The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Twelfth Night

What better play to consider on the twelfth night of Christmas than Twelfth Night?

Viola Allen and James Young as Viola and Sebastian (1904)
Viola Allen and James Young as Viola and Sebastian (1904)

Although there are discrepant practices today whether the Feast of the Epiphany—marking the visit of the Three Kings to Bethlehem to worship the Christ child—is celebrated on the 5th of January or the 6th, in Elizabethan England, the Epiphany was celebrated on the 6th. Like other festivities in the season, Twelfth Night was a time of topsy turvy celebrations inverting social order: boys crowned in mock religious processions, heavy drinking and lavish feasts, parody and misrule replacing stern morality. It was, of course, also marked by song and performance.

So, what does this all have to do with Shakespeare’s play? Obviously the name clues us in to a connection: Twelfth Night, or What You Will. The second half of the title, often omitted today, makes clear the rule of will and pleasure that makes up much of the play. The antics and indulgences of Sir Toby Belch are an obvious example of misrule and feasting. But the topsy turvy world of Twelfth Night also shows up in the role-playing of Viola, pretending to be the boy Cesario, and the confusions mistaking Cesario and Sebastian for each other. There’s melancholy in the play, too, of course—Olivia, Viola, and Orsino are all in various states of real, imagined, and exaggerated mourning. And while Malvolio, the strict steward governing Olivia’s household, is unable to rule the day in the play, it ends with his threatened return and the prospect of normal sober days to come.

E.H. Sothern as Malvolio (1905)
E.H. Sothern as Malvolio (1905)

There’s a possible further connection, too, between Shakespeare’s play and the Twelfth Night holiday. On January 6, 1601, Queen Elizabeth’s court hosted the Duke of Bracciano, Don Virginio Orsini, at the Feast of Epiphany celebration. Records indicate the festivities included a comedy and it seems likely that Shakespeare’s theater company, the Lord Chamerberlain’s Men, would have been the performers. And we know that the play was performed at the Middle Temple (one of London’s law schools) on February 2, 1602, thanks to the diary of John Manningham, so it is certainly possible that the play had been written and performed for the 1601 Twelfth Night celebrations at court.

There are some stumbling blocks to the theory, including that the specifics of what was performed for Elizabeth and Orsini are never identified and that a lovesick Orsino might not be flattering to the married Orsini, and that Orsini fails to note in his letter about the occasion that one of the main characters was named after him. (There’s a tidy explanation of the pros and cons of this theory in Keir Elam’s introduction to his 2009 Arden3 edition of the play, pp. 93–96.)

Regardless of whether the play was composed and performed initially for Twelfth Night celebrations, it’s certainly a play that revels in turning things inside out. I suspect it’s that joy in possibilities, not to mention the rolling-on-the-floor laughs generated by Toby and Maria’s schemes, that has made it such a popular play over the centuries. The Folger’s holdings include a huge number of depictions of the play, a small selection of which is below (you can also view it by clicking through directly to our digital image collection).

For most of us, now is the time that we return to school and work, resuming the usual pace of our daily lives. But we can always pick up the play (you can read it in the First Folio—or you can read it in George Eliot’s copy with her annotations) and, if we’re lucky, perhaps find a performance of it to lift our spirits even in the dullest days ahead of us.


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