Twelfth Night: the Title

Titles are seemingly simple, especially in the histories; by and large, the main character is the title character. As we discussed last play with Julius Caesar, that’s not always the case, but it’s a good starting point. The comedies, however, can be a mixed bag: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, easy; Much Ado About Nothing, a little trickier. On first blush, Twelfth Night would seem to fall into the former, not the latter.

Twelfth Night is the annual celebration of the twelfth night after Christmas. And according to theatrical legend, the first performance of the play was on that evening in 1601; the visit to England in that year by Don Virginio Orsino would appear to support the theory, but many in the critical community believe that this theory has been debunked.

So if the performance date isn’t the lynchpin for tying the day (or night) to the title, then how about the play’s temporal setting? Possibly, as Sir Toby sings, “O, the twelfth day of December” (II.iii.79). But we also get an oblique reference to its opposite: Olivia refers to “midsummer madness” (III.iv.52).

So definitely not performance date, maybe not setting.

Then why Twelfth Night?

Well, beyond January 5th (or 6th), what exactly is Twelfth Night?

Remember a couple of days ago, when I talked about Sir Toby, the Feast of Fools and the Lord of Misrule? Well, the Feast of Fools occurred not only after Christmas, but near the end of a winter festival that began on Halloween. What marked the actual end of the festival? Twelfth Night, and this marked the end of the rule of the Lord of Misrule, that momentary authority, the one who brought an uneasy anti-equilibrium of topsy-turvy-ness, where power structures were turned upside down.

Twelfth Night is about a world turned upside down.

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