Monday, January 6, 2020

Happy Twelfth Night!

I usually post on the first of the month, but this month I held off for the Feast of the Epiphany. I had no idea what  "epiphany" meant growing up, and learned it as a literary term having to do with James Joyce before I ever knew what a liturgical calendar was (we were "low" Protestants) and before I lived in New Orleans and found out about Kings' Day (on January 6th, the celebration of the arrival of the three kings to visit the baby Jesus). This revelation was the Epiphany. In later years I discovered from the Oxford English Dictionary that my own last name, "Tiffany," originated in slang for "Epiphany," which in England was sometimes called "the Tiffany" (God knows why). And before that, I had learned what was meant by Twelfth Night.

In Shakespeare's England, Twelfth Night was the last night of the Christmas holiday, and (despite Puritan reformers' dismay) was still celebrated in many of the lordlier households and by many of the rowdier London youth in a Mardi Gras like atmosphere of mayhem and misrule. Twelfth Night is the fifth of January, or the eve of the Epiphany. In Shakespeare terms, Twelfth Night is of course the title of one of his most famous plays, although, true to Shakespeare's occasional habit of
bestowing mysterious titles on comedies, he never refers directly to Twelfth Night in the play, and the action doesn't seem to take place during the Christmas season. Readers and playgoers are left to infer the connection. The Twelfth Night celebration tradtionally involved a Lord of Misrule and much imaginative disguising. Twelfth Night's plot offers us the disguised Viola and masked jester Feste, and a Lord of Misrule in the person of Sir Toby Belch, a jolly drunk who invents practical jokes and asks his enemy, the puritanical Malvolio, "Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?" More subtly, Twelfth Night jestingly reproduces the Twelfth Night holiday's precursorship (if that's a word) to a secular revelation that parodies the Epiphany. The play ends right on the cusp of the cross-dressed Viola's self-revelation as the female she truly is (or, perhaps, as the boy the actor who plays her truly is, depending on how it all turns out). The play leaves us waiting for Malvolio to return her feminine garb, which will show her to be a woman, and only "when that is known, and golden time convents," will "a solemn combination . . . be made" of  the "dear souls" of Viola and her beloved Orsino. (They'll get married.)

So, Shakespeare is having lots of fun with "Twelfth Night" parallels. But it may be that the play was also named Twelfth Night for a simpler reason. It was performed as part of Twelfth Night festivities at court. Certainly it was famously performed at the Middle Temple of the Inns of Court, where law students lodged, on Candlemas (February 2nd, known to Americans as Ground Hog Day) in 1602. The law students honored the play with their customary bad behavior, drinking and shouting and flinging furniture about. In the 1920s, F. A. Keay wrote a history of the Inns of Court which stressed the likeness of London law students to Sir Toby Belch and his cronies:

"At one time John Davyes came into dinner and beat Richard Martyn about the head. Twice the Company was exhorted 'to leave knocking on the pots and making noise in the Hall and not to inquiet Mr. Reader in the vacaccion of his study.' In 1476 Burgoyne gave Forcett a slap with his hand for which he was put out. In 1505 a number of Lincoln's Inn were expelled for watching with swords and clubs and having strife with Grey's Inn [another law school residence]. Parker was fined for throwing 'wyspis' (rushes) in the Hall during the grammar school. Others were put out for 'excesse crying and showtyng.' Sometimes the kitchen was raided by the students. Three students were amerced for 'brekying of the kechyn and takyngawey of fagottes'--and one memorable night the window of the buttry was broken and the wine let out and spilled."

Those law students! Shades of Kavanagh and Squee. Things weren't much different a century later, when Twelfth Night was performed, despite the efforts of Malvolio-like hall marshals to keep things in order. Perhaps Shakespeare enjoyed having behavior within his comedies match the behavior of the playgoers watching (or not watching). As Hamlet says, the "purpose of playing" is to "hold the mirror up to nature." Actually, what Hamlet says is "to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature," because Hamlet is wordy. As Jaques more succinctly says in As You Like It, "All the world's a stage."

Happy Twelfth Night!

No comments:

Post a Comment