Twelfth Night

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Twelfth Night Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of William Shakespeare
Shakespeare's father was a glove-maker, and Shakespeare received no more than a grammar school education. He married Anne Hathaway in 1582, but left his family behind around 1590 and moved to London, where he became an actor and playwright. He was an immediate success: Shakespeare soon became the most popular playwright of the day as well as a part-owner of the Globe Theater. His theater troupe was adopted by King James as the King's Men in 1603. Shakespeare retired as a rich and prominent man to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1613, and died three years later.
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Other Books Related to Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night has been referred to as a "transvestite comedy" and can be grouped with other Shakespeare plays in which characters cross-dress—namely, the comedy As You Like It, but also Merchant of Venice, which includes a court scene in which the primary female character, Portia, dresses up as a young man. With its confused twins, Twelfth Night also resembles Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, which is based on the Menaechmi, by the Roman comedian Plautus. Twelfth Night itself is based on an Italian comedy called Iganni—or, the "unknown ones."
Key Facts about Twelfth Night
  • Full Title: Twelfth Night, or What You Will
  • When Written: c. 1601
  • Where Written: England
  • When Published: 1623
  • Literary Period: The Renaissance
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Setting: Illyria (an ancient area on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, between contemporary Croatia, Albania, and Montenegro)
  • Climax: The weddings of Viola and Orsino, and Sebastian and Olivia
Extra Credit for Twelfth Night

What a drag! Twelfth Night is sometimes called a "transvestite comedy" for the obvious reason that its central character is a young woman, Viola, who disguises herself as a pageboy, Cesario. In Shakespeare's time, Viola's part, like all the parts in Twelfth Night, would have been played by a man, because women were not allowed to act. So, originally, "Cesario" would probably have been a boy, dressed up as a woman, dressed up as a man.

Feast of Misrule: Twelfth Night takes its name from an English holiday celebrated on the eve of January 5, the so-called "twelfth night of Christmas" or the Feast of the Epiphany. In Renaissance England, Twelfth Night was known as a "feast of misrule." For the day, kings and nobles were to be treated as peasants, and peasants as kings and nobles. At the center of the Twelfth Night feast was a large cake with a bean or coin baked into it and served to the assembled company; the person whose slice of cake contained it became King Bean, the Christmas King, or Lord of Misrule—a commoner who would take the place of a king in order to watch over the topsy-turvy proceedings.

Two titles. Twelfth Night is the only play of Shakespeare's with an alternate name: its full title is Twelfth Night, or What You Will. The second title references the holiday season of ritualized disorder and revelry, where you can act out all your fantasies.