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For Those Who Didn't Ace Their English Classes, Here's 'Twelfth Night' Explained

Julie Denesha
The lovesick Matthew J. Williamson (Orsino, Duke of Illyria) is comforted by Frank Oakley III (Curio) Orsino's attendant.

Let’s admit it: A lot of us aren’t as up on our Shakespeare as we ought to be (even some of us who were English majors).

For those who’d like to feel a little smarter as they head to Southmoreland Park for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival's Twelfth Night, or What You Will, we consulted Geraldo U. Sousa, a professor of English at the University of Kansas who has written several books on Shakespeare and teaches Twelfth Night almost every semester.

Credit Courtesy Geraldo de Sousa
Geraldo de Sousa is a professor in the Department of English at the University of Kansas.

Sousa noted that the text of the play appeared in print for the first time in the First Folio of 1623, which is now on display at the Kansas City Public Library.

“It was written around 1600 – we’re not sure exactly when, but it may have been performed for Queen Elizabeth for the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, 1601, the culmination of the Christmas season – the twelve days of Christmas.”

The first record of the play’s performance comes from a 20-something law student who saw a performance in the great hall of London’s Middle Temple at the Feast of Candlemas in February 1602 and wrote about it in his diary.

Sousa said Twelfth Night is “a funny, delightful comedy” that audiences will definitely enjoy, but it’s not without serious moments (such as a song about death and Malvolio’s angry promise to get revenge “on the whole pack of you”).

Sousa told us he makes several other key points about Twelfth Night:

1. The play is set in an imaginary place.

“The play is set in Illyria, which is the Greek and Roman name for the region on the eastern part of the Adriatic Sea — roughly, today’s Albania, Montenegro, and Croatia. Viola and Sebastian are traveling from Messaline, but no such place exists. (It may refer to Famagusta, Cyprus, which apparently was also known as Salamine.) These are not real locations but imagined places.

Credit Google maps
The general setting of 'Twelfth Night,' as it appears on Google maps.

“I like to make this point because I haven’t met too many people who’ve been to Albania. I did go a few years ago, so I like to call up Google Earth and show my students.

“Sebastian and Viola are shipwrecked and rescued separately by a Captain and by Antonio. They’re separated but end up in the same town. In some ways, the play is about finding yourself not where you plan to be – Viola’s first line is, ‘What country, friends is this?’”

2. The play is about the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of love, by young people unsupervised by their elders.

“This is a play that doesn’t have parents. Olivia’s father and brother are dead. Viola and Sebastian’s father, referred to as Sebastian of Messaline, is also dead. These are young people out in the world on their own, of marriageable age, looking for love.

“I ask my students to define and explain what each of the characters is looking for or wants at the beginning of the play, and what they get at the end. This is an interesting exercise because it lays bare the compromises they make in order to find happiness.

“I’ll give you a couple of examples. Orsino wants Olivia. Olivia wants nothing to do with him. At the end of the play, he’s on the spot and switches his affection to Viola/Cesario. Olivia falls in love with Viola disguised as Cesario, and ends up with Viola’s twin brother as her substitute.”

3. The play puts the Feast of the Epiphany, when the magi come to the Baby Jesus bearing gifts, into a secular context.

“There are two bearers of gifts in the play, and those are the strangers who come to town: Viola and Sebastian. The gifts they bring are love.”

4. Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most musical plays.

“It’s full of songs: ‘If music be the food of love, play on.’ Feste sings three important songs. The first begins, ‘O mistress mine, where are you roaming’ and has the later line: ‘journeys end in lovers meeting.’ That’s a good definition for the action of the play.

“The second one begins, ‘Come away, come away, death.’ It places the action of the play at the other extreme – you have love, you have happiness, you have bad things happening. And the play ends with a song in which Feste takes us through the cycle of life. This suggests the cyclical nature of time, and that things do not always turn out as we expect them."

5. The play is a study in contrasts and opposites.

“I like to help students understand the divisions in the play by telling them there are party goers and party poopers.

“There’s Duke Orsino, who wallows in self-pity, pursuing Olivia but is constantly rejected. Olivia’s house is divided between upstairs, where Olivia and her puritanical servant Malvlio are serious, sober, and somber all the time – and downstairs, where her uncle, Sir Toby Belch, his sidekick or drinking buddy Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Olivia’s servant Maria are interested in nothing but drinking and merrymaking at all times.

“The appearance of Viola and Sebastian, twin brother and sister, breaks this impasse. These are the strangers who come to town and dislodge the emotional impasse that the residents of Illyria have been experiencing.”

6. The play abounds with images of sexual, gender, and transsexual ambiguity.

“Viola’s cross-dressing as Cesario thrusts her into a liminal space, an in-between space between Olivia and Orsino. She straddles a masculine and a feminine world – there are lots of references to transsexuality in the play.

“Olivia falls in love with Viola dressed as Cesario. The play’s resolution depends on substitution – Sebastian becomes the substitute for the male persona of his sister. Viola becomes the substitute for Olivia in Orsino’s affection.”

Finally, Sousa had a telling anecdote about a student production of Twelfth Night at KU, perhaps 20 or 30 years ago.

“At the precise moment when Viola/Cesario comes to Olivia for the first time and Olivia lifts the veil to take an inventory of her beauty, there was this commotion in the audience. The director came forward from the back of the theater, raised his hand and said, ‘Stop!’ And the actors all froze in place. The curtains closed. The paramedics came and provided medical care for a person, and an actor took this person away. This took maybe 20 to 25 minutes, and we were in our seats until emergency was taken care of.

“Then the curtains opened and the actors continued from precisely where they were, in the most professional manner. Later we learned that a retired faculty member had a heart attack and died right there on the spot. Just that moment we’d been laughing and enjoying ourselves, and then there’s this moment when life calls.

“It’s a wonderful story about the two sides of life. We do need comedy to bring the sense of joy and delight, but Shakespeare’s comedy is not very far from having a serious dimension.”

Twelfth Night; or, What You Will, presented by the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, 8 p.m., June 14-July 3 at Southmoreland Park (signed performances for the hard of hearing will be Wednesday, June 22 and Sunday, June 26). Festival admission is donation only.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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