Twelfth Night: Twins, random thoughts and questions

Just some random thoughts on and questions about twins and Shakespeare:

Twelfth Night is not the first time Shakespeare has used twins. If you remember way back (all the way back to July of ‘09), at the beginning of this project, we read The Comedy of Errors. One of the sources then, as now, is Plautus’ The Menaechmi, in which a set of identical but separated twins are mistaken for each other and much wackiness ensues. In The Comedy of Errors, though, Shakespeare doubles-down on Plautus by having not one, but two sets of identical twins for much more wackiness.

In Twelfth Night, however, he dials back the number but cranks up the complexity. Viola and Sebastian may be twins (of course, the idea of biological twinship is only referenced once in the the play–when Sebastian recounts to Antonio that Sebastian and his sister were “both born in an hour” [II.i.18]), but it’s only when Viola dresses as a male and becomes Cesario do they become twins in appearance.

The only time the word “twin” is used in the play, it’s by Antonio who marvels, “An apple cleft in two is not more twin // Than these two creatures” (V.i.218-9).

While the cross-dressing of the female twin is crucial for the plot (a male character would not need to dress as a female to protect herself, plus it solves the whole only-male-actors problem), I do find it interesting that it’s the male twin that is presumed lost.


On February 2, 1585, Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, gave birth to twins, a girl Judith and a boy Hamnet. On August 9, 1596, Hamnet died at age 11. The cause of death is not known for certain, the likely suspect being the plague; regardless, he was a victim of the relatively high rate of child mortality at the time (around a third of children died by age 10).

The zanier, wackier The Comedy of Errors was written before Hamnet’s death, Twelfth Night after. Could this be why the latter play’s opening is filled with death, both assumed and real? Is Olivia’s desire to mourn her brother’s loss for “seven years” (I.i.27), but stating midway through the play that it was “time to smile again” (III.i.125) a subtle reference by Shakespeare to the death of his son five years earlier (if the assumed composition date of 1601 is to be believed)? And was the “time to smile again” statement spoken too soon by Shakespeare, who would never pen another pure and joyous comedy (the remainder of the Canon being tragedies, problem plays [or dark comedies], and tragicomedies)?

Like I said, just some random thoughts and questions…

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