For nearly two hundred years, commentators have generally agreed that Twelfth Night represents the culmination of Elizabethan romantic comedy. By reshaping circumstances, dramatic conventions, and character types he had employed in earlier comedies, Shakespeare created a paragon of this genre—and then turned to other dramatic forms. Many twentieth-century scholars have noted that the play contains elements of the problem comedies and the romances that followed Twelfth Night. Over the past three decades, feminist, new historicist, Marxist, and materialist critics have emphasized these elements, raising questions about the play's depiction of love and gender relations, the treatment of Malvolio, and Feste's role in the punishment of Olivia's steward as well as in the work as a whole.
Over the past twenty years, many critics have looked closely at Shakespeare's portrayal of the principal characters in Twelfth Night. Offering what he has described as an "anti-romantic" interpretation of the play, Richard A. Levin (1979) has assessed Viola as a cunning young woman who intentionally charms and misleads Olivia as part of her overall strategy. In Levin's estimation, Viola is determined from the outset to marry Orsino, and her deceptions reflect the prevailing values of the play. René Girard (1990) has focused on Olivia and Orsino, viewing both of them as obsessed by self-love and desperately in need of a sense of superiority in their relations with the opposite sex. This kind of narcissism, he has argued, places a priority on desire rather than pleasure. Also evaluating the meaning of sexuality in Twelfth Night, John Astington (1994) has remarked that Malvolio is depicted as unsuited for marriage because of his spiritual impotence. The public mockery of Malvolio's lust for Olivia, the critic has maintained, exposes the steward's inadequate understanding of the true responsibilities of heterosexual love. Feste's role in the gulling of Malvolio has intrigued several recent commentators. Joan Hartwig (1973) has regarded it as mean-spirited, severe, and abusive. Feste's concept of justice, she has contended, is the legal equivalent of revenge, and the absence of forgiveness in the conclusion of the subplot leaves readers and audiences uneasy. Hartwig also has noted, however, that the clown offers other characters, including Malvolio, different perspectives from which to view themselves, and that he is particularly concerned with calling attention to human folly. Robert Wilcher (1982) has compared Feste with other Shakespearean clowns, particularly the type known as "the domestic fool." Wilcher stresses Feste's vulnerability—his precarious situation in Olivia's household and his shortcomings as a professional jester—and has argued that the fool's verbal agility is inadequate to fill the role assigned to him. Karen Greif (1988) has termed Feste as enigmatic and inscrutable, but also as a character who serves as "a unifying presence." Reviewing twentieth-century theatrical renditions of Twelfth Night's fool, she has demonstrated that since Harley Granville-Barker's innovative staging of the play in 1912, Feste has become the personification of its melancholy undertone: a poignant mediator between the illusions of romantic comedy and the realities of human existence. Greif also has pointed out the connection between modern critical appreciation of the play's darker elements—stage productions that emphasize its bittersweet tonalities, and late twentieth-century philosophical concerns with issues of identity and alienation. In contrast to Wilcher, Bente A. Videbæk (1996) has recently rated Feste's linguistic abilities highly, noting in particular the different verbal manipulations the fool employs with aristocrats on one hand and with menials on the other. From this critic's point of view, Feste's paramount quality is his aloofness from the intrigues of the dramatic action. But Videbæk also has maintained that Feste's role as mediator between the audience and the on-stage characters, his talent for adjusting his clowning to different situations, and his capacity to show up Olivia's and Orsino's sentimental notions of love are vital to our understanding of Twelfth Night.
Aside from analyses of the play's principal characters, late twentieth-century criticism of Shakespeare's last romantic comedy is dominated by consideration of gender issues. Cristina Malcolmson (1991) has explored the relationship between gender and status in Twelfth Night and has argued that although the play questions the traditional social order, in which men are regarded as inherently superior to women, it also betrays a deep anxiety about independent and upwardly mobile females. In Malcolmson's judgment, Shakespeare resolves this tension and preserves harmonious social relations by portraying Viola as gracious, deferential, and motivated by love for Orsino—not by any interest in improving her rank in society. Douglas E. Green (1991) has also evaluated questions of love and gender in Twelfth Night, and, like Malcolmson, discerns there a repressed fear of strong-willed women. He further has claimed that while on the surface the play suggests that men and women are equally capable of being faithful or erratic in their love, the subtext endorses the value of homosexual rather than heterosexual love. Irene G. Dash (1997) has similarly examined the question of independent, headstrong women in Twelfth Night. In contrast to Malcolmson and Green, however, Dash has asserted that Shakespeare treats the subject with "humor and insight." From her perspective, though Olivia and Viola initially challenge traditional notions of female dependency, eventually their erotic desires lead them to yield their independence and then gracefully conform to the social and sexual norms of a patriarchal world. Clearly there is no general consensus among contemporary critics regarding Shakespeare's depiction in Twelfth Night of human love and gender relations, and it appears likely that these topics will continue to draw the attention of scholars and commentators well into the next century.