Twelfth Night was the last of Shakespeare's three 'mature' Comedies, as it, Much Ado About Nothing, and As You Like It are called, and it was followed shortly by the first of the major Tragedies, Hamlet. This crucial position in Shakespeare's oeuvre is reflected in the play's subtle complexity. It sustains the celebration of triumphant love that characterizes its predecessors, yet it is distinguished by a troubling undertone that suggests the playwright's need to deal with deeper realms of the human psyche.
Twelfth Night may be read or seen with pleasure on the level of traditional romantic comedy alone. Shakespeare assembles some stock features—separated twins, disguises, impediments to love—and freshly arranges them in a sequence that resembles a stately dance, all accompanied by a lusty subplot with a comic villain, Malvolio. The characters are exaggerated examples of human nature, placed in comically preposterous situations whose improbability we willingly accept as necessary for the retelling of a familiar tale. The world of the play is an undemanding one; there is always time for leisurely courtship, for songs, and for practical jokes; Malvolio deserves his lot, because he arrogantly and egotistically refuses to enter the fun.
However, Malvolio is merely a nuisance and not a threat; the triumph of love depends on opposition—such as that offered by the villainous Don John in Much Ado—and at first glance that opposition is not present in Twelfth Night. It turns out to be Orsino and Olivia, two of the lovers themselves, who inhibit the fulfillment of love, assuming wholly literary self-images as romantic lover and mourning lady respectively. Their self-defeating posture suggests that something is amiss in the idyllic world of romantic comedy. The other important characters inspire a certain disquiet as well. Viola, the most clear-sighted and honest figure, is nevertheless tangled in the lie of her disguise, which prevents her from expressing her love. Sir Toby, for all his humor, is a parasite and, worse, a victimizer of the hapless Sir Andrew, as well as of Malvolio. Even the apparently frivolous Feste betrays a weary cynicism at times, as in his final song. Most significantly, Malvolio's humiliation and imprisonment seem so out of proportion to his offence that they lend the comic sub-plot a vicious air that adds to our uneasy sense that the play's comedy is darker than it seems at first.
This disturbing quality is subtly reinforced by the repeated motif of madness. Olivia asserts that Sir Toby 'speaks nothing but madman' (1.5.107), and Feste, pretending to excuse Toby's drunkenness, allows that 'he is but mad yet... and the fool shall look to the madman' (1.5.138-139). When Sebastian arrives in Illyria, only to be pointlessly assaulted, he cries out, 'Are all the people mad?' (4.1.26), and when Olivia mysteriously treats him as her lover, he exclaims, '[Either] I am mad, or else this is a dream' (4.1.60). Malvolio is especially associated with lunacy. His ludicrous behavior towards Olivia—induced by Maria's letter—is received as "midsummer madness' (3.4.55) by his mistress, and he is later imprisoned as a lunatic (the commonest treatment for mental disorder in Shakespeare's day).
These elements have led some critics to regard the play as a social commentary resembling in spirit Troilus and Cressida or the satirical comedies of Ben Jonson. Olivia and Orsino may be taken as comic portraits of egotists, Olivia in her extravagant withdrawal from life, and the duke in his absurd pose as a romantic lover. Most of the other Illyrians can be seen as socially ambitious and thus fit subjects for satire: In this view, Feste curries favor with Orsino because he may marry Olivia; Toby is a vulgar glutton who seeks a continued life of ease in Olivia's household; Malvolio, Sir Andrew, and Maria each seek a profitable marriage. Viola alone offers honest love in a society where affectation dominates.
Such propositions seem excessive, however, for the play lacks the acid taste of satire—although they accurately set off Viola, the drama's central figure, from the other characters. Viola is not invulnerable to love's irrationality, but, unlike the others, she recognizes and acknowledges her blindness. She admits that the situation is beyond her control as soon as the three loves—hers for Orsino, Orsino's for Olivia, Olivia's for her—have become evident, saying, '0 time, thou must entangle this, not I, / It is too hard a knot for me t'untie' (2.2.39-40). She knows what she wants, however—Orsino's love—and she maintains her disguise as the duke's page and waits for a miracle. In doing so she is a splendid example of the Shakespearean comic heroine, resourceful and aggressive in pursuit of her man.
Her effect on her fellow lovers is positive also. As the spirited Cesario, her youthful good looks and imaginative compliments to Olivia bring out the would-be recluse's capacity to love. Similarly, the irrepressible femininity beneath her disguise offers Orsino the devotion and loyalty that he subconsciously desires and to which he unwittingly responds. Thus 'she rescues the two leading figures of lllyria from their own illusions and paves the way for the denouement. Moreover, Viola is the only character—aside from I Feste, who is essentially an observer of the plot's intrigues—whose point of view includes a perspective I on the whole action. She enters into the dramatic possibilities other disguised state with enthusiasm, missing no opportunity for telling remarks on Orsino and Olivia or for double entendres about her ambiguous gender.
The sexual confusion implicit in Olivia's response to Cesario was of course magnified on the Elizabethan stage, where Viola and Olivia were played by boys. The humor in seeing a woman (played by a boy) respond sexually to another woman (also played by a boy) depends chiefly on the absurdity of the confusion, but it also has overtones of both male and female homosexuality. Homosexuality was rarely referred to in Elizabethan, but here it is certainly suggested implicitly. The modern use of actresses dampens our perception of this situation, but even so more complicated patterns of desire lurk beneath the surface of the conventional love comedy.
Thus, both socially and sexually, tremors of unease accompany the development of a classical comic complication that reaches its breaking point only in the final scene. Then, equally disquietingly, it generates potential violence on several fronts. Antonio is threatened with death, and Orsino hysterically threatens to 'sacrifice the lamb that I do love' (5.1.128) by killing Cesario. •$he crisis is heightened by the appearance of Sir Andrew and Sir Toby, both of whom have been wounded in actual violence.
The giver of these wounds follows, and he brings the play's resolution with him. Sebastian's entrance provides not only Viola's missing brother, the return of Olivia's new husband, and the correct identification of Cesario; it also makes possible the final alignment of the lovers; his first encounter with Olivia in 4.1 had begun the process, and he unhesitatingly married Olivia when she suggested it in 4.3. His sudden reappearance in 5.1, confirms his power to dissolve the ^network of ambiguity that has entrapped the other lovers.
Shakespeare emphasizes Sebastian's sound sexual identity, a feature whose absence has heavily influenced the action thus far. In both 4.1 and 5.1 Sebastian displays the ancient warrior mystique of the wholly masculine man, overwhelming weaker males who affront his honour. More subtly, and more significantly, Sebastian represents fulfillment in the incomplete lives of the other characters. He is the figure Viola has masqueraded as and the lover Olivia subconsciously desired before Cesario awakened her. He is the dominant male whom Malvolio sought to impersonate and whom Orsino, in his romantic role-playing, has forgotten he can be. Thus Sebastian—a rather wooden traditional leading man himself—embodies the positive capacity for love that has been needed to crystallize the swirling vapours of romance that have disturbed Illyria.
Yet our earlier uneasiness is not totally dispelled. Aside from the uncanny ease with which Olivia settles for a look-alike and Orsino translates his affection for a boy into love for a wife—these are part of the improbabilities to be expected in romantic comedy, even if they have here a slight taste of the perverse—there remains the difficult resolution of the sub-plot. The 'problem of Malvolio', as it has long been termed, has attracted attention for centuries; in the 17th century the play was sometimes known as 'Malvolio', and in the 19th century Charles Lamb found 'tragic interest' in 'the catastrophe of this character'. This is an overstatement, for Malvolio lacks the grandeur of a tragic hero, but it reflects the potency of the part and of the moral question the steward's unjust imprisonment raises: how is his undeniably shabby treatment—or his unrepentant final response—to be reconciled with the happy ending?
It is true that Malvolio is a comic character, the villain of a rollicking sub-plot powered by the wit of Maria and the lusty excesses of Sir Toby. He has deserved his comeuppance, and it has been delivered in a comical fashion. Nevertheless, his anger at his humiliation makes him humanly sympathetic, and his raging departure seems justified, if ugly, leaving us with an ongoing sense of disturbance. Shakespeare's purpose here is subtle but effective: our appreciation of the loving aura that closes the play is strengthened by our simultaneous sense of sadness that happiness is never pure.
Feste provides a final statement of the play's antiromantic undertone in his bitter song (5.1.388-407), which outlines the sorry life of a drunkard. For him, the loving resolution of the main plot seems to count for nothing: 'the rain it raineth every day'. Feste's song expresses the jester's loneliness, for he remains outside the lovers' world, but it also reminds us of the limitations of comedy, which has been part of Shakespeare's message in other ways, as we have seen. Tellingly, another stanza of the same song is sung by the tragic FOOL (2) of King Lear (3.2.74-77).
However, the form of Feste's summation—a song—eases the burden of its message; the song is never as painful in performance as its unpleasant lyrics suggest it might be. Music's charms leave us with an echo of the happy ending's harmony. The final stanza of Feste's song also has another function: to end the play formally and send the audience on its way. Like an Epilogue, it makes a bid for applause and promises that the actors will 'strive to please you every day' (5.1.407).
This denouement suggests that, although the play has unsettling aspects, the triumph of love is Twelfth Night's major theme. Its subtitle, 'What You Will', obviously points to the possibility of different interpretations of the work, but its promise of that which 'you will' also hints at the dominance of a positive view. The main title itself remains mysterious. To playgoers of Shakespeare's day, the term 'Twelfth Night' designated January 6, or Epiphany, the last day in the traditional Christmas season, celebrated as the anniversary of the Magi's visit (o the birthplace of Christ. In 16th-century writings, the polarity of earthly setting and heavenly signal—the manger in Bethlehem and the magical star that led the Magi—was seen as a powerful symbol of Christ's dual nature, part human and part divine. The twins Sebastian and Viola may be symbolic of this duality as well. Viola, through her patient offering of love to Orsino—expressed most vividly in her declaration 'I... to do you rest a thousand deaths would die' (5.1.130-131), a remark that has distinctly Christian overtones—may illustrate Christ's suffering human aspect, while Sebastian, who brings redemption within the play's scheme of things, can be taken to represent Christ's divine dimension. This interpretation may seem somewhat strained, however, given the lack of explicit religious references in the play and the fact that there is little, if any, unambiguously religious content elsewhere in the plays. Twelfth Night's title, as has often been observed, may simply advertise the festive, comic quality of the work by naming a great holiday, as another title, A Midsummer Night's Dream, did. Also, the play was probably first performed in the autumn or early winter, as the Christmas holidays were approaching.
We have seen that the romantic comedy in Twelfth Night is the play's most powerful component, but the work's disturbing reverberations cannot be overlooked. In this respect the comedy points to the Problem Plays, soon to be written. In the meantime, the play tells us that while comedy cannot dispel the pains of life, this knowledge only makes the genre a more necessary solace.
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