Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare’s lyrical and complex comedy of love, premiered in 1601. Since that first performance, the play’s memorable characters, stunning language and ingenious plot have made it one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies. In this timeline, we follow Twelfth Night through 400 years on stage (and screen).
Shakespeare writes Twelfth Night. On January 6 (Twelfth Night), Shakespeare’s company performs a play at court for Queen Elizabeth and her guest, the Italian nobleman Virginio Orsino. Some scholars have speculated that this marks the premiere of Twelfth Night.
After a celebration at the Middle Temple Hall on February 2, the law student John Manningham records in his diary: “At our feast we had a play called Twelve Night, or What You Will.”
With the restoration of King Charles II and the end of the Puritan ban on theatres, William Davenant opens the Duke’s Playhouse. His production of Twelfth Night becomes the first to feature female actors as Viola, Olivia and Maria.
Irish actor Charles Macklin stages Twelfth Night at Covent Garden, as part of a repertory with As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice. The three plays feature women disguised as men, a tremendous box-office draw.
Henry Irving plays Malvolio at London’s Lyceum Theatre, turning the character from a joke into a dignified and almost tragic figure.
John Gielgud directs Laurence Olivier as Malvolio at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Following Irving’s lead, Olivier plays the wronged steward as a sympathetic man.
Director John Barton changes the way audiences look at Twelfth Night with his Royal Shakespeare Company staging. Featuring Judi Dench as Viola, the production brings a quiet melancholy to the comedy.
Michael Kahn’s production of Twelfth Night (set in Sri Lanka) was the recipient of three Helen Hayes awards for: Outstanding Director, Michael Kahn; Outstanding Lead Actress, Kelly McGillis; and Outstanding Supporting Actor, Philip Goodwin. The production was also prominently featured in a speech Representative Fred Gandy made in Congress addressing arts funding and censorship.
Trevor Nunn directs a film of Twelfth Night, with Helena Bonham-Carter as Olivia and Ben Kingsley as a very serious Feste.
New York’s Lincoln
Center Theater produces Twelfth Night with a star-studded cast, including Helen Hunt, Paul Rudd and Kyra Sedgwick.
British director Declan Donnellan directs an all-male Twelfth Night with a company of Russian actors. The production originates in Moscow and later tours the world to great acclaim.