The festival of Twelfth Night in John Manningham's diary


This manuscript contains the earliest known record of a performance of Twelfth Night and valuable information on the festive context in which the play was first received. It was written by John Manningham, a fourth-year student at the Middle Temple, one of the London law colleges known as the Inns of Court. Though it is sometimes referred to as a diary, the entries are irregular. One editor describes it as ‘a note-book in which the writer has jotted down from time to time his impressions of whatever he chanced to hear, read or see’. It covers the period from January 1602 until April 1603.

Twelfth Night and Candlemas

The entry for 2 February 1602 relates to the celebration of Candlemas, a Christian feast day marking the purificatin of Mary and the presentation of the infant Jesus at the Temple. Traditionally celebrated with processions of candles, Candlemas had been considered excessively Catholic and suppressed since Henry VIII’s Protestant Reformation.

In his diary, Manningham writes that at the Candlemas feast: 'wee had a play called Mid ‘Twelve Night, or what you will’; much like the commedy of errores, or Menechmi in Plautus, but most like and neere to that Italian called Inganni.'

This festive context is a reminder that the play’s title refers to another recently celebrated Christian festival: Twelfth Night (the night before the feast of Epiphany), which is celebrated on the 5th or 6th of January as the twelfth day of Christmas. Twelfth Night was traditionally a time of folk-plays and wassailing, and Epiphany a day of practical jokes, not unlike April Fool's Day. Epiphany celebrates the revelation of God in his human son Jesus; some critics have seen this reflected in the 'revelation' of the previously hidden Viola and Sebastian. 

Learning and gossip

Manningham has been described as an ideal spectator for the play. Though not a theatrical specialist, he was well-educated enough to know Shakespeare’s other work – he had apparently seen the other festive comedy The Comedy of Errors, and the crossed-out ‘Mid’ suggests he may also have been thinking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Manningham clearly also understood the broader tradition in which Shakespeare was working. We see this in his identification of similarities to Menaechmi, a comedy by the Latin dramatist Plautus, and in his reference to the more recent Gl’Ingannati (1533), a play performed by the Accademia degli Intronati in Siena.

Manningham praises the way Shakespeare handles the ‘gulling’ – fooling – of Malvolio: a plot which is perhaps more difficult for modern audiences to enjoy because of its cruelty. As a historical source, the diary also gives a nicely bawdy context for the themes of love and wooing in Twelfth Night. In a separate entry, Manningham records a piece of gossip about the playwright and his chief actor, Richard Burbage, competing to pursue a woman. When Shakespeare wins, he riffs on history to joke that William the Conqueror was before Richard III – the character Burbage had been playing in Shakespeare’s play of that name.

Full title:
The diary of John Manningham
1602–03, London
Manuscript / Diary / Book
John Manningham
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Harley MS 5353

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