Twelfth Night: New Critical Essays

Twelfth Night: New Critical Essays

Twelfth Night: New Critical Essays

Twelfth Night: New Critical Essays


This volume in the Shakespeare Criticism series offers a range of approaches to TwelfthNight, including its critical reception, performance history, and relation to early modern culture.

James Schiffer's extensive introduction surveys the play's critical reception and performance history, while individual essays explore a variety of topics relevant to a full appreciation of the play: early modern notions of love, friendship, sexuality, madness, festive ritual, exoticism, social mobility, and detection. The contributors approach these topics from a variety of perspectives, such as new critical, new historicist, cultural materialist, feminist and queer theory, and performance criticism, occasionally combining several approaches within a single essay.

The new essays from leading figures in the field explore and extend the key debates surrounding Twelfth Night, creating the ideal book for readers approaching this text for the first time or wishing to further their knowledge of this stimulating, much loved play.


James Schiffer

Now the melancholy god protect thee, and the tailor make thy doublet of
changeable taffeta, for thy mind is a very opal.

Twelfth Night, 2.4.73–75

Twelfth Night has long enjoyed a reputation as one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies. Written and first performed at the mid- point of his career, probably in 1601, the play seems to have been popular in its own time up to the closing of the theatres in 1642. When the theatres reopened during the Restoration, Twelfth Night was revived briefly, but it was not until Charles Macklin’s London production in 1741 that it became a mainstay of Shakespeare’s theatrical repertoire, one of his most often performed plays. Since the late eighteenth century to the present day, it has been hailed by critics and directors as the culmination of Shakespeare’s festive comedies, as well as a precursor to the darker problem plays, tragedies, and romances that follow. While not one of his most controversial plays, it has proven to be very elusive, difficult to interpret and to stage. Nevertheless, the play “rarely fails to afford pleasure,” according to Michael Billington. “But equally, it is difficult to achieve … its ambivalent darkness and resonant comedy” (1990, xxx). After stating that there have been many lively discussions of Much Ado About Nothing, M. M. Mahood notes that there have been “comparatively few of Twelfth Night.” Critics, she claims “[s]ometimes … overwhelm it in a highly schematic attempt to relate it to all that has gone before … and at other times they retreat unabashed before its elusive grace” (1979, 7). In more recent times, to the dismay of some formalists, the play has become a rich site for cultural critics who have explored the play’s relation to early modern ideas about sexuality and the body, gender, identity, festive misrule, religion, and social class and hierarchy.

Despite almost universal praise for Twelfth Night, what is emphasized and admired in the play has often varied from one age to the next, and even from critic to critic within each age. To account for this fact, we must look not only to changing cultural and historical factors that shape different audience responses at different times but also to the richness of the play itself, the . . .

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