Twelfth Night, Shakespeare: An Introduction

William Shakespeare: A Brief Overview of His Life

William Shakespeare's journey began in humble beginnings, with his father being a glove-maker and Shakespeare receiving a basic education at a grammar school. In 1582, he entered into marriage with Anne Hathaway. However, around 1590, he left his family behind to venture to London, embarking on a path that led him to become both a playwright and an actor. His rise was swift and spectacular, establishing him as the foremost playwright of his time and securing a stake in the Globe Theater. Notably, his theatrical troupe was honored by King James, assuming the title of the King's Men in 1603. Following a successful and prosperous career, Shakespeare retired to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1613, where he passed away three years later.

Contextualizing Twelfth Night and Its Related Works

Twelfth Night, often termed a "transvestite comedy," shares thematic threads with several other Shakespearean plays that involve characters adopting cross-dressing personas. This trend is evident in works like As You Like It, where characters similarly assume disguises, and even in Merchant of Venice, where Portia's transformation into a young man is a pivotal element. Furthermore, Twelfth Night's tale of mistaken identities and twins parallels Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, itself inspired by Plautus' Roman comedy Menaechmi. The play's roots also trace back to the Italian comedy Iganni, from which it draws its inspiration.

Key Insights into Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, fully titled Twelfth Night, or What You Will, came to life around 1601 during the Renaissance period in England. This comedic gem emerged from the fertile literary landscape of Illyria, a historical region along the Adriatic Sea encompassing present-day Croatia, Albania, and Montenegro. Its publication followed in 1623, establishing itself as a representative work of the Renaissance.

The play belongs to the genre of comedy, setting the stage in the captivating world of Illyria. The climax is marked by the weddings of Viola and Orsino, as well as Sebastian and Olivia, bringing resolution to the twists and turns of the plot.

Unveiling the Quirks of Twelfth Night

The term "transvestite comedy" fittingly captures the essence of Twelfth Night, embodied by its central character Viola. Viola's disguise as the pageboy Cesario takes on added layers of complexity when considering that all characters in the play, including Viola, were portrayed by male actors. This theatrical peculiarity underscores the intriguing dynamics of gender and identity within the play.

The title "Twelfth Night" traces its origins to the English tradition of revelry on the twelfth night of Christmas, marking the Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany. During this "feast of misrule," societal roles were inverted, and a cake with a hidden bean or coin was a centerpiece. The recipient of the token in their slice of cake would become the festive ruler. This festive backdrop adds a layer of significance to the play's events.

Interestingly, Twelfth Night boasts an alternative title: "Twelfth Night, or What You Will." This secondary title encapsulates the essence of the holiday season, where imaginative liberties and fantasies can be explored and acted upon.

In essence, Twelfth Night encapsulates Shakespeare's creative genius and his ability to intertwine societal norms with theatrical intrigue, yielding a masterpiece that continues to captivate audiences to this day.

The Significance of Twelfth Night: Historical Context

The title "Twelfth Night" draws its origins from the twelfth night of Christmas, also recognized as the eve of Epiphany. This day holds historical and religious significance, marking the moment when the Magi journeyed to visit the infant Jesus. It is celebrated with a unique suspension of conventional rules and societal norms, embodying a spirit of merriment and unconventional behavior. In much the same way, Shakespeare's play "Twelfth Night" captures the essence of overturning norms and revels in the joy of disrupting conventions.

Twelfth Night Traditions: A Blend of Merriment and Disruption

The Church of England historically observed the Twelfth Night (January 5th) by engaging in a variety of customs. These customs included singing songs, marking doors with chalk, and indulging in the consumption of Three Kings' or Twelfth Night cake. A particularly engaging tradition involved hiding a pea and a bean within the cake. The fortunate discoverer of the bean would be hailed as the Lord or King of Misrule, while the finder of the pea would be crowned Lady or Queen of Misrule. The Lord of Misrule, often a commoner, led the festivities, allowing servants and masters to interact in ways typically restricted.

Shakespeare's Play and Twelfth Night Revelry

While Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" vividly mirrors the atmosphere of the Twelfth Night celebrations, with characters blurring social boundaries and customary norms, the play itself does not explicitly reference the holiday. As Samuel Pepys, an influential figure in English politics and the Navy, observed in his diary after attending the play on the eve of Epiphany in 1663, "Twelfth Night" may not overtly connect to the holiday it shares a name with. Despite this, the play adeptly captures the festive rowdiness characterizing the holiday festivities.

Characters as Reflections of Merriment

Feste the Fool, Sir Toby Belch, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, prominent characters in the play, can be viewed as embodiments of the Lord of Misrule archetype. They embrace the spirit of festivity and revel in challenging societal norms. Likewise, Maria's character closely mirrors the Lady of Misrule, further emphasizing the inversion of roles and the embracing of the unexpected.

Transitioning from Festivity to Reality

The closing song performed by Feste at the conclusion of the play serves as a poignant reminder of the eventual return to reality. As the festivities draw to a close, the audience is confronted with the stark reality of a prolonged, cold winter. Social norms regain their prominence, and the indulgent behavior that was celebrated during Twelfth Night is once again frowned upon.

In essence, Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" captures the essence of a holiday that revels in overturning conventions and embracing merriment. While not overtly connected to the historical holiday, the play's characters and themes echo the spirit of the festivities, offering a vivid portrayal of the temporary suspension of norms and the eventual return to the realities of social order.

Study Guide

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