Twelfth Night (Vol. 46)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Twelfth Night, see .
For nearly two hundred years, commentators have generally agreed that Twelfth Night represents the culmination of Elizabethan romantic comedy. By reshaping circumstances, dramatic conventions, and character types he had employed in earlier comedies, Shakespeare created a paragon of this genre—and then turned to other dramatic forms. Many twentieth-century scholars have noted that the play contains elements of the problem comedies and the romances that followed Twelfth Night. Over the past three decades, feminist, new historicist, Marxist, and materialist critics have emphasized these elements, raising questions about the play's depiction of love and gender relations, the treatment of Malvolio, and Feste's role in the punishment of Olivia's steward as well as in the work as a whole.
Over the past twenty years, many critics have looked closely at Shakespeare's portrayal of the principal characters in Twelfth Night. Offering what he has described as an "anti-romantic" interpretation of the play, Richard A. Levin (1979) has assessed Viola as a cunning young woman who intentionally charms and misleads Olivia as part of her overall strategy. In Levin's estimation, Viola is determined from the outset to marry Orsino, and her deceptions reflect the prevailing values of the play. René Girard (1990) has focused on Olivia and Orsino, viewing both of them as obsessed by self-love and desperately in need of a sense of superiority in their relations with the opposite sex. This kind of narcissism, he has argued, places a priority on desire rather than pleasure. Also evaluating the meaning of sexuality in Twelfth Night, John Astington (1994) has remarked that Malvolio is depicted as unsuited for marriage because of his spiritual impotence. The public mockery of Malvolio's lust for Olivia, the critic has maintained, exposes the steward's inadequate understanding of the true responsibilities of heterosexual love. Feste's role in the gulling of Malvolio has intrigued several recent commentators. Joan Hartwig (1973) has regarded it as mean-spirited, severe, and abusive. Feste's concept of justice, she has contended, is the legal equivalent of revenge, and the absence of forgiveness in the conclusion of the subplot leaves readers and audiences uneasy. Hartwig also has noted, however, that the clown offers other characters, including Malvolio, different perspectives from which to view themselves, and that he is particularly concerned with calling attention to human folly. Robert Wilcher (1982) has compared Feste with other Shakespearean clowns, particularly the type known as "the domestic fool." Wilcher stresses Feste's vulnerability—his precarious situation in Olivia's household and his shortcomings as a professional jester—and has argued that the fool's verbal agility is inadequate to fill the role assigned to him. Karen Greif (1988) has termed Feste as enigmatic and inscrutable, but also as a character who serves as "a unifying presence." Reviewing twentieth-century theatrical renditions of Twelfth Night's fool, she has demonstrated that since Harley Granville-Barker's innovative staging of the play in 1912, Feste has become the personification of its melancholy undertone: a poignant mediator between the illusions of romantic comedy and the realities of human existence. Greif also has pointed out the connection between modern critical appreciation of the play's darker elements—stage productions that emphasize its bittersweet tonalities, and late twentieth-century philosophical concerns with issues of identity and alienation. In contrast to Wilcher, Bente A. Videbæk (1996) has recently rated Feste's linguistic abilities highly, noting in particular the different verbal manipulations the fool employs with aristocrats on one hand and with menials on the other. From this critic's point of view, Feste's paramount quality is his aloofness from the intrigues of the dramatic action. But Videbæk also has maintained that Feste's role as mediator between the audience and the on-stage characters, his talent for adjusting his clowning to different situations, and his capacity to show up Olivia's and Orsino's sentimental notions of love are vital to our understanding of Twelfth Night.
Aside from analyses of the play's principal characters, late twentieth-century criticism of Shakespeare's last romantic comedy is dominated by consideration of gender issues. Cristina Malcolmson (1991) has explored the relationship between gender and status in Twelfth Night and has argued that although the play questions the traditional social order, in which men are regarded as inherently superior to women, it also betrays a deep anxiety about independent and upwardly mobile females. In Malcolmson's judgment, Shakespeare resolves this tension and preserves harmonious social relations by portraying Viola as gracious, deferential, and motivated by love for Orsino—not by any interest in improving her rank in society. Douglas E. Green (1991) has also evaluated questions of love and gender in Twelfth Night, and, like Malcolmson, discerns there a repressed fear of strong-willed women. He further has claimed that while on the surface the play suggests that men and women are equally capable of being faithful or erratic in their love, the subtext endorses the value of homosexual rather than heterosexual love. Irene G. Dash (1997) has similarly examined the question of independent, headstrong women in Twelfth Night. In contrast to Malcolmson and Green, however, Dash has asserted that Shakespeare treats the subject with "humor and insight." From her perspective, though Olivia and Viola initially challenge traditional notions of female dependency, eventually their erotic desires lead them to yield their independence and then gracefully conform to the social and sexual norms of a patriarchal world. Clearly there is no general consensus among contemporary critics regarding Shakespeare's depiction in Twelfth Night of human love and gender relations, and it appears likely that these topics will continue to draw the attention of scholars and commentators well into the next century.
Elizabeth Story Donno (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Critical Commentary," in Twelfth Night or What You Will, edited by Elizabeth Story Donno, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 8-23.
[In the excerpt below, Donno traces the progress of the play's dramatic action and discusses the principal characters. Although she acknowledges some discrepancies and inconsistencies in the story, she applauds Shakespeare's treatment of the complicated plot.]
After the theatres reopened in 1660, Pepys saw Twelfth Night on three occasions—in 1661, 1663 and 1668. Despite such familiarity, he seems to have missed the evocative and allusive quality of Shakespeare's alternative title, noting in his diary after the 1663 performance that this 'silly' play did not relate 'at all' to the name or to the day. Even for Shakespeare's contemporary audience its most memorable element was the character of the proud, self-loving steward Malvolio—witness a performance presented at court by Shakespeare's company in 1623 (again on Candlemas Day) under the title Malvolio. Leonard Digges, who had contributed commendatory verses to the First Folio, observed in a later and longer tribute:
loe in a trice
The Cockpit Galleries, Boxes, all are full
To hear Malvoglio that cross-garter'd gull.
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Joan Hartwig (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: "Feste's 'Whirligig' and the Comic Providence of Twelfth Night," in ELH, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter, 1973, pp. 501-13.
[In the essay that follows, Hartwig contends that Feste helps illuminate the discrepancy between human will and Providence in Twelfth Night and proposes that Feste's enigmatic final song emphasizes the ambiguities of human experience—which is neither as grim as the clown's pessimistic verses nor as blissful as romantic comedy.]
Shakespeare's plays frequently counterpose the powers of human and of suprahuman will, and the antithesis usually generates a definition of natures, both human and suprahuman. These definitions vary, however, according to the play. For instance, Hamlet's "providence" does not seem the same as the darker, equivocating power that encourages Macbeth to pit his will against a larger order; and these controls differ from Diana and Apollo in the later plays, Pericles and The Winter's Tale. Furthermore, Hamlet's submission and Macbeth's submission to non-human controls (if indeed they do submit their individual wills) cannot be understood as the same action or even to imply the same kind of human vision.
Many of the conflicts of Twelfth Night seem to be concerned with the contest between human will and suprahuman control; yet, the latter manifests...
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Richard A. Levin (essay date 1979)
SOURCE: "Viola: Dr. Johnson's 'Excellent Schemer'," in Durham University Journal, Vol. LXXI, No. 2, June, 1979, pp. 213-22.
[In the following essay, Levin maintains that Viola has an unromantic view of love, a remarkable ability to handle crises, and a willingness to manipulate both Olivia and Orsino to achieve her goals.]
Viola, the heroine of Twelfth Night, is widely admired as an example of 'selfless fidelity' in love.1 She is praised by critics with divergent interpretations of the play itself. She appeals to those who regard Twelfth Night as a 'festive play', in the course of which characters overcome their illusions, grow in self-knowledge, and gain a sense of community. She is regarded as the one character who is not misled about herself, and who therefore can 'teach others the true meaning of love'.2 Viola appeals just as strongly to critics who puncture the romantic surface of the play, and find excesses in Illyria that cannot be purged as a mere product of a 'holiday' atmosphere. For these critics, Viola stands above her environment. She has been called the single 'reality figure' among characters lost in a variety of illusions about themselves and others.3 Another writer finds it a shame that so wonderful a girl as Viola should marry 'such a spineless figure as the...
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Cristina Malcolmson (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "'What You Will': Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night," in The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Valerie Wayne, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991, pp. 29-57.
[In the essay below, Malcolmson explores the links between gender and social class in Twelfth Night.]
When Sebastian enters the last scene of Twelfth Night and begins to untangle the various intricacies of the plot, Duke Orsino describes his vision of Sebastian and Viola together in these words:
One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons—
A natural perspective that is and is not.
Orsino refers to a set of Renaissance artifacts, including complicated mirrors, which highlighted the effect of perspective on human vision. With some of these 'perspectives', a confusion of images would resolve themselves into clarity if viewed from one indirect position. In others, like Holbein's famous painting of 'The Ambassadors', two images could only be seen clearly from two entirely different points of view. Orsino's reference to a 'natural perspective that is and is not' implies not only that he thinks nature has produced before him what is usually the work of art by bringing two mirroring figures on the stage at once; he also suggests that one of...
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Bellringer, Alan W. "Twelfth Night: or What You Will: Alternatives." Durham University Journal LXXIV, No. 1, n.s. XLIII, No. 1 (December 1981): 1-13.
Evaluates the characters in Twelfth Night with reference to the theme of constancy versus flexibility. On one hand, Bellringer contends, Sir Toby and the other members of Olivia's household are each ruled by a single passion; by contrast, Orsino, Feste, Sebastian, and Viola demonstrate a willingness to modify their behavior and adapt to changing circumstances.
Breuer, Horst. "Shakespeare's Signior Fabian." English Studies 74, No. 5 (October 1993): 441-44.
Offers textual evidence to support the notion that Fabian is a member of the landed gentry, not one of Olivia's serving men. Brewer sees Fabian as a dramatic type or stock character—a humorous older gentleman who is contemptuous of parvenus and social climbers.
Cahill, Edward. "The Problem of Malvolio." College Literature 23, No. 2 (June 1996): 62-82.
A psychoanalytic evaluation of Olivia's steward and his connection to the main plot. From Cahill's perspective, Malvolio's confusion of identity and desire reflects the principal characters' search for love and selfhood.
Callaghan, Dympna. "'And all is...
(The entire section is 1799 words.)