Historical Background

Although fifteenth-century England had been a time of grave civil unrest and violence, by the time Shakespeare achieved prominence during Elizabeth and James’ reigns it was enjoying a period of socio-political security and respect for the arts. Queen Elizabeth’s reign extended from 1558 until 1603, when she was succeeded by the Scottish King James. Shakespeare received the patronage of both monarchs during his career as a playwright.

Elizabeth’s reign was not without its tensions. There was an intense religious climate in which the Queen had to act decisively. The religious tensions that existed during Elizabeth’s reign continued during James’ reign, when he was pitted against the Puritans. England had gone to war with Spain. In other foreign affairs, the Queen was moderate, practicing a prudent diplomatic neutrality. There were, however, several plots on her life.

There was also evidence of progress. The nation experienced a commercial revolution. Elizabeth’s government instituted two important social measures: “the Statute of Artificers” and the “Poor Laws,” both of which were aimed at helping the people displaced and hurt by changing conditions. Laws were passed to regulate the economy. Explorers started to venture into the unknown for riches and land. The machinery of government was transformed. The administrative style of government replaced the household form of leadership.

The Elizabethan Age was an age...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Illyria. Region on the east shore of the Adriatic Sea, between Italy and Greece. Its history is marked by waves of conquering invaders, from early Slavs to Ottoman Turks. In William Shakespeare’s time, Illyria—still part of the Ottoman Empire—was a group of city-states controlled by Venice. In the play, Illyria is distinctly Italianate, making for an atmosphere that is congenial to romance, with the seacoast providing an apt setting for plot conveniences of shipwreck, separated twins (Viola and Sebastian), and exotic adventures. At Illyria, fantasies and dreams are realized, and lessons are learned. There Viola is transformed from a woman to a man to “Orsino’s mistress,” and there she is finally able to live in an earthly Elysium.

Duke’s palace

Duke’s palace. Site of romantic sentimentality. The duke revels in wordplay and music, which feed his passion. The palace is also a site of ambiguous sexual identity, as shown by Viola’s disguise as Cesario.

House of Olivia

House of Olivia. House modeled on the English system of servants and retainers with prescribed duties. On one hand, there is the mourning figure of Olivia, and the humorless, austere, proud figure of her steward, Malvolio, the epitome of all puritans. On the other, there are Fabian and Maria, Olivia’s servants, and the faithful old retainer, Feste—a well-educated clown. Olivia attempts to live a cloistered life, but Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the two rowdy rioters, are unaffected by Olivia’s sadness over her dead brother.

In a room within this house, Malvolio is confined indarkness and cruelly mocked and tormented by a disguised Feste, at the instigation of Sir Toby and Maria.

Olivia’s orchard

Olivia’s orchard. Scene of Malvolio’s gulling by Maria’s faked letter. One of the comic highlights of the play comes from Malvolio’s strange cross-gartering and absurd posturings as Olivia’s would-be lover. However, the real point of the comedy is character revelation.

Modern Connections

Twelfth Night is a holiday that occurs on January 6, which is the festival of Epiphany and the last day of the twelve days of Christmas. During Shakespeare's time, Twelfth Night marked the end of a period of seasonal festivities when dances, parties, and banquets were held and plays were performed, and the traditional social order was temporarily overturned— ideally to allow any tensions that had built up over the year to be safely released. A king or lord of misrule was crowned, and traditional social roles (master/servant, bishop/choirboy, king/fool) were reversed. Today, Halloween, New Year's Eve, and Mardi Gras perform a similar function: on these holidays, many people eat and drink whatever they want, go to parties until early in the morning, and temporarily lose their cares and sometimes their inhibitions by wearing costumes or masks, pretending for a short time to be someone else.

Although Shakespeare never makes it clear whether or not the play's action occurs during the Christmas season, Twelfth Night has been described as carnivalesque in plot and tone, and indeed, Sir Toby Belch, for example, seems to be perpetually drinking and partying until late at night with his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek. There are also plenty of role reversals in the play, including a fool speaking words of wisdom (Feste), a humorless steward made to look like a fool (Malvolio), and a woman (Viola) pretending to be a man.

Women were not employed in acting troupes during Shakespeare's time, so female roles—such as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet or Ophelia in Hamlet— had to be performed by boys whose voices had not yet deepened. This fact added an extra bit of humor to the action in Twelfth Night: Renaissance audiences knew that the part of Viola was played by a boy, and would find it amusing when Viola disguised herself as Cesario, thereby in reality becoming a boy playing a woman playing a...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Berry, Ralph. Shakespeare’s Comedies: Explorations in Form. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972. A discussion of Shakespeare’s comedies in which each chapter is devoted to a specific play. In the chapter “The Messages of Twelfth Night,” Barry discusses the deceits and illusions in the play and concludes that it calls the very nature of reality into question.

Levin, Richard A. Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985. A critical study of three of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. Two chapters deal with Twelfth Night: “Household Politics in Illyria” discusses the acceptance of the various characters into society, while “Feste and the Antiromantic Twelfth Night” focuses on the discordant elements of the play.

Lloyd Evans, Gareth. The Upstart Crow: An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Plays. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1982. Focuses mainly on critical reviews of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as discussing sources and historical context and background.

Muir, Kenneth, ed. Shakespeare—The Comedies: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965. An anthology of essays that discuss Shakespeare’s comedies from various points of view. Harold Jenkins compares Twelfth Night with earlier plays by Shakespeare and others and concludes that it is the greatest of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Edited by J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik. London: Methuen, 1975. Includes more than eighty pages of introductory material and critical analysis, as well as the text of the play itself.

Bibliography and Further Reading

*If available, books are linked to Amazon.com

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.

Barber, Cesar Lombardi . Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Berry, Edward. Shakespeare's Comic Rites. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Berry, Ralph. Shakespeare’s Comedies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Brown, John Russell. Discovering Shakespeare: A New Guide to the Plays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Brown, John. R. Shakespeare and His Comedies. London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1957.

Charney, Maurice. All of Shakespeare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Gaylin, Willard. Rediscovering Love. New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1986.

Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1963.

Hotson, Leslie. The First Night of Twelfth Night. New York: MacMillan, 1954.

Leech, Clifford. 'Twelfth Night' and Shakespearean Comedy. Toronto: Dalhousie University Press, 1965.

Leggatt, Alexander. Shakespeare’s Comedy of Love. London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1974.

Levin, Richard. Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985.

Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare's Comic Sequence. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979.

Nevo, Ruth. Comic Transformations in Shakespeare. New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1981.

Palmer, John. Comic Characters of Shakespeare. London: Macmillan, 1946.

Randle, John. Understanding Britain. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher, 1981.

Richmond, Hugh. Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy: A Mirror for Lovers. Indianapolis: Bobbs—Merrill, 1971.

Schultz, Harold J. History of England. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.

Swinden, Patrick. An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Comedies. London: The Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1973.

Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1939.

Wells, Stanley. (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Wilson, J. Dover. Shakespeare's Happy Comedies. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1962.

Britannica. Volume 27. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1993, pp. 253–262.

Parrot, Thomas Marc. “William Shakespeare.” Collier’s Encyclopedia. New York: P.F. Collier, 1992, pp. 631–636.

Smith, Hallet. “William Shakespeare.” Encyclopedia Americana. Danbury: Grolier Incorporated, 1994, pp. 652–659.

Quotations of Twelfth Night are taken from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night, ed. Herschel Baker. New York: New American Library, 1965.