The most influential writer in all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to a -successful middle-class glove-maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582 he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical acclaim quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) and James I (ruled 1603–1625), and he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted his company the greatest possible compliment by bestowing upon its members the title of King’s Men. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at age fifty-two. At the time of his death, literary luminaries such as Ben Jonson hailed his works as timeless.
Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth of biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare’s personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact and from Shakespeare’s modest education that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates—but the support for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
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.
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.