Twelfth Night (Folger Shakespeare Library Series)

Twelfth Night (Folger Shakespeare Library Series)

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Named for the twelfth night after Christmas, the end of the Christmas season, Twelfth Night plays with love and power. The Countess Olivia, a woman with her own household, attracts Duke (or Count) Orsino. Two other would-be suitors are her pretentious steward, Malvolio, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Onto this scene arrive the twins Viola and Sebastian; caught in a shipwreck, each thinks the other has drowned. Viola disguises herself as a male page and enters Orsino’s service. Orsino sends her as his envoy to Olivia—only to have Olivia fall in love with the messenger. The play complicates, then wonderfully untangles, these relationships.

The authoritative edition of Twelfth Night from The Folger Shakespeare Library, the trusted and widely used Shakespeare series for students and general readers, includes:

-Freshly edited text based on the best early printed version of the play

-Full explanatory notes conveniently placed on pages facing the text of the play

-Scene-by-scene plot summaries

-A key to the play’s famous lines and phrases

-An introduction to reading Shakespeare’s language

-An essay by a leading Shakespeare scholar providing a modern perspective on the play

-Fresh images from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s vast holdings of rare books

-An annotated guide to further reading

Essay by Catherine Belsey

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, is home to the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare’s printed works, and a magnet for Shakespeare scholars from around the globe. In addition to exhibitions open to the public throughout the year, the Folger offers a full calendar of performances and programs. For more information, visit

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743482776
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 06/22/2004
Series: Folger Shakespeare Library Series
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 15,019
Product dimensions: 4.18(w) x 6.75(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

William Shakespeare was born in April 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, on England’s Avon River. When he was eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway. The couple had three children—an older daughter Susanna and twins, Judith and Hamnet. Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died in childhood. The bulk of Shakespeare’s working life was spent in the theater world of London, where he established himself professionally by the early 1590s. He enjoyed success not only as a playwright and poet, but also as an actor and shareholder in an acting company. Although some think that sometime between 1610 and 1613 Shakespeare retired from the theater and returned home to Stratford, where he died in 1616, others believe that he may have continued to work in London until close to his death.

Barbara A. Mowat is Director of Research emerita at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Consulting Editor of Shakespeare Quarterly, and author of The Dramaturgy of Shakespeare’s Romances and of essays on Shakespeare’s plays and their editing.

Paul Werstine is Professor of English at the Graduate School and at King’s University College at Western University. He is a general editor of the New Variorum Shakespeare and author of Early Modern Playhouse Manuscripts and the Editing of Shakespeare and of many papers and articles on the printing and editing of Shakespeare’s plays.

Date of Death:


Place of Birth:

Stratford-upon-Avon, United Kingdom

Place of Death:

Stratford-upon-Avon, United Kingdom

Read an Excerpt

Shakespeare's Life

Surviving documents that give us glimpses into the life of William Shakespeare show us a playwright, poet, and actor who grew up in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, spent his professional life in London, and returned to Stratford a wealthy landowner. He was born in April 1564, died in April 1616, and is buried inside the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.

We wish we could know more about the life of the world's greatest dramatist. His plays and poems are testaments to his wide reading -- especially to his knowledge of Virgil, Ovid, Plutarch, Holinshed's Chronicles, and the Bible -- and to his mastery of the English language, but we can only speculate about his education. We know that the King's New School in Stratford-upon-Avon was considered excellent. The school was one of the English "grammar schools" established to educate young men, primarily in Latin grammar and literature. As in other schools of the time, students began their studies at the age of four or five in the attached "petty school," and there learned to read and write in English, studying primarily the catechism from the Book of Common Prayer. After two years in the petty school, students entered the lower form (grade) of the grammar school, where they began the serious study of Latin grammar and Latin texts that would occupy most of the remainder of their school days. (Several Latin texts that Shakespeare used repeatedly in writing his plays and poems were texts that schoolboys memorized and recited.) Latin comedies were introduced early in the lower form; in the upper form, which the boys entered at age ten or eleven, students wrote their own Latin orations and declamations, studied Latin historians and rhetoricians, and began the study of Greek using the Greek New Testament.

Since the records of the Stratford "grammar school" do not survive, we cannot prove that William Shakespeare attended the school; however, every indication (his father's position as an alderman and bailiff of Stratford, the playwright's own knowledge of the Latin classics, scenes in the plays that recall grammar-school experiences -- for example, The Merry Wives of Windsor, 4.1) suggests that he did. We also lack generally accepted documentation about Shakespeare's life after his schooling ended and his professional life in London began. His marriage in 1582 (at age eighteen) to Anne Hathaway and the subsequent births of his daughter Susanna (1583) and the twins Judith and Hamnet (1585) are recorded, but how he supported himself and where he lived are not known. Nor do we know when and why he left Stratford for the London theatrical world, nor how he rose to be the important figure in that world that he had become by the early 1590s.

We do know that by 1592 he had achieved some prominence in London as both an actor and a playwright. In that year was published a book by the playwright Robert Greene attacking an actor who had the audacity to write blank-verse drama and who was "in his own conceit [i.e., opinion] the only Shake-scene in a country." Since Greene's attack includes a parody of a line from one of Shakespeare's early plays, there is little doubt that it is Shakespeare to whom he refers, a "Shake-scene" who had aroused Greene's fury by successfully competing with university-educated dramatists like Greene himself. It was in 1593 that Shakespeare became a published poet. In that year he published his long narrative poem Venus and Adonis; in 1594, he followed it with The Rape of Lucrece. Both poems were dedicated to the young earl of Southampton (Henry Wriothesley), who may have become Shakespeare's patron.

It seems no coincidence that Shakespeare wrote these narrative poems at a time when the theaters were closed because of the plague, a contagious epidemic disease that devastated the population of London. When the theaters reopened in 1594, Shakespeare apparently resumed his double career of actor and playwright and began his long (and seemingly profitable) service as an acting-company shareholder. Records for December of 1594 show him to be a leading member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. It was this company of actors, later named the King's Men, for whom he would be a principal actor, dramatist, and shareholder for the rest of his career.

So far as we can tell, that career spanned about twenty years. In the 1590s, he wrote his plays on English history as well as several comedies and at least two tragedies (Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet). These histories, comedies, and tragedies are the plays credited to him in 1598 in a work, Palladis Tamia, that in one chapter compares English writers with "Greek, Latin, and Italian Poets." There the author, Francis Meres, claims that Shakespeare is comparable to the Latin dramatists Seneca for tragedy and Plautus for comedy, and calls him "the most excellent in both kinds for the stage." He also names him "Mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare": "I say," writes Meres, "that the Muses would speak with Shakespeare's fine filed phrase, if they would speak English." Since Meres also mentions Shakespeare's "sugared sonnets among his private friends," it is assumed that many of Shakespeare's sonnets (not published until 1609) were also written in the 1590s.

In 1599, Shakespeare's company built a theater for themselves across the river from London, naming it the Globe. The plays that are considered by many to be Shakespeare's major tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth) were written while the company was resident in this theater, as were such comedies as Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure. Many of Shakespeare's plays were performed at court (both for Queen Elizabeth I and, after her death in 1603, for King James I), some were presented at the Inns of Court (the residences of London's legal societies), and some were doubtless performed in other towns, at the universities, and at great houses when the King's Men went on tour; otherwise, his plays from 1599 to 1608 were, so far as we know, performed only at the Globe. Between 1608 and 1612, Shakespeare wrote several plays -- among them The Winter's Tale and The Tempest -- presumably for the company's new indoor Blackfriars theater, though the plays seem to have been performed also at the Globe and at court. Surviving documents describe a performance of The Winter's Tale in 1611 at the Globe, for example, and performances of The Tempest in 1611 and 1613 at the royal palace of Whitehall.

Shakespeare wrote very little after 1612, the year in which he probably wrote King Henry VIII. (It was at a performance of Henry VIII in 1613 that the Globe caught fire and burned to the ground.) Sometime between 1610 and 1613 he seems to have returned to live in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he owned a large house and considerable property, and where his wife and his two daughters and their husbands lived. (His son Hamnet had died in 1596.) During his professional years in London, Shakespeare had presumably derived income from the acting company's profits as well as from his own career as an actor, from the sale of his play manuscripts to the acting company, and, after 1599, from his shares as an owner of the Globe. It was presumably that income, carefully invested in land and other property, which made him the wealthy man that surviving documents show him to have become. It is also assumed that William Shakespeare's growing wealth and reputation played some part in inclining the crown, in 1596, to grant John Shakespeare, William's father, the coat of arms that he had so long sought. William Shakespeare died in Stratford on April 23, 1616 (according to the epitaph carved under his bust in Holy Trinity Church) and was buried on April 25. Seven years after his death, his collected plays were published as Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (the work now known as the First Folio).

The years in which Shakespeare wrote were among the most exciting in English history. Intellectually, the discovery, translation, and printing of Greek and Roman classics were making available a set of works and worldviews that interacted complexly with Christian texts and beliefs. The result was a questioning, a vital intellectual ferment, that provided energy for the period's amazing dramatic and literary output and that fed directly into Shakespeare's plays. The Ghost in Hamlet, for example, is wonderfully complicated in part because he is a figure from Roman tragedy -- the spirit of the dead returning to seek revenge -- who at the same time inhabits a Christian hell (or purgatory); Hamlet's description of humankind reflects at one moment the Neoplatonic wonderment at mankind ("What a piece of work is a man!") and, at the next, the Christian disparagement of human sinners ("And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?").

As intellectual horizons expanded, so also did geographical and cosmological horizons. New worlds -- both North and South America -- were explored, and in them were found human beings who lived and worshiped in ways radically different from those of Renaissance Europeans and Englishmen. The universe during these years also seemed to shift and expand. Copernicus had earlier theorized that the earth was not the center of the cosmos but revolved as a planet around the sun. Galileo's telescope, created in 1609, allowed scientists to see that Copernicus had been correct; the universe was not organized with the earth at the center, nor was it so nicely circumscribed as people had, until that time, thought. In terms of expanding horizons, the impact of these discoveries on people's beliefs -- religious, scientific, and philosophical -- cannot be overstated.

London, too, rapidly expanded and changed during the years (from the early 1590s to around 1610) that Shakespeare lived there. London -- the center of England's government, its economy, its royal court, its overseas trade -- was, during these years, becoming an exciting metropolis, drawing to it thousands of new citizens every year. Troubled by overcrowding, by poverty, by recurring epidemics of the plague, London was also a mecca for the wealthy and the aristocratic, and for those who sought advancement at court, or power in government or finance or trade. One hears in Shakespeare's plays the voices of London -- the struggles for power, the fear of venereal disease, the language of buying and selling. One hears as well the voices of Stratford-upon-Avon -- references to the nearby Forest of Arden, to sheepherding, to small-town gossip, to village fairs and markets. Part of the richness of Shakespeare's work is the influence felt there of the various worlds in which he lived: the world of metropolitan London, the world of small-town and rural England, the world of the theater, and the worlds of craftsmen and shepherds.

That Shakespeare inhabited such worlds we know from surviving London and Stratford documents, as well as from the evidence of the plays and poems themselves. From such records we can sketch the dramatist's life. We know from his works that he was a voracious reader. We know from legal and business documents that he was a multifaceted theater man who became a wealthy landowner. We know a bit about his family life and a fair amount about his legal and financial dealings. Most scholars today depend upon such evidence as they draw their picture of the world's greatest playwright. Such, however, has not always been the case. Until the late eighteenth century, the William Shakespeare who lived in most biographies was the creation of legend and tradition. This was the Shakespeare who was supposedly caught poaching deer at Charlecote, the estate of Sir Thomas Lucy close by Stratford; this was the Shakespeare who fled from Sir Thomas's vengeance and made his way in London by taking care of horses outside a playhouse; this was the Shakespeare who reportedly could barely read but whose natural gifts were extraordinary, whose father was a butcher who allowed his gifted son sometimes to help in the butcher shop, where William supposedly killed calves "in a high style," making a speech for the occasion. It was this legendary William Shakespeare whose Falstaff (in 1 and 2 Henry IV) so pleased Queen Elizabeth that she demanded a play about Falstaff in love, and demanded that it be written in fourteen days (hence the existence of The Merry Wives of Windsor). It was this legendary Shakespeare who reached the top of his acting career in the roles of the Ghost in Hamlet and old Adam in As You Like It -- and who died of a fever contracted by drinking too hard at "a merry meeting" with the poets Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson. This legendary Shakespeare is a rambunctious, undisciplined man, as attractively "wild" as his plays were seen by earlier generations to be. Unfortunately, there is no trace of evidence to support these wonderful stories.

Perhaps in response to the disreputable Shakespeare of legend -- or perhaps in response to the fragmentary and, for some, all-too-ordinary Shakespeare documented by surviving records -- some people since the mid-nineteenth century have argued that William Shakespeare could not have written the plays that bear his name. These persons have put forward some dozen names as more likely authors, among them Queen Elizabeth, Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere (earl of Oxford), and Christopher Marlowe. Such attempts to find what for these people is a more believable author of the plays is a tribute to the regard in which the plays are held. Unfortunately for their claims, the documents that exist that provide evidence for the facts of Shakespeare's life tie him inextricably to the body of plays and poems that bear his name. Unlikely as it seems to those who want the works to have been written by an aristocrat, a university graduate, or an "important" person, the plays and poems seem clearly to have been produced by a man from Stratford-upon-Avon with a very good "grammar-school" education and a life of experience in London and in the world of the London theater. How this particular man produced the works that dominate the cultures of much of the world almost four hundred years after his death is one of life's mysteries -- and one that will continue to tease our imaginations as we continue to delight in his plays and poems.

Copyright © 2003 by The Folger Shakespeare Library

Customer Reviews

Twelfth Night 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 62 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I used this copy of Twelfth Night for my Shakespeare class, and it was far superior to the edition the professor had chosen. The text is printed on the right page and notes appear on the left. The trade paperback provides room for a decent sized font and room for notes in the margins. The notes themselves are invaluable to understanding the play, and the extended notes and commentary in the back (illustrations of the stage, notes on modernization of text...) are interesting as well as informative. This rivals texts that are twice the price.
ArneyT More than 1 year ago
Every B&N Shakespeare has been awesome and this is no exception. Nice, clear text, helpful notations, and interesting articles. Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just have to say that I laughed when I saw the comment that said, 'So many typos!' Obviously, they do not understand Shakespeare's language. This book is absolutely wonderful. I most definitely recommend  this for students in high school through college. Maybe middle school though it's a very small chance they will understand the concept and comedy. As always, Twelfth Night is underrated by critics. A true classic!!
Clif on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I listened to this play a year ago and forgot to add to my Library Thing list. So the plot isn't fresh in my mind. I do remember that the plot is quite complicated with numerous mistaken identities, disguises and switching of roles. The plot is so convoluted that I recommend drafting a chart to keep track of the characters and their multiple identities. There is a mean joke played on a Puritan character in the play which was probably funny to 16th Century theater audiences. However, I fou...more I listened to this play a year ago and forgot to add to my Goodreads list. So the plot isn't fresh in my mind. I do remember that the plot is quite complicated with numerous mistaken identities, disguises and switching of roles. The plot is so convoluted that I recommend drafting a chart to keep track of the characters and their multiple identities. There is a mean joke played on a Puritan character in the play which was probably funny to 16th Century theater audiences. However, I found it to be cruel and not very funny. Read in December, 2007
fufuakaspeechless on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love this play. Shakespeare's comedies are very enjoyable.
Anduril85 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this book with my girlfriend and it was ok but not one of my most liked books ever. At times it's a little hard to understand if you don't have the spark notes or some other translation like it, but if you like plays and have never read it I recommend it to you, for everyone else you.
ncgraham on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My relationship with the Bard¿s works began when, at the tender age of six, I went to a Shakespeare in the Park performance of Much Ado About Nothing and had the time of my life. Since then, it¿s been up and down at times with me and Will, as I¿ve been alternately befuddled, entranced, delighted, disturbed, and moved by his handiwork. It was only last year, however, that I really began reading his plays in earnest—up until then, my exposure had been limited solely to films and live performances. I've been taking them slowly, picking up a play as the inclination strikes, and not following any particular order.Despite the fact that it is critically regarded as one of Shakespeare's best and most advanced comedies, I have to say that so far Twelfth Night is my least favorite of the lot. I¿m hoping it¿s not because it was assigned for a class, when all the others I picked up of my own volition. Either way, I found I couldn¿t connect to any of these characters, neither when I read the play nor when I watched the 1996 Trevor Nunn film (and let me tell you, if Helena Bonham Carter can¿t make me feel for Olivia, no one can). They made for an interesting group to observe— not the uninvolved, almost scientific word. There is no Puck or Rosalind or Beatrice or Shylock to give this comedy some sort of heart or animating spirit. Viola and Feste come closest, simply because they are vehicles for some of Shakespeare's best poetry and wordplay—but even then, the language is more interesting than its bearers. Indeed, I would say this play is most interesting when looked at mostly for how it uses language and what it has to say about it.The critics are right in commending Twelfth Night for its clever wordplay and complex social vision, but to my mind Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night¿s Dream are far more entertaining, and The Merchant of Venice deeper.
kant1066 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this in preparation for going to see an upcoming production of this play put on by "Shakespeare in the Park" that's going to be playing June 1st through the 4th of this year in the Botanical Gardens. Considering the myriad summaries and expositions of this play, I won't recapitulate those here. What I will do, both for my personal use and for the remote possibility that someone else might find some use in them, is post my own thoughts and notes I took as I read it. Hopefully they'll serve as an aide memoire if I ever need one.ACT I: Overall themes: identity (masque?), rejection, and desire. It asks whether or not love is something real, or just another human artifice, much like the music that Count Orsino "feeds" on. Orsino's switch of affection from Olivia to Viola is a hint that he loves the idea of love more than one of the women themselves. He's a parody of the hopeless romantic. Viola's wish to be transformed into a eunuch is indicative of gender liminality - or at least this seems to be a common argument, even though it's readily known that men played all roles in Elizabethan and Jacobean theater (so I'm a little confused by the single-minded focus that much modern scholarship has put on gender in this play). Perhaps this gender ambiguity is a sort of defense mechanism to deal with the uncertainty inherent with being tossed on an unknown island. There has also been some focus on Orsino's shift of affection toward Viola (Cesario) from a platonic friendship to a more romantic one. (Could our more modern emotional coldness associated with masculinity be coloring this reading, too?) Feste is obviously one of the cleverest people in the play. "Cucullus non facit monachum" indeed! As a critique of courtly love, this act accomplishes a lot, and Feste comes out being one of the least foolish people on the stage.ACT II: Malvolio (literally, from the Latin, "ill will"), the only character who takes himself much too seriously, is tricked into the tomfoolery that he himself so deplores, ultimately proving Feste right: it's not just the role of the fool to entertain folly.ACT III: Even though, considering Malvolio's transformation from joy-hating blowhard into romantic lover is a drastic one, that Olivia thinks him mad might be telling. Is there any room here for a sort of Foucauldian discussion of what constitutes "madness and civilization" in Elizabethan England? From the little that I've seen of the scholarly literature, I haven't yet seen any discussions that run along these lines.
MrsLee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Shipwrecked siblings, love-struck Dukes and Duchesses, silly servants and misplaced affections. I enjoyed this very much. No one does confusion of identity as well as Shakespeare, and when it's one of his comedies, there is always a happy ending.
Othemts on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My favorite Shakespearean comedy (partially because I portrayed Sir Toby in a high school production) with the perfect mix of witty dialogue, physical humor and characterization.
vgnunez on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this play in high school. I immediately connected with Viola who hid her true identity (and her emotions) from society. Though modern critics look at (and/or analyze) the story's use of homosexuality and gender/sexual politics, I can't break from my initial path of loving the story for Viola's strength in hiding her identity and love.
HippieLunatic on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
There is brilliance in this play, as there is in all of Shakespeare's work... but...Well, this one doesn't live up to the others, at least not in the reading of the script. I could not attach myself to any of the characters, and while I often have to reread the words and the footnotes to gain any understanding of the plot, this one felt hollow to me, even after I could grasp what was going on.The brilliance comes in much of the twisting of words and understandings of phrases. Shakespeare was a wordsmith, there is no doubt about that.... but most of the time, I feel like he was also incredibly connected to his characters, his audience, his stories. This one felt flimsy to me.
redg18 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Honestly, I am not all that into reading plays. However, I am so into gender-bender that I had to read 12th night. The whole idea of a girl dressing up as a boy and fooling everyone is so interesting to me. The thing that put me off from this book was the fact that the emotions that the characters were feeling were not as evident just from reading this play. I mean, it was like saying "I feel that I love you". It is not as moving as if the author had described what the feeling is. For some reason, I loved Julius Cesar, Othello, and sort of liked "As you like it". So maybe I am just not into this story that much.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
How can you buy the book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hehe. Should we advertise?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Got a Clan. Gtg. Bbl.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He growls and slaps bloodnights nuzzle, hen slashes his forehead blinding her with her own blood. "Shut up you mouse brain. Your lucky. We'll be back!" He swears and pads out after xalling his patrol.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
[Two questions: 1)who's my mentor(sorry, I forgot) 2)can you look at my question? You'll have to scroll down a bit to find it though]
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She ran away back to her cl befiretheh did that.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great version of the text. The images from various films help students to think about the play as performance. Gayle Gaskill's additions are particularly beneficial and interesting. Best option for Twelfth Night!
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