“If music be the food of love, play on,/Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,/The appetite may sicken, and so die.”

Twelfth Night

Act One

By Dennis Abrams



Orsino, Duke of Illyria

Valentine and Curio, Orsino’s servants

Viola, a shipwrecked lady (later disguised as Cesario)

Sebastian, her twin brother

A Sea Captain

Antonio, another sea captain

Olivia, a countess

Maria, Olivia’s servant

Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle

Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby’s companion

Malvolio, Olivia’s steward

Fabian, Olivia’s servant

Feste, Olivia’s clown

A Priest



Performed at London’s Middle Temple (a law college) on February 2, 1602, Twelfth Night was probably written a year earlier – soon after Hamlet.  There are numerous allusions that tie it to this date, though an independent record of an unnamed entertainment performed before Elizabeth I on Twelfth Night 1601 is thought unlikely to be this one.



Menaechmi, by the Roman comedian Plautus, ultimately provides the twins story (as it did The Comedy of Errors) while the love interest derives from a sixteenth-century Italian play called Gl’lngannati (The Deceived) which Shakespeare could have read from any number of Italian and English versions.



The play was first printed in the 1623 Folio (F1) in an unusually trouble-free text (especially when compared to Hamlet) and was probably set from a scribe’s copy.


Act One:  The Illyrian court is at a standstill – Duke Orsino is in love.  Unfortunately though, the object of his affections, Olivia, is in mourning for her brother and remains aloof and distant.  Orsino is not the only one in pursuit of Olivia: her uncle Sir Toby Belch has persuaded his friend, the rich but somewhat dim-witted Sir Andrew Aguecheek, to present shakespeare-in-love-final-scenehimself as a suitor.  MEANWHILE, on the coast of Illyria, two survivors of a shipwreck, Viola and the Sea Captain, are discussing what to do. Convinced that her twin brother Sebastian has drowned, Viola decides to disguise herself as a young man, Cesario, and serve at Orsino’s court.  She rapidly becomes a favorite of the Duke, who uses her as a go-between in his courtship of Olivia. The plan goes horribly awry, however, when Olivia finds herself more charmed by the messenger than by the messenger.

Like Shakespearian comedies before and after it, Twelfth Night begins sadly. There has been a shipwreck – one of Shakespeare’s ever-malevolent storms – with just a handful of survivors.  The lady Viola, her sea journey cruelly interrupted, finds herself in a strange and possibly hostile land.  Apart from the captain and sailors who accompany him (none of them reappears in the play), she is alone.  And bereaved:

Viola:  What country, friends, is this?

Captain:  This is Illyria, lady.

Viola:  And what should I do in Illyria?

            My brother, he is in Elysium.

Although she is terrified to think of it (and the Captain gently tries to convince her otherwise), Viola’s brother is apparently drowned; although he may be in a better place, she is stuck here on earth.  Like the Antipholus brothers in The Comedy of Errors, Viola and her brother – his name is Sebastian – are identical twins(!), and from this impossible set-up Shakespeare spins one of his most moving comedies. Though she cannot know it yet, Viola’s similarity to her sibling (the thing that causes her such pain in this scene) is something that will deliver her from sadness, and ultimately (and I don’t think I’m giving anything away with this) reunites them both. Opting to “conceal” herself by dressing as a youth – a youth who naturally resembles her brother – Viola travels to the Illyrian court, like many a hero of romance before, in order to seek her fortune.  It as though she leaves the mourning solitary sister behind on the beach: in her new garb (and identity), Viola propels herself into a comic world of mysterious disguises, capricious love and crazy topsy-turvydom.

Twelfth Night, as befits its place in Shakespeare’s canon (it was written around the same time as Hamlet), continually bridges worlds that are both comic and tragic.  Soon after Viola arrives we are shown the household of the Illyrian countess Olivia, also in mourning.  Shakespeare clearly means the parallels between our two heroines to be uncanny:  not only is Olivia’s name a near-anagram of Viola’s, she too is grief-stricken for a dead brother.  Yet her long-absent fool Feste gently reminds his mistress that perhaps it is time for her to rejoin the living. “Good Madonna,” he asks, “why mournest thou?”

Olivia:  Good fool, for my brother’s death.

Feste:  I think his soul is in hell, Madonna.

Olivia:  I know his soul is in heaven, fool.

Feste:  The more fool, Madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul, being in heaven.

Feste tries to laugh his mistress out of her sadness: comedy has the potential to heal grave emotional wounds, and with the clowns reappearance in Illyria the cast of Twelfth Night TN_2005_Still2sdiscovers, with Olivia, that to find happiness you first have to make yourself happy. The irony is that, before the play is out, there will be more “fools” on the stage than Feste.

However, not all the sadness at the opening of Twelfth Night strikes such grave notes.  Elsewhere in Illyria, Duke Orsino is mournful with love – worse, he is mournful with love for Olivia, who will not even begin to listen to his pleas for mercy.  In fact the play begins with Orsino (although there is a long stage tradition of opening with the shipwreck), and with some of the most-quoted lines in all of Shakespeare. “If music be the food of love,” he calls out to his musicians, “play on.”

Give me excess of it that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken and so die.

That strain again, it had a dying fall.

O, it came over my ear like the sweet sound

That breathes upon a bank of violets.

Stealing and giving odour. Enough, no more,

‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.

Orsino wants nothing less than too much: he demands “excess” in the hope that somehow it will cure his “appetite” for tears by killing it.  Although he is in love, he begs to be out of it, though he listens to music, he wants it to stop. “So full of shapes is fancy,” he reflects to himself, “that it is alone in high fantastical.” Orsino is in love with love itself – and with the power of his own “fantastical” imagination.


From Bloom:

“The hidden heart of Twelfth Nightlies in Shakespeare’s seriocomic rivalry with Ben Jonson, whose comedy of humors is being satirized throughout. Ancient Greek medicine had posited four ‘humors”: blood, choler, phlegm, and bile.  In a person harmoniously balanced, none of these are evident, but the dominance of any indicated severe character disorders. By the time of Jonson and Shakespeare, pragmatically there was a simpler notion of just two humors, choler and blood. The choleric humor resulted in fury, while the sanguine temperament exercised itself in obsessive lust, frequently perverted. Popular psychology diffused this duality into easy explanations for every kind of flummery or affectation, Jonson’s targets in his stage comedies.

In some ways, this debased theory of humors resembles our everyday vulgarizations of what Freud termed the unconscious. The choleric humor is roughly akin to Freud’s Death Drive or Thanatos, while the sanguine humor is like the Freudian Eros.

Shakespeare generally mocks these mechanical operations of the spirit; his larger invention of the human scorns this reductiveness. He takes therefore the Feast of the Epiphany, the Twelfth Night after Christmas, as the occasion for an ambiguous comedy of revels that involves a practical joke upon the choleric Malvolio, a figure so Jonsonian as to suggest the 1710982,h=425,pd=1,w=620choleric Ben himself.  The sanguine Will gives us What You Will, the spirit of Saturnalia that popular praxis had made out of the initially pious rejoicing of Epiphany, the manifestation of the Christ child to the Magi. Cheerfully secular, like almost all of Shakespeare, the play of ‘what you will’ makes no reference whatsoever to Twelfth Night. We are not at Christmas season in the very odd dukedom of Illyria, where the shipwrecked Viola passively and hilariously achieves perhaps not her happiness but certainly ours.  We open, though, not with the charming Viola but at the court of Duke Orsino, where that sublimely outrageous lover of love, sanguine to an insane degree, ravishes our ears with one of Shakespeare’s most exquisite speeches.

If music be the food of love, play on,

Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.

That strain again, it had a dying fall:

O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odour. Enough, no more;

‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.

O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,

That notwithstanding thy capacity

Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,

Of what validity and pitch soe’er,

But falls into abatement and low price,

Even in a minute! So full of shapes is fancy,

That it alone is high fantastical.

Shakespeare himself have been pleased by Orsino’s opening metaphor, since Cleopatra, five years later, repeats it when she badly misses Antony: ‘Give me some music; music, moody food/Of us that trade in love.’ Orsino, far more in love with language, music, love, and himself than he is with Olivia, or will be with Viola, tells himself (and us) that love is too hungry ever to be satisfied by any person whatsoever. And yet the first eight lines of this rhapsody have more to do with music, and by extension, poetry, than with love. That ‘dying fall’ is a cadence that echoes throughout subsequent English poetry, particularly in the Keats-Tennyson tradition. Orsino, indeed ‘high fantasical’ (very high), asks for excess tumblr_m9mrplPPXe1rcodg3o1_500of music though not of love, but his metaphorical intensity implies that ‘’Tis not so sweet now as it was before’ pertains to sexual passion also. He will surpass even this self-revelation when speaking to Viola, in her disguise as his boyish go-between Cesario, appointed to carry his protestations of passion to Olivia. Supreme hyperbolist as he is, here Orsino touches the sublime of male fatuity:

There is no woman’s sides

Can bide the beating of so strong a passion

As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart

So big, to hold so much: they lack retention.

Alas, their love may be call’d appetite,

No motion of the liver, but the palate,

That suffers surfeit, cloyment, and revolt;

But mine is all as hungry as the sea,

And can digest as much. Make no compare

Between that love a woman can bear me

And that I owe Olivia.


Out of context, this is even more magnificent than the opening chant, but as this merely is Orsino, it is wonderfully comic grandiloquence. Though he is minor compared with Viola, Olivia, Malvolio (how their names chime together), and the admirable Feste, Orsino’s amiable erotic lunacy establishes the tone of Twelfth Night. Despite his amazing self-absorption, Orsino genuinely moves the audience, partially because his High Romanticism is so quixotic, but also because his sentimentalism is too universal to be rejected:

O, fellow, come, the song we had last night.

Mark it, Cesario, it is old and plain,

The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,

And the free maids that weave their thread with bones

Do use to chant it: it is silly sooth,

And dallies with the innocence of love,

Like the old age.


There is also Orsino’s wonderful inconsistency, when he is moved to speak the truth:

For boy, however we do praise ourselves,

Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm

More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn

Than women’s are.


Poor Malvolio would be happier in some other play, while Viola, Olivia, and especially Feste would find appropriate contexts elsewhere in Shakespeare. Orsino is the genius of his place; he is the only character the exuberant madness of Twelfth Night accommodates.”


From Tony Tanner:

Viola:  I am not that I play. Are you the lady of the house?

Olivia: If I do not usurp myself, I am.


Olivia: I prithee tell me what thou think’st of me.

Viola: That you do not think you are what you are.

Olivia: If I think so, I think the same of you.

Viola: Then think you right. I am not what I am.

Olivia: I would you were as I would have you be.

Viola: Would it be better, madam, than I am?


“Julia dressed as a page-boy in order to follow and serve her faithless lover, Proteus (The Two Gentlemen of Verona); Portia dressed as a man to enter the male world of the law and rescue her husband’s friend; Rosalind adopted ‘a swashing and martial outside’ to reduce the dangers to two helpless women fleeing into the forest from the court (As You Like It). But Viola, in what is sometimes called the last of Shakespeare’s ‘happy comedies,’ gives no clear reason for assuming male disguise. After being rescued from the shipwreck, she finds herself without role and direction in a strange land. ‘And what should I do in Illyria,’ she rhetorically asks the good captain who has saved her. She asks who governs in Illyria and learns about Orsino and his love for the lady Olivia. After being told that Olivia has ‘abjured the sight/And company of men,’ Viola responds:

O that I served that lady,

And might not be delivered to the world,

Till I had made mine own occasion mellow,

What my estate is.

The Captain points out apparently insuperable difficulties, and Viola switches to the Duke.

I prithee (and I’ll pay thee bounteously)

Conceal me what I am, and be my aid

For such disguise as haply will become

The form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke.

Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to him;

It may be worth thy pains.

The Arden editors comment that this indicates ‘neither a deep-laid scheme nor an irresponsible caprice’ and add in a footnote: ‘Till I had made mine own occasion mellow’ will pass in the theater.  There is, and can be, no sound reason given for her taking service with either Olivia or Orsino; this is simply required by the plot, from which Shakespeare has dropped the original motivation of the heroine’s disguise (to serve the man she secretly loves. Shakespeare can set his plot in motion in any way he wants, and he is under no obligation to provide motivated reasons for opening actions. But since the theme of a woman dressing up as a page or servant to gain proximity to a man is a very familiar one from a number of sixteenth-century plays and narratives (mainly Italian), and since her motive is always the fact that she already loves that man, Shakespeare’s decision to drop that traditional reason, indeed to obscure if not erase motive altogether, is perhaps worth a little more consideration than a parenthesis in a footnote.

Night7Considering her speech to the Captain, Barber admires ‘the aristocratic, free and easy way she [Viola] settles what she will do;’ and later, ‘Viola’s spritely language conveys the fun she is having in playing a man’s part, with a hidden womanly perspective about it. One cannot quite say that she is playing in a masquerade, because disguising just for the fun of it is a different thing. But the same sort of festive pleasure in transvestism is expressed.’ Twelfth Night concluded the twelve days of Christmas festivities which traditionally was a period of ‘misrule,’ when the world could, temporarily, be turned upside down, or inside out (like Feste’s glove), and clothes, genders, and identities swapped around. (See Francoise Laroque on this.) So ‘festive pleasure in transvestism’ seems to point in the right direction. But I am intrigued that Viola should resolve to go as a ‘eunuch.’ Some editions will tell you that Shakespeare dropped this idea, or simply forgot about it. But I wonder if he did. For instance, when the letter from ‘THE UNFORTUNATE UNHAPPY’ REMINDS Malvolio that ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em,’ it is engaging in a barely submerged parody of the biblical verse:

‘For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.’

(Matthew 19:12)

Something is going on in this play about what it is to be, and to fail to be, properly gendered; what it is for nature to draw to her ‘bias,’ or swerve from it. I think Viola’s resolve to enter Illyria as a eunuch will stand a little more pondering. Ruth Nevo can see that it matters, and she interprets it in her own way. Noting Viola’s ‘ambivalence’ about whom to serve, she writes:

‘But she does not fly to the Countess Olivia for succour, woman to woman, despite her sympathy for a fellow-mourner. Instead she chooses to be adventurously epicene in the Duke’s entourage. Viola escapes her feminine state but at the cost of a (symbolic) castration; it is a eunuch (to account for her voice) that she will ‘sing,/And speak to him in many sorts of music.’

(Tanner’s italics). William Carroll also raises the question – ‘But why a eunuch?’ – and his answer is instructive:

‘Shakespeare’s initial choice of the eunuch role may have been for pragmatic reasons. ‘Cesario’ would not be sexually identified and as a neutral figure could more easily become a confidant of Olivia. But somewhere along the way, Shakespeare changed his mind and dropped the idea, perhaps because Viola is already a eunuch as far as Viola goes; and a man playing a eunuch affords comic possibilities, but a woman playing a eunuch – nothing.  As the play continues, we see that Cesario must in fact be essentially bisexual, not neuter, as Viola is both firm and flexible, both committed and disengaged.’

Suppose we think of this play as centering on a figure who sets out to be ‘adventurously epicene’ and discovers that s/he is, has to be ‘bisexual, not neuter’ – the would-be eunuch who became the inadvertent hermaphrodite. How or why might a great romantic comedy emerge from such a proposition, it might be asked? That is what I will try to explore.”

More in my next post:

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