‘Twelfth Night’ – William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare’s
play, Twelfth Night, was nominated by Anjali Mistry, a sixth
form student attending the Sutton Trust Summer School in Cambridge,
who enjoys its humour.

tells the story of Viola, a young woman who is shipwrecked
in Illyria and disguises herself as a man. She is taken into the court
of Duke Orsino, who asks her to win the love of Lady Olivia. Olivia,
meanwhile, becomes besotted with Viola, thinking that she is a handsome
boy, and Viola starts to fall in love with the Duke, although because
of her disguise she cannot tell him this.

This extract
is taken from Act 2, Scene 4 of the play: Orsino and Viola (in her
disguise) are discussing the behaviour of women in love.


Once more, Cesario,

Get thee to yond same sovereign cruelty:

Tell her, my love, more noble than the world,

Prizes not quantity of dirty lands;

The parts that fortune hath bestow’d upon her,

Tell her, I hold as giddily as fortune;

But ’tis that miracle and queen of gems

That nature pranks her in attracts my soul.


But if she cannot love you, sir?


I cannot be so answer’d.


Sooth, but you must.

Say that some lady, as perhaps there is,

Hath for your love a great a pang of heart

As you have for Olivia: you cannot love her;

You tell her so; must she not then be answer’d?


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 suffer 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.


Ay, but I know –


What dost thou know?


Too well what love women to men may owe:

In faith, they are as true of heart as we.

My father had a daughter loved a man,

As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,

I should your lordship.


And what’s her history?


A blank, my lord. She never told her love,

But let concealment, like a worm i’ the 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. Was not this love indeed?

We men may say more, swear more: but indeed

Our shows are more than will; for still we prove

Much in our vows, but little in our love.


But died thy sister of her love, my boy?


I am all the daughters of my father’s house,

And all the brothers too: and yet I know not.

Sir, shall I to this lady?


Ay, that’s the theme.

To her in haste; give her this jewel; say,

My love can give no place, bide no denay.

Further Reading

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616. He lived for most of his professional life in London, and wrote over thirty plays for the public theatre, often in collaboration with other playwrights of the day. He was also an actor and very likely performed in many of his own plays. Twelfth Night was probably written in 1600 or 1601.

One of the distinctive features of the theatre of Shakespeare’s day is that women were not allowed to act on stage. All of the female parts were played by boys whose voices had not broken, and Shakespeare often uses this for humorous effect in his comedies: many of the plays are about women disguising themselves as men, and make use of the comic potential of disguise. If you enjoy Twelfth Night, you might like to read As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice, two other comedies by Shakespeare that use this plot device.

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