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Twelfth Night summary at eNotes

Festival and Utopia

The festival of Twelfth Night is the Roman Saturnalia, the Feast of Fools. There can be little doubt that the license that marked this occasion had its origin in very ancient pagan customs. As Christianity spread across Europe, the church subsumed the old pagan festivals and replaced them with celebrations of religious significance. However the old traditions took centuries to die out, and the feast of the Epiphany on January 6 retained a Saturnalian flavour for many centuries. Even superficially, it is quite clear that Twelfth Night echoes this religious and cultural ‘compromise’ by highlighting notions of order and chaos: the order of accepted religious and social morals, and the chaos of pagan Saturnalian licence. It is certainly possible from Leslie Hotson’s extensive research that the play was indeed performed on this date, but I suggest that the title has more to do with the atmosphere surrounding the play than the actual date of the original performance. Unlike Samuel Pepys, I cannot contend that the play has nothing to do with the feast – indeed I will argue that the festival of Twelfth Night and the traditions surrounding it are central to both the sustaining mood of the play as well as its final outcomes.

The world of Twelfth Night is often seen to be a utopia of ‘olde Englande’, where the old traditions are given free reign and where that elusive ‘happy ever after’ quality can be achieved. Yet there are disquieting elements in Illyria that in many ways reflect the situation in early seventeenth century England. Despite the exotic and distant sound of its name, Illyria is in fact a peculiarly English setting and the play is sprinkled liberally with references to the social life and customs of Jacobean England: Antonio and Sebastian lodge at the Elephant (probably an inn south of the Thames in London); Fabian is in trouble with Olivia for a ‘bear-baiting’, Sir Andrew is a “great eater of beef” (1.3.81); Sir Toby talks heartily of beagles, staniels and bumbailies; and we hear variously of spinsters, tinkers, tosspots, peascods, bawcocks and woodcocks. The disquieting element comes with the revelation that despite Sir Toby’s freedom to drink and make merry, despite Malvolio’s strict adherence to puritanical doctrine and despite Orsino’s romantic inclinations not one of them is truly happy; in fact nobody in Illyria is happy. Society cannot function normally because the extremes of social and religious life depicted by Sir Toby Belch and Malvolio cannot co-exist.

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