Twelfth Night and Shakespeare’s Career

In 1599, after the lease on the ground upon which The Theatre had expired and the landlord refused to renew it, Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, just decided to do the obvious thing. They tore down the building and carried everything – nails, planks, costumes and all – across the river to a new site on the South Bank. There they constructed The Globe Theatre out of the salvaged bits of The Theatre. Shakespeare, along with his partner Richard Burbage, who probably played Orsino in Twelfth Night, was becoming an impressario.


How Shakespeare began in the theatre industry is lost in the realm of myth (there is the story that he began by holding the horses of the more well-to-do patrons), but by the early 1590s he was an actor and jobbing writer, working corporately (that is, with other playwrights) on several plays including all the parts of Henry VI, Titus Andronicus, and possibly Love’s Labour’s Lost. Then, when he became a founding member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1593, he was in a position unique among playwrights of the time. He was the only playwright who was actually a sharer (a kind of stockholder or owner) of a playing company. Everyone else worked contract by contract, but Shakespeare had the luxury of writing for a specific group of actors whose skills he knew and whose expertise he could play to.


At this point in his career, Shakespeare was known primarily as a comedian who had written some particularly good poems, though what we today consider his great tragedies were to come in the next few years. We know this because there is a reference in a book called Palladis Tamia from 1598 where the author, Francis Meres, describes Shakespeare as “honey-tongued” and lists his great comedies and several of his histories as examples of his excellence. Shakespeare had clearly done well by playing to the strengths of his actors in his plays.


By 1599, however, Shakespeare’s company was undergoing a few changes, not least of which was the move to Southwark I mentioned. They were about to lose their resident comedian, Will Kemp, who specialized in acrobatic physical comedy – a loss that you can see literalized in Hamlet from 1600/01 in Yorick’s skull. The company replaced Will Kemp with the comedian Robert Armin, whose style was based on wordplay and song. This you can see Twelfth Night (from around 1601) in the character Robert Armin played, Feste – he is a singer and a wit, not an acrobat.


It is around the turn of the century that Shakespeare’s plays change in terms of tone. For one, it is following this move to Southwark that Shakespeare writes the great tragedies – Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth – and the romances – Pericles, Cymbeline, The Tempest. Also, at this time, his comedies begin to strain against the bounds of generic prescription. That is, they don’t really look or act like what we think comedies should be. Measure for Measure, for instance, is notoriously problematic in terms of the bleak tone of what is structurally a comedy. Twelfth Night comes at that crux moment, just before Shakespeare starts pushing the genre to the edge of what it is to be a comedy.


Emma Smith actually argues that the play that Twelfth Night is most closely related to from Shakespeare’s canon is Hamlet, and I have to admit that I agree. It is certainly the case that both Hamlet and Twelfth Night were written around the same time, but more importantly, the central hinderance to the plots of both plays is grief and the ways in which we can get over grief. In the case of Hamlet, the tragic vision has it that obsessive performance and reperformance of grief ends up with the culminating atrocity of the fifth act and a questionable justice attained through horror. In the case of Twelfth Night, grief is overcome through love, but importantly not through erotic desire. “Love” here is kind of companionate love, a divine or agapic love (from the term “agape” which the Greeks considered the highest form of love).


This has led to some people suggesting that these plays, Hamlet and Twelfth Night, are Shakespeare’s responses to the death of his only son, Hamnet, in 1596. Though this is certainly possible, I strongly discourage you from investigating this too much for this class insofar as you can never possibly provide any direct or unequivocal evidence for the state of mind of a writer. As Plato pointed out, writers lie. That’s what they do. It’s literally their job. To say that Twelfth Night’s investigation of grief stems directly from Hamnet Shakespeare’s death is to commit the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc or after the fact therefore because of the fact. A playwright can investigate grief, after all, and not have it be a personal psychodrama.

So, by the time Shakespeare is writing Twelfth Night, he is at the top of his career. He’s about to write the great tragedies and is a sharer in the most profitable playing company of his day. He is well-respected at court and by writers like Frances Meres. So if he is so well respected… why is this play so dirty?

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