A Little Help on Twelfth Night Essay

The following information is based upon my taped lecture on this play. Although this text version is not the same as the taped lecture, it does contain the same information. All references are based on the Signet paperback edition which you should consult in conjunction with this lecture. Twelfth Night was probably written in 1601 and first performed in January of 1602. We know this because the play is mentioned that year in the diary of a young man training to become a lawyer at the Inns of Court in London. We can also tell the approximate date of the play from the references to contemporary events and publications, things like books or new maps. To place the publication in Shakespeare’s career, it comes about six years after Roemo & Juliet. Shakespeare’s treatment of love and romance and his use of dramatic devices are even more sophisticated than they were in his famous tragedy.

Twelfth Night is the fourth in a series of romantic comedies which all have very bright heroines who end up teaching valuable lessons to the men who will become their husbands. Three of these four plays — The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and Twelfth Night — feature heroines who disguise themselves as men and deal with their male-dominated societies from this secret vantage point. They all have very sophisticated attitudes toward love and reveal human folly caused by the excess of some particular quality. It’s interesting to note that Twelfth Night was written right after Shakespeare had written Hamlet, which is a very different kind of play, but it does give you some idea of the range of his creative talents.

The title of the play is unusual. It refers to the twelve days of Christmas, which you may recall from the old song, “On the Twelfth Day of Christmas.” In earlier days the celebration and exchange of gifts which we associate with the 25th of December were actually conducted during the 12 days which followed that date, culminating with what is called Epiphany. For some reason this twelfth day was associated, and continues to be, with comic misrule, upset and especially confusion over gender. In this country many people observe a seasonal tradition by taking their family to see “The Nutcracker” ballet or The Christmas Carol, Dickens’ story turned into a stage play.

More recent cultural expressions may be the film How the Grinch Stole Christmas or television’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. Well, in the United Kingdom the cultural equivalent is going to the pantomime or panto. Families will go to the local theater is see a series of comic skits which feature famous actors and actresses performing in drag. So you might see Benny Hill or John Cleese playing the parts of women and some shapely starlet dressed in tight pants playing the part of the hero. Shakespeare’s play recalls this very old tradition by being a play with similar gender confusion at its core.

It is entirely possible that Shakespeare was commissioned to write the play for a group of law students to perform at their Twelfth Night celebration, later followed by performances at his public theater, The Globe. As such, the original audience consisted of young sophisticated gentlemen who would have been knowledgeable about the London theater scene: there are a number of references in the play to works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Many of the jokes in the play are lost on us in the 21st Century because they refer to things which were very much in the public mind in 1601. So when Feste, the jester, says at one point he could have used the word “element,” but he chose not to because the word is overused, it goes right over our heads. However, it was a howl in Shakespeare’s time because there was a big flap over Ben Jonson’s use of the word.

Twelfth Night is one of the few plays Shakespeare wrote which has a secondary or sub-title: “What You Will.” Even here Shakespeare is having a little fun. At one level this title is just a throw-away line, much like the titles of Much Ado About Nothing or As You Like It, the Elizabethan equivalent of “Whatever” or “No big deal!” However, in his plays and poems Shakespeare often used the word “will” to refer to sexual desire. So the title “What You Will” also means “Whatever sexual desire you choose to pursue.” Throughout the play there are at least three places where characters consciously give themselves permission to chase some inappropriate sexual fantasy which will end up making them appear foolish. I’ll point these out as we go through the play.

The source of Twelfth Night has been pretty well identified. The immediate source is a book by a man named Barnaby Ridge titled Ridge: His Farewell to the Military Profession written about 20 years earlier. Ridge wrote a collection of stories he had picked up from many sources and to which he added his own inventions. One of Ridge’s stories is about a young woman who disguises herself as a young man and goes to work for a handsome young lord with whom she promptly falls in love. The young lord orders his new employee to go off and win the love of a beautiful woman that he desires. The heroine in disguise tries her best, but the beautiful woman falls in love with her disguise.

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Comic confusion results. Ridge had stolen this story line from an Italian play written earlier, but in reality the ideas here go back to the ancient Greeks and Romans who often wrote about girls who used disguise to get around the restrictions of their own societies. The ancients also had lots of fun with characters who looked alike; identical twins were special favorites. One of the Roman playwrights that Shakespeare had read in school, Plautus, had written a famous comedy about a set of twins; Shakespeare had used it as the basis for his first comedy, Comedy of Errors. So this sophisticated comedy of Twelfth Night is actually based on very old ideas.

There are four major themes which are explored in this play. All the themes have to do with love. In fact no other play by Shakespeare shows so many different kinds of love or reactions to love. The first theme is everybody who loves faces obstacles to overcome in order to achieve their heart’s desire. Falling love in a Shakespearean comedy is never easy. You really have to work hard to win. The second theme is that love takes many forms, and these coexist uneasily. There is self-love, misguided love, love which was gender inappropriate, or what in politically correct terms we would say was “deemed inappropriate by a dominant, sexually repressive society.” That just means that in this play women fall in love with women and men with men without ever having a chance for that love to be requited or returned.

The third theme is that love makes the unworthy appear foolish while correcting the worthy who are simply misguided. Love is the mechanism by which we are shown people acting ridiculously. Those who deserve our scorn appear as fools; those who have something going for them are shown the errors of their ways through love and finally earn our respect as wise. The fourth and final theme is that love is an infection we willingly seek — in the words of one of the characters in this play, a form of “divine madness.” Despite the possibility of appearing foolish we give ourselves permission to experience it — the same idea I was getting at in my earlier discussion of the sub-title of the play, “What You Will.”

The plot of the play combines three different story lines. There is the love triangle of the noble characters: Viola, a clever young woman who is forced to disguise herself as a young man; Orsino, the duke who employs Viola in disguise and with whom she falls in love; Olivia, the beautiful countess Orsino desires and who in turn falls in love with Viola. The second story deals with the low-life characters and their rough humor: Sir Toby Belch, whose name tells you everything you need to know about his character; Belch’s favorite pigeon, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, from whom he steals and with whom he carries out an elaborate practical joke on Malvolio, the business manager of Olivia’s estate.

Malvolio is a character with special political significance for Shakespeare’s audience. The third story line is not as prominent as the other two but is absolutely essential for the resolution of the play. It involves Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother whom she believes has been drowned, and Antonio, a ship captain who rescues him, falls in love with him and pursues him, even at peril of his own life. These story lines intersect at different times and in different ways with different kinds of comic effects — from the slap stick to the romantic. Social distinctions are the basis for much of the humor of the play.

I’ve made the point that gender disguise is what distinguishes this play from some of the other comedies and that the idea goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. This device is found in Shakespeare’s comedies of Two Gentlemen of Verona, Merchant of Venice and As You Like It. The device allows a heroine to exercise greater freedom of action. Young gentlewomen were under great social constraint. They were not allowed to go in public without an escort. They were forbidden to interact with men without a chaperone present. They were not supposed to be involved in choosing their own mates. Once they put on pants their opportunities expanded and the dramatic possibilities increased in the play. In Merchant of Venice a young woman dons the disguise and becomes a judge in a capital case.

In Two Gentlemen of Verona a young woman plays a man and watches as her boyfriend tries to betray her with another woman. In As You Like It a bright girl fools even the man who is in love with her and trains him in how she wants him to behave toward her when they are reunited as man and woman. In Twelfth Night we see how a young woman, who is on her own, uses disguise to protect herself in a hostile world. The device of gender camouflage also provides a double vision. As women these pretenders see the world in terms of the traditional conflict between the sexes; as men they are able to inject a subversive note into the smug male world view.

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In this play, for example Viola is able to educate the man she loves as to the depth of passion and nobility of love women can experience for men, something he never suspected before. Finally Shakespeare could use disguise as a way of introducing comic effects and exposing male hypocrisy to his largely male audience. Women attended the plays, but most of the audience appears to have been men. Nevertheless, no one comes away from a Shakespearean comedy feeling that men are naturally superior to women. If anything Shakespeare’s comic heroines seem to be the intellectual superiors of the men they eventually marry, as if they had taken pity on some poor fool they had just tricked.

The reputation of this play has always been very high. It is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved works, and many people consider it the best of all the comedies. The humor is sharp, the satire still biting and many of the jokes just as funny as they were 400 years ago. As we go through the play scene by scene I’ll point out some of the remarkable achievements Shakespeare realizes in this timeless comedy. Let’s look at the play itself now.

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