In what ways does Shakepeare use the characters in Twelfth Night to examine the social conventions of Elizabethan England?

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appletrees eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One example that is fairly prominent is a direct reference to the fashion of the day. In the letter to Malvolio that Maria writes (making it seem like its from Olivia), she claims she (Olivia) wants to see Malvolio "cross-gartered" which means wearing stockings that have an "X" pattern criss-crossed in contrasting colors. It turns out that Olivia actually dislikes this fashion (and it is referred to as "a fashion she detests"), so when Malvolio shows up dressed in this way, she is annoyed.

ybrant6712 | Student

The  Elizabethans were regular theatre -goers, loved gambling ,masques, bear -baiting and other such bloody sports . The other factors  that brought about far reaching changes  in Europe were - reformation , individualism and the renaissance.The Protestants refuted the papal authority and zealously tried to purify the corrupt Church. With Reformation came the many schisms in the Protestant Church. The Anglican Church  had established itself but was challenged by the Puritans, whose narrow minded outlook threatened the stability of  Elizabethan England .

   Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night ' or 'What You Will',presents the contemporary social scenario .  With the crumbling of genteel society  the discrepencies in  the class system were resolved either by marriages to the prosperous Noveau riche  who would rise in stature( knights like Sir Andrew Aguecheek). In this play not only are the current  does fads and socio-political scenario presented but also Shakespeare  speak about the Twelfth night ,or the Feast of Epiphany (6 th January) which merely replaced the Saturnalia or revelry and carnivalesque nature of Lord of Misrule.Due to medieval notions supported by  feudalism and Christianity  both merry making and fun and frolic were proscribed by the Theocracy.It was on this day that women (like Viola, Rosalind)dressed like men , servants aspiring to become masters (Malvolio)- posed as masters (the clown posing as Sir Topas) and engaged in masques. This was offensive to the puritans ,who wished to do away with all forms of entertainment . 

Shakespeare probably prophesied the establishment of the Commonwealth government under Cromwell, due to the recent mistrust between the people and the Queen . The  complicity between religion and  aristocracy is seen in the mutinies of Essex and  life imprisonment of Darrell. In Shakespeare's play the hasty marriage of the twins to their counterparts solves the problem,but for England  there seemed to be no such resolution,for  Queen Elizabeth remained a spinster . further the English had experienced civil war during Bloody Mary's period and wouldn't welcome a catholic monarch.


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Twelfth Night

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