These are the programme notes I wrote for the production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night I directed for the 2011 St Lawrence Shakespeare Festival.
The term “Twelfth Night” refers to January 6th, which is the day that commemorates the coming of the Magi, the first revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. So, in one aspect it represents salvation for those who previously lacked understanding. But there’s another aspect. For the Elizabethans, this day would have marked the end of the festival season, and so this accounts for both the mood of celebration that hangs over the play as well as the sense of melancholy that arises as the holidays come to a close. It might have felt to them a little like our New Year’s Day often does to us: the last chance to celebrate, which, because of the celebrations that have preceded, is a little more muted, as the “appetite is sickened by excess” ⎯ to paraphrase Orsino’s first lines. So, there are two ideas here: the melancholy close of celebrating a season of miracles, but also a sort of hopeful last chance for joyful miracles to arise.
It is that latter idea which is promised by the alternative title, “What You Will.” And this is one of the main businesses of Comedy: to help characters sort out what they think they would like to happen from what they really would like. It is, as Viola puts it, a hard knot to untie; however, only when it is untied can vitality and love emerge triumphant. The other main business of Comedy is a related one: to depict the development of self knowledge in some characters and to ridicule the lack of it in others. In this respect, Twelfth Night is an acknowledged masterpiece of the genre. It shows us excess in both the poles of dignity and festivity, and it encourages us to find a golden mean.
The country in which the story takes place is “Illyria,” which, if we are to be literal, is located in the former Yugoslavia. What is more important than geography, however, is that “Illyria” be depicted as a place caught between melancholy and joy, a place that is deeply devoted to music, and a place in which foreigners arrive to find that miracles are still possible. So, for this production, we are asking the audience to inform their idea of what “Illyria” might be like with a vague idea of post-1798 Rebellion, pre-Home Rule Ireland. This idea is meant to be less a representation of any real Ireland than an evocation of the “Ireland” of our literary imaginations: a place where festivity, melancholy, enchantment and the age-old anxiety about enforced servitude to false masters all combine to create what Yeats would call a “terrible beauty.”