Why did Shakespeare title his play Twelfth Night?

The phrase "Twelfth Night" refers to the twelfth night of Christmas, also known as the Eve of Epiphany, which was a celebrated holiday in Elizabethan England. The celebrations associated with the Eve of Epiphany often resulted in the overturning of convention and a lack of traditional order, which is something that happens all throughout Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

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While one can never be completely sure why Shakespeare titled his plays as he did, it can be assumed that Twelfth Night refers to the Eve of Epiphany. This was a holiday celebrated twelve days after Christmas to commemorate the Magi’s arrival to visit the baby Jesus.

Unlike most celebrations within the Church of England, the Eve of Epiphany was celebrated with much merriment, suspension of rules, and even the allowance of servants to mix with their masters. Some traditions would elect a Lord and Lady of Misrule, who would lead the drinking and the partying. These parties would also include disguises, so no one’s social class was truly known. By being Lord or Lady of Misrule, or due to a good disguise, low-class citizens would obtain somewhat of a higher rank for the duration of the celebration regardless of their actual social class.

This night of lawlessness makes for an excellent reference to the madness of the play. Servants attempt to court their masters, masters fall in love with their servants, drunkenness abounds, and very little order is found within the play. There are a few characters who could certainly be thought to be representatives of the Lord or Lady of Misrule. Feste, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Maria, all play crucial parts in the silliness of the plot. Many characters also wear disguises or specific costumes for a variety of reasons, which is something that happened a lot during the Eve of Epiphany.

While there is no specific reference or connection to the Eve of Epiphany within the play, Twelfth Night can be seen as a representation of it. Order is lost within the very first scene and is only found again with the play's close, when identities are revealed and the many plotlines are finally connected. It has been suggested that the song at the end of the play is a symbol of the reintroduction of reality. Now that the fun of the play is over, the audience must return to regular life—much like the return to social norms that participants of the Eve of Epiphany must face when the celebration ends.

By titling it Twelfth Night, Shakespeare was likely preparing audiences for a show of fun, madness, and hilarity, the same thing they would expect at the celebrations that fell on the twelfth night of Christmas.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on May 28, 2020
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Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night is intended to take place at the Feast of Epiphany—the night of the twelfth day of Christmas, or January 5. The events of the play transpire around this celebration. This celebration is a festive occasion, full of ribaldry and partying, very different from more reserved celebrations of the actual date of Christmas.

The play was meant to be a fun, bawdy experience with raucous celebration and innocent foolery. Shakespeare saw this date as an excellent setting for the play—since there is so much festivity and craziness that already occurs, it is rife with potentially humorous situations. This jovial atmosphere and potential for humor make the twelfth night celebration an ideal setting for Shakespeare’s play.

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In Shakespeare's day, the eve of the Epiphany—the day when the Magi visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem—was greeted with riotous celebrations that briefly upended established social conventions. This was one of the few occasions in the year when the lower classes could mix with the social elite, sometimes even switching roles. According to one particular Twelfth Night tradition, a lowly peasant would become Lord of Misrule if he found a pea and a bean buried within a cake. His new title would allow him to lead the drunken partying and swan around as if he were a genuine lord of the realm.

One can see, then, why Shakespeare entitled the play as he did. The action involves various characters moving back and forth between different social classes and, in the case of Viola, even different genders. As Twelfth Night is a time in which all the old certainties are briefly and joyously suspended, a time of licensed transgression, it's a particularly appropriate title for Shakespeare to use for this wonderful exploration of changing identities.

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Shakespeare titled his play Twelfth Night because it was written as a celebration of the twelfth night of Christmas. This was the last night of the Christmas season, sometimes called the Eve of Epiphany. Epiphany is celebrated as the day the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem to bring presents to the foretold messiah, the baby Jesus.

As the last day of the celebratory Christmas season, Twelfth Night was comparable to the Mardi Gras today, a final night of merriment before the beginning of a more sombre time in the church calendar. Twelfth Night was, therefore, the end of the "party period" surrounding the birth of Christ.

Shakespeare's madcap, comic play, full of the gender-bending that surrounds Olivia's adoption of the male guise of Cesario, along with other cases of mistaken identity, appropriately reflects the zany, upside-down, rule-breaking feeling of a Twelfth Night celebration.

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The phrase "Twelfth Night" refers to the Church calendar and the last night of the twelve days following Christmas Day, December 25th. The Twelfth Night falls on January 5th or 6th, depending on tradition. The Twelfth Night is also the eve of Epiphany, which celebrates the Magi bringing gifts to baby Jesus. The Twelfth Night was also full of festivities. While one might think the festivities would have been related to the birth of Jesus, apparently the parties in Shakespeare's time could get quite wild.

Shakespeare wrote the play Twelfth Night; or What You Will for an Epiphany Eve party held at "one of the Inns of Court in 1602," a party that can be described as "absolutely secular and even quite bawdy" ("Shakespeare's Twelfth Night"). The party "was a time of masques, revels, defiance of authority, and general foolishness" ("Shakespeare's Twelfth Night"). Hence, the reason why, despite the title, Twelfth Night contains no Christmas content is because the celebration on Twelfth Night, or Epiphany Eve really had nothing to do with Christmas. Instead, just like the party the play was written for, the play explores loss of innocence, foolery, revelry, deception, and a general festive atmosphere.

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