Twelfth Night

Front cover of the 1531 play Gl'Ingannati
Front cover of
the 1531 play Gl'Ingannati
On Twelfth Night, January 5th, 1576, in Siena, Italy,1 a play called The Deceived (Gl'Ingannati), overseen by commedia dell'arte master Alessandro Piccolomini, was performed, as was the custom for the occasion over the previous 45 years. In attendance at this performance was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (later to adopt William Shake-speare as one of his many noms de plume) who would borrow the basic plot for his own play, Twelfth Night, or What You Will, first performed at court not long after some of the ancillary plots were written as commentary on biographical events that took place during the 1580's.

The 62nd season of the second oldest festival in the U.S. dedicated to the works of Shake-speare opened with this classic on Saturday night, June 8th.

Scenic designer: Caitlin Ayer
Scenic designer: Caitlin Ayer
Twelfth Night uses a couple of what became standard Shake-spearean farcical tricks—a pair of look-alike twins and a misguided letter—to make fools of everyone. The play also produces a surfeit of pure comical opportunities. It can be done well no matter the authorship persuasion of the director, but in order to completely realize the author's vision, it helps if the director understands that certain historical persons, including Queen Elizabeth I, are being satirized and skewered by the playwright. Obviously, given the laws and governance of the day, only a member of the nobility could have written this, just as Walt Whitman once remarked about the whole canon.

We are a reasoning race. And when we find a vague file of chipmunk tracks stringing through the dust of a Stratford village, we know by our reasoning powers that Hercules has been along there. I feel that our fetish is safe for three centuries yet. —Mark Twain, Is Shakespeare Dead?, Chapter 11
William Shakspere of Stratford's signatures: "We are a reasoning race. And when we find a vague file of chipmunk tracks stringing through the dust of a Stratford village, we know by our reasoning powers that Hercules has been along there. I feel that our fetish is safe for three centuries yet." —Mark Twain, Is Shakespeare Dead?, Chapter 11

Joseph M. English, Jr, a documents examiner with the forensic-science laboratory at Georgetown University says these are the signatures of a man not familiar with writing his own name. Shakspere is not know to have attended Stratford grammar school (no records survive) and on one who did attend it ever claimed to have been his classmate ... If he was a pupil, it was not for long, as orthodoxy concedes, since his father ran into financial difficulties … (Tom Bethell, "The Case for Oxford," Atlantic Monthly, “Looking for Shakespeare,” October, 1991, p. 46.)

Stratfordians—that is those who believe that a certain rustic named William Shakesper (spell it how you like, he couldn't get it the same way twice [which is a lot better than his daughter, who used an "X"!]) produced the greatest body of literature in the history of the English language—generally overlook any such specifics because there is so little known about their man, other than a will, a few signatures, records of his unscrupulous speculating in grain, and his later work as a lampooned hack actor and theatre shareholder. Thus they are often left to argue that it doesn't make any difference who wrote the plays, sonnets, and epic poems, in order to award the grain dealer the mantle of greatness by default, and in order to give directors, of this persuasion, carte blanche to play fast and loose with the plays, in any manner they wish (as well as to preserve the academic reputations and festival marketing brands of those who defend the Stratford mythology, for much the same reasons that David Garrick created this confabulation in 1769: cash flow and ego).

The handwriting and signature of Edward de Vere, earl of Oxenford
The handwriting and signature of Edward de Vere, earl of Oxeford
However, if one accepts the Oxfordian database—that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who, among other details, had one uncle who is given credit for first translating Ovid into English (thus introducing pentameter), while mentoring the precocious de Vere in Latin, and another uncle who shared the distinction of introducing the sonnet form into English—then a number of facts fall into line for every play, sonnet, and epic poem, as well as their correlation to various topical issues before the court when they were first performed/written, and with a body of letters from the playwright and others familiar with the court at that time, discussing de Vere's talents, his pseudonyms, and his authorship.

Amber Scales as Viola (disguised as Cesario) and Rinde Eckert as Feste (Olivia's jester)
Amber Scales as Viola (disguised as Cesario)
and Rinde Eckert as Feste (Olivia's jester)
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
For example, in this play, the order and disposition of Olivia's suitors in Orsino's stead—first a rejected go-between and then Viola disguised as Cesario—faithfully follows the 1578-79 comings and goings of ambassadors—sent from the French court regarding the marriage of Elizabeth on behalf of François de Valois, the Duke of Alençon, brother to the king—who were dismissed, followed by the entreaties of Jean de Simier, to whom the queen took a fancy. Finally, Alençon appeared in person, just as Orsino does.

In addition, in the play, Oliva presides over a household of characters who represent key antagonists and protagonists in de Vere's life at that time, including de Vere's sister Mary (Maria), her rollicking husband, Peregrine Bertie (Sir Toby Belch),2 and Bertie's dearest friend, Sir Philip Sidney (Sir Andrew Aguecheek).

(Left to right) Robert Sicular as Sir Toby Belch and Rodney Lizcano as Sir Andrew Aguecheek
(L to R) Robert Sicular as Sir Toby Belch
and Rodney Lizcano as Sir Andrew Aguecheek
(diguised as Cesario)
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Sidney's rigid concept of time sequencing in poetry and drama made him a pointed critic of de Vere's imaginative stagings, an enmity that spilled over into a tennis court spat and challenge for a duel. The queen put de Vere under house arrest to keep him away from Sidney. From de Vere's point of view, Sidney was too cowardly to face him man-to-man, behaving much the same as Aguecheek, who runs from the thought of crossing swords with Cesario. The imbroglio is also referenced in Hamlet by Polonius (William Cecil, Lord Burghley, de Vere's one-time guardian and eventual father-in-law, whose pithy sayings he assiguously repeated in Polonius' famous advice to his son [Thomas Cecil, represented as Laertes]: "To thine own self be true ...," "Neither a borrower nor a lender be ...", etc.).

Gareth Saxe as Malvolio and Jessica Robblee as Olivia
Gareth Saxe as Malvolio
and Jessica Robblee as Olivia
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Another de Vere rival at court was Sir Christopher Hatton, a clever, well-polished politician, who came down on the opposite side of the proposed Alençon marriage, as well as on a number of other issues. An early draft of Twelfth Night that focused on Hatton—described in 1732 by the antiquarian Francis Peck as "... a pleasant conceit of Vere, earl of Oxford, discontented at the rising of a mean gentleman in the English court, circa 1580."3—apparently did not survive, but the character to which Peck refers is Malvolio. By incarcerating him (Hatton/Malvolio), de Vere (through Feste) is able to get in his digs regarding the brutal treatment of the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion (to whom Feste refers as a "hermit of Prague who never saw pen and ink"), one of de Vere's commencement speakers at Oxford in 1566, who was abused and tried for his loyalty to the Church of Rome. Malvolio wants what Campion was denied:

Good fool, as ever thou wilt deserve well at my hand, help me to a candle and pen, ink, and paper ... Fool, there was never man so notoriously abused. I am as well in my wits, fool, as thou art.
—Malvolio, IV, ii
Jessica Robblee as Olivia and Dante Rossi as Sebastian
Jessica Robblee as Olivia
and Dante Rossi as Sebastian
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
At the core of Twelfth Night's love story is the triangle between Viola disguised as Cesario (Amber Scales), Orsino, Duke of Illyria (Marco Robinson), and Olivia, a countess (Jessica Robblee). Oliva is in mourning for her father and her brother, who have recently died, and will have nothing to do with Orsino, who attempts to change her mind by sending Cesario in his stead; instead, Oliva falls for Cesario, an eloquent and courtly young man, or so she thinks. Viola's disguise, which she had donned to hide her situation—that of a single woman in a foreign land, following a shipwreck in which she presumes her brother, Sebastian, perished—prevents her from honestly responding to Olivia's overtures. Likewise, Viola is prevented from expressing her attraction to Orsino, who has made Cesario (or so he thinks of Viola) his confidant.

As Cesario and Orsino's relationship grows, so does their mutual attraction, with Robinson and Scales having lots of fun hiding each of their character's longing from the other, but artfully sharing this with the audience.

In addition to the A plot, de Vere created a convoluted B plot, to roast some of his friends and skewer some of his rivals at court. The mischief of the B plot also involves mistaken identity, but not of a person, rather the author of a letter. The letter by which Malvolio (the caricature of Hatton) is made to look like a fool in front of everyone is signed "The Fortunate Unhappy," an English reversal of Hatton's Latin motto, Felix Infortunatus ("the happy unfortunate"). It is written by Maria (Emma Messenger) to emulate Olivia's hand and manner, on behalf of Belch (Robert Sicular), Aguecheek (Rodney Lizcano), Fabian (Rakeem Lawrence), and herself, in revenge for Malvolio's snide, bullying behavior.

Rakeem Lawrence as Fabian, Robert Sicular as Sir Toby Belch, and Emma Messenger as Maria
Rakeem Lawrence as Fabian,
Robert Sicular as Sir Toby Belch,
and Emma Messenger as Maria
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Sicular and Lizcano are a crack-up, as Belch and Aguecheek, always deep in their cups, insulting everyone while cooking up their shenanigans. Messenger's saucy and salty Maria more than holds her own with these scoundrels. This motley crew makes for lively entertainment while the nobles stumble along, hoping to find their proper mates. That issue can only be resolved if Sebastian (Dante Rossi) shows up.

Marco Robinson as Orsino
Marco Robinson as Orsino
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
At the time the events in the play take place (1580's), the historical King Sebastian of Portugal had disappeared leading an ill-advised crusade against Morocco. It was a strong wish on the part of the English that Sebastian would show up and prevent the Spanish from seizing Portugal, consolidating their navies, and laying waste to Britain. When it appeared that Sebastian was indeed lost, a pretender to the throne, Antonio, was supported by Elizabeth's court. Here, Antonia (Madison Hart) is a worldly and loyal sea captain who befriends Sebastian and eases the shipwrecked lad's entrance into Illyrian society. (Step back for a minute and consider the elegance of this metaphor as it was first presented at court, when it was still topical, not in 1602 when the play first made it to the public stage, which Stratfordians assume to be a premiere, like groundlings unaware of the historical reference and woefully out-of-date.) Rossi can hardly contain his glee when, for reasons unknown to Sebastian, Olivia (Robblee) invites him to her bed. Oliva's arc (in Robblee's deft send-up)—from grieving daughter/sister to hot and bothered lover (with a little help from Feste, whose wordplay convinces that her grief is misplaced)—is a laugh-out-loud crowd-pleaser.

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford
The Marcus Gheeraedts portrait
of an elderly Edward de Vere,
the 17th Earl of Oxford
As the proceedings draw to a close, the level of confusion—initiated by Viola's gender bending and Maria's counterfeit letter—increases exponentially, with Malvolio incarcerated for his supposed mad fantasy and Sebastian taken for his twin sister disguised as Cesario, while Viola (as Cesario) is taken for Sebastian. As is the case throughout the play, it is Feste (Rinde Eckert), Olivia's clown, who has the last word, in this case via another madrigal.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (with performer's painted face), 1581 (private collection)
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
(with performer's painted face),
1581 (private collection)

Like Feste's relationship with Oliva, throughout his career, de Vere was Queen Elizabeth's "allowed fool." Over and over, she turned down de Vere's entreaties for military and commercial appointments, yet, eventually, paid him more handsomely than anyone else on her annuities list (save for James of Scotland, who succeeded her on the throne, and Francis Walsingham, principal secretary to Elizabeth and Britain's chief spymaster, from 1573-1590), to write histories that served, along with his homilies for the pulpit, as the principle tools for state propaganda. De Vere was also a talented musician and lyricist, as we see through his stand-in, Feste. Eckert's renditions of the songs written by de Vere are poignant, as he accompanies himself on the lute, banjo, and accordian.

Rinde Eckert as Feste
Rinde Eckert as Feste (Olivia's jester)
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
In his notes for this production, director Timothy Orr calls Illyria "a fantastical place," and, indeed, there is no setting named in the credits. Thus, the costuming, props, music, and set dressing draw from a variety of periods, cultures, and styles. As we noted at the top, anything goes when authorship is attributed to someone whose biography musters only a handful of facts. At the time de Vere visited the famous port on the Illyrian coastline, Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) was known as "the Slavonic Athens." There are a number of descriptions in the play that describe Ragusa's delights,4 as well as two Croatian studies (1957 and 1964) that recognize Ragusa as the setting for this play. The production's stylistic dissonance with the text aside, the performances are first-rate.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of Twelfth Night runs through August 11th, in repertory with As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, and King Charles III. 303-492-8008 or

Bob Bows

1 De Vere's letters put him in Siena during the annual festivities from Christmas to Twelfth Night. Piccolomini wrote a companion volume to Baldesare Castiglione's The Courtier, which played a central role in de Vere's and his peers' perceptions and practices of nobility. Also, among the the many fine pieces of art in the cathedral in Siena is a circular mosaic representing the proverbial "Seven Ages of Man," a description of which found its way into As You Like It.
2Peregrine Bertie and Mary de Vere's courtship and early marriage are satirized in The Taming of the Shrew. Twelfth Night provides a sequel, of sorts. Like Maria, Mary was a lady-in-waiting, to Elizabeth. Maria is greated in her first scene by, "Bless you, fair shrew." Bertie brags she is tamed: "She's a beagle true bred and one that adores me."
3 Mark Anderson, Shakespeare by Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, 2005, p. 154.
4 For example, in Act V, Scene 1, Feste manages to extract three gold pieces from Orsino: "The triplex, sir, is a good tripping measure. Or the bells of St. Benet, sir, may put you in mind—one, two, three."

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