Twelfth Night (Vol. 34)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Twelfth Night, see SC, Volumes 1 and 26.
Written before the "problem comedies" such as Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night marks for many critics the most well-crafted of Shakespeare's "happy comedies," one rich in symbolism and complex in its exploration of love, its blurring of appearance and reality, its troubling of gender, and its portrayal of human psychology.
As in most of Shakespeare's romantic comedies from the 1590's, love motivates many of the characters' actions and attitudes. Some commentators, such as Peter G. Phialas (1966) and Charles Tyler Prouty (1966), have claimed that the characters interact in order to depict a Renaissance ideal of courtly love. Richard Henze (1975) has expanded this line of thought, arguing that Shakespeare resolves the play's contradictions through the interaction of characters, particularly through love-relationships. Similarly, Dennis R. Preston (1970) has asserted that the minor characters bind the seemingly disparate elements of the play, forming a unified whole. Other critics, including Terence Eagleton (1967), have contended that love in the play fuses language and reality, and thus questions the fixity of nature.
While some scholars have argued that love is the primary subject of Twelfth Night and have debated whether it has a unifying or dissembling effect on the dichotomy between appearance and reality, other commentators have identified this very dichotomy as the play's central theme. For example, Karen Greif (1981) has focused on Shakespeare's questioning of the nature of truth through the characters' "play," claiming that "Twelfth Night poses questions about 'the purpose of playing' and about whether illusion is perhaps too deeply embedded in human experience to be ever completely separated from reality." Other critics, including D. J. Palmer (1967), have contextualized Shakespeare within a tradition that conflates art and nature, and Walter N. King (1968), drawing on the history of philosophy, has considered Shakespeare to be consciously commenting on a Parmenidean approach to metaphysics. The resulting portrayal of nature has led commentators such as Karin S. Coddon (1993) to consider Twelfth Night as questioning the stability of social status by troubling a supposedly natural hierarchy in Elizabethan society.
In addition to Shakespeare's problematizing the fixity of nature, many feminist literary theorists have claimed that disorder in Twelfth Night also affects definitions of sex and gender, focusing primarily on the Viola/ Cesario character. Scholars have extensively debated whether Shakespeare consciously or unconsciously uses Viola's role-playing to demonstrate the plasticity of socially constructed gender roles as well as whether the character calls supposedly fixed sexual differences into question. Stevie Davies (1993) and Nancy Hayles (1979), for example, have contended that Viola's role-playing questions the idea of a naturally determined gender. Others, such as Lorna Hutson (1996), have argued that Shakespeare affirms not only the plasticity of gender, but the rhetorical construction of sex as well.
Modern commentators have also studied the tenets of psychoanalysis to explore both the actions of the characters and the motivations of the author. Freudian and Jungian taxonomies have been used to dissect characters' actions (such as Viola's putting on the guise of a man) and their personification of psychological attributes. For example, Helene Moglen (1973) has contended that Twelfth Night portrays a psychological picture "strikingly similar to major aspects of Freud's own theory of psycho-sexual development." Critics such as Leonard F. Manheim (1964) have even applied psychoanalytic theory to Shakespeare himself, finding in Twelfth Night an expression of his unconscious attempt to enact an Oedipal fantasy.
Critical approaches to Twelfth Night have varied considerably, from strict examinations of the text alone to psychoanalytic evaluations of its author, from historical inquiries into Elizabethan love to feminist interpretations of sex and gender. Regardless, Twelfth Night continues to attract contemporary criticism, as commentators find in the play the height of Shakespeare's comedic art.
Peter G. Phialas (essay date 1966)
SOURCE: "Twelfth Night," in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedy: The Development of Their Form and Meaning, The University of North Carolina Press, 1966, pp. 256-305.
[In the following essay, Phialas examines the elements of Twelfth Night that Shakespeare adapted from his earlier comedies, and he discerns in the play an ideal of love that emerges through the juxtaposition of Viola's selfless love and the self-indulgent love of Orsino and Olivia.]
Twelfth Night has been called a masterpiece not of invention but recapitulation, a summing-up of the admirable features of the "joyous" comedies. It is certainly that and much more. Its connections with earlier Shakespearean comedies are many and they have to do with large elements of the plot, although of course we should bear in mind that some of these elements are present also in the sources of the play. In any case, it is clear that the confusion of twins goes back to The Comedy of Errors. The theme of a disguised lady serving the man she loves in his courtship of another woman, though present in the sources of Twelfth Night, had been employed in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. And here it may be worth mentioning that the disguised Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona calls herself Sebastian. Sebastian's devoted Antonio in...
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Appearance Vs. Reality
Terence Eagleton (essay date 1967)
SOURCE: "Language and Reality in Twelfth Night" in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 3, Autumn, 1967, pp. 217-28.
[In the essay that follows, Eagleton contends that the language of Twelfth Night melds with its reality and, through the central subject of love, collapses and confuses the social roles of the characters.]
At the opening of Twelfth Night, Orsino describes his love for Olivia in terms which directly recall some of the paradoxes of language and illusion in other Shakespearian plays:
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou!
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute.
Orsino's love has the destructively creative quality of the language of Richard II and the Macbeth witches, and the illusions of Puck: it absorbs and transforms reality into its own image, levelling its values to its own standard and thus rendering all experience arbitrary and interchangeable. The free-ranging, ocean-like quality of excessive love is the...
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Relation To Elizabethan Culture
Charles Tyler Prouty (lecture date 1966)
SOURCE: "Twelfth Night," in Stratford Papers: 1965-67, edited by B. A. W. Jackson, McMaster University Library Press, 1969, pp. 110-28.
[In the following essay first delivered at the 1966 Shakespeare Seminar, Prouty positions Twelfth Night with regard to Shakespeare's source materials, focusing specifically on his interpretation of Renaissance notions of courtly love.]
In some thirty years of teaching it has been my experience that of all the plays in the Shakespeare canon the comedies are the most difficult to teach. The Joyous Comedies in particular require so much explanation that we are in danger of losing the play in establishing what I regard as the essential details. The reason is very simply that these are sophisticated plays based on a complex of social and literary conventions that were well known to the Renaissance world in general and the Elizabethan world in particular but are almost unknown to our world. In Twelfth Night we are dealing almost exclusively with the conventions of love and the behaviour of lovers—conventions which are completely alien to our world. The important thing, however, is Shakespeare's reaction to these conventions, which controls the nature of his play and makes it, therefore, peculiarly his own. In the social world of the Renaissance the traditions of the Middle Ages which we...
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Leonard F. Manheim (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: "The Mythical Joys of Shakespeare, or, What You Will," in Shakespeare Encomium, edited by Anne Paolucci, The City College, 1964, pp. 100-12.
[In the following essay, Manheim gives a psychoanalytic treatment of Twelfth Night, contending that the play is "an oedipal comedy written from the viewpoint of the father. "]
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy.
A Midsummer Night's Dream V.i.18-20
Will will fulfill the treasure of thy love …
I offer an interpretation of Twelfth Night based on accepted Shakespearean scholarship plus the data of psychoanalysis. I shall extrapolate beyond the words assigned to the characters in the play and shall consider these characters as "persons" known to me (and, in all truth, there are few persons whom I meet in the ordinary intercourse of life whom I know as well as I know these characters), and capable of having a former and a future...
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Berry, Ralph. "Twelfth Night: The Experience of the Audience." Shakespeare Survey XXXIV (1981): 111-19.
Argues that, during the course of the play, Twelfth Night transforms the audience's perception of the performance, portraying "theatre as blood sport, theatre that celebrates its own dark origins."
Brown, John Russell. "Twelfth Night." In Shakespeare's Dramatic Style, pp. 132-59. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971.
Explores the syntax and diction in three extracts from Twelfth Night and how they contribute to characterization.
Champion, Larry S. "The Perspective of Comedy: Shakespeare's Pointers in Twelfth Night." Genre I, No. 4 (October 1968): 269-89.
Considers Twelfth Night to be one of the richest of Shakespeare's comedies in terms of its characterization, moving beyond farce to a consideration of unique and complex identities and motivations.
Davies, Stevie. "Boy-girls and Girl-boys: Sexual Indeterminacy." In Twelfth Night, pp. 113-35. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
Contends that the figure of Viola/Cesario defies natural sexual categories by affirming the plasticity of gender.
Gérard, Albert. "Shipload of Fools: A Note on Twelfth Night." English Studies XLV, No. 2 (April 1964): 109-15.
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