• peter bradbury

Twelfth Night: The play's the thing

Peter Bradbury, Dramaturge

“The play’s the thing,” says Hamlet. The play will be a mirror to the truth. He doesn’t say it quite like that, of course. He says something about catching the conscience of his uncle the king. And so it does. Drama is mimetic in that way.

My purpose in quoting Hamlet is to say that what really matters is the play itself. We have the manuscript. We hand it round to the players who learn their lines and imagine themselves in Illyria (this is Twelfth Night, after all) and find gestures to go with the words. In most productions I have seen from beginning to end (and there have been quite a few of them on three continents!) the tone and rhythm of the action and the meaning of the words emerge as part of the process. With each rehearsal something new is learned, some telling gesture emerges, the characters start to listen to each other. All we really need is the manuscript, a group of players and a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. I have one on my phone, right there on the home page. I use the OED because it has a reputation for historical accuracy and more importantly because it casts light on the etymology, which is important in Shakespeare, not least because words that meant one thing in Elizabethan England can mean something quite different today. That’s not always the case but it’s useful to check.

It is also useful sometimes to have a guide to context, to past usages, to the way other people have read and watched and interpreted the play itself or parts of the play. Theater is not primarily academic, but we are fortunate that throughout history academics have held theater in high regard and done such useful work on it. This is particularly true of Shakespeare, whose work has attracted endless lines of academics willing to give up a substantial part of their lives to him. So I thought it might be useful in the context of this production to suggest good editions of the play and some of the critical works that help us to find and understand its less obvious qualities.


In a scholarly sense the most useful edition of any of Shakespeare’s plays is the Arden edition. Starting with Hamlet in 1899, the Arden editions, which are now in their third series, offer the most accurate versions of the text along with impressive introductions and notes. If you want not only the meaning but the history of a particular usage this is the edition for you. Keir Elam’s introduction to the third Arden edition of Twelfth Night is well worth reading, not least for his discussion of the setting of the play in Illyria, in the northern Balkans, and the movement of the play between the two courts of Orsino and Olivia, based, he suggests, on a cultural model derived from Castiglione’s The Courtier (Il Cortegiano). Arden’s newest publisher Bloomsbury Press has begun to produce a new series: Arden Performance Editions. An edition of Twelfth Night published in April this year is edited by Gretchen E. Minton.

I also use the Royal Shakespeare Company edition, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, which is designed for actors and crew and comes in an attractive package that can be slipped into a large pocket or a backpack. I particularly like the scene-by-scene plot summary, which more than once has given me an “Ah, of course, now I see” moment.

Below I have included editions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets because these exquisite and hard-hitting poems often provide an in-depth exploration of a theme in the plays; and there are echoes of the sonnets throughout. Sonnet 20 is always good to read for the gender-switching plays: “A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted / Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion”. In 42 - not a well-known sonnet - the lines are nonetheless familiar to anyone who has seen or read Twelfth Night: “Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye: / Thou does love her, because thou knowest I love her…” Sonnet 94, which was used by William Empson as a prime example of Shakespearean irony, addresses head-on the perennial theme of power: “They that have power to hurt … / They are the lords and owners of their faces, / Others but stewards of their excellence…” And finally, we know that one of Shakespeare’s favorite themes, in his comedies, tragedies and histories, and in the sonnets and the longer poems, is the power of sexual desire. It is nowhere better encapsulated than in sonnet 129:

Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,

Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had

Past reason hated as a swallowed bait

On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

Mad in pursuit and in possession so,

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

William Shakespeare (2008), Twelfth Night or What You Will, ed. Keir Elam, London, The Arden Shakespeare (3rd Series).

William Shakespeare (2020), Twelfth Night or What You Will, ed. Gretchen E. Minton, London, Bloomsbury, The Arden Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare (Ed. 2010), Twelfth Night, ed. Jonathan Bate & Eric Rasmussen, London, Macmillan: The RSC Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare (Ed. 1997), Sonnets, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones, London, The Arden Shakespeare (3rd series).

Helen Vendler (1997), The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Cambridge, Mass. & London, Belknap Press (Harvard UP).

Background reading

As we bring the characters to life - whether in a Zoom screenshot or on the stage in Mill Valley - and I wonder what kind of play Shakespeare would make of our community, Mill Valley - we begin to ask questions about the society represented in a scene or the play as a whole. We wonder what Shakespeare was reading, who he was talking to, and the meanings of simple occasions like the epiphany on the twelfth day of Christmas. It’s early days, but here are some interesting books that anyone with time and curiosity might enjoy.

Baldassare Castiglione (1528), Il Cortegiano, translated into English by Thomas Hoby in 1561 as The Courtier. Available in various print editions and online as free text. It is most likely that Shakespeare would have the Hoby translation.

Norman Blake (2002), A Grammar of Shakespeare’s Language, London, Macmillan.

John Russell Brown, Ed. (1976), Shakespeare in Performance: An introduction through six major plays, London and New York, Macmillan.

Ann Rosalind Jones & Peter Stallybrass (2000), Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

John Florio (1598), A World of Words, or Most Copious and Exact Dictionary in Italian and English, available as free online text - a resource that Shakespeare probably used fairly extensively.

The Fool

I think of two folk tales when I think of the Shakespearean fool: “Stone Soup” by the Grimm brothers; and Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. In the first story a traveller offers to make a soup from a magic stone he carries in his pocket, then smiles to himself as the farmers and their wives, reluctant to offer their best food to feed the visitor, are nonetheless seduced by the promise of magic to “lace” the soup with additional ingredients, a chicken here or bunch of thyme there. And if anyone has forgotten “The Emperor’s New Clothes” we are surely reminded of the story by the exploits of our very own Emperor and the brave people who have called him out. Shakespeare’s fool is like the traveller, spinning a web of seduction to sort his surroundings into some kind of order. Or like the boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who is willing to point out to everyone that in fact the Emperor is naked; he is not afraid to be thought … a fool. Poor Tom might be the most profound of Shakespeare’s fools, reducing Lear’s great “unaccommodated man” speech to “Why, ’tis a naughty night to swim in, nuncle”, but Feste is one of Shakespeare’s most mature fools, funny but very dark, unrelenting in his ability to scrape the veneer from the social scene in which he moves. His loyalty to Olivia and his willingness to expose the pretensions of the people, not just the men, who surround her, is courageous as well as outrageous; and his melancholic slip into the rhythms of sad music sets up a beautiful arch to mirror the “food of love” coming from Orsino’s court.

Eric Rasmussen and Ian De Jong (2016), “Shakespeare’s Fools”, in British Library: Discovering Literature: Shakespeare & Renaissance, London, British Library.


Mark Edmundson (2000), “Playing the Fool”, New York Times April 2, 2000. http://movies2.nytimes.com/books/00/04/02/bookend/bookend.html

Robert H. Bell (2011), Shakespeare’s Great Stage of Fools, London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Robert Hills Goldsmith (1955), Wise Fools in Shakespeare, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press

Interesting reading and critical texts

W.H. Auden (1963), “Music in Shakespeare”, in The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, London, Faber & Faber.

William Empson (1930;1953), Seven Types of Ambiguity, 3rd edition, London, Chatto &


Harold Bloom, Ed. (1987), Modern Critical Interpretations: Twelfth Night, New York, Chelsea House.

This is a small list as Shakespeare bibliographies go, but if anyone would like suggestions for further reading on large or micro-topics then feel free to contact me at pjm.bradbury@gmail.com.



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