What is the significance of Shakespeare's title Twelfth Night, and how did the title come into use?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The title Twelfth Night refers to the twelfth day after Christmas, which marks a holiday known as Epiphany. Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the Magi, or Three Wise Men, to deliver their gifts to baby Jesus. While one might expect an Epiphany celebration to be much like the rest of Christmas festivities, apparently in Shakespeare's day the celebrations were known to be quite wild. Shakespeare in particular wrote the play in 1602 for a festivity held at one of the Inns of Court, and that particular festivity was known to be "absolutely secular and even quite bawdy," meaning having absolutely nothing to do with religion and even very obscene ("Shakespeare's Twelfth Night"). Epiphany celebrations were also known to be "a time of masques, revels, defiance of authority, and general foolishness" ("Shakespeare's Twelfth Night"). Epiphany has also been described as a "time when excess and license were expected to run rampant ... a time of merry-making, of hard drinking, and of romantic (or lusty) pursuits" (eNotes, "Twelfth Night: Themes"). We can see exactly how Shakespeare's play portrays all of the above descriptions of Epiphany, making Twelfth Night, especially the play's subtitle, Or What You Will, the perfect title for the play written for an Epiphany party.

The play's secular and bawdy themes are mostly portrayed through the antics of Maria, Sirs Toby and Andrew, and Fabian. In particular, their treatment of Malvolio can be seen as bawdy, or obscene, meaning "offensive to morality or decency" (Random House Dictionary). While Maria's letter tricking Malvolio into believing Olivia is in love with him may have been amusing, capturing the merriness of Epiphany, Sir Toby crosses the line when he decides to have Malvolio locked up in total darkness as a madman. Locking him in complete darkness can of course be seen as a form of torture and is quite cruel. The hard drinking characteristic of the night is also seen in Sir Toby's behavior, especially the drinking revelry he and Sir Andrew have late one night in the house in Act 2, Scene 3.  

In addition, the masquerading that is a frequent part of an Epiphany celebration is of course captured in Viola's plan to disguise herself as a boy, which also runs contrary to social norms, capturing theme of "defiance of authority." Finally, we also have the love triangles in the play, which capture the theme of romance or lust.

msfuryal | Student
The 12th night from Christmas was a festive holiday where everything was reversed. Servants took the role of masters and masters acted as servants . a common way of understanding it would be to think of it as saturnalia. As the main title suggests the idea of a time of misrulegives the underlying constructive principle of the whole play. The festive spirit characterizes the whole play. In the main plot a sister is mistaken for her brother and the brother for the sister. Viola tells Olivia that you do not think you are not what you are and admits the same is true of herself also. The women take initiative in wooing , both in appearance and in fact. The duke makes his young servant “your masters mistress” and the lady who has with drawn from the sight of men embraces a stranger. The subplot also depicts a prolonged season o misrule, uncivil rule , in Olivia’s house hold , with Sir Toby turning night into day. There is singing , dancing, drinking, scenes of mock wooing , a mock sword fight and the gulling of an unpopular member of the household, with Feste playing the part of a priest and attempting s mock exorcism in the manner of the feast of fools.
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Twelfth Night

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