Twelfth Night

by: William Shakespeare

What Does “Twelfth Night” Refer To?

Further study What Does “Twelfth Night” Refer To?

The title of Twelfth Night refers to the twelfth night of Christmas, also referred to as the eve of Epiphany, a day that commemorates the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus and is often celebrated with a temporary suspension of rules and social orders. As in the play, Twelfth Night revels in the overturning of convention and general merriment. In the Church of England, the Twelfth Night (or the eve of the Epiphany) was celebrated on January 5th, when celebrants sang songs, defaced doors with chalk, and ate Three Kings’ or Twelfth Night cake. One of the most popular Twelfth Night traditions was to hide a pea and a bean within the cake. The man who discovered the bean would be proclaimed Lord or King of Misrule, while the lady who found the pea would be Lady or Queen of Misrule. The Lord of Misrule was usually a peasant or commoner who lead the drinking and debauchery, as Twelfth Night was one of the few times of the year where servants were allowed to mix with their masters, sometimes even switching roles through disguises or by virtue of the coveted bean.

Although Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night clearly mimics the conventions of the Twelfth Night celebrations, with the social order of the play suspended and characters easily crossing social classes, there is no obvious reference to the holiday within the play itself. As Samuel Pepys, a member of Parliament and Administrator of the English Navy, noted in his diary upon seeing the play on the eve of Epiphany in 1663, Twelfth Night was “acted well, though it be but a silly play, and not related at all to the name or day.” While Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night makes no mention of the three magi, the baptism, or the birth of Christ, it channels the rowdiness of the holiday revelries. Feste the Fool, Sir Toby Belch, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek can all be considered versions of the Lord of Misrule, while Maria bears strong resemblance to the Lady of Misrule. Feste’s song at the end of the play suggests the reintroduction of reality – once the festivities are over, the audience will face a long, bleak winter in which social norms are back in place and debauchery is frowned upon.