Twelfth Night: the Alternate Title, or “What You Will”

Yesterday, I talked a little (OK, technically a little more than “a little”) about the title of Twelfth Night and its significance. But this play is different than most other Shakespeare plays: it has an alternate title. (Yes, I know many other plays have what could be called alternate/subtitles, like The Chronicle History of Henry the Fifth with his battle fought at Agincourt in France, together with Ancient Pistol, but really, no one uses the subtitle in these cases.)

But here, we have: Twelfth Night, or What You Will.

Today, let’s take a look at that alternate title.

“What” is pretty straightforward.

“You,” however, does add a level of complexity. Does it mean the generic second person plural, which we can probably take to refer to the audience, or does it mean the speaker’s specific addressee (which might be a character in the play, maybe even the play itself [if the speaker is ol’ Willy Shakes himself])?

And now, this is probably a good time to dive into the Oxford English Dictionary, to see just what that word “will” means.  There are three major noun definitions of “will,” with over ten official sub-meanings of the word, plus a handful of adverbial/adjectival meanings. But here, the word is used a verb. Again, three major family of definitions, with nearly 20 sub-meanings used during Shakespeare’s day, with the most likely suspects being:

Desire, wish for, have a mind to … sometimes implying also ‘intend’
  • “will, v.1; I.1.a (also 2.1.a)”
    OED Online.
    Oxford University Press,
    December 2014.
    Web. 27 January 2015.
Determine, decree, ordain
  • “will, v.1; I.3.a”
Expressing natural disposition to do something
  • “will, v.1; I.8”

For either “you,” those first two make a great deal of sense: what you/we desire or decree. This play may just be about what we want it to be or make it to be (for a lit major, this is pretty meta).

That third meaning, though, subverts the first two: what you/we expect is not necessarily what we want or demand. If we go that route, do we get what we expect from a play called Twelfth Night? On the surface, maybe not; but as we saw yesterday, maybe.

Now, there is another meaning (you knew there would be!):

To go astray, lose one’s way; to stray
  • “will, v.3”

That can subvert the usual suspects even more… especially if the hypothetical speaker is the Lord of Misrule.


The phrase “what you will” is used only once in the play itself, by Olivia to Malvolio, in regards to the newly arrived messenger from Orsino, Cesario:

Go you, Malvolio. If it be a suit from the Count, I am sick, or not at home; what you will, to dismiss it.
  • I.v.103-5

I find it infinitely interesting that Olivia uses the phrase when talking to Malvolio (and here, I believe, using the “usual suspect” meanings of desire/decree), at once empowering him to act on her behalf, but also to do it as he desires to do it. And given that the order specifically refers to her only realistic suitor in the play, Orsino (and she even uses the word “suit”), is it any wonder that Malvolio thinks that Olivia has feelings beyond employment for him?

What Malvolio desires, indeed…

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