Saturday, 5 January 2013

What's Twelfth Night & What's it Got to do With the Play?

Feste, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew personify
the Twelfth Night shenanigans

This evening, the 5th of January, is Twelfth Night, which doesn’t mean much to us now, other than it’s time to take the Christmas decorations down.

However, there was a time when the Twelfth Night holiday was, essentially, the biggest celebration of the Christmas festivities and, before that, of the winter solstice. It was the last night of the holiday; the last chance to let your hair down and really let rip.

So, what’s that got to do with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night?

Other than the title, Shakespeare makes no direct reference to Twelfth Night within the play. But his audience would have recognised aspects of it that were very obviously connected with the festival.

Twelfth Night or What You Will was written for the Twelfth Night celebrations of 1602. And it contains all the elements that Shakespeare’s revelling audience would have known and loved about the holiday.

  • Drinking
  • Feasting
  • Dancing 
  • Singing

Malvolio is made to look foolish & the topsy-turvy world of the play
is representative of a period of misrule
And, most importantly of all, Twelfth Night was known for it’s Lord of Misrule, who is a symbol of society being turned on its head. During Twelfth Night celebrations, a king or lord and all of those in high status, would don peasants attire and vice versa. Slaves would dictate to their masters. The lowly would rule…albeit for an evening.

So, it’s not difficult to find these elements in Twelfth Night: we’ve got the drinking and feasting with Sir Toby, who spends more time drunk than he does sober. We have dancing and singing during the post-midnight “gabble like tinkers” party. And we have misrule everywhere!

Watching over it all, there’s Feste, who acts as Lord of Misrule, ensuring that Malvolio gets his just desserts, and seeming to be the most powerful (or at least the most intelligent) character of the play, despite his low status.


Of course, there's much more to Twelfth Night than just festival silliness - it's a deep and, at times, very dark comedy. But the above explains the play's connection to the holiday and the aspects of it that were intentionally used by Shakespeare to appeal to a Twelfth Night revelling crowd.

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