The holiday of Twelfth Night emerged from the Roman Saturnalia festival and pagan Yuletide, fertility rites and extended feasts celebrating the onset of the Winter Solstice. The Yule celebration marks a turning point on the calendar, the onset of lengthening days of sunlight. Christianity re-purposed these two pagan fests, incorporating elements to create the celebration of the Epiphany, the feast observed for the visitation of the Magi at the birth of the infant Jesus, concluding the “Twelve Days of Christmas”.
In Tudor England, the festivities often included the temporary upending of normal order, anointing a “King” and “Queen” who presided over the ensuing misrule of the night. Participants were encouraged to behave contrary to their usual demeanor, and take part in ludicrous (but hilariously entertaining) tasks. A special Twelfth Night cake (also known as King cake or Tortell de Reis) was baked with various “charms” hidden inside, the recipient of which crowned the King (with a bean) and Queen (with a pea), as well as additional roles to be played during the revels.
Twelfth Night, or What You Will is generally thought to have been written by Shakespeare sometime in 1601. This date proves consistent with various allusions throughout the play referring to specific known historical milestones and discoveries, and thus allow rather accurate inferences to be made in this regard. The curious titling of Twelfth Night bears no direct significance to any apparent events within the play, and in fact, the alternative title of “What You Will” (loosely meaning, “whatever you want”) suggests Shakespeare’s quixotic naming convention, also reflected similarly in his two previous comedic titles: Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. It may simply be that Shakespeare was well aware of typical Twelfth Night hijinks and borrowed the themes of pranks, drunken revelry and the off-kilter fatuosity of “things-not-as-they-seem”.
Scholars agree that Twelfth Night derives proximately from Barnabie Riche’s prose tale, Apolonius and Silla (1581), and ultimately from the Italian play Gl’Ingannati (The Deceived Ones, 1531). Both compositions turn chiefly upon the common plot elements of disguise, misidentifications and a pair of female/male twins. Aside from plot structure, elements of characterizations and principals appear to have been liberally adapted from these previous works. Shakespeare had also utilized similar devices previously in his own works, The Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona and As You Like It. The disguise of the heroine as a man especially had already emerged as a favored theme in Shakespeare’s comedic canon.
Twelfth Night differs somewhat from Shakespeare’s other comedies in that the setting is firmly established from the beginning in a fictional place. With Much Ado, Taming of the Shrew, even Midsummer Night’s Dream, the settings –however fictional– are named for real locations (Messina, Padua and Athens, respectively). With Twelfth Night, two entirely fictional warring states are presented in the very first scene: Messaline and Illyria. Thus, the action takes place free of any prior associations the audience might have. The shipwrecked Viola and her brother Sebastian thus become important agents of change induced into what may be considered a previously “closed system”.
Despite its generally light and humorous tone, the play presents the observer with a number of inescapable truths about life and living. While Shakespeare does not truly moralize, he offers a kaleidescope of human behaviors that all will recognize as our common condition.
The character of Malvolio has been frequently identified in critical commentaries as a deliberate poke at the rigidly conservative Puritan mindset of Shakespeare’s era. Intended to mock the oft Pharisaical attitudes and hyperrationality, the story depicts that kind of haughty hypocrisy that becomes just as much a vice as those vices it disdains:
“The devil a Puritan that he is, or anything constantly but a time pleaser,
an affectioned ass, that cons state without book, and utters it by great swarths;
the best persuaded of himself…”
Thus, the fate of Malvolio may be said to have been ironically self-inflicted to some degree. Other characters provide the gamut of vices, for example: Sir Toby’s gluttony and sloth while he wheedles his gull, Andrew, Orsino’s surfeiting melancholy and later anger, when he believes himself betrayed by the “dissembling cub” Cesario, Olivia’s pride and vanity in maintaining her protracted mourning. The wide spectrum of vice and humours is “most feelingly personated” here by the principals for our amusement. Viola, as heroine, appears to be free of the fetters of vice afflicting the others, as does Feste, who provides the only objective perspective in his mediary role as Shakespearean fool. Malvolio is also occasionally interpreted as a tragic character, often compared to the character of Shylock (in Merchant of Venice). Despite superficial similarities, this assertion does not generally hold up as a viable theory, however. Whereas Shylock represents more complex aspects of race and profession which have historically been objects of ridicule and scapegoating, Malvolio hardly inspires the same kind of sympathies. While both have themselves to blame for inspiring the revenges visited upon them (as embedded character flaws), the treatment of Shylock evokes a more ambivalent reaction. Malvolio, however remains well-pleased with his self-love, despite his trials, and possesses no observable sympathetic aspects that might prompt the audience to justify his behavior to any appreciable degree. He does not learn, his spirit remains unbroken, he is unrepentant and goes along his way vengeful, yet unchanged. The particularly harsh fate of Shylock, owing somewhat to immutable factors of race and religion may seem far more deserving of our pity.
The role of Feste is offered as deft counterpoint to Malvolio, Toby and especially the addled would-be love triangles capering about in confusion. Shakespeare fashioned his “allowed fool” as arbiter and observer, detached from events therein. His worldly wisdom, like that of Lear’s fool and Jacques of As You Like It, permits him to participate, catalyze, yet remain largely above the fray. Feste is most clearly contrasted with Sir Andrew; who represents the multifarious “unconscious” fools inhabiting the play. Typically, other characters lacking the self-knowledge which Feste possesses, end up inadvertently providing most of the humor. We are cleverly reminded time and again that although the Lady Olivia’s fool might dress the part, the others are clearly his zanies. (“That is to say, I wear not motley in my brain.”) Feste also moves freely between the courts of Olivia and Orsino, further emphasizing his position outside the typical Illyrian hierarchy. We also notice immediately that Feste is present at many of the play’s critical plot points, often providing clarity for other characters, yet allowing action and consequence to proceed to their logical conclusions. It is his oft indirect delivery — cloaking his keen observations with wit — which allow him to both entertain and enlighten. Clearly, he sees Olivia’s mourning as affected, Orsino’s melancholy as exaggerated and is likely well aware of Viola’s disguise, but intervenes only minimally (with the exception of his turn as Sir Topas). Feste also comments directly upon the bittersweet themes of love in the play in the form of his songs. His profound impact on each character is unquestionable, just as he remains accessible to each (“… I am for all!”).