Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, of What You Will, was written in 1601 or 1602 at the end of Christmastide. It is a comedy intended as entertainment at the end of the holiday season. The play is set in Illyria, and follows the story of the twins Viola and Sebastian.

The beginning of the play finds Viola shipwrecked on the Illyrian coast and helped to shore by the captain. Her twin brother Sebastian, also aboard the ship, is nowhere to be found and Viola believes him dead. She disguises herself as a man named Cesario and begins service under the Duke Orsino.

Duke Orsino pines after Olivia. However Olivia is in mourning after losing her father and brother, and will not be brought out of her grief or accept marriage proposals for seven years. Duke Orsino decides to have Cesario help him, asking Cesario to explain how strong his love is for Olivia. However, Olivia mistakenly falls in love with Cesario, believing Viola's disguise too well. Viola herself has fallen helplessly in love with Duke Orsino.

While this love triangle if occurring, multiple characters create a ruse to convince Olivia's conceited steward Malvolio that Olivia is in love with him. These conspirators include Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Olivia's servants Maria and Fabian, and the fool, Feste. Amused by their deception, they create a ruckus at Olivia's house by drinking and partying late into the night and hiding a fake love letter allegedly written by Olivia to Malvolio. The servant Maria pens the letter to imitate Olivia's writing, and asks Malvolio to wear yellow stockings, smile affectionately at Olivia whenever she appears, and to be rude to the rest of the household.

When Malvolio discovers the letter he is excited to learn of Olivia's affections and begins to follow the letter's instructions. Olivia is not pleased to see the change in his character and does not return any affection at all. His tormentors pretend Malvolio has gone insane and see that he is locked in a dungeon, where the fool Feste visits and mocks him, pretending to be a priest at times.

The missing twin Sebastian has meanwhile been rescued from the shipwreck by his friend Antonio. Seeing the resemblance between Sebastian and Cesario confuses Olivia who believes them to be the same person. She asks Sebastian for his hand and they marry secretly.

When Viola and Sebastian are reunited there is confusion amongst all. Viola reveals that she was Cesario in disguise and that she loves Duke Orsino. They decide to marry. Sir Toby Belch, who was also an admirer of Olivia's, decides instead to marry her servant Maria. Malvolio is angry at the deception and says he will take revenge, but is talked down by Fabian.

The gender bending from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, is a comment on a day of revelry that was commonplace in Shakespeare's era. On this twelfth night after Christmas roles were changed as women dressed as men and vice versa. The celebration was based on a Roman festival called Saturnalia, which was an excuse for an evening of drunken festivities and inverted social order.

In Twelfth Night, the grumpy Malvolio can represent the adversary of these imbibed festivities. The conspirators that aim to humiliate Malvolio, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, representing the comic revelers. The play was written to be performed at Christmastide and was performed right after its completion in 1602. Shakespeare borrowed some elements of the story from Barnabe Rich's short story entitled Of Apollonius and Silla, which was in turn based on Matteo Bandello's story.