Twelfe Night or What You Will

Alessandra Torrigiani d'Arezzo and Sabine d'Ricoldi da Forli


We present as an item of entertainment an excerpt from the play Twelfe Night, Or What You Will, by William Shakespeare. This play comes from England, and can be dated to 1602. This scene shows Viola, disguised as a boy after surviving a shipwreck, approaching the lady Olivia on behalf of her love-stricken master Duke Orsino. Beneath the dialogue runs the threads of misplaced love, as Viola is in love with Orsino and Olivia falls in love with the disguised Viola.

The Text

The first known performance of this play is recorded in a diary entry by John Manningham, on Feb 2, 1602.

At our feast wee had a play called Twelve Night or what you will, much like the comedy of errors or Menechimi in Plautus, but most like and near to that in Italian called Inganni. A good practise was in it to make the steward beleeve that his lady widow was in love with him by counterfayting a letter as from his lady in general termes, telling him what she liked best in him, and proscribing his gesture in smiling, his apparaile, &c., and then, when he came to practise, making him believe they took him to be mad.[1]

However, the text of the play was first published in the 1623 Folio, from which we have taken the excerpt. The original spelling, punctuation and layout of the Folio edition have been retained, though in our performance we have modernised some of the pronunciation in order to assist audience comprehension.
We have also cut small parts from within the excerpt, which refer to Maria, the maidservant, as this is not essential to the sense of the scene.

(Cuts are indicated by ...) This kind of alteration to suit the situation of performance was widely practised at the time.[2]

While just out of period, the play is written in a similar style to those written in the late sixteenth century, and potentially may have been performed at an earlier date.

Actus Primus, Scena Quinta

Vio. ... Are you the Ladie of the house?
Ol. If I do not usurp my selfe, I am.
Vio. Most certaine, if you are she, you do usurp your selfe: for what is yours to bestowe, is, not yours to reserve. But this is from my Commission: I will on with my speech in your praise, and then shew you the heart of my message.
Ol. Come to what is important in't: I forgive you the praise.
Vio. Alas, I tooke great paines to studie it, and 'tis Poeticall.
Ol. It is the more like to be feigned, I pray you keep it in. I heard you were sawcy at my gates, & allowd your approach rather to wonder at you, than to heare you. If you be not mad, be gone: if you have reason, be breefe: 'tis not that time of the Moone with me, to make one in [so] skipping a dialogue... Speake your office.
Vio. It alone concernes your eare: I bring no overture of warre, no taxation of homage; I hold the Olyffe in my hand: my words are full of peace, as matter.
Ol. Yet you began rudely. What are you? What would you?
Vio. The rudeness that hath appear'd in mee, have I learn'd from my entertainment. What I am, and what I would, are as secret as maiden-head: to your eares, Divinity; to any others, prophanation.
Ol. ... We will heare this divintitie. Now sir, what is your text?
Vio. Most sweet Ladie.
Ol. A comfortable doctrine, and much may bee saide of it. Where lies your Text?
Vio. In Orsinoes bosome.
Ol. In his bosome? In what chapter of his bosome?
Vio. To answer by the method, in the first of his hart.
Ol. O, I have read it: it is heresie. Have you no more to say?
Vio. Good Madam, let me see your face.
Ol. Have you any Commission from your Lord, to negotiate with my face: you are now out of your Text: but we will draw the Curtain, and shew you the picture. Looke you sir, such a one I was this present; Ist not well done?
Vio. Excellently done, if God did all.
Ol. 'Tis in graine sir, 'twill endure winde and weather.
Vio. 'Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white,
Natures owne sweet, and cunning hand laid on:
Lady, you are the cruell'st shee alive,
If you will leade these graces to the grave,
And leave the world no copie.
Ol. O sir, I will not be so hard-hearted: I will give out divers scedules of my beautie. It shalbe Inventoried and every article and utensile labell'd to my will: As, Item two lippes indifferent redde, Item two grey eyes, with lids to them: Item, one necke, one chin, & so forth. Were you sent hither to praise me?
Vio. I see you what you are, you are too proud:
But if you were the divell, you are faire;
My Lord, and master loves you: O such love
Could be but recompenc'd, though you were crown'd
The non-pareil of beautie.
Ol. How does he love me?
Vio, With adorations, fertill teares, with groanes that thunder love, with sighes of fire.
Ol. Your Lord does know my mind, I cannot love him
Yet I suppose him vertuous, know him noble,
Of great estate, of fresh and stainlesse youth;
In voyces well divulg'd, free, learn'd, and valiant,
And in dimension, and the shape of nature,
A gracious person; But yet I cannot love him:
He might have tooke his answer long ago.
Vio. If I did love you in my masters flame,
With such a suffering, such a deadly life:
In your deniall, I would finde no sence,
I would not understand it.
Ol. Why, what would you?
Vio. Make me a willow Cabine at your gate,
And call upon my soule within the house,
Write loyall Cantons of contemned love,
And sing them lowd even in the dead of night:
Hallow your name to the reverberate hilles,
And make the babling Gossip of the aire,
Cry out Olivia; O you should not rest
Between the elements of ayre, and earth,
But you should pittie me.
Ol. You might do much:
What is your Parentage?
Vio. Above my fortunes, yet my state is well:
I am a Gentleman.
Ol. Get you to your Lord:
I cannot love him: let him send no more,
Unlesse (perchance) you come to me againe,
To tell me how he takes it: Fare you well:
I thanke you for your paines: spend this for mee.
Vio. I am no feede poast, Lady; keepe your purse,
My Master, no my selfe, lacks recompence.
Love make his heart of flint, that you shal love,
Let your fervour like my masters be,
Plac'd in contempt, Farwell fayre crueltie. Exit[3]

The Performance

While plays in Elizabethan England were performed in theatres and inn-yards they were also performed indoors for smaller audiences, as is indicated in John Manningham's diary entry.

Women did not appear on stage at the time when Twelfe Night was written and first performed, and female parts where played by boy-actors in cross-dress. However, in the Current Middle Ages it is perfectly acceptable for women to perform. Also, given that our personas are both Italian, Alessandra from late Quattrocento Florence and Sabine from sixteenth century Venice, we can draw upon a history of women performing not as professionals, but amateurs among a social group. In 1490, Angelo Poliziano recorded that Alessandra Scala, a humanist scholar in Florence was much admired for her role of Electra in a salon performance of Sophocle's play of the same name.[4]

Our performance is in a naturalistic style, and the costumes used are common late-period garb. This performance style reflects that used in Elizabethan theatre.


Laurie E. Osburne (ed) Twelfe Night, Or What You Will London: Prentice Hall 1995

Diana Robin (ed. and trans.) Cassandra Fedele: Letters and Orations Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000


1 Laurie E. Osburne (ed) Twelfe Night, Or What You Will London: Prentice Hall 1995 p13
2 Osbourne Twelfe Night p6
3 Osbourne Twelfe Night pp52-55
4 Diana Robin (ed. and trans.) Cassandra Fedele: Letters and Orations Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000 pp7-8