Marking Twelfth Night

This week has seen the passing of Twelfth Night, on the eve of the Epiphany, the feast celebrating the visit of the Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus. Traditionally this marked, not so much the realisation of Jesusís divinity, as the end of the long winter season, the first tremor of spring perhaps, the dawning of a new season, even a new age.

It was traditionally an evening of fun and feasting, more so in many ways than Christmas or New Year, which are in their present form of celebration very modern.

It also recalls the comedy of William Shakespeare, which reflects this tradition. This play was the topic of a very remarkable book, The First Night of Twelfth Night by the redoubtable archive detective Dr Leslie Hotson.  In this he overturned general accepted idea about the Elizabethan theatre and how plays were then staged. Out went (in this instance at least) the ‘Wooden O’ and the apron stage jutting into the audience.

He showed from both account books of the Royal Court and from other records, some of which had to be retrieved from Russia, Germany and Italy, how much we can rediscover how the play was first performed.

If was offered in London’s Middle Temple Hall on Twelfth Night in 1602. The guests of honour were Queen Elizabeth I herself, and two important visitors, the Russian ambassador and an Italian nobleman, named in fact Orsini – hence Orsino in the play.

But the play was acted, not at the end of the hall, but in the middle of it, ‘in the round’ with the queen and the audience seated in galleries around it on all side. On the stage were also portable houses, little tents which stood for the various locations, into which the actors could retire at times.

But the play was a comedy, specially written in a couple of weeks to the express order of the chamberlain. It satirises not only court officials, but also the Russian ambassador, who like Russian diplomats then as now, lacked the polish and the manners which are usually associated with those “who lie abroad for their country”.

But this was a Twelfth Night party, and for that reason Shakespeare’s first night had a special place for both song and music, but also for graceful and energetic dances, of the kind that Queen Elizabeth adored.

The play was a literary flourish to a festive night. On the same evening across Europe similar feasts were being held. Such merriment lasted down to the early 19th Century. But with the emergence of an over regulated annual work cycle of the kind that we have today, and the retreat from communal feasting into private household parties, Twelfth Night faded. 

Life is not all the fun and glitter and romance that Shakespeare casts over this occasion. When the fun and feasting ends, we are left with the mystery of the Incarnation.

For we have to keep in mind that the original occasion for the feast was the eve of the Epiphany when the wise men from the East, those enigmatic figures in the Gospel of Matthew, who were perhaps astrologers from Chaldea, that notorious home of magicians, come to recognise and honour with gifts the birth of  Jesus.

Though today we would discount the reading of the stars which brought the Magi to Palestine, the moment was significant.

That event, like the massacre of the Holy Innocents, casts a more sombre aspect on the birth of the Christ. It was the inspiration of another landmark in literature, T. S. Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi.

The narrator of the poem, one of the magi in old age, confesses it had been a hard journey, but what they found at the end of it was satisfactory. And yet…they were puzzled: was this birth or death?

“There was a birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought them different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our palaces, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people, clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.”