“Shall we set about some revels?”: TWELFTH NIGHT’s Origins
What Shakespeare’s title tells us about his comedy’s origins and sensibilities
Onstage at Lantern Theater Company now through June 18, 2023, Twelfth Night’s full title — Twelfth Night, or What You Will — does not tell us very much about the two hours’ traffic of this particular stage. Twelfth Night is a holiday event in January, not the spring and summer of the play’s setting, and “what you will” essentially translates to “whatever you’d like.” But if the title seems unconnected to the plot, its themes reflect on both the revels of the holiday and the wish fulfillment of the subtitle’s good humor.
Twelfth Night is the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and it takes place on January 5, as observed by the Church of England. Twelfth Night was a raucous celebration in Shakespeare’s time. The revels that marked the holiday included musical merrymaking, inebriated partying, and the inversion of social order. Servants and their employers might switch places, masked and costumes celebrations were popular, and a Lord of Misrule might be appointed to oversee the drunken revelry. In general, it was a party for temporarily overturning society’s established rules of class, gender, and more, and for thoroughly enjoying those transgressions.
While some think that this play may have been commissioned and first performed for Queen Elizabeth I’s 1601 Twelfth Night celebration — at which she hosted a diplomat named Duke Virginio Orsini — there is little proof for that outside of the title itself and the fictional Orsino’s borrowed name. The play’s first recorded performance was in February 1602 as entertainment for Candlemas (which marked the end of the official Christmas season, observed with much less merriment than Twelfth Night). But even if the play was first performed on Candlemas, its musical and mischievous plays on gender reversal, class mixing, servants aspiring to upward mobility, and general debauched merriment are all reflective of a Twelfth Night sensibility.
As for the subtitle, “What You Will” —”whatever you’d like!” — is reminiscent of the holiday’s general sense of cheerful abandon. But it also echoes the way Shakespeare sourced the play. By remixing a series of sources, some merry and some tragic, Shakespeare weaves a comic tale that more than lives up to its lighthearted title.
Around 200 BC, ancient Roman playwright Plautus wrote Menaechmi, a comedy about same-gender twins and mistaken identities. More than 1,500 years later, Gl’ingannati was first performed in Italy, in 1533, reworking Menaechmi into a play about mistaken identity between twins — this time of opposite genders. This version of the story would be remade by Matteo Bandello in his Novelle collection in the mid-16th century, which Barnaby Rich then reshuffled into Of Apollonius and Silla, a story in his 1581 book Rich his farewell to militarie profession. It is this version most commonly cited as the direct source for Twelfth Night — though we know Shakespeare was familiar with at least the Plautus and the Bandello based on other works in his canon. At each step, a new artist made what they would out of their source, changing and recoloring as needed to suit their own creativity.
While this story was passing through the quills of these 16th-century artists, Shakespeare was coming of age and coming into his own as a writer. He wrote what was likely his first play in 1590, Henry VI, Part I. In 1594, he wrote the first of his comedies about shipwrecks and shuffled twins: The Comedy of Errors, directly based on Plautus’ Menaechmi. When he wrote that joyously silly version of the tale, he had young twins himself — a boy and a girl. But his 11-year-old son Hamnet died in 1596, leaving his twin sister Judith behind. Some scholars have theorized that 1601’s Twelfth Night — the last of his major comedies, written around the same time as Hamlet — was an attempt to reckon with the tragedy. If the story of a sister miraculously reuniting with the beloved twin brother she thought was dead was truly inspired by his younger daughter’s loss of her own twin brother, then Twelfth Night’s subtitle takes on deeper resonance. “What you will” becomes “what you’d most like,” or even “what you would will into being.”
Twelfth Night is a play that moves from the depths of grief into highs as intoxicating as the refreshments on its namesake holiday. And while it ends happily, with romance and music and reunion, its final song reminds us that “the rain it raineth every day.” By remixing sources as he saw fit and maybe even working through his own personal tragedy, Shakespeare’s play brings Twelfth Night’s spirit of merry reversal to life. Things can always turn upside down, fortunes can shift, people can change, and there’s always something dark lurking behind the light. But if that’s true, then there’s always light, too — or what you will.
More reading: “Conceal me what I am”: Shakespeare’s Disguised Heroines — Twelfth Night’s Viola is one of many Shakespearean heroines who become more themselves when in disguise
Lantern Theater Company’s production of Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare is onstage May 18 through June 18, 2023, at St. Stephen’s Theater. Visit our website for tickets and information.