The title refers to the feast of the Epiphany on 6 January, the final day of the Christmas festivities; implying the end of festivities it may account for some of the play’s darker tones.
Twelfth Night: AS & A2
Women’s roles were played by men, or boys, in Shakespeare’s day, adding an additional nuance to lines spoken: for example, Viola’s ‘I am not that I play’ is spoken by a female character, disguised as a male character, played by a boy or man.
In Shakespeare’s lifetime, Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind circumnavigated the world between 1577 and 1580, and Sir Walter Raleigh travelled to the Americas. The shipwreck near the start of the play perhaps reflects this interest in exploration.
This tradition romanticised and idealised distant or unattainable women of high birth, using a stylised mix of the spiritual with the erotic and physical. Orsino’s opening lines may be seen as a satirical observation on the hollow nature of such verse.
In Shakespeare’s time Illyria was a region in the Ottoman empire. Although many of the locations in the play (‘The Elephant’ for example) refer to English places, the name adds an exotic feel to proceedings.