Festivity, dressing up and misrule in Twelfth Night

In the Elizabethan period, 'Twelfth Night' was a festival celebrated with music, masked balls, misrule and general revelry. Michael Dobson considers the place of festivity and disguise in Shakespeare's play of the same name.

Attempts to tie Twelfth Night too directly to the festival from which its title derives have sometimes backfired – when the Duke of York’s theatre revived it on January 6th 1663, for instance, Samuel Pepys complained that it was ‘a silly play and not relating at all to the name or day’, while Kenneth Branagh’s decision to give his 1987 stage production the decor of a Victorian Christmas, so that Malvolio resembled Scrooge, didn’t please everyone. It is quite possible that Shakespeare himself called this play only by what subsequently became its subtitle, What You Will, perhaps thereby signalling its status as a contrasting companion piece to his previous comedy As You Like It. But it isn’t inappropriate that this play should be associated with a day which in Shakespeare’s time came as the climax of the festive season, the occasion for music, elaborate fancy-dress masked balls, and parties during which whoever found the bean baked into a special cake would be declared ‘Lord of Misrule’ for the night. With the complications produced by Viola’s disguise as a page boy occupying its main plot and the steward Malvolio’s sartorial transformation from steward to aspiring lover providing the central image of its subplot, Twelfth Night is very much a play about the potential hazards of dressing up, and with its dramatisation of the antagonism between the hedonistic, alcoholic and gluttonous Sir Toby Belch and the puritanical steward who longs to discipline him, it is also very much a play about the social implications of festivity.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Malvolio (with stockings cross-gartered), Maria and Olivia. Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 4, by Johann Heinrich Ramberg

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Clothing and the social structure

These concerns resonated in Shakespeare’s time in ways which in ours – when public transvestism is legal and almost commonplace, and when the idea of a man wearing yellow cross-gartered stockings is suggestive of a golf tournament rather than of a come-on – have definitely faded. For many in the Tudor establishment, however, proper social hierarchy was perceived to be under threat, so that the Lady Olivia’s preference for a supposed page over a count, never mind her steward’s fantasy of marrying her so as to become ‘Count Malvolio’ (2.5.33), would have carried a definite transgressive thrill for this play’s first audiences in 1601. Although the existence of an increasingly influential merchant class had been complicating matters of social status since the later middle ages, the Tudors continued to make last-ditch attempts to enforce visible markers of rank. Sumptuary laws, designed to make a person’s place in life legible at a glance by regulating how much the members of different classes were allowed to spend on clothes, were reinforced by a series of proclamations throughout the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I: it was actually illegal to wear fabrics or colours deemed inappropriate to one’s station. This was one reason some anti-theatrical writers gave for wanting to close down the playhouses: not only did they provide an arena in which spectators could show off their own inappropriately dressy outfits, but when not watching each other they could enjoy the spectacle of mere common players dressed up as lords and kings.

Proclamation against Excess of Apparel by Queen Elizabeth I

Proclamation against Excess of Apparel by Queen Elizabeth I

An outline of what garments and fabrics could be worn by men and women of different ranks.

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So when Malvolio imagines toying not with his steward’s chain – the badge of office which labels him as an upper servant – but with ‘some rich jewel’ (2.5.59, all this while wearing a ‘branched velvet gown’, 2.5.45–46), during an extended daydream about how marriage to Olivia will enable him not just to sleep with the woman who is currently his employer but to rebuke her aristocratic uncle Sir Toby afterwards, the play is offering a glimpse not just of comic sexual self-delusion but of a potentially subversive upward mobility. It is cruelly fitting that the revenge of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and their servant cronies involves tricking Malvolio into a different inappropriate outfit, forging a letter by which he comes to believe that Olivia wants him to wear yellow stockings, cross-gartered (2.5.148–49). Not only was cross-gartering hopelessly outmoded by 1601, but wearing brightly-coloured hose was a badge of the young, free and single (there was even an Elizabethan popular song, in which a husband longs for his carefree bachelordom, called ‘Give Me My Yellow Hose Again’). The practical joke turns Malvolio into a ludicrous and alarming fashion hybrid: sober steward above the waist, satyr below.

Photograph of Stephen Fry in a 2012 production of Twelfth Night directed by Tim Carroll

Photograph of Stephen Fry in a 2012 production of Twelfth Night directed by Tim Carroll

Stephen Fry as Malvolio in yellow, cross-gartered stockings.

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Copyright: © Robbie Jack / Robbie Jack / Corbis

‘Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?’

Arguably, the whole of Twelfth Night debates the very nature and morality of comedy, in a manner informed by contemporary arguments about the religious politics of mirth. ‘Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?’, demands Malvolio (2.3.88–89), roused in the middle of the night to complain about Sir Toby’s drunken singing of, among other things, a carol (‘O’ the twelfth day of December’, possibly a misquotation of ‘On the twelfth day of Christmas’ 2.3.81). According to Malvolio, described by Maria as ‘a kind of puritan’ (2.3.135), such behaviour is not a legitimate expression of festivity but merely ‘uncivil rule’ (2.3.119). In this he is indeed akin to the puritan faction within the English Church in Shakespeare’s time, who wanted those pre-Reformation festival practices which remained part of the ecclesiastical calendar removed, and who were especially keen to ban recreational activities on Sundays and the fund-raising parish booze-ups known as ‘church ales’. For the puritans, the whole year should be equally sober: there should be no more carnival, only a perpetual, law-abiding Lent. In 1601, then, Sir Toby’s famous retort carried a topical edge as well as a grossly snobbish one: ‘Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think because / thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ (2.3.109–11). But if Malvolio is vanquished within the play, storming out of its denouement vowing vengeance on the ‘whole pack’ of his tormentors (5.1.374), it was his kindred spirits offstage who were destined for ultimate victory. Although James I eventually published a ‘Book of Sports’ soon after Shakespeare’s death declaring certain pastimes, even maypole dancing, definitely legal on Sundays, the playhouses would in time be closed down during the rule of a puritan Parliament (1642) and James’s son Charles I deposed and executed (1649). Even after the restoration of Charles II, the ex-puritan Samuel Pepys’ dislike of Twelfth Night may have stemmed from a continuing sympathy with Malvolio: ‘the business of abusing the Puritans begins to grow stale, and of no use,’ he wrote in 1668, ‘they being the people that, at last, will be found the wisest’.

The Anatomy of Abuses by Philip Stubbes, 1583

The Anatomy of Abuses by Philip Stubbes, 1583

A book of puritanical invective against various festivities, pastimes and practices.

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  • Michael Dobson
  • Michael Dobson is Director of the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham. His publications include The Making of the National Poet (1992), The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare (with Stanley Wells, 2001, revised edition 2015), England's Elizabeth (with Nicola Watson, 2002), Performing Shakespeare's Tragedies Today (2006) and Shakespeare and Amateur Performance (2011). He is currently researching the role of the Shakespeare canon in the emergence of national theatre institutions worldwide.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.