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Chaos and Order in Twelfth Night

(Shakespeare for Students)

The only reference to Twelfth Night during Shakespeare’s own lifetime is to a performance on February 2, 1602. A law student named John Manningham wrote in his diary about a feast he attended at the Middle Temple in London where he was a law student and where “we had a play called Twelfth Night; Or, What You Will." 1 This was likely to have been an early performance since it is generally agreed that the play was probably written in 1601. In 1954 Sir Leslie Hotson’s book, The First Night of Twelfth Night, sought to identify the exact date of the first performance of Twelfth Night. He used the evidence of old records to suggest that Queen Elizabeth asked for a new play for the last night of the Christmas 1600-01 season, the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, and that Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night accordingly.

Among other evidence for this conclusion cited by Hotson is the information that during this period Queen Elizabeth was entertaining at court one Don Virginio Orsino, the Duke of Bracciano, who supposedly gave his name to the chief male character in the play. Hotson’s conclusion is that this play was written specifically for this occasion – hence the title. Whether or not this was indeed the case, and the play did in fact gain its primary title from the date of its first performance, has continued to be a source of disagreement for critics, directors, and actors, some of whom, like Samuel Pepys, agree that the play is “not at all related to the name of that day." 2 The title is therefore not necessarily helpful in ascribing time, or even place to Twelfth Night. It has been variously presented onstage at any time of the year from the deepest and bleakest English midwinter to the height of "midsummer madness" on a Greek island. I would like to address two issues: firstly, what kind of relationship the play has with its title, and secondly, where, or rather what, Illyria is.

The festival of Twelfth Night is the Roman Saturnalia, the Feast of Fools. There can be little doubt that the license that marked this occasion had its origin in very ancient pagan customs. As Christianity spread across Europe, the church subsumed the old pagan festivals and replaced them with celebrations of religious significance. However the old traditions took centuries to die out, and the feast of the Epiphany on January 6 retained a Saturnalian flavour for many centuries. Even superficially, it is quite clear that Twelfth Night echoes this religious and cultural "compromise" by highlighting notions of order and chaos: the order of accepted religious and social morals, and the chaos of pagan Saturnalian licence. It is certainly possible from Leslie Hotson’s extensive research that the play was indeed performed on this date, but I suggest that the title has more to do with the atmosphere surrounding the play than the actual date of the original performance. Unlike Samuel Pepys, I cannot contend that the play has nothing to do with the feast – indeed I will argue that the...

(The entire section is 2,804 words.)