The Chaos of the Twelfth Night in the Twelfth Night
Men and women familiar with the popular Christmas carol, “the Twelve Days of Christmas,” might not be aware of the actual meaning of the verse. The Twelve Days make reference to the Anglican and Protestant seasons of Christmastide, which last from Christmas day to the twelfth day thereafter. This day, commonly referred to as the Twelfth Night, is a day for merrymaking and festivity, particularly in the Anglican church, somewhat similar to April Fool’s Day in the United States and Canada. It should be of no surprise, then, that Shakespeare should have incorporated into Twelfth Night some of the elements of its namesake. Foremost amongst these is the element of confusion and reversal of typicality. In Twelfth Night, like most all of Shakespeare’s comedies, the element of disguise and scheme play central roles. One most notable example is the disguise of Viola into Cesario. This disguise, though it may seem queer to first-time readers of Shakespearian comedies, sets the plot of the play in motion and, through the typically likeable quality of Viola, establishes a form of moral baseline for other actions and characters throughout the play. The rather intricate and confused love triangle which unfolds through the play also originates from this act of disguise; in no other Shakespeare play is such an importance placed on the upside-down nature of a disguise, lending the reader a sense of almost instability, that suggests the entire course of events could be drastically altered by the modification of one event. This can easily be interpreted as an expression of the common Anglican belief that there is some inherent unluckiness or hex associated with the Twelfth Night holiday, one which might result in the undoing of comfort and normativity.
This theme of chaos and instability can also be found in the motif of mistaken identities found near the conclusion of the play. Cesario is taken for Sebastian, and Sebastian for Cesario, many times throughout the conclusion of the play. This unsureness and confusion could have been very relatable to Shakespeare’s contemporaries, who could’ve seen a clear homage to the confusion and chaos of the Twelfth Night.