- Possibly written: 1601 or 1602, possibly his 21st play
- What’s it about? Twins Viola and Sebastian each survive a shipwreck but assume the other has not. Olivia dresses as a eunuch and ends up working for Duke Orsino, who has her send his love to Olivia, but Olivia falls in love with Viola, and Viola with Orsino. When Sebastian shows up, Olivia happily settles for him and Orsino for Viola. Meanwhile Olivia’s servants play a mean trick on her officious steward, Malvolio.
- Most famous dialogue: Either “If music be the food of love, play on,” or “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”
- Sources: It’s believed to have drawn extensively on the Italian production Gl’ingannati (or The Deceived Ones), collectively written by the Accademia degli Intronati in 1531. Another source story, “Of Apollonius and Silla”, appeared in Barnabe Riche’s collection, Riche his Farewell to Militarie Profession conteining verie pleasaunt discourses fit for a peaceable tyme (1581), which in turn is derived from a story by Matteo Bandello.
- Interesting fact about the play: In some productions, they have the same performer play Viola and Sebastian (I don’t know what they do when the two finally meet up and have a conversation at the end). They don’t do that here, and it’s totally unbelievable that anybody (and in fact everybody) would mistake them for each other. (One should note that there’s no such thing as identical male/female twins.)
- Best insult: Go hang yourselves all. You are idle, shallow things. I am not of your element.
- Best word: Once again, context clues fail me on both “How will this fadge?” and “Sneck up!”
- Best production of this play I’ve seen: I saw an excellent music-filled production in Stratford, Ontario about ten years ago.
- Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: The wonderful Felicity Kendal (The Good Life / Good Neighbors) plays Viola
- Kendal is as delightful as always, and has a certain boyishness that almost makes it believable she could pass for a eunuch (but only a eunuch, which makes it odd that Olivia wants to marry her). Clive Arrindell as Orsino is maybe too glum. Everybody else does a fine job.
- If I had to describe it in one word, it would be “boisterous”, which is a good tone to set, but sometimes they talk a little too quickly, letting some lines get mangled: “But if he had not been in drink he would have tickled you othergates than he did,” is a mouthful if said at a normal pace, but is impossible to understand if it’s all said as one syllable. Gorrie oddly sets it not in a fairytale kingdom, but in puritan England. The costumes and sets convey that time ably and the staging is deft (Eavesdropping scenes are always hard to stage believably, but they’re done well here.) He gets great comedic business out of the swordfight.
I again find myself wishing I’d done the plays in the order they were (maybe) written, so I could chart the progression of the queerness of them. “As You Like It” had an actor and an actress playing love scenes where the male character thought the female character was a man pretending to be a woman. This play has two actresses playing love scenes where one of the women supposedly thinks the other is a man (and doesn’t know that the man is pretending to be castrated? That’s not clear). The actors and actresses of each scene could be sued for negligence if they failed to acknowledge that at least some of these people are somewhat less than totally straight.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: Let the Women Be Funny!
My wife always says that she can tell whether something was written by a man or a woman by whether or not the women are allowed to be funny. That’s certainly not always true –All About Eve wasn’t written by a woman—but she’s got a point about too often male authors giving all the laughs to the men and not letting women be funny.
This play has one of Shakespeare’s funniest women, in the character of Maria, who pranks Malvolio. She gives and she gets just as well as the guys, and turns the crank of the subplot (which gets almost as much stage time as the main plot) almost single-handedly. Usually the comedies trot out all the characters to get paired up, often randomly, in the final scene and all get married. In this case, Maria, who has been so pivotal and funny, doesn’t even appear at the end, but one character does mention in passing that she has married Sir Toby, despite having no hint of attraction before this. Shakespeare clearly doesn’t know what he has with her and doesn’t give her her due. At least let her come out onstage at the end, especially if you’re going to hastily marry her off!