Twelfth Night: a revelation, a farce, or a satire?

Why would Shakespeare name his great farce 12th Night – when it seems to have nothing to do with The (Christian doctrine of ) Epiphany? Hidden in symbols, in the poetry, in invisible ink, is a cutting satire of Christian dogma, the dangerously heretical thread linking the sub-text of all 37 plays and clarifying 2,000 years of misinformation. Dare you see it too? Prepare to have many of your beliefs and dis-beliefs confronted.

Here is (another) allegory of how the (true) Epiphany was the restoration of the the ‘music of the soul’ lost to mankind by the betrayal of Adam in the beginning. Viola represents the instrument by which the veil of darkness is lifted, and (the choice of) love, joy and forgiveness given to Olivia as the symbol of all mankind.

The Epiphany (12th Night)

Given the title, let’s assume this is the context for viewing the play. The Gospel says that after the birth of the Christ, the baby prophesied to be ‘king’, was laid in a manger and shown to the shepherds and the Magi: who symbolically represent the full spectrum of humankind from the lowliest to the most exalted. The Magi tricked Herod, the jealous, tyrant king, to prevent him murdering the baby ‘king’. He exacted his revenge through what is known as ‘the slaughter of the innocents’.

Before we trace the hidden story, let’s contemplate the following banquet of additional symbolism:

The shipwreck

‘In the beginning was the Word… And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’ – John 1

The backstory implies the agency of ‘wind and rain’ (Tempest) to birth the twin souls, Viola and Sebastian, into the land of Illyria. Echoing the ‘curse’ of Adam and Eve in Genesis, they become lost to each other, both believing the other is dead. ‘Wind and rain’, celebrated in the finale, is actually ancient biblical symbolism for ‘the Word of God’.

‘If music be the food of love, play on’ – Orsino

So often, the opening line or scene has cryptic allusions to the sub-text. Here is no exception.

Orsino is an anagram of ‘orison’ meaning ‘prayer’. Mankind’s prayer for liberation from suffering?

In the context of the Epiphany, the ‘food of love’ suggests the Eucharist: the bread, the body of Christ, the Word made flesh, ‘eaten’ in remembrance of the Christ action. Now, significantly, the body is revealed for the first time to the world in a manger (French: to eat), a vessel for holding food. A ‘manger’ also symbolises the ‘Holy Grail’, the vessel containing the bread and wine, the body and blood, sound and light, reuniting for the holy communion.

‘I had rather hear you to solicit that [that you love me] than music from the spheres’ – Olivia

The music of the spheres is the music (mystical sounds e.g. as described in The Tempest) said to emanate from the soul and draw us home to the Godhead (See: Lorenzo – Merchant, Ferdinand – Tempest, et al).

Olivia seems to symbolise the archetype of the soul (native hue) of all mankind veiled, (sicklied o’er) and hidden behind the shroud of darkness, death, melancholy and sadness (Hamlet, Antonio). She is immediately drawn to hear the young ‘man’ called Cesario – i.e. Viola disguised as a man. Cesario means King.

‘We will hear this divinity” – Olivia


A Viola could well be the name of one of the ‘thousand twangling instruments’ heard by Caliban in The Tempest. A fitting instrument on which to play the soul’s music. Viola, herself, seems to represent the ‘Christ’ sent to reunite the three aspects of God, the trinity: the love, the sound and the light, having been lost in man since the beginnings of time. The awareness of the sound and light of the soul reawakens the love in the hearts of man as the tyrant ruling our inner world is vanquished.

As soon as Olivia sees and hears the divinity in ‘Cesario’ her lost ability to know love is reawakened.

Malvolio, meaning ill-wisher, or one of mal-intent. As notably as was Falstaff (False Self)Malvolio is lampooned mercilessly. Yet the actual language used indicts him clearly as the Satan.

‘The devil, a puritan that he is…’ – Maria

The names Viola and Olivia are close anagrams of each other and each taken from the same letters of ‘Malvolio’.

Feste, the ‘fool’, appropriately so, means both ‘feast’ and ‘celebrate’.

The hidden story

When Viola, the Christ (soul) is revealed to Olivia (mankind) the shroud of darkness and melancholy is lifted and her heart is reawakened with love.

As Olivia’s love is transforming her, her servant Maria engenders a plan to bring down the devil, Malvolio. She tricks him into bringing his false-self to the fore (obsequious smiling) plays to his ‘greatness’, and fools him into being cross-gartered. Cross-gartered, a double-entendre repeated several times, implies ‘tied to a cross’! Thus Maria and her three stoogies ‘crucify’ Malvolio and consign him to a comic representation of hell, ‘the bottomless pit’, as stated the Revelation.

“I say this house is as dark as ignorance though ignorance were as dark as hell” – Malvolio

“And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, And cast him into the bottomless pit.”- Rev. 20:2-3

The heresy (freedom of choice) Shakespeare teaches us (e.g., Macbeth, Merchant, Hamlet, Henry V, et al) is the irony that when Jesus the man died on the cross it fulfilled the Mosaic law and terminated the rule of Satan. The crucifixion was a futile attempt to kill the Christ, but the resurrection of the soul empowered the consciousness of all mankind – regardless of belief. The fate of Shylock further clarifies this theological gem – showing us how we now have the choice between grace (mercy, and forgiveness) or revenge (the law).

“Alas poor fool, how they have baffled thee!” – Olivia to Malvolio

As the vanquishing of the prince of darkness and mal-intent is complete, Viola and her twin are ‘resurrected’. They are also re-united; symbolising the reuniting of the bread and the wine, the body and the blood, the Sound and the Light with the love. The Trinity (Love, Sound, Light) is again complete. Forgiveness to all is given for the mistakes and confusions made as we stumble in the darkness looking for the light and sound of the soul. Love, joy and happiness abounds.

Malvolio fails to see the humour and vows revenge on all mankind. Finally, a song is sung by Feste celebrating ‘the wind and the rain’, the primal sounds of The Creation, The Tempest, the Word, the music, the wind from heaven, the sounds of the ‘waters’ that created everyone and everything in the beginning (Genesis, John), and reigns once more upon the earth breathing new life and love into the soul of all mankind.

“A great while ago the world began, with hey-ho, the wind and the rain;” – Feste


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