Twelfth Night

The duel between Sir Toby Belch and Sebastian

Some researchers say that Twelfth Night was written soon after “As You Like It” and “Hamlet” to be performed a year earlier on the 6th January at the Middle Temple for Queen Elizabeth Ist; although there is no real evidence for this supposition. This date 6th January, twelve days after Christmas in the orthodox calendar is known to Christians as Epiphany, the baptism of the new-born “god of light” or Mithras in the Roman calendar, but was formerly celebrated by the Celts and Anglo-Saxons as “Wassail”, the latter being more concerned with the fertility of crops. In Merrie England and right up until the 18th century it was the climax of a festive occasion set aside for singing, feasting and drinking; that is until it was appropriated by the puritanical clergy as a sombre religious occasion. According to the liturgical calendar it was the date of the baptism of Jesus Christ. With its alternative title, and the chaos and complexity in the acting roles, this play has some bizarre similarities to Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” and clearly illustrates the duplicity, perplexity and paradoxical nature of earthly love and the mutual attraction of the sexes.

In the majority of characters it explores the conceited fantasy and confusion of narcissistic self-love, its subsequent vanities and follies and how in matters of love, appearances and false assumptions are in themselves tragically deceptive. Was the Earl of Oxford attempting to deceive the public by twinning his own life with that of the Stratford actor and illustrate how easy it is for one person to assume the identity of another? It also reflects or reiterates the classical pagan theme of Twelfth Night of Christmas when the familiar world of relationships is turned literally upside down and back to front. I have already mentioned Shakespeare’s obsession with duplication in that the plot and narrative in this play resembles one produced much earlier in his career, namely A Comedy of Errors. In his book Twin Relationships in Shakespeare John M. Mercer has suggested that this play was influenced or written by the Stratford actor, Will Shakspere whose wife gave birth to twins Judith and Hamnet in 1585. Sadly, Hamnet died several years after Twelfth Night was written and was first performed at Candlemas in 1602. The title denotes the last of the twelve carnival days of misrule (Saturnalia) led by the Fool or clown which was traditionally a time when anything was permissible and long-held taboos and hierarchies were usually questioned, reversed or abandoned and general chaos ruled. Furthermore, although considered by archivists as a tragicomedy and not a romance, the general theme seems to contradict Shakespeare’s oft quoted assertion from his Sonnets (#116):

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,

Love is not love which alters when it, alteration finds…”.

Again, like the plot in Measure for Measure, this play could be called three weddings and a revelation, but for rather different reasons. The nature of the love-match alters considerably. A lot of theatrical smoke and mirrors, ambiguity as well as cross-dressing occurs in the play between the principal actors and “actresses”. It should be borne in mind that women were not employed in the theatre during Shakespeare’s time and that all women’s parts were usually played by adolescent young boys. One might anticipate the complexities of having a woman playing a man who steals the heart of a man playing a woman? However, it was not officially published until 1623 in the first Shakespearean folio of 36 Plays. The play may have been derived from the same source as Matteo Bandello’s La Prima Parte de le Novelle. His work was translated into French by Francois de Belleforest (Histoires Tragiques – 1559-82). He was inspired by an earlier Italian play Gli’ Ingannati (“The Deceived”). The actual story of Apollionus & Silla was recounted by Barnaby Rich in his Farewelle to Militarie Profession (1581) and this probably contains the basis of the final plot in Shakespeare’s own version of Twelfth Night. Other more relevant sources are probably the Roman comedy by Plautus (Menaechmi – “The Twins”) which as already mentioned also influenced the plot of “A Comedy of Errors” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona” in its complex and finely crafted parallel structures. Unfortunately, towards the end of the play nearly everyone is in love with the wrong partner and various playful allusions are made with regard to homosexuality, lesbianism and transvestite inclinations.

The Lady Of The Beasts

Artist, Daniel Maclise’s version of a scene from ‘Twelfth Night’ (‘Malvolio and the Countess’); Tate Gallery, London

The Duke of Illyria, a certain Orsino is in love with the Lady Countess Olivia, recently bereaved of her father and her beloved brother, Sebastian presumably lost at sea. Viola, who has been shipwrecked and similarly separated from her twin brother, presumably drowned at sea hears of her current plight. Viola disguises herself as a page, Cesario and seeks office at the court of Duke Orsino. We discover that Olivia has a drunken relative, Sir Toby Belch, living with her at her house, and her house/keeper Maria warns him that her mistress is concerned about his deplorable behaviour. More pertinently Sir Toby Belch has recently invited a rich friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who as a potential wooer of Olivia idly occupies the family residence. Meanwhile Viola has secured a post with the Duke of Illyria who asks her to represent him in his proposal to Olivia. However, it seems that Viola has herself taken a fancy to the Duke and is reluctant to fulfil her duties with much enthusiasm. One evening, together with Maria, her housekeeper, Feste, a clown, and Malvolio, her steward Olivia receives Viola who with wit and nonchalance adequately pays court to Olivia. At first Olivia declines the Duke’s proposal and when Viola departs, promising to return she sends Malvolio after her with a ring under the pretext that she had perhaps left it behind. In act II we learn that Sebastian has indeed survived the shipwreck and is on his way with his friend Antonio to the court of the Duke Orsino. In the meantime the complexities of the love-match are highlighted with Orsino being in love with Olivia, who has inadvertently taken a fancy to his page, played as Cesario and Viola herself being secretly attracted to the Duke. During a night’s drunken revelries featuring Belch, Feste and Sir Aguecheek, which is interrupted sternly by Malvolio, Maria warns them that Olivia is presently in a dark mood. In an attempt to bring the pride and authority of Malvolio to book Maria writes a letter to him in the guise of her mistress, Olivia declaring her undying love for him. Sir Aguecheek, Maria, and a certain Fabian lie in wait and when he receives the letter and await his startled reactions. Malvolio then dreams of grandeur and a prosperous marriage to his mistress Olivia while the others find his reactions amusing.

In act III Viola, still disguised as Cesario returns to Olivia’s house meeting Andrew, Sir Toby and Maria at the gate, but is then surprised when Olivia declares her affections for her. Then equally, Olivia is astounded when Malvolio reads aloud the loving letter which Maria has written on her behalf. She promptly orders him bound as an insane fool who has lost his wits. While Sir Aguecheek is rebuked when he is demoted in Olivia’s eyes and threatens to fight Cesario for her hand. This skirmish is interrupted by the arrival of Sebastian and Antonio and then Olivia arrives and requests the private pleasure of Sebastian’s company. It is further complicated when Viola, disguised as Cesario is mistaken for her long lost brother Sebastian. Malvolio is tormented further by Feste disguised as a priest, with Maria and Belch joining in the farce. Olivia then takes Sebastian to a chapel where a priest awaiting has been elected to marry them. In act V we witness Duke Orsino, with his page Cesario waiting at Olivia’s gate hoping to catch sight of his beloved. Just then Antonio passes by, now arrested for fighting, and is recognised as a sea-pirate by the Duke. However, the confusions are eventually cleared up and we discover that Sir Belch has married Maria, while Viola reasserts her love for Orsino. Malvolio’s madness is explained when the pranksters confess their crimes and brother and sister are happily reunited.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,