Twelfth Night (Vol. 62)
See also Twelfth Night Criticism (Volume 26), and Volumes 85, 34.
Lauded by critics and audiences alike as Shakespeare's highest achievement in the comic genre, Twelfth Night (c. 1600-01) is an intricate inquiry into the nature of love, gender roles, and the intertwining of life's tragic and comic experiences. A number of critics remain particularly fascinated with the complexity of the play's exploration of gender identity, as there are numerous layers to the characters' gender roles, as well as to their sexual attractions. Referred to as a subplot, the story of Malvolio and those who seek to punish him for his puritanical ways threatens to steal the show, as some critics have pointed out. The relationship between the main plot and this subordinate plot is therefore the focus of much critical examination. Additionally, the play's ending—in which so much confusion is undone in so short a time—also attracts a great deal of scholarly attention, particularly since Viola remains dressed as a male right up to the play's end, becoming Shakespeare's only cross-dressed heroine to do so.
The sexual relationships and gender roles in Twelfth Night are multi-layered. For example, Viola, a female character (who was played by a male in the Elizabethan theater), is dressed as a male, Cesario, throughout most of the play. As a male, Viola woos Olivia for Orsino, resulting in Olivia falling in love with Viola-as-Cesario. At the same time, Viola, though dressed as a man, falls in love with Orsino. Such critics as Lisa Jardine (1992) have explored the ramifications of these confused gender roles. Jardine focuses in particular on how the relationship between economic dependency and sexual availability in Elizabethan England informs the play's attitudes towards cross-dressing. Both Viola and Sebastian, observes Jardine, are forced to seek dependent positions in households outside the circle of family relations, making Viola/Cesario sexually available to Orsino, and Sebastian sexually available to Olivia. In his analysis of gender issues in Twelfth Night, Michael Shapiro (1996) emphasizes the Elizabethan theatrical practice of men playing women's parts. Shapiro studies the psychological “anxiety” resulting from the theatrical portrayal of both sexual and emotional intimacy, examining in particular the relationship between Viola and Olivia, in which the audience witnesses the intensity of the exchanges between two women, played by two men, and the relationship between Orsino and Viola, in which Orsino is drawn to the feminine qualities of Viola's Cesario. Like Shapiro, Casey Charles (see Further Reading) maintains that the relationship between Viola and Olivia is a significant one, more central to the play than many critics have acknowledged. The relationship between the two women, along with the attractions between Antonio and Sebastian and Orsino and Cesario, emphasize that homoerotic desire is a primary concern in the play. Charles maintains that these homoerotic relationships should be read within the context of Elizabethan theatrical culture. The critic continues with a discussion of the way the dramatization of homoerotic attractions criticizes the social ideal of “imperative heterosexuality” by underscoring the way sexuality is socially constructed through gender identity.
The subplot, centering on the punishment of Malvolio, highlights some of the darker aspects of Twelfth Night. Many critics have noted the severity of Malvolio's punishment—he is humiliated, imprisoned in a dark chamber, and made to feel as if he has lost his sanity. This is perhaps more than he deserves, some audiences and critics feel. Harry Levin (1976) examines Malvolio's role in the play, commenting that the character is not present in Shakespeare's sources, yet his role becomes a “stellar” one. Arguing that Shakespeare's primary concern was to highlight the triumphant comic spirit, Levin suggests that the darkness integrated into Malvolio's story, much like the tragedy and death that inform the circumstances of the lovers in the main plot, serves the purpose of intensifying the victory of the comic spirit. Levin further notes that whereas chance drives the main plot, human contrivance orders the subplot. Jane K. Brown (1990) also explores the differences between the main plot and subplot. The critic finds that the two plots correspond to the two worlds depicted in the play—one ruled by Orsino and one governed by Olivia. Brown goes on to discuss the way Shakespeare represented the two realms differently, through the use of allegorical language in Olivia's world, and metaphorical discourse in Orsino's. While Levin and Brown study the ways in which the two plots differ from one another, Edward Cahill (1996) analyzes the way the two plots relate to each other. Cahill contends that both explore similar issues, such as identity and desire, both use disguise and performance, and both feature the pursuit of marriage. The critic also observes that the failure of the subplot to resolve itself injects a bit of tragedy into the play's otherwise comic ending.
The ending of the play has also been a focus of criticism. The fact that Viola remains dressed as Cesario at the play's end has been noted by a number of critics, who suggest that Shakespeare allowed this in order to heighten the effect of the denouement, or to make a statement about gender identity. Jörg Hasler (1974) studies the influence of Shakespeare's earlier comedies on the ending of Twelfth Night, examining the dramatic form of Viola's ordeal at the play's end and comparing it to the endings of Much Ado about Nothing, and Measure for Measure. Hasler finds that all three plays end similarly, with the heroines standing in the center of the chaos. The critic also examines the endings of other Shakespearean plays for cases of mistaken identity, shipwreck stories, and similar patterns found in Twelfth Night. Yu Jin Ko (see Further Reading) begins an analysis of the play's ending by noting the similarity between Viola's rejection of Sebastian's embrace and Jesus's resisting Mary Magdalene's embrace after his resurrection. Ko demonstrates that this Biblical allusion serves to heighten the sense of longing, and argues that this intensified yearning is exploited throughout the play, largely in sexual terms. Ko explores how Viola's cross-dressing prolongs the sexual yearnings of both Olivia and Orsino, and examines the “curiously absorbing” nature of longing as it is dramatized in Twelfth Night.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “Twelfth Night,” in A Preface to Shakespeare's Comedies: 1594-1603, Longman, 1996, pp. 229-55.
[In the following essay, Mangan focuses on Shakespeare's extensive reworking of themes, characters, and situations used in Twelfth Night, noting that Shakespeare revised his previous attitudes toward many of the ideas explored in the play.]
‘GIVE ME EXCESS OF IT’
Twelfth Night is a play characterized by excess. In the first few lines Orsino calls for an excess of music, and from that moment on the play stages a variety of excesses. On the most mundane level there are the literal excesses of Sir Toby and his drinking partners and their revelries. There are the excessive and obsessive emotional states of Orsino and Olivia; the one overwhelmed by his unrequited love for the other, who is herself trapped in mourning for her dead brother and sworn to wear a veil for seven years. People act and react excessively, too: the trick which Maria and Sir Toby play against Malvolio is funny to begin with, but eventually turns sour. Audiences frequently find the ‘mad-house’ scene, in which Feste torments the imprisoned steward, uncomfortable, and even Sir Toby thinks that things have been taken too far and says that he ‘would we were well rid of this knavery’. The play encompasses an extraordinary range of tones and moods, from melancholy to revelry. There...
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Criticism: The Ending
SOURCE: “The Dramaturgy of the Ending of Twelfth Night,” in Twelfth Night: Critical Essays, edited by Stanley Wells, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1986, pp. 279-302.
[In the essay below, originally published in 1974, Hasler analyzes the influence of Shakespeare's earlier comedies on the last scene of Twelfth Night.]
The final resolution of Twelfth Night evolves from a process which engages the whole of the play's last scene. Furthermore, there is no lack of consistent theatrical notation in this scene. Employed with remarkable singleness of purpose, it is instrumental in shaping the build-up towards the strong impact of Viola's revelation. Apart from the unusually extensive control of the action, a study of this ending also invites us to glance back at some features of earlier comedies. The view of Twelfth Night as the consummation of Shakespearian comedy is widely accepted.1 At the same time, few commentators neglect to mention the extent to which Shakespeare here draws on his preceding experiments. Barrett Wendell even went so far as to “recognize the Twelfth Night—with all its perennial delights—a masterpiece not of invention, but of recapitulation.”2 This remark has been much quoted, though it perhaps unduly neglects the transmutations that go with Shakespeare's self-borrowings. Harold Jenkins sums up this particular aspect of...
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Criticism: Gender Issues
SOURCE: “Twins and Travesties: Gender, Dependency and Sexual Availability in Twelfth Night,” in Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, edited by Susan Zimmerman, Routledge, 1992, pp. 27-38.
[In the following essay, Jardine examines the treatment of crossdressing in Twelfth Night, as well as the relationship between economic dependency and sexual availability in early modern England.]
Viola: He nam'd Sebastian. I my brother know Yet living in my glass; even such and so In favour was my brother, and he went Still in this fashion, colour, ornament, For him I imitate.
[Ingling Pyander] Walking the city, as my wonted use, There was I subject to this foul abuse: Troubled with many thoughts, pacing along, It was my chance to shoulder in a throng; Thrust to the channel I was, but crowding her, I spied Pyander in a nymph's attire: No nymph more fair than did Pyander seem, Had not Pyander then Pyander been; No Lady with a fairer face more grac'd, But that Pyander's self himself defac'd; Never was boy so pleasing to the heart As was Pyander for a woman's part; Never did woman foster such another, As was Pyander, but Pyander's mother. Fool that I was in my affection! More happy I, had it been a vision; So far entangled was my soul by love, That force perforce I must Pyander move: The issue of which proof did testify Ingling Pyander's...
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SOURCE: “Anxieties of Intimacy: Twelfth Night,” in Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages, University of Michigan Press, 1996, pp. 143-72.
[In the following essay, Shapiro investigates Twelfth Night's exploration of sexual identity within the context of Elizabethan theatrical portrayals of sexual and emotional intimacy between men and between women.]
Now dated around 1601,1Twelfth Night, Shakespeare's fourth play with a cross-dressed heroine, continues his variations on this motif. Indeed, after Two Gentlemen each play of this type seems to be a deliberate variation on its predecessor(s). Three earlier plays stress the masculine side of the boy heroine's disguised identity. Two use pert Lylian pages and the third a doctor of the law. In part, the vigor of these male personas supports the assertiveness the heroine needs to control the outcome of the play. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare enlarged the male persona that the boy heroine assumed along with male disguise. At times, the actor playing Viola displays Ganymed's audacity if not Balthazar's commanding resourcefulness. At other times, the role calls for different aspects of boyishness—delicacy and shyness. The two sides of Cesario's personality represent Viola's tendencies toward assertiveness and vulnerability, modulated to suit a young male servant. Cesario's double...
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Criticism: Plot And Subplot
SOURCE: “The Underplot of Twelfth Night,” in Twelfth Night: Critical Essays, edited by Stanley Wells, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1986, pp. 161-69.
[In the essay below, originally published in 1976, Levin compares and contrasts the main plot and subplot of Twelfth Night, describing Malvolio as the star of the underplot.]
The kind of comedy that was practiced by Shakespeare has repeatedly challenged definition. Though his last comedies have been retrospectively classified as romances, most of their components are equally characteristic of his earlier ones: love, adventure, coincidence, recognition, and occasional pathos. The problem is not simplified by the circumstance that his greatest comic character, Falstaff, was far more impressive in two histories than he is in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Traditional definitions of the comic somehow fail to hit the Shakespearean mark, perhaps because they tend to emphasize the spectatorial attitude of ridicule. Shakespeare's attitude is more participatory; its emphasis falls upon playfulness, man at play, the esthetic principle that Johan Huizinga has so brilliantly illuminated in his historico-cultural study, Homo Ludens. Whereas we may laugh at Ben Jonson's characters, we generally laugh with Shakespeare's; indeed, if we begin by laughing at Falstaff or the clowns, we end by laughing with them at ourselves; semantically speaking,...
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SOURCE: “Double Plotting in Shakespeare's Comedies: The Case of Twelfth Night,” in Aesthetic Illusion: Theoretical and Historical Approaches, edited by Frederick Burwick and Walter Pape, Walter de Gruyter, 1990, pp. 313-23.
[In the following essay, Brown contends that Twelfth Night has two plots, one ruled by Olivia and one ruled by Orsino. These plots, argues Brown, are dramatized differently and correspond to two distinct worlds within the play.]
Doubleness of all sorts is typical of Shakespearean comedy. Nowhere, however, is doubling so fully worked out as in Twelfth Night: or, What You Will, the only play for which Shakespeare himself provided a double title, as Anne Barton points out.1 The play's dramatis personae reveals not only the twins at its center, but two rulers (a countess and a duke referred to as count), two sea captains, two authority figures (an uncle and a steward) in the house of the countess (who has lost father and brother), that uncle comically echoed in his friend Sir Andrew, two gentlemen attending on the duke, and even the clown unaccountably split into the figures of Feste and Fabian—a doubling so gratuitous that the roles are often collapsed into one in performance. Theme, structure and plot all turn on the various dualities the play explores, and everything is resolved in a moment of wonder at the doubleness of the play's and our...
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SOURCE: “The Problem of Malvolio,” in College Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2, June, 1996, pp. 62-82.
[In the essay that follows, Cahill examines the way in which the plot and subplot of Twelfth Night operate on both psychological and social levels, stating that the main plot suggests a fantastical realm in which the aristocracy experiences a great deal of emotional freedom, compared to the subplot's historical specificity and rootedness in Elizabethan social relations.]
The origins of the main plot in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night have been traced to a cluster of earlier comedies and their derivatives; however, the subplot, involving Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria, and their “gull,” Malvolio, was entirely Shakespeare's invention.1 Like the main story, the Malvolio subplot also involves comic “errors,” disguise and performance, and the pursuit of marriage. It similarly explores the themes of identity, desire, and the confusion of both. In fact, the “gulling” of Malvolio and Sir Toby's debauched revelry literalize the “misrule” of the main story. But the subplot does not resolve itself as neatly as the main plot does; indeed, it fails to resolve itself at all. It might be supposed, then, that Shakespeare sought to counter the easy connubial resolutions inherent in his sources with something more problematic, thereby adding to the comic ending of the play something of a...
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Charles, Casey. “Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night.” Theatre Journal 49, No. 2 (May 1997): 121-41.
Asserts that same-sex attraction—explored in the relationships of Olivia and Viola, Antonio and Sebastian, and Orsino and Viola-as-Cesario—is a crucial issue in Twelfth Night. Charles maintains that the portrayal of homoerotic attraction serves as a way of representing the social construction of sexuality through gender identity.
Daalder, Joost. “Perspectives of Madness in Twelfth Night.” English Studies 2 (March 1997): 105-10.
Explores the ways in which the concept of “madness” is treated in Twelfth Night, noting that words such as “mad” and “madness” are used more often in Twelfth Night than in Shakespeare's other plays.
Greenblatt, Stephen. “Fiction and Friction.” In Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, pp. 66-93. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Studies the nature of the illicit attractions in Twelfth Night.
Gregson, J. M. “The Play.” In Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, pp. 24-49. London: Edward Arnold, 1980.
Offers an overview of the plot and characters in Twelfth Night.
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