William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was written in 1601. It is his only play in which there is a lesserknown alternative title, What You Will. Commercially oriented, Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night because he knew that Elizabethan audiences would like the play. To this end, he employed popular Elizabethan romantic conventions, such as mistaken identity and obstacles to true love. The plot is simple: romantic confusion ensues after a man, who is actually a woman in disguise, arrives in town. As in all of Shakespeare’s comedies, doubt is erased, any “villains” are disposed of, and everything ends happily by the end of the play.
Little is known about Shakespeare’s life despite the volume of his work. The chasm between Shakespeare’s fame and the quantity of his writing has fueled an argument by scholars since the nineteenth century that someone other than Shakespeare created the plays and poems attributed to him. Thus far, there have been seventeen alternate Shakespeares proposed by “anti-Stratfordians,” or those who believe there was another writer. Foremost among them is the author and scholar Charlton Ogburn, who has tirelessly argued for his theory that Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays and poems.
The Earl was a flamboyant character whose life mirrored many of the events in several of Shakespeare’s plays. Ogburn’s primary argument is that Shakespeare was too parochial and uneducated to have written the body of work that he did. Other scholars reject this claim, citing the imaginative life of a writer who is able to create, for example, seemingly first-hand knowledge of Danish and French courts, as well as Italian cities. Additionally, the Earl died twelve years before Shakespeare, leaving many plays unaccounted for.
What Shakespearean scholars do agree upon is that the Bard was notorious for borrowing stories from other writers. For Twelfth Night, an Italian play Gl’Ingannati (1530s) seems to have supplied the plot in which twins are mistaken for each other, and a platonic love triangle comprises part of the narrative. Also, an English story “Apollonius and Silla” (1581) appears to have provided the elements of a shipwreck and a woman disguised as a man.
Shakespeare named his play after the twelfth day of Christmas. During the Elizabethan era, people celebrated the Twelfth Night of the holiday with music, dance, banquets, and plays. The historical precedent for this celebration is the Roman Saturnalia festival. It is likely the Roman festival inspired some of Shakespeare’s themes in Twelfth Night, such as drowning and gender uncertainty. The Roman revelry also included much drinking and role reversal: servants played masters, masters played servants, wives pretended to be their husbands, and so forth. Contributing to Twelfth Night’s theme of gender confusion, women were not allowed to appear on stage during the Elizabethan era; young boys would play girls’ parts. Thus Shakespeare’s Viola would have been a boy dressed up as a girl pretending to be a boy.
At the time Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night, modern English was less than one hundred years old. While much of the vocabulary Shakespeare used in his writing is now archaic or obsolete, prompting many readers of his work to feel intimidated by the language and his references, many of his expressions have become a part of our modern vernacular: such examples include, “neither rhyme nor reason,” “a wild goose chase,” “eaten out of house and home,” “brave new world,” and “dead as a doornail.” Modern readers discover these familiar expressions in Shakespeare’s plays with a mixture of relief and delight. These discoveries reinforce the notion that these plays, while written in the language of the sixteenth century and filled with references contemporary at the time but now obscure, are not an exercise for the intellect, as Twelfth Night exemplifies.
This play is a fanciful, romantic comedy that has remained popular for over four hundred years because it amuses and entertains its audiences, just as the author intended. For those willing to practice “the suspension of disbelief,” as they follow the misadventures of the often foolish characters, Twelfth Night offers much to enjoy and to consider; after all, unlike language, human nature has not changed much at all.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify and describe the plot for Twelfth Night.
2. Identify the primary themes and motifs.
3. Discuss the role of gender and cross-dressing and the ideas developed through them.
4. Identify the various representations of love presented in the text and explain how they correspond to character development.
5. Describe the role of the “fool” and discuss what Shakespeare may have intended to say through Feste.
6. Recognize literary devices, such as dramatic irony and suspension of disbelief.
7. Identify examples of iambic pentameter, rhyming verse, and prose.
8. Determine and define those elements that make Twelfth Night an integral part of the winter holidays.