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Twelfth Night is considered one of Shakespeare’s last three great comedies (Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night) before he moved into the next stage of his writing career—the stage that produced his great tragedies. Twelfth Night was first performed in the Middle Temple Hall in London in 1602.
Middle Temple Hall, London.
Twelfth Night is the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6; it marks the end of the Christmas festivities and celebrates the arrival of the Magi to see the Christ Child. Although contemporary American society generally celebrates leading up to Christmas Day, older societies began their celebrations on Christmas Day and the festivities lasted through the twelve days of Christmas (hence the song) until January 6. This is the custom evident in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as the author states that it is “Christmastide” (line 37) and later states that it is the day after New Year’s Day (line 60).
Traditional Twelfth Night festivities in Elizabethan England would include masquerades and the crowning of a “king of misrule,” usually a servant boy of the lowest station. Role-reversals (nobility acting as servants and servants pretending to be nobility) and the crossing of usually strict social class distinctions were common activities during a Twelfth Night celebration. Western civilization is full of examples of festivities Christian in their origin which through time became excuses for drinking, feasting, and decidedly un-religious behavior (for example, think of modern Mardi Gras and Carnivale celebrations).
The title of the play, then, is appropriate even though the action does not take place on or near the Twelfth Night holiday. It refers instead to the traditions of the holiday which form the basis for the plot devices that result in a rollicking comic misadventure.
Twelfth Night is the only play to which Shakespeare gave a sub-title, What You Will. Many scholars interpret the sub-title as an off-hand, casual way of saying, “Call the play whatever you wish.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, during the 16th century, the word will could also mean “carnal desire or appetite.” Some scholars, therefore, think the title refers to the sudden passions that many of the characters (Olivia, Orsino, Antonio, Malvolio, Viola, Sebastian) experience. One particularly inappropriate aspect of these romantic attractions that would be quite obvious to a Shakespearean audience, though less so to a modern audience, is the crossing of social class lines. Sir Toby marries a serving woman (a gentlewoman though not a noblewoman); Olivia falls in love with a page; Malvolio longs to marry a noblewoman and thus become a member of the nobility himself. The rigid Elizabethan social order might be turned upside down in Twelfth Night celebrations, but not in the everyday world. By the end of the play, most of these indiscretions are corrected: Olivia learns that she is married to the nobleman Sebastian; Orsino is in love with the noblewoman Viola; and Malvolio has been punished for his audacity in aspiring to marry above his station.
In writing Twelfth Night, Shakespeare relied on plot devices which were standard in Elizabethan comedy and which he had used himself in other plays. Women disguised as men, for example, was a common occurrence, and one which was used to particular comic effect in Shakespeare’s time when women were not allowed on stage. Men played the women’s parts, so the audience would see a man playing a woman playing a man. Shakespeare also used separated twins and mistaken identities in other plays.
Critic Harold C. Goddard, among others, points out the similarity of the name of the play’s setting, Illyria, with the name Elysium, the mythological paradise, and claims that Illyria is a type of “counterfeit Elysium, a fool’s paradise” (The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. 1. University of Chicago Press, 1951). In the spirit of Twelfth Night revels, normal social order is discarded in Illyria and things are not always what they seem. Perhaps Shakespeare suggests that Viola and Sebastian have entered a mythological, slightly unreal world after their “drowning” at sea.