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


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