edited by Keir Elam
Throughout the medieval and early modern periods, twelfth night celebrations were a much-anticipated part of the New Year festivities, marking the end of the Christmas period and the coming of Epiphany. The Lord of Misrule would instigate a feast that would revel in the subversion of social roles, accompanied by drinking, merriment and ‘what you will’, as this play’s subtitle suggests. Shakespeare’s play was probably written for one such celebration: its first recorded performance was at Middle Temple Hall in February 1602. It does not appear in print, however, until it is listed under the ‘Comedies’ in the First Folio of 1623. One of his last Elizabethan plays, Twelfth Night shares such tropes of Shakespearean comedy as crossdressing, mistaken identity and ambitious social climbers.
Twins Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked upon the shores of Ilyria, separated following a storm. Viola disguises herself as a eunuch, Cesario, and becomes a trusted servant of the Duke Orsino. Orsino loves the countess Olivia, but she is in mourning for her late brother, and has rejected Orsino’s courtship several times already. Orsino sends Cesario to woo Olivia on his behalf, but Olivia falls in love with Cesario, who is in turn falling in love with Orsino.
Meanwhile, Olivia’s steward, Malvolio, is attempting to control the hijinks of the amorous Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Olivia’s drunkard uncle, Sir Toby Belch. After receiving a letter from ‘Olivia’ (actually forged by her waiting-woman, Maria), Malvolio adapts his sober appearance and stern behaviour to please the countess, who he believes is smitten with him: these drastic changes, however, lead to him being declared mad, imprisoned, and tormented by Olivia’s fool, Feste.
Viola’s twin-brother, Sebastian, re-appears with his new-found friend Antonio. On seeing him, Olivia mistakes him for Cesario, and they wed in secret. Viola reveals her true identity, and she and Orsino prepare to marry.
Literary critics and theatre-practitioners alike have returned repeatedly to Tweflth Night for its exploration of identity and acting, encapsulated in Viola’s confessional ‘I am not that I play’. It is a play abounding in disguise and doubling, the crossdressing of Viola (like the crossdressing of Rosalind in As You Like It, first performed c.1599) highlighting the ambiguities of the Elizabethan transvestite theatre, in which a boy actor was, in this instance, playing a woman playing a eunuch. Trends in modern criticism have led to a focus on the subjectivity of the female body, and to an exploration of homoeroticism both within the playtext and within the context of all-male performance of the play. The self-fashioning of upstarts such as Sir Toby Belch, the impact on self-hood of Malvolio’s ‘madness’ and the linguistic trickery of the fool, Feste have also sparked discussions of the flexibility of identity in Twelfth Night.