This is the second Shakespearean comedy I have seen this season – in what is turning out to be a veritable Bard-Fest – in which the director has focused the production on the ensemble instead of the ostensible leading characters. If you stop and think about how Shakespeare titled his plays, the tragedies and histories all bear the title of the central character(s) – Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra – while most of the comedies and romances have cheerfully nebulous names – As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, The Winter’s Tale, All’s Well That Ends Well – which make it clear that no one is the star. The title of Twelfth Night was undoubtedly supposed to prep the audience for some no-holds-barred post-Christmas style merriment, but its sub-title What You Will is just a big silly shrug of the shoulders. If Shakespeare were writing it today he might call it Spring Break or Whatever.
I used the spring break analogy to try to give a modern reader some idea of the kind of reckless silliness Shakespeare intended to impart with his choice of title. I realized with horror a few years ago that many Americans now believe that the Twelve Days of Christmas come before the holiday – as in “only twelve more shopping days until Christmas!” Let us put paid to THAT shameless capitalistic idea! The Twelve Days begin on Christmas*, which is an entire season in the Christian liturgical calendar. Twelfth Night, the conclusion of that season, was, and in some places still is, celebrated with food, drink, and “revels.” It is also the end of the sovereignty of the Lord of Misrule under whose reign everything is reversed and confusion is king.
In Twelfth Night the reversals are plain – gender (Viola dresses as a boy), social status (the servant Malvolio believes he can marry a noblewoman), intellect (the Fool is the wisest person in the play) – all are turned topsy-turvy. Sir Toby Belch, the very Lord of Cakes and Ale, and his minions Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Mary/Maria, rule the roost as their masters wallow in sadly confused romantic miseries.