Why Twelfth Night?

Sir Toby and friends

The tradition of Twelfth Night has its origins in the medieval celebration of a winter festival. Festivities often began at the end of October and continued through the Twelve Days of Christmas. At the end of the festival, noblemen changed places with peasants for an evening of “misrule.” At the stroke of midnight, all that was topsy-turvy was restored to the normal order. Today the celebration usually begins on Christmas Day and ends on the sixth of January.

William Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night, or What You Will as entertainment for the Christmas season in 1601 or 1602. The first known performance was on February 2, 1602, at the Middle Temple in London. (February 2, or Candlemas, marks the date that church tradition has it that Jesus was presented at the temple.) Scholars believe that the play was based on a short story by Matteo Bandello.

The world of the play is true to the tradition of misrule: girls masquerade as boys; servants run rampant; friends become enemies; and lo, how the mighty are fallen. At the end of Twelfth Night, as in life, order will out at last. Viola will present herself “in [her] woman’s weeds”; Sir Toby and his gang resume their roles as servants; the offended Antonio and his longtime friend Sebastian are reconciled, and the much-maligned Malvolio must be “entreated to a peace.” When Olivia states near the play’s conclusion that “Alas, poor fool, how have they baffled you,” she speaks about and for the “whole pack” of players. It is, of course, our hope that Summer Shakespeare’s play will not puzzle the audience but will instead serve to entertain and instruct.

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