The essential spirit of Twelfth Night is captured in its title. It refers to the “Twelfth Night” of Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrating the gift of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Believed by the Elizabethans to also be the day of Jesus Christ’s baptism, the Twelfth Night was an even more important holiday in Shakespeare’s time than Christmas itself. In (partial) contrast to our own domesticated Christmas, this was not only a festive season for the Elizabethans but a time when excess and license were expected to run rampant. It was a time of merry-making, of hard drinking, and of romantic (or lusty) pursuits. The play is unique among Shakespeare’s works in having a second title, or subtitle, What You Will. This second part to the play’s title is an open-ended invitation by Shakespeare to his audiences. They can choose to enjoy the play as a simple, romantic comedy with a happy ending, but they are also free to take note of certain negative or problematic aspects woven into the general revelry by the mature Bard.
The world of Twelfth Night is one of comedy and comic excess; and among all of the characters in the play, it is the drunken, misbehaving, and prankish Sir Toby Belch who epitomizes its humorous nature. The plot against Malvolio is, to an extent, a jocular undoing of a negative character, an authority figure without power intent upon silencing Sir Toby. The humor here is amplified by the degree to which Malvolio comes to see himself as Olivia’s equal. Thus, in the phony letter he receives in act 2, scene 5, Malvolio emphasizes the words, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” No matter how he slices it, Malvolio comes to the opinion that he, a mere steward, is somehow great or deserves to become great by virtue of his pomposity. The audience is in on the joke from the start, so that Malvolio’s reading of the letter is entertaining in itself and magnifies the humor of his ultimate demise when Olivia’s behavior makes it plain that Malvolio is not great, but deluded.
In addition to the comic moments of mistaken identity that arise in the course of Twelfth Night, there are many funny bits in the play that stand on their own. In the first scene of act 3, the clown Feste is asked by Cesario if he is a musician who “lives by” playing the tabor. He replies that he “lives by the church.” When the disguised Viola then asks “Art thou a churchman?” Feste answers: “No such matter, sir: I do live by the church; for I do live at my house, and my house doth stand by a church.” Along with Sir Toby, Andrew, and Maria, Feste is one of several characters in Twelfth Night who engages in comic wordplay, some of it on purpose and some of it unwittingly. After learning of Olivia’s love for Cesario, the disguised Viola says to the countess at the end of act 3, scene 2,
I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth,And that no woman has; nor never noneShall mistress be of it, save I alone.And so adieu, good madam; never moreWill I my master’s tears to you deplore.
This speech is, of course, ironic, since the speaker is, in fact, a woman. But above this, Viola’s response to Olivia’s overture highlights the primary subject of the play: romantic love. In her coupling of “one heart, one bosom, and one truth,” Viola gives expression to...
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an idealized conception of “true” love as being an all-consuming passion for a single “authentic” lover that will overcome any and all obstacles.
Twelfth Night validates this idea of love, but with some disconcerting qualifications. Love is true in Twelfth Night, but it is also irrational, excessive, and fickle; it wanes over time, as does its chief cause, physical beauty. Duke Orsino opens the play with these lines: “If music be the food of love, play on, / Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken and so die.”
But after hearing strands of the same tune being played in the background, Orsino commands, “Enough; no more; / ’Tis not so sweet now as it was before.” In Twelfth Night, Orsino is irrational in his pursuit of the lovely Olivia, but he cedes her readily to Sebastian and then falls instantly in love with “Cesario” when he reveals himself to be Viola. Love is powerful, but its constancy is certainly in question. In act 2, scene 4, the Duke says to Cesario that “women are as roses, whose fair flower, / Being once display’d, doth fall that very hour.” Love at first sight is rampant in Shakespeare’s Illyria, but he will not vouchsafe its permanence.
Worse, in Twelfth Night, love is consistently associated with madness. After seeing Cesario for the first time, the lovestruck Olivia says at the end of act 1, “Mine eye [is] too great a flatterer for my mind.” Love is a form of insanity, in which one’s senses deceive and overcome one’s reason. In act 4, scene 3, Sebastian waxes about his instantaneous love for Olivia:
This is the air, that is the glorious sun;This pearl she gave to me, I do feel’t and see’t:And though ’tis wonder that enrapts me thus,Yet ’tis not madness.
Sebastian’s denial that his love for Olivia is madness only underscores the connection between unbounded passion and an unbalanced mind. Shortly thereafter, Sebastian says that because of his love for Olivia, he is willing to “distrust mine eyes” and “wrangle with my reason.” In a play in which many references are made to being possessed by the devil and being victimized by witchcraft, love is of necessity equated with being mad.
There is one character in Twelfth Night for whom love (co-mingled with self-infatuation) is madness—the steward Malvolio, whose professions of love to Olivia lead to his being restrained as a lunatic. Over the centuries, Shakespearean critics have discussed the so-called “Malvolio problem.” On the one hand, Malvolio is basically a stock comic figure who deserves the comeuppance that he receives. But on the other, his imprisonment is excessive, and he excludes himself from the closing marriage ceremony with good cause. Indeed, when he speaks finally of exacting revenge in act 5, Malvolio evokes a certain sympathetic understanding. Malvolio has been abused as the target of a trick perpetrated by the parasitical, self-serving Uncle Toby. For his part, Uncle Toby, Malvolio’s chief tormentor, is a merry soul, but he is also a rouge who is scheming to marry his fair niece to the absurdly non-heroic, non-romantic figure of Sir Andrew. If we view the play as a standard romantic comedy, Malvolio warrants what he undergoes; but as a matter of justice, Malvolio has done very little to earn a humiliating payback.
Although fifteenth-century England had been a time of grave civil unrest and violence, by the time Shakespeare achieved prominence during Elizabeth and James’ reigns it was enjoying a period of socio-political security and respect for the arts. Queen Elizabeth’s reign extended from 1558 until 1603, when she was succeeded by the Scottish King James. Shakespeare received the patronage of both monarchs during his career as a playwright.
Elizabeth’s reign was not without its tensions. There was an intense religious climate in which the Queen had to act decisively. The religious tensions that existed during Elizabeth’s reign continued during James’ reign, when he was pitted against the Puritans. England had gone to war with Spain. In other foreign affairs, the Queen was moderate, practicing a prudent diplomatic neutrality. There were, however, several plots on her life.
There was also evidence of progress. The nation experienced a commercial revolution. Elizabeth’s government instituted two important social measures: “the Statute of Artificers” and the “Poor Laws,” both of which were aimed at helping the people displaced and hurt by changing conditions. Laws were passed to regulate the economy. Explorers started to venture into the unknown for riches and land. The machinery of government was transformed. The administrative style of government replaced the household form of leadership.
The Elizabethan Age was an age that made a great writer like Shakespeare and his contemporaries possible. It produced excellent drama; Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour are two examples. Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser produced masterpieces during Elizabeth’s reign. Shakespeare was in good company.
Shakespeare was well suited to the English Renaissance, with its new-found faith in the dignity and worth of the individual. Shakespeare profoundly understood human nature and provided us with some of the most imaginative character studies in drama. Shakespeare wrote for his company of players, known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He achieved considerable prosperity as a playwright. In addition to his artistic brilliance, Shakespeare wrote under the influence of the philosophy and effervescent spirit of the Elizabethan Age. Notably, we find the presence of the “Great Chain of Being,” a view of life that started with Plato and Aristotle, in some of his plays. Furthermore, other ideas and social structures established in the Middle Ages still held sway during the early seventeenth century.
Shakespeare could display his universality and penetration in the public theater for his audience. His work, largely free of didactic and political motives, proved very entertaining.
The date of the composition of Twelfth Night is fixed around 1600. In using his creative powers on original sources, such as the Plautine Gl’Ingannati and Barnabe Rich’s “Of Apolonius and Silla,” Shakespeare was following a Renaissance tradition of working creatively with original situations. Shakespeare thus enjoyed artistic freedom and encouragement to produce a play like Twelfth Night for his audience, knowing that it would entertain viewers of all ages and status.
*Illyria. Region on the east shore of the Adriatic Sea, between Italy and Greece. Its history is marked by waves of conquering invaders, from early Slavs to Ottoman Turks. In William Shakespeare’s time, Illyria—still part of the Ottoman Empire—was a group of city-states controlled by Venice. In the play, Illyria is distinctly Italianate, making for an atmosphere that is congenial to romance, with the seacoast providing an apt setting for plot conveniences of shipwreck, separated twins (Viola and Sebastian), and exotic adventures. At Illyria, fantasies and dreams are realized, and lessons are learned. There Viola is transformed from a woman to a man to “Orsino’s mistress,” and there she is finally able to live in an earthly Elysium.
Duke’s palace. Site of romantic sentimentality. The duke revels in wordplay and music, which feed his passion. The palace is also a site of ambiguous sexual identity, as shown by Viola’s disguise as Cesario.
House of Olivia
House of Olivia. House modeled on the English system of servants and retainers with prescribed duties. On one hand, there is the mourning figure of Olivia, and the humorless, austere, proud figure of her steward, Malvolio, the epitome of all puritans. On the other, there are Fabian and Maria, Olivia’s servants, and the faithful old retainer, Feste—a well-educated clown. Olivia attempts to live a cloistered life, but Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the two rowdy rioters, are unaffected by Olivia’s sadness over her dead brother.
In a room within this house, Malvolio is confined indarkness and cruelly mocked and tormented by a disguised Feste, at the instigation of Sir Toby and Maria.
Olivia’s orchard. Scene of Malvolio’s gulling by Maria’s faked letter. One of the comic highlights of the play comes from Malvolio’s strange cross-gartering and absurd posturings as Olivia’s would-be lover. However, the real point of the comedy is character revelation.
Twelfth Night is a holiday that occurs on January 6, which is the festival of Epiphany and the last day of the twelve days of Christmas. During Shakespeare's time, Twelfth Night marked the end of a period of seasonal festivities when dances, parties, and banquets were held and plays were performed, and the traditional social order was temporarily overturned— ideally to allow any tensions that had built up over the year to be safely released. A king or lord of misrule was crowned, and traditional social roles (master/servant, bishop/choirboy, king/fool) were reversed. Today, Halloween, New Year's Eve, and Mardi Gras perform a similar function: on these holidays, many people eat and drink whatever they want, go to parties until early in the morning, and temporarily lose their cares and sometimes their inhibitions by wearing costumes or masks, pretending for a short time to be someone else.
Although Shakespeare never makes it clear whether or not the play's action occurs during the Christmas season, Twelfth Night has been described as carnivalesque in plot and tone, and indeed, Sir Toby Belch, for example, seems to be perpetually drinking and partying until late at night with his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek. There are also plenty of role reversals in the play, including a fool speaking words of wisdom (Feste), a humorless steward made to look like a fool (Malvolio), and a woman (Viola) pretending to be a man.
Women were not employed in acting troupes during Shakespeare's time, so female roles—such as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet or Ophelia in Hamlet— had to be performed by boys whose voices had not yet deepened. This fact added an extra bit of humor to the action in Twelfth Night: Renaissance audiences knew that the part of Viola was played by a boy, and would find it amusing when Viola disguised herself as Cesario, thereby in reality becoming a boy playing a woman playing a young man.
Today, the part of Viola is customarily performed by a woman, which allows modern audiences to focus more on her heart-to-heart discussions with Duke Orsino regarding the differences between the sexes—an issue that continues to interest us today. In II.iv.29-41, for example, Orsino supports his remark that women should marry men who are older than themselves by arguing that men's "fancies are more giddy and unfirm, / More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn, / Than women's are." Today, those who say that men behave badly, or that they are just like little boys, are voicing arguments similar to the duke's. Orsino then asserts that men need to marry younger women because female beauty does not last very long: "women," he declares, "are as roses, whose fair flow'r / Being once display'd, doth fall that very hour." This sounds very much like the still current attitude of some people that men grow distinguished but women grow old.
Viola, however, strongly disagrees with Orsino's claim in II.iv.93-103 that women cannot love as passionately and profoundly as men can. Still disguised as the male page Cesario, Viola asserts that men are all talk and no commitment when it comes to love: "We men may say more, swear more, but indeed / Our shows are more than will; for still we prove / Much in our vows, but little in our love" (Il.iv.l 16-18). The debate over the intensity of a man's love versus a woman's persists today, and men are often stereotyped as being afraid of commitment.
Finally, Twelfth Night focuses not only on the roles of the sexes, but on those of the different social classes as well. As a countess, Olivia is a member of the nobility; on the other hand, her steward, Malvolio, is a commoner and is expected to recognize and remain in his place as Olivia's inferior. All the same, Malvolio has hopes. Just before he falls victim to Sir Toby and Maria's practical joke, the steward is heard fantasizing about marrying the countess, telling himself that weddings between commoners and the nobility have happened before. "There is example for't," he says, "the Lady of the Strachy married the yeoman of the wardrobe" (II.v.39-40). In the United States, there isn't a formal class system like the one that plagues Malvolio, but there are divisions between the rich, the middle class, and the poor. There are no rules which prevent marriages between members of different financial classes; nevertheless someone who is poor or middle class usually cannot afford to travel in the same circles as someone who is fabulously wealthy. Like Malvolio, some Americans may dream about marrying someone rich and famous, but that doesn't mean it is likely to happen.
Berry, Ralph. Shakespeare’s Comedies: Explorations in Form. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972. A discussion of Shakespeare’s comedies in which each chapter is devoted to a specific play. In the chapter “The Messages of Twelfth Night,” Barry discusses the deceits and illusions in the play and concludes that it calls the very nature of reality into question.
Levin, Richard A. Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985. A critical study of three of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. Two chapters deal with Twelfth Night: “Household Politics in Illyria” discusses the acceptance of the various characters into society, while “Feste and the Antiromantic Twelfth Night” focuses on the discordant elements of the play.
Lloyd Evans, Gareth. The Upstart Crow: An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Plays. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1982. Focuses mainly on critical reviews of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as discussing sources and historical context and background.
Muir, Kenneth, ed. Shakespeare—The Comedies: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965. An anthology of essays that discuss Shakespeare’s comedies from various points of view. Harold Jenkins compares Twelfth Night with earlier plays by Shakespeare and others and concludes that it is the greatest of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies.
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Edited by J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik. London: Methuen, 1975. Includes more than eighty pages of introductory material and critical analysis, as well as the text of the play itself.
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Quotations of Twelfth Night are taken from the following edition
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night, ed. Herschel Baker. New York: New American Library, 1965.