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Twelfth Night
William Shakespeare


It is lucky for us that William Shakespeare lived in a time of ferment like the Renaissance. In another time, this grandson of tenant farmers who never went to a university might not have had the opportunity to become a playwright. During the Renaissance, England was a place of change and opportunity. The discovery of the New World brought excitement and wealth. The old feudal order was passing away. Though the structure of society was still strictly divided into classes, some movement between the ranks became possible.

Shakespeare grew up in the small town of Stratford. His father, John Shakespeare, was a merchant and glovemaker. By the time of William's birth in 1564, John was doing well. He had married Mary Arden, the daughter of a well-to-do landowner, and had held several important offices in the local government. No records exist to prove the exact date of William's birth, but we know he was baptized on April 26, 1564. Because most infants were baptized when they were three days old, April 23 is traditionally considered Shakespeare's birthday.

After 1577, John apparently came upon financial hard times. His name disappeared from the list of town councillors and was entered on the record of those not seen attending church. Most likely, he was in debt.

Shakespeare probably attended the free grammar school in Stratford, where he could have received a good education, and a thorough grounding in the Latin classics. No further official documentation of his activities exists until his marriage contract with Anne Hathaway, signed on November 28, 1582. Anne was older than William by eight years. Their first child, Susanna, was born in May, 1583. In 1585, Anne gave birth to twins- Judith and Hamnet.

We don't know how Shakespeare made his living in Stratford. He may have been a schoolteacher or a private tutor. Tradition has it that he had to leave Stratford because he was caught poaching. More likely he went to London in search of opportunity.

Whatever reason Shakespeare may have had for leaving his home town, opportunity was clearly what he found in London. The next surviving public document to mention his name is a pamphlet written by playwright Robert Greene in 1592. By that time, Shakespeare had arrived in London and become an actor. What's more, he had begun writing plays. Greene condescendingly refers to Shakespeare as an upstart actor who has the nerve to think he can write as well as an educated gentleman. If the venom of Greene's attack is a measure of envy, Shakespeare must have been doing well by then.

The fact that a man who had never been to a university presumed to write plays probably offended Greene's sense of order and propriety. He was not the only one made uncomfortable by the changes in the social order brought about by the Renaissance. Change always brings with it a certain amount of resentment, especially among those people who were happy with the status quo.

Twelfth Night was not written as a social treatise, and it would be a serious mistake to try to make it one. Nonetheless, in the Illyria of the play you find a society that has much in common with Shakespeare's London.

The modern idea of equality had no place in Elizabethan thinking. No one doubted that some people were better than others. There was a definite hierarchy, an order in society. Philosophically, this reflected the order in the universe. When people behaved improperly, either by pretending to be better than they were or by failing to live up to the standards expected of them, the whole world would become disordered. In Twelfth Night, part of the comic disorder is caused by the aspirations of Malvolio and Sir Andrew, and by the emotional self-indulgence of Orsino and Olivia.

Orsino and Olivia are important in the world of Illyria because they are at the top of this social ladder. They are the nobles, and are expected to behave nobly. Rank definitely had its privileges, but it had duties as well. Those duties included behaving suitably and sensibly.

Two of the other characters in Twelfth Night, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch, belong to the same class as Orsino and Olivia, though they are at the bottom end of it. Their failures are far more extreme than those of Olivia and Orsino, and so they are more ludicrously comic.

Some readers see them as representatives of knighthood in decline. We cannot help but notice that Sir Andrew seems completely untrained in the skills a knight should have. Instead, there is a great fuss about his wealth. This provides a bit of social satire. In Shakespeare's day, a man with enough money could buy a knighthood. (Queen Elizabeth I was known to sell even higher titles on occasion.) You can imagine that the members of the older aristocracy were less than thrilled to have their ranks invaded by these wealthy upstarts. If Sir Andrew's knighthood comes from wealth and not from birth, it is utterly ridiculous for him to hope to marry someone as high above him as Olivia.

Below these characters are the servants, the lower class. If they had little in the way of rights, they also had little in the way of obligations. Therefore, they are far freer to indulge in foolishness of one sort or another, and these are the characters who are likely to be involved in scenes of slapstick comedy.

This class was not, however, immune to the virus of social climbing. In Twelfth Night, you can see this in the character of the Puritan steward Malvolio.

Missing from the play, but growing in reality in Shakespeare's time, is the middle class. This class, to which Shakespeare himself belonged, did not appear too much in literature yet. Stories tended to reflect the society of a somewhat earlier world.

Moving freely among all the classes, both in the play and in real life, was the fool. Most royal and many noble households kept a fool (or clown) for entertainment. This was the court jester, a term you may have heard. Natural fools were actual idiots, kept for amusement. Wise fools, like Feste in this play, were intelligent and witty.

Court fools occupied a special place in society. They could move back and forth from the kitchen to the king's chamber. Some even accompanied their noble employers on state occasions. Frequently they were allowed far more license of speech than would be permitted anyone else.

Although the idea of hierarchy, of an order in nature reflected in the social order, was generally accepted in Shakespeare's time, society was actually far more flexible than it had been, and change could be seen everywhere. One change that can be seen in Twelfth Night is in the attitude toward romantic Courtly Love.

Popularized by the medieval troubadours, the point of Courtly Love was that it was never consummated. The lover devoted himself to a beloved who, for some reason, could never be his. What was important was the exquisite suffering of the lover as he dedicated himself to the unobtainable.

In Twelfth Night, Orsino obviously sees himself as a courtly lover. Olivia as well, in her extravagant devotion to her dead brother, is indulging herself in romantic notions. In contrast are Viola and Sebastian, the honest and practical brother and sister.

Shakespeare was already an extremely popular playwright when Twelfth Night was first performed about 1600, and his success continued. His works after Twelfth Night include the four great tragedies- Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. In 1603, Shakespeare's company was chartered by Elizabeth's successor, James I, as the King's Men. When Shakespeare retired to Stratford in 1611, he lived in the second biggest house in town, called New Place. On April 23 (possibly the same day of the year on which he was born) in 1616, he died.


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