Completed: Twelfth Night; or, What You Will

If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.


Twelfth Night; or, What You Will
William Shakespeare
c. 1601

I must confess, I’ve been avoiding this post for some days—indeed, this avoidance is the real reason I reread Twelfth Night. So much has been said about Shakespeare already, there is almost certainly nothing I can add to the discussion, and so I find myself short on words.

The overwhelming impression I have on reading and rereading Twelfth Night is how much I want to see it performed live. I can picture the action to some extent, and thanks to too many viewings of British TV and movies, I can “hear” the dialogue in a British accent, but I can’t help but thinking how much richer the experience would be performed. To see how the director and actors interpret the work, the staging, the motivations interests me. Although I could read the scenes and see where the comedy lay, sometimes even mildly laughing, I could tell that it would be that much more humorous to see the body language, to hear the tone of voice and emphasis than to merely try to picture it with my feeble imagination.

So perhaps this is what makes me reluctant to discuss Twelfth Night: I read it for amusement, and so I feel that in one sense I read it poorly, as entertainment not enlightenment. But then again, for what were the Shakespearean plays written but for our amusement and entertainment? (OK, not ours. Theirs. I somehow doubt Shakespeare would have imagined we’d be reinventing his plays over 400 years later.) And Twelfth Night is an entertainment.

Reading the play, the question was raised in my thoughts “why ‘Twelfth Night’?” Traditionally, “Twelfth Night” marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas and the coming of Epiphany. Outside of literature it is not a tradition I am familiar with, so I am under the impression that it was celebrated more in the past than at present. However, no mention of Christmastide or Epiphany is ever mentioned in the play. There is no discussion of dates or time. According to the introduction of my edition of Twelfth Night, at least one scholar believes that the play was performed on Twelfth Night in 1601, although the first recorded performance was February 2, 1602.  But there might be another reason for the title: in addition to a being time of holiday revels, among the traditions of Twelfth Night is the idea of the world being turned upside down—king becoming peasant and peasant becoming king. Choristers and minor church official could mock their superiors and the liturgy without fear of punishment.

Wit, an ‘t be thy will, put me into good fooling! Those wits that think they have thee do very oft prove fools, and I that am sure I lack thee may pass for a wise man. For what says Quinapalus? ‘Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.’


To this background comes the play: where the fool may be the wisest, a woman may dress as a man, identities may be confused, a servant may fancy himself lord. Foolery abounds, pranks abound, but in the end, all is set right, the proud is humbled, the lovers are appropriately matched, and the festive spirit may come to a happy end. Tragedy this is not. I loved it.

I do I know not what, and fear to find
Mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind.
Fate, show thy force. Ourselves we do not owe;
What is decreed must be, and be this so.


I read Twelfth Night as part of Allie’s Shakespeare Reading Month. It is also the first book I’ve competed for the 2012 TBR Pile Challenge.

On an unrelated note, it seems that Blogger & OpenID (which I’ve always used to comment on Blogger sites) aren’t playing nicely anymore. I can’t really do anything about it, so I’ve finally caved and set up a Blogger profile to comment with. I just wanted to let those on Blogger know since I won’t “look” quite the same anymore!  I would have done this a long time ago if I’d have realized that I wouldn’t have to memorize a new password since I already had a gmail address I was using. The things I learn the hard way…

8 thoughts on “Completed: Twelfth Night; or, What You Will

  1. If you have not seen it, you have GOT to go out and pick up the film adaptation starring Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Kingsley, Nigel Hawthorne and a whole stable of other famous character actors. It is a real treat. It is one of my family’s favorite films. We watch it often in our household and frequently quote lines.

    The Shakespeare comedies are wonderful, and Twelfth Night is one of the best. Shakespeare was always so sharp and witty. I sometimes need to read stuff more than once to catch things but it is always worth digging just a little bit deeper.

    1. I haven’t seen the film, but will look for it; thank you for the recommendation. Ages ago I saw a production on PBS (probably Live from Lincoln Center?), but I didn’t remember it all that well, just the confused identities aspect.

      I do love the Shakespearean comedies. This is the first I’ve read more than once, but I would be surprised if I continue to do so in the future–there’s just so much more there than can be found on a first reading.

      1. I find watching a Shakespeare performance, even if it is a film adaptation, to be the best thing to help me put the language in context and really wrap my head around it. Watching Kenneth Branaugh’s Much Ado about Nothing and reading the play is a wonderful experience too.

        1. Branaugh’s Much Ado about Nothing is my favorite Shakespeare adaptation! I’m planning on rereading the play (and re-watching the movie) later this year, actually.

  2. I’m hoping to have time to read this one tonight. I want to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream first, and I have several pages to read in my Cummings book on Shakespeare — which I’m trying to read in increments throughout the week. Anyway, it sounds HILARIOUS.

    I can’t imagine you need to worry about sounding scholarly or finding something new to say about Shakespeare. I think far more complementary to the author would be a loud chuckle and tears of mirth rolling down your cheeks. 😉

    1. I think this really is hilarious, but I found I couldn’t laugh out loud at it when I was “just” reading it. I’ll have to look into the film adaptation Carl recommended (above). But a tale of confused identities is always good for a laugh, and Shakespeare seems to have a fondness for them. (Comedy of Errors is another great example.)

      Enjoy your readings of Shakespeare tonight!

  3. I can relate to how you feel. While I’m reading these plays, I keep wondering if I’m missing something, something that can only be seen on the stage. I try to make up for this by watching the film adaptations, but I have a niggling feeling it’s not enough. If only there were more Shakespeare productions around here…

    1. I know what you mean! There aren’t too many Shakespeare productions close to me, although there is one group that puts on one of the plays every summer at an out-of-doors location. The only problem is that I’ve heard that the spot they use can be really buggy, so it’s not so much fun to actually sit though.

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