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Twelfth Night – What’s with that Title?

January 6, 2015 § Leave a Comment

Today is Jan. 6, The Feast of Epiphany – which happens on the twelfth day after Christmas. As anyone who has been bombarded with multiple versions of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” during the holiday season knows, Christmas used to be an extended celebration culminating on Epiphany – as it still is in several European countries. In fact, in Shakespeare’s time Christmas itself was a more muted and religiously-focused event, and the celebrations grew larger every evening until Twelfth Night. (In line with ancient Judeo-Christian tradition the days began at sundown the evening before, which is why we still have such a focus on Christmas Eve. Using this rule, Twelfth Night was celebrated in the early modern period on the night of Jan. 5 – Epiphany Eve, as it were.)

All that is reasonably clear, and explains the event which gives Shakespeare’s play its name. The complication, of course, is that nothing in the play really suggests that the play takes place during the Christmas season, or has anything directly to do with the twelve days of Christmas at all. So why the name?

For that, we have to realize that Twelfth Night was a raucous celebration, a sort of cross between our modern New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras parties. Part of the festivities was the inversion of norms. A “Lord of Misrule” was often appointed to supervise the event – generally a youth or a servant with an outgoing personality and a wicked sense of parody. The distinction marking social classes were briefly relaxed and everything turned topsy-turvy. It was a time to blow off some steam, and frequently to ridicule the excesses of authority.

Twelfth Night celebrations in London

Twelfth Night celebrations in London

Twelfth Night, the play, features many such reversals. The social climbing Malvolio acts far above his station and inappropriately dreams of “having greatness thrust upon him.” Viola is in disguise as a eunuch, Cesario. Viola’s name is a near anagram of Olivia’s, reflecting their interlocking oppositions on the subject of love. (In one case Olivia does not love where Viola does, and in another Viola loves where Olivia does not.) Sebastian is mistaken for his twin, and finds himself the object – rather than the initiator – of intense wooing.

The title, like those of Comedy of Errors and Much Ado about Nothing, suggests comic chaos. In this case, not because it happens on Twelfth Night, but because it is as disordered and inverted.

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