This painting is The Fight between Carnival and Lent (1559), by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525–1569). It shows some of the traditions which sit beneath the surface of Twelfth Night, suppressed, but arguably giving it energy.

Goodbye to meat

This painting was made in the Netherlands a few years before Shakespeare’s birth. In the middle, there is a fat, carousing character on a barrel we could mistake for Sir Toby Belch. Symbolically, the inn is on the left side, and the church on the right. These respectively represent the opposing, balanced forces of Carnival and Lent, part of the traditions of the Christian church. In Lent, worshippers abstain from consuming certain foods and behaviours for a 40-day period as both a test and demonstration of their religious devotion. It is intended to be a time of reflection. Carnival, however, literally means ‘goodbye to meat’, and involves raucous celebration and social disorder before the beginning of Lent.

The philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975) coined the term ‘carnivalesque’ to describe the function this sort of play and alternate logic has in societies, and to give it a broader application beyond the specific festival of Carnival.

Twelfth Night and the carnivalesque

In the century before Shakespeare wrote his play, Elizabeth I’s father, Henry VIII, had spearheaded a Reformation of the church. Partly, this was tied up with his desire to obtain a divorce. Allying the country with Protestantism, Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church under the jurisdiction of the Pope. The church was then a major organisational institution in England with a profound impact on people’s everyday lives. So in making this break, Henry had also rejected many traditions which had been part of people’s lives for generations, and thus not fully forgotten. Twelfth Night was one such of these traditions. The name comes from its celebration twelve days after Christmas, on the evening before Epiphany, the celebration of Christ’s various appearances or ‘epiphanies’ to the magi, the shepherds, and to the world when he changed water to wine. In the west it was celebrated with a degree of the carnivalesque: a period of carnival in which social hierarchies were temporarily re-arranged to become ‘topsy-turvy’. A ‘Lord of Misrule’ was often appointed; or an alternative king and queen, chosen merely on the basis of who happened to get the piece of a communal cake with either a bean or a pea in it.

Twelfth Night plays with these social balances carefully. Malvolio, who can be seen as a kind of religious fundamentalist, first tries rigidly to reinforce the social order when raucous play breaks out in Olivia’s household, but later is fooled into pretending to a higher social status than that he has. Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy (1959), by the critic C L Barber, is a key text in this reading, arguing that Shakespeare is thinking aloud about changes going on in the society around him.