Significance of the Title Twelfth Night
The title, Twelfth Night has obvious connection with the plot of the play. The title, however, suggests the joyous spirit of the play. It is significant that the play Twelfth Night has two titles. The title Twelfth Night conveys the idea of joy and mirth that characterize the play and the Second title, perhaps an after thought suggests the play’s composite character. As in the play, As You Like It, Shakespeare seems to tell his audience to take the play as they will (wish).
A festival was celebrated annually in England on the 6th January on the twelfth day from Christmas. It draws its tradition from the colourful and romantic days of the middle ages. The festival of the Epiphany and twelfth day from Christmas which falls on January 6 was formerly celebrated with numerous ceremonies and festivities which marked the end of the Christmas revels. No doubt, Twelfth Night was written for performance on Twelfth Night-possibly at the court of Queen Elizabeth on the Christmas season of 1601-1602, i.e., on January 6, 1602. It embodied the gay spirit of the Twelfth Night festivities and revels. According to Halliwell-Phillips,
Twelfth Night was one of the four plays acted by Shakespeare’s company, “The Chamberlain’s Servants” before the court at Whitehall during the Christmas of 1601-02, possibly it owed its name to the circumstances that it was first acted as the Twelfth Night performance on that occasion.
The boisterous revelries of Sir Toby and his companions and romantic events in the play suited the gaiety occasioned by the celebrations of the festival which was held on the 6th January every year (the 6th January is the Twelfth day after Christmas which falls on the 25th December).
The second title, What You Will suggest the same method of entitling a play as the one adopted by Shakespeare in giving the title, As You Like It. Verity remarks: “it (the play) is a combination of romances and comedy, touched in the love scenes with a sentiment that becomes serious if not tragic.” Shakespeare seems to forestall the objection that the play belongs to no particular type of drama and is hard to describe by saying-call it comedy or romance, What You Will. Some, however think that he meant:
“if you do not approve of the title Twelfth Night, then call it what you will by any title you please.”
‘What you will’ is a playful title like As You Like It. It is suggestive of the character and tone of the play. The title indicates the sweetness, gaiety and variety of the play. It is a piece of Shakespeare’s gaiety –
“the play is a varied picture of human nature, ranging from the highest to the lowest in rank, from the wisest to the most foolish- a delightful broken landscape of the world of men and women full of love and laughter, Fancy and imagination. We may take out it what we will, leave aside what we will, wander in it where we will.”
Olivia and Viola supplies us with the best comedy of refined sentiment. Then there are Illyrians who are rich in humour and fun. Thus the play is a synthesis of different types of comedy as pointed out by Hazlitt. The love scenes are touched with a sentiment that becomes serious, if not tragic particularly Viola’s love for Orsino. There are varied aspects of love – the sentimental love of Orsino, the sensuous love of Olivia, the self-love of Malvolio, the fatuous love of Sir Andrew and the sincere love of Viola. It is a blend of romance and comedy, seriousness and fun. Shakespeare seems to forestall the objection that the play belongs to no particular type of drama. Shakespeare, therefore, asks the audience to name the play as they wish.
The play is a mingling of romance and comedy, humour, wit, mistaken identities and happy ending. Shakespeare seems to ask the audience to give their name to the play, and to make judgements on the play. The play presents a many-sided world which cannot be pinned down to a particular title.