Fun and Games with Shakespeare

Or What You Will

My wife and I are Shakespeare enthusiasts in the extreme. So we were delighted to discover the St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival. Last Friday evening, a couple of blocks from the waterfront, in a courtyard between two Victorian houses, under an enormous oak tree, we watched a wonderful performance of Twelfth Night, one of our favorite plays.

We’ve seen it a number of times before, and talked about some of the puns and hidden meanings. On the long drive home over the Sunshine Skyway, we had another of those conversations.


One thing we find interesting is the similar names of several of the characters—Malvolio, Olivia, and Viola. All share the same letters.

According to the website, the name Malvolio was invented by Shakespeare and means “ill will” in Italian. From the same site, we learn that “Olivia” was also first used in Twelfth Night, and is probably derived from the name of the olive tree. “Viola” meanwhile, is Latin for violet.

Scene from ‘Twelfth Night’ (‘Malvolio and the Countess’) exhibited 1840 Daniel Maclise 1806-1870 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847

So if we think of all characters as being projections of the author, and recall that Shakespeare went by the name “Will,” we have Malvolio, or the bad Will. We also have Olivia, the Will who is like the olive, because she is bitter and melancholy. And Viola, the Will who is bright and clever.

Okay, those last two might be a bit of a stretch.

But then again, Shakespeare subtitled the play “What You Will”


One line that’s always been a bit of a mystery is in Act 2, Scene 5. Malvolio is reading a letter left for him to find by the servant Mary and meant for him to mistake as coming from the Countess Olivia. The letter does not name him, but hints at his name by spelling out M O A I. Malvolio puzzles over whether this is meant to be him, and then reads:

“If this fall into thy hand, revolve…” and there follows the famous quote that “Some are born great, etc.”

But “revolve”? This is sometimes played on stage for comic effect by Malvolio twirling around. That’s good.

According to the Annotated Twelfth Night the word revolve means “think things over.” Also good.

But my brilliant wife discovered that if you revolve the page (turn it upside down) and look at the letters MOAI…

you get something that looks very much like “I VOW”…

…Which also fits the meaning of the text.


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