William Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night apparently to be performed on the twelfth feast day, the joyous climax of the Renaissance Christmas season; however, the feast day itself otherwise has nothing to do with the substance of the play. The play’s subtitle suggests that it is a festive bagatelle to be lightly, but artfully, tossed off. Indeed, Shakespeare may have written the play earlier and revised it for the Christmas festival, for it contains many signs of revision.
The tone of Twelfth Night is consistently appropriate to high merriment. With nine comedies behind him when he wrote it, Shakespeare was at the height of his comic powers and in an exalted mood to which he never returned. Chronologically, the play immediately precedes Shakespeare’s great tragedies and problem plays. Twelfth Night recombines many elements and devices from earlier plays—particularly The Two Gentlemen of Verona (c. 1594-1595) and The Comedy of Errors (pr. c. 1592-1594, pb. 1623)—into a new triumph, unsurpassed in its deft execution.
It is a brilliant irony that Shakespeare’s most joyous play should be compounded out of the sadnesses of its principal characters. However, the sadnesses are, for the most part, those mannered sadnesses that the Elizabethans savored. Orsino, for example, particularly revels in a sweet melancholy reminiscent of that which afflicts Antonio at the beginning of The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597, pb. 1600). Orsino’s opening speech—which has often been taken overly seriously—is not a grief-stricken condemnation of love but rather owes much more to the Italian poet Petrarch. Orsino revels in the longings of love and in the bittersweet satiety of his romantic self-indulgence. He is in love with love.
On the other side of the city is the household of Olivia, which balances Orsino and his establishment. Although Olivia’s sadness at her brother’s death initially seems more substantial than Orsino’s airy romantic fantasies, she, too, is a Renaissance melancholic who is wringing the last ounce of enjoyment out of her grief. Her plan to isolate herself for seven years of mourning is an excess but one that provides an excellent counterbalance to Orsino’s fancy; it also sets the plot in motion, since Orsino’s love-longing is frustrated by Olivia’s decision to be a recluse.
The point of contact between Orsino and Olivia—ferrying back and forth between the two—is Viola. As Cesario, she also is sad, but her sadness, like the rest of her behavior, is more direct and human. The sweet beauty that shines through her male disguise is elevated beyond a vulgar joke by Olivia’s immediate, though circumstantially ridiculous, response to her human appeal. Viola’s grief is not stylized and her love is for human beings rather than for abstractions. She seems destined to unite the two melancholy dreamers, but what the play instead accomplishes is that Viola, in her own person and in that of her alter ego, her brother, becomes part of both households. The ultimate outcome is a glorious resolution. It is, of course, immaterial to the dreamy Orsino that he gets Viola instead of Olivia—the romantic emotion is more important to him than is the specific person. Olivia, already drawn out of her seclusion by the disguised Viola, gets what is even better for her, Sebastian.
The glittering plot is reinforced by some of Shakespeare’s best and most delicate dramatic poetry. Moreover, the drama is suffused with bittersweet music, and the idyllic setting in Illyria blends with language and imagery to create a most delightful atmosphere wholly appropriate to the celebration of love and to the enjoyment of this world.
The one notable briar in the story’s rose garden is Malvolio; however, he is easily the play’s most interesting character. He is called a Puritan, but although he is not a type, he does betray the characteristics then associated with that austere Anglican sect. He is a self-important, serious-minded person with high ideals who cannot bear the thought of others being happy. As Sir Toby puts it to him, “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Malvolio suffers within a joyous world; it is against his will that he becomes part of the fun when he is duped and made to appear ridiculous. As a character, he represents a historical group, then growing in power, whose earnestness threatens to take the joy out of life (and, incidentally, to close England’s theaters). Yet, Shakespeare does not indulge in a satire on Puritanism. He uses the critical powers of comedy in indirect ways.
Malvolio is ridiculous, but so are the cavaliers who surround him. The absurd Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the usually drunken Sir Toby Belch are the representatives, on the political level, of the old order that Malvolio’s counterparts in the real world are soon to topple. While these characters are flawed, they are certainly more engaging than the inflated Malvolio. Shakespeare does not set up the contrast as a political allegory, with right on one side and wrong on the other. Nevertheless, Malvolio is an intrusion into the otherwise idyllic world of the play. He cannot love; his desire for the hand of Olivia is grounded in an earnest will to get ahead. He cannot celebrate; he is too pious and self-involved. Nothing is left for him but to be the butt of a joke—his role in the celebration. Some critics have suggested that Malvolio is treated too harshly, but a Renaissance audience would have understood how ludicrous and indecorous it was for a man of his class to think, even for a moment, of courting Countess Olivia. His pompous and blustery language is the key to how alien he is to this festive context. When he does his bit, Olivia casually mentions that perhaps he is put upon, but this is the only sympathetic gesture he deserves. He is the force that threatens to destroy the celebration of all that is good and refined and joyful in Elizabethan society.