The following information is based upon my taped lecture on this play. Although this text version is not the same as the taped lecture, it does contain the same information. All references are based on the Signet paperback edition which you should consult in conjunction with this lecture.
Twelfth Night was probably written in 1601 and first performed in January of 1602. We know this because the play is mentioned that year in the diary of a young man training to become a lawyer at the Inns of Court in London. We can also tell the approximate date of the play from the references to contemporary events and publications, things like books or new maps. To place the publication in Shakespeare's career, it comes about six years after Roemo & Juliet. Shakespeare's treatment of love and romance and his use of dramatic devices are even more sophisticated than they were in his famous tragedy. Twelfth Night is the fourth in a series of romantic comedies which all have very bright heroines who end up teaching valuable lessons to the men who will become their husbands. Three of these four plays -- The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and Twelfth Night -- feature heroines who disguise themselves as men and deal with their male-dominated societies from this secret vantage point. They all have very sophisticated attitudes toward love and reveal human folly caused by the excess of some particular quality. It's interesting to note that Twelfth Night was written right after Shakespeare had written Hamlet, which is a very different kind of play, but it does give you some idea of the range of his creative talents.
The title of the play is unusual. It refers to the twelve days of Christmas, which you may recall from the old song, "On the Twelfth Day of Christmas." In earlier days the celebration and exchange of gifts which we associate with the 25th of December were actually conducted during the 12 days which followed that date, culminating with what is called Epiphany. For some reason this twelfth day was associated, and continues to be, with comic misrule, upset and especially confusion over gender. In this country many people observe a seasonal tradition by taking their family to see "The Nutcracker" ballet or The Christmas Carol, Dickens' story turned into a stage play. More recent cultural expressions may be the film How the Grinch Stole Christmas or television's A Charlie Brown Christmas. Well, in the United Kingdom the cultural equivalent is going to the pantomime or panto. Families will go to the local theater is see a series of comic skits which feature famous actors and actresses performing in drag. So you might see Benny Hill or John Cleese playing the parts of women and some shapely starlet dressed in tight pants playing the part of the hero. Shakespeare's play recalls this very old tradition by being a play with similar gender confusion at its core.
It is entirely possible that Shakespeare was commissioned to write the play for a group of law students to perform at their Twelfth Night celebration, later followed by performances at his public theater, The Globe. As such, the original audience consisted of young sophisticated gentlemen who would have been knowledgeable about the London theater scene: there are a number of references in the play to works by Shakespeare's contemporaries. Many of the jokes in the play are lost on us in the 21st Century because they refer to things which were very much in the public mind in 1601. So when Feste, the jester, says at one point he could have used the word "element," but he chose not to because the word is overused, it goes right over our heads. However, it was a howl in Shakespeare's time because there was a big flap over Ben Jonson's use of the word.
Twelfth Night is one of the few plays Shakespeare wrote which has a secondary or sub-title: "What You Will." Even here Shakespeare is having a little fun. At...