05 January 2014

Twelfth Night and Story Tropes

It's Twelfth Night today, the Twelfth Day of Christmas (twelve drummers drumming, in case you're wondering), and the eve of Epiphany. On Twelfth Night, Christmas time is really over. Wikipedia informs me that old English traditions have it that on that day, the Christmas decorations get taken down, and anything edible on them, such as fruit hung on the Christmas tree, becomes part of the Twelfth Night feast. One last bash before going back to work. Apparently those old English peasants got quite rowdy for Twelfth Night, and everyone partied rather strenuously.

Wikipedia also says that Twelfth Night, the Shakespeare play, was written somewhere around 1601/02 specifically for one of those parties, hence the title. The play itself has, of course, nothing whatever to do with Twelfth Night, the feast, being one of Shakespeare's gender-identity-mixup stories, not a Christmas party one. It's one of my favourites of his, especially the 1996 film version directed by Trevor Nunn, with Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia and Ben Kingsley as Feste. One piece of sheer genius in this movie is the casting of Imogen Stubbs and Steven Mackintosh as Viola and Sebastian - apart from the height difference between them, they look astonishingly alike, so they are actually believable as the boy-girl set of twins which are mistaken for one another when Viola puts on her brothers' clothes and becomes Cesario.

Steve unrecognisable in a cross-dressing disguise
That's one of Shakespeare's favourite tropes, the girl-dressed-up-as-boy who becomes instantly unrecognisable and extremely attractive to other girls who proceed to fall in love with him/her. Cross-dressing, in Shakespeare's day, seems to have been a most effective disguise - or, if not in his day, in his playwright's conventions, anyway. Elizabethan audiences apparently had no problem accepting that idea, which to us today seems rather silly. Put on a pair of trousers, and hey presto, your own mother won't know you! Uh, yeah, sure. How could the viewers be so gullible?

But then, we've got any number of silly story tropes today ourselves, and we're so used to accepting them as fact that we don't blink when yet another book or movie trots them out as a plot device. The "character with amnesia" is one example: how many stories have you read or watched where a character gets a thump on the head, forgets everything including their own name (which leads to all kinds of mix-ups and difficulties) and then gets another smack on the head which instantly unscrambles their brain and brings back all their memories? I know I've seen it done multiple times in fiction. But from what I understand, that's actually not at all the way real amnesia works (especially where the curative second thump is concerned). But writers can get away with using this plot device because we all accept it as "fact". In storytelling, it doesn't matter so much what's real, but what the audience is willing to believe, and that, after all, is what fiction is all about.

Life, the Universe, the Bard and Story Tropes. Happy Twelfth Night!


  1. I read Twelfth Night for the first time last winter (mostly during bad sermons at church, I admit sheepishly, where I was hard put to keep from snickering at some of the lines while the pastor was ranting over something not-so-amusing), and thoroughly enjoyed it. Sometimes I have a hard time following Shakespeare, but for whatever reason, that one worked for me. I've never seen it performed, so I'll have to check out the movie version you mention.

    1. Hah! That's hilarious. I'm having visions of you surreptitiously hiding your Shakespeare under a big black Bible cover. TN was the first Shakespeare I ever properly read in English; I think I wanted to test myself to see if I could handle the language. This movie is utterly wonderful; it's put in a sort of late Edwardian setting, very sumptious and believable. The shipwreck that nearly drowns them at the beginning has a Titanic feel to it. And the actors are all so very, very good. I know you'll enjoy it!