Twelfth Night

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Name: Twelfth Night
Creator: William Shakespeare
Date(s): 1601–2
Medium: play
Country of Origin: England
External Links:
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The Shakespearean comedy Twelfth Night, Or What You Will is a small rarelit fandom known for its femslash and genderbending.


Viola is the sole survivor of a shipwreck which kills her twin brother Sebastian. She assumes boy's clothing as Cesario and becomes the page of Duke Orsino. He is in love with a beautiful noblewoman who is in mourning for her brother and will have none of him. Cesario is soon employed in courting Olivia, and a love triangle ensues when Olivia falls for Cesario, who has fallen for Orsino. Sebastian has in fact been saved by the sea captain Antonio, and turns up in time to be mistaken for his sister, marry Olivia and unmask Viola so that she can marry Orsino. A subplot involves Olivia's drunkard uncle Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's maidservant Maria, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Feste, the fool, taking revenge on Olivia's puritannical steward Malvolio by persuading him that Olivia is in love with him. Feste the fool provides a witty running commentary.

Adaptations and Productions

The 1996 film adaptation directed by Trevor Nunn stars Helena Bonham Carter as a gloriously ditzy Olivia, Imogen Stubbs as Viola/Cesario and Toby Stephens as Orsino, with Nigel Hawthorne (Malvolio), Mel Smith (Sir Toby Belch), Imelda Staunton (Maria) and Ben Kingsley (Feste). The use of Cornwall for Illyria provides atmospheric visuals. The film plays up the slashy elements and is an inspiration for some writers and artists.

Several other productions have been filmed for television, including:

  • 1969 version with Joan Plowright & Alec Guinness
  • 1980 version with Felicity Kendal & Sinéad Cusack
  • 1988 version directed by Kenneth Branagh, with Frances Barber & Richard Briers

In the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, the young Shakespeare finds his muse in Viola de Lesseps, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and immortalises her in Twelfth Night. The 2006 film She's the Man is a modern high school AU in which Viola masquerades as her brother to play soccer. Both films have a small fannish following.

The genderbending nature of the play has inspired casting choices such as an all-male theatrical production with Mark Rylance as Olivia in 2002, which was reprised in 2012 with Johnny Flynn as Viola, Stephen Fry as Malvolio and Samuel Barnett as Sebastian in London's West End. The production ran at the Apollo Theatre London and ran in rep alongside the Globe's production of 'Richard III' which also starred Mark Rylance. The production was presented in original practise, meaning that it was presented as a faithful representation of Elizabethan Theatre. All female parts were played by men, and the production featured period music and musical instruments. The set was designed to resemble The Globe Theatre, with banks of on-stage seating for audience members to feel a part of the action throughout. [1][2]


Fanfiction commonly starts from the premise that the hasty marriages of Orsino & Viola and Sebastian & Olivia at the end of the play are likely to result in complications. Many stories play with the gender ambiguities inherent in the play's crossdressing, positing that Viola dresses as a man in bed with Orsino, as in thingswithwings' The First Twelve, or that Cesario is transgender, as in baffledking's What You Will. Several works turn the tables and put the men in dresses.

Unusually for Shakespeare, the femslash pairing of Viola/Olivia is one of the fandom's major pairings. Like many of these works, Meretricula's Really Awkward Adulterous Lesbian Sex Is Still Better Than No Sex At All places the f/f against a background of the canonical het couples. Other femslash stories rearrange the canon couples to pair up the two women, or set their tryst while Viola is disguised as Cesario. Also common is m/m slash, with Antonio/Sebastian being the predominant pairing. Moe Machina gives us the couple's backstory in Kind Tempests, and makes a stab at a possible future for them in An Apple in Two, which also takes a realistic look at Viola's marriage. Kindkit's To His Image Did I Devotion foretells a darker future for the two men. Other works take on more unusual m/m couples; for example, Shayheyred's hardboiled sequel, The Pirate and the Puritan, which pairs Antonio with Malvolio. Threesome stories are relatively rare, but there is occasional fiction for Viola/Olivia/Orsino and Viola/Sebastian/Orsino.

The Malvolio subplot is relatively rarely explored by fans, the exception being Ellen Fremedon's Yule Morning, or, Malvolio's Revenge, a five-act sequel in blank verse. Occasional alternate universe works transplant the characters to other settings, such as the melancholy steampunk of xenacryst's What I Will, or the gritty modern New York of Gehayi's mafia AU, With A Cunning Hand.


Twelfth Night fanworks are archived at Archive of Our Own (28 works), (27 works) and the Yuletide Archive 2003-2008 (14 works). Other good places to look include the livejournal communities bard-slash, rarelitslash and shaksper-random. The whatyouwill-12n community devoted to Twelfth Night was founded in June 2010 by dontcrosscross, for all fic, art, vids, chatting, and discussion about the play.[3] As of 2011, it contains fanvids, screencaps from several adaptations and discussion.


  1. ^ Globe Education Online: Twelfth Night (2002) (accessed 12 March 2012)
  2. ^ Apollo Theatre London: Twelfth Night (accessed 12 March 2012)
  3. ^ whatyouwill-12n profile (accessed 3 October 2011)