Crash Course in Twelfth Night

My story starts at sea... a perilous voyage to an unknown land... a shipwreck... The wild waters roar and heave... The brave vessel is dashed all to pieces, and all the helpless souls within her drowned... all save one... a lady... whose soul is greater than the ocean... and her spirit stronger than the sea’s embrace... Not for her a watery end, but a new life beginning on a stranger shore. It will be a love story... for she will be my heroine for all time. And her name will be... Viola.
— Shakespeare in Love, 1998

We're busy getting lesson plans, costumes, props, and scripts in order for our spring production of Twelfth Night. We've got Shakespeare on the brain but we want to make sure everyone can take this journey with us. This week, we’re going to give you a crash course in Twelfth Night to refresh the memories of those who may have studied it and to catch up the uninitiated.


A Very Brief History

Written in 1601, Twelfth Night sits right in the middle of Shakespeare’s solo playwriting career which began with Two Gentleman of Verona (1590), and finished with The Tempest (1611). It is believed to have been written for the celebrations around the close of the Christmas season and the Feast of the Epiphany (Twelfth Night...twelve days of Christmas...get it?). It is one of his beloved comedies, Viola being a prized role for many classical actress, and the story features some of his well-used devices like twins (also seen in Comedy of Errors), and brave ladies disguising themselves as men (also seen in Cymbeline and As You Like It), and of course a big love triangle!

The Plot

In a faraway land called Illyria (a real place located on the Adraitic Sea in present day Albania), the rich and noble Duke Orsino pines for a love he cannot have. The Countess Olivia is in mourning. In the course of just a year, both her father and her brother died, leaving her with no family. She has sworn she will stay locked away, veiled and crying for at least seven years to honor his memory, and will not entertain any suitor. But you can’t stop someone from wanting…and Duke Orsino continues to yearn for the beautiful Olivia.

One day, a new-comer named Viola literally washes up on shore.  Viola was traveling with her twin brother, Sebastian, but their ship met with a terrible tempest. Viola was pulled from the wreckage and rescued by the Sea Captain, but fears her twin perished in the storm. The Captain helps her to disguise herself as a young pageboy so she can seek a job with Duke Orsino. In her disguise as “Cesario”, Viola quickly becomes a favorite of the Duke, who bestows many favors on “him” and entrusts him to woo Olivia on his behalf. But Viola has a secret – she has fallen in love with Orisno, and wishes she could marry him herself! Still, Viola visits Lady Olivia’s house as an ambassador for Orsino, and, Olivia does indeed fall in love – with Cesario!

Meanwhile, not everyone in the Countess Olivia’s house is in mourning…Olivia’s Uncle, Sir Toby Belch, has invited a wealthy man, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, to court her.  Although Olivia has sworn to entertain no suitors, Sir Andrew stays in Illyria, reveling and carousing nightly with the raucous Sir Toby. This does not sit well with Olivia’s serious and self-righteous steward, Malovolio. When he scolds them and threatens to have them all kicked out of the house, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Olivia’s maid Maria plot revenge on this killjoy. Maria spins an elaborate plan to forge a letter in Olivia’s hand that hints at their mistress’s secret love for Malvolio, and suggest that he assume behaviors that attract her: wearing yellow stockings, being rude to servants, and always smiling, no matter what. Malvolio falls for the letter hook line and sinker. Olivia, worried by Malvolio’s odd behavior, and asks her Uncle Toby to take special care of him. Sir Toby takes the prank a step too far, and, with the help of Feste the Jester, locks Malvolio up to cure his “madness.”

Now, to make things more complicated, Viola’s lost twin Sebastian is actually alive and well – having been saved by a friendly sailor, Antonio.  Sebastian, journeys to Illyria to seek help from Orsino, who was a friend of his father. Antonio is a wanted man in Illyria, but he feels such love for Sebastian, that he decides to follow his new friend. When the two turn up, they throw things into even more confusion. Olivia, mistaking Sebastian for Cesario, quickly marries him, the news of which comes as a surprise to Orsino and, most of all to Viola. At last, the appearance of brother and sister in one place at the same time, and all couples are happily united. While Malvolio promises to get his revenge for his mistreatment…

Want to See More? 

Like all Shakespeare tales, there have been many, many adaptations of Twelfth Night over the years. If you want to get more familiar with the story here are some suggestions for other productions you can watch to immerse yourself in the land of Illyria:

Shakespeare’s Globe Twelfth Night (2014, 191 min., NR), directed by Tim Carroll
This celebrated production starring Mark Rylance as Olivia was originally performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London (teaching artists Katie and Lawrence have both performed there too!), and has since toured all over the world. It is an “original practice” production, meaning they employ authentic costumes and an all-male cast, just as you would have done in Shakespeare’s day. Click here to rent the full production directly from Shakespeare’s Globe

Twelfth Night or What You Will (1996, 134 min., PG), directed by Trevor Nunn
Starring Helena Bonham Carter, Imogen Stubbs, Ben Kingsley, Richard E. Grant, this is a star-studded and faithful interpretation filmed on-location in Cornwall, England. Click here to rent on Amazon Prime.

Shakespeare: The Animated Tales—Twelfth Night (1992, 25 min.), Ambrose Video
Co-produced by the BBC, the animated tales series gives a condensed introduction to the characters and the story, and even includes some of Shakespeare’s dialogue.


She’s the Man (2006, 105 min., PG13), directed by Andy Fickman
For an updated version, check out this teenage rom-com starring Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum. Viola assumes the identity of her brother at a fancy boarding school called Illyria Academy, and falls for one of her soccer teammates. Click here to rent on Amazon Prime

Motocrossed (2001, 92 min., NR)
A slightly looser adaptation, this Disney Channel Original Movie follows a girl who takes her brother's place to compete in a motocross race. Click here to buy from Amazon Prime. 


Twelfth Night (1910, 13 min.) available on Silent Shakespeare DVD (Milestone Video)
Directed by Charles Kent and starring acclaimed silent film actress Florence Turner, the opening scene of the shipwreck was shot on location at the seaside. This is a great reminder for actors that you don't have to talk to get your intentions across! 


Thanks to our friends at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre for helping us to compile this list. Of course, these are just a few suggestions, and there are countless more interpretations out there to dive in to! How amazing that 400 years after his death, Shakespeare's work is still inspiring new productions and adaptations! That's why we're thrilled to be a part of Shakespeare 400 Chicago and to see companies from around the Globe present these timeless tales.

Rehearsals for Twelfth Night start on February 22nd. You can follow us on our road to Shakespeare 400 right here on the blog. Every week, we’ll share rehearsal updates, photos, and behind the scenes stories, so you can see our version of this classic tale take shape from start to finish. Stay tuned!