Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" - Topicality as a problem

Seminar Paper, 2007

16 Pages, Grade: 1,5


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Topical references in Twelfth Night – a selection
2.1 Geographical references
2.2 Telling names – Orsino and Olivia
2.3 Twelfth Night as a mirror of social concerns – gender and social mobility

3 Topicality as a link between play and audience

4 Conclusion – topicality as a problem

5 Bibliography

6 Appendix

1 Introduction

“Life is but a walking shadow; a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more”[1] Life as a player on the stage – this can be seen as a leading metaphor of the Elizabethan Age Shakespeare lived in. If this is taken literally, it is interesting to have a look at how the life of Shakespeare’s time acts as a player on the Elizabethan stage. Especially the Elizabethan stage is famous for the close interaction between the very heterogeneous audience and the playwrights through the means of the play and its performance. Without any doubt it can be assumed that Shakespeare and his fellows bore the special disposition of each layer of the audience in mind when they created a piece of drama and brought the “life” upon the stage. This fact is one reason why it is important not only to analyse the text-intrinsic factors like structural, formal or linguistic characteristics but also to have a closer look at what can be assumed the context that influenced the creation of the work.

Therefore, this paper is concerned with the topical references included in Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night or What you will. Topicality in the context of this paper is defined as all facts included in the play that are supposed to have been of current interest in the Elizabethan Age. For this purpose, the paper will proceed in three steps. First of all, some topical references frequently named by the secondary literature will be presented with special attention to the link established between the play and the several facts. Secondly, it is interesting to ask why some references were included. Taking the facts mentioned above into account, one basic assumption for this step is that playwrights do not only unconsciously mirror reality but do it for special, recipient-oriented reasons. At least one interesting theory developed by Anthony Alridge in his monograph Shakespeare and the Prince of Love. The Feast of Misrule in the Middle Temple will be discussed in this chapter. Finally, the facts discussed until that point will be summarized and questioned once more under another aspect: can topicality be a problem and for whom? That is why some thoughts will be spent on topicality as a problem in Shakespeare’s times and for the recipient in our post-modern days. Even though especially the last question concerning the gap between the horizons of understanding of both periods could be of special note for teachers, e.g., theirs is only little space for this particular topic because of the limitations this paper naturally has to take into account. This is also the reason why only some of the most stressing topical references can be discussed in the course of the paper. A lot of details have to be excluded. So the paper can show only some examples and discuss possible reasons for them.

2 Topical references in Twelfth Night – a selection

2.1 Geographical references

There seems to be a firm agreement in the secondary literature that Shakespeare included a considerable number of topical references within Twelfth Night that deal with geographical explorations . This might be due to the fact that journeys to the edges of the world had an air of adventure for Elizabethan citizens so that one can assume knowledge about such explorations to be spread widely among both large parts of the audience and, of course, the playwrights.

The first reference to be found in the play is situated in one of Fabian’s utterances shortly after Malvolio has received Maria’s letter and dreamt of his future position of power: “I will not give my part of this sport for a pension of thousands to be paid from the Sophy.”[2] Most interestingly, he obviously refers to someone or something entitled “the Sophy”. Furthermore, Sir Toby makes a similar reference later in the play when he talks about the duel between Sir Andrew and Cesario: “They say he has been fencer to the Sophy.” (TN III/4, ll. 283-284) Both utterances refer to a subject of topical interest which took place between 1598 and 1601. Sir Anthony and Sir Robert Sherley travelled to the Shah of Persia’s court. They arrived there in 1599. While Sir Anthony worked as an ambassador for the Shah of Persia and later returned to Europe, his brother “never returned to England and died in Persia.”[3] Anthony did only return to Rome and not to England since the Queen was angry about his expedition: she thought that this journey which took place under the Earl of Essex’s patronage without her consent might spoil her relations to Portugal.[4] Nevertheless, the expedition was made public several times: the first time was in 1598, when a letter of one of Sherley’s companions reached England, the second and third time two publications informed the public about the event – “A true report of Sir Anthonie Shierlies Journey” published in September 1600 and “A new and large discourse of the Travels of Sir Anthony Sherley by Sea and over land to the Persian Empire”.[5] Lothian and Craik seem to argue in the right way when they point out that even though there is no prove that Shakespeare read the books, especially the first insertion is apparently out of context and comes as a surprise. They conclude that with certainty the phrases were inserted for reasons of topicality.[6]

Shakespeare’s fascination for exploration manifests itself in another topical reference which can be found once more in Fabian’s utterance in a conversation about Sir Andrew’s ambitions concerning Olivia:

“the double gilt of this opportunity you let time wash off, and you are now sailed into the north of my lady’s opinion, where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard […]” (TN II/2, ll. 24-26)

This passage contains a reference to William Barents’ Arctic voyage, who was a Dutchman from Friesland. The voyage took place in the years 1596 and 1597. It lead the explorer round the north of Nova Zembla and was reported to the public by Gerrit de Veer whose work was translated into English in 1598. Again, one can agree with Lothian and Craik who confirm that “[t]he voyage and its hardships must have been common knowledge when Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night”.[7]

One last geographical reference that should be mentioned here can be found in Maria’s description of Malvolio’s smile:

“he does smile his face into more lines than is in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies” (TN III/3, ll. 75-77)

Without any exception, the secondary literature names the Wright-Molyneux-Map as the object referred to in Maria’s utterance.[8] The authors agree on the fact that the “Indies” mentioned are the East-Indies which are completely shown on the first edition of this map from 1599. Oddly enough, the map contains rhumb-lines. These lines are used in navigation and are special because they cross each meridian in the same angle and always start from one point. Taking this into consideration (one copy of the map taken from the internet is shown in the appendix), the tertium-comparationis of this metaphor can be revealed as another topical allusion – the map was still new in 1601 because it was the latest map available in these days.


[1] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. Barbara Rojahn-Deyk (Stuttgart: Reclam 1996) Act V, sc. 5, ll. 24-26.

[2] Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. eds. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik (London: Arden, 2005) Act II, sc. 5, ll. 180-181. All quotes are taken from this edition, referred to as TN in the text. Acts, scenes and lines are indicated in this order: II/5, ll. 180-181.

[3] Anthony Alridge, Shakespeare and the Prince of Love: The Feast of Misrule in the Middle Temple (London: Giles de la Mare 2000) 58.

[4] Cf. ibid., 58.

[5] Cf. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik, “Introduction,” William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night. eds. Lothian and Craik (London: Arden 2005) xxx-xxxi and Alridge, Shakespeare and the Prince of Love, 58.

[6] Cf. ibid., xxx-xxxi.

[7] Ibid., xxxii.

[8] Cf. ibid., xxxii-xxxiii; this topic has been considered by Alridge, Shakespeare and the Prince of Love, 58 and Hildegard Hummel-Hammerscheidt, William Shakespeare: Seine Zeit – sein Leben – sein Werk (Mainz: Phillip von Zabern 2003) 142, too.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" - Topicality as a problem
Martin Luther University  (Anglistik / Amerikanistik)
Shakespearean Plays
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ISBN (Book)
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Shakespeare, Twelfth, Night, Topicality, Shakespearean, Plays
Quote paper
Peter Grube (Author), 2007, Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" - Topicality as a problem, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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