The Image and Metaphor of "Drowning" in Twelfth Night
William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night; Or, What You Will is a comedy rich in poetry and puns, a masque concerning masks, a romance with none of the required elements missing. Beyond this, it is a play about drowning: in love, in sorrow, in appetite. It is an intriguing statement about people who are so immersed in excesses of various sorts that they cannot see beyond their own immediate desires in order to act to obtain what they claim to want. The play is a bridge between the comedies that Shakespeare wrote previously and the tragedies to come; as such it has elements of both and is an echo and a prophecy.
The purpose of this essay is to explore the image and metaphor of "drowning" in this play as it relates to the central themes, and to examine some of the ways in which this image takes the play out of the realm of pure fun and farce into Shakespeare's usual realm of profound human truths.
Drowning in Twelfth Night is nearly always a metaphor for loss, usually a loss of perspective through submersion in excess. The theme is seen in the first speech of the play, as Orsino asks to be drowned in the music that feeds his melancholy love. Act I is primarily concerned with exposing the ways in which the central characters are caught up, as Orsino is, in the final stages of emotion. Scene ii gives us the first of the two literal scenes of drowning, which turn out to be counterfeit in two senses: Sebastian is not really drowned as Viola believes; and Viola does not drown, but comes out of the sea to Illyria and is thus the person who rescues the inhabitants of that land from inundation.
Sir Toby Belch's particular sea is that of drink; in Act I we find that he is "drunk nightly" in, as he puts it, "drinking healths to my neice." Feste is the first to seize upon this metaphor when speaking of Sir Toby, whom he likens to a "drowned man, a fool, a madman - in the third degree of drink - he's drowned." The image is picked up by others, including Viola, who speaks to Olivia of Orsino's love as being with "adorations, with fertile tears," here linking Orsino's tears to Olivia's, called by Valentine, "eye offending brine."
Act II moves back to the sea, where Sebastian becomes the second person to be saved from the deep; again the image of tears is linked to drowning, this time by Sebastian, speaking of his sister: "She is drowned already sir, with salt water, though I seem to drown her remembrance again with more." Two very different images associated with the sea occur later in the act in a dialogue between Feste and Orsino. Feste suggests to Orsino that men like him, with such changeable minds, should be "put to sea that their business might be everything, and their intent everywhere; for that's it that always makes a good voyage of nothing." Orsino answers with his own view: his love is "all as hungry as the sea and can digest as much."
In terms of the play's major theme, Antonio's sea imagery in Act V is the most important; the lines might have better been spoken by Viola:
That most ingrateful boy there by your side
From the rude sea's enraged and foamy mouth
Did I redeem. A wrack past hope he was.
His life I gave him, and did thereto add
My love without retention or restraint,
All his in dedication.
Later in the act it is Viola who is again, though mistakenly, linked to drowning and the sea. Sebastian speaks: "I had a sister, / Whom the blind waves and surges have devoured," and were she alive, "I should my tears let fall upon your cheek and say, 'Thrice welcome, drowned Viola!'".
Other characters are drowning in things other than tears or drink. Sir Andrew Aguecheek is absorbed in eating, Maria in troublemaking, Malvolio in his own self-importance. The one thing that the characters all have in common is boredom as the reason for their individual monomanias. What kind of place is this Illyria, which allows its inhabitants the freedom to indulge in such nonsensical excesses? Joseph H. Summers has noted that in this world,
the responsible older generation has been...
(The entire section is 1,610 words.)