Twelfth Night: It’s the evening before Epiphany, the final day of the Christmas festival that commemorates the time when the three wise men, the Magi, visited Bethlehem to bring gifts to Jesus. It marks the end of a festival, or a carnival, both pagan and christian, in which food and drink, carousing into the night, masks and disguise, role-reversal and general mayhem and misrule, have escalated. Men dress as women. Servants cavort as though they are masters. 

There is chaos, but it is not uncontained. As epiphany itself approaches – a sudden and surprising moment of understanding (as the OED tells it) – order and reality are about to be restored to a world that has been caught up in festivity and game-playing. The Lords of Misrule, as the tradition says, have had their fun and the fun is about to come to an end. The boys are expected to stop playing video games and go to bed.

In Shakespeare’s play we enter into a world in which the whole community of Illyria is suspended in a disorderly state of transition heading toward some end that no one can foresee. There are two households, two poles of authority with a high pitch of emotional and social tension between them. Over the course of the play the tension is wound dangerously tight.

At the beginning of the play there is a shipwreck. A brother and a sister, Sebastian and Viola, are twins. They both survive, but lose touch with each other, neither knowing if the other is alive. They fear the worst. Viola is intent upon grief. She is,  as she says to Orsino in Act 2, scene iv, ”all the daughters of [her] … father’s house / and all the brothers too.” The action of the play centers on Viola, and her brother remains a sub-plot until he emerges later in the play and sews confusion when no one can tell the difference between him and his sister, who of course has been dressed as the young Cesario, a man.

Viola, hearing that the Countess Olivia is also grieving the death of a brother, decides she wants to “serve that lady”. In order to do so, she presents herself first to the senior aristocrat of Illyria, Orsino, and then to Olivia herself, as a young man who will speak on the subject of love. In the folio text of the play she offers herself as a eunuch, a desexualized servant who theoretically should not upset the applecart, though that is precisely what Viola does with Olivia. (Incidentally, it was the eunuch Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra who said of his mistress: “Age shall not wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”).

And so it is that the trajectory of love becomes a riot of misunderstanding, mistaken identity and a battle royal between the romantic and the real as Cesario mockingly delivers Orsino’s courtly plumage to a wary and ironic Olivia only to find that the lady falls in love with him – or is it with the her beneath? – thus suspending all her plans for solitude and withdrawal. 

Disorder and chaos govern the two Illyrian households. But they are very different. In Orsino’s court the disorder is internal: the master is weary of Olivia’s resistance, he is caught up in a narcissistic obsession with his own emotional anatomy. He doesn’t know how to move forward, or with whom. People who come into the household are not who they seem (Viola-Cesario), they have a history of conflict (the Captain) or they represent something that undermines Orsino’s romantic and courtly self-image (Feste).

In contrast the misrule in Olivia’s household is external. The death of her father and then her brother in a brief period has left her vulnerable to the ambitions or the negligence and carelessness of the men around her. The most dangerous of the men is Malvolio, who despite his religious decorum – Maria refers to him as “a kind of Puritan” – and his role as steward of the household – similar to the position Mr Carson in Downton Abbey –  dreams of thrusting his way through the class membrane and into Olivia’s bed and control of her estate. He stands against Olivia’s uncle,the hearty but dissolute Toby, a man of indolent integrity whose responsibility toward his niece and her estate has been reduced by alcohol, late nights and of course the usurping steward, Malvolio. Sir Andrew and Maria in their way make notable contributions to the misrule – Maria calls it “playful malice” – not only but primarily in setting poor Malvolio up.

As the play unfolds and comes to an end the frenzy of misrule abates and order reasserts itself. The real world, often in the guise of the Fool Feste, tempers the idealism of the characters. No one, in the end, gets to hook up with the person they thought they’d end up with. Illusions fall away. Malvolio, in his insurrectionist peacockery, is put in his place, and like an essential character in the revenge plays of this period he leaves intent upon getting his own back.

The tensions and conflicts in Twelfth Night are between the romantic and the real, ambition and consequence, freedom and constraint. It is interesting to think of this as reflecting a huge tension in Shakespeare’s time between Marian catholicism and protestantism – of which Malvolio might be seen as a puritan representative. In catholicism the belief that everything happens by the grace of god extends a certain license to behavior. In protestantism, on the other hand, everything depends on effort. One of the funniest parts of the play, to my mind, comes when Maria includes in the false letter, which purports to be from Olivia to Malvolio, the statement (famously hijacked by Winston Churchill during WW2): “be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” (2,v,137-40). In these words we have a right old contradictory mix of the catholic and the protestant which confounds Malvolio because his most powerful misperception and most humiliating fantasy is that Olivia wants him to come to bed with her. He believes that his own qualities and efforts have earned him a right to become master of Olivia and her household. Reality has other plans. This conflict between the catholic and the protestant reached its zenith in the English civil war with the terrible clash between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads.

There is some speculation that the first performance of Twelfth Night was on January 6th (the twelfth night after Christmas) in the presence of Elizabeth 1 and her guest the Italian duke Virginio Orsino. That would be nice, though it would have been somewhat risky for the playwright to make fun of a visiting dignitary in that way. The first performance for which we have actual evidence was on February 2nd 1602, in a theater in the Middle Temple of the Inns of Court, then and now a major center of legal practice in London. The evidence comes in a diary entry by the student lawyer John Manningham, who compared the play to the Comedy of Errors, Plautus’ Manaechmi and an Italian play Inganni. Jonathan Bate, in his introduction to the Royal Shakespeare Company edition of the play, notes that the 2nd of February, the feast of candlemass, is also the anniversary of the baptism of Shakespeare’s twin children Judith and Hamnet; Hamnet died in the summer of 1596, aged 11, and it is possible that this loss gave rise to the fictional separation of Viola and Sebastian.

Having said all this, Twelfth Night the play makes little reference to or use of twelfth night the occasion in the festival calendar. It is often the case that occasions throw up certain tendencies or qualities of life that a writer takes advantage of without having to be faithful to the original. Shakespeare did that all the time, and he drew heavily on a range of literary and social material that we can explore, if we will, in the best of the editions of the play listed in the blog Editions and Critical Resources.