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Twelfth Night
William Shakespeare




Folly is indigenous to the soil, and shoots out with native, happy, unchecked luxuriance. Absurdity has every encouragement afforded it; and nonsense has room to flourish in. Nothing is stunted by the churlish, icy hand of indifference or severity. The poet runs riot in conceit, and idolizes a quibble. His whole object is to turn the meanest or rudest objects to a pleasurable account. The relish which he has of a pun, or of the quaint humour of a low character, does not interfere with the delight with which he describes a beautiful image, or the most refined love. The clown's forced jests do not spoil the sweetness of the character of Viola; the same house is big enough to hold Malvolio, the Countess, Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

                                           William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, 1817


Every character has his mask, for the assumption of the play is that no one is without a mask in the seriocomic business of the pursuit of happiness. The character without disguises who is not ridiculous is outside the realm of comedy. Within comedy, the character who thinks it is possible to live without assuming a mask is merely too naive to recognize the mask he has already assumed. He is the chief object of laughter. As a general rule, we laugh with the characters who know the role they are playing and we laugh at those who do not; we can crudely divide the cast of Twelfth Night into those two categories.

                                          Joseph H. Summers, The Masks of Twelfth Night, 1955


At the opening of the play Orsino and Olivia accept the aristocratic (and literary) ideas of the romantic lover and the grief stricken lady as realities rather than ideas. They are comic characters exactly because of that confusion. Orsino glories in the proper moodiness and fickleness of the literary lover; only our own romanticism can blind us to the absurdities in his opening speech.... Orsino is a victim of a type of madness to which the most admirable characters are sometimes subject. Its usual causes are boredom, lack of physical love, and excessive imagination, and the victim is unaware that he is in love with love rather than with a person.

                                         Joseph H. Summers, The Masks of Twelfth Night, 1955


There is only one character [Feste] who can restore some sense of unity to Twelfth Night at its ending, mediating between the world of the romantic lovers and our own world, which is (or is about to be) that of the chastened Sir Andrew, the sobered Belch and the unbending Malvolio. In a sense, he has been doing just this all along in preparation for, some such ultimate necessity. Throughout Twelfth Night, Feste has served as commentator and Chorus, mocking the extravagance of Orsino, the wasteful idealism of Olivia's grief, Viola's poor showing as a man. He has joined in the revels of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew while remaining essentially apart from them, aware of their limitations. Anne Barton, As You Like It and Twelfth Night: Shakespeare's Sense of an Ending, 1972


Indeed, Olivia gives evidence of a clear head and a quick mind. She enjoys the combat of wits between Malvolio and Feste; and, though she is too dignified in her mourning to make one in it, she eggs on the contestants. She is competent at worldly-wise epigram: "O world, how apt the poor are to be proud?"; and "...youth is bought more oft then begg'd, or borrow'd." She is quick-witted, and instantly invents the stratagem of the ring to oblige Viola to visit her again. She can endure plain speaking, and is not angry when Viola suggests that her fine complexion may be false and that she is "too proud." She can be patient with Feste, and can bide her time with Sir Toby. Indeed, she has poise and self-control.

                                            John W. Draper, The Twelfth Night of Shakespeare's Audience, 1950


He is of a new order- ambitious, self-contained, cold and intelligent, and dreadfully likely to prevail. That is why Sir Toby and his retinue hate him. Feste at the end provides too simple an explanation. The humiliation of Malvolio, he says, was his personal revenge upon one who had discounted him to his mistress as "a barren rascal," a jester unworthy of hire. But the others had been as active as Feste, and they had had no such motive. "The devil a puritan that he is," Maria insists, "or anything constantly, but a time-pleaser; and affection'd ass." Puritan or not, Malvolio has offended them as a class. They could have forgiven his being a climber, his having affection for himself, if he had been any other kind of man than the cool kind he is.

                                            Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare, 1939

Malvolio is to our minds as poetical as Don Quixote; and we are by no means sure that Shakespeare meant the poor cross-gartered steward only to be laughed at, any more than Cervantes did the knight of the rueful countenance. He meant us to pity him, as Olivia and the Duke pitied him; for, in truth, the delusion by which Malvolio was wrecked, only passed out of the romantic into the comic through the manifestation of the vanity of the character in reference to his situation. But if we laugh at Malvolio we are not to laugh ill-naturedly, for the poet has conducted all the mischief against him in a spirit in which there is no real malice at the bottom of the fun.

                                            Charles Knight, Studies of Shakespeare, 1849

[Twelfth Night Contents]


We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.

- Sandra Dunn, English Teacher Hempstead High School, Hempstead, New York

- Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English Suffolk County Community College, Selden, New York

- Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department State University of New York at Stony Brook

- Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee National Council of Teachers of English Student Guide Series Fort Morgan, Colorado

- Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher Tamalpais Union High School District Mill Valley, California

- Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English State University of New York College at Buffalo

- Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

- David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies State University of New York College at Geneseo

- Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education State University of New York at Buffalo

- Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

- Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee National Council of Teachers of English Director of Curriculum and Instruction Guilderland Central School District, New York

- Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, Illinois

                              THE END OF BARRON'S BOOK NOTES

                              WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S TWELFTH NIGHT

[Twelfth Night Contents]




- Barber, Cesar Lombardi. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959.

- Barton, Anne. "As You Like It and Twelfth Night: Shakespeare's Sense of an Ending," in Shakespearean Comedy. London: Edward Arnold, 1972.

- Berman, Ronald. A Reader's Guide to Shakespeare's Plays. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman, 1973.

- Brown, John Russell. Shakespeare's Plays in Performance. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1967.

- Draper, John William. The Twelfth Night of Shakespeare's Audience. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1950. Analysis of Twelfth Night in terms of Elizabethan social codes.

- Evans, Bertrand. Shakespeare's Comedies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969. Detailed structural analysis of Twelfth Night.

- Goldsmith, Robert Hollis. Wise Fools in Shakespeare. Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1955. An exploration of the nature of the fool's skill.

- Hazlitt, William. Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. London: Oxford University Press, 1970. A classic study of Shakespeare, first published in 1817.

- Hotson, Leslie. The First Night of Twelfth Night. London: R. Hart-Davis, 1954. Speculates that the play was first performed for Queen Elizabeth at court, and interprets the play as topical satire.

- Kantak, V. Y. "An Approach to Shakespearean Comedy." Shakespeare Survey 22(1974): 7-14.

- King, Walter N., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Twelfth Night. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968. A collection of essays about the play.

- Knight, Charles. Studies of Shakespeare. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1971. Reprint of a guide to Shakespeare's works first published in 1849.

- Nagarajan, S. "What You Will," in the Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. X (1959): 61-67. Examines the theme of the difference between what we are and what we desire.

- Salingar, Leo. "The Design of Twelfth Night," in The Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. IX (1958): 117-139. A very good introduction to the play.

- Salingar, Leo. Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy. London: Cambridge University Press, 1974.

- Summers, Joseph H. "The Masks of Twelfth Night," in University Review, XXII (1955): 25-32. Explores the theme of disguise.

- Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. New York: H. Holt and Company, 1939. - Welsford, Enid. The Fool; His Social and Literary History. London: Farber and Farber, 1935. Tells the history of traditional Twelfth Night revels.



Shakespeare wrote 37 plays (38 if you include The Two Noble Kinsmen) over a 20-year period, from about 1590 to 1610. It's difficult to determine the exact dates when many were written, but scholars have made the following intelligent guesses about his plays and poems:


1588-93 The Comedy of Errors
1588-94 Love's Labor's Lost
1590-91 2 Henry VI
1590-91 3 Henry VI
1591-92 1 Henry VI
1592-93 Richard III
1592-94 Titus Andronicus
1593-94 The Taming of the Shrew
1593-95 The Two Gentlemen of Verona
1594-96 Romeo and Juliet
1595 Richard II
1594-96 A Midsummer Night's Dream
1596-97 King John
1596-97 The Merchant of Venice
1597 1 Henry IV
1597-98 2 Henry IV
1598-1600 Much Ado About Nothing
1598-99 Henry V
1599 Julius Caesar
1599-1600 As You Like It
1599-1600 Twelfth Night
1600-01 Hamlet
1597-1601 The Merry Wives of Windsor
1601-02 Troilus and Cressida
1602-04 All's Well That Ends Well
1603-04 Othello
1604 Measure for Measure
1605-06 King Lear
1605-06 Macbeth
1606-07 Antony and Cleopatra
1605-08 Timon of Athens
1607-09 Coriolanus 1608-09 Pericles
1609-10 Cymbeline
1610-11 The Winter's Tale
1611-12 The Tempest
1612-13 Henry VIII - POEMS
1592 Venus and Adonis
1593-94 The Rape of Lucrece
1593-1600 Sonnets
1600-01 The Phoenix and the Turtle




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