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MonkeyNotes-Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
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LITERARY/HISTORICAL INFORMATION

The probable date of the writing of "Twelfth Night" is 1601, shortly after the great tragedies. John Manningham, an Elizabethan barrister, mentions in his 'Diary' that "Twelfth Night" was performed at the Middle Temple in 1602. The play was intended to be the last written by Shakespeare, but he was persuaded to write one last play, "Henry VIII."

The title "Twelfth Night" suggests that the play was possibly written to be performed on the Twelfth Day after Christmas - January 6, which is the festival of the epiphany. The day formally marked the end of the Christmas season, and in Shakespeare's time, it was celebrated as a special festival. Among the numerous festivities and ceremonies ocurring that day, the performance of plays was a common feature. Shakespeare thus seems to have written the light-hearted romantic comedy keeping in mind the festive spirit. The title therefore is no reference to the plot or the characters although the secondary title of the play "What You Will," suggests that the play has something of interest for everyone. The play is a romance as well as a comedy. It does not strictly fit into any particular type of drama, therefore one can classify it as one wishes; thus the title "What you Will" is appropriate. It has also been suggested that Shakespeare may have given the secondary title to tell the audience that they could call the play by any other name if they did not like the title "Twelfth Night".


Like most of Shakespeare's plays, "Twelfth Night" does not have an original plot. Shakespeare took an existing story and retold it, giving it new dimensions through characterization and through the introduction of the subplot. Some of the possible sources for the play are: an anonymous Italian play "Gl' Ingannati" performed in 1531 and printed in 1537; another Italian play "Gl' Inganni" written by Curzio Gonzaga in 1592; and finally, Barnabe Rich's novel Historie of Apolonius and Silla (1581), which some consider to be the main source. Although Shakespeare does make use of existing stories, the language, the characterization and the use of wit and humor are Shakespearean.

The play is set in an imaginary country - Illyria. Due to its association with Venice, the Elizabethans regarded Illyria as Italian in character. The play however does not provide any descriptions of the country except for the indirect mention of the 'Rialto'. Illyria is an imaginary and undefined country, as in the time or age when the events are supposed to have taken place. The vagueness on both counts, however, is in keeping with the romance tradition.

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