Twelfth Night may not be one of Shakespeare’s most familiar plays, and it may not seem at first glance that a story about a Countess in mourning, a lovesick Duke, and a cross-dressing woman recently separated from her twin by shipwreck, has much to say to a modern audience. But remarkably this play contains numerous themes and ideas that speak to our own conditions in the twenty-first century.

Twelfth Night might seem an odd name for a play, but this title invokes the ending of the Christmas revels on the 6th of January. The end of Christmas is full of contradictory emotions: we are still indulging in cakes and ale, but are very aware that the festive season will come to an end the following day, and might feel a bit sad about having to go back to a life of routine and work. This atmosphere of revelry or festivity and simultaneous melancholy or sadness characterises the tone of Shakespeare’s play. Within such an atmosphere we can identify important questions raised by Shakespeare, such as how we respond to or recover from loss. How stable is identity- are we who we think we are? Are our identities much more fluid or changeable than we imagine? How do we define love, and what is the best way to express it to the person we adore? Also, given that the action of the play is brought about by a shipwreck, what is the significance of the sea and imagery related to the sea? The sea was considered a dangerous force in Shakespeare’s time. It was unpredictable, frightening and unknowable. The ocean’s destructive forces could wash away identities, prompt new beginnings and frustrate human endeavour. The themes of love and loss are actually tied very closely to the image of a ship and the people within it being tossed around on a volatile ocean.

The loss of a brother or sister, the loss of a friend, a lover, or even the loss of oneself are events we all have to relate to one time or another in our lives. The Countess Olivia is in mourning for the death of her brother. She expresses her grief openly and through external signs: sadness, seclusion, and by wearing black mourning clothes and a veil. Orsino feels he has lost the one he loves, even though he has never really had her. His feelings for Olivia generate pain and suffering, but as we will see, it is a pain and suffering he seems to enjoy. In his exploration of loss in this play, Shakespeare poses the question of what happens when we experience intense emotions based on the illusion of loss. For example, Viola believes her brother is dead, which causes deep feelings of sadness. Even though Sebastian is alive, Viola’s feelings are real; her pain and melancholy are meaningful because she experiences the emotions associated with loss. As a young, unmarried, and upper-class woman, Viola knows she would be vulnerable in a strange country, so she decides to disguise herself as a boy. In doing this she manages to disguise the fact that she is a woman from an upper class background, which enables her to join Duke Orsino’s household as his servant. As a victim of a storm at sea, we could identify her as a kind of migrant or refugee, washed up on the shore of a country that is dauntingly unfamiliar. How is she received? To what lengths does she have to go to protect herself? How does she retain her own identity and stay true to herself under such circumstances? These are questions that, sadly, too many people are facing in our own moment. Shakespeare understood that, deep down, perhaps we all fear this particular kind of loss the most: the loss of self. However, to look at it another way, we might argue that Viola, even disguised as Cesario, manages to be herself more comfortably and freely than perhaps she ever could as a daughter of an upper-class household.

Central to Viola’s experience though is her increasing love for the Duke, who is in love not only with the Countess Olivia, but also with the very idea of love itself. In Shakespeare’s time, the condition of lovesickness was often commented upon as a kind of disease with very recognizable symptoms and external signs. For example, a lovesick person might be slightly disheveled in their appearance, or be extremely melancholy (a pleasurable type of sadness); they might sigh, weep and groan aloud frequently; they are temperamental, moody; they might suffer with insomnia or be unable to eat; they would get pale and sometimes look a bit sickly. Love is experienced, according to the Elizabethan books on the subject, as a kind of suffering. This play provides a glimpse into this pathology of love. The Duke seems to be a good example of this kind of lover. Are we to take him seriously, roll our eyes at his soppy poetry, or are we meant to find him funny? Shakespeare’s original audiences might have responded to him in all of these ways. But the underlying message is that love can make us fools, and the Duke’s expressions of love should remind us how we can all be made fools by love. We witness throughout the play how different people cope with or express their feelings of love. Orsino is a lovesick melancholic who seems to relish in Oliva’s constant, painful rejection of him. Complicatedly, Olivia falls in love with Cesario (Viola in disguise), but she is extremely bold and direct towards Cesario with her feelings; while Viola bears her secret love for Orsino patiently as a burden she must carry.

Just before the beginning of the action in Twelfth Night, there is a storm at sea. While we don’t witness this storm, the effects of it are felt throughout the play. Storms in Shakespeare often symbolise the emotions at the heart of the play. For example, if love is like a storm at sea, Shakespeare’s characters feel tossed around upon the emotions that attend love: happiness, anxiety, excitement, sadness, grief. The most sincere expression of love in the entire play might be Viola’s, when as Cesario she reveals that contrary to Orsino’s opinion, women do feel love, sincerely and deeply. She reveals her own affections for Orsino as a woman in love, although disguised as a boy, pretending she is referring to her father’s daughter who

…never told her love,
But let concealment like a worm i’th’bud
Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.

Here Viola suggests that love is like a canker or worm that feeds on a fresh flower, and potentially destroys its youthful bloom. The woman who suffers in silence is like a statue who sits patiently for eternity, and whose feelings never falter or change. The play’s preoccupation with love also concerns love between friends – Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch, for example; love between a servant and master; love between a niece and an uncle; and love between brother and sister. Thus, Twelfth Night is a play that all of us can relate to in some way. Each storyline might bear some resemblance to an experience we have had or are about to have. In many ways, when we begin to explore this play, we realise that we are exploring our own lives and the feelings we have about love, friendship, loss, identity, and even the mixed emotions we experience at the end of a joyous occasion, like the Christmas revels or a live performance in the Globe Theatre.

Dr Farah Karim-Cooper
Head of Higher Education & Research, Shakespeare’s Globe