"Art any more than a steward?" Sir Toby's question taunting Malvolio is one that succinctly summarizes many of Twelfth Night's tensions. More than any other comedy that came out of this period of British drama, Twelfth Night reveals its author's deep awareness of the shifting economic, social and political landscapes of his time. Three characters in the play—Sebastian, Viola and Maria—are successful in marrying "above their station”; two others, Aguecheek and Malvolio, though unsuccessful, attempt to do the same. Malvolio suffers ridicule for his misguided attempt, but he is by no means alone in his socially ambitious desires.
c1600, by Isaac Oliver
Elizabethan England was a society acutely aware of the possibility of upward mobility: the newly established bourgeoisie could for the first time permeate the rigid feudal class system of inherited wealth and status. Land, title and social status that for centuries could only be inherited, could now be bought. The commerce of an ever-growing mercantile and industrializing world created this "new money” and the new social class that went along with it—and the “old money” reacted with disdain and fear.
The monarchy and ruling class attempted to exert some control of their nouveau riche counterparts through legal and community measures. Queen Elizabeth introduced a sumptuary law, dictating specific clothing in accordance with social status, with the 1597 “Proclamation Against Inordinate Apparel.” For centuries, clothing was viewed as an outward sign of internal differences of rank considered to be determined by nature. Man's social status could thus, it was reasoned, be determined by his outward appearance. Expensive clothing was accepted as evidence of an individual's personal wealth and rank, and Tudor law actually dictated that certain materials and garments be worn exclusively by people of rank.
A society enacts into law what it feels it must control, by the power of law if necessary. The laws defining clothing by social rank betray the time's anxiety about how easily a person could deceive others, could aspire (like Malvolio) to become "more than he is." The influential and somewhat fanatical pamphleteer Philip Stubbes championed this idea, especially as it related to the readily donned—and easily rearranged—costumes of the theater. Fearing the potential collapse of British society at the hands of these over-zealous tailors, he wrote in a 1583 pamphlet:
Such a confuse mingle mangle of apparell...that it is verie hard to know who is noble, who is worshipfull, who is a gentleman, who is not; for you shall have those...go daylie in silkes, satens, damasks, taffeties and suchlike, notwithstanding that they be both base by byrthe, mean by estate & servile by calling. This is a great confusion & a general disorder, God be merciful unto us.
The theater constantly illustrated how readily identity could change, and was doubly threatening to the older, landed aristocracy in its presentation of stories that seemed to challenge the existing social order—and to a socially diverse audience, no less. It is no wonder that the theater in Elizabethan times was viewed by many, like Stubbes, as subversive and dangerous. It posed a threat—real or imagined—to a social order precariously held by an aristocratic society that now faced the growing strength of the bourgeoisie. The Sir Tobies and Sir Andrews of the world might be passed over and, in their place, an aspiring servant might get the upper hand.
If theater-going, with its wide array of spectators from pit to luxury box, represented a rare egalitarian activity for the newly defensive social classes of Shakespeare’s day, other social outings were still considered the purview of the lower classes only. Twelfth Night was written when bull- and bear-baiting were common sports and when the pillory and public executions entertained crowds. The bear-baiting pits stood beside the theaters along the south bank of London's Thames River—and not by coincidence since these activities were viewed as marginal and suspect entertainment for the general populace. "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you," Malvolio hurls at his tormentors. "The whole pack of you"—as though we, too, by enjoying the scene of his humiliation, had moved our seats from the more legitimate theater to the bear-baiting arena next door.
Twelfth Night mirrors the social volatility of late Elizabethan England with its complex plot built upon deepening class conflicts and the archaic boundaries of a crumbling class system threatened by the new economic order of capitalism. "Twelfth Night," writes critic Stevie Davies,
is a comic reflection and adaptation of conflicts and antipathies deeply and stressfully bound into the society of late Elizabethan England; its laughter converts angry facts into the blessing of laughter.
The existing social elite were further threatened by the open-ended political questions of the age. As Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night, an aging and reclusive Queen Elizabeth remained unmarried and childless on England's throne until her death in 1603. Throughout her political life, the Queen had carefully avoided each marriage contract that, by aligning her with one faction or another, might cause her and her government to lose power. Now in her old age, she and England faced her death with no heir apparent—an unstable political situation that made England's future at the turn of the seventeenth century uncertain and dangerous. Here at the heart of Shakespeare's final romantic comedy lives the Countess Olivia who, having lost her father and brother, seems determined to share her power with no one, turning away all male suitors—and in particular Orsino, the most powerful man in Illyria.
"One extraordinary woman in the period provided a model for such a career, lived out to its fullest—the virgin queen," comments Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt:
...alone and heirless and very dangerous. The queen had at once mobilized, manipulated, and successfully resisted decades of anxious male attempts to see her married; but this was a career that Elizabeth herself, let alone her male subjects, could not tolerate in any woman of lesser station.
The promise in Twelfth Night's final scene of two well-matching marriages, of course, resolves this "dangerous situation" much more easily than England itself could. But Shakespeare in his Olivia seems to suggest the dangers of a woman who, rejecting all suitors, cloisters herself in a great household isolated from the rest of the world—and who then turns around and recklessly marries before she realizes the true identity of her suitor. Olivia, like Elizabeth, derives her power from her refusal of a powerful male. In letting her veil drop, falling in love with Cesario, and then suddenly marrying Sebastian, Olivia opens up not only herself, but her entire household—her "kingdom."
Scholar Donna Hamilton draws a close comparison between Elizabeth's nation and Olivia's household:
Represented in the play is a social and political system in which all power is held symbolically by the person who heads the household, but in which all political action is controlled by people who, given the reclusivity of the head, operate with no check to their behaviour... The result is virtually a carte blanche situation for those at the top, one into which no change of policy can be interpolated, and thus one in which repression by way of any number of arbitrary tactics—including systems for controlling meaning and for demonising anyone who does not cooperate—becomes the taken-for-grantedness that characterizes daily life.
Many critics and directors view the character of Malvolio as an ominous representative of the Puritan movement that 40 years later would behead the king, establish the Commonwealth, and close the theaters as dangerous grouonds for sedition and depravity for a full 18 years. However, scholar Donna Hamilton questions whether the traditional view of Malvolio as a "typical Puritan" is, in fact, accurate. Instead, she suggests, Malvolio represents the caricature of the Puritan created by the anti-Puritan movement. Malvolio’s break from society at the play's end is, according to Hamilton, analogous to the situation that the English church at the time most feared: that the Puritans would, in fact, separate, and perhaps even enact their “revenge.”
No one had intended that the scapegoating would produce such a breach as this. Toby thought only to suppress and contain challenge, not make it more visible, permanent, and threatening...Representing scapegoating as a dysfunctional mechanism that fosters division, Shakespeare ends with a society whose ability to maintain its sense of itself as a unity has been seriously depleted.
According to Hamilton, it is entirely possible to situate Shakespeare's plays within an ecclesiastical context that is primarily political rather than theological. The focus becomes less on doctrine and what Shakespeare might have believed, than upon how the church functioned as an influential institution and how it accepted, or did not accept, the doctrine of obedience to the state. "Twelfth Night," says Hamilton,
...displays its connection to the issues of religious controversy with a disarming playfulness. The characters do not talk directly about religion, but religion and church politics often provide the language for what they do talk about.
During the 1590s, the state strategy for containing opposition to its church was to extend tolerance to moderate puritans, while pursuing outspoken religious extremists with force. John Darrell was a Puritan minister who performed exorcisms, a practice allowed by the Catholic church but forbidden in the English church. He came to trial before the court of High Commission in 1598. Found guilty, Darrell was imprisoned until his death in prison in 1602. While imprisoned, Darrell wrote six books in his defense, all printed on secret presses—and all ordered burned by the government.
The events surrounding Darrell's arrest, trial and imprisonment created quite a stir, due to the interest at the time in the oppressive tactics of church and government—and their concurrence with the Earl of Essex’s rebellion against the Queen. The two mutinies were tied not only in time but in meaning and implication. At the time that books were being written in Darrell's defense, so were others for Essex—and all in opposition to the Crown.
The long struggle between the English monarchy and its aristocracy stretched back into the Middle Ages. This struggle's last gasp was played out with Essex's rebellion against Elizabeth, the last in a long line of aristocratic revolts against the Crown. Twelfth Night was first performed in February 1602, exactly one year after the rebellion and execution of the Earl of Essex—an event said to have more deeply affected England even than its defeat of the Spanish Armada a few years earlier.
After the 1597 parliament, there was only one more Parliament called during Elizabeth's reign, ending with her death in 1603. The Parliament that met in 1601 (around the time that Shakespeare is thought to have written Twelfth Night) was characterized by an underlying mistrust between the Queen and the Commons.
The social and political climate in which Shakespeare lived was not the only factor influencing his writing, however. His own personal life is also seen as a source of inspiration at this time of his writing. Three times in his career Shakespeare turned to comedies to tell the story of brother/sister twins lost to one another and subsequently reunited. Perhaps in writing a story that begins tragically with the loss of a twin but ends happily in their reunion, Shakespeare dealt with his own grief of losing his only son Hamnet, who died at age 11, the brother of a surviving twin sister. Stories of lost and reunited children and parents would be important themes in Shakespeare’s more serious works following Twelfth Night.
The turn of the seventeenth century was a time of repressed social unrest, unease about the future, and a deep suspicion of the religious nonconformists who threatened the stability not only of the state's church but also of the state itself. It is possible that these pervasive undercurrents of fear and unrest informed the pages of Shakespeare's final comedy—and us 400 years later—about a history yet to unfold in one of the most powerful seats of government in the Early Modern world.
– Contributed by the CST Education Department