Twelfth Night Literary Criticism (Vol. 34) - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Twelfth Night

Written before the "problem comedies" such as Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night marks for many critics the most well-crafted of Shakespeare's "happy comedies," one rich in symbolism and complex in its exploration of love, its blurring of appearance and reality, its troubling of gender, and its portrayal of human psychology.

As in most of Shakespeare's romantic comedies from the 1590's, love motivates many of the characters' actions and attitudes. Some commentators, such as Peter G. Phialas (1966) and Charles Tyler Prouty (1966), have claimed that the characters interact in order to depict a Renaissance ideal of courtly love. Richard Henze (1975) has expanded this line of thought, arguing that Shakespeare resolves the play's contradictions through the interaction of characters, particularly through love-relationships. Similarly, Dennis R. Preston (1970) has asserted that the minor characters bind the seemingly disparate elements of the play, forming a unified whole. Other critics, including Terence Eagleton (1967), have contended that love in the play fuses language and reality, and thus questions the fixity of nature.

While some scholars have argued that love is the primary subject of Twelfth Night and have debated whether it has a unifying or dissembling effect on the dichotomy between appearance and reality, other commentators have identified this very dichotomy as the play's central theme. For example, Karen Greif (1981) has focused on Shakespeare's questioning of the nature of truth through the characters' "play," claiming that "Twelfth Night poses questions about 'the purpose of playing' and about whether illusion is perhaps too deeply embedded in human experience to be ever completely separated from reality." Other critics, including D. J. Palmer (1967), have contextualized Shakespeare within a tradition that conflates art and nature, and Walter N. King (1968), drawing on the history of philosophy, has considered Shakespeare to be consciously commenting on a Parmenidean approach to metaphysics. The resulting portrayal of nature has led commentators such as Karin S. Coddon (1993) to consider Twelfth Night as questioning the stability of social status by troubling a supposedly natural hierarchy in Elizabethan society.

In addition to Shakespeare's problematizing the fixity of nature, many feminist literary theorists have claimed that disorder in Twelfth Night also affects definitions of sex and gender, focusing primarily on the Viola/ Cesario character. Scholars have extensively debated whether Shakespeare consciously or unconsciously uses Viola's role-playing to demonstrate the plasticity of socially constructed gender roles as well as whether the character calls supposedly fixed sexual differences into question. Stevie Davies (1993) and Nancy Hayles (1979), for example, have contended that Viola's role-playing questions the idea of a naturally determined gender. Others, such as Lorna Hutson (1996), have argued that Shakespeare affirms not only the plasticity of gender, but the rhetorical construction of sex as well.

Modern commentators have also studied the tenets of psychoanalysis to explore both the actions of the characters and the motivations of the author. Freudian and Jungian taxonomies have been used to dissect characters' actions (such as Viola's putting on the guise of a man) and their personification of psychological attributes. For example, Helene Moglen (1973) has contended that Twelfth Night portrays a psychological picture "strikingly similar to major aspects of Freud's own theory of psycho-sexual development." Critics such as Leonard F. Manheim (1964) have even applied psychoanalytic theory to Shakespeare himself, finding in Twelfth Night an expression of his unconscious attempt to enact an Oedipal fantasy.

Critical approaches to Twelfth Night have varied considerably, from strict examinations of the text alone to psychoanalytic evaluations of its author, from historical inquiries into Elizabethan love to feminist interpretations of sex and gender. Regardless, Twelfth Night continues to attract contemporary criticism, as commentators find in the play the height of Shakespeare's comedic art.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Peter G. Phialas (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Twelfth Night," in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedy: The Development of Their Form and Meaning, The University of North Carolina Press, 1966, pp. 256-305.

[In the following essay, Phialas examines the elements of Twelfth Night that Shakespeare adapted from his earlier comedies, and he discerns in the play an ideal of love that emerges through the juxtaposition of Viola's selfless love and the self-indulgent love of Orsino and Olivia.]


Twelfth Night has been called a masterpiece not of invention but recapitulation, a summing-up of the admirable features of the "joyous" comedies. It is certainly that and much more. Its connections with earlier Shakespearean comedies are many and they have to do with large elements of the plot, although of course we should bear in mind that some of these elements are present also in the sources of the play. In any case, it is clear that the confusion of twins goes back to The Comedy of Errors. The theme of a disguised lady serving the man she loves in his courtship of another woman, though present in the sources of Twelfth Night, had been employed in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. And here it may be worth mentioning that the disguised Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona calls herself Sebastian. Sebastian's devoted Antonio in Twelfth Night recalls Bassanio's equally devoted friend of the same name in The Merchant of Venice. With Much Ado About Nothing, as with other comedies, Twelfth Night has in common the motif of the disdainful lover, a motif it develops rather in the way of As You Like It, where Phoebe in some ways anticipates Olivia's fruitless love for a disguised lady. Another connection with As You Like It is an analogy in the roles of Viola and Silvius, both of whom undertake to advance rival love affairs of those they love themselves. Furthermore, and far more significant, is the fact that Feste, though of course a fresh, independent character, is a creation in the new manner of Touch-stone, and he is intended to supply something like the latter's point of view and commentary.1 These and other features of earlier comedies Twelfth Night employs in fresh combinations, in an action that, in spite of these borrowings, produces the impression of complete novelty. But although the story is fresh and although Shakespeare invents episodes and characters, the total effect of the play, its chief thematic concern, repeats the large meaning we have discovered in the earlier plays and particularly in the other two joyous comedies. If we accept as the play's chief theme the education in the ways of love of the disdainful as well as the romantic lover then it is clear that in this it repeats the central ideas of As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing. And if in addition we accept Rosalind as the representative of the ideally balanced temperament and exemplar of the proper attitude toward love, then we shall conclude that Shakespeare intends something very like that in his conception of Viola. This is not to say that the two heroines have the same temperament but rather that through them, in somewhat different ways, the dramatist defines the proper point of view towards life's processes. Through their intelligent, level-headed, and generous approach to the challenges of this "working-day world," they demonstrate the sure way to maximum happiness for themselves and those around them. Of this more presently.

In chronology Twelfth Night appears to have followed the other two joyous comedies, and its date can be fixed with fair accuracy. To begin with, the limits of that date are 1598, the year of Meres' Palladis Tamia, which fails to mention the play, and the first allusion to it on February 2, 1601/2 (Candlemas), in John Manningham's Diary, where he records that at "our feast wee had a play called 'Twelue Night or What you Will.'"2 But before this performance of February, 1601/2, the play must have been acted in a private or public theatre or both. The title strongly suggests that it was first acted on Twelfth Night, and this would defeat Dover Wilson's view that it was originally drafted for the performance at the Inns of Court on February 2, 1601/2, to which Manningham alludes in his diary.3 Two contemporary facts, though seeming to raise difficulties, ultimately contribute to a precise dating of the play. Shakespeare's company acted a play at court on Twelfth Night, January 6, 1600/1, and on that same day the Queen entertained Don Virginio Orsino, Duke of Bracciano, who was visiting her court. And what is even more tantalizing is his report in a letter to his Duchess that the Queen's entertainment had included una commedia mescolata, con musiche e balli, "a mingled comedy with bits of music and dances."4 Unfortunately Don Virginio gives no further details but promises his Duchess to tell her more by word of mouth. From this and other contributory records Leslie Hotson has concluded that Twelfth Night was the play in question, that Shakespeare's Orsino is a graceful compliment to the visiting Duke, that Olivia is intended to suggest the Queen, and that Malvolio is indeed, as other critics had supposed, an audacious though by no means impudent satiric portrait of Sir William Knollys, the Queen's controller.5 Some connection between the name of Shakespeare's Orsino and the Queen's royal visitor there must be, but it is scarcely possible that Shakespeare wrote the play especially for the Duke's entertainment. One reason is that he would have had scant time—just eleven days—to compose the comedy since firm news of the Duke's journey and of the probable date of his arrival reached Whitehall on Christmas Day, 1600.5 It was thus on Christmas Day or shortly thereafter that the Queen gave detailed directions to her Lord Chamberlain which he was to follow in planning the grand entertainment. Among these directions occur the following: "To Confer with my Lord Admirall and the Master of the Revells for takeing order generally with the players to make choyse of [?the] play that shalbe best furnished with rich appareil, have greate variety and change of Musicke and daunces, and of a Subject that may be most pleasing to her Majestic"7 The probability is strong that "to make choyse" here means select a play in existence, not commission a new one, a play with music and dance and a theme pleasing to the Queen. The care and minuteness of detail in the royal directions suggest that the Queen was unwilling to allow chance and improvisation to detract from the splendor of the royal celebration, and it seems logical to conclude that she wished to present to her visitor a play known to possess the qualities she specified. Furthermore, it is not certain that Shakespeare's Orsino and Olivia would have been sufficiently flattering to Don Virginio and his imperial hostess. In all probability the play was written later in the year 1601, when the name Orsino could be employed with greater propriety and the character could be presented with greater freedom than would have been possible in 1600. Other evidence points to a date after 1600. The new map alluded to in III, ii, 66, is that in Hakluyt's Voyages which was printed in 1600. In addition, 1600 is the date of Robert Jones's First Booke of Songs and Ayres from which Shakespeare borrowed the song "Farewell, dear heart," which is sung alternately by Feste and Sir Toby Belch.8 What all this does is to narrow this does of the probable play by placing it in or after 1600 and before Manningham's allusion on February 2, 1601/2. Since, as we have seen, 1600 will not do, the only Twelfth Night available was that of 1601, and this means that the play, the last of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, must have been acted for the first time a few weeks before Manningham's reference to it on February 2, 1601/2.


For the love story of the four chief characters in the play Shakespeare may have turned to a variety of sources, dramatic and non-dramatic. The chief of these seems to have been the story of Apolonius and Siila in Barnaby Riche's Farewell to Militane Profession, first printed in 1581. Here Shakespeare found the story of twins of different sexes, which would admit a romantic treatment of the sort of confusion of identity which in a different context had formed the central theme of The Comedy of Errors. In addition he found a ship-wreck on a strange coast which forces the heroine to take the sex and name of her brother. Thus disguised, Silla (Viola) seeks employment with Apolonius (Orsino), the man she loves, who sends her to court Juliana (Olivia) for him. The latter, rejecting Apolonius' suit, falls in love with the disguised Silla, who is later replaced by her long-absent twin brother, Silvio (Sebastian). Silvio's acceptance of Juliana's invitation, Juliana's revelation of her betrothal, her criticism of the page's refusal to acknowledge it, and the Duke's anger with his page—these matters are so close to the corresponding episodes in Twelfth Night that Shakespeare must have known Riche's version of the tale.9

The alleged topicality of the conflict between Sir Toby and Malvolio has been the subject of much speculation. In addition to Leslie Hotson's theory alluded to above, it has been observed that another contemporary quarrel may have given Shakespeare the impetus and even details for the attack upon Malvolio. The quarrel was that between Sir Posthumus Hoby and two or three gentlemen, including Sir Richard Cholmley and William Eure, who, after a day's hunting in the country, invited themselves to spend the night in Hoby's house and proceeded to disturb that household with their boisterous drinking. The matter was brought to trial and seems to have been the talk of London during the years 1600-02.10 Still another source for the Malvolio episodes has been found in Sidney's Arcadia, in the broad comedy dealing with Dametas and his family.11 A more likely influence upon the episodes with Malvolio and his tormentors may have been the severe onslaught upon humour characters in Jonsonian comedy. Such influence may have been particularly strong in Shakespeare's conception of Malvolio and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. The latter may be seen in part as a composite of Matthew and Stephen, Jonson's city and country gulls in his Every Man in His Humour.12


The materials available to Shakespeare were, then, extensive; and it is possible that he was indebted to a good many of them. But what is of great interest is that the two chief actions in the play, the mistaking of twins and the service by a disguised lady of the man she loves in his courtship of another woman, had each been dramatized in different plays by Shakespeare at the very outset of his career. In Twelfth Night, where he combines these two actions, he seems to complete the circle. But the way the two themes are combined and the conception of the characters, especially the heroines, clearly give proof of the distance Shakespeare had measured since the composition of The Comedy of Errors and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. And thus the structure of Twelfth Night, the way its episodes are conceived and related, the recreation of characters found in the sources, the invention of new episodes and characters, the function of music and song, and in general the mutual qualification of the play's several parts—these matters derive in great part from earlier comedies written in the long interval of nearly ten years. Whether Shakespeare was indebted to a contemporary quarrel or Sidney's Arcadia for a few details in the Malvolio episodes it is impossible to say.13 What is clear is that those episodes owe their presence to Shakespeare's concern with different attitudes toward love. And it is equally clear that those episodes are presented in close relationship to the chief events in the comedy. Malvolio is not simply the butt of the inebriated Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek. He is conceived in terms which bear close relevance to the love theme of the play.14 Malvolio is first and last one of Olivia's suitors, and his chief contribution to the play is in representing a particular attitude toward love as well as toward himself and his world. In this he recalls Jaques of As You Like It, and it is his peculiar response to love and his rigid objection to all indulgence which exclude him for a time from the happy and harmonious conclusion of the play. Malvolio's opposition to indulgence, in itself an important theme of the play, is the immediate cause of his undoing, but that undoing has to do with him as Olivia's suitor, one who represents a particular conception of love. Malvolio has clearly evolved out of Shakespeare's preoccupation, in his romantic comedies, with different and often conflicting conceptions of man's ideal relationship to woman.15

Malvolio's love for Olivia, or what he takes to be love, is limited or rather vitiated by his extreme and humorless self-love. But there is another side in Shakespeare's conception of the pompous steward. The complete absence of humor and self-awareness in him is coupled with In this a fierce all liberality indictment and pleasure.16 In this he stands for an extreme view which, by juxtaposition with its opposite, is intended to point to an ideal attitude. But the theme of indulgence is not a gratuitous adjunct to the main concern of Twelfth Night. It is instead a theme dramatized in analogical relationship to the theme of love. Thus Malvolio, involved in both themes, must be seen as a central character, and the dramatist's conception of him is clearly dictated by thematic considerations. He evolves in great part out of Shakespeare's choice to dramatize the analogy between romantic love and self-indulgence.17

Other features in the action of Twelfth Night which derive from earlier plays may be cited. The scene in which Orsino declares his love for Olivia in the hearing of the disguised Viola repeats in the main the action of a similar episode in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. There is of course an important difference, namely the fact that, unlike Proteus, Orsino is not violating any love vows made earlier to the disguised woman who loves him. And this difference is dictated by the dramatist's choice to stress different motifs in the two scenes. In the scene in The Two Gentlemen of Verona the emphasis is upon Proteus' violation of his vows and the effect of his action upon the disguised Julia. In Twelfth Night the stress is upon the Duke's manner of expressing his infatuation with Olivia, his hyperbolic romanticism, as well as upon its painful effect on the disguised Viola. Here there is no immediate question of fickleness on the part of Orsino in the sense of the episode in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.18 Orsino's outpouring of what he considers his great passion for Olivia is of course undermined by his rhetoric, but it is also thrown into comic relief in retrospect later on in the play by his all too sudden transference of that passion from Olivia to Viola.

Among the many links connecting the comedy with Much Ado About Nothing is the ruse employed in the intrigues aimed at the pair of reluctant lovers in the earlier play and at Malvolio in Twelfth Night. The ironic effect of the conversations which are intended to be overheard by Benedick and Beatrice is here repeated through the letter which Maria drops in Malvolio's path. Maria's letter is but a variation of Don Pedro's plan to bring Beatrice and Benedick together. There are of course the obvious differences in the circumstances of the ruse and its ultimate effects upon its "victims." But there are also certain striking correspondences of detail. Before he overhears talk of Beatrice's love for him, Benedick, it will be recalled, is shown in a long soliloquy attacking Claudio's recent transformation from soldier to lover. But at the conclusion of that passage Benedick asks if he, himself, could be changed by love in the same manner. The question and Benedick's uncertain answer reveal that he is vulnerable, indeed ready to receive the impact of Don Pedro's plan. In like manner Malvolio is shown in the act of revealing his own readiness to be duped by Maria's letter and its "revelations." He is presented in soliloquy imagining himself worthy of Olivia's love. Indeed he imagines himself married to her and in the act of making ready to deal rather severely with Sir Toby. And at that very moment his eye falls upon the letter. The episode is furthermore given a refinement which likewise recalls and surpasses something similar in the earlier play. Benedick is convinced that what he over-hears is not counterfeited: the very thought that someone is trying to gull somebody is instantly rejected. And this is brought about by having that suspicion utterly demolished by the grave witness of the elderly Leonato. The words onstage merge into Benedick's own thoughts so imperceptibly that he would have thought "this a gull but that the white-bearded fellow speaks it." And later he concludes that "This can be no trick." In Twelfth Night Shakespeare in like manner provided a device by which Malvolio is tricked into the conviction that Maria's letter is genuine. What Malvolio reads in the letter are of course his own thoughts and most devout wishes, but there is more. When we consider the letter's style, particularly in the last long passage—"Let thy tongue tang arguments of state; put thyself into the trick of singularity"—we can see clearly that this is neither Olivia's style nor Maria's but Malvolio's own. It is a brilliant stroke. Both the thoughts and words in the letter are so expressive of Malvolio's being that they produce instant conviction.19


Shakespeare's dependence on earlier comedies for certain elements of Twelfth Night ranged beyond his use in fresh combinations of certain episodes. As we have already noted, he repeats certain characters, though of course he recreates them in a fashion to fit the structural and thematic necessities of the story he is dramatizing. This is true in the creation or recreation of minor as well as major characters. Though lacking the brilliant virtuosity of Rosalind and her superior comic awareness, Viola is nevertheless meant to represent the same balance of sentiment with common sense, the same steady and level view of the world around her. In this she repeats Rosalind's function in the earlier play, a function made indispensable by the dramatist's chief concern in these plays. But of course the dramatic terms of her existence require individual features in Viola which are quite different from Rosalind's. Rosalind could not be repeated. Certainly in Viola's position Rosalind would never allow Orsino to maintain even a semblance of an initiative. But her general attitude towards love is repeated in Viola, though more profoundly, albeit more obliquely expressed in the latter. Rosalind's direct attempts to "cure" both Orlando and Phoebe, the one of his bookish Petrarchism and the other of disdain, are repeated by Viola in the later play. But a glance at her scenes with Orsino and Olivia will show how tentative Viola's approach is. She seldom opposes Orsino's whims, and when she differs with him, her comments are gentle and indirect. When she confronts Olivia in their initial meeting, her comment on the latter's disinterest in love is gentler than Rosalind's similar criticism of Phoebe. But Viola's words to Olivia carry greater significance, a maturer vision as befits her own temperament and also the character and position of Olivia. To Viola's inquiry if she is "the lady of the house," Olivia replies: "If I do not usurp myself, I am." Viola's comment on this expresses one of Shakespeare's favorite themes: "Most certain, if you are she, you do usurp yourself; for what is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve." The import of such a speech would have been beyond Phoebe, and perhaps it is beyond Olivia as well. But what is far more significant is that the speech could not have come from Rosalind, for the words proceed from the sort of stillness and reflection we would not associate with her temperament. The attitude expressed in the passage, though repeating Rosalind's general point of view concerning the rejection of love, is enriched by evidence of serious thought. It is an attitude presupposing Rosalind's and transcending it. Although rationality and incisive intellect combine to produce that most attractive quality in Rosalind which we identified with the comic spirit, it is also true that she is not innocent of emotion and the romantic attitude towards love and her lover. But with all this, it must be admitted that Rosalind is master of her emotions; she is in complete control of these as she is of her destiny. Though exiled and forced to disguise herself for safety, she is never in any danger. Rosalind is never in pain, and this is one of the chief points in which she differs from Viola. While Rosalind has "convers'd with a magician" and can do "strange things"—she promises to unite all the lovers on the morrow—Viola is bewildered by her dilemma.20

O time! thou must untangle this, not I.
It is too hard a knot for me t' untie!
(II, ii, 41-42)

It may be said of Rosalind that she controls not only her emotions and her destiny but also the action of the whole play. The same cannot be said of Viola, whose role is somewhat passive by comparison.

This general difference in the conception of Rosalind and Viola is to be found also in other characters. Feste, for instance, though he repeats in part Touchstone's function, achieves his ends by more oblique means. Like Touchstone, his chief role is to comment upon and thereby deflate the sentimental pretensions of such characters as Orsino and Olivia. But his comment upon Orsino's love-melancholy and Olivia's capriciously excessive mourning is both more oblique in manner and more serious in tone than Touchstone's had been in the earlier play. In both cases Feste addresses his reducing commentary in part through songs of time's passing and lovers' deaths and thereby implies at once a subtler attitude towards the aberrations of Orsino and Olivia as well as a measure of sympathy.21 These features of Feste's character and function suggest greater reflection, perhaps we should say greater maturity, than is revealed in Touchstone.

This reflectiveness implied in the character of Viola and Feste accords with—and indeed generates—a sense of melancholy characteristic of the general mood of the play. In spite of much revelry in its action, Twelfth Night impresses one with a certain air of gravity which is quite different from the high spirits of As You Like It. The world of Twelfth Night appears a little more complex and thus more puzzling than that of the earlier comedies. And this complexity anticipates the greater seriousness not only of the tragedies which are soon to follow but also of the problem plays and the romances.


Another significant relationship between Twelfth Night and As You Like It has to do with an aspect of their structure, for here again Shakespeare presents the theme of love in analogical relationship with a secondary theme, the theme of indulgence. In an earlier section the point was made that Malvolio's role has to do with both love and the theme of indulgence which is presented in a special relationship to it. Malvolio is both a lover, one of Olivia's suitors, and also the exponent of opposition to all pleasure. His interest in Olivia, which he calls love, is vitiated by his self-love, and in this he is the antithesis of Viola, whose generous and self-sacrificing love of Orsino may be said to represent the opposite extreme. In his attitude toward indulgence, Malvolio is contrasted with Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, whose overindulgence clearly throws into relief the steward's austerity. But although Malvolio rejects the kind of indulgence practiced by the other two, he overindulges in self-love, so surfeiting that in Olivia's words he becomes "sick of self-love." What is to be noted here is that Shakespeare presents extravagant attitudes toward the themes of love and indulgence, extremes which by juxtaposition tend toward mutual qualification. Malvolio is but one of the characters whose attitudes form the main action of the comedy. But he is central to that action in his double role of being both a lover, or would-be lover, and an exponent of a particular attitude toward indulgence.

The theme of indulgence, as we have said, is here presented in such a way that attitudes toward it are made to reflect upon analogous attitudes toward love. The relationship of the two themes can be seen as it affects other characters besides Malvolio. Orsino and Olivia are both gluttons in their way, both gorging themselves upon boundless sentiment: he upon extravagant passion (as he calls it) for Olivia, she upon equally excessive mourning for a dead brother. In effect he is overfond of love-melancholy, she of grief. Both, then, overindulge in certain emotions, and that extravagance, and especially the rhetoric of its expression, form yet another instance of comic reduction. And thus it may be said that Orsino, Olivia, Malvolio, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew are presented in postures of overindulgence of one sort or another. Furthermore, that part of the plot which deals with Malvolio and his enemies dramatizes indulgence itself, that is, what in the main action is a metaphor here becomes a theme. And the comic reduction of excess in this part of the play, the comic comment upon extreme attitudes toward indulgence, reinforces the comic reduction of extreme attitudes toward love. And as we have seen, this last is accomplished in part by the metaphoric function of the term indulgence in the main action of the comedy. From the point of view of structure, this circumstance represents the highest point to which Shakespeare could raise the analogical relationship of the two themes.

The theme of indulgence, then, occupies an important position in the play, but we should remember that it is secondary to the theme of love, that it is employed in support of it. Because Twelfth Night is associated with revelry, it is quite possible to overstress this element of the plot. Thus one critic has proposed that "Twelfth Night is a philosophical defence of a moderate indulgence in pleasure, in opposition on the one hand to an extreme hostility to pleasure and on the other hand to an extreme self-indulgence."22 A related view finds that the play "develops an ethic of indulgence based on the notion that the personality of any individual is a function not of the static proportions of the humors within him, but of the dynamic appetites that may more purposefully, as well as more pragmatically, be said to govern his behavior."23 This is relevant and just so long as we do not raise the theme of indulgence to a position above that assigned to it by the dramatist. In a second and equally provocative essay on Twelfth Night, Professor Hollander sees the play as "representing the killing off of excessive appetite through indulgence of it, leading to the rebirth of the unencumbered self."24 Though an exciting notion of comic catharsis, such a view lays undue stress on what we have called the play's chief metaphor at the expense of its central idea.25

In addition to the primary metaphor of indulgence, and most significantly associated with it, is the subsidiary concept of musical order and due proportion. Even as order and proportion are indispensable to harmony, whether musical, celestial, or political, so they are to the well-being and inner unity of the individual. Here music, which fills Twelfth Night, achieves the status of motif in the thought of the play. "The general concern of Twelfth Night," says Professor Hollander, "is musica humana, the Boethian application of abstract order and proportion to human behavior."26 This is unquestionably so, and what is said here of Twelfth Night applies with equal force to Shakespearean drama generally. But again it should be noted that the play is concerned with a particular application, an application to a particular aspect of human behavior. That Twelfth Night dramatizes the concept of proportion and moderation. there can be no question. We may go so far as to say that the play's chief theme has to do with proportion and moderation. But it is proportion and moderation neither in terms of general behavior nor of revelry, eating, and drinking, though these provide both metaphoric and thematic support. The play is primarily concerned with proportion and moderation in matters concerning romantic love, the general subject of all Shakespeare's romantic comedies.


The chief idea of Twelfth Night has been variously identified. Some have argued that the leading note of the play is fun; others have held that the play's "lesson is … 'Sweet are the uses of adversity.'"27 Unrequited love is another choice.28 Still another is social security. According to this view Twelfth Night is not a story of love "but of the very realistic struggles and intrigues over the betrothal of a rich countess, whose selection of a mate determines the future of all the major and most of the minor characters."29 Much closer to the mark than any of these is the view that Twelfth Night "exhibits in its action one of the fundamental motifs of comedy: the education of a man or woman."30 What needs to be added here is that the motif exhibited in the action of the play has to do with the education of characters in matters of love. As in the comedies we have so far considered, so here the main action presents in juxtaposition attitudes toward love, with the result that such attitudes by mutual qualification point to the best attitude possible in the world created by the play, a world ultimately not different from our own.

The initial episode introduces the two contrasting attitudes toward love which we have found at the center of Shakespeare's other romantic comedies. Orsino in his opening lines reveals and exposes to the censure of the comic spirit his immoderately sentimental conception of what he thinks is his passion for Olivia. His fancy is, in his own words, "high fantastical," and the pain it causes him is insupportable. For that reason he calls for music as a way to relieve his passion.

If music be the food of love, play on!
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
(I, i, 1-3)

Notwithstanding its "capacity," love may be so surfeited with music, he hopes, that its force will abate for a short while. It is all in excess, all expressed in one comic hyperbole after another.

O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purg'd the air of pestilence!
That instant was I turn'd into a hart;
(11. 19-21)

With the entrance of Valentine at line 23 and his report to the Duke, Shakespeare matches Orsino's hyperboles with Olivia's own extreme sentimentality in rejecting his suit in order to abandon herself to excessive grief over her brother's death. The extravagance of Olivia's mourning, like Orsino's passion, is given a comic note by the language in which it is expressed. Furthermore, Valentine's description tends to qualify the genuineness of the vow by the elaborate insistence on its austerity:

The element itself, till seven years' heat,
Shall not behold her face at ample view;
But, like a cloistress, she will veiled walk,
And water once a day her chamber round
With eye-offending brine;
(11. 26-30)

The two attitudes toward love are here bound together more significantly than in earlier comedies. Orsino is the romantic lover who vaunts his alleged passion in hyperboles. And Olivia is the reluctant lover who rejects the Duke's addresses to her. But she is very different from such disdainful lovers as Phoebe of As You Like It, the king and his lords in Love's Labour's Lost, and Benedick and Beatrice. Like all these, Olivia rejects thoughts of love, but she does so in favor of something else, a passionate surrender to what seems to be her love of grief. In this, though she rejects Orsino, she acts very much like him. Both exhibit excessive sentimentality which shows as folly, though the object of that folly is different in the two characters. Their attitudes toward love and grief are extreme and they are best expressed by the thematic metaphor of indulgence, the very image the Duke employs in the opening lines of the play. Orsino and Olivia overindulge their passions or what they consider their passions. And so in the initial episode Shakespeare briefly but pointedly defines the comic errors of these two, errors to be recognized before the conclusion of the play. But he does much more in these early lines. He binds Orsino's and Olivia's contrasting attitudes towards love by means of an identical attitude towards their respective passions, love and grief. And furthermore he relates all this to the idea of indulgence, the theme of the secondary action.

The opening scene, then, presents Orsino and Olivia in contrasting attitudes towards love but in identical attitudes towards themselves. In the second scene the two are contrasted with Viola, both in their attitudes towards themselves and towards love. From the first lines she speaks Viola reveals the absence in her of sentimentality and self-pity.

Viola. What country, friends, is this?
Captain. This is Illyria, lady.
Viola. And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium.
Perchance he is not drown'd. What think you.
(I, ii, 1-5)

The captain encourages her to hope, for he saw her brother, "most provident in peril," "bind himself to "a strong mast that liv'd upon the sea." Whereupon she turns to the present moment and demands to know who governs Illyria.

Captain. A noble duke, in nature as in name.
Viola. What is his name?
Captain. Orsino.
Viola. Orsino! I have heard my father name
He was a bachelor then.
(11. 25-29)

Viola is as eager to know the Duke as she is unwilling to give herself over to excessive grief over her brother's feared death. Her feelings and the words expressing them are level and direct, avoiding the extremes we have noted in the alleged passions of Orsino and Olivia. In this she clearly presents a contrast to these two, and her role in the rest of the play will be to aid them in amending their ways. On the one hand, Viola essays to persuade Olivia that falling in love—with Orsino or another—is her unavoidable responsibility (else she usurps herself); on the other, she tells the Duke that he is not the only one who suffers from unrequited love. From the above we should conclude that Viola is intended to represent the norm, an attitude we might call ideal. And we may add that her words and acts are so aimed as to bring about comic recognition by Orsino and Olivia. In due course he learns that he was never in love with Olivia but someone else; and the latter soon discovers that far from being able to remain heart-whole she falls in love at first sight with Orsino's page, who she later finds is a lady in disguise. To such recognition and self-knowledge these two are led by the agency of Viola, by what she says and does, by what she is.


But Viola is not the only character whose words and actions are employed to those ends. Feste, who as his name suggests occupies a significant position in the development of the theme of indulgence in the sub-plot, carries an equal responsibility in the conduct of the main action as well. In the subplot his chief purpose is to oppose Malvolio's austerity with the notion of revelry, though perhaps not in the extreme form practiced by Sir Andrew and Sir Toby.31 When Sir Toby tells Malvolio that there shall be "cakes and ale" in spite of the steward's "virtuousness," Feste adds: "Yes, by Saint Anne, and ginger shall be hot i' th' mouth too." In addition, Feste helps bring about Malvolio's comic retribution. He defines both the steward's austerity and his presumption that Olivia could love him as a kind of madness and thus proves him a fool. In so doing Feste in his own way essays to lead Malvolio toward a recognition of his folly. This is especially clear in the scene wherein Feste, both in his own person and as Sir Topas, engages the steward in conversation while the latter is locked in the dark room.

Feste's allusion to Malvolio's folly in his notions about Olivia is made obliquely in the song he sings to him:

Clown. "Hey, Robin, jolly Robin,
Tell me how thy lady does."
Malvolio. Fool!
Clown. "My lady is unkind, perdy."
Malvolio. Fool!
Clown. "Alas, why is she so?"
Malvolio. Fool, I say!
Clown. "She loves another"—Who calls, ha?
(IV, ii, 78-85)

The steward's persistent calling of "Fool!" points ironically to the very term most properly applying to himself in the scene. And this is followed by an even clearer allusion to his folly in the following exchange with Feste a few lines later.

Clown. Alas, sir, how fell you besides your
five wits?
Malvolio. Fool, there was never man so
notoriously abus'd. I am as well in my wits,
fool, as thou art.
Clown. But as well? Then you are mad
indeed, if you be no better in your wits
than a fool.
(11. 92-97)

Precisely the same purpose as shown here is to be seen in Feste's role in the main plot, that is, in the words he addresses to Orsino and Olivia. Again his most pregnant comments on the self-deception of those two are made through songs, that is, in the same oblique manner he employs in part in his treatment of Malvolio, for Orsino and Olivia in what they say and do enact extreme attitudes identical with those exhibited by the steward. Professor Dover Wilson is partly right in suggesting that Malvolio "reflects in a kind of distorting mirror the emotional situation of the main plot. For Malvolio is a dreamer, after his kind; like Orsino he aspires for the hand of Olivia; and like both Orsino and Olivia he mistakes dreams for realities."32 It is certainly true that there is something of the dreamer in a steward who is so self-endeared that he supposes himself the object of Olivia's love. Malvolio does not merely aspire for the hand of Olivia; he believes that she has chosen him for her husband. But it can scarcely be said that Orsino and Olivia are dreamers unless by the term we mean persons who by their extravagant posturings reveal utter failure to understand themselves and their relationships with others. Such posturing is perhaps more vulnerable to the comic spirit than dreaming can ever be. What is accurate in Professor Wilson's comment is the notion that Malvolio's comic shortcomings in the subplot are a reflex of Orsino's and Olivia's shortcomings in the main action. Hence Feste's analogous comment, in matter and form, upon the aberrations of those two.

When first confronted with Olivia, Feste proceeds to "catechise" her, to demonstrate in playful fashion that she, instead of himself, is the fool. Her calling him a fool is, he instructs her, "Misprision in the highest degree!" In contrast, he adds, his mistress has been acting foolishly in the excessive show of grief, especially since she believes her brother's soul in heaven: "The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's soul being in heaven." (I, v, 76-77) This initial comment upon Olivia's folly is followed shortly by another, this one in the form of the clown's first song. Although "O Mistress Mine" is ostensibly sung for the delectation of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, it really concerns Olivia, though of course she is not present while it is sung. But the content, from the first line, "O mistress mine, where are you roaming," to the concluding invitation to love since "Youth's a stuff will not endure," has exclusive application to her, gently reprimanding her careless wasting, in Viola's phrase usurping, her own youth and beauty. The lines are in a sense addressed to Olivia, pointing gently to her folly in refusing love in favor of immoderate sorrow. Furthermore, the song anticipates her eventual capitulation and hints at the strange conjunction into which she will be thrown. For it announces that her "true love's coming / That can sing both high and low." Olivia will fall in love with Cesario-Sebastian, but in the end all will be well.33

Likewise the song Feste addresses to the Duke in the following scene serves the purpose of gently mocking his exaggerated sense of his own grief in love, a grief that could find release only in death. Because it expresses his love-melancholy as well as the self-pity occasioned by it Orsino prefers that song over all others. And he calls upon Cesario to heed its lines, little knowing that his page is the one who truly suffers genuine love-grief. In the lines following the song, Feste leaves no doubt as to its comic intention. For he adds to its mockery of the Duke's love melancholy his own direct comment. "Now, the melancholy god protect thee, and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is a very opal." And he adds the further mocking note that he would have "men of such constancy put to sea, that their business might be everything and their intent everywhere." The gentle mockery of the Duke's inconstancy is resumed a few lines later when Orsino in conversation with Viola draws a distinction between the strength of his own passion for Olivia and a woman's love.

There is no woman's sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman's heart
So big, to hold so much. They lack retention.
(II, iv, 96-99)

His insistence on his own steadfast passion in contrast to a woman's incapacity for such love not only anticipates ironically his swift transference of that passion from Olivia to Viola at the conclusion of the play but also points with equal irony to the latter's constancy and devotion throughout. And this difference between Orsino's extravagant protestations and her own reticence is further stressed by Viola in her allusion to her father's fictional daughter who, because of unrequited love,

sat, like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.
(ll. 117-18)

To which she adds:

Was not this love indeed?
We men may say more, swear more; but
Our shows are more than will, for still we
Much in our vows, but little in our love.
(11. 118-21)

Both in the image of Patience smiling at grief and in the presence of rhyme in the second passage Shakespeare introduces a faint tinge of self-consciousness, perhaps even of self-pity, just sufficient to enrich Viola's attitude toward her dilemma.


The comic process of Twelfth Night, then, presents episodes which are intended to expose and reduce extravagant attitudes on the part of Orsino and Olivia as well as Malvolio. And the function of this comic reduction is carried out in the main by Viola and Feste. But there is a further action dealing with Sebastian, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Fabian. Just as Maria initiates the intrigue against Malvolio, so Sir Toby puts into practice a second intrigue aimed at Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the disguised Viola. But Aguecheek is the main target. Sir Toby's purpose in forcing a duel upon those two is the sheer comedy of exposing Sir Andrew's pretensions to bravery. For some moments there is also the additional effect of Viola's discomfiture, perhaps intended as a comment upon the liability of her disguise. Structurally, the most significant effect of the intrigue is the challenge of the newly arrived Sebastian by Sir Andrew and Sir Toby. And the severe beating they receive at his hands is a kind of censure upon their overindulgence and boisterousness. But far more important, their challenge of Sebastian brings him into the action of the love-triangle so that his reunion with Viola resolves the lovers' dilemma.

As noted above, the action of Twelfth Night presents episodes which expose and reduce attitudes toward love and the related theme of indulgence. That reduction is brought about by direct statement, by the juxtaposition of opposed attitudes, by song. And out of such action there emerges a simple conception of the way to happiness, namely through individual as well as communal integration. That level and sensible way is the way we reach through experience, leading to both self-understanding and a clear awareness of one's role as a social being. And this simple wisdom is precisely the meaning of the song Feste sings at the conclusion of the play.

Most critics have expressed doubts concerning the Among authenticity and dramatic appropriateness of the song.34 Among the very few who have defended it was A. C. Bradley, who thought it most appropriate to the singer, and even conceded that Shakespeare may have written the concluding stanza.35 Richmond Noble also defends the song as Shakespearean, a song of wise nonsense, fitting commentary on the events of the play.36 And he alludes to the following lines by John Weiss which he considers the most sensible interpretation of Feste's concluding song: "Then he sings a song which conveys to us his feeling of the world's impartiality: all things proceed according to law; nobody is humored; people must abide the consequences of their actions, 'for the rain it raineth every day.' A 'little tiny boy' may have his toy; but a man must guard against knavery and thieving: marriage itself cannot be sweetened by swaggering; whoso drinks with 'toss-pots' will get a 'drunken head:' it is a very old world, and began so long ago that no change in its habits can be looked for."37 This is indeed the general meaning of the song, a crystallization of that simple wisdom to which the comic spirit is always pointing. Such wisdom is a fitting epilogue not only to this particular play but to the series of comedies it brings to a conclusion. Whether in childhood, adulthood, or old age, we find that certain things are constant; they have not changed and we cannot change them. Such changes are really what Orsino and Olivia and others like them would bring about, but in the end they are made to shed their aberrations. The sovereignty of nature asserts itself in Olivia's precipitous falling in love, even as it does in the case of Benedick and Beatrice and the rest. Nor are other pretensions less vulnerable as Malvolio and Sir Toby and Sir Andrew discover. "A great while ago the world began" and its laws, which are but the laws of nature, cannot change to accommodate some strange caprice or posturing. The individual, in these plays the lover, whether romantic or disdainful, must become a part of society, must be integrated into it. But the lover must first achieve an individual fulfillment, an inner integration. How fitting, then, that in the closing song of this last of his romantic comedies Shakespeare should express through the wise fool's seeming nonsense, and in the simplest terms, the comic vision he had been dramatizing during the last decade of the century.

In form Twelfth Night represents the ultimate plane to which Shakespeare could raise the structure of his romantic comedy. For here Shakespeare at last achieved a completely independent and fully unified romantic plot, a plot from which he eliminated the kind of external obstacle to love's fruition represented by Don John's machinations...

(The entire section is 20463 words.)

Appearance Vs. Reality

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Terence Eagleton (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Language and Reality in Twelfth Night" in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 3, Autumn, 1967, pp. 217-28.

[In the essay that follows, Eagleton contends that the language of Twelfth Night melds with its reality and, through the central subject of love, collapses and confuses the social roles of the characters.]

At the opening of Twelfth Night, Orsino describes his love for Olivia in terms which directly recall some of the paradoxes of language and illusion in other Shakespearian plays:

O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art...

(The entire section is 25032 words.)

Relation To Elizabethan Culture

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Charles Tyler Prouty (lecture date 1966)

SOURCE: "Twelfth Night," in Stratford Papers: 1965-67, edited by B. A. W. Jackson, McMaster University Library Press, 1969, pp. 110-28.

[In the following essay first delivered at the 1966 Shakespeare Seminar, Prouty positions Twelfth Night with regard to Shakespeare's source materials, focusing specifically on his interpretation of Renaissance notions of courtly love.]

In some thirty years of teaching it has been my experience that of all the plays in the Shakespeare canon the comedies are the most difficult to teach. The Joyous Comedies in particular require so much explanation that we are...

(The entire section is 12727 words.)

Sexual Ambiguity

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Leonard F. Manheim (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "The Mythical Joys of Shakespeare, or, What You Will," in Shakespeare Encomium, edited by Anne Paolucci, The City College, 1964, pp. 100-12.

[In the following essay, Manheim gives a psychoanalytic treatment of Twelfth Night, contending that the play is "an oedipal comedy written from the viewpoint of the father. "]

Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy.
A Midsummer Night's Dream V.i.18-20


(The entire section is 20173 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Berry, Ralph. "Twelfth Night: The Experience of the Audience." Shakespeare Survey XXXIV (1981): 111-19.

Argues that, during the course of the play, Twelfth Night transforms the audience's perception of the performance, portraying "theatre as blood sport, theatre that celebrates its own dark origins."

Brown, John Russell. "Twelfth Night." In Shakespeare's Dramatic Style, pp. 132-59. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971.

Explores the syntax and diction in three extracts from Twelfth Night and how they contribute to characterization.

Champion, Larry S. "The Perspective of Comedy: Shakespeare's Pointers in...

(The entire section is 409 words.)