History of the Text

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Last Updated on August 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 729

Twelfth Night’s Publication and Performance History: The first known performance of Twelfth Night took place on February 2, 1602, during Candlemas (the last day of the forty-day Christmas festival season). Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, Twelfth Night was not formally published until the release of what is now termed the First Folio in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. Twelfth Night’s memorable characters and subversive treatment of gender have helped it retain its popularity into the modern day. It has been updated and adapted numerous times for film, stage, and print. 

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  • The title of the play refers to the twelfth day of Christmas. This indicates that the play was written with the intention of being performed during the Christmas-Epiphany season, which lasts from December 25 to February 2. One of the hallmarks of Twelfth Night festivities in Shakespeare’s time was the intermingling of social classes, with servants and nobles celebrating together. The mixing of classes is a source of comedy in Twelfth Night, as Malvolio is tricked into pursuing a woman above his station and Viola, an aristocratic woman, dresses and behaves as a male servant. 
  • Twelfth Night is the only Shakespearean text to have a formalized additional title. Though it is primarily referred to as Twelfth Night, the play’s full title is set in the First Folio as Twelfth Night, or What You Will. Some scholars view this secondary title as a nod to the festive and carefree attitude surrounding the Twelfth Night holiday. Others have drawn a connection between the irreverent sentiments of What You Will and Shakespeare’s 1599 comedy, As You Like It

Shakespeare and Metatheatre: The term metatheatre refers to the act of calling attention to a play’s nature as a dramatic performance. A recurring theme throughout Shakespeare’s body of work is the idea that life itself is a series of performances. This is reflected through subtle acknowledgements of fictionality and performance within his works. The plots of several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest, include stagings of other, fictional plays. One of the most famous quotes from As You Like It asserts that “all the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players.” Metatheatre is present in Twelfth Night as well because the plot and comedy arise from Viola’s role as an actress. 

  • Gender on the Shakespearean Stage: Elizabethans believed that acting was a masculine profession and that such a transitory and oftentimes unsavory lifestyle was unsuitable for women. As such, almost all theatre troupes were composed of male performers, with female roles played by prepubescent boys. Though most modern treatments of Twelfth Night cast female performers as Viola, the role would have originally featured a male actor playing a female character pretending to be a man. This would have enhanced the metatheatrical elements of the play, providing a constant visual reminder of both Viola’s disguise and performance. 

The English Renaissance and Inspirations for Twelfth Night: From the late 15th to the early 17th centuries, England underwent a significant cultural and artistic shift known as the English Renaissance. The proliferation of the printing press in the 15th and early 16th centuries increased literacy and heightened interest in literature as an art form. This further inspired a resurgence of interest in classical works, with many scholars devoting themselves to translating Greek and Roman literature into English. Art, literature, and drama produced during the English Renaissance incorporated references and homages to classical forms and myths, as is evidenced in Twelfth Night by the frequent allusions to Greco-Roman mythology. 

  • Sources for Twelfth Night: English Renaissance writers adapted Greco-Roman plotlines and characters into their writing. For example, plotlines involving mistaken identity were common comedic fodder. Twelfth Night is thought to have been inspired by Barnabe Rich’s story “Apollonius and Silla,” which was based on the Italian comedy Gl'ingannati, or The Deceived Ones, written collectively by members of the Sienese Accademia degli Intronati in 1531. Though its plot is more similar to that of “Apollonius and Silla,” Twelfth Night notably takes the idea of the disguised heroine falling in love with her employer from Gl’ingannati. Another potential influence is Plautus’ Menaechmi, which involves twins who are mistaken for one another and of which Shakespeare’s 1594 play The Comedy of Errors is a direct adaptation. 


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Significant Allusions