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.
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 alone to his lodging from the theatre or even from some noble's mansion; he who, looking down from an immeasurable height on the mind of the public and the noble, had yet to be their servant and jester, and to depend upon their favour; not wholly uncorrupted by this dependence, but yet superior to it and, also determined, like Feste, to lay by the sixpences it brought him, until at least he could say the word, “Our revels now are ended,” and could break—was it a magician's staff or a Fool's bauble?2
The rhetoric of this has its own decorum. It aims to convey a general, unified impression of a myriad-minded artist. Shakespearean interpreters have a problem with summing up. Leaning on a repeated verse (“For the rain it raineth every day”), and more quietly on the iteration of the word “one” (Lear: “Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart / That's sorry yet for thee”; Feste: “I was one, sir, in this interlude; one Sir Topas, sir, but that's all one”), Bradley integrates Shakespeare by the deft pathos of an imaginary portrait. Today's ideological critics would probably purge this portrait of everything but Shakespeare's representation of power-relations and hierarchy. Such critics might note that the portrait's final question serves only to emphasize the artist's marginality, his loneliness or apartness, as if by a secret law of fate being an artist excluded Shakespeare from social power in the very world he addresses.
The relation of “character” in the world (domestic or political) to “poetical character” (the imaginary relations to that same world which make up our image of a particular artist) is always elusive. Especially so in the case of Shakespeare, of whose life we know so little. A myth evolves, given classic expression by Keats, that the mystery or obscurity enveloping Shakespeare's life is due to the fact that a great poet has no “identity,” that he is “everything and nothing”—as Bradley's evocation also suggests. John Middleton Murry's book on Shakespeare begins with a chapter entitled “Everything and Nothing” in which Murry explores his reluctant conclusion that “In the end there is nothing to do but to surrender to Shakespeare.” “The moment comes in our experience of Shakespeare when we are dimly conscious of a choice to be made: either we must turn away (whether by leaving him in silence, or by substituting for his reality some comfortable intellectual fiction of our own), or we must suffer ourselves to be drawn into the vortex.”3
The focus moves, in short, to the character of the critic, determined by this choice. Can we abide Shakespeare's question? Does the critic have a “character” of his own, or is he simply a bundle of responses accommodated to a special institution or audience: university students and dons, or other drama buffs, or the general public? Unlike Eliot, say, or Tolstoy, Murry has no body of creative writing to back up the importance of his interpretive engagements. There is, nevertheless, a sense that the critic's identity is formed by his selfless encounters with artists of Shakespeare's stature.
The “vortex” that threatens readers, according to Murry, includes the fact that Shakespeare delights as much in Iago as Imogen (Keats's words); and to shuffle off our ordinary conceptions of character—in Murry's phrase, the “mortal coil of moral judgment”—is both painful and necessary. Always, Murry claims, “when Shakespeare has been allowed to make his impression, we find the critic groping after the paradox of the poetical character itself as described by Keats.” In an earlier essay, closer to Bradley's era, Murry had already put the problem of Shakespeare criticism in terms that showed how aware he was of reactions to the “vortex.” He rejects the “‘idea’-bacillus” that reduces Shakespeare to universal themes or the creation of character-types, yet he refuses to relinquish his rigorous quest for “the center of comprehension from which he [Shakespeare] worked.” Programmatic as it is, Murry's statement of 1920 remains relevant:
Let us away then with ‘logic’ and away with ‘ideas’ from the art of literary criticism; but not, in a foolish and impercipient reaction, to revive the impressionistic criticism which has sapped the English brain for a generation past. The art of criticism is rigorous; impressions are merely its raw material; the life-blood of its activity is in the process of ordonnance of aesthetic impressions.4
The rejection of impressionism leads, if we think of Eliot, and of Murry himself, simply to a more rigorous formulation of the paradox of the impersonal artist. For Murry it meant comparing Christian and post-Shakespearean (especially romantic) ways of annihilating selfhood. Blake becomes even more crucial for such a formulation than Keats. G. W. Knight also joins this quest. Other rigorous escape routes, that lead through impressionism beyond it, make Shakespeare's language the main character of his plays, the everything and nothing. Empson's colloquial fracturing of Shakespeare's text, from Seven Types through Complex Words, as well as Leavis's emphasis on the “heuristico-creative quality of the diction” avoid, on the whole, totalizing structures. Rigor consists in having the local reading undo an established symmetry.
Another form of rigor, historical scholarship, can be outrageously speculative. (The trend was always there in the work of editors who unscrambled perplexing expressions or normalized daring ones.) One might escape the Shakespearean vortex by discovering a firm historical emplacement for the plays, by clarifying their occasion as well as the characters in them. The work of referring the plays back to sources mysteriously transformed by Shakespeare (minor Italian novellas, or poetics derived from Donatus and Terence, such as the “forward progress of the turmoils”5) gives way to an ambitious reconstruction of a particular, sponsoring event. The quest for the identity of W.H. or the Dark Lady or the exact festive occasion of Twelfth Night exerts a prosecutory charm that attests to the presence of character in the critic-investigator (that stubborn, scholarly sleuth) as well as in Shakespeare the historical personage. Consider what the ingenious Leslie Hotson does with the “jest nominal,” or play on names. It is as intriguing as anything ventured by newfangled intertextualists.
Hotson claims in The First Night of Twelfth Night that the figure of Malvolio is a daring take-off of a high official in Elizabeth's court: Sir William Knollys, Earl of Banbury and Controller of her Majesty's household. This aging dignitary, we are told, had become infatuated with a young Maid of Honor at Court, Mall (Mary) Fitton. In the “allowed fooling” of Twelfth Night festivities, “old Beard Knollys,” suggests Hotson, “is slaughtered in gross and detail.” Here is his description of how it was done:
while exposing both the Controller's ill-will—towards hilarity and misrule—and his amorousness in the name Mala-voglia (Ill Will or Evil concupiscence) Shakespeare also deftly fetches up Knollys' ridiculous love-chase of Mistress Mall by a sly modulation of Mala-Voglia into “Mal”-voglio—which means “I want Mall,” “I wish for Mall,” “I will have Mall.” It is a masterpiece of mockery heightened by merciless repetition, with the players ringing the changes of expression on “Mal”-voglio … it will bring down the house.6
The play becomes a roman à clef, and so delivers us from a verbal vertigo it exposes. Shakespeare's improvisational genius, moreover, his extreme wit and opportunism, may recall the methodical bricolage by which earlier mythmakers, according to Lévi-Strauss, sustained their tale. Here it explicitly pleases or shames the ears of a court-centered audience. Yet this shaming or delighting is not necessarily in the service of good sense or the status quo, for it can subvert as well as mock and purge. The one thing it does, as in the case of the Controller, is to acknowledge the law of gender—of generation and succession—which, as Erasmus saw, compels us to play the fool. Such allowed slander, whether or not reinforced by Elizabethan festivities, by periods of compulsory license, also penetrates Shakespearean tragedy:
Even he, the father of gods and king of men, who shakes all heaven by a nod, is obliged to lay aside his three-pronged thunder and that Titanic aspect by which, when he pleases, he scares all the gods, and assume another character in the slavish manner of an actor, if he wishes to do what he never refrains from doing, that is to say, to beget children. … He will certainly lay by his gravity, smooth his brow, renounce his rock-bound principles, and for a few minutes toy and talk nonsense. … Venus herself would not deny that without the addition of my presence her strength would be enfeebled and ineffectual. So it is that from this brisk and silly little game of mine come forth the haughty philosophers.7
Generation and Succession are so fundamental to almost all classes and types of humanity that to reduce them to their verbal effects might seem trivializing. Yet, as Erasmus's Folly hints, the very category of the trivial is overturned by these forces. The “striving to please every day,” which is the fate of the player, is equally that of lover and courtier. It quickens even as it exhausts our wit. It points to a relentless need for devices—words, stratagems. More is required than a “tiny little wit” to sustain what every day demands.8
There exist eloquent characterizations of Shakespeare's understanding of the common nature of mankind. As Bakhtin remarks of another great writer, Rabelais, there are crownings and uncrownings at every level.9 No one is exempt, at any time, from that rise and fall, whether it is brought on by actual political events or social and sexual rivalry, or internalized pressures leading to self-destructive illusions and acts. The vicissitudes of Folly and Fortuna go hand in hand. Yet no conclusions are drawn; and it does not matter what class of person is involved—a Falstaff, a Harry, a King Henry; a clown, a count, a lady; a usurper, a porter. What happens happens across the board, and can therefore settle expressively in a language with a character of its own—apart from the decorum that fits it to the character of the person represented. The pun or quibble, Shakespeare's “fatal Cleopatra,” is a quaint and powerful sign of that deceiving variety of life. Hazlitt, following Charles Lamb, remarks that Elizabethan “distinctions of dress, the badges of different professions, the very signs of the shops” were a sort of visible language for the imagination. “The surface of society was embossed with hieroglyphs.”10 Yet the showiest and most self-betraying thing in Shakespeare is the flow of language itself, which carries traces of an eruption from some incandescent and molten core, even when hard as basalt, that is, patently rhetorical.
Structurally too, the repetitions by which we discover an intent—a purposiveness—do not resolve themselves into a unity, a “one” free of sexual, hierarchical or personal differentiation. Feste's “one” is an Empsonian complex word, which seeks to distract us, by its very iteration, into a sense of closure. Yet there is never an objective correlative that sops up the action or organizes all the excrescent motives and verbal implications. Feste's phrase is found, for example, in the mouth of another clown figure, Fluellen, in a scene one could characterize as “Porn at Monmouth” (Henry V, IV.vii). The scene, through the solecisms and mispronunciations of Fluellen, his butchery of English, makes us aware of what is involved in the larger world of combat, to which he is marginal. The catachresis of “Kill the Poyes and the luggage!” expresses the cut-throat speed with which matters are moving toward indiscriminate slaughter. An end penetrates the middle of the drama; the grimace (if only linguistic) of death begins to show through.
Yet even here, as the action hits a dangerous juncture, as decisions become hasty and bloody, this verbally excessive interlude slows things down to a moment of humorous discrimination. Fluellen draws a comparison between Harry of Monmouth and “Alexander the Pig” of Macedon (Henry V, IV.vii). That “big” should issue as “pig” is a fertile and leveling pun, which the macabre turn of this near-graveyard scene could have exploited even more; but the uncrowning of Alexander in Fluellen's mouth leads to a series of images (mouth, fingers, figures) that suggest a “body” less mortal than its parts. Harry's transformation into King Henry, and Fluellen's comparison in his favor—that Harry's bloodthirsty anger is more justified than Alexander's—appear like a jesting in the throat of death, a vain distinction already undone by the battlefield context that levels all things, as by an earthy vernacular, or quasi-vernacular, that can slander all things in perfect good humor.
It seems impossible, then, to describe the poetical character of Shakespeare without raising certain questions. One concerns the character of the critic (choices to be made in reading so strong and productive a writer); another what happens to language as it nurtures a vernacular ideal that still dominates English literature. A third, related question is whether what that language does to character and to us can be summed up or unified by methodical inquiry. Does an “intellectual tradition” exist, as Richards thought, to guide us in reading that plentiful “Elizabethan” mixture? “The hierarchy of these modes is elaborate and variable,” he writes about sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature. To “read aright,” Richards continues, “we need to shift with an at present indescribable adroitness and celerity from one mode to another.”11
By “modes” Richards means different types of indirect statement, which he also characterizes as “metaphorical, allegorical, symbolical,” yet does not define further. In some way they are all nonliteral; at least not directly literal. Like Coleridge, whom he quotes, Richards is impressed by the role that “wit” plays in Shakespeare's time, although he does not discuss the complicit or antagonistic and always showy relation between wit and will. He simply accepts Coleridge's thesis on wit and Shakespeare's time:
when the English Court was still foster-mother of the State and the Muses; and when, in consequence, the courtiers and men of rank and fashion affected a display of wit, point, and sententious observation, that would be deemed intolerable at present—but in which a hundred years of controversy, involving every great political, and every dear domestic interest, had trained all but the lowest classes to participate. Add to this the very style of the sermons of the time, and the eagerness of the Protestants to distinguish themselves by long and frequent preaching, and it will be found that, from the reign of Henry VIII to the abdication of James II, no country ever received such a national education as England.12
Yet Coleridge's notion of “national education” may be too idealistic—Arnoldian before the letter. It downplays the subverting character of Shakespeare's wit, one that is not put so easily in the service of the nation-state and its movement toward a common language. The “prosperity of a pun,” as M. M. Mahood calls it, in what is still the most sensitive exploration of the subject,13 offended rather than pleased most refiners of English up to modern times. “Prosperity” may itself covertly play on “propriety,” which is precisely what a pun questions. The speed and stenography, in any case, of Shakespeare's wordplay in the comic scenes undoes the hegemony of any single order of discourse, and compels us to realize the radically social and mobile nature of the language exchange. And, unlike the novel (which allows Bakhtin his most persuasive theorizing), these scenes display less a narrative or a pseudonarrative than oral graffiti. Verbally Shakespeare is a graffiti artist, using bold, often licentious strokes, that make sense because of the living context of stereotypes, the commedia dell'arte, and other vernacular or popular traditions.
Is it possible, then, to see Shakespeare sub specie unitatis, as the younger Murry thought? “There never has been and never will be a human mind which can resist such an inquiry if it is pursued with sufficient perseverance and understanding.”14 Yet in this very sentence “human mind” is fleetingly equivocal: does it refer only to the object of inquiry, Shakespeare's mind, or also to the interpreter's intellect, tempted by the riddle of Shakespeare? The later Murry too does not give up; but now the unity, the “all that's one,” is frightening as well, and associated with omnia abeunt in mysterium: all things exit into mystery.15
It seems to me there is no mystery, no Abgrund, except language itself, whose revelatory revels are being staged, as if character were a function of language, rather than vice versa. More precisely, as if the locus of the dramatic action were the effect of language on character. Twelfth Night will allow us to examine how this language test is applied. If we admire, however ambivalently, the way Iago works on Othello by “damnable iteration” (cf. Falstaff: “O, thou hast damnable iteration, and art indeed able to corrupt a saint” (1 Henry IV, I.ii.90), or the way Falstaff shamelessly converts abuse into flattery, we are already caught up in a rhetoric whose subversive motility, moment to moment, can bless or curse, praise or blame, corrupt words or (like Aristotle's eulogist) substitute collateral terms that “lean toward the best.”16 It is this instant possibility of moving either way, or...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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