Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights

To better appreciate Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, consider the following points:


Twelfth Night takes place during the Christian celebration of Epiphany, which occurs on January 6th, the twelfth night after Christmas. The holiday celebrates the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus, symbolizing Christ's divinity to the world. During Elizabethan times, the celebration consisted of feasts, gift-giving, and general merry-making. Most importantly, however, the Epiphany celebration was marked by a reversal of the normal order of things. There were masquerades, role reversals, and a general sense of things being turned upside down. This spirit of lighthearted insanity and foolishness is a central element of the play.

Symbols and Motifs

  • the darkness of Malvolio's prison

  • Olivia's gifts to Cesario

  • disguises and altered identities

  • songs and poems

  • courtship and romantic speeches

  • nautical references and sailing metaphors

  • hunting references and metaphors

  • references to Greek and Roman mythology

  • puns and wordplay

  • sexual innuendoes and vulgar jokes

  • the satirizing of philosophers and intellectuals

Historical Context

William Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night in England in 1601.

  • Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603) ruled England from 1558-1603.

  • The English Renaissance was at its height, with great achievements in the areas of literature, philosophy, religion, science, music, and theatre.

  • The Protestant Reformation, the movement to break away from the established doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, continued to change the religious lives of Europeans.

  • England enjoyed a time of expansion and exploration, creating new trade routes and making frequent visits to North and South America.

  • England adhered to a system of social classes, ranging from nobility to middle class to poor