Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is named after the festival on January 6th, the final day of Christmas. Elizabethan England celebrated the day with grand feasts when ordinary people could let loose, have fun and indulge in breaking society’s usual rules. This play is brimming with that same spirit: it features the cross-dressing Viola who is mistaken for her twin brother Sebastian; it pokes fun at the pretensions of the upper classes; and Elizabethan audiences were particularly taken with the social-climbing servant Malvolio, who dreams of becoming a nobleman.
Gender is inverted throughout the play, as Viola breaks every rule of being a woman — not only by wearing male clothes, but also by being clever, outspoken and funny. Twelfth Night mocks the traditional gender roles assumed by men and women — a theme which was only exaggerated by the fact that the original Viola would have been played by a boy…
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‘Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit,’ says Feste, who observes the play’s events with more wisdom than most of the characters involved. In the true spirit of Twelfth Night festivities, Shakespeare mocks the seriousness of subjects like mourning and ambition, while meditating seriously on the importance of silliness.
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No characters die during the course of the play, and yet death is a constant presence: Viola and Sebastian survive a shipwreck, but assume they have lost each other. Olivia is mourning her brother. Orsino threatens to kill Viola (while she is dressed as a boy). Throughout the silliness and romance, there is always a sense that death is just around the corner.
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Malvolio is mercilessly mocked for his fantasies about marrying his boss, Olivia. And he is punished severely for his ambitions when he is tricked into believing she returns his feelings, and then condemned as a madman and locked in a prison. Have we softened our view of class in the centuries since?
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