Ex Libris: Twelfth Night, or What You Will

It is immensely satisfying to discover the original source for a well-known quote or cliché.



It is immensely satisfying to discover the original source for a well-known quote or cliché, and chances are that anyone who has read Shakespeare knows the feeling. Besides the King James Bible, the Bard is indisputably the greatest influence on western literature, and his impact on our language and culture in general is immeasurable. Despite majoring in English, I somehow managed to miss ever studying Twelfth Night, or What You Will. 

This romantic comedy, composed of about 40 percent verse and 60 percent prose, is believed to have been written near the end of 1601, probably as entertainment for Twelfth Night — a holiday celebrated on Jan. 5 that marks the Twelfth Day of Christmas and the night before Epiphany. In the Tudor era, this was a feast of “misrule” where natural social order was often turned on end. Favorite examples that Shakespeare weaves into his plot include servants falling in love with the master or mistress, cross-dressed women, and attendant confusions and errors which hark back to the Roman feast of Saturnalia. It is also widely believed that his portrait of the prudish Malvolio was intended to poke fun at the Puritans who disapproved of these festivities … and of the theater itself.

The basis of the plot centers on Viola and her twin brother, Sebastian, who are separated in a shipwreck and, despite their different genders, are nearly identical in appearance. Upon being rescued and landing in Illyria, Viola disguises herself and works for Duke Orsino as his eunuch; Sebastian is also saved by the sea-captain Antonio, who becomes devoted to Sebastian, and lands in Illyria several months later. The Duke sends Viola, now “Cesario,” to court the Countess Olivia on his behalf, but upon meeting Viola, Olivia falls in love with her, thinking that she is a young man. Events then tangle into a web of confusion and a crisscrossed love matrix, with questions of identity and gender at its core. This comedy ties very closely to Shakespeare’s earlier play A Comedy of Errors, written in the 1590s, through the motifs of doubling and mistaken identity. Twelfth Night furthers these comic possibilities with serious potential through the additional elements of concealed identity, dress and gender ambiguity. 

In addition to the doubling of twins, it is easy to see the two principal women as mirrors of each other. Aside from their names being different arrangements of the same letters, at their first meeting (with one veiled, the other disguised) both are mourning their lost brothers and are also soon both in the position of unrequited love — Olivia for “Cesario” and Viola for Duke Orsino. 

The relationship of madness as a parallel to romantic love is also a major theme; the reoccurring subject of insanity is inextricably connected to one character’s love for another. Despite nearly all being resolved at the end with a classic Shakespearean double wedding, love is not always portrayed in a positive light. Characters illustrate the pain that can be associated with it, describing love as “a plague” when it is unrequited. Love and attraction, even when taken to the extent of marriage, is in most instances capricious and arbitrary.

This large format, slipcased edition from the Folio Society is bound in blocked buckram and features heavy cotton paper, beautiful typeset in Baskerville and a stunning frontispiece illustration by awarding-winning twin sisters Anna and Elena Balbusso. While it does not contain annotations, it is the perfect addition to a coffee table or showcased bookshelf. 

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