The ancient Romans used to hold an annual “Saturnalia” for about a week in the middle of December. During this period all forms of public order were suspended: the law courts and schools were closed, trading ceased, no criminals were executed, and the riotous merry-making was unrestrained. The medieval church throughout Europe adopted this festival, transferring it to the days immediately following Christmas Day (26, 27 and 28 December); on such an occasion, known as the “Feast of Fools”, the clergy in the cathedral towns would elect a boy chorister to be their “king” for the day, whilst they feasted and made mockery of those things that they normally held sacred. In England this celebration ceased with the Reformation in the sixteenth century and its place was taken — so far as Queen Elizabeth and her court were concerned — by the “Twelfth Night” festivities on 6 January.
The regular programme of events began in the morning when the Queen, accompanied by the entire court and her guests, attended chapel and she made a token offering of the Epiphany gifts. The religious ritual was followed by a sumptuous banquet. Then there was the entertainment.
It has been most plausibly suggested that Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night was first written as such an entertainment, and certainly anyone who has experienced Christmas television programmes will agree that all the proper amusement for a festive season is to be found in this comedy. It is, above all, funny. The humour is not all of the same kind: it ranges from the farce of Sir Andrew’s near-duel to the slick word-play of Feste — and it allows maybe a few tears of happiness when Viola’s lonely courage is rewarded by the man she loves. There is romance, in the story of Olivia as well as in the success of Viola — and even Maria has her triumph with Sir Toby. There are songs — old and new, sentimental lyrics and riotous drinking-songs. And there is dancing as the two drunken knights imitate the steps of the formal Elizabethan measures.
These elements have no date: they appeal immediately to all ages. But in other aspects Twelfth Night is a play of its own time, and although the topical allusions can be explained in an editor’s notes, the modern readers — or audiences — cannot hope to recapture the first delight of the Elizabethans when they heard, for instance, that Malvolio, making an unaccustomed effort to smile, was creasing his face “into more lines than is in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies” (3, 2, 74–5). We cannot share some of their beliefs, such as the ideas that passion was produced in the liver, and that the human body is made up of the four elements, but the twentieth century is still interested in astrology and notions that the planets might have some effect on the lives and natures of men (“Were we not born under Taurus?”, 1, 3, 132–3). The play’s first audiences (whether or not Her Majesty was among them) must have been persons of exceptional wit and understanding: much of the comedy comes from allusions to an intellectual culture of remarkable complexity.
The problem of Malvolio is also solved — or ceases to be a problem — if the play is viewed in a “festival” context. The character is cruelly treated by his enemies when they lock him in a dark room and claim that he is insane; but the treatment seems less severe if we see Malvolio as the caricature of an unpopular public figure, Sir William Knollys, the Controller of Her Majesty’s Household. The official position of such a man always makes him vulnerable to satire, and it is his official duty to take it in good part.
q“Twelfth Night” is a name commonly given to the Christian Feast of the Epiphany, which is celebrated on the sixth of January (twelve days after Christmas Day) and which commemorates the coming of the Magi — the three wise men — to the stable in Bethlehem where Christ was born. They brought with them the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, which were appropriate for an infant king.