Twelfth Night (Vol. 85)
See also Twelfth Night Criticism (Volume 26), Twelfth Night Criticism (Volume 34), and Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night Criticism.
Viewed as one of Shakespeare's finest romantic comedies, Twelfth Night (c. 1600-01) continues to be praised by scholars as a fascinating and evocative study of love, sexual desire, and personal discovery. Its central plot concerns a love triangle between the Illyrian nobleman Orsino, his beloved but unattainable Olivia, and the shipwrecked Viola. After disguising herself as the male page Cesario, Viola takes a position in Orsino's court and swiftly becomes enamored of her patron even as he sends her to woo Olivia on his behalf. Olivia, in turn, falls in love with Viola, whom she believes to be a man. The play also features a subplot centered on the priggish Malvolio, steward to Olivia, and the punishment he endures at the hands of his fellow servants. Modern critical assessments of Twelfth Night have tended to focus on the drama's captivating characters as well as on its themes of love, gender, and sexuality. Regarding Twelfth Night's place within the Shakespearean canon, S. Musgrove (see Further Reading) describes the work as the last in a series of harmoniously resolved festive comedies that includes the plays As You Like It and Much Ado about Nothing. J. M. Gregson (see Further Reading) distinguishes Twelfth Night as the epitome of Elizabethan romantic comedy, and finds in its skilled blending of disparate and contradictory elements “an almost perfect play.”
Critics have long acknowledged the appeal of Twelfth Night's principal characters, particularly the play's protagonist Viola and the abused Malvolio, who are both considered to be among Shakespeare's most outstanding comic characterizations. Lydia Forbes (1962) examines Shakespeare's vivid portraits of the self-assured and charming Viola, the courageous and forthright Sebastian, the narcissistic and self-serving Malvolio, and the bawdy, witty, and wise Feste. In Forbes's estimation, these and the remaining personalities in Twelfth Night intricately combine to produce a highly satisfying symphony of language and character. Larry S. Champion (1968) also examines the complexity of character in Twelfth Night. According to the critic, the characters' true but hidden identities are revealed over the course of the play as they experience a deepening sense of their own self-knowledge. Cynthia Lewis (1986) questions the traditional assumption that Viola is the moral center of Twelfth Night. Instead, she maintains that Antonio, rather than Viola, is consistently portrayed as the ideal moral figure in the drama, but acknowledges that the play is principally concerned with Viola's moral development. Edward Cahill (1996) concentrates on the figure of Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Much-maligned by his compatriots, Malvolio has generally been a favorite of audiences and critics precisely because of his combined tragic and comic potentiality. Cahill examines this intriguing mix by delving into the psychology of this character, noting his narcissism and painful identity crisis as well as his thwarted and obsessive desires for sexual, social, and personal fulfillment.
Twelfth Night remains among the most popular of Shakespearean comedies on the stage. While some directors stress the comic aspects of the drama, others have emphasized the play's more troubling undertones. Robert Brustein (2002) reviews Brian Kulick's 2002 production of Twelfth Night at the open-air Delacorte Theatre in New York City's Central Park, starring Julia Stiles as Viola and Christopher Lloyd as Malvolio. The critic observes that the production relied too heavily on facile visual conceits and contends that Kulick and his star-studded cast barely explored the depths of character and theme offered by Shakespeare's text. While light comedy was the focus of Kulick's staging, director Sam Mendes's 2002 Donmar Warehouse Theatre production stressed the play's darker elements. Appraising Mendes's work, critic John Mullan (2002) contends that an overemphasis on the erotic and sensual aspects of the drama, as well as on the suffering of Malvolio, obscured its comic elements and proved detrimental to the production. Reviewing the 2002 Holderness Theater Company production of Twelfth Night directed by Rebecca Holderness, Kenneth Gross (2002) praises the minimalist staging of the play and calls attention to its fine dramaturgical effects, including the setting, lighting, dance, and music. In his appraisal of the 2001 to 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company season, Russell Jackson (2002) comments on director Lindsay Posner's Twelfth Night, which was set in the artistic milieu of fin-de-siècle aestheticism. The critic observes the erotic and decadent qualities of the production and highlights several individual performances, including Guy Henry's strangely empathetic Malvolio and Mark Hadfield's touching Feste.
Contemporary scholars continue to be interested in Twelfth Night's themes concerning love, gender, sexuality, and self-discovery. A. Fred Sochatoff (see Further Reading) concentrates on the play's presentation of love in its many manifestations, including obsessive, fickle, self-pitying, narcissistic, buffoonish, and true. The critic also provides a survey of character in relation to the drama's theme of love, noting in particular how Feste frames the various love and pseudo-love relationships of the play through his witty observations on the events that unfold before him. Camille Slights (1982) maintains that Twelfth Night illustrates the thematic principal of reciprocity as the foundation of successful human relationships. The critic notes that the characters in the play achieve personal fulfillment and social accord through generosity, compassion, service, alliance, and awareness of the restrictions imposed by personal ambition and self-absorption. F. B. Tromly (1974) suggests that Shakespeare combined a comic and moral purpose in Twelfth Night by allowing his characters to learn of the hardships and dangers of the world through the spirit of folly. According to Tromly, folly is a positive force in the play, one that allows the characters to come to terms with life by learning to accept “delusion, vulnerability, and mortality.” In his 1982 essay, Thad Jenkins Logan claims that Twelfth Night—despite its ostensible depiction of a festive and happy resolution—contains glimpses of the darker side of human desire. Lastly, Marcus Cheng Chye Tan (2001) discusses the relationship of music to the play's theme of sexual ambivalence, focusing in particular on the character of Viola/Cesario and the motifs of cross-dressing, bisexuality, and androgyny.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Hartman, Geoffrey H. “Shakespeare's Poetical Character in Twelfth Night.” In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, pp. 37-53. New York: Methuen, 1985.
[In the following essay, Hartman examines Shakespeare's use of poetic language, punning, and wordplay in Twelfth Night.]
Writing about Shakespeare promotes a sympathy with extremes. One such extreme is the impressionism of a critic like A. C. Bradley, when he tries to hold together, synoptically, Feste the fool and Shakespeare himself, both as actor and magical author. Bradley notes that the Fool in Lear has a song not dissimilar to the one that concludes Twelfth Night1 and leaves Feste at the finish-line. “But that's all one, our play is done …” After everything has been sorted out, and the proper pairings are arranged, verbal and structural rhythms converge to frame a sort of closure—though playing is never done, as the next and final verse suggests: “And we'll strive to please you every day.” Bradley, having come to the end of an essay on Feste, extends Twelfth Night speculatively beyond the fool's song, and imagines Shakespeare leaving the theater:
the same Shakespeare who perhaps had hummed the old song, half-ruefully and half-cheerfully, to its accordant air, as he walked home...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Forbes, Lydia. “What You Will?” Shakespeare Quarterly 13, no. 4 (autumn 1962): 475-85.
[In the following essay, Forbes examines Shakespeare's vivid character portraits in Twelfth Night, including the self-assured and charming Viola, the courageous and forthright Sebastian, the narcissistic and self-serving Malvolio, and the bawdy, witty, and wise Feste.]
A play is not necessarily spoiled by study. If you think that its theatricality is shackled when the author's theme or meaning is taken into account, that restraint is gentle compared to the chains hung on the author by opinionated thespians.
The interpreted arts suffer as often as they are exalted by the actions of interpreters. A play, the very raw material of which is the human image, is especially vulnerable to human interference. “How do you think we ought to do this play?” Ask this over-worked question of the author first, of the author as playwright. It is not his psyche, his literary life or contemporary social scene that is primarily involved, but his play. When the effect that the author wants is clear to the director and the players—so clear that they have some notion of how to approach their tasks—then it is time to look for useful help from other sources. And only then, after this much study, may a play be judged bad or frail enough to receive support from irrelevant theatricality.
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SOURCE: Champion, Larry S. “The Perspective of Comedy: Shakespeare's Pointers in Twelfth Night.” Genre 1, no. 4 (October 1968): 269-89.
[In the following essay, Champion argues that Twelfth Night features some of Shakespeare's most well-developed comic characters whose true but hidden identities are revealed over the course of the drama.]
It is commonplace to speak of the different kinds of Shakespearean comedy. The “happy” or “joyous” comedies, for instance, are contrasted with the “enigmatic” or “problem” comedies on the one hand and the “philosophic” or “divine” comedies on the other. And, among the first group, we are sometimes told that The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a less successful “romantic” comedy than Much Ado About Nothing or that Twelfth Night is pure comedy whereas As You Like It incorporates potentially tragic motifs. In a broad sense, of course, the attitudes toward life expressed by comedy can range from the satiric to the sentimental, the farcical to the melodramatic—distinctions invariably based upon the nature of the plot. With Shakespeare's comedy, an equally valuable insight is gained through an investigation of the characterizations and the devices by which they are rendered humorous, a perspective which suggests that Shakespeare's concern was not with different kinds of comedy but rather with plots...
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SOURCE: Lewis, Cynthia. “Viola, Antonio, and Epiphany in Twelfth Night.” Essays in Literature 13, no. 2 (fall 1986): 187-99.
[In the following essay, Lewis contends that Antonio, rather than Viola, is the moral center of Twelfth Night, but acknowledges that the play is principally concerned with Viola's moral development.]
Disguise in Twelfth Night is sheer, a thin veil like the “cypress” that “hides” Olivia's “heart” in III.i.1 Viola, although dressed in sturdier male clothing, almost reveals herself inadvertently at several points, as during the duel with Sir Andrew and the interviews with Olivia. Other of Shakespeare's strong, disguised women do not hover quite so closely on the brink of losing control: Portia commands her identity as judge, and Rosalind manipulates her boyish exterior to teach her future husband about love, only once verging on disclosing her true identity before she is ready to.2 Viola's contrasting lack of sure control over her disguise points to a major theme unique to Twelfth Night: that of Epiphany, or the manifestation of truth. Such revelation is continually suggested in this comedy by the characters' ultimate inability to hide their true feelings and natures. This persistence of truth in coming to light parallels the manifestation of Christ to the Magi. But before any such revelation can occur in Twelfth...
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SOURCE: Cahill, Edward. “The Problem of Malvolio.” College Literature 23 (June 1996): 62-82.
[In the following essay, Cahill offers a psychoanalytic reading of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, highlighting his narcissism and painful identity crisis as well as his thwarted and obsessive desires for sexual, social, and personal fulfillment.]
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 tragic one. Joel Fineman wrote that Malvolio “plays the role of the outsider whose unhappiness is the measure of comic spirit, the...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. Review of Twelfth Night. Shakespeare Quarterly 53, no. 4 (winter 2002): 536-49.
[In the following excerpted review of the 2001 to 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company season at Stratford-upon-Avon, Jackson observes the erotic and decadent qualities of director Lindsay Posner's staging of Twelfth Night and highlights several individual performances, including Guy Henry's strangely empathetic Malvolio and Mark Hadfield's touching Feste.]
[In the set designed by Ashley Martin-Davis for Lindsay Posner's Twelfth Night,] Olivia's household was represented permanently by the furnishing of [an] alcove on the right of the forestage: black furniture, including a piano, a grandfather clock, a small table, some austere chairs, and a row of ancestral photographs. There were also two telltale Beardsley drawings that slyly indicated her suppressed longings. Orsino's court was exclusively male and military, but he openly indulged himself in the tastes of a fin-de-siecle aesthete. After a mimed prologue representing the storm, in which two figures struggled against a translucent plastic drop that billowed up and away as if it were at once clouds, sea, and a sail, the play proper began with the duke (Jo Stone-Fewings) listening to a melancholic performance on flute and guitar. The walls of his apartment were hung with a collection of decadent art, including more or less erotic and...
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SOURCE: Gross, Kenneth. Review of Twelfth Night. Theatre Journal 54, no. 4 (January 2002): 650-51.
[In the following review of the 2002 Holderness Theater Company production of Twelfth Night directed by Rebecca Holderness, Gross praises the minimalist staging of the play and calls attention to its fine dramaturgical effects, including the setting, lighting, dance, and music.]
At the opening of Rebecca Holderness's production of Twelfth Night, one saw on the stage floor an elongated pile of crumpled sheets of paper. Over the course of the show these were variously kicked at, danced over, scattered, rearranged, and blown away. Given the plot of Twelfth Night, the papers suggested the detritus of sea-storm and shipwreck, seaweed and shells, also rejected and lost letters, even discarded scripts and newspapers. Mere litter at one moment, at the next they could be carefully arranged into a circle to create the sad, enclosed garden of Olivia. (Other props were scarce: a stool, a fishbowl, some umbrellas.) Without calling too much attention to the idea, they might have made the New York audience think of the chaos of paper that filled lower Manhattan in the weeks after the World Trade Center disaster—the snow of pages from destroyed offices as well as the innumerable messages, memorials, and photographs affixed to walls in the surrounding neighborhood, fading and tearing over time....
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SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. Review of Twelfth Night. New Republic 227, nos. 8-9 (August 2002): 28.
[In the following review of Brian Kulick's 2002 staging of Twelfth Night at the open-air Delacorte Theatre in New York City's Central Park, Brustein contends that Kulick and his star-studded cast barely explored the depths of character and theme offered by Shakespeare's text.]
The season being summer, it is time for Shakespeare, particularly Twelfth Night, which, along with As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream, is a perennial favorite of outdoor festivals. In my time, I must have endured a hundred nights of Twelfth Night, one of them not that long ago in the very Delacorte Theater where the current version is being staged, the sole offering of the New York Shakespeare Festival's summer season. Like that previous production, which starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Goldblum, this one is a celebrity gathering featuring a number of movie and television luminaries. Some of these actors, notably those with stage experience, actually have some chops. Others should have been advised not to serve their theater apprenticeships in important Shakespearean roles.
They have not been helped much by their director, Brian Kulick, whose imaginative contribution seems to have been pretty much exhausted by the visual concept. Walt Spangler's attractive design,...
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SOURCE: Mullan, John. Review of Twelfth Night. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5196 (1 November 2002): 22.
[In the following excerpted review of the 2002 Donmar Warehouse Theatre staging of Twelfth Night directed by Sam Mendes, Mullan contends that an overemphasis on the erotic and sensual aspects of the drama, as well as on the suffering of Malvolio, obscured its comic elements and proved detrimental to the production.]
We owe to the memoranda book of law student John Manningham our knowledge that Twelfth Night was written just before or just after Hamlet. Manningham records seeing it early in 1602, though until his diary was unearthed in the nineteenth century it was commonly supposed that this romantic comedy of loss redeemed by kind tempests was late Shakespeare. With the confidence of documentary evidence, we now see how close it is to that tragedy of forbidden mourning. Like Hamlet, it opens after a death, and asks how long someone need mourn. Hamlet is told by his mother that, after two months, he has worn his “nighted colour” long enough. In Twelfth Night, Olivia has sworn to devote herself to the “sad remembrance” of her dead brother for seven years, daily watering her chamber “with eye-offending brine”. Manningham described Olivia as a “lady widow”, a mistake that evidences the excess of her grieving. The boy playing her in 1602 must have...
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SOURCE: Tromly, F. B. “Twelfth Night: Folly's Talents and the Ethics of Shakespearean Comedy.” Mosaic 7, no. 3 (spring 1974): 53-68.
[In the following essay, Tromly suggests that folly is a positive force in Twelfth Night, one that allow the characters to come to terms with life by learning to accept “delusion, vulnerability, and mortality.”]
Well, God give them wisdom that have it, and those that are fools, let them use their talents.
(I, v, 13-14)
To speak of the ethics of Shakespearean comedy, and especially those of a play so dedicated to “good fooling” as Twelfth Night, smacks of critical perversity. When Feste asks Toby and Andrew, “Would you have a love song, or a song of good life [a song praising the virtuous life],” the two superannuated roaring boys surely answer for the audience as well as for themselves. Toby exclaims, “A love song, a love song,” and Andrew's response, as usual, is a vacuous echo: “Ay, ay, I care not for good life” (II, iii, 32-35).1 Only a Malvolio would want to deny the play the cakes and ale of comic release. The vision of romantic comedy tends to hold the reality principle in abeyance, to dissolve it in music and moonlight, and hence our quotidian notions of ethical conduct may seem irrelevant to Illyria and the forest of Arden.
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SOURCE: Logan, Thad Jenkins. “Twelfth Night: The Limits of Festivity.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 22, no. 2 (spring 1982): 223-38.
[In the following essay, Logan claims that Twelfth Night—despite its ostensible depiction of a festive and happy resolution—contains glimpses of the darker side of human desire.]
In a recent article, Richard A. Levin has remarked on the existence of “two alternate approaches to Shakespearean comedy”: the one, exemplified by the work of C. L. Barber and Northrop Frye, focuses on the comedies as celebrations of social order, in which the protagonists are engaged in growth and self-discovery; the other, practiced by W. H. Auden, Harold C. Goddard, and Jan Kott, finds in the plays a “serious treatment of psychological states” and a “negative comment about social conditions.”1 Levin attributes this bifurcation in critical response to the fact that our response to the plays is fundamentally complex, and it is the complexity of our response to Twelfth Night that I mean to discuss here. I propose to consider the play as a Saturnalian comedy which evokes in its audience a recognition of the limits of festivity by abolishing such limits in the stage-world of Illyria. While my thesis may not please those who view Twelfth Night as a comedy of romantic education and moral redemption, I am in fact attempting to...
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SOURCE: Slights, Camille. “The Principle of Recompense in Twelfth Night.” Modern Language Review 77, no. 3 (July 1982): 537-46.
[In the following essay, Slights maintains that Twelfth Night illustrates the thematic principal of reciprocity as the foundation of successful human relationships.]
Like Shakespeare's other romantic comedies, Twelfth Night moves from personal frustration and social disorder to individual fulfilment and social harmony by means of what Leo Salingar has shown to be the traditional comic combination of beneficent fortune and human intrigue.1 This basic pattern, of course, takes a radically different form in each play. In comparison with many of the comedies, Twelfth Night begins with remarkably little conflict. The opening scenes introduce no villain bent on dissension and destruction, nor do they reveal disruptive antagonism between parents and children or between love and law. In contrast to the passion and anger of the first scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the restless melancholy that pervades the beginning of The Merchant of Venice, or the brutality and tyranny that precipitate the action in As You Like It, the dominant note of Orsino's court and of Olivia's household is static self-containment. To be sure, both Orsino and Olivia sincerely profess great unhappiness, but, as many critics have noted, a strain of...
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SOURCE: Tan, Marcus Cheng Chye. “‘Here I Am … Yet Cannot Hold This Visible Shape’: The Music of Gender in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.” Comitatus 32 (2001): 99-125.
[In the following essay, Tan discusses the relationship of music to Twelfth Night's theme of sexual ambivalence.]
THE ELUSIVE NATURE OF TWELFTH NIGHT
Taken as Shakespeare's farewell to romantic comedy and written around the same time as Hamlet, Twelfth Night presents a high comedy of elusive complexity that preempts the problem plays. Contesting a “universal consent [that] the very height of gay comedy is attained in Twelfth Night,”1 modern critics note that Twelfth Night possesses “darker” features of the problem plays but, as C. L. Barber suggests in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, the play manages to restore the festive through its comic resolution,2 affirming what Jonathan Dollimore terms “the telos of harmonic integration.”3
Elements of “dark tragedy” constantly complicate the “sunny identity of spirit.”4 The gulling of Malvolio is often seen by modern sensibilities as an excessively cruel prank passing into the domain of sadism. The latter's ignored plea for help while locked in the dark room, exacerbated by Feste's cruel taunting, becomes a comic joke that proves...
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Ake, Jami. “Glimpsing a ‘Lesbian’ Poetics in Twelfth Night.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 43, no. 2 (2003): 375-94.
Studies the dynamics of same-sex feminine desire, focusing on the relationship between Olivia and Viola/Cesario in Twelfth Night.
de Somogyi, Nick, ed. Introduction to Twelfth Night / Twelfe Night, or What You Will, by William Shakespeare, pp. xxv-xxxix. London: Nick Hern Books, 2001.
Comments on the textual uniqueness of Twelfth Night and examines some of the idiosyncrasies of its manuscript history.
Gregson, J. M. “The Play.” In Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, pp. 24-58. London: Edward Arnold, 1980.
Surveys language, structure, theme, and characterization in Twelfth Night and describes the play as the epitome of Shakespearean romantic comedy.
Hunt, Maurice. “Viola/Cesario, Caesarean Birth, and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.” Upstart Crow 11 (2001): 7-14.
Explores the theme of identity in Twelfth Night and examines the symbolism associated with Viola's pseudonym Cesario.
Kimbrough, Robert. “Androgyny Seen Through Shakespeare's Disguise.” Shakespeare Quarterly 33, no. 1 (spring 1982): 17-33.
Probes Shakespeare's treatment...
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