What the Heck Is a “Twelfth Night”?
By Kathryn Neves
There are a lot of Shakespearean comedies, all of them incredibly fun and exciting. But perhaps none is so well-beloved as Twelfth Night. It’s a staple of school performances, it’s been adapted into a movie (She’s the Man, anyone?), and it’s always been very popular with Utah Shakespeare Festival audiences. What’s not to like? It's well-written, lighthearted, and fairly easy to understand. And yet, there’s one thing about it that absolutely baffles most people—why is it called that? What is a “twelfth night”?
Well, the answer to that question goes all the way back to the birth of Christ. That’s right. Twelfth Night is a Christmas play. You see, Shakespeare probably wrote the play for a Twelfth Night celebration. (The fact that the play’s plot has little-to-nothing to do with the holiday is neither here nor there.) Twelfth Night was a holiday usually celebrated the twelfth day after Christmas: January 6. (Is that where “The Twelve Days of Christmas” song came from? Yes. Yes it is). Though Twelfth Night is not really celebrated anymore, it was always a huge part of Christmastide celebrations in Elizabethan England. Originally, it marked the Epiphany: according to Christian tradition, the revelation of God as Jesus in the flesh. It also commemorated the Magi’s visit to the Christ child.
Now, Twelfth Night festivities were not your grandma’s Christmas parties. They were hugely raucous and full of drinking and mischief-making. One tradition was for men to dress up as women, and women to dress up as men, and for servants and masters to switch roles for a short time. It’s no wonder, then, that both of these themes appear in Shakespeare’s play. It also explains why Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Feste are such important parts of the show; their drinking and revelry match all the contemporary twelfth night celebrations. Also, we can see Malvolio try to play master rather than servant all throughout the play, and, of course, Viola’s cross-dressing fits right into Twelfth Night festivities.
There were even stranger traditions present in Tudor Twelfth Night celebrations. One particularly odd one involves a cake, a bean, and a pea: the vegetables were baked into the cake, and the man who found the bean became king for the night while the lady with the pea became queen. But, if you want more traditional Christmas traditions, they’re part of the celebration also. Twelfth Night was a night of feasting, caroling, and wassail-drinking. It was the last night of Christmas, after all. Elizabethans wanted to send the holiday off with a bang.
Knowing all this, we can pretty safely assume that Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night for the holiday festivities—even though the first recorded performance was on Candlemas, nearly a month later. It’s still possible it was performed earlier, or just written with Twelfth Night in mind.
Either way, this all technically makes it a Christmas story (I’m so ready for the Hallmark Holiday Twelfth Night special; I can see it now). So this winter, bundle up next to the fire with a cozy cup of cocoa and a plate of cookies; and while you wait for Santa, pull out your copy of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Or— maybe not. Instead, come and see it this summer at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. After all, who doesn’t like a little Christmas in July?