Twelfth Night or What You Will – Title and Sources

Written and performed around 1601-02, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is believed to have been drawn from a wide variety of sources – Gl’Ingannati, or “The Deceived (an Italian play about mistaken identity in 1530s) and Barnaby Riche’s English story ‘Apollonius and Silla’ in Farewell to Military Profession in 1581. John Manningham also noted the association of the play with Plautus’ Menaechmi – a Latin source for Shakespeare’s own play – The Comedy of Errors.

The title ‘Twelfth Night’ refers to 6th January – the twelfth day after Christmas when Christ’s divinity was revealed to the three Magi. The Three Kings or Three Wise Men followed the star of Bethlehem and came to visit Jesus as a child; bearing gifts for him. The day supposedly marks the end of the Christmas holiday season and the beginning of the Carnival season. It is celebrated universally with the appointment of a ‘Lord of Misrule’ and inversion of hierarchies. Men and women would dress up as the opposite; servants would take the place of their masters and so on. It was in general a period of mischief, masking, merry-making and metamorphosis.

The play’s title has baffled critics and readers alike who have interpreted the title as referring to the date of the first performance of the play. Some critics believe that the play’s title merely refers to the time around which it was first performed and in fact, it was written as a Twelfth Night entertainment. The play’s general atmosphere of music and dance, drinking and feasting, characters like Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew with their belief that ‘care’s an enemy to life’ (TN 1.3.24), duping of characters like Malvolio driven by his intense desire to marry his mistress; all connect it with ‘the mood of twelfth-night holiday: a time for sentiment, frivolity, pranks and misrule’ (E.S.Donno). Even the name of the play’s clown- Feste ties it with all kinds of festivities.

The play’s subtitle ‘What You Will’ has been understood by critics as a free play of interpretations. James Schiffer considers it as a ‘reference to the multiple and often conflicting desires of the characters in the play, as well as the multitudinous desires of the audience’. The subtitle registers the shifting nature of love in the play with love transferring from one object to another in the case of Orsino and Olivia; as also the shifting perspectives of the audience who are free to interpret the play in their own frame of reference.

An interesting reading of the play’s title is provided by Wayne Myers who reads ‘will’ as ‘sexual desire’ and considers it an apt labeling for a play dealing with dual nature of things including sexuality. The fusion of masculine and feminine traits in the characterization of Viola/Cesario gives the play an undercurrent of androgyny. Thomas Betteridge further compounds this notion of desire and identity by debating on the ‘you’ in the subtitle. If ‘you’ refers to the ‘audience’, the responsibility of producing/reducing meaning through ‘wilful’ reading also falls on them. This alerts us to notions of desire and meaning, and how desire may lead to production of false readings as in the case of Malvolio’ deceived interpretation of his mistress’ letter.

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