David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT: A Retelling in Prose — Preface, Cast of Characters, and Act 1, Scenes 1-2


In Shakespeare’s time, Twelfth Night was the night before Twelfth Day, the final day of the twelve days of Christmas. The First Day of Christmas is December 25, Christmas Day, and so Twelfth Day is January 5, which is the eve of Epiphany: January 6. According to tradition, Jesus was born on December 25, and the Visit of the Magi — the Three Wise Men from the East visiting the newly born Jesus and giving him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh — occurred on January 6. Twelfth Night is a festive time and is full of merry-making and the playing of practical jokes. As you would expect, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Nightis a comedy.


Main Male Characters

ORSINO, Duke of Illyria.

SEBASTIAN, Brother to Viola.

ANTONIO, a Sea Captain, Friend to Sebastian.

A Sea Captain, Friend to Viola.

VALENTINE & CURIO: Gentlemen attending on the Duke.

SIR TOBY BELCH, Uncle to Olivia.


MALVOLIO, Steward to Olivia.

FABIAN, Servant to Olivia.

FESTE, a Clown: Servant to Olivia.

Main Female Characters

OLIVIA, a rich Countess.

VIOLA, in love with the Duke.

MARIA, Olivia’s Woman.

Other Characters

Lords, Priests, Sailors, Officers, Musicians, and other Attendants.

— 1.1 —

Duke Orsino, his attendant Curio, and some lords were in the Duke’s palace in Illyria, which is located northwest of Greece. Musicians were playing.

Orsino said, “If music be the food of love, play on. Continue to play music until I grow sick of music, so that, having suffered from an excess, my appetite for love will sicken and then die.”

He paused to listen to the music and then said, “Play that melody again! It has a languishing descent that sounded so sad. It passed over my ears like the sweet sound made by a gentle breeze that breathes upon a bed of violets and takes the scent of violets and carries it afar. That’s enough. No more of that melody. It is not as sweet now as it was before.”

He added, “Spirit of love, how lively and refreshing are you. Your capacity for receiving passions is as enormous as the sea’s capacity for receiving tributary streams, yet everything that enters into you, of whatever strength and from whatever height, falls into diminishing value and a low price, even within a minute. Love is so full of constantly changing images that it alone is supremely imaginative and nothing can compare to it. Love can be strange. I am in love, and yet I want to be out of love. I wanted to listen to music, and then I did not want to listen to music.”

An impartial observer could very well think, The one thing Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, does love consistently is the idea of love itself. He is more in love with the idea of love than he is in love with the Countess Olivia, whom he says he loves. This is why he wanted to hear this love song.

Duke Orsino’s attendant Curio did not take Orsino’s lovesickness seriously. He asked, “Will you go hunting, sir?”

“Hunting what, Curio?”

“The hart: a stag.”

“Why, yes, I do go hunting,” Orsino replied. “I go hunting for a heart, the noblest that I have: my own. When my eyes did first see Olivia, I thought that she purged the air of pestilence and plague! In that instant, I was turned into a hart like Actaeon was when he did first see Diana. Diana, a virgin goddess, was bathing naked and was not happy to be seen. To punish Actaeon, she turned him into a hart, and his hunting dogs pursued him and tore him into pieces. Ever since I saw Olivia, my desire for her pursues me and hunts me like savage and cruel hounds.”

Valentine, another of Orsino’s attendants, entered the room. Orsino had sent him to tell Olivia of Orsino’s love for her.

Orsino said to him, “What news have you brought me about Olivia?”

“Sir, she would not admit me into her home and let me talk to her. But I do bring you the message that I received from Maria, her personal servant: ‘For the next seven years, Olivia will not display her face to the open air. It shall always be veiled. She will be like a nun cloistered from the world. Once a day, her salt tears will water her chamber. The salt in her tears will season and keep fresh her love for her dead brother, whom she wishes to remember clearly and forever.”

Orsino said, “Olivia has a sensitive heart because she will pay this debt of love to someone who was only a brother — someone she is related to by birth. She will love even more when Cupid’s golden arrow — the arrow that causes people to fall in love — hits her and she loves only me, forgetting all her other loves. When that happens, her mind and heart and soul will be given to one person, and she will take a husband. Now I will go to my garden and see sweet beds of flowers. Love-thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers. A shady and flowery garden is a good place to think about love.”

— 1.2 —

On the shore of the Adriatic Sea on the coast of Illyria, the noblewoman Viola, as well as a sea captain and some sailors, had just landed after surviving a storm at sea that had sunk their ship.

Viola asked, “What country, friends, is this?”

The captain replied, “This is Illyria, lady.”

Viola said, “I wonder what I should do now. My twin brother has almost certainly drowned and is in Elysium, the good part of the afterworld. But perhaps my brother did not drown. What do you think, sailors?”

The captain replied, “It is only by great good fortune that you yourself did not drown.”

“And since I was saved, perhaps my poor brother was also saved.”

“True, madam,” the captain said. “Here is some comfort for you. I can assure you that when our ship split in two and sank and you and the few others here who survived held onto our drifting ship, I saw your brother acting bravely and resourcefully during such a dangerous time. He tied himself to a floating mast. I saw him keeping himself from drowning for as long as I could see him. He rode on the mast like Arion rode on the dolphin that had listened to his music and saved him when he was in danger of drowning after being captured by pirates. The dolphin carried Arion to land, and the mast may keep your brother alive until he can reach land.”

“Thank you for saying such reassuring words to me,” Viola said.

She handed him some money and said, “There is gold for you. My own escape from drowning gives me hope that my brother is still alive, and so do your words — words from someone who knows the sea well.”

She added, “Do you know this country of Illyria well?”

“Yes, madam, I do know it well,” the captain replied. “I was born and raised not three hours’ travel from this very place.”

“Who governs here?”

“A noble duke,” the captain said. “He is noble both in nature and in name.”

“What is his name?”


“Orsino!” Viola said. “I have heard my father talk about him. He was a bachelor at that time.”

“He is still a bachelor,” the captain said. “Or at least he was a bachelor until very recently — I have been gone from Illyria for a month. At that time, the gossip was — as you know, the common people gossip about the nobles — that he was seeking the love of fair Olivia.”

“Who is she?”

“She is a virtuous maiden, the daughter of a Count who died a year ago, leaving her in the protection of his son, her brother, who shortly afterward died. Because of her love for her brother and her grief over his death, people say that she has decided to shun the company and the sight of men.”

“I would like to be employed by that lady and not reveal who I am to the world until I know more certainly what my position and standing in life will be here. I must be cautious because I am a woman in a strange land.”

“It will be difficult or impossible to get a position with Countess Olivia,” the captain said, “because she has shut herself away and will not listen to any kind of request, not even Duke Orsino’s.”

“You seem to look and act like a good person, captain. Although some people have an appearance of goodness that hides evil, I believe that your mind suits your fair and outward character. Therefore, I ask you to — and I will pay you well — conceal my identity and aid me as I assume another identity for the time being. I intend to become an employee of Duke Orsino. You shall tell him that I am a eunuch — a castrated male. This will be a win-win-win situation for you, the Duke, and me. I will be a competent employee, and you will get the credit for bringing me to the Duke’s attention. I do have talents. I can sing and play musical instruments, and I will provide good value to the Duke. What happens after I enter his employ, only time will tell. But please keep quiet about my identity until I reveal who I really am.”

The captain replied, “Go ahead and pretend to be a eunuch, and I will pretend to be a man who is mute and unable to reveal your identity. If I should ever tell your secret, may I go blind.”

“Thank you. Now please lead me to Duke Orsino.”

Viola thought, Of course, I may need to alter my plan according to circumstances. If I pretend to be a eunuch, that will explain my lack of beard and my high voice as I sing songs. But if, for some reason, it is not a good idea to pretend to be a eunuch — for example, if Duke Orsino is tired of music — then I can pretend to be a youth who as of yet is incapable of growing a beard. As a young woman, I can manage to assume that identity.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved



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