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Historical Context in Twelfth Night

Historical Context Examples in Twelfth Night:

Act I - Scene I


"pestilence..."   (Act I - Scene I)

The reference to “pestilence” would have had particularly poignant connotations for Elizabethan audiences. “Pestilence” here refers to the Black Death, or bubonic plague, a virulent, infectious disease that swept medieval Europe and killed about a third of its population. There were outbreaks of pestilence in London throughout the Elizabethan era which were so bad that the government closed the theaters in 1593 in an attempt to stop it from spreading.

"fenc- ing, dancing, and bear-baiting..."   (Act I - Scene III)

Aguecheek’s chosen forms of entertainment—bear baiting, dancing, fencing— were considered low forms of pastime. That he engages in these forms of pleasure once again shows an inversion of the social order: he is behaving like a common person even though he is a nobleman.

"bear-baiting..."   (Act I - Scene III)

“Bear baiting” was a form of Early Modern entertainment in which a bear would be chained in a pit with a group of dogs and they would fight to the death. Bear baiting pits were located outside the walls of London, generally right next to the theaters in which Shakespeare’s plays would be performed.

"Do or not do..."   (Act I - Scene III)

Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night at the same time he wrote Hamlet. Many have drawn parallels between the themes of these two plays despite their drastically different tones and plots. Overlapping themes such as disguise, betrayal, and performance are comically underscored by parallel lines such as this one. The careful reader might notice that “do or not do” sounds a lot like Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be.”

"mouse of virtue..."   (Act I - Scene V)

“Mouse” was a common term of endearment for women in this time. Feste uses this term in order to show an unusual level of closeness with Olivia, who should be his superior. This demonstrates the theme of social inversion.

"Quinapalus..."   (Act I - Scene V)

In productions the character will often pause as if waiting for the audience to answer then mock them with the following line “better a witty fool than a foolish wit,” to suggest that they should know what Quinapalus says.

" if Sir Toby would leave drinking, thou wert as witty a piece of Eve's flesh as any in Illyria...."   (Act I - Scene V)

Here, Feste points out the disarray within the social order. He claims that Maria, a servant, is the cleverest woman in Illyria, and this makes her a suitable wife for Sir Toby, a nobleman. In the hierarchical social system of Early Modern England, a servant marrying a nobleman would have been prohibited. However, because these characters do not conform to the expectations of their social positions—Sir Toby is a drunk and Maria is witty—Feste can logically suggest this subversion of the social order.

"With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire..."   (Act I - Scene V)

These broad and hyperbolic compliments were very common in works of this time, aligning with popular courtly love customs. Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries took inspiration from an Italian poet named Petrarch, who set the standard for romantic language in the time. 

"Rodorigo...."   (Act II - Scene I)

Sebastian’s alias “Rodorigo” is never mentioned again within this play. This suggests that there was another sub plot or backstory that was never actually developed. It could also suggest a printing error in which a scene explaining this alias was lost.

"Fortune..."   (Act II - Scene II)

Lady Fortune, or Fortuna, was a medieval concept borrowed from antiquity used to explain changes in one’s fate. Lady Fortune operated the “wheel of fate” that controlled the lives of all men. Each person was positioned on the wheel, those with wealth and social status were at the top and those without were on the bottom. Fortuna would spin the wheel at random: those at the top could just as easily end up on the bottom as those at the bottom could end up at the top.

"Cataian..."   (Act II - Scene III)

This phrase could refer to a name given to Northern China by medieval Europeans that signified untrustworthiness. It could also refer to European travelers who went to China and lied about the riches they found there. Toby uses this phrase to mean Malvolio is lying, and that he will not throw them out.

"In delay there lies no plenty; Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty..."   (Act II - Scene III)

This song draws on themes of carpe diem poetry. Carpe diem poetry was a type of love poetry in Elizabethan England in which a speaker would tell his beloved about the ephemerality of life and beauty in order to convince her to “seize the day”—generally meaning to engage in a romantic relationship with the speaker.

"‘we three’?..."   (Act II - Scene III)

This is a reference to a popular type of picture that depicted only two fools to suggest that the viewer is the third. Feste uses this reference to mock the two men.

"the four elements?..."   (Act II - Scene III)

The four elements of matter were fire, air, water, and earth. The elements related to the four humors that were thought to control the human body and mind. This could also be a form of malapropism in which Toby means “for humors” yet says “four elements.”

"Now the melancholy god protect thee;..."   (Act II - Scene IV)

By “melancholy god” Feste means Saturn the Roman god of sadness and melancholy. Notice that Feste remarks on Orsino’s sadness rather than his love as the dominant characteristic of his personality. This further reinforces Orsino’s investment in the pose of love rather than the feeling of love.

"gates of Tartar..."   (Act II - Scene V)

The Gates of Tartar are the gates of hell. In Greek mythology, Tartarus was the lowest part of the underworld. Sir Toby’s hyperbolic enthusiasm to watch Malvolio fail demonstrates a type of cruelty that can either be read as funny or create sympathy for Malvolio’s character. That he refers to this show as the “gates of hell” suggests that their scheme is not traditionally moral.

"some are born great, some(130) achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em...."   (Act II - Scene V)

This statement is meant to be comically ironic. In the Elizabethan era, one was born into their social class and never advanced beyond it. The idea that one can “achieve greatness” plays into Malvolio’s fantasies but would have been heard by the audience as ridiculous. Indeed, Maria includes these lines to bring out Malvolio’s ambitions in order to play a trick on him.

"C's, her U's, and her T's..."   (Act II - Scene V)

“Cut” was a slang word for female genitalia. Malvolio uses these three letters to suggests both that Olivia wrote the letter and that she wrote the letter lustfully. Malvolio’s contemplation of a noble woman’s genitalia represents another form of social inversion, as he should not think of his “social better” as anything other than chaste.

"look how imagination blows him...."   (Act II - Scene V)

The characters on stage are watching Malvolio perform his desires just as the audience watched Orsino perform his melancholy. While Orsino is allowed to act out his romantic fantasies, Malvolio is punished for even thinking about his. This demonstrates the immobility of the social system of the Elizabethan era.

"To be Count Malvolio!..."   (Act II - Scene V)

Malvolio’s desire to marry Olivia is an example of dangerous social ambition. While the play’s theme of social inversion shows multiple characters enact social inversion—women dressed as men, aristocrats acting like drunkards, fools being too familiar with their masters—Malvolio’s is the only one that is punished. The other instances of social inversion in this play are not lasting changes, but Malvolio marrying into a better social class would permanently change his status and the status of his children. This is a form of social inversion that was unacceptable in Elizabethan England.

"'Slight..."   (Act II - Scene V)

“‘Slight” is an abbreviation of “God’s light,” which was a common curse in Shakespeare’s time. Use of these curses shows that these characters are base in their manners.

"Than music from the spheres...."   (Act III - Scene I)

Ptolemy, an ancient Egyptian astrologer, theorized that the planets were set in crystalline spheres that revolved around the Earth. These spheres were thought to ring as they moved in a beautiful sound that only the gods could hear. She would rather hear another suit from Cesario than the gods’ music.

"Lord Pandarus of Phrygia..."   (Act III - Scene I)

Lord Pandarus is a character from Homer’s Iliad. While he was only portrayed as an impetuous warrior in the original story, medieval writers transformed his character into a depraved man who scandalously facilitates the affair between Troilus and Cressida.

"so much blood in his liver as will clog the foot(55) of a flea..."   (Act III - Scene II)

This insult suggests that there is very little blood in Andrew’s liver—only enough to “clog the foot of a [tiny] flea.” In Early Modern England, someone with a colorless liver was thought to be a coward. Toby suggests here that there will never actually be a fight between Cesario and Andrew because Andrew is a coward.

"brimstone in your liver..."   (Act III - Scene II)

The liver was thought to house romantic feelings in the Early Modern conception of the body. Fabian uses this imagery to spur Andrew to action.

"'Slid, ..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

Similar to the common curse ‘Slight (meaning “God’s Light), this is an abbreviation for “By God’s eyelid.” These curses, while common at the time, show the base manners these characters have.

"A good note; that keeps you from the blow of the(145) law...."   (Act III - Scene IV)

Fabian remarks that Sir Andrew is smart because the vagueness of his letter will keep him from “the blow of the Law.” By this Fabian means that writing anything more particular would make Andrew liable for slander.

"but it is Jove's doing,..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

Jove was the king of the gods, also known as Jupiter. Malvolio invokes divine will here to justify his actions and his socially ambitious pursuits. Though he was not born to Olivia’s class, Jove willed that she fall in love with him, which makes his transgression in the social order valid.

"midsummer madness..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

“Midsummer madness” is a sudden and unexplainable fit of insanity. It was believed that the midsummer moon would cause sudden madness.

"If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn(120) it as an improbable fiction...."   (Act III - Scene IV)

With these lines, Fabian draws attention to the reality that he exists within a play: Malvolio too quickly bought into the trick being played on him. Theater in Shakespeare's time followed Aristotelian guidelines. Aristotle claimed that in order to create a good comedy, the audience had to believe that the action occurring on stage could occur in real life. The joke played on Malvolio, and Malvolio's unrealistic gullibility, make it so that Shakespeare's fiction defies Aristotelian rules for drama. However, in drawing attention to this "improbable fiction," Shakespeare demonstrates to the audience that the "bad drama" is intentional, therefore making it comedic rather than erroneous.

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