Welcome to Episode #037 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

I believe that if you want to understand Shakespeare’s plays, then understanding the life of William Shakespeare, the man, is essential. This podcast is designed to help you explore early modern England as Shakespeare would have lived it by interviewing the historians, performers, authors, and experts that know him best.

When it comes to Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night–other than the title and the use of role reversal, there’s seemingly very little to suggest Shakespeare’s play is anything but another comedy. In fact, modern stagings have often found it difficult to revive the play as a holiday feature due precisely to its’ lack of holiday content. However, when we explore the history of the holiday itself, and some of the political associations contained in the specific time in history when Shakespeare penned this play, we discover not only on how Shakespeare may have celebrated this iconic holiday, but on how the play Twelfth Night may be more of a Christmas production than we first realized.

Here to help us take a look behind the curtain and into the history of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, as well as to examine the common holiday traditions associated with the festival, is our guest François Laroque.

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François Laroque is Emeritus Professor of English Literature and early modern drama at Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3. He is the author of Shakespeare’s Festive World (CUP, 1991), and of Court, Crowd and Playhouse (Thames & Hudson, 1993). He has also co-edited a two-volume anthology of Elizabethan Theatre (Gallimard, Paris, 2009) and published translations of Marlowe’s and of Shakespeare’s plays. His last book is Dictionnaire amoureux de Shakespeare (“In love with Shakespeare. A personal dictionary”), Paris, Plon, 2016.

Dr. Laroque joins us today to take us behind the curtain and into Shakespeare’s celebration of the popular 16-17th century holiday, Twelfth Night to look specifically at how an understanding of the holiday celebrations could make the play more of a festive performance than it is typically given credit.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Dr. Laroque about :

  • What was the reason for celebrating Twelfth Night, the holiday?
  • Please explain the tradition of Twelfth Night cake and how the King and Queen were chosen.
  • Just one month before Shakespeare staged Twelfth Night at Middle Temple, in January 1602–specifically for the celebration of Twelfth Night, Queen Elizabeth entertained the Duke Orsini, Duke of Bracciano. Was the character of Duke Orisino in Shakespeare’s play included as a nod to this visiting dignitary?

    …and more!

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Duke Orsino

One of the many reasons we have to think Twelfth Night is more of a holiday production than it is given credit for in modernity includes a wonderful fact from historical context. On January 6, 1601, Queen Elizabeth’s court hosted the Duke of Bracciano, whose name was Don Virginio Orsini (So his name was just one letter off from Shakespeare’s Duke Orisino) and they were being entertained specifically to celebrate the Feast of Epiphany, which is also called Twelfth Night. There are records which show the festivities included a comedy, and it is highly probable that Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, would have been selected to stage the performance.

We know from a diary kept by a man named John Manningham, who was in attendance that night, that the play was performed at the London Law School Middle Temple, the following year on February 2, 1602. His diary entry is one reason historians have to think the original Twelth Night performance in 1601 was, in fact, written to be performed for the court celebrations of the holiday.



 I take pleasure in singing

Feste Twelfth Night (II.4)

While wassailing is never mentioned by name in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, there are many references to singing, and Feste declares “ I take pleasure in singing” and himself breaking into song no less than five times over the duration of the play itself.

In the observance of Twelfth Night celebrations, there seems to be an overlap between singing and the drinking of ale, such that the term “wassail” itself can be described as both a kind of caroling, as well as a traditional English beverage. However you describe it, both definitions are ascribed to the celebration of Twelfth Night, the holiday, and make the abundance of singing references in the play decided conspicuous in terms of analyzing their placement for evidence of a holiday play.

“Wassail was a traditional Christmas and New Year toast, derived from the Anglo-Saxon words for “to your health” – “waes hael”, the recipe of the same name is a spiced and very alcoholic hot beverage that was offered to visitors throughout the festive period, or in some cases taken around the community in a large wooden bowl decorated with evergreen leaves (usually holly and ivy) and festoons of bright red ribbons. ”

The scene from Twelfth Night where Feste declares his love of singing, Act II Scene 4.
Painted in 1850 by Walter Deverell, Public Domain.

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In her article for Lavender and Lovage, Karen Burns Booth describes what she calls “a traditional apple wassailing song” specifically from the county of Somerset, where traditional Twelfth Night celebrations are still observed, cinluding celebrating it on “Old Twelfth Night” which is identified as the 17th of January.

Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou will bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
‘Til apples come another year

For to bear well and to bloom well
So merry let us be
Let every man take off his hat
And shout to the old apple tree

Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou will bear
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three bushel bag fulls
And a little heap under the stair

Hip! Hip! Hooray!


Role Reversal

One of the most iconic celebrations of Twelfth Night, the holiday, that we also see amply portrayed in the play of the same name, is that of role reversal. Peasants would get to eat and drink fare well above their station, there was no work done over the holiday season, and there was even a Lord of Misrule appointed to oversee festivities and games. Even the decorations chosen, like ivy, which would have normally been banned from the home as unlucky, were now welcomed inside as a traditional decoration for the yuletide season, in an example of the rife role reversal that takes place during the celebration of Twelfth Night.

One place in the play (and there are many) that we see role reversal quite starkly is through Malvolio’s cross gartered stockings, as shown in this painting from the 18th century. It is one of the many reasons we have to think Twelfth Night might be more about the holiday than it is typically deemed worthy.

Olivia, Maria and Malvolio from “Twelfth Night,” Act III, Scene iv by Johann Heinrich Ramberg 1789 Public Domain In this painting, you can see Malvolio’s yellow cross gartered stockings.

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Books & Resources Francois Laroque Recommends:

Dr. Laroque also recommended several other of Stephen Greenblatt’s books, as well as the works of French author and poet, Marcel Proust. I have listed only a few here, but search the authors names for more great reading!

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