Sunday, January 5, 2014

Happy Twelfth Night!

A Victorian celebration of Twelfth Night drawn by Phiz,
who also illustrated many of Dickens' novels
Tonight's Twelfth Night! Historically speaking, that's the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates the miracle of God incarnate as Man. In Shakespeare's era, Twelfth Night was also called the Feast of Fools, the finale to a celebratory period of social inversion that started either at Halloween or at Christmas. Like most folk rituals, those surrounding Twelfth Night derived from diverse traditions & can be tricky to tease apart.

One particularly fun-sounding custom at the Feast of Fools was the Lord of Misrule. Everyone got a slice of fruitcake, called the "Twelfth Cake", with a bean & a pea cooked inside. Whoever got the bean was crowned lord of the feast; the person who got the pea was his lady. No idea what happened if a man got the pea, but a (literal) drag queen would fit the feast's topsy-turvy style.

What does all this have to do with Shakespeare's play? Not a lot, really. Most likely, the show premiered as part of a celebration of the Epiphany. Some scholars peg the debut production to the Queen's court on January 6, 1601. They note that Shakespeare's company presented a play that day for Elizabeth and her guest, an Italian nobleman named Virgilio Orsino. Some scholars can't resist the coincidence of names with the play's male romantic lead.

But those critics must stretch to find parallels between the plot and the Feast Day. They note a line of Sebastian, which evokes the concept of God-made-flesh:

                                    A spirit I am indeed,
          But am in that dimension grossly clad
          Which from the womb I did participate.

One line doesn't make a theme, and anyhow the miracle in Twelfth Night is one of doubled identity, not of divine incarnation. Critics will also attempt to cast the Lord of Misrule; usually Sir Toby Belch gets this role. He fits the type, but it's a type that Shakespeare used in other contexts as well (think of Falstaff).

Finally, unlike the Twelfth Night the Feast, Twelfth Night the Play never inverts the social order, although it does focus a subplot on social class. Malvolio, the household steward, imagines that he could marry his lady and rise in station. Sir Toby and company exploit this fantasy by gulling himpunishing him for his hopes. The dramaturgy conspires in this, wringing out a bit of pathos for his penitence before banishing him from the play in a sulk. So Twelfth Night never presents a social inversion (unlike, say, Taming, where a servant impersonates his master for a few acts); in fact, it punishes the thought.

That's not a very celebratory note to end this post on. So I'll reprint a 1648 Christmas poem by Robert Herrick, a disciple of Ben Jonson. Twelfe-Night, or a King and Queene is mediocre poetry, but it's about drinking and partying. It's also a good overview of the Feast of Fools tradition half a century after Shakespeare:

          Now, now the mirth comes
          With the cake full of plums,
     Where bean's the king of the sport here;
          Beside we must know,
          The pea also
     Must revel, as queen, in the court here.

          Begin then to choose,
          This night as ye use,
     Who shall for the present delight here,
          Be a king by the lot,
          And who shall not
     Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here.

          Which known, let us make
          Joy-sops with the cake;
     And let not a man then be seen here,
          Who unurged will not drink
          To the base from the brink
     A health to the king and queen here.

          Next crown a bowl full
          With gentle lamb's wool:
     Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
          With store of ale too;
          And thus ye must do
     To make the wassail a swinger.

          Give then to the king
          And queen wassailling:
     And though with ale ye be whet here,
          Yet part from hence
          As free from offense
     As when ye innocent met here.

Happy Twelfth Night, everyone!