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Twelfth Night: What Do You Will?


Names are important. Whether it’s the name of a character, a key location, or an objective, names in literature carry weight. This is true of titles most of all. Shakespeare uses his titles to convey the main subject of his plays, as well as to hint at the plot. For histories a name gives enough context. Tragedies conspicuously state lovers. Comedies can afford more leeway. They, unlike other plays in Shakespeare’s canon, rarely contain names of characters in their titles, and there are a handful that bear a second or alternative title. The first of such plays in the Shakespeare 2020 Project reading schedule is Twelfth Night, or What You Will. In the play, “what you will” is individuals’ desires that influence their directives and give them agency to become masters of their own Fate.


One of the most obvious motivations in the play is that of love or professed love. Duke Orsino presents this image at the beginning of the play as he pines after the lady Olivia. His unrequited love compels him to enter a cyclical masochistic pattern of sending messengers to Olivia, being rebuffed, lamenting his rejection, and hoping against hope the next time will be different. Meanwhile, Olivia uses being in mourning as an excuse to stave off unwanted advances until it no longer suits her desire. Her desire shifts when she meets Cesario, really Viola in disguise as Orsino’s servant. Just as Olivia’s rejections strengthen Orsino’s resolve, Cesario’s rejections of Olivia strengthen Olivia’s resolve to woo and marry Cesario. She enters her own masochistic cycle that by extension prolongs Orsino’s when she pretends to hear Cesario’s suit on his master’s behalf. Though first used as a mechanism for survival in an unknown place, Viola’s disguise as a man becomes a necessity when she discovers her own love for the Duke. Her new passion shapes her strategy and she chooses to remain in disguise in Orsino’s service in order to be near him and do what she can to please him, rather than reveal herself and try to enter Olivia’s court as originally planned. Love drives Olivia, Orsino, and Viola to actions that change the course of their trajectory in relation to each other. Malvolio shares this experience from his station in Olivia’s service. When Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian manipulate Malvolio’s pomposity and self-importance to their whims Malvolio falls prey to unbridled illusions of love. He convinces himself to follow each instruction listed in a prank letter to the full, donning yellow cross garters, smiling, and being churlish toward Sir Toby when next he sees Olivia. These sharply contradict his usual melancholic disposition. In altering his actions with such extremity Malvolio allows his passion and imagination to overrule his behavior. These actions confuse Olivia, who, ignorant of the prank, sees his changed behaviors as a sign of illness and tasks the pranksters themselves with taking care of him. Malvolio becomes a victim of his pranksters through folly born of his passion.


The undercurrent of authority Olivia and Orsino possess imbues their actions with more gravity and their perspectives with more entitlement. When their passions appear to be abused the offense is therefore all the greater. Viola’s disguise and Sebastian’s appearance is the source of mistaken identity that causes these perceived abuses. Orsino casts out his loyal servant and turns hostile toward him who he considered his trusted friend when he believes Cesario has married Olivia behind his back. Olivia ignores her promise to keep the marriage a secret when Cesario openly dismisses her and she demands her due for the promise they made each other. Antonio, Sebastian’s savior from the shipwreck, endangers himself and gets arrested for his trouble when he mistakes Cesario for Sebastian and consequently rebukes Cesario for abandoning him. This further lowers Cesario in Orsino’s esteem. Sebastian’s arrival, however, allows Viola to reveal herself. This revelation is the deus ex machina that restores good will amongst all parties and results in the typical Shakespearean comedy ending. Olivia recovers from her misunderstanding of mistaken identity and chooses to remain content with Sebastian, keeping Viola as a sister. Orsino realizes Viola’s feelings for him and decides to devote himself to her. Olivia and Orsino’s passionate whims have great affect for bystanders. Malvolio, continuing to be a victim of Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Fabian, and the clown’s pranks, is one such bystander who is forgotten until he sends a caustic letter to Olivia at the end of the play. His claims of abused love go ignored until they become hostile. His rejection causes him to resign his post and seek revenge for the wrongs done him.


While love and abused love are primary motivators in Twelfth Night, chance serves as a background character informing everything. If the storm does not separate Viola and Sebastian, Viola has no strategy to employ for survival in a foreign land. When her hope to enter a lady’s service is dashed because Olivia’s household is closed while in mourning, she must find another way to make a passable living. Viola makes the conscientious decision to disguise herself as her brother in order to gain entry to a reputable living as the Duke’s servant since she believes she has no other option. She abandons her identity as Viola and dons that of Cesario with full confidence that her likeness to her twin brother will keep her secure. In this role she begins a new life in Illyria in service to Orsino. Aside from Viola, the most manipulative conductors of chance are Maria and the rest of the ‘cakes and ale’ gang—Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Fabian, and the clown when he is present. They take advantage of the opportunity to have a laugh at Malvolio’s expense since there is no love lost between them. Maria thus formulates a simple prank that involves dropping a fake secret love letter for Malvolio to find and watching his imagination run wild. She rightfully guesses that Malvolio will make a fool of himself, and the gang eagerly stands by to witness his humiliation. They do not stop there, though. They manage to convince Olivia that Malvolio is mad and continue to goad him. They take advantage of Malvolio and manipulate chance against him for the sake of a prank.


Whether from love, a sense of abused love, or because the situation allows, the characters in Twelfth Night direct their own destiny. It is through their passions that audiences come to understand “what you will.”


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