Twelfth Night’s title refers to the celebration of the twelfth night of Christmas. While in this day and age twelfth night really only matters in a popular Christmas Carol whose words nobody seems to be able to remember (FIIIIVE GOLDEN RIIIINGS!), the Elizabethans celebrated twelfth night with full holiday gusto. The celebration would have been complete with music, dance, feasting and (of course) a play. The popular opinion is that Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night for the 1601 celebration of twelfth night held at Whitehall. We know for certain that the show was performed at Candlemas (February 2) of 1602 at Middle Temple Hall.
Twelfth Night is the only play of Shakespeare’s to have a subtitle. “What you Will”. This pairing of titles has always struck me as rather odd, for neither of them have really anything to do with the content of play itself. It is almost as if Shakespeaere dashed off the show in time for twelfth night but had no time to title it. I can picture the exchange backstage now- “WILL! They’re announcing your show, what should they call it?” “Oh, I don’t know Henslowe. What’s today? Twelfth night? What you will.”
Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night is an amalgamation of various plot items which are familiar to the Shakespearean cannon. It can be argued that, in his rush to put together a show for the twelfth night celebration, Shakespeare just threw a bunch of the “old tricks” into a blender and got Twelfth Night. Indeed, we have the story of a separated pair of identical twins (and all the hilarity and mistaken identity which ensues therein) as seen in The Comedy of Errors (written somewhere between 1589 and 1594). We have a woman who dresses as a man to serve a man whom she has fallen in love with as seen in Two Gentlemen of Verona (written in the early 1590’s). We have a comedic Falstaffican figure who drinks to excess and takes advantage of his rich friends (Falstaff was first introduced in Henry IV i- written around 1597). And last but not least, we have a false love letter written by a smart woman as a tool to manipulate her arch nemesis into tomfoolery as seen in The Merry Wives of Windsor (written in the late 1590s).
Noteworthy as a decidedly fresh vein for Shakespeare is the character of Feste, a new breed of fool for our bard. With the departure of Will Kempe in 1600, Robert Armin took up the role of Company Fool for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. While Kempe’s fools were outlandish and raucous and Kempe himself was known for his improvised additions to the script (some say Hamlet’s “And let those that play your Clownes speak no more than is set down for them…” (1886-1888) is a direct reference to Kempe’s antics); Armin played a much more sedate fool- world-weary with an undeniable sadness. Lear’s fool, Feste, Touchstone- these are all Armin fools. Armin was also known for his amazing voice and musical talent, which Shakespeare used to great advantage in Twelfth Night- his most musical play. Feste sings no less than five songs and sometimes more like six or seven depending on the performance.
While written for a festive occasion, in my opinion Twelfth Night is much more of a problem play than a jaunt-through-the-woods-comedy. While the play does end in the tradition mass marriage (there are three in this show- Orsino to Viola, Olivia to Sebastian and Toby to Maria), the content of the play is far from Disneyland joviality.
Death hangs ever-present over Illyria. In the first scene of Twelfth Night, we learn of one death (that of Olivia’s un-named brother) and in the second scene we learn of two more (Sebastian’s and Olivia’s father). These deaths shape the world we enter greatly- if not for Olivia’s loss, Viola could have gone straight to her rather than donning britches. If not for Viola’s loss, she would have had a male compatriot- a much less desperate situation for a traveling woman. The umbrella of death immediately gives Illyria a melancholic tone- well-suited to its histrionic Duke.
Further into the play, it becomes apparent that a great section of Twelfth Night’s plot details the antics of Sir Toby and Company to bring down Malvolio, one of the few truly stable characters in the show. Once they have him in their clutches, the crew tortures (both physically and mentally) Malvolio to his breaking point, and when he is released he receives no just revenge for his nearly entirely unwarranted and outrageously embarrassing captivity. He storms from the stage at the end of Act Five declaring “I’ll be revenged upon the whole pack of you” (2548). Malvolio’s exit casts a shadow upon the end of the play, leaving the audience unsettled and with the distinct impression that, should this show continue for another act, the jovial comedy would quickly turn into a revenge tragedy.
In addition to the madly abused Malvolio, there is a second character whose story does not bode well- though he receives no closure. Antonio, the pirate who saves Sebastian’s life, is clearly onstage for the entire fifth act. His love for Sebastian has brought him to ruin in Illyria- having started the show as the captain of one of the most successful pirating vessels in Illyria’s waters, Antonio ends the play as a prisoner of his arch-nemesis- penniless and with no hope for the requisition of his love for Sebastian. He watches the entire fifth act: the reuinion of the twins, the marriage proposals, Malvolio’s return and departure, and says nothing.
So- Death? Torture? Unresolved stories? Love unrequited? This sounds not like a happy nuptial…. Or… really… anything like Christmas… So what are directors thinking when they stage Twelfth Night as a happy-go-lucky, festive and inviting piece of theatre right around dead-pine-tree-in-the-living-room time?
Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, there is nothing straightforward about Twelfth Night. Yes, the darker undertones are undeniable. But everyone gets married in the end and that's what counts, right? Twelfth Night also contains one of the most memorable and delightful scenes in the cannon; Act II scene iii, colloquially referred to as "the caterwauling scene". There is something absolutely intoxicating about seeing this scene performed- I truly think it has to do with how much childish glee the actors take in making as much drunken, rowdy noise as humanly possible (and how far they drop when Malvolio comes in to break it up). I think that's what makes Twelfth Night festive- the highs are incredibly high and the lows are rock-bottom (kind of like a family gathering). What I can also say in favor of the festive choice for this show is that it leaves a pleasant taste in the mouth. Reminiscent of gingerbread cookies; it’s good because of that spicy bite, not in spite of it.