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About The Play


Performed at London's Middle Tmple on February 2, 1602, Twelfth Night was probably written the preceding year—soon after Hamlet. Numerous allusion tie it to this date, though an independent record of an unnamed entertainment performed before Elizabeth I on Twelfth Night 1601 is unlikely to be this one

Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night near the middle of his career, probably in the year 1601. Most critics consider it one of his greatest comedies, along with plays such as As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Twelfth Night is about illusion, deception, disguises, madness, and the extraordinary things that love will cause us to do—and to see.  


Printed in 1623, in the First Folio

Twelfth Night is the only one of Shakespeare's plays to have an alternative title: the play is actually called Twelfth Night, or What You Will. Critics are divided over what the two titles mean, but "Twelfth Night" is usually considered to be a reference to Epiphany, or the twelfth night of the Christmas celebration (January 6). In Shakespeare's day, this holiday was celebrated as a festival in which everything was turned upside down—much like the upside-down, chaotic world of Illyria in the play. 

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's so-called transvestite comedies, a category that also includes As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice. These plays feature female protagonists who, for one reason or another, have to disguise themselves as young men. It is important to remember that in Shakespeare's day, all of the parts were played by men, so Viola would actually have been a male pretending to be a female pretending to be a male. Contemporary critics have found a great deal of interest in the homoerotic implications of these plays.  


As is the case with most of Shakespeare's plays, the story of Twelfth Night is derived from other sources. In particular, Shakespeare seems to have consulted an Italian play from the 1530s entitled Gl'Ingannati, which features twins who are mistaken for each other and contains a version of the Viola-Olivia-Orsino love triangle in Twelfth Night. He also seems to have used a 1581 English story entitled "Apollonius and Silla," by Barnabe Riche, which mirrors the plot of Twelfth Night up to a point, with a shipwreck, a pair of twins, and a woman disguised as a man. A number of sources have been suggested for the Malvolio subplot, but none of them is very convincing. Sir Toby, Maria, and the luckless steward seem to have sprung largely from Shakespeare's own imagination.  

------taken from SparkNotes 



Twelfth Night Celebration

Twelfth Night is a holiday in some branches of Christianity marking the coming of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Day, and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the evening of the 5 January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany".

In some traditions it is taken to mean the evening of the Twelfth Day itself, the 6 January. This apparent difference has arisen probably due to the old custom of treating sunset as the beginning of the following day. Therefore Twelfth Night would have been considered as occurring on the twelfth day, though in present day custom it is the previous day.

The celebration of Epiphany, the adoration of the Magi, is marked in some cultures by the exchange of gifts, and Twelfth Night, as the eve of Epiphany, takes on a similar significance to Christmas Eve.

In Tudor England, the Twelfth Night marked the end of a winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve--which some now celebrate as Halloween. A King or Lord of Misrule would be appointed to run the Christmas festivities, and the Twelfth Night was the end of his period of rule. The common theme was that the normal order of things was reversed. This Lord of Misrule tradition can be traced back to pre-Christian European festivals such as the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia.  

Twelfth Night is when all Christmas Decorations should be removed so as not to bring bad luck upon the home. If decorations are not removed on Twelfth Night, they should stay up all year.

In some countries, the Twelfth Night marks the start of the Carnival season, which lasts through Mardi Gras. In some places such as New Orleans, Louisiana, the night of January 6 with the first Carnival celebrations is called Twelfth Night. In some places, Twelfth Night celebrations include food traditions such as the king cake or tortell.

---taken from