Study Guide

Twelfth Night, or What You Will What's Up with the Title?

By William Shakespeare

What's Up with the Title?

You might have guessed that Twelfth Night, or What You Will (William Shakespeare's only play with an alternate title) has something to do with the popular song "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Twelfth Night (January 6) marks the Feast of the Epiphany, a holiday in Western Christian theology that celebrates the day that the magi (a.k.a. three wise men) presented gifts to the newborn Jesus.

Critics argue about whether or not the play was written specifically for Twelfth Night. Leslie Hotson argues that Twelfth Night was performed for Queen Elizabeth and her guest, Count Don Virginio Orsino, on January 6, 1601. (Orsino, of course, is the name of Viola's love interest in the play.) Plenty of scholars disagree and argue that the play was written later, but even those who refute Hotson's argument acknowledge that the world of the play celebrates the spirit of Twelfth Night festivities.

Twelfth Night is a religious holiday but it marks the end of a period of major celebration and revelry, and boy did the Elizabethans know how to party. During the Twelfth Night season people ate, danced, and drank themselves silly. Think Mardi Gras, which is another religious holiday associated with the inversion of rules and social disorder. Elizabethan communities often appointed young boys as "Lords of Misrule" to play king for a day and reign over the festivities. (They borrowed this from pagan winter celebrations like the Roman Saturnalia.) Twelfth Night, then, was a way for people to let loose, blow off some steam, and thumb their noses at authority.

This attitude can be seen pretty clearly in figures like Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who party like rock stars 24/7. Feste's singing and foolery also embodies the play's festive and rebellious spirit. Check out "Quotes" for "Rules and Order" for more on this.

The second part of the play's title, What You Will, also seems to get at this celebratory, anything goes attitude captured in the play, where all characters cross social boundaries and engage in foolery (even if they're unaware of their behavior). Some theorize that the second part of the title was an afterthought. The story goes like this: When someone asked the playwright "Hey Willy Shakespeare, what's the name of the play you're writing?" Shakespeare replied, "Um, Twelfth Night, or what you will" (as in, "I don't know – whatever").

Regardless of whether or not Shakespeare was being dismissive or flippant, the second title seems to invite the audience to make "what [we] will" of the play – what it means, why it matters (if it matters at all), and so forth. Sounds good to us. We'll definitely be taking up Shakespeare's invitation to lighten up and open up to all the different interpretive possibilities in Twelfth Night, and so should you.