Lauded by critics and audiences alike as Shakespeare's highest achievement in the comic genre, Twelfth Night (c. 1600-01) is an intricate inquiry into the nature of love, gender roles, and the intertwining of life's tragic and comic experiences. A number of critics remain particularly fascinated with the complexity of the play's exploration of gender identity, as there are numerous layers to the characters' gender roles, as well as to their sexual attractions. Referred to as a subplot, the story of Malvolio and those who seek to punish him for his puritanical ways threatens to steal the show, as some critics have pointed out. The relationship between the main plot and this subordinate plot is therefore the focus of much critical examination. Additionally, the play's ending—in which so much confusion is undone in so short a time—also attracts a great deal of scholarly attention, particularly since Viola remains dressed as a male right up to the play's end, becoming Shakespeare's only cross-dressed heroine to do so.
The sexual relationships and gender roles in Twelfth Night are multi-layered. For example, Viola, a female character (who was played by a male in the Elizabethan theater), is dressed as a male, Cesario, throughout most of the play. As a male, Viola woos Olivia for Orsino, resulting in Olivia falling in love with Viola-as-Cesario. At the same time, Viola, though dressed as a man, falls in love with Orsino. Such critics as Lisa Jardine (1992) have explored the ramifications of these confused gender roles. Jardine focuses in particular on how the relationship between economic dependency and sexual availability in Elizabethan England informs the play's attitudes towards cross-dressing. Both Viola and Sebastian, observes Jardine, are forced to seek dependent positions in households outside the circle of family relations, making Viola/Cesario sexually available to Orsino, and Sebastian sexually available to Olivia. In his analysis of gender issues in Twelfth Night, Michael Shapiro (1996) emphasizes the Elizabethan theatrical practice of men playing women's parts. Shapiro studies the psychological “anxiety” resulting from the theatrical portrayal of both sexual and emotional intimacy, examining in particular the relationship between Viola and Olivia, in which the audience witnesses the intensity of the exchanges between two women, played by two men, and the relationship between Orsino and Viola, in which Orsino is drawn to the feminine qualities of Viola's Cesario. Like Shapiro, Casey Charles (see Further Reading) maintains that the relationship between Viola and Olivia is a significant one, more central to the play than many critics have acknowledged. The relationship between the two women, along with the attractions between Antonio and Sebastian and Orsino and Cesario, emphasize that homoerotic desire is a primary concern in the play. Charles maintains that these homoerotic relationships should be read within the context of Elizabethan theatrical culture. The critic continues with a discussion of the way the dramatization of homoerotic attractions criticizes the social ideal of “imperative heterosexuality” by underscoring the way sexuality is socially constructed through gender identity.
The subplot, centering on the punishment of Malvolio, highlights some of the darker aspects of Twelfth Night. Many critics have noted the severity of Malvolio's punishment—he is humiliated, imprisoned in a dark chamber, and made to feel as if he has lost his sanity. This is perhaps more than he deserves, some audiences and critics feel. Harry Levin (1976) examines Malvolio's role in the play, commenting that the character is not present in Shakespeare's sources, yet his role becomes a “stellar” one. Arguing that Shakespeare's primary concern was to highlight the triumphant comic spirit, Levin suggests that the darkness integrated into Malvolio's story, much like the tragedy and death that inform the circumstances of the lovers in the main plot, serves the purpose of intensifying the victory of the comic spirit. Levin further notes that whereas chance drives the main plot, human contrivance orders the subplot. Jane K. Brown (1990) also explores the differences between the main plot and subplot. The critic finds that the two plots correspond to the two worlds depicted in the play—one ruled by Orsino and one governed by Olivia. Brown goes on to discuss the way Shakespeare represented the two realms differently, through the use of allegorical language in Olivia's world, and metaphorical discourse in Orsino's. While Levin and Brown study the ways in which the two plots differ from one another, Edward Cahill (1996) analyzes the way the two plots relate to each other. Cahill contends that both explore similar issues, such as identity and desire, both use disguise and performance, and both feature the pursuit of marriage. The critic also observes that the failure of the subplot to resolve itself injects a bit of tragedy into the play's otherwise comic ending.
The ending of the play has also been a focus of criticism. The fact that Viola remains dressed as Cesario at the play's end has been noted by a number of critics, who suggest that Shakespeare allowed this in order to heighten the effect of the denouement, or to make a statement about gender identity. Jörg Hasler (1974) studies the influence of Shakespeare's earlier comedies on the ending of Twelfth Night, examining the dramatic form of Viola's ordeal at the play's end and comparing it to the endings of Much Ado about Nothing, and Measure for Measure. Hasler finds that all three plays end similarly, with the heroines standing in the center of the chaos. The critic also examines the endings of other Shakespearean plays for cases of mistaken identity, shipwreck stories, and similar patterns found in Twelfth Night. Yu Jin Ko (see Further Reading) begins an analysis of the play's ending by noting the similarity between Viola's rejection of Sebastian's embrace and Jesus's resisting Mary Magdalene's embrace after his resurrection. Ko demonstrates that this Biblical allusion serves to heighten the sense of longing, and argues that this intensified yearning is exploited throughout the play, largely in sexual terms. Ko explores how Viola's cross-dressing prolongs the sexual yearnings of both Olivia and Orsino, and examines the “curiously absorbing” nature of longing as it is dramatized in Twelfth Night.