of yourself?

An apple cleft in two is not more twin

Than these two creatures. (5.1.223–25)

Barnaby Riche’s Riche his farewell to his military profession (1581), contains a number of stories, the second of which is a source for Twelfth Night: ‘Apolonius and Silla’, a tale of two twins and their respective love interests. Unlike Viola, Silla takes the name of her lost brother, Silvio, when she presents as a different gender. The Italian play Gl’Ingannati has also been noted as a possible source for Twelfth Night. Its similarities of plot were first noted by John Manningham in 1602, whose diary records a performance of Twelfth Night he saw: he commented that it was ‘most like a neere to that Italian called Inganni’, given that the plays share a set of identical twins who are confused with each other. However, unlike Twelfth Night, Gl’Ingannati would have featured women on the Italian stage.

Shakespeare and sexuality

Questions of sexuality in Shakespeare, and indeed questions about Shakespeare’s own sexuality, began scarcely before the ink was dry. While married to Anne Hathaway, who remained in Stratford-upon-Avon throughout Shakespeare’s career in London, he addressed 126 of his sonnets to a young man. And yet as early as 1640, editors were keen to expunge any whiff of homosexuality from the sonnets, with John Benson publishing an edition of the poems with many of the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘his’ revised to ‘she’ and ‘her’. This dismissal of queerness in canonical works of literature, particularly from this period, is not only disappointing and intellectually dishonest; it is also simply inaccurate: labels such as homosexual or heterosexual ‘did not exist as conceptual categories’ at the time Shakespeare was writing.[6] As such, looking for LGBTQ identities in plays such as Twelfth Night enable us to rediscover approaches to gender and sexuality that defy the binaries imposed on Western society since the introduction of the terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ in the late 19th century. Finding queer love and identity in Shakespeare’s plays would not have been defined as queer back then, but the practice of censoring same-sex relationships in Shakespeare, from Benson and beyond, is still in the process of being righted and re-explored by both critics and performers. Twelfth Night, with its homosexual overtones and its depiction of a character presenting as an alternate gender, is a particularly rich case in point.

Sebastian and Antonio

Let us turn now to the characters of Sebastian and Antonio, described by Stephen Orgel as ‘the only overtly homosexual couple in Shakespeare except for Achilles and Patroclus’.[7] The Renaissance period was keen to promote the strong bonds of male friendships, but the words exchanged between these two characters certainly moves beyond this into the language of erotic love. Antonio says of Sebastian, ‘I do adore thee so / That danger shall seem sport’ (2.1.43–44). The gulf of social status between the two could be one reason for the language of servile devotion, which also occurs in the exchanges between Olivia and Cesario, and Cesario and Orsino; but if the latter two relationships are noted for their erotic charge, we must also consider the possibility of a romance between Sebastian and Antonio. Productions such as Lyndsey Posner’s for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2001 emphasise such readings, with the two men enacting Act 2, Scene 1 while getting dressed beside an unmade double bed.

The alternate title for Twelfth Night is What You Will, a phrase which nods to a freedom of agency in terms of both sexual orientation and gender identity, while also recalling the name of the playwright himself. We may never know Shakespeare’s own sexual identity, but it doesn’t matter. His works, such as Twelfth Night, remind us that identity itself is relative. If music be the food of love – that is to say, gay love, straight love, queer love, trans love – play on.


[1] Bruce R. Smith, Shakespeare and Masculinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 3–4.

[2] Valerie Traub, The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 57.

[3] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York and London: Routledge, 2007 [1990]), p. 34.

[4] Madhavi Menon, ‘Queer Shakes’, pp. 1–27 in Shakesqueer: a Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare (Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 7.

[5] Philip Stubbes, The Anatomy of Abuses (London: 1584), p. 38; quoted in Dympna Callaghan, ‘“And all is semblative a woman’s part”: Body Politics and Twelfth Night’, in Twelfth Night: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. by R S White (Hampshire and New York: Palgrave, 1996), p. 135.

[6] Mario DiGangi, The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 39.

[7] Stephen Orgel, Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 51. NB Achilles and Patroclus are from the play Troilus and Cressida.

Link: https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/a-queer-reading-of-twelfth-night


Sir Toby, in one of his more sober and less cis moments, in the guise of Glenn Havlan, has drawn my attention to the following 2021 article on  the London Globe Theatre’s website:



The use of pronouns might seem random in Shakespeare’s plays, and it is sometimes, perhaps often, the case that usage depends on the actor or prompt who wrote down or marked the original script. However, it is useful to note that there were subtle class and social distinctions between apparently ordinary or neutral forms of address. In her edition of Twelfth Night for the Arden Performance series, Gretchen E. Minton (who is also dramaturge for Montana Shakespeare in the Parks) includes a brief discussion of the difference between ‘You’ and ‘Thou’:

Twelfth Night depicts a society that is extremely class-conscious, and as in other Shakespearean plays, the forms of address offer important clues about hierarchies and status. The formal pronoun ‘you’ is habitually used by social superiors when addressing one another (e.g. Olivia and Orsino), and when others address them, while the familiar pronoun ‘thou’ is used when characters address social inferiors, such as the Captain, Feste and servants.

The moments when characters break this protocol signify shifting relationships or challenges to power structures. Sir Toby is especially adept at quick shifts between pronouns, thus he counsels Sir Andrew in his usage when writing the challenge letter to Cesario: ‘If thou “thou’st” him some thrice, it shall not be amiss’ (3.2.55-7). In this situation the familiar pronoun is intended to draw attention to class difference, thus provoking Cesario to seek satisfaction for being addressed with a term of contempt. Feste’s breaking of the expected linguistic code serves quite another purpose; he daringly uses ‘thou’ with Olivia: ‘why mourn’st thou?’ (1.5.71) he asks her, questioning her excessive show of grief for her brother. Feste’s familiarity is allowed because as a fool he is licensed to be witty, and even to question the actions of his superiors.

The familiarity of ‘thou’ can imply the low status of a servant, thus Sir Toby relishes the opportunities to employ this pronoun when addressing Malvolio. Recognizing the importance of her steward, however, Olivia invariably uses the formal ‘you’ when addressing Malvolio. Given such a precedent, Malvolio is thrilled to see that he is addressed as ‘thou’ in the letter he believes Olivia wrote to him; like the word ‘fellow’ (3.4.92ff), such a pronoun signifies for Malvolio Olivia’s desire to move beyond a professional relationship.

Although Malvolio is sadly mistaken, other relationships do signal intimacy through the familiar pronoun. Sir Toby and Maria address one another as ‘thou’, indicating the close relationship that they share. Olivia is polite with Cesario and Sebastian, using ‘you’ as the form of address, but in her first appearance after marrying Sebastian, she telling calls him ‘thou’.

Gretchen E. Minton, ‘Introduction’ to Twelfth Night, Arden Performance Editions, London and New York, 2020, pp.35-6. 

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” 

So begins Twelfth Night…… 

No? Oh, right you are. 

Yep, that’s the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, written by some woman called Jane a couple of centuries later.

Though it might have been said by the Fool or some bystander in Twelfth Night. Here we have an imagined land (Illyria), which in our production resembles the coast of Nova Scotia in the final decade of the 19th century,  with an Elizabethan class system in place – nobility, middle class entrepreneurs or hangers on, and servants; with a dimension that cuts across class in which women are at least on the surface inferior to men – and just two young members of the nobility who are suitable for marriage: Orsino the Duke, and the Countess Olivia. In both Elizabethan Englands a Duke trumps a Count or Countess, so Orsino is in a position to pull rank, and of course he does, or tries to. He is a single man in possession of a good fortune, though we should not disregard the fact that Olivia is counted as having a good fortune too. And Orsino certainly thinks he is in want of a wife. He has set his sights on Olivia and built an impressive arsenal of fantasy, music and love poetry to press his claims. 

But Olivia has said no. She has good reason. It ought to be enough that she simply doesn’t fancy him, but she is also in mourning for her father and her brother and has, both physically and metaphorically, drawn a veil over her face. “I cannot love him,” she tells Viola/Cesario when they first meet (1,v,273), and repeats herself several times, for example when Cesario once again presses Orsino’s case. “And he is yours, and his must needs be yours”, she says, to which Olivia replies: “For him, I think not on him. For his thoughts, / Would they were blanks rather than filled with me.” (3,i,101-2) Olivia also makes the point to Cesario/Viola that she understands that Orsino would be an attractive catch: she supposes him “virtuous, knows him noble …. of fresh and stainless youth”; and most importantly she sees him “in dimension and the shape of nature / A gracious person” (1,v,250-4). Yes, she says again, “I cannot love him.”

But Orsino will not take No for an answer, even when Cesario questions his persistence: “But if she cannot love you, sir?”; to which he answers “”I cannot be so answered.” (2,iv,88). That answer, it seems to me, has less to do with love than it does with entitlement. Orsino, we understand, expects obedience.

Of course, this being Shakespeare, Orsino is a complex and paradoxical character. He shares with other characters in the play a tendency to be proud (Viola says to Olivia: “You are too proud…” (1,v,274), and Maria describes Malvolio’s weakness as pride.) He is also a man, and it is unsurprising that his speech to Olivia reflects an Elizabethan, and indeed a Renaissance, misogyny that is all too present today:

There is no woman’s sides

Can bide the beating of so strong a passion

As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart

So big to hold so much – they lack retention.

Alas, their love may be called appetite,

No motion of the liver but the palate,

That suffer surfeit, cloyment and revolt.

But mine is all as hungry as the sea,

And can digest as much. Make no compare

Between that love a woman can bear me

And that I owe Olivia. (2,iv,93-102)

(There are several 16th century works that embody this kind of perspective on women. A well-known and much read example is Book of the Courtier, written by the Italian diplomat and writer Baldassare Castiglione, which was published in London in Italian, French and English in 1588, and included the thought that “women are unperfect creatures, and consequently of less worthinesse then [sic] men.” (https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-book-of-the-courtier-1588).

In the guise of Cesario, Viola challenges Orsino, with whom she has fallen in love, and does make a comparison which, she says, shows that women “are as true of heart” as men. Talking about herself (though she might also be talking about Olivia) she says:

She never told her love,

But let concealment like a worm i’th’ bud

Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought

And with a green and yellow melancholy

She sat like Patience on a monument,

Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?

We men may say more, swear more, but indeed

Our shows are more than will, for still we prove

Much in our vows, but little in our love. (2,iv,110-118)

It is interesting in many ways that a woman, albeit disguised as a young man, should call out the gap between what men say and what they do. Orsino doesn’t get it; or if he does he doesn’t let on, preferring instead to demand even louder that Cesario tell Olivia “My love can give no place, bide no denay.” (denial, that is. 2,iv,124)

It is perhaps a little unbalanced to talk so much about Orsino, since the real electricity of love and desire occurs between Olivia and Viola, the latter as both woman and man. But Orsino opens the play, and one of the main engines of action throughout is his obsession with the tropes and memes of courtly love, his fascination more with the mechanisms of his own feelings than with the woman herself. The story of Twelfth Night would not have been unfamiliar to the troubadours of Medieval France, or the great inventor of the love sonnet, the Italian poet Petrarch, who wrote to his distant beloved Laura. In the courtly love tradition the male lover is as excited as much by the frisson of unrequited love (which appears in Twelfth Night quite beautifully as Viola’s “a willow cabin at your gate” (1,v,260) as he is by the sensual presence of the lady, and he gets off on her denial, tossed between the neurological extremes of ice and fire. Many of Orsino’s hyperbolic flights of poetic fancy point to the kind of overblown English sonnet written by contemporaries of Shakespeare, that he parodies in his own sonnet 129:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red, than her lips red:

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound:

I grant I never saw a goddess go,

My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:

And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,

As any she belied with false compare. (Sonnet 129)

It is possible to say that Orsino holds Olivia in his mind as an abstract image of the woman he is supposed to love, and that his real love is for Cesario, not so much the woman who breathes beneath the boy’s clothing, but the boy himself. Perhaps, after all, that is why at the end of the play, when the loose ends have been tied and the lovers have met and accepted the mates that Elizabehan convention (and Castiglione) requires, Orsino, who is now aware that Cesario is Viola,  continues to purr to her as the boy: “Cesario, come – / For so you shall be while you are a man” (5,i,378-9). Orsino, it seems, wants a frat boy buddy after all?

But the most telling thing that Orsino says to Cesario/Viola after she has been exposed as a woman is that he wants her to be both man and woman to him. He says to her:

Your master quits you, and for your service done him – 

So much against the mettle of your sex,

So far beneath your soft and tender breeding –

And, since you called me master for so long,

Here is my hand; you shall from this time be

Your master’s mistress. (5,i,314-319)

This reminds us of one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing sonnets, not only in its teasing of the master-mistress conceit, but in the syntax:

A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted,

Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;

A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted

With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion:

An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,

Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;

A man in hue all hues in his controlling,

Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.

And for a woman wert thou first created;

Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,

And by addition me of thee defeated,

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,

Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure. (Sonnet 20)

Which brings us to the central trajectory of this play, that has been the subject of so many articles, books, theses and essays, the relationship between Viola and Olivia. I don’t intend to write about it at length here because every edition of the play, every book of critical discussion, deals with the subject extensively. But there are some things I would like to say.

Firstly, it is often said that Viola’s willingness to act as the vehicle of Orsino’s textual love for Olivia comes from her desire to be with him. However, when Viola first comes ashore, saved by the wrecked ship’s captain, he describes both Orsino and Olivia to her, dwelling for a moment on Olivia’s grief having lost a father and brother. Viola is very clear when she says “O that I served that lady” (1,ii,38), thinking it would give her the opportunity to grieve before people became aware of her status. She comes up with the plan to present herself first to the Duke when she hears that he has been making fruitless overtures to Olivia and needs some help.

So Viola dresses as Cesario and presents herself to Orsino as an eunuch, a kind of servant that Shakespeare also used in Antony and Cleopatra. And so she turns up at Olivia’s carrying in her head or in her hand a text of Orsino’s, apparently desexualized by her status as a eunuch. Olivia is also, at least in the beginning and by her own actions, desexualized. She has vowed to abjure “the company and sight of men” (1,ii,37).

Despite all the obstacles – the desexualization, Viola’s pretended masculinity, her role as the unwelcome Orsino’s amanuensis – there is an erotic charge between the two women that cuts across gender and status – though Shakespeare is quick to reveal that Viola/Cesario is high enough in status to justify a liaison between the two of them.

At first the charge is verbal. Olivia and Viola are both intelligent and educated women and both are handy with the language. They speak with a delicate and filigree irony that shows they are aware of every layer of pretence and meaning there is. In the first few minutes of their meeting Viola sticks humorously to the text she has brought with her: Orsino’s hyperbolic and romantic bad-sonnet-like overtures. When Viola asks Olivia if she can see her hitherto veiled face, Olivia accedes, but not before she has wryly commented “You are now out of your text” (1,v,225). And so the two women step aside from their roles, Viola by speaking out of her text, and Olivia by drawing back her veil, and while they continue to play those artificial parts they become more and more intimately real with each other.

This reality is itself very interesting. Having removed the veil, Olivia in her coquettish mode (she slips continually between modes) asks, ”Is’t not well done?” to which Viola replies, aware that she herself has been made over to look like a man: “Excellently done, if God did all.” (1,v,229). Of course she is asking wryly if this is who Olivia really is, and when Olivia reassures her that it is “in grain”, she continues:

’Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white

Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on.

Lady you are the cruell’st she alive

If you will lead these graces to the grave

And leave the world no copy. (1,v,231-235)

This takes us to two different strands of the Sonnets. To start with, Shakespeare’s first 17 sonnets are a formal entreaty to the Earl of Southampton – we suppose that is who it is – to marry and have a child:

Look whom she best endowed, she gave thee more,

Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:

She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby

Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die. (Sonnet 11)

In the second strand, Shakespeare plays with the complex layers of truth and beauty in the master-mistress conceit played out in Sonnet 20, quoted above. Viola and Olivia both seem aware that they are women and that the charge between them, at first verbal, has become erotic (a charge echoed in the relationship between Viola’s brother Sebastian and the sailor Antonio). 

Once she has moved outside her text and both women have acknowledged the fact, Olivia gets down to the emotional nitty gritty: “What are you? What would you?” she asks. 

And Viola responds by putting down her text and treating Olivia to some telling intimacy:  “What I am and what I would be are as secret as maidenhead: to your ears, divinity; to any other’s profanation.” 1,v,209-211)

This curious questioning of who they are – who am I? Who are you? Who are we? What is what? – carries on through the rest of the play. When Viola/Cesario returns for her second visit Feste meets her at the gate and chips in with some wordy banter of his own, finally making the comment that his role with Olivia is not as it appears, as her role as Cesario is not as it appears: “I am indeed not her fool but her corrupter of words.” (3,i,34-5)

Having found her way through the spider’s web of Feste’s words Viola begins again the joust between her Orsino text and Olivia’s responses, until Olivia intervenes with a confession about the ring she falsely claimed Viola had left. “So did I abuse / Myself, my servant and, I fear me, you” (3,i,111-2). This allows her to cut through the layers of pretence to the thing she really wants to know because she has fallen in love with Cesario and wants to know the truth: who is he/she. And she presses her curiosity by saying: “I prithee tell me what thou thinkst of me.” The conversation that follows takes us to the heart of what this play is about (at least for those of us who like to slip into the intellectual quicksand of theatre and text):



I prithee, tell me what thou thinkest of me.


That you do think you are not what you are.


If I think so, I think the same of you.


Then think you right: I am not what I am.


I would you were as I would have you be!


Would it be better, madam, than I am?

I wish it might, for now I am your fool. (3,i,135-142)

It is the subject of another blog, but those last words are not random. The Fool, Feste, is a brooding presence in this play. He holds a mirror up to the characters and echoes their thoughts and words and the desires that we, as an audience, know  are hiding or emerging underneath. It is one of the great qualities of Shakespeare that he makes the audience detached observers of the action and dynamics of the play while allowing us to be moved by the words, naive witnesses caught up in the flow of passion.

Now, Twelfth Night is a comedy, like all of Shakespeare’s best comedies tpervaded everywhere by darkness, and the many loose threads at the beginning must be tied together. In particular, all the wandering lovers must be united with their other selves, and it is the action of the play that brings them together and provides the opportunity.  Thus, Maria gets together with Sir Toby. Viola makes her love known to Orsino who is quick to give up his interest in Olivia. 

And Olivia herself, who has been in love with Cesario and Viola at the same time, indeed from the very beginning, runs into Viola’s twin Sebastian thinking he’s Cesario and persuades him very quickly to get married. Sebastian must really find Olivia hot, because he doesn’t hesitate. When Olivia says to him, “Would’st thou be ruled by me?” (4,i,66) he replies immediately, “Madam, I will.” It seems entirely due to the chemistry between them, or some emotional dimension shared by twins. “Oh say so, and so be,” says Olivia, by which she means that he should state his conviction then prove it with behavior, something she and Viola have identified as a regular failing in men. In the Trevor Nunn film (1996), with Helena Bonham Carter as a beguiling and saucy Olivia, this scene concludes with Feste looking on with an impartial but interested face.

Of course, Olivia is the object of desire not only for Orsino, Viola and Sebastian but for two other characters as well. Sir Andrew doesn’t really seem capable of sexual desire, nor of love, nor jealousy, but his lack of money makes Olivia a fruity catch. When he sees the relationship between Olivia and Cesario grow he challenges the latter to a duel, which sets in motion the action that leads to the reconciliation of Viola and Sebastian. It is deliciously Shakespearean that when poor Andrew rehearses his ‘love’ for Olivia he borrows Cesario’s words. Alas, poor Andrew is left with neither money nor love. 

The other character who claims to be in love with Olivia is Malvolio. His role in the household is Steward, a kind of butler whose responsibility embraces financial and personnel management, rather like a combination of Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey). But the death of Olivia’s father and brother has left the household with a female head, and Malvolio cannot accept that. So he covets the position of Head of the House, with the property, money and privilege that would bring; and he appears also to be moved by lust for Olivia and imagines himself – despite the age difference – to be attractive to her. Sir Toby calls him “overweening”. He exults in the possibility of ruling over the whole group of Olivia’s hangers on. He angers Sir Toby and Feste. Sir Toby indeed is angered so much that he puts Malvolio in his place:

Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale? (2,iii,111-2)

And finally, he is hoist by his own pétard when the group, led by Maria, conceives a device by which the gullible, self-loving “Puritan” is tricked into presenting himself as a would-be lover to Olivia, dressed in a way that she abhors and eliciting a shudder of horror from her when she realizes that he wants to take her to bed.

The downfall of Malvolio brings both laughter and terror. He brings it upon himself, but the fury with which Maria and Feste subject him to a kind of torture, treating him as though he is mad, placing him in a darkened room, is very sobering. His cry that he will be revenged on everyone concludes the dramatic action of the play and leaves the stage to Feste, who, like Jacques in As You Like It, tells a brief tale of the passage of a man from boyhood to old age.

There is much more that I could say about gender and love in this play, and in Shakespeare in general. His treatment of these subjects, which are as lively today as they were then, is one of the main reasons he is so globally popular and seems so acutely relevant today.

It is inevitable, then, that one wonders about how Shakespeare, apparently a rarity among male writers, has come to understand women so well. Furthermore, some have questioned how he managed to develop such an intricate understanding not just of women but of the court, politics and class, which seem so familiar to him.

Many people over the years, when they’ve heard of my intense interest in Shakespeare, have asked me whether I subscribe to any of the theories that he was someone else – the three main candidates are Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlow. My usual response has been that I have no interest in such speculation, that my only working thought is that the language and themes of the plays and poetry are so consistent that they must on the whole be written by the same person.

That question, though, has teased me since I first read Shakespeare as a boy. How did he know women so well? An obvious answer, and one which seems useful and righteous to address and explore these days, when the position of women is getting renewed and vigorous attention, is that Shakespeare was a woman.

When I was writing my thesis on Shakespeare’s Sonnets I included chapters on two 16th Century sonneteers, Thomas Wyatt and Philip Sidney. Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella is one of the most accomplished sonnet sequences we have, and I became interested in his sister Mary, who was first and foremost a writer of immense talent (read her translations of the Psalms of David), and who married Henry Herbert in 1577 and became the Countess of Pembroke.

I remain scarcely moved by speculation that has no hope of proof, but I find that imagining that Shakespeare was a woman gives me a very challenging yet immensely satisfying perspective on this extraordinary body of work. And it keeps me vigilant in thinking about the way centuries, millenia, of patriarchy have drawn an obfuscating veil over the role of women in history.

For anyone who is tempted to explore the possibilities further, there is a website, with a link below. Or you could ask Maria, who calls herself Mary, who also goes by the name of Kim Bromley and who has read far more than I about it: http://www.marysidneysociety.org/

And here’ a stanza from one of her poems, “Even now that care”:

Yet dare I so as humbleness may dare

cherishing some hope that shall acceptance find;

not weighing less thy state, lighter thy care, 

but knowing more thy grace, abler thy mind.

What heavenly Powers thee highest throne assigned, 

assigned thee goodness suiting that degree:

and by thy strength thy burden so defined, 

to others toil is exercise to thee.

Peter Bradbury

July 2021

Twelfth Night: It’s the evening before Epiphany, the final day of the Christmas festival that commemorates the time when the three wise men, the Magi, visited Bethlehem to bring gifts to Jesus. It marks the end of a festival, or a carnival, both pagan and christian, in which food and drink, carousing into the night, masks and disguise, role-reversal and general mayhem and misrule, have escalated. Men dress as women. Servants cavort as though they are masters. 

There is chaos, but it is not uncontained. As epiphany itself approaches – a sudden and surprising moment of understanding (as the OED tells it) – order and reality are about to be restored to a world that has been caught up in festivity and game-playing. The Lords of Misrule, as the tradition says, have had their fun and the fun is about to come to an end. The boys are expected to stop playing video games and go to bed.

In Shakespeare’s play we enter into a world in which the whole community of Illyria is suspended in a disorderly state of transition heading toward some end that no one can foresee. There are two households, two poles of authority with a high pitch of emotional and social tension between them. Over the course of the play the tension is wound dangerously tight.

At the beginning of the play there is a shipwreck. A brother and a sister, Sebastian and Viola, are twins. They both survive, but lose touch with each other, neither knowing if the other is alive. They fear the worst. Viola is intent upon grief. She is,  as she says to Orsino in Act 2, scene iv, ”all the daughters of [her] … father’s house / and all the brothers too.” The action of the play centers on Viola, and her brother remains a sub-plot until he emerges later in the play and sews confusion when no one can tell the difference between him and his sister, who of course has been dressed as the young Cesario, a man.

Viola, hearing that the Countess Olivia is also grieving the death of a brother, decides she wants to “serve that lady”. In order to do so, she presents herself first to the senior aristocrat of Illyria, Orsino, and then to Olivia herself, as a young man who will speak on the subject of love. In the folio text of the play she offers herself as a eunuch, a desexualized servant who theoretically should not upset the applecart, though that is precisely what Viola does with Olivia. (Incidentally, it was the eunuch Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra who said of his mistress: “Age shall not wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”).

And so it is that the trajectory of love becomes a riot of misunderstanding, mistaken identity and a battle royal between the romantic and the real as Cesario mockingly delivers Orsino’s courtly plumage to a wary and ironic Olivia only to find that the lady falls in love with him – or is it with the her beneath? – thus suspending all her plans for solitude and withdrawal. 

Disorder and chaos govern the two Illyrian households. But they are very different. In Orsino’s court the disorder is internal: the master is weary of Olivia’s resistance, he is caught up in a narcissistic obsession with his own emotional anatomy. He doesn’t know how to move forward, or with whom. People who come into the household are not who they seem (Viola-Cesario), they have a history of conflict (the Captain) or they represent something that undermines Orsino’s romantic and courtly self-image (Feste).

In contrast the misrule in Olivia’s household is external. The death of her father and then her brother in a brief period has left her vulnerable to the ambitions or the negligence and carelessness of the men around her. The most dangerous of the men is Malvolio, who despite his religious decorum – Maria refers to him as “a kind of Puritan” – and his role as steward of the household – similar to the position Mr Carson in Downton Abbey –  dreams of thrusting his way through the class membrane and into Olivia’s bed and control of her estate. He stands against Olivia’s uncle,the hearty but dissolute Toby, a man of indolent integrity whose responsibility toward his niece and her estate has been reduced by alcohol, late nights and of course the usurping steward, Malvolio. Sir Andrew and Maria in their way make notable contributions to the misrule – Maria calls it “playful malice” – not only but primarily in setting poor Malvolio up.

As the play unfolds and comes to an end the frenzy of misrule abates and order reasserts itself. The real world, often in the guise of the Fool Feste, tempers the idealism of the characters. No one, in the end, gets to hook up with the person they thought they’d end up with. Illusions fall away. Malvolio, in his insurrectionist peacockery, is put in his place, and like an essential character in the revenge plays of this period he leaves intent upon getting his own back.

The tensions and conflicts in Twelfth Night are between the romantic and the real, ambition and consequence, freedom and constraint. It is interesting to think of this as reflecting a huge tension in Shakespeare’s time between Marian catholicism and protestantism – of which Malvolio might be seen as a puritan representative. In catholicism the belief that everything happens by the grace of god extends a certain license to behavior. In protestantism, on the other hand, everything depends on effort. One of the funniest parts of the play, to my mind, comes when Maria includes in the false letter, which purports to be from Olivia to Malvolio, the statement (famously hijacked by Winston Churchill during WW2): “be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” (2,v,137-40). In these words we have a right old contradictory mix of the catholic and the protestant which confounds Malvolio because his most powerful misperception and most humiliating fantasy is that Olivia wants him to come to bed with her. He believes that his own qualities and efforts have earned him a right to become master of Olivia and her household. Reality has other plans. This conflict between the catholic and the protestant reached its zenith in the English civil war with the terrible clash between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads.

There is some speculation that the first performance of Twelfth Night was on January 6th (the twelfth night after Christmas) in the presence of Elizabeth 1 and her guest the Italian duke Virginio Orsino. That would be nice, though it would have been somewhat risky for the playwright to make fun of a visiting dignitary in that way. The first performance for which we have actual evidence was on February 2nd 1602, in a theater in the Middle Temple of the Inns of Court, then and now a major center of legal practice in London. The evidence comes in a diary entry by the student lawyer John Manningham, who compared the play to the Comedy of Errors, Plautus’ Manaechmi and an Italian play Inganni. Jonathan Bate, in his introduction to the Royal Shakespeare Company edition of the play, notes that the 2nd of February, the feast of candlemass, is also the anniversary of the baptism of Shakespeare’s twin children Judith and Hamnet; Hamnet died in the summer of 1596, aged 11, and it is possible that this loss gave rise to the fictional separation of Viola and Sebastian.

Having said all this, Twelfth Night the play makes little reference to or use of twelfth night the occasion in the festival calendar. It is often the case that occasions throw up certain tendencies or qualities of life that a writer takes advantage of without having to be faithful to the original. Shakespeare did that all the time, and he drew heavily on a range of literary and social material that we can explore, if we will, in the best of the editions of the play listed in the blog Editions and Critical Resources.

In the critical literature on Twelfth Night, as far as I can tell from a survey of reading lists and the titles and contents of books and articles, there is very little about the plague. Critics refer of course to Olivia’s comment that falling in love can be as quick as catching the plague; but they tend not to follow their comments through and mostly miss the extraordinary metaphor two lines later in which the perfections of the loved one with “an invisible and subtle stealth … creep in at mine eyes” (1.v.320-321) which picks up the Renaissance belief that the plague entered the body invisibly through the eyes.

And frankly this has never bothered me very much. Until now. The last year of the Coronavirus pandemic has shocked America. Since the civil war, no event on American soil has so threatened us. The virus took us unawares and has shaken our sense of what is real. We all have our different ways of describing the meaning and the practical implications of our experience of this modern version of the plague. But in most accounts I have read or heard, people talk about being unsettled, forced to do things we would rather not do, fearful of other people, fearful of the air, frightened to touch other people, scared of inanimate surfaces.

Shakespeare uses the imagery of the plague throughout his plays but he does not make much of it, or so it seems. None of the characters in his plays dies of the plague, nor do we have situations in which the plague features as a cause of illness or death. Yet we know that during his lifetime there were at least five major outbreaks; that his sister and his son Hamnet might have died from the plague; and we have the awful statistic that in 1603, not long after the first performance of this play, the plague killed about 20% of the population of London.

The plague did of course find its way into numerous pieces of literature. A favorite poem of mine by Thomas Nashe, his remarkable ‘A Litany in Time of Plague’, published in 1593, contains the following haunting lines:

Beauty is but a flower

Which wrinkles will devour;

Brightness falls from the air;

Queens have died young and fair;

Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.

I am sick, I must die.

    Lord, have mercy on us!

To my mind these lines are echoed in Orsino’s 15-line sonnet which opens the first act of Twelfth Night.

The Elizabethan experience of the plague was a repetition of numerous outbreaks over the previous four centuries. The pinnacle of attrition was the Black Death, as the plague was called in medieval Europe, which came from Asia on ships that docked in 1347 in Messina in Sicily. In the next 5 years the plague killed about 20 million Europeans, that is approximately 33% of its population, and a similar percentage in North Africa. We have no real statistics for the death toll in Asia.

In The Decameron, probably written in the years of the Black Death and immediately afterwards, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a series of stories (in a format that influenced Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales later in the century) in which a group of people took refuge from the plague in a villa outside of Florence in Italy. Their stories range from the erotic to the comnic. The first story is an account of the plague in Florence, which in its vividness gives us an idea of the shocking reality of the pandemic:

Almost at the beginning of springtime of the year in question, the plague began to show its sorrowful effects in an extraordinary manner. It did not assume the form it had in the East, where bleeding from the nose was a manifest sign of inevitable death, but rather showed its first signs in men and women alike by means of swellings either in the groin or under the armpits, some of which grew to the size of an ordinary apple and others to the size of an egg (more or less), and the people called them gavoccioli (buboes). And from the two parts of the body already mentioned, in very little time, the said deadly gavoccioli began to spread indiscriminately over every part of the body; then, after this, the symptoms of the illness changed to black or livid spots appearing on the arms and thighs, and on every part of the body – sometimes there were large ones and other times a number of little ones scattered all around. And just as the gavoccioli were originally, and still are, a very definite indication of impending death, in like manner these spots came to mean the same thing for whoever contracted them. (Translated by Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella, 1982)

Shakespeare probably read The Decameron. But he wouldn’t have needed to do so to know the deadly threat posed by the plague, which creeps into his plays from year to year as a silent and stealthy character. It’s the plague, or at least quarantine because of it, that prevents Friar John from delivering the key message in Romeo and Juliet. And we can name some of the plays that were written while theaters were closed due to the plague in London or immediately afterwards: King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens. All of them are suffused with the threat or actuality of death by plague.

And there is no doubt in my mind that Twelfth Night is suffused with the attributes of the plague: the invisibility of its armor; its stealth and cunning; its speed; its looming and dying presence.

In the opening speech of Twelfth Night Orsino, caught up in his own self-indulgent indolence, speaks one of the most-quoted lines in Shakespeare: “If music be the food of love, play on….” and eight lines later, in this 15 line sonnet, he scoops up the theme again when he says, “O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou…”

Between these opening exclamations of love there is an immediate descent into darkness:

Give me excess of it, that surfeiting

The appetite may sicken and so die.

That strain again, it had a dying fall. (1,i,2-4)

Orsino’s musing is interrupted, or followed, by Curio’s return to the present. He asks if Orsino will be hunting the hart (by which he means pursuing the woman), to which Orsino has two replies. Firstly, he remembers the countess Olivia: “O, when my eyes did see Olivia first / Methought she purg’d the air of pestilence;” Secondly, he notes that his desire for Olivia, which immediately took command of him, had become his master: “And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds / E’er since pursue me.” (1,i,21-2)

Later, when Olivia falls in love with Viola in the guise of Cesario, she remarks on the speed with which she is caught up in the messy commerce of love:

How now?

Even so quickly may one catch the plague?

Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections

With an invisible and subtle stealth

To creep in at mine eyes … (1.v.317-321)

So desire is linked to the plague, which the Elizabethans thought might enter the body through the eyes, and the plague to death, and death to love. Every character, one way or another, is caught up in this web. In a key scene in which Viola plays the courtly lover of poetic sonneteering tradition, and Orsino the practical materialist of love, Orsino argues that men should choose younger women because “women are as roses, whose fair flower / Being once displayed doth fall that very hour.” To which Viola replies:

………. Alas that they are so

To die even when they to perfection grow. (2,iv,40-41)

Feste, that catalytic commentator on the mores of what’s going on around her, enters and sings her best known song:

Come away, come away death,

And in sad cypress let me be laid.

Fie away, fie away breath,

I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

And so, we can see, Twelfth Night is a play that is saturated in the pandemic that brought England, and indeed Europe, to its knees so many times over several centuries. When we telescope the play and distil the imagery of death and pestilence we get a sense of the pervasive ubiquity of the plague. And through the damp murk and mayhem of pestilence, love seeks to find an order of sanity, of uniting lovers, families and communities, that is like the return to a healthy reality after the epiphany that gives the play its title.

The themes that emerge from this play in performances and the critical literature need not be displaced by an emphasis on the imagery of death and pestilence that our own pandemic has fore-grounded. I’ll be talking about some of those in future blogs. But it’s worth while to give a few moments to thinking about how Shakespeare might have felt about the plague that threatened his life and his livelihood, that took away a third of his fellow Londoners a year after this play was first performed; and to imagine how the characters in Twelfth Night might have responded to this threat even in the relative sanctuary of an Illyrian Nova Scotia.


There are many editions of Twelfth Night and what you choose will depend on the content you want and the format. I tend to work with three editions: firstly, the Arden 3rd Series, which is the most scholarly and provides a comprehensive gloss on words, phrases and editorial choices; secondly, the Arden Performance Edition which is formatted for easy use while retaining some of the key glosses; and thirdly, the RSC version which is aimed at performers and has some very useful practical features, including scene summaries.  I have also recently been introduced to the Bedford Shakespeare edition edited by Bruce R. Smith, which is invaluable in providing a wealth of contemporary source material under the headings Romance, Music, Sexuality, Clothing and Disguise, Household Economies, Puritan Probity, and Clowning and Laughter. I have given details of these below. There are other excellent editions (Folger, World Library, Cambridge, Penguin) all with something to offer. 

The textual versions of Shakespeare’s plays, including this one, have always been fraught with editorial difficulty. Shakespeare did not oversee the printing of his plays. Some Quarto editions were printed during his lifetime but modern editors rely heavily on the First Folio editions produced in 1623, some seven years after his death, by his fellow actors, based largely on prompt scripts used in rehearsals and performances. Spelling and punctuation are pretty arbitrary – standardization of English did not start happening until Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755 – and some words or phrases are unclear.  

This lack of a definitive early publication of the plays has engendered a massive industry of Shakespeare scholarship. I remember as a graduate student trawling through the massive Variorum edition of the Sonnets edited by H.E.Rollins, one of 22 volumes which remain a tribute to the well-paid industry of American Shakespeare scholarship. 

Avoid editions published as part of a Collected Works, or available free or cheaply online (for example on Amazon), since the text usually predates modern scholarship and the notes tend to be either minimal or unreliable or both. Online versions are similar to the editions in Collected Works.

I include an edition of the Sonnets here because these remarkable poems so often shed light on the themes and meanings of the plays, and I will often make reference to them – for example, there are themes in Twelfth Night that echo sonnets 94 (They that have power to hurt) and 129 (The expense of spirit in a waste of shame).

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night or What You Will, ed. Keir Elam, London and New York, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare Series 3, 2008.

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, ed. Gretchen E. Minton, London and New York, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions, 2020.

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, Basingstoke, Macmillan for the Royal Shakespeare Company, 2010.

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night: Texts and Contexts, ed. Bruce R. Smith, NY and Boston, Bedford / St Martin’s, 2001.

William Shakespeare, Sonnets, ed. Katherine Duncan Jones, London and New York, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2010.

In addition to the texts of the play there are various productions available on film. For Twelfth Night there are three filmed productions I enjoy, all very different.  My favorite at the moment (because favorites change) is the Simon Godwin production for the National Theatre in London in 2017. It stars Tamara Lawrance as Viola, Phoebe Fox as Olivia, Tamsin Greig as Malvolia, and Doon Mackichan as Feste. My second favorite is the British ITV production directed by John Sichel in 1970. It stars Joan Plowright as Viola, Adrienne Corri as Olivia, Alec Guiness as Malvolio, Ralph Richardson as Sir Toby, and Tommy Steele as  Feste. This production is exceptional for the measured enunciation of the actors, which in some senses is quintessentially British and very RSC. This is the one I use to get a clear sense of the tone of speeches in the play. I don’t always agree what the approach to a speech, but I am in no doubt about what the approach is. The third production, which was re-configured as a film, is directed by Trevor Nunn (who was also Artistic Director of the RSC for many years). Imogen Stubbs plays Viola, Helena Bonham Carter is Olivia, Nigel Hawthorn plays Malvolio, and Ben Kingsley is Feste.

One of the difficulties we face when we watch other productions is that they are reduced from the long original length in different ways, and what we see and hear does not always accord with what’s in our copy of the play. There is, for example, a tendency to switch the first two scenes in Twelfth Night in order to fore-ground the shipwreck. Of these three productions the most savage changes come in Trevor Nunn’s film, in which he transposes speeches, parts of speeches and whole scenes in order to take advantage of the film format. We might find, for example, bits of a speech in more than one act. It makes for a pacy rhythm but if we are following with a standard copy of the text we are likely to be tossed by a misruled sea and shipwrecked with no ship’s captain by our side.


Knowledge about Shakespeare is always useful, though the absence of evidence from his personal life has led to a proliferation of theories and speculations. The following website, managed by the Folger Library in partnership with others such as the Bodleian Library (University of Oxford), makes available a wide range of primary documents.

Shakespeare Documented: https://shakespearedocumented.folger.edu/


There are many discussions of Shakespeare’s work in general and individual plays in particular. The edition of the play you use will offer a bibliography and your local library may have its own selection. Twelfth Night is a favorite for literary critics, historians and graduate students, so there is no shortage of discussions. Here is a brief list of books and articles that includes some useful discussions of aspects of Shakespeare in general, such as the roles of popular culture and irony, and more particular discussions of Twelfth Night.

Mary Ellen Lamb, The Popular Culture of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Jonson, London, Routledge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture 2, 2006.

George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, first published in 1589 by Richard Field, now available as a public domain e-book.

Clare Colebrook, Irony, London, Routledge, 2004.

Catherine Belsey, ‘Twelfth Night: A modern perspective’, Folger Shakespeare, 1993: https://shakespeare.folger.edu/shakespeares-works/twelfth-night/twelfth-night-a-modern-perspective/

Harold Bloom, ed., Twelfth Night: Modern Critical Interpretations, NY, Chelsea House, 1987

Linda Cookson and Bryan Loughrey, eds., Critical Essays on Twelfth Night, London, Longman, 1990

Baldassare Castiglione, Il Libro del Cortiegiano, or The Book of the Courtier, 1528, published in London in English, Italian and French in 1588.

Meet our dramaturge, Peter Bradbury. Welcome to the Curtain Theatre video blog where we will bring you backstage to meet the production crew, designers and actors to share in some of the fun we are having with “Twelfth Night”. In this video we will introduce you to our dramaturge, Peter Bradbury.