Twelfth Night Literary Criticism (Vol. 46) - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Twelfth Night

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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Elizabeth Story Donno (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Critical Commentary," in Twelfth Night or What You Will, edited by Elizabeth Story Donno, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 8-23.

[In the excerpt below, Donno traces the progress of the play's dramatic action and discusses the principal characters. Although she acknowledges some discrepancies and inconsistencies in the story, she applauds Shakespeare's treatment of the complicated plot.]

After the theatres reopened in 1660, Pepys saw Twelfth Night on three occasions—in 1661, 1663 and 1668. Despite such familiarity, he seems to have missed the evocative and allusive quality of Shakespeare's alternative title, noting in his diary after the 1663 performance that this 'silly' play did not relate 'at all' to the name or to the day. Even for Shakespeare's contemporary audience its most memorable element was the character of the proud, self-loving steward Malvolio—witness a performance presented at court by Shakespeare's company in 1623 (again on Candlemas Day) under the title Malvolio. Leonard Digges, who had contributed commendatory verses to the First Folio, observed in a later and longer tribute:

loe in a trice
The Cockpit Galleries, Boxes, all are full
To hear Malvoglio that cross-garter'd gull.

(Shakespeare's Poems, 1640)

Some time in 1632 (or later) King Charles inscribed 'Malvolio' against the printed title in his copy of the Second Folio. One may conclude that, so far as contemporary (and later) stage popularity was concerned, the whirligig of time did bring in the revenge on the 'whole pack' of the other characters that the discomfited steward promises as he exits in the final act.

But it is Sir Toby Belch, the Countess Olivia's perennially tipsy kinsman, who has the most lines to speak and who, despite his earlier 'fruitless pranks', contrives the means both to complicate the plot and to resolve it. From the outset the convivial Sir Toby is hard put to understand the countess's vow to abjure both the sight and the company of men in order to mourn her brother's death for seven long summers. This desire to cloister herself for so extended a period reveals, as John Russell Brown observes, that Olivia must be very young indeed;1 so, too, if one judges from their emotional predispositions and actions, all the characters must be, except perhaps for Feste—the Lady Olivia's father having taken much delight in him—and, possibly, the sprightly Sir Toby, though modern productions do not always take such evidence into account.

Shakespeare, in fact, is fairly specific in indicating the ages of the two pairs of lovers. The twins were thirteen when their father died (5.1.228-9, 232); the disguised Viola is described by Malvolio as 'not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy' (1.5.130) and an 'apple cleft in two' is not more like than the pair of them (5.1.207-8). Though obviously beardless, Sebastian is a skilful swordsman (even if Viola is not). Orsino is described as of 'fresh and stainless youth' though he has a beard (1.5.214, 3.1.38-9); since he believes that a husband should be older than his wife (2.4.27-8), he may be assumed to be a little older than both Olivia and Viola. Whether or not he is as young as the four lovers, Sir Toby, like Touchstone in As You Like It (5.4.55-6), pressing in among the 'country copulatives', anticipates the dénouement by taking the 'little villain' Maria as his wife, an action presaged in the jesting remarks of Feste at 1.5.22-4 and of Sir Toby himself at 2.5.150, and performed, it would seem, as early as 4.2, as line 57 suggests. Convinced, on any count, that 'care's an enemy to life', he has brought in a suitor for Olivia, even if it is the fatuous Sir Andrew Aguecheek. As incorrigible a 'gull-catcher' as Maria, Sir Toby also uses him as his own 'dear manikin' from whom he can extract a steady supply of money.

Sentiment, which motivates Olivia's desire to become a weeping recluse (though Feste soon prompts her to laugh again, and she is without a veil when Cesario arrives at her gate), is also characteristic of the moody Orsino, the duke or perhaps simply a count of Illyria—Shakespeare seems to have wavered in his conception.2 Having loved the image of Olivia for a month before the play opens, he continues to protest his love for three more months even before he has a chance to speak to her directly.3 Like Romeo infatuated with fair Rosaline, he is obsessed with the idea of being in love. His inconstancy of mood is emphasised in the first seven lines of the play when, calling for an excess of music in order that his appetite for it may sicken, he at once demands that the musicians repeat one particular strain because of its 'dying fall', but before he has spoken three more lines his appetite has already sickened, and he orders them to desist altogether.4 At the end of this opening speech he foreshadows the hasty replacement of the initial object of his affection that will occur in Act 5 by acknowledging here the capricious quality of love: whatever is held of greatest worth may 'fall into abatement and low price'. Yet as a result of the homage and solicitude of his young page, who bravely masks her own emotions in order to woo Olivia on his behalf, he comes by the end of the last act to recognise the value of the devotion she has tendered to him.

With Olivia and her o'erhasty marriage to Sebastian, the case is different. Shakespeare explains it with a metaphorical reference to bowling; in her case, 'nature in her bias drew in that'. Although it may be Olivia's own tendency to sentiment that prompts her to become so quickly enamoured of the disguised Cesario, her counter-wooing has the function of predisposing her to love Sebastian in accord with nature's bias. The rationale behind this quite absurd situation is, Porter Williams notes, much like that of the lover in Donne's 'The Good-morrow':

If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.


Still, Olivia remains sufficiently cool-headed to take the wondering but infinitely pliable Sebastian-supposed-Cesario to a nearby chantry to plight their troth before a holy man.

Contrasting with the sentimental Orsino and Olivia is Viola, the charming but quite practical flotsam of the sea who quickly sets about improving her situation. Informed that she cannot serve Olivia, she at once determines to disguise herself as a page and serve the noble Orsino, known to her father and, fortuitously it seems, still a bachelor. Within three days she has endeared herself to him, so much so that he has unclasped to her the book even of his 'secret soul'. In the exchanges with Olivia and the 'lighter members' of her household, she conducts herself with great verbal skill, exhibiting a remarkable range of emotional responses, at times saucy, florid or outspoken, but in some situations she remains quite surprisingly taciturn. Though Antonio, having rescued her from the farcical duel with Sir Andrew, addresses her as Sebastian, she says nothing to interfere with his arrest as a pirate or to question him about the fate of her brother. She simply allows herself to hope that he is indeed alive. Her actions throughout can be said to be predicated on her view that time will untangle all things (2.2.37-8), this in accord with the commonplace doctrine (topos) that truth is the daughter of time (veritas filia temporis). Even in the final scene, when Orsino asks to take her hand and to see her in her woman's weeds, she says nothing more than that the captain who has them has been imprisoned at Malvolio's suit. When some forty lines later he again gives her his hand and declares that from this time on she is to be her 'master's mistress', she utters not a word. Nor does she say anything more for the remainder of the action. Yet underlying her variable responses and her taciturnity is an emotional constancy, well evoked in the lines beginning 'My father had a daughter loved a man' and culminating in the moving self-portrait of the figure of Patience smiling at grief (2.4.110-11).6

The clown Feste, mediating between the courtly milieu and Sir Toby's, is an irresistible figure. This results in large part from the fact that, actively engaged in both worlds, he distances himself from each by means of his witty and facetious comments. It is now accepted that Shakespeare's projection of the role of professional wit who wears the dress of the fool but does not wear motley in the brain, was the result of Robert Armin's entry into the Chamberlain's Company (probably in 1599). Early apprenticed to a goldsmith, Armin was also for some years a writer of ephemeral pamphlets and entertainments; these include an account of six 'natural' fools and a play exploiting the art of impersonation, in which he was adept. Two of the pamphlets he signed 'Clunnico del Curtanio Snuffe' and 'Clunnico del Mondo Snuffe', that is, Snuff, Clown of the Curtain Theatre and Snuff, Clown of the Globe. He was included in the list of actors in Jonson's The Alchemist in 1610, so at that date he was still a member of the King's Men, the title given to the Lord Chamberlain's Company on the accession of James I. He died five years later.7 The following lines, addressed to 'Honest, gamesom Robin Armine', attest to his skill and echo Viola's comment on Feste: 'This fellow is wise enough to play the fool' (3.1.50):

So play thy part, be honest still with mirth,
Then, when th'art in the tiring-house of earth;
Thou being his servant whom all kings do serve,
Mayest for thy part well-played like praise deserve:
For in that tiring-house when either be,
Y'are one man's men and equal in degree;
So thou in sport the happiest men dost school
To do as thou dost—wisely play the fool.

(John Davies, Scourge of Folly (1611))

Four years Shakespeare's junior, Armin would have been thirty or so when Twelfth Night was written, and the slightly wry speeches Feste is given seem intended to reflect a maturity of outlook that holds no illusions about the durable nature either of emotional situations or of practical circumstances. Hence his incorrigible begging and hence his stress both in words and in song on the transitory: youth is a stuff—a material thing—that will not endure; beauty is but a flower; present love is justified by present laughter since 'what's to come is still [i.e. always] unsure'. His wit is both corrective and apt. He uses his good fooling to remedy Olivia's displeasure at his truancy from her household and to persuade her of the folly of mourning a brother's soul which, after all, she knows is in heaven, and he pointedly remarks that Orsino's tailor should make him a doublet of changeable taffeta to accord with his changeable mind.

All in all, Feste seems to present through his nonsense a no-nonsense point of view. Accosting Cesario—though, ironically, it is in fact Sebastian—he speaks to him in his own highly ironic fashion:

No, I do not know you, nor I am not sent to you by my lady to bid you come speak with her; nor your name is not Master Cesario; nor this is not my nose neither. Nothing that is so is so.


In the next scene, as he impersonates Sir Topas the curate come to visit Malvolio the lunatic, he observes of his disguise:

'That that is, is', so I, being Master Parson, am Master Parson; for what is 'that' but 'that' and 'is' but 'is'?

Yet Cesario has declared to Olivia, in all truth, 'I am not what I am'; Sir Toby has said to Sir Andrew, with some truth, that 'not to be abed after midnight is to be up betimes'; even the dénouement of the play seems to go contrary to Feste's claim. When the twins are seen together, they seem so like that it is as if there were but one face, one voice and one manner of dress—that is, the same face, voice and dress but still two flesh-and-blood persons. To the others, struck with wonder at the sight, the identical appearance of the twins is declared to be, in the words of Orsino, 'A natural perspective, that is and is not!' Yet in so far as theatrical illusion has been achieved, the dénouement gives substance to Feste's claim, 'That that is, is', at least in Illyria.

The dissembling of one's true nature (conscious with Viola and Feste, unconscious with Orsino and Olivia) is highlighted in the figure of the steward Malvolio. The chief officer in Olivia's household—and one that she would not have miscarry for half of her dowry—he takes to his duties with seriousness and some pomposity. That these responsibilities would have included the preserving of discipline is shown by the rules for his household which a young nobleman, Anthony Browne, the second Viscount Montague, set down in 1595, at the age of twenty-one. The steward should 'in civil sort' reprehend and correct 'negligent and disordered persons', reforming them by his 'grave admonitions and vigilant eye', among these the 'riotous, the contentious, and quarrelous persons of any degree' as well as 'the frequenters of tabling, carding, and dicing in corners and at untimely hours and seasons'.8

But when Malvolio breaks in on the carousing Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste, called to do so, it seems, by the countess herself as Maria has forewarned, he cannot be said to chide them 'in civil sort'. Rather he accuses the two knights of gabbling like tinkers, squeaking out—this of the mellifluous-voiced Feste—cobblers' catches as if they were in an ale-house. Such a rebuke by a social inferior is enough to set off Sir Toby and he rounds on him, 'Art any more than a steward?'; he then follows this up with one of the most quoted lines in the play, incorporating in it what Hazlitt termed an 'unanswerable answer':

Does thou think because thou art virtuous there
shall be no more cakes and ale?

Maria is also angered by his charge that she is at fault in providing the means for this 'uncivil rule', and she sums up for the others Malvolio's unpleasant qualities: he is a 'kind' of a puritan, that is, censorious, but one who is inconstantly so. He is, moreover, a time-server, an affected ass who imitates the behaviour of his betters, and is 'so crammed', she says, 'with his own excellencies' that he conceives of himself as worthy of the love of all. On these grounds she contrives the device of forging a love letter from the countess enjoining him to assume ridiculous behaviour and garb in order to secure her favour, a device which feeds his aspiration to become 'Count Malvolio'. Although Feste is not in the group which observes Malvolio's absurd response to the letter, he justifies his share in the 'interlude' on the grounds of Malvolio's having disparaged his ability as a jester, while Fabian justifies his on the grounds that Malvolio has brought him out of favour with his lady about a bear-baiting. The last of his officious actions, noted this time by Viola, is to have the kindly captain who has rescued her imprisoned on some unspecified charge. There is then in Malvolio's 'stubborn and uncourteous parts' sufficient motivation to justify Maria's trick. Intended 'to pluck on laughter', it begins to get out of hand with the confining of Malvolio in a dark room as a madman; at one moment, even Sir Toby wishes they were well rid of their knavery.

Yet Malvolio's lubricious self-projection, cunningly revealed in a day-dream-like soliloquy, is splendidly comic. He imagines himself as three months married to Olivia, now wearing a velvet gown and sitting in a chair of state, having just come from a day-bed where he has left her sleeping; he imagines how he will have 'seven' of his servants summon Sir Toby to his presence and how, after quenching his 'familiar smile' and saying, 'Cousin Toby, my fortunes having cast me on your niece', he will direct him to amend his ways. This fantasy on Malvolio's part is put into perspective when he appears before Olivia wearing yellow stockings and cross-garters, his face crimped into myriad lines by his incessant smiling. Even more startling to her than his dress is the 'ridiculous boldness' of his talk. Tipped off as she is by Maria's charge that he is 'for sure' tainted in his wits, she accepts his strange words as evidence that something is wrong and solicitously asks, 'Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?' Taking this in seriousness, since it accords with his secret desires, he responds, 'To bed? Ay, sweetheart, and I'll come to thee.'9 The audacity of his response is further highlighted by Shakespeare's establishing the time-scheme by means of adroit references. At the end of the preceding scene (2.5), when Maria alerts the conspirators to hide in (or behind) a box-tree to spy on Malvolio, it is probably early morning since she comments that he has been 'yonder i'the sun practising behaviour to his own shadow this half hour'. In the exchange between Viola and the fool that opens this scene, Feste comments that foolery like the sun shines everywhere, which suggests that it is now midday. Thus Malvolio's avidity to go to bed at noon (as the Fool in Lear puts it) strikes an even more lubricious note.10 From Shakespeare's time until the mid eighteenth century, the 'sportful malice' prompting the treatment of Malvolio seemed a just matter of comedy, but for Romantic and Victorian interpreters, as well as for some in the twentieth century, the ill-used steward came to seem a victim not of sport but of social discrimination.11

If Shakespeare's characterisation of Malvolio has stimulated a mixed reaction, so, too, has the structure of the play, some critics finding in it signs of hasty composition, though not so many as to distract a viewing audience. One discrepancy is the rank of Orsino, who is consistently called 'duke' in stage directions and speech headings and during two scenes of the first act but is otherwise called 'count'. In his careful analysis of the text, Robert K. Turner suggests that Shakespeare's conception of the character of Orsino changed during composition and that he decided to make him less of a figure of authority (such as Duke Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream) and more of a lover (like Count Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing).12

There are other inconsistencies and loose ends. On Viola's first entrance, when she resolves to serve Orsino, she gives as a qualification her ability to sing and to speak to him in many sorts of music, but when a song is required in the second act, it is Feste who performs. This has led some, including Dover Wilson, to postulate revision, a more radical explanation than is required in view of the favours Orsino has extended to Cesario, which have elevated him above the status of a mere performer: within three days' time (1.4.1-3) he is no longer a stranger to Orsino who has, within that short span, divulged to him his inmost sentiments (1.4.12-13).

Again one notes that it is Fabian who makes a 'third' in the espial of Malvolio's antics, rather than Feste as Maria had specified; yet at the end of Act 5, Feste is able to quote from the letter as if he, too, had been one of the eavesdroppers on Malvolio. In fact, what Maria first declares she intends for him—'some obscure epistles of love, wherein by the colour of his beard, the shape of his leg, the manner of his gait, the expressure of his eye, forehead, and complexion, he shall find himself most feelingly personated' (2.3.131-4)—does not concur with the letter that Malvolio reads aloud two scenes later—except, that is, for its amatory suggestiveness. One small inconsistency is in the two accounts of Antonio's sea fight with Orsino's galleys: for his part, Antonio denies (3.3.30) that it was of a 'bloody nature' whereas Orsino (5.1.45) speaks of the 'scathful grapple' directed against the finest of their ships, though the speech is also intended to acknowledge Antonio's valour even as a pirate. Finally, the appearance of Sir Andrew and Sir Toby with bleeding heads must be the result of a second encounter with Sebastian-supposed-Cesario (see Commentary and stage direction at 5.1.160), but this is not provided for in the text.

In spite of these inconsistencies and loose ends, there is much subtlety in Shakespeare's handling of his complex plot which is particularly evident when an attitude or an action or situation relating to one character is duplicated by another. This creates a 'twinning' effect that reinforces the central situation brought about by a pair of identical twins.13 It is as if—to adapt Ulysses' words in Troilus and Cressida—many touches of nature make the whole world kin.

Despite the difference in the situation of the two heroines there is a similarity: both have lost their fathers and both, it would appear, have recently lost their brothers, but whereas Olivia would extravagantly mourn (even as Orsino would extravagantly love), Viola, trusting to her own escape as a promise of Sebastian's, reacts practically. Yet in the matter of falling in love the two heroines act alike, in that Viola freely extends her affection to Orsino without invitation on his part, even as Olivia extends hers to Cesario without any invitation except that suggested by her role as surrogate wooer. This makes for a slight touch of irony at the end of the first wooing scene, for when Cesario says 'Love make his heart of flint that you shall love', Viola does not know that she herself will turn out to be the inadvertent object of Olivia's love. The wish is also ironically cancelled with Sebastian's arrival in Illyria and the stunning alacrity with which he assents to a betrothal.

The two heroines are alike in their personal orientation. Viola's conviction that time will 'untangle' all things (veritas filia temporis, or, as the English proverb has it, 'time brings the truth to light' (Tilley T324)) is comparable to Olivia's (and Malvolio's) belief in 'fate' which is commented on below. The two are also alike in possessing the virtue of constancy, Viola in her devotion to Orsino, Olivia in her refusal to accept his suit. To Orsino's query in Act 5, 'Still so cruel?', she responds, 'Still so constant'. The emotional impact the twins make is, quite expectedly, alike; Olivia terms it an 'enchantment', Antonio a 'witchcraft'; the harsh denunciation he levels at Cesario-supposed-Sebastian for his seeming ingratitude is paralleled by that which Orsino levels at Cesario for the seeming betrayal of his trust.

Perhaps the most ingenious duplication is that between Olivia and Malvolio. She herself acknowledges their similarity of deportment: he is 'sad and civil', a kind of behaviour that she feels suits well with her own fortunes in love. When Maria informs her that he is surely tainted in his wits since he does nothing but smile, she confesses:

I am as mad as he
If sad and merry madness equal be.

And later she alludes to her own 'extracting frenzy', which has made her forget about his. Moreover, such sad and merry madness typifies the deportment of the other characters, whether it be the moody Orsino or the mad-brained Sir Toby; this is finely pinpointed in 4.1 when, out of the blue, Sir Andrew attacks Sebastian, who wonders incredulously: Are all the people mad? Again, in 4.3, Sebastian 'wrangles' with his reason, speculating in soliloquy whether it is he himself or Olivia who is mad. From the confines of the dark room Malvolio's words thus have special point when he asserts to Feste: 'I tell thee, I am as well in my wits as any man in Illyria.'

Malvolio also emphasises the similarity of his deportment to Olivia's when he writes assuring her that he has the benefit of his senses as well as she. But his assurance is Gomically belated; by the time Olivia hears the letter, read madly at first by Feste impersonating the 'mad' Malvolio and then straightforwardly by Fabian, she (like Orsino) has met with a happy corrective, first to her predisposition to grief and then to her infatuation with Cesario. In view of the psychological misrule prevailing in Illyria, it is not surprising that the word 'mad', together with its cognates (madness, madmen, madly), is used more frequently in this play than in any other in the canon, with The Comedy of Errors, and its double set of twins, a close rival.

Another point of likeness between Olivia and Malvolio is their willingness to justify their own desires by readily ascribing them to a power outside themselves called either 'fate' or 'fortune'. In the soliloquies following on Cesario's first visit, Olivia ponders how quickly she has caught the plague, questions her actions, and concludes:

Fate, show thy force; ourselves we do not owe.
What is decreed must be; and be this so.


In writing to Malvolio, Maria simulates not only Olivia's hand but also this point of view when she specifies, 'Thy fates open their hands.' To Malvolio, willingly deluded by the letter's confirmation of his own desires, 'it is Jove's doing, and Jove make me thankful', a point he reiterates with supreme confidence after...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Joan Hartwig (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Feste's 'Whirligig' and the Comic Providence of Twelfth Night," in ELH, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter, 1973, pp. 501-13.

[In the essay that follows, Hartwig contends that Feste helps illuminate the discrepancy between human will and Providence in Twelfth Night and proposes that Feste's enigmatic final song emphasizes the ambiguities of human experiencewhich is neither as grim as the clown's pessimistic verses nor as blissful as romantic comedy.]

Shakespeare's plays frequently counterpose the powers of human and of suprahuman will, and the antithesis usually generates a definition of...

(The entire section is 22821 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Richard A. Levin (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Viola: Dr. Johnson's 'Excellent Schemer'," in Durham University Journal, Vol. LXXI, No. 2, June, 1979, pp. 213-22.

[In the following essay, Levin maintains that Viola has an unromantic view of love, a remarkable ability to handle crises, and a willingness to manipulate both Olivia and Orsino to achieve her goals.]

Viola, the heroine of Twelfth Night, is widely admired as an example of 'selfless fidelity' in love.1 She is praised by critics with divergent interpretations of the play itself. She appeals to those who regard Twelfth Night as a 'festive play', in the course...

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Gender Issues

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Cristina Malcolmson (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "'What You Will': Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night," in The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Valerie Wayne, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991, pp. 29-57.

[In the essay below, Malcolmson explores the links between gender and social class in Twelfth Night.]

When Sebastian enters the last scene of Twelfth Night and begins to untangle the various intricacies of the plot, Duke Orsino describes his vision of Sebastian and Viola together in these words:

One face, one voice, one habit, and two...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Bellringer, Alan W. "Twelfth Night: or What You Will: Alternatives." Durham University Journal LXXIV, No. 1, n.s. XLIII, No. 1 (December 1981): 1-13.

Evaluates the characters in Twelfth Night with reference to the theme of constancy versus flexibility. On one hand, Bellringer contends, Sir Toby and the other members of Olivia's household are each ruled by a single passion; by contrast, Orsino, Feste, Sebastian, and Viola demonstrate a willingness to modify their behavior and adapt to changing circumstances.

Breuer, Horst. "Shakespeare's Signior Fabian." English Studies 74, No. 5 (October 1993): 441-44.


(The entire section is 1799 words.)