Comment On The Double Title And The Date Of Composition Of The Play Twelfth Night

The title “Twelfth Night” holds great significance within the realm of Shakespeare’s plays. To the Shakespearean audience, it suggested a lighthearted comedy that would be performed on the evening of the Epiphany feast, which took place on January 6th, precisely twelve days after Christmas. This date was associated with masques, light comedies, and various forms of entertainment. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Twelfth Night celebrations were marked by grandeur and ceremony. It is evident that Shakespeare wrote this play with the same intention. It is reasonable to assume that this comedy was staged at the Court of Queen Elizabeth on January 6th, 1602.

The alternative title, “What You Will,” like “As You Like It,” presents a choice to the audience. The idea behind it is to allow each individual to select what suits them best in the play. Shakespeare seems to say, “If the first title does not meet your approval, then call my play ‘What You Will.'” It combines elements of comedy and romance, with love scenes infused with sentiments that border on seriousness, if not tragedy. Shakespeare anticipates the objection that the play does not fit into a specific genre and is difficult to describe by suggesting, “Call it comedy or romance, as you wish.”

The play presents a diverse portrayal of human nature, encompassing characters from various ranks, ranging from the wisest to the most foolish. It is a delightful and fragmented panorama of the world of men and women, brimming with love, laughter, fancy, and imagination. We can take from it what we desire, disregard what we don’t, and immerse ourselves in its world wherever we choose. Shakespeare created it for his own pleasure in humanity and for our enjoyment. When he completed it, he was content. He had fulfilled his artistic vision. Then, with a smile on his face, he said to himself, “It is no longer mine; I give it to the audience. Let them have their way with it.” And readers and theatergoers worldwide have always chosen to embrace it. It has graced the stage for three hundred years and remains as fresh and delightful today as it was in ancient times.

Determining the Composition Date:

Modern editors concur that “Twelfth Night” was composed in the year 1601. It was first published in 1623 in Heming and Condell’s Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, which serves as the authoritative source for the text.

To ascertain the composition date of any of Shakespeare’s plays, we rely on two types of evidence: external and internal. External evidence holds greater reliability and includes:

(a) Allusions in contemporary publications with known dates.

(b) The form in which the play was initially published, whether in Quarto or Folio.

(c) Records in the Registers of the Stationers’ Company.

External Evidence: The external evidence concerning “Twelfth Night” narrows down its possible composition period to the interval between late 1598 and early 1602.

(a) The Diary of John Manningham, a Middle Temple barrister who attended the play on February 3, 1602, provides an entry. However, it does not specify if it was a premiere performance. Hence, we can infer that the play could not have been written after 1602.

(b) Francis Meres’ “Palladis Tamia,” published in late 1598, contains a list of twelve of Shakespeare’s previously published plays. “Twelfth Night” is not included in this list, suggesting that the play did not exist at that time.

Thus, based on external evidence, the play’s composition date falls between September 1598 and February 1602. This is a significant timeframe, necessitating a reliance on internal evidence to narrow down the range of speculation.

Internal evidence is found within the play itself and includes:

(a) Passages that align with contemporary writings.

(b) The treatment of the subject matter, thought process, and overall character of the play.

(c) Stylistic elements such as the use of rhyming lines, classical allusions, conceits, the balance between end-stopped and run-on lines, and the abundance of imagery.

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Internal Evidence:

  1. The fragment of the song “Farewell, dear heart since I must needs be gone” in Act II, Scene iii, was published in Robert Jones’ “Books of Ayres” in 1601. If Robert Jones borrowed it from “Twelfth Night,” the play must have existed before 1601.
  2. The allusion to “The new map with the augmentation of the Indies” in Act III, Scene ii, possibly refers to the map featured in Linschoten’s Voyages, published in 1598. However, Coote suggests that this map could also be from the first edition of Hakluyt’s Voyages, published in 1599.
  3. The references to the Sophy (Shah of Persia) in Act II, Scene iii, and Act IV, Scene iv, may have been inspired by Sir Robert Shirley’s account of his visit to Persia in 1599, published in 1600. In the same year, Merley’s Consort Lessons included the song “Oh mistress mine, where are you roaming?”
  4. Internal evidence related to the play’s structure, style, language, meter, and versification aligns with the conclusions drawn from external evidence, suggesting a date no later than 1602 and no earlier than 1598.

Considering all the evidence, the most probable period of composition for “Twelfth Night” is between late 1601 and early 1602.

Taking into account both the external and internal evidence, it is reasonable to deduce that the composition of “Twelfth Night” likely occurred between the end of 1601 and the beginning of 1602. This refined estimation provides a more precise timeframe for Shakespeare’s creation of the play.

Unveiling the true essence of the title and delving into the historical context surrounding its performance, we gain a deeper appreciation for the significance of “Twelfth Night.” Shakespeare deliberately crafted a play that aligned with the festive spirit of the Epiphany celebrations. By staging it during this time, he tapped into the jovial atmosphere and allowed the audience to revel in the merriment.

Moreover, the alternative title, “What You Will,” serves as an invitation to the audience, granting them the freedom to interpret and enjoy the play according to their preferences. Shakespeare, ever the astute playwright, acknowledged the diverse tastes and inclinations of his spectators, encouraging them to find their own delight within the performance.

“Twelfth Night” stands as a testament to Shakespeare’s unparalleled understanding of human nature. Through a medley of characters spanning all walks of life, from the highest to the lowest, he paints a vivid and captivating portrait of the complexities of love, folly, and the human experience. The play traverses the realms of comedy and romance, interweaving moments of laughter, affection, and even touching on the border of tragedy. It is a masterful blend that appeals to the audience’s emotions and captures the essence of the human condition.

For over three centuries, “Twelfth Night” has graced stages worldwide, captivating generations of theatergoers. Its enduring popularity speaks to its timeless appeal and the universal themes it explores. Even today, it retains its freshness and continues to enchant audiences, as it did in bygone eras.

As we delve into the intricate details surrounding the composition and significance of “Twelfth Night,” we gain a richer understanding of Shakespeare’s craftsmanship and the enduring power of his works. The play’s timeless allure remains a testament to Shakespeare’s brilliance and his ability to create narratives that transcend time, resonating with audiences across centuries.

In conclusion, the names of Shakespeare’s plays hold immense importance, as they provide a glimpse into the essence of his works. “Twelfth Night” emerges as a play meticulously crafted to align with the festive traditions of its time. Its alternate title, “What You Will,” exemplifies Shakespeare’s embrace of individual interpretation. Through its vibrant characters and universal themes, “Twelfth Night” captivates audiences, standing the test of time and continuing to leave an indelible mark on the world of theater.



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