A Summer of Romance, Friendship, and Personal Loss, PART II

BACKGROUND Notes to the Playlet and Twelfth Night

The highly acclaimed CSF Shakespeare & Violence Prevention Program, founded in 2011, has reached over 100,000 students in 264 schools. In partnership with the Center for the Prevention of Violence its aim is to reach 180,000 over all 68 Colorado counties. In its focus on anti-bullying it is complementary to ADL’s highly successful No Place for Hate Program.

I had the opportunity to experience the moving theatrical preview of Twelfth Night (for below sixth graders) brought together by Timothy Orr and my friend, Amanda Giguere. The bullying in Shakespeare’s play of Malvolio is based on a true story, that of Shakespeare’s friend the Earl of Essex and the events that led to the end of Elizabeth’s last favorite two years before the end of her reign.

All plays of Shakespeare, like those referenced in the Playlet, are connected to each other and most have a deep connection to his earliest personal and families lives and experiences in his home town, Stratford-upon-Avon, a town that was on the periphery and yet “in the middle of things”.

If Shakespeare adapted from real life, was he also far in advance of the average Elizabethan in areas such as gender and tolerance? Where did such strong characters like Viola, and this season’s Rosalind (As You Like It) and Juliet (Romeo and Juliet) come from if not from life:

Shakespeare’s best roles for women? These are Will’s fierce female forces.

Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother, was executor of her father’s will. And some of Viola’s ripostes on gender to the Duke’s ‘typical’ views under the cover of her guise sound similar to the strong ones expressed by several voices in Castiglione’s Courtier (Greenwood Guide to As You Like It). Maybe in these times, when on daily basis our entire present world sometimes appears to verging towards a one night, Turned Upside Down Twelfth Night, perhaps we should take a closer look.


The beginning of the year 1601 was something of a crossroads for William Shaxspeare and for England.  Personally, Shakespeare had gone through some rough times.  He had lost his only son, Hamnet, in the summer of 1596, his father was ill and was to die shortly, and he was slowly emerging from a long affair with the “Dark Lady” of the Sonnets whom some identify with Emilia Lanier, a member of one of the several families of musicians from Venice, Jewish converts to Christianity who had been first welcomed to England by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII.

Personal Loss and Family Bonds in Twelfth Night and The Tempest

The emotional draw of Twelfth Night really has to do with the audience’s identification with Viola’s sense of loss for her twin brother.  This inability to show her true feelings in public, triply mystifies, saddens, and comically amuses by repetition and by her disguise, necessitating Viola to hide her love from Orsino and defend herself from Olivia’s misplaced affections.

In August 1596 eleven year old Hamnet Shakespeare died suddenly, probably while Shakespeare was away on tour in Kent.  Anne and William Shakespeare had only three children.  Anne the oldest was the occasion for their marriage.  Though they might have given them to each other in troth plight, but at any rate Anne was well pregnant when they took their vows.

It would be two years before the young couple would again have children and this time it was twins, Judith and Hamnet and then no more.  So Hamnet’s death would leave a great gap in the family.   There are four possible places where this apparently very private, personal loss and grief for Will Shakespeare and his family appear in Shakespeare’s works.

The first, and earliest of these in the plays, is in King John, where Constance mourns the death of her son Arthur, humanized by her looking at the clothes he will never live to wear again.  It is the grief of a mother, portrayed.

The second is in Sonnet 33, so ably argued by Michael Wood in his Shakespeare, ‘he was but one hour mine’ where the analogy would be made with the loss of God’s son (Jesus) and the proverbial early morning sun which does never last the whole day.  This may actually be the first instance, the feeling of loss of Shakespeare himself, the now successful poet walking alone as the sun rises at dawn over the Cotswolds in the late summer of 1596.

The third may be in Hamlet where Hamnet’s name may survive in the name of its main character and paralleled doubly in the elder Hamlet as a remembrance of the recent decease of Shakespeare’s father, John.

The fourth is in this play Twelfth Night in Viola’s grief for her brother, and her brother for her.  Only the audience knows they are both still alive.  But the playwright understands and makes us feel the bonds which connect twins in life and beyond death, the feelings so strong that a sister would want to take on a brother’s identity.

Ten years later Shakespeare would write another play with strong indications of personal biography.  The daughter in the play is about the same age as Judith and Hamnet would have been at the time of the latter’s early death. There is this strong bond between father and daughter, this observation of the memory of a child of three that Coleridge drew so clearly in his lecture on The Tempest.

Of course, this is ten years later and the analogy is with the eldest daughter’s, Susannah’s wedding, and the discovery of the chess scene with her future husband, but it must have brought back memories.  There are strong indications that Shakespeare, again as in our fictional playlet, had returned to Stratford for an unusually long stay as the play was being conceived.

From Coleridge’s suggestion of a personal connection and a great storm in June 1996 on a trip to England, four hundred years later, I constructed this fictional scenario for the origin of one of only two plays without a formal identified single source story.  Both of these plays MSND and The Tempest are transformative dream plays.

In the summer of 1996 we traveled through England, Wales, and Scotland for a month.  The first day in Bath I read of a sudden storm that had swept through the West Country.  Influenced by the Coleridge’s description of Prospero’s storm, his relation of his and Miranda’s own story, and the sleep he brought on his young daughter suggested to me a similar early beginning for The Tempest, a tale I related to my wife and two friends over dinner that night.

It was the beginning of a transformational literary and historical journey that summer.  England was beginning to merge into the Common Market.  The family children were taking on an added importance relative to the family dog unlike our first visit in 1970.  The influence of continental chefs on cooking, cross channel travel, relationships, and family warmth were beginning to rub off in a big way.

The description of the storm that first day in the newspapers indicated a horrendous event, but I had no idea of its intensity and effect until we were in the Cotswolds a week or so later.  Stopping by at a local bank to exchange currency, I casually asked the teller about the storm.  She, it turned out, hand been on duty alone that night without recourse to contacting relief.  She described the noise and thunder as the most terrifying experience of her life.

I would not learn until years later, going through a somewhat similar experience in the Dordogne, when it was explained to me by my future French family connection, that the noise of the storm is considerably intensified in manifold ways by reverberating between the low hills.

This is what that young bank teller experienced in 1996 and I could not help thinking that The Tempest was based on a similar experience in which Shakespeare calmed down his young daughter by telling her a story about the two of them to lull her off to sleep.  It was then only a short leap of imagination to their being exiled together to connect this to the story of the twins and the twins temporarily lost to each other in the storm in Twelfth Night.

The story I suggest attracted Shakespeare was the transformative story of Ceyx and Alcyone in Ovid’s Metamorphoses which so closely mirrored Ovid’s real life experience on his way to a real exile among the Goths on Danube in what is today Romania with only his books to comfort him, with his loving, loyal wife left behind to plead with Augustus and Tiberius for a reprieve that never came.  Hera, Iris and sleep, the storm by which Ceyx perishes unbeknownst to Alcyone are all there.  Shakespeare also knew from Ovid’s Ex Ponto that Ceyx and Alcyone was connected in some way with Ovid’s own experience in the Aegean of a ‘Shakespearean Tempest’ as Michael Wood puts it (Ovid: The Poet and the Emperor) on his way to exile in far off Tomis.

The Setting – The Court Visit of the Duke of Bracciano and the Essex Rebellion

In England Elizabeth was in her twilight years.  Two years before her death she was to lose her last favorite, the Earl of Essex, England’s Star.  The Earl, had lost his main source of income feeding his political aspirations, the revenue from the tax on Sweet Wines from the Levant. Ignoring the advice of his friend, Francis Bacon, still trying to help him, even as he served the Queen as her personal lawyer, perhaps teaming up with our playwright, Essex was about to commit political suicide within weeks of the first performance of Twelfth Night before the Queen. Starting an abortive rebellion, he set in motion his execution at the Tower the next month.  Elizabeth never fully recovered from this, having lost almost all her other closest friends and long associates at Court, among them Essex’s step-father, her only real love, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, at the beginning of the 1590s.

The visit of Orsini to London that January 1601 in the weeks leading up to the Essex Rebellion in February were known. But the significance to our tale required an amazing piece of detective work by Leslie Hotson to underpin the significance of the date to the first performance of the play. The details of his visit was described in the book “The First Night of Twelfth Night” where Hotson laid out the correspondence he had discovered between the young Duke of Bracciano, Elizabeth’s distant Italian cousin and his wife about his visit, reception and attendance at Elizabeth’s side at that Twelfth Night 1601 performance at Whitehall (finally given its due by the latest Arden edition of the play).

Shakespeare was not one to include stale material, especially in a performance staged for the first time aimed only at Middle Temple before a bevy of law students. The Middle Temple performance was a year after the January 1601 visit, with the Queen, who had entertained the said Orsini, of course, not in attendance.

Hotson did not make a connection to Orsini’s visit and Essex. But interestingly he did make a connection between Elizabeth’s steward, Sir Francis Knollys, who was Essex’s uncle and Francis Bacon tells a few years later, that he had suggested to the Queen that she bring back Essex into the fold as her steward in late 1600. That Malvolio was Olivia’s steward in the play seeking her favor, what did Shakespeare know?

Orsini’s description of the Queen, he sitting by her side just like Essex her former favorite used to do, explaining the action of the play that Twelfth Night, shadows a deeper political tale.  Shakespeare, as Coleridge pointed out two hundred years ago, always chooses, adapts, and adds to his sources to suit his own larger purpose.  In Twelfth Night, in adapting and softening his main source in Barnabe Riche’s tale, the playwright wholly invents the character of Malvolio and the subplot characters, the ‘tormenting’ of the steward and his confinement to a madhouse by Olivia’s relations and rivals for her affection.

The confinement of Essex for almost a year to his house after he interrupted Elizabeth in her drawing room while dressing on his surprise return alone from Ireland, like Acteon caught in the headlights, all this fits in. The late graphic description in Sir John Harrington’s letter about the ‘madhouse’ atmosphere he fled at Southampton House where the rebellion was brewing aligns with a tie in of the play, as Malvolio leaves the scene vowing revenge to all involved in Olivia’s House.

Did Elizabeth in entertaining her Italian visitor and distant cousin Don Virginio Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, act out the flirtatious charms of an earlier youth?  Did she, watching the Twelfth Night play at Whitehall with a real Osino see the possible warning in the shadowing of her own self, in Twelfth Night’s Olivia resisting marriage, virgin-like, in supposed mourning for the loss of a father and brother, then falling for a younger narcissistic reflection in Viola whose name is an anagram of Olivia’s?  Did she see the parallels with Essex in the abused & incarcerated character of Malvolio?

How did all this affect Shakespeare and influence his plays.

Is that why his company was let off so easily later, after they unknowingly accepted the invitation by Essex’s friends to act a private performance the night before the rebellion with Richard II, a play which could be interpreted as reflecting a weak, pliable Queen?

Let the readers and playgoers draw their own conclusions!!!

The First Night of Twelfth Night – The Imagery and What It Tells Us

The first recorded evidence (from the diary of John Manningham) for a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is at the closing of the Christmas season on Candlemas, falling on February 2, 1602 at Middle Temple.  But, the imagery, plot, character analysis, dramatic structure the Elizabethan political context of 1601 point to an actual first performance before the court a year earlier on the Twelfth Night 1601 matching its performance date to its name, Twelfth Night.

The specific request of Elizabeth for a new play with much song and dance was what first suggested to Leslie Hotson to search for a deeper story related to the Orsini visit and the visit of the Russian Ambassadors (not mentioned previously). But the strongest argument is in the imagery for the occasion of the first performance on Twelfth Night.

Imagery of a global nature (when multiple strands and sources come together in a related whole) is almost a determinant significant marker in Shakespeare in that it is built from the first into the very language the characters use (unlike the use of song in film, where it is added, as my playwright/screenwriting daughter tells me is always added on the editing floor where most film stories are really put together).  Therefore, Shakespeare’s unique imagery, built into the language from the start, is always premeditated and indicates Shakespeare’s deepest purposes before he even sat down to write a single line.

Self love and the world turned upside down are consistent themes of the Twelfth Night festivities – that is why so much of the background global imagery in the play can be traced back to the third book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The imagery that connects with Ovid’s Book III is:

  • Orsino’s self reference to the metamorphosis of Actaeon being turned into a stag and being torn up by his own hunting dogs after accidentally coming on Diana bathing
  • the stories of Narcissus, who could be taken for either a boy or a girl, falling in love with his own image in a pool of water and Echo’s love for Narcissus
  • the story of Semele being burning in death in being made love to by Jupiter and giving birth to Dionysus/Bacchus, the power of the vine and turning the world upside down – the emphasis on drunkenness & reversal of degree, cakes & ale. Euripides’ Bacchae was well known as the penultimate tale of a world turned upside down, and especially the role of women in rebellion behind the fall of the House of Cadmus.
  • Finally, Shakespeare reset the location of his play from the location of his source story. Book III starts out in Illyria, where across the Adriatic from Italy, Cadmus, Semele’s grandfather, was born. The fall of the House of Cadmus, the first who brought the alphabet to Greece, was Euripides marker for the catastrophe of all Greece at the end of the Peloponnesian War.

So the imagery of the play along with its early 1601 context suggests a January 1601 date on Twelfth Night that year.

BEING THERE!! – ADDENDUM 2018 – Twelfth Night – A connection between its 1st and 2nd performance (its date and location) as an act of closure!!!

Though the first performance of Twelfth Night accords in so many ways with a performance before the Queen in 1601 in the Ovidian character of its ‘Twelfth Night’ imagery and political occasion, we do know for sure (above) from the letter of Manningham that it was performed in February 1602 at Middle Temple, one of the four Lawyer’s Inns in London.

So, a few years ago, when visiting our family in England, I took off some time off to take one of those famous London Walking Tours, conducted by actors and lawyer types to make some ‘spare change’.  This time it was a tour centered around the Inns of Court, the lawyer’s inns which in Shakespeare’s time functioned as the ‘third university’ of England (after Oxford and Cambridge).  When we arrived at the last stop, Middle Temple, suddenly ‘Everything was Illuminated’. The day of Twelfth Night’s 2nd performance fell on Candlemas.

Candlemas 1585 was the day the Shakespeare twins were baptized 17 years before.  How could it be an accident that the anniversary of that occasion, Shakespeare’s play is performed, a play whose central emotional core is about the twins Viola and Sebastian, where Viola takes on the guise of her brother whom she thinks drowned?  And immersion in water is just what baptism is all about?  Viola Shakespeare bringing back, in the imagination, her brother, Hamnet 6 years after his death in August 1596.

Candlemas has another deeper significance. Candlemas celebrates the presentation of the baby Jesus by Mary before the priests in the Temple at Jerusalem as told in the Gospel of Luke.  That presentation, as a friend told me (Jeremy Smith CU School of Music), is a ‘Jewish’ custom, the custom that the mother is kept in seclusion for a period of time after the birth of a child and that this is the first time she emerges in public. It is associated with purification of the mother, like baptism, the redemption of the first born, 33 days after a boy’s circumcision.

The tour proceeded then several dozen few meters down the slope to the Middle Temple Garden.  Candlemas is in February and it fell that year, 1602, just short by 6 days of one year after rebellion, and his execution later that month, which we have associated, above, with the wholly, newly invented character, Malvolio, and the approaching Essex Rebellion whose failure determined Essex’s fate.

The last decade of Elizabeth’s reign saw the renewal of factionalism following the power vacuum left when almost all of Elizabeth’s favorites and key people, excepting William Cecil, Leicester, Walsingham, etc. died within a few short years after the Armada.  In Shakespeare’s first play, at the beginning of that last Elizabethan decade, Henry VI Part 1, the beginnings of the English Civil Wars, we know today, because of Shakespeare’s setting them as the starting point of those wars in his play, as the Wars of the Roses. The scene is set in the Middle Temple Garden with the choosing of two different color roses by the leaders of the contending Houses of York and Lancaster.

As we turned around from Middle Temple Garden, directly across the square outside Middle Temple, there directly in front of us is the plaque designating the location of Essex’s London home, Devereux House.  Shakespeare had strong connections to Middle Temple, Thomas Greene, Thomas Russell his friend from Stratford, and the most prominent, untouched lord in England, Essex’s (and Shakespeare’s friend) Lord Mountjoy, Charles Blount, who had succeeded his friend in command in putting down the Irish Rebellion raging after Essex’s disgrace and banishment from Court and Elizabeth’s presence on returning to England.

To choose Middle Temple as the location for the performance of Twelfth Night, just across from the Middle Temple Garden and Essex House, a year after the rebellion and Essex’s execution, really can that also be accidental?  Most scholars know that in some way Hamlet, revised at this time, is based in real life on the shadows of Essex’s story.

Finally, there is a connection between the holidays of Twelfth Night and Candlemas.  In the gospel story Twelfth Night is the beginning of Christmastide ending in Candlemas after which begins the public life of Jesus. Christmas decorations are in several traditions, including Anglican and Catholic finally removed at Candlemas. The two, Twelfth Night and Candlemas, bookend the back story of Twelfth Night.

Was the location and timing of the second performance of Twelfth Night, both personally and through his close friendship with Mountjoy, Southampton, and Essex himself, an act of closure? Was it for him and England an act of closure as the choice of the Middle Temple, its Garden, and Essex House bracketed the final tumultuous decade of Elizabeth’s reign and Candlemas as the closure of his personal loss and of the Christmas season that began with Twelfth Night?

Was it also as the bracketing of the reign of his Queen the year before its end and his life under her reign? Of all the subplot characters, Feste, is the one who subtly moves and acts as the go-between communicating between the two houses of Orsino and Olivia in love contention. Was Feste possibly a shadow of Shakespeare himself trying to mend fences between the real-life characters behind the play?

Was that why it is Feste himself who ends the play alone on the stage with that final song … “when that I was a little tiny boy, the wind and the rain …  a great while ago the world begun”?


About Sid Fox

Sid Fox renewed his interest and study from his Hebrew School days (where he was inspired by Deborah Pessin's insightful series 'The Story of the Jewish People') when he read James Michener's "The Source". Sid eventually taught a two semester Sunday class for adults at their home when their children were at Sunday School. It was based on 15 years study of the Bible, the three hundred years of modern research and Biblical Archaeology areas he continued to pursue as he branched out to Shakespeare, the Classics and other interests.

Check Also

Sue Seserman’s “EPILECTRA” Is Available Now –Graphic Novel That Turns Disability into Superability

"Epilectra" Book 1 is a graphic novel about superheroes with disabilities that transform into superabilities, available for preorder at a discount. Created by Sue Seserman.

Mark Villarreal Exhibit to Open at Boulder JCC Messinger Gallery

Abstract painter Mark Villarreal opens a new exhibit at Boulder JCC Messinger Gallery on May 30, showcasing works influenced by his global travels and artistic inspirations over 40 years.