Sarah Hollis (left) as Viola and Tristan Turner as Sebastian in Twelfth Night*.*
By Kathryn Neves
Ask any writer, and they will tell you: writers reuse ideas. I mean, why not? If something works and works well, then why give it up? As the old adage goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Even Shakespeare, who is arguably the greatest writer in the English language, recycled his (and others’) old ideas. Look through his plays and you’ll see common themes running through them. Shipwrecks are pretty common. Then there’s a lot of ghosts in his plays. And of course, mistaken identities are huge. One recycled idea that is particularly entertaining is twins. Shakespeare loved twins. Two of his most major, and most popular, comedies center around twins. The Comedy of Errors, one of his early comedies, is about two sets of identical twins and a farcical mixup. The other is one of the plays the Utah Shakespeare Festival is producing this season: Twelfth Night, about a shipwrecked pair of twins who are separated and end up causing all sorts of mayhem in Illyria.
As far as recycled concepts go, it seems that Shakespeare held back quite a bit with the whole twin theme. There’s really only two plays that contain twins of any kind, and only three sets of twins in total. But the fact that the characters’ “twinhood” is so prominent in the plot of the play suggests that Shakespeare was pretty obsessed with twins. Other repurposed motifs might show up, but they’re not at the crux of the plots. You might see a Shakespearean ghost fairly often, but usually the ghost is only in a couple of scenes and the plot revolves around other things. Same goes for shipwrecks and smothering people with pillows. But The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night would absolutely not work if it weren’t for the twins. Twins are at the heart of each of these plays.
Why did Shakespeare like twins so much? It’s hard to say. We know so little about the man himself that most of what we can say is just an assumption. Still, a lot of these assumptions are pretty safe, including the fact that Shakespeare had three children, two of whom were fraternal twins— so we can assume that this is one reason the whole twin concept was so important to him.
Shakespeare’s twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born in 1585, probably before Shakespeare had written and published any of his plays. We don’t know a lot about the twins, but we do know that Hamnet died very young— he was only eleven years old when he caught what was probably the bubonic plague. He died just a couple of years after the premiere of The Comedy of Errors. So it’s possible that Shakespeare wrote about twins because he was the father of twins.
There are differences between the twins in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night. In the former, there are two sets of fraternal twins. This is played more for farce than for any sort of emotional impact or resolution; in fact, even though the twinhood is celebrated in this play, it’s also the problem. The play is only resolved when the other characters are able to separate and make distinctions between all four twins. Twelfth Night, on the other hand, plays the whole twin idea more seriously. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a comedy. But it’s a comedy with some sad undertones.
The play starts with a shipwrecked and distraught Viola learning of her twin brother Sebastian’s supposed death. In fact, she believes that Sebastian is dead throughout most of the play, and only finds out that he is still alive at the very end. This theme of separated and dead twins was probably close to Shakespeare’s heart; he wrote the play only around five years after his son’s death, so it’s no surprise that a dead twin is a prominent part of the plot. The twins in Twelfth Night are fraternal, just like his own children.
In Twelfth Night, it’s only through the “twinhood” of these characters that there’s any resolution at all. If Viola and Sebastian were not twins, then Olivia would end the play alone and with unresolved romantic feelings for Viola. Instead, she pairs off ultimately with someone very similar in appearance and personality, and Viola has her own love and her own life. If Sebastian was not Viola’s twin, the plot would not resolve nearly as happily or as tidily. The Comedy of Errors is all about the problems with being twins, while in Twelfth Night the twins are what make a happy ending possible.
Even with these differences though, The Comedy of Errors twins and the Twelfth Night twins are similar; both sets of twins are treated like heroes. They are the protagonists, they are normal people, and they all seem relatively happy. This was wildly different from what other writers did at the time. If twins featured in any literature at all in Shakespeare’s day, it was usually in the context of something tragic or something unnatural. Contemporary scientific thought held that twins were unnatural and deviant, born out of unnatural desires in the mother (Daisy Garofalo, “Shakespeare’s Twins,” Welcome Library, 25/04/2016).
It seems that Shakespeare was a lot more forward thinking when it came to twins than his colleagues and contemporaries. Shakespeare’s twins are not unnatural, they are not deviant, they are not weird. Instead, his twins are individuals with their own strengths and faults, and their twinhood is secondary to their own personal characters. This might be because he understood better, as the father of twins. Or it could be that he was just better educated on the subject. Or maybe, Shakespeare just knew the human condition and understood individual characters in a unique and deep way.
Regardless of the reasons, Shakespeare’s twins are complex and entertaining, and they make for some great theatre. So come see Twelfth Night this season and see the twins for yourself. You might get a better understanding of Shakespeare’s writing in general. And— most important— you’re sure to have a good time.