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Historical Context

What is the "twelfth night" of this play's title? In Shakespeare's time this was an unambiguous reference to January 6th, the final night of January the twelve-day-long Christmas season (a tradition that survives in the well-known carol). More particularly, the "twelfth night" was seen as a time of general revelry and mild mayhem, a time when social and sexual mores could be freely flouted. Whether this play was written for performance at just such a Christmas season festival, or whether Shakespeare intended into to have a winter-time setting at all, are matters of scholarly debate. What is more certain, and more important, is that this play draws its inspiration from this tradition, dating from medieval times, of temporary sexual freedom and social release.
This Christmas tradition was threatened in Shakespeare's time by a more recent religious phenomenon. After the Reformation was brought to England in 1534, a number of figures in the new Anglican Church sought to purify England of the religious ceremonies that lingered from Catholicism. Beginning in the 1570's and 1580's, the English "Puritans," as they were called, sought to purify England of the artistry and amoralism which they felt was incompatible with a properly Reformed Christianity. "Twelfth night" ceremonies were, obviously, a prime target. The cruel treatment of Malvolio puts off many readers - and indeed it is probably excessive if we think of Malvolio merely as a boring servant. But Malvolio unambiguously embodies Puritanism - he is frequently called a "puritan" by the other characters - and so the characters' pranks at his expense are more political than their playfulness suggests. At root, these constitute a rebellion against the encroaching forces of Puritanism. This might be dismissed as an insignificant political rivalry of Shakespeare's day were it not for what followed in the years following Shakespeare's death. In the 1640's, Puritan forces were the driving force behind a civil war against the monarchy; in 1649, they beheaded King Charles I, and Puritan Thomas Cromwell became the ruler of England. The Puritans, as promised, stripped England of the vestiges of Catholicism, and, most significantly from our point of view, shut down the theaters. The hatred directed towards Puritans, in the guise of Malvolio, in Twelfth Night, is, more than anything, disturbingly prescient.
Many readers find it strange that Shakespeare probably wrote Twelfth Night, immediately before or after he wrote Hamlet (both in 1601). How, some wonder, could Hamlet, a play of profound religious and political themes, stand back-to-back with the light revelry of Twelfth Night? There are surely a number of misleading assumptions that go into that question, but the relevance of Twelfth Night to the controversy over Puritanism dispels at least one of them. Even at its funniest and bawdiest, this play is deadly serious about a political and religious movement that threatened to go after the soul of England. It was a movement that would eventually cause a civil war, one which would destroy the social institutions - the monarchy, the theater - that were the foundations of Shakespeare's art.

The information in the "Historical Context" and "Did You Know?" sections is partly drawn from the edition of Twelfth Night, edited by Roger Warren and Stanley Wells, in the Oxford Shakespeare series.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Scenes 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3
Scenes 1.4 and 1.5
Scenes 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3
Scenes 2.4 and 2.5
Scenes 3.1, 3.2, and 3.3
Scene 3.4
Scenes 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3
Scene 5.1


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