Shakespeare was busy between 1601 and 1602; not only did he write Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida but Twelfth Night. And what a night it must have been when it opened on February 2, 1602 at a London law school called Middle Temple for all to watch a male actor cross-dressing as a female who cross-dresses as a male. The play would be labeled a “Transvestite Comedy” with all its gender ambiguity and dressing “crossed” which did not sit well with 16th C. theater critics who thought its apparent deviance quite “monstrous”.
But the 17th C. diary of law student, John Manningham, indicates otherwise, proving the student audience actually enjoyed Shakespeare’s mocking take down of the puritanical but power-hungry antagonist, Malvolio. Manningham wrote: At our feast wee had a play called “Twelfth Night, or What You Will,” much like “The Comedy of Errors” or Menechmi in Plautus, but most like and neere to that in Italian called Inganni. A good practice in it to make a Steward believe his Lady Widow was in love with him, by counterfeiting a letter […]
It is said King Charles I (1600-1649) focused on the steward as well when he crossed out the title Twelfth Night and wrote Malvolio! in his copy of Shakespeare’s work. Evidently the cross-dressing was not of concern to His Majesty. It is not certain Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) saw the play…she would die a year later, perhaps in no mood for a message about social class wrapped in frivolity. One can only wonder what she might have thought?
So…here we go again with the Bard who is seemingly hooked on themes of mistaken identity. Was our own recent and glorious Miami-style Comedy of Errors a grand prelude to yet another hugely entertaining version of “who’s really who” in Twelfth Night?