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Twelfth Night

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...

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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.

Harry Levin (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: “The Underplot of Twelfth Night,” in Twelfth Night: Critical Essays, edited by Stanley Wells, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1986, pp. 161-69.

[In the essay below, originally published in 1976, Levin compares and contrasts the main plot and subplot of Twelfth Night, describing Malvolio as the star of the underplot.]

The kind of comedy that was practiced by Shakespeare has repeatedly challenged definition. Though his last comedies have been retrospectively classified as romances, most of their components are equally characteristic of his earlier ones: love, adventure, coincidence, recognition, and occasional pathos. The problem is not simplified by the circumstance that his greatest comic character, Falstaff, was far more impressive in two histories than he is in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Traditional definitions of the comic somehow fail to hit the Shakespearean mark, perhaps because they tend to emphasize the spectatorial attitude of ridicule. Shakespeare's attitude is more participatory; its emphasis falls upon playfulness, man at play, the esthetic principle that Johan Huizinga has so brilliantly illuminated in his historico-cultural study, Homo Ludens. Whereas we may laugh at Ben Jonson's characters, we generally laugh with Shakespeare's; indeed, if we begin by laughing at Falstaff or the clowns, we end by laughing with them at ourselves; semantically speaking, they are therefore not ridiculous but ludicrous. The critical approach that best succeeds in catching this spirit, it would seem to me, is that of C. L. Barber in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy. That the same approach can be applied to Plautus, as Erich Segal has convincingly demonstrated in his book Roman Laughter, suggests that “the Saturnalian pattern” may well be universal. Twelfth Night very appropriately marks the culmination of Professor Barber's argument. Since the play is so rich and the argument so fertile, I am tempted to add a few notes here, encouraged by his gracious recollection that our personal dialogue on comedy has extended over many years.

Any speculation about Twelfth Night might start with its alternative title, which has no counterpart among the other plays in the First Folio. The subtitle What You Will echoes the common and casual phrase that Olivia uses at one point in addressing Malvolio (I.v.109); it would later be used as a title by John Marston; and the German version is simply entitled Was ihn wollt. It is not equivalent to As You Like It, Bernard Shaw would argue; the latter means “this is the sort of play you would like”; the former means “it doesn't really matter what you call this play.” To designate it by the seasonal dating would have touched off some associations, especially since Twelfth Night signalized the grand finale to the Christmas entertainment at Queen Elizabeth's court, and sometimes featured a performance by Shakespeare's company. But the English term seems relatively vague, when contrasted with the overtones of the French and Italian translations. La Nuit des Rois almost seems to promise a visitation of the Magi; Shakespeare anticlimatically gives us, instead, the iconological joke about “We Three” and a clownish snatch of song from Sir Toby, “Three merry men be we” (II.iii.17, 76-7). La Notte dell'Epifania may also hold theological—or at least, in Joycean terms, psychological—connotations. Shakespeare merely seems concerned to promise his audience a pleasant surprise by evoking a winter holiday, even as he did with the opposite season in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Festivals are the matrices of drama, after all, and that “holiday humor” in which the transvested Rosalind invites Orlando to rehearse his wooing sets the prevalent mood for Shakespearean comedy (As You Like It, IV.i.69).

Some of Shakespeare's other comedies have titles so broadly general that they could be interchanged without much loss of meaning: The Comedy of Errors, Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends Well. Twelfth Night, which has figured more prominently in the repertory than most of the others, has frequently been cited by concrete reference to its most memorable characterization. Thus Charles I entitled it “Malvolio” in his inscribed copy of the Second Folio, and a court production for James I was entered into the records under that name. As it happens, five of the other parts in the play are actually longer than Malvolio's: in order of length, Sir Toby's, Viola's, Olivia's, Feste's, and even Sir Andrew's. Yet stage history has gradually made it clear that, with slightly less than ten per cent of the lines, this has come to be regarded as the stellar role. The other roles I have listed offer varied opportunities to actors and actresses, and Viola's embodies the special attraction of the hoydenish heroine in tights. That advantage is somewhat lessened by the complication of having to be passed off as identical with her unexpected twin brother Sebastian. Hence the plot “wants credibility,” as Dr. Johnson put it, though our incredulity is all but disarmed by the Pirandellian comment of Fabian: “If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction” (III.iv.127-8). Henry Irving, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and many other stars have absurdly twinkled in the part of Malvolio. There may be a latent significance in the fact that the leading actor of the Restoration, Thomas Betterton, played the adversary role of Sir Toby Belch.

The impression registered in the diary of John Manningham, who had attended a performance at the Middle Temple in 1602, is particularly significant:

At our feast wee had a play called “Twelue Night, or What You Will”, much like the Commedy of Errores, or Menechmi in Plautus, but most like and neere to that in Italian called Inganni. A good practise in it to make the Steward beleeve his Lady widdowe was in love with him, by counterfeyting a letter as from his Lady in generall termes, telling him what shee liked best in him, and prescribing his gesture in smiling, his aparaile, &c., and then when he came to practise making him beleeue they tooke him to be mad.

It is true that Shakespeare's adaptation from Plautus had likewise dealt with a pair of twins divided by shipwreck and reunited after the contretemps of mistaken identity. Manningham might also have mentioned The Two Gentlemen of Verona, where the heroine disguises herself as a page so that she may serve the man she loves. And Manningham's Italian cross-reference has led the source-hunters to various plays and novelle which are quite analogous to the main plot. But the episode he singles out for praise does not figure in any of them. Malvolio, with no established source behind him, must be reckoned as one of Shakespeare's originals. Efforts to discern an actual prototype in the court gossip about Sir William Knollys, who was Comptroller to Her Majesty's Household, have carried little conviction. Nor is there much topical implication in Maria's qualified epithet, “a kind of puritan,” which she herself immediately rejects in favor of “timepleaser” and “affectioned ass” (II.iii.140, 148). There is not very much in common between Jonson's Ananias or Zeal-of-the-Land Busy and this Italianate upstart who aspires to “be proud” and “read politic authors” (II.v.161). He is undoubtedly puritanical in the psychological sense; as Professor Barber perceptively comments, “he is like a Puritan because he is hostile to holiday.” William Archer considered him more of a Philistine than a Puritan, more to be approached as a sequence of “comic effects” than as “a consistent, closely-observed type,” and therefore somewhat opaquely presented as a personality. “He has no sense of humour,” so Archer summed it up, “—that is the head and front of his offending.”

In a formal as well as a functional manner, he is thus an intruder into the play. Shakespeare's plot, as its forerunners had shown, could have got along without him. Olivia already had two suitors to be rejected, plus the masculine twin who was ready to replace his sister as the object of Olivia's choice. The lovesick Duke Orsino, after the fiasco of his vicarious courtship, could submit no less quickly and rather more gracefully than she to this sudden change of partners. The odd-man out, Sir Andrew, might have weakly borne the full onus of the underplot, insofar as it burlesques the main plot and has its agon in the reluctant duel. Music sets the keynote at the beginning, at the conclusion, and throughout. Illyria would almost seem to be the idyllic setting for an operetta. Yet, despite the roistering-snorts of melody and the high-kicking capers of the roisterers, the cadence often has a dying fall. “O mistress mine” is balanced against “Come away, death,” and the singer Feste—whom G. L. Kittredge called “the merriest of Shakespeare's fools”—shares his concluding refrain with the tragic Fool of King Lear: “For the rain it raineth every day” (II.iii.39ff; iv.51ff.; V.i.392; cf. King Lear, III.ii.77). Even in the sunniest of Shakespeare's comedies, there are shadows now and then, and it is worth remembering that Twelfth Night was probably conceived in the same year as Hamlet. The aura of melancholy emanates from Olivia's household, but it extends to Orsino's palace because of his unwelcome suit. Widow-like, the veiled Olivia mourns her dead brother; Viola, the go-between, though she depicts herself as the mourning figure of “Patience on a monument,” cherishes justified hopes for her own brother lost at sea (II.iv.114).

Together, these adventurous siblings are destined to dispel the shade that has overcast the Illyrian horizon. Olivia's house of mourning should have been, and will again become, a house of mirth—to reverse the language of Ecclesiastes. Toward the end her kinsman, Sir Toby Belch, and his gregarious crew of what Malvolio will term “the lighter people” have been doing their damnedest to turn the kitchen into a tavern and to obliterate the differences between night and day (V.i.339). Over their eructations the hard-drinking Sir Toby fitly presides as a sort of miniature Falstaff, the local agent of revelry and misrule. “Th'art a scholar,” he tells his eager gull Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the carpet knight whose linguistic accomplishments are as limited as his skills at fencing and dancing. “Let us therefore eat and drink” (II.iii.13-4). Sir Andrew's surname bespeaks his pallid face and quivering figure; all his claims to wit and gallantry and bravado only exist in order to be put down. When Feste asks “Would you have a love-song, or a song of good life?” and Toby responds, “A love-song, a love-song,” Andrew gives himself away by blurting out, “Ay, ay, I care not for good life” (35-8). Akin to Justice Shallow and Master Slender, he is the ancestor of those witless foplings who will strive so vainly to cut a caper in Restoration comedy. And yet this ninny is not without his touch of Shakespearean poignance. When his mentor Toby—who is, if nothing else, a genuine bon vivant—complacently avows himself to be adored by Maria, Andrew sighs, “I was adored once too” (181). Behind that sigh lies some namby-pamby case history, about which we are relieved to hear no more.

Maria, the classic soubrette, is the most effectual of the plotters against Malvolio, and her recompense for forging the letter is marriage with Sir Toby. This provides a comic parallel for the two romantic betrothals, and it is announced by Fabian in the absence of the less-than-joyful couple, Toby having been discomfited along with Andrew by Sebastian. Since Andrew has essentially been a figure of fun, not a funster, he is gradually supplanted among the merrymakers by Fabian. It is Fabian who faces Olivia in the final disentanglement, backed by the festive exultations of the fool. Feste's maxim—“Better a witty fool than a foolish wit”—underlines the implicit contrast between himself and Andrew (I.v.36). One of the jester's assumed personae is that of the Vice, the principal mischief-maker in the old-fashioned morality plays (IV.ii.124). As “an allow'd fool,” he has the privilege of raillery, which we hear that Olivia's father “took much delight in” (I.v.94; II.iv.12). Her father's death, which cannot have happened very long before, has presumably added to her brother's in deepening the gloom of the abode where she now finds herself mistress. Shakespeare has gone out of his way to darken the background of the conventional situation among the lovers, possibly reflecting the widespread preoccupation with the theme of melancholia during the early years of the seventeenth century. If so, his ultimate concern was to lift the clouds, to brighten the effect of the picture as a whole by the deft use of chiaroscuro, to heighten the triumph of the comic spirit by presenting it under attack. And, of course, with the rise of Puritanism, it was increasingly subject to attackers.

Such considerations may help to explain why Shakespeare went even farther by introducing the character of Malvolio—a superimposition so marked that one of the commentators, F. G. Fleay, has argued that the two plots are separable and may have been composed at different times. That seems too mechanical an inference, since Shakespeare has taken pains to unify them; since Olivia is “addicted to a melancholy,” it follows that she should employ a majordomo who is “sad and civil,” as she says, “And suits well for a servant with my fortunes” (II.v.202; III.iv.5-6). Though she tolerates Feste, her first impulse is to dismiss him from her company. His response is both a catechism and a syllogism, demonstrating that she should not mourn because her brother is better off in heaven and proving the fool's dialectical point that his interlocutor must be still more foolish than he: “Take away the fool, gentlemen” (I.v.71-2). She is mildly cheered by the nimbleness of the repartee; but Malvolio is distinctly not amused; and his hostile and humorless reaction is our introduction to him. Gleefully and ironically recalling this exchange, Feste will reveal the natural antipathy that was bound to operate between himself and Malvolio: “‘Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascal? An you smile not, he's gagg'd.’ And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges” (V.i.374-7). Malvolio and Feste are brought together and kept at odds by a certain complementarity, like that between the melancholy Jaques and the festive Touchstone in As You Like It or the clowns and the “humorous men” of Jonson and Marston. The pretensions of the Alazon are thus laid open to the exposures of the Eiron.

The issue is sharply drawn by Sir Toby's entrance speech: “What a plague means my niece to take the death of her brother thus? I am sure care's an enemy to life” (I.iii.1-2). As a master of the revels, he and his fellow revelers embody the forces of life, on the one hand. On the other, the interloping Malvolio represents the force of care, which has usurped a temporary control over once-carefree Illyria. It is not for nothing that his name signifies “ill-wisher.” He is the perennial spoilsport, fighting an aggressive rearguard action against a crapulous playboy and his Bacchanalian cohorts. As Olivia's steward, Malvolio's functions are more than ceremonial; he can not only cut off the daily bounties of existence; he can threaten, and he does, to expel the incumbent devotees of good living. After Toby's rhetorical question on behalf of cakes and ale, seconded by Feste's plea for ginger, their prodigal levity takes the offensive against his false dignity. By a convention which is not less amusing because it is artificial, the practical jokers overhear—and react to—the soliloquy expressing Malvolio's fantasies and delusions of grandeur: “To be Count Malvolio! …” (II.v.35). It brings home the self-love and the ambition to regulate the lives of others that they have resented all along. And it plays into the trap that Maria has baited, the letter that he is obliging enough to read aloud. To act out its malevolent instructions is to betray his solemn and pompous nature. Not only must this non-laugher—this agelast, as Meredith would classify him—doff his somber black for yellow stockings and cross-garters, but he must force his atrabilious features into an unremitting smile.

The romance of the main plot is ordered, or disordered, by the workings of chance: Viola has been saved “perchance,” and so may Sebastian be (I.ii.6, 7). The satire of the underplot is managed by human contrivance, which motivates the duel and fabricates the letter. Malvolio ascribes his prospective elevation to a wise providence (“it is Jove's doing”), but we know that it is a hoax on the part of Maria and her tosspot companions (III.iv.74-5). He is thereby prompted to strut through his grand scene of hubris, all the more ironic in its deliberate reduction of self-importance to silliness. Instead of having greatness thrust upon him, he is thereupon thrust down into a dark room, where he is bound and treated like a madman—like the Ephesian Antipholus in The Comedy of Errors, whose questioners look for symptoms of derangement in his answers. Malvolio's most pertinacious visitor and inquisitor is Feste, who has thrown himself into the persona of the neighboring curate Sir Topas. When the prisoner complains that the house is dark as hell, the pseudocurate replies in Feste's vein of Rabelaisian nonsense: “Why, it hath bay windows transparent as barricadoes, and the clerestories toward the south north are as lustrous as ebony; and yet complainest thou of obstruction” (IV.ii.36-9). At the height of his vainglory, Malvolio has admitted that his sartorial alteration had caused “some obstruction in the blood;” but this was nothing, if the result pleased Olivia; and to her inquiry about the state of his health he has answered, “Not black in my mind, though yellow in my legs” (III.iv.21, 26-7). The trouble was that so black a mind could never have become accustomed to bright colors.

It is therefore fitting that he be plunged into literal darkness, although Feste's paradoxes seem to suggest that brightness may have something to do with the eye of the beholder. Maria had begun by requesting Sir Toby to “confine” himself “within the modest limits of order,” and he had blustered back with a pun: “Confine? I'll confine myself no finer than I am” (I.iii.8-11). When we see Malvolio confined, we may be weak enough to feel sorry for him; Charles Lamb, with Romantic perversity, has even worked up “a kind of tragic interest”, and some of those leading actors who have appeared in the part have made the most of that potentiality. However, though Shakespeare's laughingstocks have a way of enlisting our sympathies, though we may be torn by Prince Hal's repudiation of Falstaff, though Shylock and Jaques may take with them some measure of respect when they make their solitary departures, we should be glad to get rid of Malvolio. Poetic justice prevails in comedy if not in tragedy, and it requires that he be finally “baffled” (V.i.369). Olivia can charitably speak, as his patron, of his having been “notoriously abused” (379). But his parting vow of revenge has been neutralized by Fabian's wish that “sportful malice”—a combination of the ludicrous and the ridiculous—“May rather pluck on laughter than revenge” (365-6). Nor, having witnessed his threat of expulsion to Sir Toby and his crew, should we repine at seeing this gloomy interloper expelled. As a sycophant, a social climber, and an officious snob, he well deserves to be put back in his place—or, as Jonson would have it, in his humor, for Malvolio seems to have a Jonsonian rather than a Shakespearean temperament.

What we have been watching is a reenactment of a timeless ritual, whose theatrical manifestation takes the obvious form of the villain foiled, and whose deeper roots in folklore go back to the scapegoat cast into the outer darkness. The business of baiting him is not a sadistic gesture but a cathartic impulse of Schadenfreude: an affirmation of Life against Care, if we allow Sir Toby to lay down the terms of our allegory. We could point to an illustration so rich in detail and so panoramic in design that it might prove distracting, if it were not so sharply focused on the conflict before us, Pieter Breughel's Battle between Carnival and Lent. There the jolly corpulent personification of Mardi Gras, astride a cask of wine and armed with a spit impaling a roasted pig, jousts against a grim penitential hag carted by a monk and a nun, and flourishing a paddle replete with two herrings. Beggars and buffoons and many others, the highly variegated proponents of revelry and of self-mortification, intermingle in the teeming crowd. Which of the antagonists will gain the upper hand? Each of them, in due season. J. G. Frazer has instanced many analogues for the observance, both in the Burial of the Carnival and in the mock-sacrifice of Jack o' Lent. Shakespeare loaded his dice on the side of carnival, in that hungover hanger-on, Sir Toby, as against the lenten Malvolio, that prince of wet-blankets. But Shakespeare was writing a comedy—and, what is more, a comedy written in defense of the comic spirit. He could commit himself, in this case, to the wisdom of folly and to the ultimate foolishness of the conventional wisdom. But, in his dramaturgy, he was moving onward to care, to death, to mourning, and toward tragedy.

Lisa Jardine (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Twins and Travesties: Gender, Dependency and Sexual Availability in Twelfth Night,” in Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, edited by Susan Zimmerman, Routledge, 1992, pp. 27-38.

[In the following essay, Jardine examines the treatment of crossdressing in Twelfth Night, as well as the relationship between economic dependency and sexual availability in early modern England.]

Viola: He nam'd Sebastian. I my brother know
Yet living in my glass; even such and so
In favour was my brother, and he went
Still in this fashion, colour, ornament,
For him I imitate.


[Ingling Pyander]
Walking the city, as my wonted use,
There was I subject to this foul abuse:
Troubled with many thoughts, pacing along,
It was my chance to shoulder in a throng;
Thrust to the channel I was, but crowding her,
I spied Pyander in a nymph's attire:
No nymph more fair than did Pyander seem,
Had not Pyander then Pyander been;
No Lady with a fairer face more grac'd,
But that Pyander's self himself defac'd;
Never was boy so pleasing to the heart
As was Pyander for a woman's part;
Never did woman foster such another,
As was Pyander, but Pyander's mother.
Fool that I was in my affection!
More happy I, had it been a vision;
So far entangled was my soul by love,
That force perforce I must Pyander move:
The issue of which proof did testify
Ingling Pyander's damnèd villainy.
O, so I was besotted by her words,
His words, that no part of a she affords!
For had he been a she, injurious boy,
I had not been so subject to annoy.(3)

This paper1 tries to accommodate some of the apparently contradictory currents stirred by these two cross-dressing passages, to provide a single, coherent version of the erotic possibilities contained under a kind of rubric of transvestism in the early modern period. For, in the current text-critical literature, we seem to be being told both that these are texts of sexual fantasy, disturbing and transgressive, and that these texts record some ‘actual’ possibility for individualized, subversive affirmation of sexuality.4 I do not myself believe we shall ever know how many cross-dressed youths and young women were to be found on the streets of London around 1600, but I do believe that it is possible to show that the distinctive ways in which the textual imputation of their existence function in the various narratives which have come down to us can be resolved into a consistent positioning of dominant to dependent member of the early modern community.5

I have, of course, spoken about cross-dressing before, in Still Harping on Daughters (Jardine 1983). But that was in the context of an argument specifically focused on the irrelevance of any detectable emotional intensity associated with the cross-dressed boy-player to any reconstruction, on the basis of the drama of the age of Shakespeare, of a peculiarly female early modern intensity of feeling. Here my argument will be differently focused: upon the way in which, in the early modern period, erotic attention—an attention bound up with sexual availability and historically specific forms of economic dependency—is focused upon boys and upon women in the same way. So that, crucially, sexuality signifies as absence of difference as it is inscribed upon the bodies of those equivalently ‘mastered’ within the early modern household, and who are placed homologously in relation to that household's domestic economy. Inside the household, I shall argue, dependent youths and dependent women are expected to ‘submit’, under the order of familial authority, to those above them. And the strong ideological hold of the patriarchal household ensures that, in the space outside the household—in the newer market economy whose values govern the street and the public place—the tropes which produce structural dependency as vulnerability and availability are readily mobilized to police the circulation of young people.

Outside the household, the freely circulating woman is ‘loose’ (uncontained)—is strictly ‘out of place’,6 and her very comeliness in conjunction with her unprotectedness (no male kin with her) signifies as availability (as it continues, residually, to do today). And outside the household the dependent boy (the ‘youth’) is also constructed, via the patriarchal household, as ‘at risk’—more legitimately in transit on ‘business’, but also, in his transactional availability, sexually vulnerable.7 In the street, the bodies of the boy and the unmarried woman elide as they carry the message of equivalent sexual availability—male and female prostitution is represented textually (and probably fantasized communally) as transvestism. The boy discovered as a girl reveals her availability for public intercourse; the girl dis-covered as a boy reveals that intention to sodomy for financial gain.8 The boy who walks the street cross-dressed as that comely girl (whether in reality or in fantasy/grotesque fiction) does not, therefore, misrepresent himself—he conceals (and then reveals) the range of sexual possibilities available. The girl who enters the male preserve (ordinary, tavern or gaming-house) cross-dressed does not misrepresent herself, either. She is, in any case, ‘loose’, and eases the process of crossing the threshold into the male domain—controls the manner of presenting herself in a suitable location for paid sex.9

I suggest that the way in which dependency functions in relation to representations of the sexual in early modern English culture is vital to a suitably historicized reading of cross-dressing and gender confusion in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.10 Here I shall try to show this set of relations in operation in the complex gender doubling and twinning of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

‘The household was the classic form of patriarchy’, writes Alan Bray (1982: 51). In the period with which we are concerned, ‘family’ and ‘household’, as descriptions of the ordered unit for communal living, designate groupings which include both close and distant kin, and a range of non-kin.11 There is a constant ‘drift of young persons’ (as David Herlihy calls it), a flow of young adolescents into and out of the wealthier households—both of distant kin, and of non-kin in ‘service’.12 And, in addition to the body of young well-to-do dependents in the wealthy household, there were numbers of adolescent servants: ‘The great majority of the adolescent population probably entered some form of service or apprenticeship’, writes Ralph Houlbrooke. In Ealing, in 1599, about a quarter of the total population of 427 was in service of some kind (1984: 173).13 Of the eighty-five households in Ealing, ‘a staggering 34.2 per cent of them contained one or more servants’ (Bray 1982: 50-1). Finally, ‘in the upper and middle ranks of society children were commonly sent away from home to another household’ (Houlbrooke 1984: 150), as part of their education. (Whilst they resided in Calais, the Lisles placed two of their daughters with French families of a wealth and status corresponding to their own (St Clare Byrne 1985: 126-7). ‘The patriarchal household with its servants was an institution that touched the lives of an immense number of people’ (to quote Bray again); ‘it was an institution that necessarily influenced the sexual lives of those who lived within it’ (1982: 51). That patriarchal household exercised its considerable authority and wielded its extensive economic power predominately over young men and women between the ages of 14 and 24.

It is against this kind of background that Susan Amussen locates patriarchal authority at the most fundamental levels of consciousness-formation in the period:

[The catechism] asserted that the family was the fundamental social institution, and that order in families was both necessary for and parallel to, order in the state. In the catechism, this idea is developed in the discussion of the Fifth Commandment, to ‘honour thy father and mother’. The 1559 Prayer Book's catechism … summarized …

My duty towards my neighbour is to love him as myself, and to do to all men as I would they should do unto me: to love, honour, and succour my father and mother: to honour and obey the King and all that are put in authority under him: to submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters: to order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters: … to learn and labour truly to get mine own living, and to do my duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call me.

(1988: 35-6)15

In the middle to upper ranks of society, deference and submissiveness were internalized in the form of ‘good manners’:

In a society in which service was the most important avenue to advancement at all levels, one of the most essential skills was the ability to make oneself acceptable to superiors. … Marks of respect to be shown in conversation with superiors included baring the head, dropping the right knee, keeping silence till spoken to, listening carefully and answering sensibly and shortly. Compliance with commands was to be immediate, response to praise heartily grateful.

(Houlbrooke 1984: 147)16

For dependent youth, obedience was both a condition of their economic support, and an internalized state.

In 1630, Meredith Davy of Minehead, was prosecuted for sodomy at the Somerset Court of Quarter Sessions.

According to the evidence of his master's apprentice, a boy ‘aged twelve years or thereabouts’ called John Vicary, with whom he shared a bed, Davy had been in the habit of having sexual relations with the boy on Sunday and holiday nights after he had been drinking; eventually the boy cried out and Davy ended up before the Justices.

(Bray 1982: 48)

As Bray glosses this:

The young apprentice would have had a lower standing in the household than Davy, who was an adult; and it was presumably this which encouraged him—wrongly as it turned out—to think that he could take advantage of the boy. It is an important point. In a household of any substantial size the distinction in their status would have been only one of a series of such distinctions; it was part of the nature of the household itself. The household was a hierarchical institution, in which each of its members had a clearly defined position. It was also a patriarchal institution, in which the pre-eminent position was that of the master; and the distinction in status between master and servant was in some respects a model for distinctions between the servants themselves.


And, if we stay with this case just a little longer, once the alleged social transgression had taken place, the outcome of the discovery and prosecution seems to support the view that such activity was regarded as only slightly beyond the boundaries set on allowable demands for ‘submission’ from one considerably lower in the social hierarchy of the household.17

Richard Bryant, the servant who slept in the room with Davy and the boy … eventually took the matter to the mistress of the household, but it is striking as one reads his evidence how long it took him to realize what was going on and how reluctant he is likely to appear to us now to have been to draw the obvious conclusions.

(Bray 1982: 77)

Finally, at the end of the boy, John Vinlay's, evidence, he notes: ‘since which time [Davy] hath layn quietly with him’. In other words, household life continued unchanged—the boy continued to share a bed with (hence, to be in a position of submission to) the alleged assaulter. Davy himself ‘denieth that he ever used any unclean action with the said boy as they lay in bed together; and more he sayeth not’ (Bray 1982: 69).18

In Twelfth Night the twin siblings, Viola and Sebastian, are of good family and fatherless.19 They are, therefore, obliged to become dependent on households other than those of their own close kin. Indeed, one might argue that finding a place in the domestic economy of a household other than that of their family of birth is the initiation of the drama—they are shipwrecked on an unspecified voyage, and voyages are (in narrative) conventionally quests or searches.20 In addition to the careful specification of their being orphaned before the age of majority (‘when Viola from her birth / Had numbered thirteen years’), the audience are persistently reminded of the extreme youth of both twins (since each resembles the other so completely):

Olivia: Of what personage and years is he?
Mal: Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy: as a squash is before 'tis a peascod, or a codling when 'tis almost an apple. 'Tis with him as standing water, between boy and man. He is very well-favoured, and he speaks very shrewishly. One would think his mother's milk were scarce out of him.


After the shipwreck, the first objective of the siblings is to transform their state from vagrancy to service (or, possibly, from wage-labour to service—Sebastian's ‘gets’ Antonio's purse, while Viola's relationship with the captain is constructed as a cash-transaction).22 Both twins make immediately for the court of the Duke who ‘governs here’. Both exchange their non-renewable cash assets (Viola's purse; Sebastian's borrowed purse) for the security of ‘service’ within a wealthy household (‘I'll serve this duke’ (1.3.55); ‘I am bound to the Count Orsino's court’ (2.2.41-2)). Viola's cross-dressing eases her way into Orsino's service.23 Sebastian, mis-taken for Cesario, takes Olivia to be spontaneously offering an invitation to enter her service—an invitation he accepts as the very ‘dream’ he wished for: ‘Go with me to my house … would thou'dst be rul'd by me!’ (4.1.53,63).24

The eroticization of Viola/Cesario and of Sebastian is dramatically constructed in terms of their relationship to the domestic economy, and the place they occupy in relation to the heads of their adopted households. In the case of both Cesario's and Sebastian's ‘place’, this is fraught with erotic possibility in the very process of being established as ‘service’ (something which by now we might expect, in the light of the discussion of the early modern household at the beginning of this paper). The audience is entirely aware of the ambiguity in Sebastian's ‘retention’ by Olivia—he reads it as an invitation to enter her service, she offers it as a profession of passionate, sexual love and a marriage proposal. But Orsino's attachment to his new ‘young gentleman’, Cesario, is no less charged with erotic possibilities:

Val.: If the Duke continue these favours towards you, Cesario, you are like to be much advanced. …
Viola: You either fear his humour, or my negligence, that you call in question the continuance of his love. Is he inconstant, sir, in his favours?


‘Love’ here hovers dangerously between the mutual bond of service and passionate emotional attachment.25 And the confusions possible in the Orsino/Viola service relationship are clinched shortly thereafter:

Duke: O then unfold the passion of my love,
Surprise her with discourse of my dear faith;
It shall become thee well to act my woes:
She will attend it better in thy youth,
Than in a nuncio's of more grave aspect.
Viola: I think not so, my lord.
Duke: Dear lad, believe it;
For they shall yet belie thy happy years,
That say thou art a man; Diana's lip
Is not more smooth and rubious: thy small pipe
Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman's part.
I know thy constellation is right apt
For this affair …
… Prosper well in this,
And thou shalt live as freely as thy lord,
To call his fortunes thine.
Viola: I'll do my best
To woo your lady: [Aside] yet, a barful strife!
Who'er I woo, myself would be his wife.


As Orsino eroticizes Viola in relation to Olivia he specifies the possibilities for eroticizing his own attention to the ‘small pipe’ and the ‘maiden's organ’ of the preferred youth in his service. As ‘pipe’ and ‘organ’ are ‘semblative a woman's part’ they position Cesario as desired dependent of Orsino—as available for his own sexual pleasure. So that when Orsino takes the hand of Cesario, at the close of the play, and claims her as his sexual partner, he does no more than confirm the terms of his original engagement with his ‘young gentleman’:

Duke: Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times
Thou never should'st love woman like to me.
Viola: And all those sayings will I over-swear,
And all those swearings keep as true in soul
As doth that orbed continent the fire
That severs day from night.
Duke: Give me thy hand,
And let me see thee in thy woman's weeds.


Of course, the erotic twist in Twelfth Night is achieved by the irony that it is Olivia—the lady of significant independent means and a disinclination to submit herself and her lands to any ‘master’27—whose eroticized relationship of ‘service’ with Cesario is most socially and sexually transgressive. I think critics are right in seeing this as Olivia's ‘come-uppance’—patriarchy's retribution for mis-taking the conventions both of service and of marriage as a female head of household in an order explicitly designated male in its defining relationships.28

In the resolution of the play, however, the easy redeployment of the erotic possibilities of Viola's and Sebastian's service to the households of Orsino and Olivia, respectively, literally resolves the union of the two lines. At the end of the play, the marriages of the twin siblings to Olivia and Orsino effect what Orsino's courtship of Olivia was originally designed to achieve—the Orsino and Olivia households enter into a kin relationship with one another:

Olivia: My lord, so please you, these things further thought on,
To think me as well a sister, as a wife,
One day shall crown th'alliance on't so please you,
Here at my house, and at my proper cost.
Duke: Madam, I am most apt t'embrace your offer.
[To Viola] Your master quits you; and for your service done him,
So much against the mettle of your sex,
So far beneath your soft and tender breeding,
And since you call'd me master for so long,
Here is my hand; you shall from this time be
Your master's mistress.
Olivia: A sister! you are she.


The happy ending is one in which the erotic potential of service is appropriately contained within the admissible boundaries of the patriarchal household—dependent women ‘mastered’ by husbands or brothers; dependent boys elevated by marriage into masters and heads of households themselves (even desired dependent girls regulated into dependent younger sisters). But, to return to my opening remarks, this is romance—a fictional resolution in which insuperable problems are superable, convenient twinning can iron out the crumpled social fabric of early modern life. In the street, the problem remains—the troubling possibility, ‘in a throng’, that those who appear to be available in the market place, gender-wise, are not what they seem (either are not available, but in transit between households, or are cross-dressed and marketing sodomy for female prostitution, female prostitution for boy-playing). In the market place, the disreputable sexual favours sought from passing, available ‘youth’ blatantly fail to comply with the procreative requirements of reputable, marital intercourse. And the very confusion which hovers around desirability surely points to the historic specificity of early modern eroticism. Eroticism, in the early modern period, is not gender-specific, is not grounded in the sex of the possibly ‘submissive’ partner, but is an expectation of that very submissiveness. As twentieth-century readers we recognize the eroticism of gender confusion, and reintroduce that confusion as a feature of the dramatic narrative. Whereas, for the Elizabethan theatre audience, it may be the very clarity of the mistakenness—the very indifference to gendering—which is designed to elicit the pleasurable response from the audience.29


  1. Since I wrote this paper, Alan Bray published his crucial article on homosexuality and male friendship in Elizabethan England (1990: 1-19). I have also benefited from discussion of a draft of this paper with Alan Bray, and wish to express my gratitude to him.

  2. All references to Twelfth Night are to the Arden edition.

  3. Thomas Middleton, ‘Micro-Cynicon’ (1599), in Bullen 8, 1886: 131-3. I am grateful to Bray (1982), in whose work I first found reference to this poem.

  4. For the transgressive version see, most recently and convincingly, Dollimore (1986: 53-81). For the ‘actual’ affirmation version see Rose (1984: 367-91); and Howard (1988: 418-40).

  5. Most of the textual accounts of cross-dressing (whether on the stage or in the street), like the ‘Ingling’ verse just cited and the Rainolds poem I use in Still Harping on Daughters, are clearly already adjusted to the fictional tropes of cross-dressing/illicit desire. Even sumptuary rules (as cited by Howard and others) aspire to control excesses which threaten good order—which is to say, dress which signifies, on which disorder is inscribed. The deposition relating to Mary Frith is a good example of the textual difficulties: in the record (whose narrative shape is controlled by the recording clerk and ‘his Lordship’, the bishop (?) who interrogates), the ‘immodest and lascivious speeches’, and ‘shame of her sexe’ collides with the slender textual traces of her refusal to accept the charge ‘being pressed’, ‘whether she had not byn dishonest of her body & hath not also drawne other women to lewdnes by her perswasions & by carrying her self lyke a bawde’. To cross-dress is to signify as (to ‘carry oneself’ as) a bawd (deposition transcribed in full in Mulholland 1987: 262-3). The spate of ‘Moll Frith’ plays which accompanied her court appearance seize upon the event's bawdy potential (Mulholland 1987: 13)—for example, by suggesting she might ‘take her own part’ in the play (which ‘part’, and how related to stage cross-dressing?) and that she would play the viol on stage (the lewd possibilities of viol playing are considerable, as Howard points out in her essay for this volume). In a paper for the 1989 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America, Stallybrass quoted Augustin Philips's will in which he left his apprentice various specified desirable items of clothing, and his ‘bass viol’. Here too it seems possible that the legacy has been adjusted to the tropes of (intimate) devoted service—the bass viol and the shared items of dress connoting the closeness of the master-servant relationship.

  6. It is fascinating that this exactly corresponds to Mary Douglas's ‘dirt is matter out of place’ (1966).

  7. See R. Ascham, The Scholemaster, and its ‘morals’ source, Xenophon's Cyropaedia. I am extremely grateful to Lorna Hutson for making the vulnerability of the ‘youth’ clear to me, and for all the helpful discussion we had on this paper.

  8. Throughout this paper I use the contemporary term ‘sodomy’ rather than the nineteenth-century ‘homosexuality’, or any of its cognates. In this I follow Bray (1982: 13-14), and Bullough in Bullough and Brundage (1982: 55-71).

  9. To see how far back this goes as a fictionalizing of ‘loose’ women transgressively entering the male preserve see Knighton's Chronicon (1348), quoted in Rickert (1949: 217). I am grateful to Rob Pope for bringing this passage to my attention.

  10. This, I now think, is a more correct version of what I wrote earlier: ‘The dependent role of the boy player doubles for the dependency which is women's lot, creating a sensuality which is independent of the sex of the desired figure, and which is particularly erotic when the sex is confused’ (1983: 24).

  11. For a clear account of the consistent use of the terms ‘family’ and ‘household’ to designate those who cohabit under a single roof, as dependants of one adult male in the eighteenth century see Tadmor (1989). In Bray (1982), see especially the clear account on pp. 44-6.

  12. ‘The overall pattern in the circulation of members between [households of specified levels of wealth, in fifteenth-century Florence] was similar for men and for women, but there are also some significant differences in the movements of the two sexes. The richest households tend to gather in both boys and girls as they age, from birth up to their middle teens. At exact age 15, the 25 per cent of wealthy households contain 45 per cent of the boys and 43.5 per cent of the girls (as opposed to 39 per cent and 35 per cent respectively of the cohort of babies, age 0-2). This drift of children primarily means that wealthy households were taking in orphaned relatives. The incoming children probably also included many young relatives who had lost their fathers, and whose mothers had remarried and deserted them [sic]. The mother joined the household of her new husband, but usually did not take her children with her. The kindred of her late husband had to look to their care. … If we had data on servants and apprentices [registered with their household of birth in the Florentine census] we would undoubtedly observe an even more massive drift of young persons into and out of the homes of the wealthy. We know from other sources that “life-cycle” servants were numerous at Florence, as widely in traditional society. These young people, girls especially, spent their years of late childhood in service; they thereby earned their keep and accumulated from their earnings the dowry they needed for marriage’ (Herlihy 1985: 153).

  13. See Laslett in Laslett and Wall (1972: 125-58, table, 130). See also Wall (1978).

  14. Data from Laslett and Wall. See also Beier (1985: 22-6); and Laslett's introduction, passim, for the complexity of the early modern household or family.

  15. See also Bray (1982: 45), and the work in progress on early modern adolescence and service by Paul Griffiths (Clare College, Cambridge), especially his unpublished paper, 1990.

  16. For the classic statement see Laslett (1972: 10): ‘The seventeenth century patriarchal family had many of the characteristics of the patriarchal household. It included not only wife and children, but often younger brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces: male superiority and primogeniture were unquestioned. Most striking was the presence of very large numbers of servants, whose subjection to the head of household was absolute.’

  17. For a brilliant account of the ambiguities concerning the relationship between service and sexual favours contained within the early modern patriarchal household, see Cynthia Herrup's paper on the trial of the Earl of Castlehaven. I read this paper while I was working on my own, and Herrup's argument was tremendously helpful in sharpening my own perception of the relationship between household dependency and the construction of sexuality.

  18. On sexual exploitation of servants in general see, most recently, Amussen (1988: 159). In Othello, the shared bed in service, used by Iago to enflame Othello's jealousy, fully exploits the sexual availability of the bedfellow: ‘I lay with Cassio lately, … In sleep I heard him say “Sweet Desdemona, / Let us be wary, let us hide our loves;” / And then, sir, would he … kiss me hard, / As if he pluck'd up kisses by the roots, / That grew upon my lips, then laid his leg / Over my thigh, and sigh'd, and kiss'd’ (3.3. 419-31).

  19. There is a steady, interesting insistence in the text on the good birth of the twins, and on their having full purses at their disposal. This seems to place them pivotally between the household economy and that of the market place. Although employment in the former was, historically, as precarious as that in the latter (wage-labour), there is no question that in the play-text only the household is seen as a suitable ‘place’ for Viola and Sebastian. On wage-labour versus service see Beier (1985).

  20. ‘My father was that Sebastian of Messaline whom I know you have heard of. He left behind him myself and a sister, both born in an hour’ (2.1.16-19); ‘My father … died that day when Viola from her birth / Had numbered thirteen years’; ‘O, that record is lively in my soul! / He finished indeed his mortal act / That day that made my sister thirteen years’ (5.1.240-6).

  21. See also the Duke's emphasis on the extreme youth of Cesario when he cautions him against marrying an older woman (2.4.24-39). In the same passage the Duke calls Viola ‘boy’. Sebastian (mirror-image of the cross-dressed Viola) is consistently referred to as ‘youth’ (for example 3.4.368).

  22. See Beier (1985) for a gloss on the security of service versus the insecurity of waged labour (the temporarily full purse).

  23. It perfectly fulfils the trope of serving devotion, as represented in saints' lives and romance. See Jardine (1983).

  24. In terms of tropes, here is the moralizers' trope of the vulnerable boy captured in service by dominating female householders. See Ascham, and of course, Plautus's Menaechmi and Secchi's Gl'Ingannati (both of which link this play with A Comedy of Errors). In Two Gentlemen of Verona the two tropes are run into one, when Julia takes the name Sebastian (a straightforward signifier of male dependency and vulnerability) in order to pursue her fickle lover in faithful service. See Beier (1985: 22): ‘Regarding [living-in service] we are told that the master/servant relationship was the lynch-pin of a patriarchal society in which “every relationship could be seen as a love-relationship”.’

  25. In the source story the heroine, dressed as a boy, fears she may be asked by her master for ‘bedroom favours’. For a related discussion of the ambiguities of ‘love’ in the context of patronage see Barrell (1988: 18-43) on ‘love’ and patronage in Shakespeare's sonnet 29.

  26. I think the ‘woman's weeds’ line is quite close in its possibilities to the seductively transgressive Pyander.

  27. John Manningham's diary (1602) records a performance he saw of the play: ‘A good practise in it to make the steward beleeue his Lady widdowe was in Loue wth him by counterfayting a lettr / as from his Lady in generall tearmes telling him what shee liked best in him / and p[re]scribing his gesture in smiling his apparraile / &c./. And then when he came to practise making him beleeue they tooke him to be mad’ (Arden Twelfth Night, xxvi). Manningham's mistaken memory (‘widow’ when Olivia in fact mourns the deaths of her father and brother) confirms the fact that as a figure she is recognizably the independent woman of means whose own will and desires figure troublingly strongly in choice of husband (and thus, continuation of the paternal line).

  28. Olivia's femaleness is also the cause of her steward Malvolio's mis-taking their service relationship as passionate ‘love’.

  29. So, my final note addresses the vexed question of Middleton's The Roaring Girl. On this reading, Moll is neither male nor female, or both male and female, confusing the several traditions which represent economic dependency via cross-dressing in private and in public. So the joke about the promise that Moll herself would come and play her own part in the play, in place of the boy who ‘actually’ takes it, is that it simply makes no difference to the ‘performance’. Either way, that figure is replete with erotic potential.

Works Cited

Amussen, S. (1988) An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England, Oxford: Blackwell.

Barrell, J. (1988) ‘Editing out: the discourse of patronage and Shakespeare's twenty-ninth sonnet’, in J. Barrell, Poetry, Language and Politics, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 18-43.

Beier, A. L. (1985) Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560-1640, London: Methuen.

Bray, A. (1982) Homosexuality in Renaissance England, 2nd edn 1988, London: Gay Men's Press.

———. (1990) ‘Homosexuality and the signs of male friendship in Elizabethan England’, History Workshop Journal 29: 1-19.

Bullough, V. L. (1982) ‘The sin against nature and homosexuality’, in V. L. Bullough and J. Brundage (eds), Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church, Buffalo, New York: Prometheus, 55-71.

Dollimore, J. (1986) ‘Subjectivity, sexuality, and transgression: the Jacobean connection’, Renaissance Drama, n.s. 17: 53-81.

Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and Danger, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Griffiths, P. (1990) ‘“At their own hande” and “out of service”: residual lumps of young people in early modern England’, paper given to the Cambridge Early Modernists, April.

Herlihy, D. (1985) Medieval Households, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Houlbrooke, R. A. (1984) The English Family, 1450-1700, London: Longman.

Howard, J. E. (1988) ‘Crossdressing, the theatre, and gender struggle in early modern England’, Shakespeare Quarterly 39, 4: 418-40.

Jardine, L. (1983) Still Harping on Daughters, 2nd edn 1989, Brighton: Harvester.

Laslett, P. (1972) ‘Mean household size in England since the sixteenth century’, in P. Laslett and R. Wall (eds), Household and Family in Past Time, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 125-58.

Middleton, T. ‘Micro-Cynicon’ (1599), in A. H. Bullen (ed.) (1886) The Works of Thomas Middleton, repr. 1964, New York: AMS Press 8: 130-5.

Mulholland, P. (ed.) (1987) The Roaring Girl, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Quaife G. R. (1979) Wanton Wenches and Wayward Wives: Peasants and Illicit Sex in Early Seventeenth Century England, London: Croom Helm.

Rickert, E. (1949) Chaucer's World, London: Oxford University Press.

Rose, M. B. (1984) ‘Women in men's clothing: apparel and social stability in The Roaring Girl’, English Literary Renaissance 14, 3: 367-91.

St Clare Byrne, M. (ed.) (1985) The Lisle Letters: An Abridgement, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Tadmor, T. (1989) ‘“Family” and “friend” in Pamela: a case study in the history of the family in eighteenth-century England’, Social History 14: 289-306.

Wall, R. (1978) ‘The age at leaving home’, Journal of Family History 3.

Michael Shapiro (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Anxieties of Intimacy: Twelfth Night,” in Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages, University of Michigan Press, 1996, pp. 143-72.

[In the following essay, Shapiro investigates Twelfth Night's exploration of sexual identity within the context of Elizabethan theatrical portrayals of sexual and emotional intimacy between men and between women.]

Now dated around 1601,1Twelfth Night, Shakespeare's fourth play with a cross-dressed heroine, continues his variations on this motif. Indeed, after Two Gentlemen each play of this type seems to be a deliberate variation on its predecessor(s). Three earlier plays stress the masculine side of the boy heroine's disguised identity. Two use pert Lylian pages and the third a doctor of the law. In part, the vigor of these male personas supports the assertiveness the heroine needs to control the outcome of the play. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare enlarged the male persona that the boy heroine assumed along with male disguise. At times, the actor playing Viola displays Ganymed's audacity if not Balthazar's commanding resourcefulness. At other times, the role calls for different aspects of boyishness—delicacy and shyness. The two sides of Cesario's personality represent Viola's tendencies toward assertiveness and vulnerability, modulated to suit a young male servant. Cesario's double nature is underscored farcically by his terror of dueling but more interestingly by his appearance in highly charged duet scenes both with the man he serves and has come to love and with a woman who has fallen in love with him. In Twelfth Night, more explicitly than in previous plays involving heroines in male disguise, Shakespeare exploited the play-boy's dexterous articulation of layered sexual identities by accenting the very sexuality of these identities. Some subsequent playwrights, such as Barry, Middleton, and Brome, picked up this variation and in turn modified it in characteristic ways, while Shirley alone surpassed Shakespeare in exploring the anxieties created by the homoerotic potentialities of the play-boy/female page.


Although Viola plays a page who is at different moments both cheeky and shy, who attracts a woman and who is attracted to a man, the complex figure of male actor/female character/male disguise did not, I believe, fuse into a single androgynous entity. The young male performers who specialized in female roles were not genderless but boys or young men, not yet but potentially adult males. They were androgynous only in the sense that they might be sex objects both to some men and to some women. When they played romantic heroines, they must have been capable of representing sexually mature and responsive young women. In plays in which such women adopt male disguise, these same performers probably played female and male identities in contrasting ways. Indeterminacy of gender in disguised heroine plays occurred only when dramatists like Fletcher, Chapman, or Middleton wished to create uncertainty, if not actual surprise, in their audiences by withholding explicit knowledge of the page's female identity. As separate moments in a play highlighted the discrete layers of sexual identity belonging to actor, heroine, and disguised persona, various images of hetero- and homosexual intimacy crossed the consciousness of individual spectators, arousing types of anxieties peculiar to their own personal histories. Antitheatrical writers object to the images of women being represented on the stage, to the effeminization of the male performer, and to his use as an object of erotic excitement. Given the lack of reliable data and the probable heterogeneity of playhouse audiences, it seems impossible to specify which particular responses were elicited in which spectators by which types of theatrical combinations. Nor is it necessary to do so, for nearly any likely response to the representation of intimacy added excitement and risk to the form of play known as play going.

Some psychoanalysts suggest that spectators respond to theatrical representations of intimacy as primal fantasies, like children imagining that they are watching their parents in sexual intercourse. Such representation in Shakespeare's day might have included scenes of kissing, caressing, and embracing, as well as scenes depicting emotional relations implying or leading to sexual exchange. The psychoanalytic model suggests a rich mixture of responses, possibly including elements of desire, pleasure, jealousy, embarrassment, guilt, or fear. Because the precise components of this mixture vary widely among individuals, I refer to it by the general term anxiety.

As readers may recall from their own (early) experience, such moments of theatricalized intimacy may also test spectators' identification with protagonists. Juvenile audiences, one recalls, would snicker, hoot, and groan whenever their role models strayed into love scenes, even if these sexual exchanges were carefully stylized and stopped far short of implying intercourse, let alone representing it. Adult spectators may feel similar anxieties but rarely express them as open derision. Although the precise nature of the anxiety may vary with one's gender, social status, and personal experience, dramatized portrayals of sexual and emotional intimacy can be troubling because exciting and exciting because troubling. One adult defense against such anxieties is to dismiss what is happening on screen or stage as “only a film” or “only a play,” that is, to use aesthetic distance as a psychological barrier.

But one of the theater's most potent effects is precisely the blurring of boundaries between art and life, an effect easily created when spectators are in the physical presence of live actors who are publicly saying words and occasionally performing actions usually reserved for secluded situations. By means of conventions and codes, theater also blurs the distinction between physical and emotional intimacy, for what actors do and say onstage may be intended to imply far greater physical or emotional intimacy than what is being enacted.2

The codes and conventions of Shakespeare's day, more restrictive than those of the late twentieth century, implied what could not be shown or what one was to imagine might be about to take place offstage. Passionate scenes between lovers and would-be lovers that seem tamely decorous to modern spectators might well have evoked stronger responses in the period and might have served as the equivalent of theatricalized primal scenes. Often the language surpasses the stage action in emotional intensity, as in Robert Greene's James the Fourth, where a woman who falls in love with a female page speaks of her “insatiate lust” even though her behavior, to judge from the text, is chastely self-restrained. Because of its unusual reliance on intimate duet scenes, Twelfth Night, which even by Elizabethan standards is restrained in the ways it dramatizes sexual attraction, needs to be understood in a context of theatrical representations of both sexual and emotional intimacy.

In the Renaissance theater, cross-gender casting added another set of anxieties because of the culture's official condemnation of homosexuality and the obsessive focusing of Puritan antitheatrical attacks on theatrical transvestism. Scenes of heterosexual physical intimacy in the world of the play could be seen as involving homoerotic acts in the world of the playhouse. How pervasive this view was among actual audiences is debatable, for very few plays do anything to authorize a puritanical response, but it seems likely that many spectators were aware of the condemnation of theatrical cross-dressing expressed in antitheatrical treatises and elsewhere throughout the period.

Addressing just such anxieties over the plays he produced at Christ Church College, Oxford, between 1582 and 1592, William Gager denied that his staging of heterosexual love scenes involved any actions that could be construed as homoerotic:

As for the danger of kissinge bewtifull boyes, … it is untrwe, … that owre Eurymachus did kisse owre Melantho. I have enquyred of the partyes themselves, whether any suche action was used by them, and thay constantly denye it; sure I ame, no suche thinge was taught. If you conjecture there was kissinge because Melantho spake this verse, Furtiva nullus oscula Eurymachus dabit, … yet, therby no kissinge can be proved agaynst us, but that rather, that thinge only in wordes was expressed.3

If Gager's attitude is representative, university productions did not enact sexual passion but rather indicated it through words alone, perhaps accompanied by chastely stylized stage business, as in some scholastic productions today. Gager also differentiated academic productions, ostensibly done for pedagogic purposes, from those of the commercial theater.4

Unlike Gager's pupils, Elizabethan professional troupes did not hesitate to dramatize moments of physical intimacy, and apparently did so with greater naturalism and intensity. J. G. B. Streett's catalog of examples suggests that English Renaissance plays call for considerably more kissing, caressing, and fondling than earlier scholars wished to acknowledge.5 One example comes from Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1588-90), a play written long before the alleged decadence of the late Jacobean and Caroline periods. In the famous bower scene, Horatio and Bel-Imperia sit down (“for pleasure asketh ease”) and then graphically describe their progression from hand-holding to footsie, kisses, close embraces, and finally—just before his killers interrupt them—to Horatio's plea that Bel-Imperia “stay a while, and I will die with thee.”6 Gager's argument, that verbal expressions of emotional and physical intimacy need not necessitate physicalization, would not seem to apply to so explicit a listing of gestures.

It is hard to imagine the actors not doing what the characters say they are doing. By our standards, the actors might have seemed detached, but even if stylized or coded the physical gestures represent the sexual expression of passionate love, in this case a clandestine tryst rather than the simple kiss of Gager's example. Moments like this one aroused the ire of William Prynne, who was hardly an objective source and who probably relied on secondhand reports. Nevertheless Kyd's play provided a graphic example of what a Puritan like Prynne, in his antitheatrical tract entitled Histrio-Mastix (pub. 1633), called “those immodest gestures” or “those reall lively representations of the actors of venery, which attend and set out Stage-playes.”7

Such representations of heterosexual sexual activity, however naturalistically staged, probably evoked or accented the presence of the male actors, especially if, as Heywood claims, they were easily recognized by spectators. The aesthetic defense against anxiety caused by scenes of heterosexual intimacy—“it's only a play”—led to another source of anxiety by activating audiences' dual consciousness of play-boys and female characters and so evoking concern over (and sometimes interest in) what the male actors were doing with their own bodies.

Although most plays do not activate dual consciousness by explicit allusions at such moments, boy-bride plays do so by incorporating female impersonation into the world of the play, so that the audience finds itself in the position of those characters who are in on the joke, that is, watching a boy make other men believe he is a woman. If consciousness of the play-boy was accented by the reflexive effect of male disguise, then any intimate scenes involving a female page may have further underscored the homoerotic nature of the relationship at the metatheatrical level.


This complex of anxieties over the presentation of intimacy at both mimetic and theatrical levels can be illustrated by the subplot of The Wars of Cyrus. The play was probably written by Richard Farrant for the Chapel Children and performed in the first Blackfriars theater in the late 1570s, although it was not published until 1594. Both the subplot, adapted from Xenophon's Cyropaedia, and the main plot are variants of the captive-heroine motif often used in plays performed by the children's troupes in the 1570s and 1580s.8 Alexandra, the heroine of the subplot, escapes from captivity by exchanging clothing and identities with her page, Libanio. Both mistress and page are played by two young male actors capable of depicting boys or women equally well. One plays a woman impersonating a boy, a female page; the other a boy impersonating a woman, a boy bride.

Libanio impersonates his mistress well enough to excite Dinon, their guard. As Alexandra, Libanio initially protests that “I am too young to love” (l. 894), while Dinon offers to buy her favors, but she then coyly implies that it is not the offer of wealth but passion itself that makes her “blush to say I love my Lord” (l. 935). When Dinon presses further—“And when thou blushes[t] Dinon's heart is fired; / Therefore to quench it give a gentle grant” (ll. 936-37)—Libanio parries by seeming to redefine “grant” in purely verbal terms: “My honor being preserved, my grant is given” (l. 938).

It is not clear from the text exactly how Dinon understands Libanio's ambiguous reply, nor whether he understands “honor” to mean reputation or virginity. Perhaps verbal capitulation is enough to satisfy him, or perhaps it is intended as a symbolic indication of sexual submission. In either case, he quickly falls into a state of lassitude, asking Libanio to “lull me asleep with sweetness of thy voice” (l. 942). In the context of this play, the song might have functioned as a symbolic indicator of sexual intimacy—the equivalent of the closing of the bedroom door in films of an earlier day. Although the song seems to put Dinon into state of repose, in describing this encounter to other men later in the play, Libanio disingenuously attributes the guard's sleepiness to other causes: “long continued talke, / And heate of sunne reflecting on the bankes, / Or happlie with the ratling harmonie / [of] Euphrates his gliding streames” (ll. 1112-15).

Whether or not the page's sexual submission was symbolically indicated, the boy bride immediately resumes his male identity. Having compromised his manliness by the assumption of female disguise and by allowing Dinon to see and perhaps to use him as a woman, Libanio now moves to redeem his own virility. The moment Dinon falls asleep, Libanio prepares to kill him with the guard's own sword, “the sworde that hangde loose dangling by his side” (l. 1120), but which he appropriates as his own in the soliloquy preceding the murder:

Sleep, Dinon! Then, Libanio, draw thy sword
And manly thrust it in his slumbering heart!
… Now Dinon dies! Alas, I cannot strike!
This habit makes me over pitiful.
Remember that thou art Libanio—
No woman, but a bondman! Strike and fly!

(ll. 944-57)

To reaffirm his own masculine identity, Libanio rejects both compassion and self-pity as feminine attributes induced by his wearing of women's garments, and he commits an act of “manly” violence. Only such an act will cleanse him of the shame of being “taken” as a woman, and permit him to accept the title that other men later bestow on him, “president of manly fortitude” (l. 1128), in which there may have lurked a further irony depending on the age of the play-boy cast in the role.

This subplot betrays considerable uneasiness about the risk to male sexual identity when boys or young men impersonate women too successfully. Within the world of the play, Libanio's impersonation of Alexandra reflects exactly what young male actors often did in the world of the playhouse—portray women who aroused the sexual interest of male characters and, so it was said, of male spectators as well. In most plays, such anxieties are unacknowledged and remain confined to the metatheatrical level. Boy-bride plays like this one, however, bring such concerns to conscious attention. Most of them, like Epicoene, focus ridicule on the man who mistook the boy bride for a woman. The Wars of Cyrus, however, sees the “mistake” from the point of view of the boy, dramatizing underlying concerns about the effects of cross-gender casting on male sexuality. That concern was brought to the surface more subtly in plays like Twelfth Night, where, instead of reinscribing female impersonation within the world of the play, cross-gender disguise reflexively underscored the presence of the male actor in the female role.


Unlike The Wars of Cyrus, which dramatizes the attraction of a man to a boy bride, Greene's James the Fourth (Queen's? c. 1590)9 depicts a woman's infatuation with a female page. As such it is a precursor of Twelfth Night, the only one of Shakespeare's disguised heroine plays to explore the relationship between the protagonist and another woman. Greene makes far more of Lady Cuthbert Anderson's desire for the disguised Dorothea, queen of Scots, than Cinthio did in the source (Hecatommithi III.i). Cinthio's novella denies any sexual basis to the relationship between Arenopia and her rescuer by informing the reader that “the wife of the knight [who nurses the female page back to health] liked her very much indeed, not lasciviously but … as a brother.”10 Greene devotes parts of two scenes to Lady Anderson's “insatiate lust” for the disguised Dorothea, yet does so with restraint. In V.i., the presence of Nano, Dorothea's dwarf, prevents Lady Anderson from wooing her patient too ardently. Six lines before the end of the scene, Dorothea sends Nano away and Lady Anderson is finally alone with the object of her affections for the first time. Their brief dialogue is formalistically intensified by rhymed stichomythia but nevertheless gives intimacy a very wide berth:

L. And. Now, sir, what cheer? Come, taste this broth I bring.
Dor. My grief is past, I feel no further sting.
L. And. Where is your dwarf? Why hath he left you, sir?
Dor. For some affairs; he is not travelled far.
L. And. If so you please, come in and take your rest.
Dor. Fear keeps awake a discontented breast.

(ll. 94-99)

In another context, Lady Anderson's invitation might sound seductive; here it resembles the professional solicitude of a hospital nurse.

In V.v, Nano is again present and forces Dorothea to reveal her identity by offering to wager with Lady Anderson that “My master here will prove a married wife” (l. 21). Blushing but relieved, Dorothea verifies Nano's claim, while Lady Anderson, deeply stung, modulates from anger to shame and does so not in asides or soliloquy but in conversation with Nano and Dorothea:

L. And. Deceitful beauty, hast thou scorned me so?
Nano. Nay, muse not, madam, for she tells you true.
L. And. Beauty bred love, and love hath bred my shame.
Nano. And women's faces work more wrongs than these;
Take comfort, madam, to cure your disease.
And yet she loves a man as well as you,
Only this difference, she cannot fancy too.
L. And. Blush, grieve, and die in thine insatiate lust!

(ll. 46-53)

Then, in response to Dorothea's offer of friendship, still referring to the queen as “my lord,” she expresses her continued love (“although not as I desired”), acknowledges her “false heart,” and asks “pardon [of her] most gracious princess” (ll. 56-60). These rapid transitions skate quickly over Lady Anderson's complicated emotional states.11 Her reactions result from her having made amorous advances toward a character she has discovered to be of her own sex, a situation inversely reflected in the fact that both actors were male, as Dorothea's cross-gender disguise would have reminded the audience.


In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare puts greater pressure on the relationship between mistress and female page than either Lyly or Greene had done. In his earlier disguised-heroine plays, he did not allow any of his female pages to play intimate scenes with female characters, even though the source for Two Gentlemen had explored just such a relationship. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare keeps Olivia and Viola together alone on stage three times in order to dramatize Olivia's deepening passion.

Each of these encounters begins by announcing a private rendezvous. In their first meeting, I.v, Olivia finds herself intrigued by this stranger, who had been saucy at her gates but who now seems respectful, if resolute.12 Her interest piqued, Olivia dismisses her attendants: “Give us this place alone, we will hear this divinity” (ll. 218-19). Olivia's scorning of Orsino's suit, coupled with her pride and vanity, drive Cesario to declare what he would do “If I did love you in my master's flame” (l. 264), a declaration that for the first time in the scene diverts Olivia's attention away from her own role as the “cruel fair” and on to the person standing before her: “Why, what would you?” (l. 267). Cesario's answer, the energetic (and perhaps urgent) “willow cabin” speech, keeps Olivia's attention riveted on this audacious youth: “You might do much. / What is your parentage?” (ll. 276-77). In Olivia's next speech, she abruptly modulates from haughtiness toward Orsino to seductive charm toward Cesario:

                                                                                Get you to your lord.
I cannot love him; let him send no more—
Unless (perchance) you come to me again
To tell me how he takes it.

(ll. 279-82)

This first exchange, ending with Olivia's realization that she has caught the “plague,” compresses and dramatizes what Shakespeare's probable source, Riche's “Of Apolonius and Silla,” reports took place only after Julina (Olivia) had “many tymes taken the gaze of this young youth.” Julina is straightforward in revealing her feelings to the duke's emissary: “it is enough that you have saied for your maister; from henceforthe, either speake for your self or saie nothyng at all.”13 In two other duet scenes, Shakespeare dramatized Olivia's growing infatuation, and her attempts both to conceal and expose enough of it to extract a reciprocal response from Cesario.

Privacy is again stressed in the second meeting, when Cesario returns to woo on Orsino's behalf. He asks to speak alone with Olivia, who sends the other characters off: “Let the garden door be shut, and leave me to my hearing” (III.i.92-93). Her next words imply a desire for even closer contact: “Give me your hand, sir.” She asks the servant's name but becomes angry when Cesario reopens Orsino's courtship, and then—as tactfully as she can—points out that she has virtually thrown herself at Cesario:

                                                                      To one of your receiving
Enough is shown; a cypress, not a bosom,
Hides my heart.

(ll. 119-21)

Unable to make Cesario acknowledge her feelings, let alone reciprocate them, Olivia orders him to leave but then abruptly orders him to “Stay!” (l. 137). In one of the most reflexive moments in the play, each character accuses the other of not being “what you are” (l. 139). In their first meeting, Cesario had denied being a “comedian” but admitted “I am not that I play” (I.v.184), alluding both to the female character and metatheatrically to the performer. Here the line is repeated in revised form—“I am not what I am” (l. 141)—and underscores both of those layers of identity, as well as seeming to point beyond them to more profound ontological realms. But the dialogue returns abruptly to the mimetic level with Olivia's wish that “you were as I would have you be” (l. 142), Viola's “contempt and anger” (l. 146), and Olivia's aside, followed by her formal Petrarchan declaration of passion in rhymed couplets:

Cesario, by the roses of the spring,
By maidhood, honor, truth, and every thing,
I love thee so, that maugre all thy pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.

(ll. 149-52)

In matched rhymed couplets, Cesario refuses to accept any woman's love, and the scene ends with one last plaintive appeal from Olivia—“Yet come again.” But the urgent command is retracted, seemingly restated in less imperious but passionate terms (“for thou perhaps mayst move”), until it is masked by the duplicitous hint of her receptivity to Orsino's suit (“The heart which now abhors, to like his love” [ll. 163-64]). Olivia's entreaty to a social inferior plus her sudden abandonment of her vow of mourning, however lightly held, is a sure sign that powerful forces of sexual attraction are stirring in her.

More than in any of the possible sources and analogues, the scene emphasizes the desperation of Olivia's wooing, however restrained by decorum, as well as stressing Viola's confused mixture of embarrassment and anger. An Italian dramatic treatment of the same source material, Gl'Ingannati, avoided such delicate feelings in favor of franker physicalization of the mistress's “insatiate lust” framed by coarse onstage commentary.14 In, the only duet scene between Isabella (Olivia) and Lelia (Viola) in her disguise as Fabio (Cesario), the lady reveals her attraction to the page by inviting him to “Come into the doorway a little” (2:308). She kisses him, just offstage, according to two voyeuristic servants, after which Lelia returns to offer her own cynical and self-absorbed appraisal of the situation: “On the one hand I am having fun at the expense of her who believes me a man, on the other I should like to get out of this scrape” (2:309). Viola is never approached as directly as this, nor is she amused by Olivia's plight: “Poor lady, she were better love a dream” (III.ii.26). Instead of Isabella's advances and Lelia's mockery, Shakespeare offers Olivia's enthrallment by the mysterious servant, an enthrallment she barely checked by her upper-class self-restraint. Less physically explicit than Gl'Ingannati, Twelfth Night suggests deeper wells of sexual passion and adds Viola's empathy with one she finds no less a victim of this bizarre triangle than herself and Orsino.

The third duet scene between Olivia and Cesario, embedded in III.iv, compresses their encounter into fifteen lines. Olivia does not need to demand privacy, as Fabian sees her coming with Cesario and warns Maria and Sir Toby to “give them way” (ll. 196-97). Jettisoning aristocratic reserve, Olivia complains that she has acted dishonorably in flinging herself at Cesario in order to bind him to her, while Cesario tries to make her empathize with Orsino's feelings of rejection so that he can renew Orsino's courtship. In each of these encounters, insistence on privacy leads one to expect physical intimacy, as in Gl'Ingannati, but Shakespeare dramatizes the emotional entanglements—Olivia's desire, vulnerability, and humiliation; Viola's bewilderment, irritation, and embarrassment. As in James the Fourth, the audience witnesses an intense interaction between two women, while the theatrical level involves the interaction of two male performers.15


Shakespeare's willingness to explore the problems of intimacy in scenes between a heroine in male disguise and the man she loves is all the more remarkable considering how few precedents he had to draw on in narrative or dramatic treatments of the material. In many narrative versions, particularly those in the chivalric tradition, the disguised heroine serves as faithful page or squire to her lover or husband. The emotional pressure of such proximity is rarely explored, even though she may sleep in the same room or bed, or on the same plot of ground, although Boccaccio and other writers of novelle develop the erotic possibilities of such scenes of intimacy.16

Until the Jacobean period, even when English playwrights dramatized moments of heterosexual intimacy, they rarely did so in scenes involving a heroine in male disguise, probably because of the reflexive power of the assumed male identity to call attention to the gender of the play-boy and so raise the kinds of anxieties alluded to by Gager and exorcised by Farrant in The Wars of Cyrus. Before Twelfth Night, stage heroines in male disguise are denied scenes of emotional intimacy with their husbands, lovers, or other men. Neronis, disguised as a page in Clyomon, meets her beloved, the title character, alone in the woods, but, as he too has concealed his identity, they fail to recognize each other. Once Dorothea, the heroine of James the Fourth, dons male disguise, her only private encounter with a man, the assassin Jacques, is violent but is not sexual. Once Julia and Portia don male disguise, they have no duet scenes with Proteus or Bassanio. As Ganymed, Rosalind has one such moment with Orlando, but, as was noted, it was broken off in part because it suggested more intensity of feeling than either of them wished.

When Italian dramatists brought the disguised heroine and her beloved onstage, they usually sought broad comic effects, just as they did when the disguised heroine is wooed by another woman. In Gl'Ingannati, for example, Flamminio (Orsino) tells Fabio (Cesario) that he once loved “one named Lelia who I have often wished to say is the very image of you” (2:303). But when Flamminio repudiates Lelia in another duet, he fails to grasp the significance of the page's visible reaction:

Flamm. You have lost your colour. Go home; have a hot cloth on your chest and a rub behind the shoulders. … What strange accidents befall us men! … he seems to love me so much that if he were a woman I should think him lovesick for me.


Whereas the author of Gl'Ingannati stresses the comic effects of Flamminio's inability to see through Lelia's disguise, Shakespeare achieves quite different effects in Twelfth Night, in part because he stresses the female page's femininity rather than her boyishness. Alexander Leggatt observes that such stress on the female page's femininity is unusual: “Normally, when another character describes one of these disguised heroines, the emphasis is on the pert boyishness one imagines as a quality of the boy actor himself.”17 Viola is also less self-assertive than Julia, Portia, or Rosalind. Although she initially displays a brisk resolve to take control of her life, as the play unfolds she feels herself trapped by events she cannot subdue to her will, and she soon throws herself on the mercy of Time to untangle the knot that is too hard for her to untie.

The circumstances of Viola's disguising also accentuate her relative helplessness. The other three heroines arrange their disguisings. Viola's depends on the cooperation of the captain, and she sees in male disguise no possibilities for parodying male folly. By the end of II.ii, she regards “disguise” as “a wickedness / Wherein the pregnant enemy does much” (ll. 27-28). Neither a doctor of law nor the saucy lackey, Viola instructs the captain to “present me as an eunuch” (I.ii.56).18

Viola is also more isolated than Shakespeare's other heroines in male disguise. Her confidant, the captain, never returns after his initial appearance, leaving her with no Celia or Nerissa on stage through whom she can activate her identity as a woman. She therefore speaks in riddles to the other characters—“I am not that I play” (I.v.184), “I am not what I am” (III.i.141), and “I am all the daughters of my father's house, / And all the brothers too” (II.iv.120-21), and she frequently turns to the audience for soliloquies and asides, as neither Portia nor Rosalind need to do. While these moments establish a strong rapport with the audience, they do not “mock or undermine others, as comic asides conventionally do,” but rather express her feelings of impotence and evoke pathos. She may take over the play, but she cannot control the plot.19

Intimate moments between the disguised heroine and the man she loves are lightly sketched in Riche's “Of Apolonius and Silla,” where the page rises to the status of trusted valet: “Silvio [Cesario] pleased his maister so well that above all the reste of his servantes aboute hym he had the greatest credite, and the Duke put him moste in trust” (2:350-51). Leslie Hotson suggested that Shakespeare amplified and intensified Riche's narrative to make his Duke Orsino resemble Elizabeth's visitor of the same name from Italy.20 Whatever the reasons, Shakespeare deviated not only from his source, but also from contemporary theatrical treatments of the heroine in male disguise and from his own previous treatments of the motif. He placed Viola, disguised as Cesario, in two scenes (one of them divided into two subscenes) with Orsino; and he dramatized the duke's growing attachment to his new “male” servant.

These scenes necessarily included material Riche had already narrated in earlier episodes. Silla had fallen in love with the duke when he visited her father and travels by sea to the duke's court so that “she might againe take the vewe of her beloved Apolonius” (2:348). Viola, shipwrecked by fortune, recalls hearing of Orsino when the captain mentions him as the local ruler. By denying Viola any previous involvement with Orsino, Shakespeare had to dramatize her falling in love with him at some point after she had taken on the identity of Cesario.

In fact, Orsino's attraction to Cesario is presented first. In the opening lines of their first scene together, I.iv, Valentine, one of Orsino's servants, paraphrases Riche's description of their rapidly developing intimacy:

If the Duke continue these favors towards you, Cesario, you are like to be much advanc'd; he hath known you but three days, and already you are no stranger.

(ll. 1-4)

He then dramatizes this relationship directly. Orsino's entering line, “Who saw Cesario, ho?” (l. 10), implies a sense of urgency, and his order to his other servants when he notes Cesario's presence—“Stand you awhile aloof”—is a demand for privacy that emphasizes the intensity of the bond that has suddenly grown between them. His next lines make the point explicitly:

Thou know'st no less but all. I have unclasp'd
To thee the book even of my secret soul.

(ll. 12-14)

The text inscribed in this book is Orsino's self-induced love for Olivia, which Shakespeare parodies as Petrarchist narcissism. In this mode, Orsino three times urges Cesario to plead “the passion of my love” (l. 24) to Olivia, while each time the page tries to point out the futility of the errand. Cesario's appeal to his youth and immaturity calls forth from Orsino a protest that plays reflexively across the various layers of Viola's identity:

                                                                                                    Dear lad, believe it;
For they shall yet belie thy happy years,
That say thou art a man. Diana's lip
Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe
Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman's part.

(ll. 29-34)

No less a victim than Olivia of Viola's cross-gender disguise, Orsino may without knowing it be responding to the woman beneath the disguise, but he takes Cesario to be what the audience knows the performer is—a pubescent male, or as Malvolio puts it, “not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy” (I.v.156-57).

As several critics observe, Cesario has the same effect on Orsino that he has on Olivia, drawing both characters out of self-absorption by riveting their attention onto himself.21 But whereas Olivia was attracted by the audacity of one who dared to be “saucy at my gates” (I.v.197), Orsino finds himself drawn to the feminine qualities of his page. By making Cesario appear both as an effeminate boy and as a saucy lackey, Shakespeare guided the boy actor toward a fresher treatment of the heroine's male disguise. Based on the view expressed by Rosalind that “boys and women are for the most part cattle of this color” (III.ii.414-15), Cesario's feminine male persona, like the image of the master-mistress of sonnet 20, must have made Orsino's attraction to him both more understandable and more troubling.22

But unlike the speaker at the end of the sonnet, Orsino never explicitly dissociates himself from a sexual relationship with Cesario, and the actor can choose whether or not to make the duke self-conscious about his attachment to the youth.23 As elsewhere in the play, the text gives him several opportunities to shift his focus away from Cesario by redirecting the conversation to his “love” for Olivia. Here, the transition from intense focus on the page to the resumption of Petrarchist posturing may occur gradually through the next line and a half—“I know thy constellation is right apt / For this affair”—or may be abruptly signaled by the phrase that follows, an imperiously vague command to his servants—“Some four or five attend him”—which in turn is followed by more Petrarchist self-dramatization—“All, if you will, for I myself am best / When least in company” (I.iv.35-38). After a short exhortation to Cesario, he leaves, allowing Viola an aside, a rhymed couplet that ends the scene and that is the first time the audience knows she has fallen in love with her master: “Yet a barful strife! / Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife” (ll. 41-42).

Cesario and Orsino are once again in intimate conversation in II.iv, a scene that has no equivalent in Riche's tale. Riche simply announces that the duke has chosen Silvio [Cesario] “to bee his messenger to carrie the tokens and love letters to the Ladie Julina [Olivia].” In Twelfth Night, this second conversation is interrupted by Feste's song and then resumed with even greater intensity. Both parts of the conversation, moreover, repeat the rhythm of I.iv: they begin with Orsino's insistence on privacy with Cesario, they require him to oscillate between his self-indulgent passion for Olivia and his troubled but intense absorption in Cesario, and they present that absorption in terms that reflect and activate the spectators' sense of Viola's multiple identities and hence of desire's possibilities.

In the first part of II.iv, Orsino sends Curio away to seek Feste and then summons Cesario to “Come hither, boy” (l. 29).24 But again, the message he offers in this private moment is in fact a self-indulgent gesture toward himself as the model for “all true lovers” (l. 17), and again it is Viola/Cesario whose genuinely wistful response to the music attracts his focus on to him/her rather than on his own alleged passions:

Duke. Thou dost speak masterly.
My life upon't, young though thou art, thine eye
Hath stay'd upon some favor that it loves.
Hath it not, boy?
Vio. A little, by your favor.
Duke. What kind of woman is't?
Vio. Of your complexion.
Duke. She is not worth thee then. What years, i'faith?
Vio. About your years, my lord.
Duke. Too old, by heaven. Let still the woman take
An elder than herself.

(ll. 22-30)

Orsino's interest in Cesario's melancholy response to the music initiates an inquiry into the experience that underlies it. Dale Priest notes how that experience reaches out to implicate Orsino himself, as when Cesario implies to Orsino that the “favor” that his eye lingers lovingly upon is the duke's countenance.25 Cesario's concentration on Orsino's complexion and years causes the duke to assume an avuncular tone, as if he is evading or resisting this deepening involvement with this mysterious creature “That can sing both high and low” (II.iii.40-41).

After Feste's song, Orsino again demands to be left alone with his page: “Let all the rest give place” (II.iv.79). Once more, his first words are a Petrarchist exhortation to “get thee to yond same sovereign cruelty” (l. 80), which lead again to an insistence on the preciousness of his feelings:

                                                                                                    Make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.

(ll. 101-3)

Viola's incomplete response “but I know—” may be deliberately unfinished or broken off by Orsino. The choice determines whether his question, “What dost thou know?” (l. 104) indicates rapt curiosity or scornful dismissal. Viola's next speech introduces herself in thinly veiled form:

My father had a daughter lov'd a man
As it might be perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.

(ll. 107-9)

As if enchanted, Orsino is drawn further into the story: “What's her history?” Viola tells how “she pin'd in thought” and how “she sate like Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief” (ll. 109, 112, 114-15). Like Rosalind, she breaks the spell herself by abruptly altering her tone, speaking as Cesario, himself “in standing water, between boy and man” (I.v.159), on behalf of “we men.” But Orsino remains spellbound: “But died thy sister of her love, my boy?” Viola's riddling answer alludes to her layered genders:

I am all the daughters of my father's house
And all the brothers too—and yet I know not.


She then once more assumes the brisk tones of Cesario—“Sir, shall I to this lady?”—and this time Orsino follows her lead, ending the scene by resuming his Petrarchist guise:

                                                                      Ay, that's the theme,
To her in haste; give her this jewel; say
My love can give no place, bide no denay [sic].


In the modern theater, the audience's knowledge of Cesario's identity, which gives it the advantage of dramatic irony over Orsino in these duet scenes, is reinforced by the “theatrical irony” of the presence of a female performer in the role of the disguised heroine. Orsino found Cesario “semblative [of] a woman's part” (I.iv.34), but his failure to perceive Viola's female presence often makes him a more absurd figure than he was originally. On the Elizabethan stage, however, where Viola's assumption of male disguise blended with the play-boy's resumption of male identity, Orsino was protected from such ridicule. But the play then generated anxiety about homoerotic intimacy at the metatheatrical level, between an adult male actor and one of the troupe's apprentices.

Similar anxieties were evoked at its mimetic level by Antonio's selfless and reckless passion for Sebastian, which Shakespeare added to the material he adapted from Riche's tale. Antonio echoes Orsino's eroticized friendship with Cesario, and for some spectators probably evoked the homoeroticism that enemies of the stage associated with the playhouse.26 Although most critics claim that Antonio, like his namesake in The Merchant of Venice, loses his friend to marriage, enabling the play to create “a context in which sexual ambiguity presages fulfillment rather than damnation,” Joseph Pequigney argues that Sebastian never casts off Antonio's love and that a homosexual liaison is consistent with “the diverse bisexual fictions that make up Twelfth Night,” as well as an even more explicit replication of alleged homoeroticism within the acting company.27


The intimate scenes between Orsino and Viola contrast sharply with the crowded, bustling farce of the low-comic scenes, as Jean Howard has observed in her study of the play's varying tonalities.28 They also help to prepare the spectator for the violence of Orsino's outburst when he hears that Cesario has married Olivia. That outburst was anticipated by Antonio's reaction to Sebastian's evident duplicity, in which he compared “that most ingrateful boy” to “a witchcraft” (V.i.76-77).

The strength of Orsino's outrage indicates a wound deeper than his alleged affection for Olivia. When she enters, he observes her presence (instead of greeting her) in a single line of Petrarchan cliché, “Here comes the Countess, now heaven walks on earth” (V.i.97). Abruptly resuming his interrogation of Antonio, he then fails to answer her direct question addressed to him (“What would my lord … ?” [l. 101]), a failure that would be either the result or the cause of her immediately turning to Cesario. His first direct address to her in the play, “Gracious Olivia—” (l. 105) either runs out of steam or is cut short by Olivia. By contrast, his discovery of Cesario's apparent betrayal of him elicits an explosion of homicidal vengefulness nominally addressed to Olivia but in fact aimed primarily at his page: “Why should I not (had I the heart to do it), … Kill what I love?” (ll. 117-28).29 While Olivia remains the “marble-breasted tyrant” she has always been in his Petrarchist fantasy, Cesario, whom he tendered dearly, has shocked him with an act of betrayal. He then turns to the page, whom he orders to the slaughter:

Come, boy, with me, my thoughts are ripe in mischief.
I'll sacrifice the lamb that I do love,
To spite a raven's heart within a dove.

(ll. 129-31)

Viola/Cesario's reply, matching Orsino's concluding couplet, meets the duke's homicidal threats with a martyr's eagerness:

And I most jocund, apt, and willingly,
To do you rest, a thousand deaths would die.

(ll. 132-33)

Turning to Olivia, the page explains himself in couplets that are the most direct sentiments Viola has uttered about Orsino since the brief soliloquy following their first meeting:

                                                                                                    After him I love
More than I love these eyes, more than my life,
More by all mores than e'er I shall love wife.

(ll. 134-36)

Accentuated by rhyme, these impassioned speeches articulate in public the nature of the relationship Orsino and Viola have played out in and between the lines of their intimate scenes together. As John Russell Brown has noted, Orsino's agonized sense of betrayal arises more from the loss of Cesario than from the loss of Olivia, a reaction that permits the audience to accept his love for Viola when her true sex is revealed.30

Even after that revelation, Orsino twice refers to her as if she were male. On the theatrical level she still was and always would be male, but on another level Orsino wants to establish continuity with their earlier moments of intimacy:

Duke. Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times
Thou never shouldst love woman like to me.
Vio. And all those sayings will I over swear,
And all those swearings keep as true in soul
As doth that orbed continent the fire
That severs day from night.
Duke. Give me thy hand,
And let me see thee in thy woman's weeds.


A few lines later, he speaks to her in her female identity, and then offers his own hand (“Here is my hand”) to “your master's mistress” (ll. 325-26).31 Orsino ends the scene by announcing that “a solemn combination shall be made / Of our dear souls” (ll. 383-84) and turns once more to his beloved:

                                                                                          Cesario, come—
For so you shall be while you are a man;
But when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino's mistress, and his fancy's queen.

(ll. 385-88)

Although using the page's name may represent a wish to retain the relationship with his male servant, the final couplet restates the desire to see Viola dressed “in her woman's weeds” and can therefore define Orsino's final attitude more as impatience or relief than as uncertainty or disappointment about her gender.32

Whether Viola removes a hat or releases bound-up hair, like Julia, she remains in male attire despite her resumption of female identity and the performer's resumption of whatever mannerisms, if any in this case, were used to signify it. Her page's apparel may in fact now accentuate her feminine identity, but Orsino's comment on the gender specificity of her clothing and his use of the name Cesario, whatever his own attitude, underscored the presence of the boy actor for the audience.

Such reflexive allusion to the actor's maleness generated emotional crosscurrents counter to the play's drive toward heterosexual union. This prospect is always potentially present in the world of the playhouse when heterosexual intimacy is portrayed by an all-male company, but usually remains dormant unless something reflexive—like continued verbal reference to the abandoned but still visible cross-gender disguise—calls attention to the principle of layers of gender identity and so keeps spectators alert to all of the layers involved.

In modern productions, the allusions to Viola's male identity are comic rather than reflexive or metatheatrical, and the marriages that end the play seem “natural”; that is, the genders of the characters match those of the performers. But in the original production, these final allusions to the male component of Viola's identity actually underscored the existence of another level of pretense, in which the two brides-to-be in the play were young male actors. Calling attention to that pretense, which the audience had thought it had agreed to accept without question, now threatened to undercut the conventional ending in heterosexual union. For some spectators, the play's exposure of its own artificiality might even have implied another and very different ending based on the gender of the actors, and perhaps on suspicions that boy actors served as catamites within all-male companies. For other spectators, the stress on the play-boy's presence simply demonstrated with more explicitness than usual what they “always knew” a play to be—a theatrical illusion they had paid to see and could see again, along with others like it, whenever they sought diversion from “the wind and the rain.”

In As You Like It, a similar movement toward the world of the playhouse, which also stresses the gender of the boy actor, is delayed until the epilogue. In Twelfth Night, by contrast, Viola remains in male attire, is still referred to as “boy” by Orsino—either out of habit or with self-conscious irony or possibly both, seriatim. In the absence of an epilogue, the audience's final impression of Viola includes her still contending with disguise as “a wickedness.”33 G. K. Hunter's summation of the general differences between the heroines also applies to the boy actresses in their final appearances: “Rosalind is able to use her disguise as a genuine and joyous extension of her personality; Viola suffers constriction and discomfiture in her role.”34 Hunter may be right about Viola, but not about the performer, for in the absence of sequential off-layering, the male garb proclaims the simultaneous presence of all three layers of identity. The movement from play to playhouse negotiated by the epilogue in As You Like It occurs in Twelfth Night in Feste's final song. Alone onstage, Feste sings a kind of autobiographical sketch, tracing a few stages in a life cycle to suggest that pain and suffering are as inevitable and relentless as the “rain it raineth every day,” and have been so since “the world begun” (V.i.405). With its surprisingly self-referential third line—“But that's all one, our play is done—” the last stanza sets the song's darker vision in the context of yet another vision—one that redefines the play just performed as a compassionate even if commercial effort to provide solace for the gloominess of the human condition: “And we'll strive to please you every day.”35


Most other English dramatists who took up the heroine in male disguise followed James the Fourth rather than Twelfth Night in that female pages appear in intimate scenes only with female characters. Within the world of the play there is never any suggestion of lesbianism (evidently too threatening or incredible an idea for the commercial stage of the period), so that the pursuing women are simply foolishly mistaken about the object of their affections. Unlike Shakespeare, other English dramatists not only ridicule the lady's obsessive infatuation with the shy page, but frequently heighten the farcical effects by multiplication and “surprise,” as well as by coarsening the tone of intimate scenes. Four of these plays rework intimate moments or relationships found in Twelfth Night.


Lording Barry's Ram Alley (King's Revels, 1607-8), is one of the first plays to multiply intimate moments by having the female page interact with more than one female character. The heroine, Constantia, who has donned male attire to follow the man she loves, enters his service as a page and beholds him wooing the wealthy Widow Taffeta. Like Orsino, Boutcher does not pursue his intended with genuine fervor, but instead of serving as his emissary, as Viola does, the page, presumably adopting a man-about-town air, advises him to approach the mistress by way of her servant, “for you must know / These waiting-maids are to their mistresses / Like porches unto doors: you pass the one / Before you can have entrance at the other.”36 The equivalent in Twelfth Night would be to have a suavely urbane Cesario urge Orsino to make love to Maria in order to obtain Olivia. The page recoils, however, when the Maria figure, of course depicted by another play-boy, attempts to seduce him:

A pretty knave, i'faith! Come home tonight,
Shalt have a posset and candi'd eringoes,
A bed if need be too. I love a life
To play with such baboons as thou.

(ll. 817-20)

The bawdy tone of these passages typifies the coarseness of the play. For example, Barry makes Constantia fear not that she will be shamed if discovered wearing male attire but that her own sexual excitement at seeing male apparel will give her away:

Lord, how my feminine blood stirs at the sight
Of these same breeches! Methinks this codpiece
Should betray me.

(ll. 7-9)

Writing for a minor boy company when the vogue for children's troupes was ending, Barry burlesqued the conventions of cross-gender disguise by turning tactful scenes of intimacy into sexual farce.37


For the main plot of No Wit, No Help Like a Woman's (Lady Elizabeth's? c. 1611), Middleton adapted an Italian academic comedy, Porta's La Sorella,38 but the subplot, which is entirely his invention, is a farcical reworking of the Viola-Olivia relationship in Twelfth Night. It is also a female version of his own early city comedies, in which a “prodigal daughter,” Kate Low-water, outwits a greedy widow, Lady Goldenfleece, who, together with her late husband, had bilked Kate and her husband of their estate. Early in this play, Kate enters the widow's house disguised as “a gallant gentleman, her husband like a serving-man after her” (II.i.169). As a swaggering gallant, Kate drives away the rival suitors and hopes to regain her property by winning the widow's heart. The plan goes beyond the verbal audacity with which Viola unintentionally arouses Olivia's love. Kate will “put her to't, i'faith” (II.iii.94), that is, gain the widow's heart by all but conquering her body. Kate instructs her husband to stand by, ostensibly to rescue the widow from rape but really to prevent the disclosing of Kate's gender. But the widow is taken with Kate's exhibition of macho bravado and declares that she will marry this “beardless youth”: “with this kiss / I choose him for my husband” (ll. 186-87). As in Twelfth Night, a twin brother, split off from the heroine, arrives to provide a match for the widow and to facilitate Kate's undisguising: “You can but put me to my book, sweet brother, / And I've my neck-verse perfect, here and here” (ll. 343-44). Exactly where the performer locates his “neck-verse” is not clear from the text. The editor of the Regents edition here adds a stage direction, “Removes her disguise, revealing her bosom,” along with a note to the effect that “Mistress Low-water's neck-verse … is her breasts” (125), without explaining how this effect might have been created by a young male actor.

Far coarser than Shakespeare's duets between Cesario and Olivia, Middleton here achieves broad comic effects: one play-boy oscillates between Kate's feminine modesty and a brazen male persona, while the other depicts the tension between the widow's feigned coyness and her genuine sexual excitement. Kate's impersonation of a brash youth evokes the presence of both male performers, again articulating the separate layers of gender identity in the enactment of both roles, highlighting the artistry required to negotiate them, and exaggerating the well-worn roles of cheeky female page and lusty, avaricious widow into opportunities for theatrical virtuosity.


Further elaboration of situations first found in Twelfth Night is illustrated by Anything for A Quiet Life (1619), where Middleton used an intimate scene between mistress and page in a drastically abbreviated subplot. To make the page's revelation of gender a surprise to the audience, or at least to cloud it in uncertainty, Middleton does not reveal that Selenger, Lord Beaufort's servant, is Mistress George Cressingham.

Selenger, who is pursued by Mistress Knavesby, is a shy rather than a saucy version of the page, a mere pawn of the clever wench in control of the intrigue. Unlike Olivia, who is truly infatuated with Cesario, Mistress Knavesby is merely using the page to discourage Lord Beaufort from trying to seduce her. She literally entangles Selenger in her intrigue by asking the page to hold a skein of yarn for her to unwind and then grasping it in such a way as to hold him her “prisoner”:

for, look you, you are mine now, my captive manacled, I have your hands in bondage.


Both characters use the stage business as a conceit for sexual entrapment and resistance that threatens at one point to become more than a conceit:

Mis. G. Cres. … pray you, release me now.
Mis. Kna. I could kiss you now, spite of your teeth, if it please me.
Mis. G. Cres. But you could not, for I could bite you with the spite of my teeth, if it pleases me.

(ll. 47-51)

They spar until Lord Beaufort enters, seeking his prey. He takes in the sight with exquisite politesse, simply observing that “you are busy” (l. 85), and offers to withdraw. Mistress Knavesby frees her captive, who leaves with a smutty masculine retort: “I'll ne'er give both my hands at once again to a woman's command; I'll put one finger in a hole rather” (ll. 92-93).

In the final scene, when Beaufort tells Knavesby that his wife has slept with the page, Mistress Knavesby confesses that “we lay together in bed” (V.ii.218), but Middleton then directs the audience's attention to the presence of “Mistress George Cressingham in female attire” (l. 214), to use the words of the stage direction. The revelation may or may not have surprised the audience, but her undisguising was either cut from the text or, given the audience's familiarity with the motif, could have been assumed to take place offstage.


Richard Brome's A Mad Couple Well Matched (Beeston's Boys? 1636?) involves the heroine in male disguise with three different women. Although Brome never informs the audience that “this beardless Bellamy” is a woman, enough hints are furnished to arouse suspicion.39 In a scene reminiscent of the first meeting between Olivia and Viola, a citizen's wife named Alicia Saleware is the first woman to fall for Bellamy. She receives this “handsome youth,” an emissary of his employer, Lord Lovely, willfully misinterprets his remarks, kisses him, and fawns over him. In a subsequent scene, Lady Thrivewell, who has also fallen for young Bellamy, is seen in intimate conversation with the page. Mistress Crosstill, a widow, is the third woman to fall for Bellamy and tries to woo him even at the same time she herself is being wooed by a widow-hunting gallant.

Toward the end of the play, her brother, Fitzgerrard, suddenly appears, demanding that Lord Lovely produce his sister Amy, who left home two years ago to attend his Lordship. Bellamy then enters “in a woman's habit” and explains that she adopted “a masculine boldness” to be near the man she loved but feared she could never marry (V.ii.246-47). Unlike Orsino, Lovely did not find himself attracted to Bellamy, but he is as quick as the duke of Illyria was to propose to his former page.


Not until Shirley's The Grateful Servant (Queen Henrietta's, 1629) did another playwright explore the anxieties that an Orsino might feel about his attraction to his page. To stress the point, Shirley made the audience wait until IV.iii for explicit revelation of the gender of the page, a delicate lad named Dulcino, who attracted not one but two adult males and appeared in duet scenes with each of them.

The first of these Orsino figures is Foscari, whom the page serves out of gratitude for having been “rescued … from the Banditti.” Although Foscari claims to love Cleona, he is so strongly attached to Dulcino, this “sweet-faced thing, … [with whom] some ladies / Might change their beauties” (21). In a scene that recalls Orsino's avuncular advice about women to Cesario, Foscari warns Dulcino against the wiles of “some wanton lady [who] hath beheld thy face” (19), and, fearing that this “boy, so young and beautiful, / [is] apt to be seduced” by some court lady, he promotes him from his servant to “my companion” (20). Dulcino carries Foscari's messages to Cleona, who never becomes infatuated with the messenger as Olivia does with Cesario, and Shirley even has Cleona's comic servant spy upon the lady and the page in order to keep their duet at the level of farce. When Foscari decides to take monastic vows, he insists that Dulcino accompany him. The page agrees and is later extricated from this plight not through the removal of disguise but through the intervention of Father Valentio, who recognizes him as Leonora, the missing princess of Milan.

The second Orsino figure is the duke of Savoy, who had fallen in love with Leonora from her picture and hoped to marry her, but hearing of her father's plans for another match half-heartedly decides to court Cleona, Foscari's beloved. While visiting Cleona, however, he first sees Dulcino and is lovestruck by the sight: “What boy is that? … It is no common face” (31). Shirley points up the contrast between the duke's perfunctory wooing of Cleona and his excited discovery of Dulcino with an abrupt midline shift:

There is a virtuous magic in your eye,
For wheresoe'er it casts a beam, it does
Create a goodness; [to Cleona] you've a handsome boy.


In act III, when told that Cleona is ill, he first inquires for “the pretty boy I told thee of” before announcing that “we are resolv'd to comfort her” (50-51).

In the opening soliloquy of IV.ii, the duke tries to deny any sexual interest in the missing Dulcino but recognizes the nature of his “foolish passion”:

Our hot Italian doth affect these boys
For sin; I've no such flame, and yet methought
He did appear most lovely; nay, in his absence,
I cherish his idea; but I must
Exclude him while he hath but soft impression;
Being removed already in his person,
I lose him with less trouble.


Only in Dulcino's absence can the duke maintain a platonic attitude toward the page. Shakespeare hinted at such anxieties in Orsino but never allowed him to pine for Cesario so explicitly nor to express relief when the page he loves turns out to be a woman. Shirley's duke is more direct:

I'll do my heart that justice to proclaim
Thou mad'st a deep impression; as a boy
I loved thee too; for it could be no other,
But with a divine flame; fair Leonora,
Like to a perfect magnet, though enclos'd
Within an ivory box, through the white wall
Shot forth embracing virtue: now, oh now,
Our destinies are kind.


Foscari is astonished—“This is a mystery, Dulcino!”—but resumes his courtship of Cleona, the second choice to Dulcino of both men throughout the play. One almost wishes that Leonora's twin brother would wander on stage to provide a match for Foscari.

In The Grateful Servant, as in Twelfth Night, adult male characters feel themselves attracted to a shy and delicate page whom they discover to be a female character, played as always by a male actor. Although reflexive allusions to the performer's gender are, as we have seen, inherent in virtually any play with a cross-dressed heroine, these two plays, and some of the others surveyed in this chapter, are exceptional. Their uniqueness lies in their linking the intimacy between characters in the world of the play to possibilities of intimate homoerotic relations between performers in the world of the playhouse.

In Shakespeare's previous disguised-heroine plays, we noted fleeting glances at male homoerotic behavior involving play-boys as cross-dressed female characters, as in the use of the name Ganymed, or in Nerrisa's offstage success while disguised as a clerk in obtaining Gratiano's ring. Given the allegations that play-boys were catamites, such glancing allusions must have produced a modicum of resonance. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare brought these extradramatic resonances more fully into the world of the play than he had in previous works, and he was followed in this regard, albeit in different ways, by such dramatists as Barry, Middleton, and Brome. Shirley went further than Shakespeare by doubling the Orsino figure and by making one of the two worry about his sexual inclinations, thus articulating what in Twelfth Night had been confined to a possible subtext of the master-page relationship.

It was at least seven years before Shakespeare wrote another play with a heroine in male disguise, and that work, Cymbeline, moved in yet another direction. There the short-lived relationship between eroticized female page and master, that is, between Fidele and the Roman general, Lucius, is treated more explicitly than in the plays before Twelfth Night, even if it has less structural and thematic centrality than the mutual infatuation between Cesario and Orsino.


  1. For discussions of the date of Twelfth Night, see the introductions by Elizabeth Story Donno, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 1-3; and J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik, eds. (London: Methuen, 1975), xxvi-xxxv.

  2. Performers too feel anxiety when performing scenes that involve or suggest sexual intimacy. In an interview with Leslie Bennetts published in New York Times, November 17, 1987, C 11, both Kenneth Welsh and Kathy Bates describe anxieties they felt when performing in Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, “a two-character play which begins in Frankie's bed with the frenzied sounds of lovemaking, requiring some discreetly handled nudity.” Mr. Welsh attributed his fear to the fact that “the play demands so much intimacy, not only physical but emotional,” while Ms. Bates ascribed her initial reluctance to take the role to “fear of intimacy … a big one for me.”

  3. I quote from William Gager's letter to John Rainoldes, as quoted by Frederick S. Boas, University Drama in the Tudor Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1914), 217-18. I discuss the Gager-Rainoldes controversy in chapter 2; see also Binns, “Women or Transvestites,” 137-39. In the 1880s, by contrast, the vice-chancellor of Oxford, Benjamin Jowett, permitted the society to perform in public only on the condition that “the female parts … be taken by lady amateurs,” as noted in Humphrey Carpenter, O. U. D. S.: A Centenary History of the Oxford University Dramatic Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 27. Smith, Poetics of Homosexual Desire, 81-86, describes schools, colleges, and inns of court as “the all-male social institutions that nurtured sixteenth- and seventeenth-century males from boyhood to manhood” (82).

  4. Boas, University Drama, 235, 241.

  5. John G. B. Streett, “Some Aspects of the Influence of the Boy-Actress Convention on the Plays of Shakespeare and Some of His Contemporary Dramatists” (Ph.D. diss., Oxford, 1973), chap. 3. Andrews, Scripts and Scenarios, 107-8, suggests commercial troupes were more willing than academic troupes to involve female characters in explicitly sexual stage business because the roles were played by “full time professional apprentices, not gentlemanly youths dragooned into acting just once or twice in their lives.”

  6. Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, ed. Philip Edwards (London: Methuen, 1959), II.iv.23, 34-48. On the date of the play, see xxi-xxvii.

  7. Prynne, Histrio-Mastix, 386, 166. The general problem of equipping male actors to display female breasts is discussed by June Schlueter, “‘Stuffed, as they say, with honorable parts’: Female Breasts on the English Renaissance Stage,” ShY 3 (1992): 117-42. She also cites the ending of John Day's Law Tricks (Queen's Revels, c. 1604), ed. John Crow, Malone Society Reprints 89 (London: Malone Society, 1949 [1950]), V.ii, where a female character's “bosome bare” (l. 2168) is supposedly exposed to the view of another character, but not necessarily of the audience, to verify her female identity. (I am grateful to Alan Dessen for supplying both Schlueter and me with this example.) There are also examples of stage business involving “petting”: in Fletcher's Love's Pilgrimage, a woman nursing the wounds of a lecherous man pretending to have been injured in battle, asks him, “What do you mean, why do you kisse my breasts?” (IV.iii.62); in Middleton's Women Beware Women (1613-22), ed. Roma Gill (London: Ernest Benn, 1968), the duke tells Bianca that he can “feel thy breast shake like a turtle panting / Under a loving hand that makes much on't” (II.ii.322-23); in Jonson's The Devil Is an Ass, the stage direction describes Wittipol's “playing with her [Mrs. Fitzdottrell's] paps” (

  8. James Paul Brawner, ed., The Wars of Cyrus, Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 28, nos. 3-4 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1942), 10-20, 27-28. All references to the play are to this edition.

  9. Sanders, ed., James the Fourth, xxv-xxix.

  10. I quote from a translation of Chappuy's French translation (pub. 1583-84) of Cinthio's Hecatommithi, III.i by Sanders, ed., James the Fourth, 139. For a sensationalized, xenophobic treatment of the relationship between the lady and the female page, see Robert Daborne, A Christian Turned Turk, ed. A. E. H. Swaen, Anglia 20 (1898): 234 (l. 1530), where Alizia, disguised as her lover's brother, inflames the lust of a Turkish woman named Voada, who promises to help the lover escape on condition that “this night I shall enjoy thee.”

  11. Sanders, ed., James the Fourth, xliv; and Berry, Shakespeare's Comic Rites, 82.

  12. Harold Jenkins, “Shakespeare's Twelfth Night,” Rice Institute Pamphlets 45, reprinted in Stanley Wells, ed., Twelfth Night: Critical Essays (New York: Garland, 1986), 171-89.

  13. Bullough, Sources, 2:351-52. All citations refer to this edition.

  14. On the relationship of Twelfth Night to Gl'Ingannati and related plays of the commedia erudita, see Robert C. Melzi, “From Lelia to Viola,” RenD 9 (1966): 67-81; Helen Andrews Kaufman, “Niccolo Secchi as a Source of Twelfth Night,SQ 5 (1954): 271-80; L. G. Salingar, “The Design of Twelfth Night,SQ 9 (1958): 120-22; Rene Pruvost, “The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night, et Gl'Ingannati,EA 13 (1960): 4-9; and Muir, Shakespeare's Sources, 1:66-77. Quotations from Gl'Ingannati are from excerpts in Bullough. Shakespeare may have heard from John Hall or John Weaver of the Cambridge production of Laelia, a Latin version of the play produced at Cambridge in 1595; see Gras, “All Is Semblative,” 179.

  15. Clifford Leech, “Twelfth Night” and Shakespearian Comedy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), 50, has stressed the affective implications of the audience's awareness of the performers' gender in the scenes between the two boy heroines: “we must remember that in a modern production the use of actresses for the women's parts materially lessens the disturbing quality.” Some modern spectators of either gender might disagree. For example, Sue-Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (New York: Macmillan, 1988), 25-26, speculates on the detachment of women spectators from scenes of intimacy between female characters played by female impersonators. Matthew H. Wikander, “As Secret as Maidenhead: The Profession of the Boy-Actress in Twelfth Night,CompD 20 (1986-87): 352, suggests still another dimension: “What in the first exchanges between Olivia and Viola seems sexual rivalry might … also be construed as professional rivalry, for both ‘ladies’ enjoy the same marginal status in the company of which they are apprentice members.”

  16. A late chivalric narrative like The Famous History of Parismus (1598) by Emanuel Forde can titillate the reader by savoring erotic possibilities it never actually develops. See Bullough, Sources, 2:367.

  17. Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, 235. See also Howard, “Crossdressing,” 430-33.

  18. J. Dennis Huston, “‘When I Came to Man's Estate’: Twelfth Night and Problems of Identity,” MLQ 33 (1972): 275, notes that despite this line Cesario is always described as a page and never as a eunuch.

  19. Gary Taylor, To Analyze Delight: A Hedonist Criticism of Shakespeare (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985), 86. See also Hyland, “Shakespeare's Heroines,” 35; F. H. Mares, “Viola and Other Tranvestist Heroines in Shakespeare's Comedies,” Stratford Papers: 1965-67, ed. B. A. W. Jackson (Hamilton, Ontario: McMaster University Library Press, 1969), 100; and Dale G. Priest, “Julia, Petruchio, Rosalind, Viola: Shakespeare's Subjunctive Leads,” MSE 9 (1984): 45ff.

  20. Leslie Hotson, The First Night of “Twelfth Night” (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954), 63, identified one of the traveling companions of Don Virginio Orsino, Duke of Bracciano, as “a Spanish youth, Don Grazia de Montalvo” (emphases added).

  21. E.g., Berry, Shakespeare's Comic Rites, 106.

  22. Joseph Pequigney, Such Is My Love (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 30-41, regards sonnet 20 as an attempt by the speaker to deny what he is also in the process of acknowledging as homoerotic attraction.

  23. As Wikander observes, “As Secret as Maidenhead,” 350, activating the audience's awareness of the gender of the boy actress threatens to make “Orsino's interest in Viola's mouth and throat … not merely bawdy but obscene.” Jan Kott, “Shakespeare's Bitter Arcadia,” in Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski, 2d ed. (London: Methuen, 1967), 202ff., reads Orsino's description of Cesario as that of an “ephebe”—what Jardine, Still Harping, 17, quoting the opening lines of Marlowe's and Nashe's Dido (Chapel Children, c. 1586), calls a “female wanton boy.” In a more recent work, “Twins and Travesties: Gender, Dependency, and Sexual Availability in Twelfth Night,” in E.P., 27-38, Jardine modifies her views significantly by stressing the real or presumed sexual availability of young household servants of either sex, but in my view she again somewhat overstates her case: “Eroticism, in the early modern period, is not gender-specific, is not grounded in the sex of the possibly ‘submissive’ partner, but is an expectation of that very submissiveness” (34).

  24. Alexander Pope's insertion at this point of a stage direction, “Exit Curio,” makes sense of “Enter Curio and others” two dozen lines later.

  25. Priest, “Shakespeare's Subjunctive Leads,” 38. See OED for the range of meanings of “favor,” which also includes trinket, beauty, permission, and graciousness, as well as face.

  26. Philip C. McGuire, Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare's Open Silences (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), 19-37, discusses Antonio's attraction to Sebastian. See also Helene Moglen, “Disguise and Development: The Self and Society in Twelfth Night,L&P 23 (1973): 17-18.

  27. Joseph Pequigney, “The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice,ELR 22 (1992): 201-21. See also Nancy K. Hayles, “Sexual Disguise in Cymbeline,MLQ 41 (1980), 234, and “Sexual Disguise in As You Like It and Twelfth Night,” 63-72.

  28. Jean E. Howard, Shakespeare's Art of Orchestration: Stage Technique and Audience Response (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 172-206.

  29. Taylor, To Analyze Delight, 93, finds Orsino's agony deepened by allusions to Abraham's intended sacrifice of Isaac, as well as by the folio punctuation of two other passages.

  30. John Russell Brown, Shakespeare's Plays in Performance (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969), 226.

  31. Jörg Hasler, Shakespeare's Theatrical Notation: The Comedies (Berne: Cooper Monographs, 1974), reprinted in Stanley Wells, ed., Twelfth Night: Critical Essays (New York: Garland, 1986), 296-97, as “The Dramaturgy of the Ending of Twelfth Night.

  32. Worthen, The Idea of the Actor, 52.

  33. Adelman, “Male Bonding,” 85-90, sees the addresses to Viola as if she were male as evidence of Orsino's wish for union with an androgynous figure, either to legitimize his bisexuality or to integrate love and friendship. Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, 267, laments Viola's loss of the androgyne's freedom.

  34. G. K. Hunter, William Shakespeare: The Late Comedies (London, Longmans Green, 1962), 45.

  35. Philip Edwards, Shakespeare and the Confines of Art (London: Methuen, 1968), 65; see also William C. Carroll, “The Ending of Twelfth Night and the Tradition of Metamorphosis,” in Shakespearean Comedy, ed. Maurice Charney (New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980), 59-60. For a discussion of similar strategies used in other plays, see Jacqueline Pearson, Tragedy and Tragicomedy in the Plays of John Webster (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980), 40-49.

  36. Lording Barry, Ram Alley, ed. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge (Nottingham: Nottingham Drama Texts, 1981), 5, ll. 1-6. All references to the play are to this edition and are cited in the text.

  37. For the history of the Children of the King's Revels, see Harold N. Hillebrand, The Child Actors (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1926), 220-36.

  38. The date is established by Johnson, ed., No Wit, No Help Like a Woman's, xi-xiii. All references to the play are to this edition and are cited in the text. On the source, see D. J. Gordon, “Middleton's No Wit, No Help Like a Woman's and Della Porta's La Sorella,RES 17 (1941): 413-14; and Rowe, Thomas Middleton, 114-30.

  39. Richard Brome, A Couple Well-Matched, in Six Caroline Plays, ed. A. S. Knowland (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), II.i, p. 185. All references to the play are to this edition.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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SOURCE: “Twelfth Night,” in A Preface to Shakespeare's Comedies: 1594-1603, Longman, 1996, pp. 229-55.

[In the following essay, Mangan focuses on Shakespeare's extensive reworking of themes, characters, and situations used in Twelfth Night, noting that Shakespeare revised his previous attitudes toward many of the ideas explored in the play.]


Twelfth Night is a play characterized by excess. In the first few lines Orsino calls for an excess of music, and from that moment on the play stages a variety of excesses. On the most mundane level there are the literal excesses of Sir Toby and his drinking partners and their revelries. There are the excessive and obsessive emotional states of Orsino and Olivia; the one overwhelmed by his unrequited love for the other, who is herself trapped in mourning for her dead brother and sworn to wear a veil for seven years. People act and react excessively, too: the trick which Maria and Sir Toby play against Malvolio is funny to begin with, but eventually turns sour. Audiences frequently find the ‘mad-house’ scene, in which Feste torments the imprisoned steward, uncomfortable, and even Sir Toby thinks that things have been taken too far and says that he ‘would we were well rid of this knavery’. The play encompasses an extraordinary range of tones and moods, from melancholy to revelry. There is even an excess of characters in the play: Fabian seems to appear from nowhere and for no apparent reason in Act II Scene v, and then takes over the part which Feste seemed about to play in the early stages of the plot against Malvolio.

As for the plot, Shakespearean comedy is typically complicated in its narrative structure: even so, Twelfth Night is unusually ambitious in the number of narratives which it sets going simultaneously, and the complexity with which they need to interrelate. It attempts simultaneously to create both the accelerating fugue-like structure of a good farce, and also a series of characters who are allowed their own space to develop emotionally complex or subtle relationships with each other and with the audience. There are so many narratives going on at the same time that it is easy for an audience to lose track of everything that is happening. Plots of disguise and cross-dressing become interwoven with stories of mistaken identities, separated twins and (again) lost brothers; tricks are played on several characters simultaneously; and there is not one love-story but many.

As in As You Like It, all sorts of variations are played upon the theme of love and desire. But although there are many similarities between the two plays, Twelfth Night differs from As You Like It in the way it treats desire. In As You Like It a single kind of love-relationship, romantic love, was parodied in a variety of ways up and down the social classes. But the triangle of desire in which Viola is caught does not involve low-life shepherdesses like Phoebe, patently minor characters who can be relegated at the end of the play to their proper station in the sub-plot: she is adored by the Lady Olivia. Moreover, in Twelfth Night love takes on a greater variety of forms. Apart from Orsino's and Olivia's obsessive states there is also Viola's unspoken longing for Orsino; Olivia's impossible desire for Cesario (finally translated into possibility by the appearance of Sebastian); Orsino's fondness for ‘Cesario’ (which changes quite peremptorily into a willingness to marry Viola); Malvolio's self-interested pursuit of his mistress, which leads to its own kind of excess as he dresses in his ridiculous costume; Sir Andrew's hopes of marriage with Olivia; Antonio's adoration of Sebastian; the fictional sister invented by Viola and her male counterpart, the flamboyant and imaginary lover in the ‘willow cabin’ at the gate; Sir Toby's marriage to his partner-in-crime Maria; and not least the filial love of Sebastian and Viola, which is as intense as any relationship in the play. Twelfth Night is clearly concerned to show how many faces love and desire can have.

Perhaps, too, how many faces comedy can have. It seems at times that there is more material here than can be accommodated in a single play—and this is not entirely surprising, for into Twelfth Night Shakespeare crams a whole series of themes, characters, scenes and situations which he has already used in several previous plays.

Twelfth Night re-works, for example, the cross-dressing plot from As You Like It, with Viola following Rosalind's lead in donning male attire as protection, and then having to deal with the contradictions which arise from that disguise once people start falling in love with each other. Like another cross-dressed Shakespearean heroine, Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Viola becomes page to the man she loves, and then finds herself in the uncomfortable position of having to plead his cause to another woman. The cross-dressing plot is then interwoven with the ‘identical twins’ plot which was the central narrative of The Comedy of Errors. As in that earlier play, twins are separated by storm and shipwreck; one of them arrives in a strange city to find an unknown woman who lays claim to his love; people are confined in lunatic asylums; misunderstandings arise about ransoms and gifts of gold; and old enmities between cities put at risk the lives of men who are seeking the person they love. From Much Ado About Nothing comes the scene in which someone is tricked into believing that someone else is in love with them, while the tricksters look on. From As You Like It again comes the slightly dissonant ending: just as Jaques in the earlier play refused to join in the celebrations and return to court with the rest of the company, so Malvolio here, much more harshly, rejects the apologies and attempts at reconciliation, storming off-stage with threats of revenge.

Characters reappear, too. The figure of the jester, of course, has been used before, and Feste bears more than a slight resemblance to Touchstone, as Shakespeare and Robert Armin continue to develop the specialized clown rôle as a trademark of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Several other stock characters, too, probably bear witness to the particular skills or comic routines of other actors: the inept lover Master Slender from The Merry Wives of Windsor, for example, reappears as Sir Andrew Aguecheek; the witty female servant Maria has antecedents in Hero's waiting women, Margaret and Ursula in Much Ado About Nothing, and Viola, as we have seen, replays Rosalind's breeches part. It has often been pointed out that Sir Toby is an Illyrian equivalent of Falstaff: like the fat knight of the Henry IV plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor, he is a descendant of the figures of misrule from seasonal entertainments. Like Falstaff, Sir Toby has gathered round him a group of like-minded revellers, with the result that Malvolio accuses him of trying to turn Olivia's house into an ‘ale-house’—as if Falstaff's Eastcheap haunts were to be imported into Illyria. Even Hamlet finds echoes in Twelfth Night, although this is perhaps less surprising than it might seem at first, since the comedy and the tragedy were written very close together in and around 1600-1. At any rate, both of them start with a figure displaying all the signs of mourning: Hamlet's ‘inky cloak’ is worn in mourning for his father, Olivia's veil is in memory of her brother. In this respect Olivia may also remind readers and audiences of Portia in the early phases of The Merchant of Venice, as both are potentially prevented from loving by the influence of a dead relative.

The list could go on. Nor is there anything unusual in itself about the fact that this play contains reworkings of old stories, characters and situations. Throughout his career Shakespeare continually re-uses material, adapting not only other writers' works for the stage (as was common enough in Elizabethan playwriting practice), but reworking his own ideas and narratives, giving new meanings to the stories he tells.1 What makes Twelfth Night special is the relentlessness of these reworkings, the (again) excessiveness of them. It is true that shipwrecks, lost relatives, mistaken identities and love-triangles are standard fare in romantic comedy, but in Twelfth Night Shakespeare seems to be attempting—almost desperately—to cram everything in. Twelfth Night is a compendium of Shakespearean comedy, and in it it is possible to see Shakespeare taking further, revising and rethinking his attitudes to some of the ideas which comedy had already been a vehicle for expressing.


It may seem that this spotting of sources and intertextual relationships is a rather academic exercise: relevant to the classroom, perhaps, but not to the stage. Would Shakespeare have expected his audience to pick up references like these? Would they have noticed, or bothered about, the similarities between one play and another? As it happens we can answer this question with a qualified ‘yes’. While we have no way of knowing how Elizabethan audiences in general reacted to the play, or what sort of expectations or understandings they had of it, we do have evidence of the response of one spectator at a performance of Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night, like most of Shakespeare's plays, was written with various possible audiences in mind. It was to be performed at the still-new Globe Theatre, of course, but the Lord Chamberlain's Men would also have hoped, like Bottom and his friends, to be commissioned for performances at court on the occasion of various festivities and celebrations. There is even a tradition that the play was first performed before the Queen on 6 January 1601, on Twelfth Night itself, although there is little or no evidence for such a performance (indeed there is no record of a performance of this play at the court of either Elizabeth or James until 6 April 1618, two years after Shakespeare's death). There was, however, a performance at another prestigious, and possibly better-paying, venue in 1602. A student of law at the Middle Temple, John Manningham, kept a commonplace book in which he noted all sorts of details about his life. This book is known as ‘Manningham's Diary’, and the first entry for February 1602 reads:

At our feast we had a play called [‘mid’ crossed out] Twelve Night or What You Will, much like the Comedy of Errors or Menaechmi in Plautus, but most like and near to that in Italian called Inganni. A good practice in it to make the steward believe his Lady widow was in love with him by counterfeiting a letter, as from his Lady in general terms, telling him what she liked best in him and prescribing his gesture in smiling, his apparel etc. And then when he came to practice making him believe they took him to be mad.2

This diary entry suggests something of the nature of the audience for which Shakespeare was writing, by showing us something of the mind of one Elizabethan play-goer: not a statistically relevant sample, of course, but useful nonetheless. It is a mind which is extremely well-stocked: Manningham, clearly, is well-read in both contemporary English, recent Italian and classical Latin drama. He not only picks up the resemblance to the Comedy of Errors, but is also able to trace both Shakespearean plays back to their common source in Plautus's Menaechmi. In addition there is the interesting slip of the pen in Manningham's first line: the word ‘mid’ is crossed out—as if he might have been about to write ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’, briefly confusing one Shakespearean play with another (which also has a title referring to one specific night of the year). It is unlikely to have been pure coincidence that led Manningham to make the link with the earlier Shakespeare comedies. It would seem that Shakespeare as a writer had made enough of a name for himself by 1602 for an informed play-goer like Manningham to be able to discern an oeuvre. Manningham, it seems, was aware not merely of watching a play but of watching a play by a particular writer, William Shakespeare.

Manningham is judicious in his spotting of sources. Having recognized the twins' plot from The Comedy of Errors and Menaechmi, he goes on to consider the cross-dressing plot, which he correctly traces back to Italian comic traditions. Here, in fact, he may be conflating memories of two plays: the play which he names, Gl'Inganni (The Deceptions), tells the story of a woman who cross-dresses and takes the masculine name of Cesare, just as Viola in Twelfth Night becomes Cesario. It is also possible, however, that Manningham is actually thinking of another play, the anonymous Gl'Ingannati (The Deceived), which resembles Twelfth Night even more closely. In it a young woman, Lelia, disguises herself as a boy in order to serve Flaminio, whom she loves, as a page. Flaminio employs her as a messenger to Isabella, the woman he loves unrequitedly, and Isabella then falls in love with Lelia. Like Viola, Lelia is saved from these complications by the appearance of her long-lost brother Fabrizio, who falls in love with Isabella, leaving Flaminio and Lelia free to marry each other.

We should not assume that the sophisticated awareness of intertextuality which Manningham shows was typical of play-goers in Shakespeare's London. Clearly, though, Shakespeare was writing for an audience which included a proportion of very well-informed aficionados of the theatre, spectators whose experience of one play could be immediately related to memories of others. He might well have been able to expect that the self-referential and intertextual elements of Twelfth Night would not have been altogether lost on his audience.

Other things about Manningham's diary entry deserve comment. There is his evidence, for example, that Twelfth Night was performed at a feast. This particular play is especially suited to such an occasion: Sir Toby and his fellow-revellers in particular enact a story-line which is in itself ‘festive’, and the play bears the title of a feast. It would have been nice if Manningham's diary had provided evidence of the play being performed at some Twelfth Night celebrations; however, the feast at which Twelfth Night was presented to the Middle Temple seems, from the date of Manningham's diary entry, to have been to celebrate Candlemas rather than Twelfth Night.

The diary entry also gives a sense of what Manningham remembered most vividly from the performance. The romantic plot is mentioned only as it relates to sources, but what seems to have stuck in Manningham's mind is the trick played on Malvolio by Maria, Sir Toby and Feste. What Manningham carries away from the play is precisely the opposite of what the editors of the Arden edition of the play, J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik, speaking for twentieth-century scholarship, say the modern reader is likely to experience:

It is probably true to say that a twentieth-century reader, suddenly invited to recall Twelfth Night, will think first of Viola's scene with Olivia and Orsino (I. iv and II. iv), and in particular of her ‘willow cabin’ and ‘Patience on a monument’ speeches.3

They compare this with a typically nineteenth-century perspective on the play, represented by the words of the Victorian scholar F. J. Furnivall, writing in 1877, who saw the below-stairs plot as a rather irritating distraction, behind which the beauties of the romantic plot might be glimpsed:

The self-conceited Malvolio is brought to the front, the drunkards and the Clown come next; none of these touches any heart; and it's not till we look past them, that we feel the beauty of the characters who stand in half-light behind.4

Manningham's memories are different again from this. He is not particularly interested in the shadowy half-light of romantic beauty; for him the ‘self-conceited’ Malvolio's smiling, his yellow cross-gartered stockings and the tricks played upon him by Sir Toby and his companions are what make the greatest impression:

A good practice in it to make the steward believe his Lady widow was in love with him by counterfeiting a letter, as from his Lady in general terms, telling him what she liked best in him and prescribing his gesture in smiling, his apparel etc. And then when he came to practice making him believe they took him to be mad.5

These varying responses provide some useful information about the diversity of ways in which different ages have related to the ‘same’ play. The changing structures of feeling over the centuries, and the changing expectations both of art and life which people have brought to the text in various ages has meant that different generations have privileged different parts of the story. In addition, though, it is worth noting how the Arden editors resolutely talk about ‘the reader’ rather than ‘the spectator’ or ‘the audience’. Manningham's response, on the other hand, is to a performance rather than to a text. It may be that the differences in perspective which exist between Manningham and the Arden edition owe something to the difference between reading Twelfth Night and watching it.

A play is a paradoxical kind of literary hybrid, one whose ‘success’ is in part measured by the number of times the text gets staged and re-staged. In the course of this process, of course, the play gets altered from its original appearance. Twelfth Night's history on the English stage between the 1600s and the mid-twentieth century includes such radical transformations as a version played at James I's court in 1623 entitled merely Malvolio; a Restoration adaptation by William D'Avenant; an incorporation of sections of it in Charles Burnaby's Love Betray'd: or the Agreeable Disappointment; an 1820s musical version by Frederick Reynolds containing ‘Songs, Glees and Choruses’ from other Shakespeare plays.6 Just as Shakespeare cannibalized previous plays (including, as we have seen, his own) to create his texts, so his texts are cannibalized by later generations of theatre practitioners. But it is not only a matter of rewritings and adaptations. For each new staging, each new stage, each change of cast or venue means a different experience for the audience. Manningham's diary entry tells us about an early staging of Twelfth Night, and reflects accurately an important theatrical dimension of the play which is not always obvious to the reader: the way in which the apparent main plot, the romance involving Viola, Orsino and Olivia, frequently has trouble holding its own in competition with the ‘sub-plot’, and the below-stairs activities of puritanical stewards and drunken knights threaten continually to take centre stage. As with that 1623 performance at court, Twelfth Night can easily metamorphose into Malvolio.


Let us focus, then, on the below-stairs plot. Act II Scene iii sees the ‘low-life’ characters of the play, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Feste and (after a little persuasion) Maria holding a late-night party. They drink, they sing—and they disturb Malvolio, who bursts into the scene full of righteous indignation:

Malvolio My masters, are you mad? Or what are you? Have you no wit, manners, nor honesty, but to gabble like tinkers at this time of night? Do ye make an alehouse of my lady's house, that ye squeak out your coziers' catches without any mitigation or remorse of voice? Is there no respect of place, persons nor time with you?

(II, iii, ll. 33-9)

His diatribe has little effect on the revellers. Despite Malvolio's attempt to quieten them, they continue with their drinking and singing. Sir Toby retorts, ‘Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ (II, iii, ll. 109-11).

In this below-stairs plot of Twelfth Night Shakespeare stages once again the battle between Carnival and Lent. The confrontation between Sir Toby and Malvolio is emblematic: on the one side Malvolio's ‘virtuous’ mean-spiritedness, on the other Sir Toby, the representative of revelry, with a surname which speaks for itself, and a first name which is pointedly and familiarly English in this alien world of Illyria. As in the famous painting by Bruegel, the personifications of Carnival and Lent confront each other directly.

The title of the play itself draws attention to this confrontation. In Elizabeth's court, as elsewhere in Europe, the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January, Twelfth Night, was the occasion of the final phase of Christmas-time celebrations, and

… one of the most brilliant and joyful court occasions. Before stepping down, the Lord of Misrule would announce his desire to round off with a kind of apotheosis and a whole succession of spectacular displays of music, dancing and feasting bursting like fireworks one after the other … Twelfth Night provided a fine occasion to hand out these titles of king and queen, which appear to have been very popular amongst the rites and traditions of folklore. It was a mimetic ritual of royalty that was probably a survival from the old Saturnalia, giving the king of the evening a chance to masquerade as the monarch, derisively aping his authority … Masquerades and fancy-dress mummings are another feature of the lavish amusements of Twelfth Night … Twelfth Night was the festival which brought to an end the long, eventful period of ‘Yuletide’ revels …7

The ambiguous nature of these Twelfth Night celebrations is significant. It was a time of revelry, a carnival time at which the world might be turned upside-down, a celebration presided over by the Lord of Misrule and the ‘King of the Bean’ (a mock king elected by means of a dried bean hidden in the festive cake: whoever found it in his portion was elected ‘king’). Yet it also marked the end of revelling: the Christmas holiday was almost over and a return to work and the realities of midwinter imminent. We retain a memory of this in present-day Christmas customs: Twelfth Night is the night the decorations come down. The confrontation between the riotous world of Sir Toby and the sober world of Malvolio could hardly take place in a more fitting context than that of Twelfth Night.

Sir Toby and his drinking companions comprise an carnivalesque underworld, an alternative society to the ‘official’ world of Olivia and Orsino. This world has all the essential characteristics of Bakhtin's definitions of carnival. The pleasures of the body are paramount; language—especially in Feste's hands—runs riot; and traditional hierarchies and class boundaries have become virtually irrelevant. Knights carouse with servants, fools and other unspecified members of the household. Sir Toby breaks all the rules of Elizabethan decorum by marrying his sister's ‘waiting-gentlewoman’, thus honouring at one remove Falstaff's promise of marriage to Mistress Quickly. The analogy with Falstaff works theatrically as well as socially. While the social details of the fictional settings are different, the dramatic functions of the two figures are so similar that it is difficult to imagine that the part of Sir Toby was not played by the same actor who created Falstaff.

There are important differences, it is true. Whereas in the history plays Falstaff had to carry the main weight of the plays' foolery, with Pistol, Bardolph, Nym and Mistress Quickly very definitely supporting rôles, Twelfth Night spreads the comic burden more evenly. There is a fully-developed fool rôle in the character of Feste, and another excellent comic part in Sir Andrew Aguecheek; Maria, too, is a more interesting and better-established part than Mistress Quickly—indeed she has inherited some of the attributes not only of the witty servant, but also of Shakespeare's witty heroines such as Rosalind and Beatrice. Another important distinction between Twelfth Night and the Henry IV plays is geographical: in the history plays the world of Bankside was physically as well as socially distant from the court, whereas in Illyria Sir Toby's alternative world exists within the same household as the official one. In Twelfth Night the confrontation between the forces of authority and those of licence is played out on a domestic scale. It is not a class conflict, nor is it strictly to do with law and order. There is no opposition between the so-called ‘respectable’ world and a criminal ‘class’. Sir Toby is Olivia's kinsman and the revellers are of her household.

The significance of these similarities and differences between Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch can be seen if we view the confrontation between Sir Toby and Malvolio as a reworking of the confrontation between Falstaff and the Lord Chief Justice in Henry IV Part 2. In that play, which was first acted a year or two before Twelfth Night, the main narrative concerned the way in which Prince Hal, re-fashioning himself in heroic mode in order to become the warrior-hero Henry V, distanced himself from Falstaff's subversive carnival influence, and aligned himself with the forces of authority, sobriety, law and order, represented in their most extreme form by the Lord Chief Justice. In an early scene in the play the Lord Chief Justice encounters Falstaff and reprimands him, just as Malvolio reprimands Sir Toby. But whereas Malvolio is routed, the Lord Chief Justice is not: Falstaff attempts to answer him, but cannot get the better of him. Eventually, in Henry IV Part 2 the forces of authority triumph over those of revelry, and Falstaff is banished and imprisoned. Twelfth Night replays the same contest but with a different result: here it is the forces of revelry which prevail, and Malvolio who is imprisoned, ridiculed and tormented.

In production it is tempting to represent Malvolio as a stereotyped Puritan figure while Sir Toby becomes the Cavalier of popular imagination: aristocratic and rather dissolute. Such a staging has some historical justification. One of the main social and economic tensions of early-seventeenth-century England involved the shift of real power away from the established but by now fading nobility, whose influence was based on land and tradition, towards the rising middle classes. They were much influenced by Puritan thought, and they were the sector of society which would, on the whole, profit most from the emerging capitalist economy. Thus the confrontation between Carnival and Lent might also be seen as a confrontation between the old order and the new, with Sir Toby representing the traditional values of an already-sentimentalized ‘Merrie England’ which is being challenged by the likes of the socially ambitious Malvolio. Since, historically, this was a tension which finally erupted in civil war, it gives a sinister power to Malvolio's final line in the play. Humiliated and enraged he exits, vowing ‘I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you’ (V, i, l. 374). That revenge was forty years brewing and when it came it brought with it Oliver Cromwell.

Caricature Puritans, with names such as Zeal-of-the Land Busy and Tribulation Wholesome, appear on the London stage during this period in Ben Jonson's plays, and Malvolio is a recognizable kinsman to these stereotyped figures: self-righteous, overbearing, a hypocrite and a killjoy. His speech is ostentatiously moralizing and he names ‘Jove’ frequently and self-importantly, exclaiming piously, for example, that ‘Jove, not I, is the doer of this, and he is to be thanked’ (III, iv, l. 81). Some scholars, incidentally, suggest that the word ‘Jove’ is used here, rather than ‘God’, as a later emendation to the text in accordance with the 1606 Act ‘to Restraine Abuses of Players’ which outlawed profanity in plays.8 Yet the word ‘God’ is used later in the same scene by Andrew Aguecheek, and both the Clown and Viola name ‘God’ directly in Act I Scene v. It is more likely that this slightly pretentious name for God is simply a feature of Malvolio's idiolect, the function of which is to strengthen the impression of Elizabethan Puritanism: the word contains resonances of the Old Testament ‘Jehovah’ and the Old Testament was a particular source of inspiration for Puritan preachers and pamphleteers. This kind of stereotyped Puritan was an easy and indeed almost an inevitable target for the Elizabethan playwright: Puritan-led attacks on the stage ensured not only the animosity of most playwrights, but also that of the audience, who by definition were not opposed to the theatre.

Yet it is important not to oversimplify. If Malvolio is, in this loose sense of the word, puritanical, the term ‘Puritan’ itself is, as historians repeatedly remind us, a notoriously slippery one. It was used at the time to refer to a whole spectrum of Protestant thought and belief (not all of which was ascetically dismissive of worldly pleasure) and a variety of associated political positions ranging from the moderate to the revolutionary. As David Underdown says, ‘The term is impossible to define with precision, can mean anything its users want it to mean, and there are modern historians who would like to abandon it altogether’.9 Nonetheless, the historical movement which we know as Puritanism had certain discernible features. When historians use the word ‘Puritan’ they generally mean those people who wished

to emphasize more strongly the Calvinist heritage of the Church of England; to elevate preaching and scripture above sacraments and rituals, the notions of the calling, the elect, the ‘saint’, the distinctive virtue of the divinely predestined, above the equal worth of all sinful Christians … [Puritanism] gave its adherents the comforting belief that they were entrusted by God with the special duty of resisting the tide of sin and disorder that surged around them. Through preaching, prayer, the study of scripture, and regular self-examination, it provided a strategy for cultivating the personal qualities necessary to these ends.10

Shakespeare goes to some lengths to distance Malvolio from this more precise definition of Puritanism. He expressly states that he does not want simply to label him ‘Puritan’. When Toby asks Maria to tell the company something about Malvolio, the following conversation ensues:

Maria Marry, sir, sometimes he is a kind of puritan.
Sir Andrew O, if I thought that I'd beat him like a dog.
Sir Toby What, for being a puritan? Thy exquisite reason, dear knight.
Sir Andrew I have no exquisite reason for't, but I have reason good enough.
Maria The devil a puritan that he is, or anything constantly but a time-pleaser, an affectioned ass that cons state without book and utters it by great swathes; the best persuaded of himself, so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work.

(II, iii, ll. 135-46)

Maria characterizes Malvolio as ‘a time-pleaser’, one whose ‘Puritanism’ has nothing to do with belief or faith. Shakespeare typically draws back from commenting on any specific contemporary theological, philosophical or political position, and contents himself with satirizing the more general and traditional vice of hypocrisy, showing how the trappings of religion are manipulated by the likes of Malvolio in order to further their own ambitions and feed their own vanity. But, as Maria sees, Malvolio's ambition and vanity are the very handles by which the revellers can catch hold of him.


John Manningham enjoyed the humour of the prank which the revellers play on Malvolio. A ‘good practice’, he called it. Yet the plot against Malvolio calls forth a cruel kind of laughter, the laughter of ridicule. Pulled down from his seat of power and imprisoned ‘in a dark room and bound’, Malvolio is both tortured and humiliated. There is a further psychological torment which Sir Toby and his companions inflict upon Malvolio, however, ‘making him believe they took him to be mad’, as Manningham puts it.

Acting, as he thinks, on his mistress's instructions, Malvolio adopts uncharacteristic dress and behaviour. He appears to Olivia, yellow-stockinged, cross-gartered, talking unintelligibly and wearing a smile; the Lenten figure has put on, in effect, the garb of Carnival. Acting as he does so far out of his accustomed character, it is small wonder that Olivia is made to think he is deranged.

Malvolio ‘Remember who commended thy yellow stockings’—
Olivia ‘Thy yellow stockings’?
Malvolio, ‘And wished to see thee cross-gartered.’
Olivia ‘Cross-gartered’?
Malvolio ‘Go to, thou art made, if thou desirest to be so.’
Olivia Am I made?
Malvolio ‘If not, let me see thee a servant still.’
Olivia Why, this is very midsummer madness.

(III, iv, ll. 45-54)

In fact the revellers' aim is crueller than this: it is to make Malvolio doubt his own sanity. The techniques which they use on the hapless steward are the classic techniques of brainwashing: sensory deprivation combined with false or contradictory information designed to throw into doubt the subject's usual ways of making sense of the world. In the guise of Sir Topas the priest, Feste visits Malvolio in his dark room:

Malvolio Sir Topas, never was man thus wronged. Good Sir Topas, do not think I am mad. They have laid me here in hideous darkness.
Feste Fie, thou dishonest Satan … Say'st thou that house is dark?
Malvolio As hell, Sir Topas.
Feste Why it hath bay windows, transparent as barricadoes, and the clerestories toward the south-north are as lustrous as ebony, and yet complainest thou of obstruction?
Malvolio I am not mad, Sir Topas; I say to you this house is dark.
Feste Madman, thou errest.

(IV, ii, ll. 29-43)

Feste describes a reality to Malvolio which is the opposite of what his senses tell him is the truth. The fact that he does so in nonsensical and contradictory terms (‘bay windows, transparent as barricadoes, clerestories toward the south-north … lustrous as ebony’) only increases the sense of disorientation. Malvolio repeatedly affirms that he is not mad, yet his sanity is under severe attack in this scene.

But it is not only Malvolio who is threatened with madness: a kind of madness seems endemic to Illyria. It is the dominant metaphor of the play. According to Feste, Sir Toby is a ‘madman’ because of his drink (I, v, l. 126); Orsino thinks Antonio's ‘words are madness’ (V, i, l. 95) because of his claim to know ‘Cesario’; Olivia worries that Viola's unconventionally assertive wooing on behalf of Orsino might amount to madness (I, v, l. 191) and, as we have just seen, is later convinced that the yellow-stockinged Malvolio is suffering from ‘midsummer madness’ (III, iv, l. 54). Malvolio himself, on the other hand, sees madness in the riotous living of Sir Toby and his friends, and demands of them ‘My masters, are you mad?’ (II, iii, l. 83). And Sebastian, who finds himself at the centre of the whole network of misunderstandings suspects first of all that in Illyria ‘all the people [are] mad’ (IV, i, l. 26), and then that the madness might be confined either to Olivia or himself:

This is the air, that is the glorious sun.
This pearl she gave me, I do feel't and see't,
[And] though my soul disputes well with my sense
That this may be some error but no madness
Yet doth this accident and flood of fortune
So far exceed all instance, all discourse,
That I am ready to distrust mine eyes
And wrangle with my reason that persuades me
To any other trust but that I am mad
Or else the lady's mad.

(IV, iii, ll. 1-2, 9-16)

These repeated references to madness are hardly surprising in a world where people's sensual impressions are often deceiving, and where identities are not always what they appear. Significantly, this speech in which Sebastian tries to make sense of what is happening to him comes immediately after Malvolio's ‘madhouse’ scene. For, in an odd way, Sebastian and Malvolio are in similar situations. For both of them normal meanings and the evidence of their senses are not operating. Madness is offered as the most rational explanation!

In comedy a little madness can be a liberating thing. The heroes and heroines of Shakespearean comedies typically go through a series of disorienting experiences which eventually act benevolently upon them. The lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream are made ‘wood within this wood’, and are unable to tell what is real and what is not, but at the end Jack ends up with Jill. In The Taming of the Shrew it happens more blatantly and cruelly; yet Petruchio engineers the brainwashing of Kate which has her agreeing that the sun is the moon precisely in order to browbeat her into the supposed ‘happiness’ of a conventional marriage. The pattern works more subtly in Twelfth Night: Viola's traumatic ‘loss’ of her brother and the disguise she assumes as a result mean that temporarily she loses her own identity and throws other peoples' perceptions of reality out of kilter; yet an equilibrium is reinstated at the end with a joyful reconciliation with Sebastian and eventual marriage to the man she loves. The ‘madness’ that Sebastian fears is an example of this comedic pattern in which people lose themselves and find themselves once more, often changed for the better by the experience. For Malvolio, however, the pattern does not offer up its traditional rewards.

Like others in the play, he aspires to Olivia's hand. It is one of the signs of Malvolio's ambition that he yearns to rise above his present station in life by marrying Olivia, and much is made (especially by Sir Toby) of his presumption in so aspiring. But Malvolio is by no means the only one whose desire crosses social boundaries: the question of marriage between socially unequal partners is raised several times in the play, from the moment when Sir Toby first tells Sir Andrew that one of Olivia's reasons for rejecting Orsino is that ‘She'll not match above her degree, neither in estate, years or wit’ (I, v, ll. 105-6). Actually it is not at all clear that Orsino is above her in any of these things, yet the marker has been set down. From then on a series of relationships is projected between men and women of unequal status. Malvolio's desire for Olivia is treated comically, as something scandalous, yet Olivia falls in love with Orsino's ‘messenger’ whom Malvolio can look down on socially. Maria herself marries out of her class when at the end of the play she is wedded to Sir Toby. Nobody makes much of this. But for the steward Malvolio, being in ‘love’, entering the domain of desire, ends in humiliation and fury. When Viola rejects her customary identity and dresses up in male clothing, it works to her good. When Malvolio rejects his, and dresses up as a lover rather than a steward and disguises himself in smiles, he is made to look ridiculous. The ‘madness’ Sebastian experiences is a kind of bliss; Malvolio's is a torment, and his spell in the madhouse leads not to a comedic repentance and reconciliation, but to threats of revenge. Malvolio suffers all the disorientations of comedy, but reaps none of the recompense: what acts upon others benevolently acts upon Malvolio … malevolently.

That complex latinate pun which is Malvolio's name reads both forwards and backwards. ‘Mal’ and ‘volio’ can be put together to suggest ‘I want something badly’ or (more literally) ‘I wish ill’—and both are true of Malvolio. It is also true that he becomes the object of others' malevolence, and that they wish him ill. But further: just as the names of Viola and Olivia echo and rewrite themselves in each other, so Malvolio's name, too, picks up that same phonetic theme of vowels and consonants: V.L.O.A.I. Malvolio … Mal-Olivia … Mal-viola … Male-viola.11 He even misreads it himself in his desire to see himself as the object of Olivia's affections:

‘M.O.A.I. doth sway my life’ Nay, but first let me see, let me see, let me see … ‘M.’ Malvolio—‘M’—why, that begins my name … But then there is no consonancy in the sequel. That suffers under probation. ‘A’ should follow, but ‘O’ does … And then ‘I’ comes behind … ‘M.O.A.I.’ This simulation is not as the former, and yet to crush this a little, it would bow to me, for every one of these letters are in my name.

(II, v, ll. 109-10, 122-3, 126-8, 135-7)

Malvolio's eagerness is self-alienating: it allows him to mistake even his own name.

The relationships between names and people, and between words and meaning, are continually under a strain in Twelfth Night. They come under such strain because of ambition, subterfuge, trickery and disguise. They are put under strain most notably by the clown, Feste. In the guise of Sir Topas, Feste creates for Malvolio an illusory world of unreliable meanings. Elsewhere in the play his wit and wordplay are aimed at subverting ‘normal’ meanings—at proving, for example, that the Lady Olivia, not he himself, is the real fool. In the following exchange with Viola/Cesario, he turns his attention to language itself:

(Enter Viola as Cesario and Feste the clown, with [pipe and] tabor)
Viola Save thee friend, and thy music! Dost thou live by thy tabor?
Feste No, sir, I live by the church.
Viola Art thou a churchman?
Feste No such matter, sir. I do live by the church for I do live at my house, and my house doth stand by the church.
Viola So thou may'st say the king lies by a beggar, if a beggar dwell near him; or the church stands by thy tabor, if thy tabor stand by the church.
Feste You have said, sir. To see this age! A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit—how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward!
Viola Nay, that's certain: they that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton.
Feste I would therefore my sister had no name, sir.
Viola Why, man?
Feste Why, sir, her name's a word, and to dally with that word might make my sister wanton. But indeed, words are grown very rascals since bonds disgraced them.
Viola Thy reason, man?
Feste Troth, sir, I can yield you none without words, and words are grown so false, I am loath to prove reason with them.
Viola I warrant thou art a merry fellow and car'st for nothing.

(III, i, ll. 1-26)

It is a verbal duel, of the kind Shakespeare's comedies revel in. Later in the play Viola/Cesario will be tricked into a duel of weapons with Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and will come out of that little better than he/she comes out of this. The followers of carnival in Illyria, it seems, show scant respect for the romantic hero(ine), and insist on challenging and tricking him/her. Here Feste, the clown, outmanoeuvres Viola at every turn and fulfils the fool's traditional function of being able to reduce everything to meaninglessness. It is a paradox of the play that he does so by virtue of his great skill in playing with meanings. Viola's final quoted remark evinces a frustration but also an analysis. Feste's ability to ‘dally nicely with words’ leads, she is suggesting, not merely to wantonness but to nihilism, to the point where he cares for nothing.

These wordplays about words sound oddly modern. Feste's remarks about the cheveril glove insist on what his own speeches go on to prove, and indeed enact: the slipperiness of language. Signified and signifier do not, in Feste's world, match neatly: it is the truth and also the falsehood of words that allow the anarchic clown to be taken—however briefly—for a churchman. Yet perhaps the ‘mistake’ is not so outrageous after all, for the function of the fool may be allied in many ways, both straight and parodic, to that of preacher. Certainly, this relation is stressed in Twelfth Night: as well as this moment, there is the scene we have already looked at in which Feste takes on the character of a priest in his impersonation of Sir Topas. Earlier, too, Feste has taken on the part of a priest in a rôle-play catechism of Olivia, in which he undertakes to prove that she, not he, is the ‘real’ fool.

In the exchange with Viola the disguised heroine cannot keep up with Feste, and after a couple of attempts to ‘bandy words’ with him becomes reduced to the rôle of straight man (or woman?), feeding him the necessary questions to allow him to elaborate upon his paradoxes. The speed at which these paradoxes follow one another demonstrates the truth of Feste's linguistic scepticism; they encompass philosophy, the law and sexuality: the falseness of words is linked (with what now seems a depressing inevitability) to the common Renaissance theme of the falseness of women. This does more than merely imply a link between a world in which language is no longer to be trusted and one in which sexual licence is paramount. For once again, in the person of Viola/Cesario the audience have before them an image of another kind of false woman—doubly so indeed, given the cross-casting of the Elizabethan theatre. What Feste says of his ‘sister’, that ‘her name's a word and to dally with that word might make [her] wanton’, has a kind of aptitude to Viola/Cesario, whose two names themselves denote the duality of her gendered identity.

Feste takes one idea and spins others from it, linking linguistics to economics and changing legal and mercantile practices: ‘words are very rascals since bonds disgraced them’, says Feste. In the emerging capitalist economy a person's promise is invested not merely in the spoken word but in the legality of a written ‘bond’. The legal status of everyday speech is minimal compared to that of the formally drawn-up legal document, and Feste makes the point that truth can no longer be expected to reside in the mere ‘word’ of a person. Yet we have already seen in the preceding ‘letter scene’ that the written word is no more to be trusted than the spoken—and as Shylock discovered in The Merchant of Venice, legal bonds are also composed of words, whose significance may be open to more than one reading.

And Feste's sceptical inquiry into language is itself a verbal fabric. He concedes as much as he parries Viola's request for ‘a reason’, and then goes on, typically, to make the point work for him: if words are not to be trusted they cannot be used to prove reason. And thus a central paradox of contemporary linguistics is articulated by a Shakespearean fool: that there is no extralinguistic standpoint from which to analyse language itself. It is the poststructuralist catchphrase: there is nothing outside the text. And yet, of course, by means of an elegant double-take the analysis is after all validated. The rascality of words is proved because Feste's sentence is both self-reflexive and also demonstrative; even as he speaks his words manifest their own slipperiness. When Viola asks ‘Thy reason, man?’ she is requesting his motive or his justification for a preceding remark. When he replies that ‘words are grown so false, I am loath to prove reason with them’ he is talking about ‘reason’ as logic. Thus the sense of the word ‘reason’ itself hovers uncertainly between the two meanings, and the very inadequacy of language to act as a logical tool proves its own logical point.

Feste's job is to destabilize meanings; he claims as much himself:

Viola Art not thou the Lady Olivia's fool?
Feste No indeed, sir, the Lady Olivia has no folly … I am indeed not her fool, but her corrupter of words.

(III, i, ll. 30-1, 34-5)

In the view of this ‘corrupter of words’, language is—indeed all sign-systems are—deceptive and ambiguous; and he proves the point by exploiting their deceptiveness and ambiguity. Viola understands this element of ambiguity well enough, being herself the epitome of ambiguity, the signifier which belies its signified.


Viola Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
How easy it is for the proper false
In women's waxen hearts to set their forms!
Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we,
For such as we are made of, such we be.
How will this fadge? My master loves her dearly,
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him,
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master's love.
As I am woman, now, alas the day,
What thriftless sigh shall poor Olivia breathe!
O time, thou must untangle this, not I.
It is too hard a knot for me t' untie.

(II, ii, ll. 27-41)

This speech of Viola's shows the difference in tone between As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Viola is in a predicament not unlike Rosalind's in the earlier play: disguised as a boy she is in close proximity to the man she loves but remains unknown to him; meanwhile Olivia has fallen in love with her boy-persona, as Phoebe did with Rosalind's. Twelfth Night and As You Like It share the cross-dressing plot, with its destabilizing of gender identities, but the two plays use the same material in very different ways.

Rosalind enjoys her rôle as Ganymede; it empowers her and allows her to improvise rôle-play games with Orlando. Her response to the love entanglement with Phoebe is to stage the masque which makes all clear: she sorts it out. Viola on the other hand, declares that it is all too hard for her and that she will just leave it to time to sort it all out. And so she does. Eventually her twin brother turns up, they are reunited, Olivia and Orsino recognize the ‘true’ objects of their affection and the love-relationships sort themselves out accordingly: time, as Viola hoped it would, untangles things, not she.

Viola is the opposite of Rosalind, who enjoyed rôle-playing to the extent of inventing further rôles within the rôles. Rosalind's male disguise allowed her to take the initiative in wooing Orlando; in her love for Orsino Viola behaves as passively as any Renaissance patriarch could wish. Having taken the single active step of disguising herself, she does little more thereafter than wait for him to notice her. The language of love which she has learnt is one of passivity:

Viola My father had a daughter loved a man
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman
I should your lordship.
Orsino And what's her history?
Viola A blank, my lord. She never told her love
But let concealment, like the worm i' th' bud,
Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?

(II, iv, ll. 107-15)

She is describing herself, of course. Not entirely, but with sufficient accuracy for us to recognize that concealment is working on her, too, ‘like the worm i' th' bud’. She can only articulate her love for Orsino in the subjunctive mood.

And so it is not merely that Viola is comparatively passive: she is positively uncomfortable with the disguise she has assumed. While As You Like It revelled in the complexities engendered by the cross-dressing plot, Twelfth Night continually expresses anxiety about them. Viola considers herself not liberated by her rôle-playing but trapped by it and doubly unfulfilled. ‘As I am a man / My state is desperate for my master's love. / As I am a woman now, alas the day …’ (II, ii, ll. 35-8). And although she later argues with Orsino that women are ‘as true of heart as [men]’, here her assumed masculine identity gives her a voice in which she articulates misogynistic Renaissance truisms about ‘women's waxen hearts’ and their ‘frailty’. There is little liberation here. Viola sees herself as a freak and a grotesque; she refers to herself, significantly, as ‘poor monster’! The moralizing tone of that self-disparaging comment is revealing: Viola finds herself in agreement with the anti-theatrical propagandists who condemned play-acting as inherently sinful. Disguise, she exclaims, is ‘a wickedness / Wherein the pregnant enemy does much’. This is the language of the Elizabethan anti-theatrical pamphleteers, who similarly condemned cross-dressing:

And so, if any man do put on woman's raiment, he is dishonested and defiled, because he transgresseth the bounds of modesty and comeliness, and weareth that which God's law forbiddeth him to wear, which man's law affirmeth he cannot wear without reproof … [M]en's wearing of women's raiment, though in plays, [is] a heinous crime … Players are abomination that put on women's raiment.12

The moralists' usual condemnation was, as it is here, of boy actors dressing up as women. Ironically, Viola's line about disguise being a wickedness is written to be spoken by a boy actor who is not dressed up as a woman but who (like the boy actor playing Rosalind in As You Like It) has become visible in his own gender once more. Once again, a gap has been created between the line spoken and the actor who speaks it. This gap disturbs any simple acceptance of what Viola says: clearly, on another level, the play does not endorse the message that disguise is a wickedness—otherwise there would be no play. Even so, cross-dressing in Twelfth Night has the air of a desperate experiment rather than of the playful risk-taking which it had in As You Like It. If madness is a central metaphor in this play, then Viola experiences her disguise as something akin to schizophrenia: it alienates her from herself, creating a split personality. She refers to herself in the third person (‘My father had a daughter …’) and speaks as a divided self (‘As I am a man … As I am a woman’).

It also gives rise to a set of questions about gender identity which are taken more seriously than they were in As You Like It. In As You Like It homoerotic attraction tended to be treated quite lightly: Phoebe's crush on Ganymede never amounted to much dramatically, and the complex rôle-playing between Ganymede and Orlando was always counterbalanced by the fact that Orlando's attention was continually fixed on the ‘absent’ Rosalind of his imagination. In Twelfth Night, however, Olivia's desire for ‘Cesario’ is depicted as something much more uncontrollable, powerful and painful. It is the passion which can break the depressive hold which melancholy has had on her since her brother's death; it is more important to her than her dignity:

Cesario, by the roses of the spring,
By maidhood, honour, truth and everything,
I love thee so that, maugre all thy pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.
Do not extort thy reasons from this clause,
For that I woo, thou therefore hast no cause.

(III, i, ll. 147-51)

Another kind of sexual tension exists between Orsino and Viola: charged this time by her desire for him coupled with his response to her ambiguous sexual persona. While Orsino, like Orlando in As You Like It, remains infatuated with an absent woman, we are left in no doubt that Cesario is present for him in a way that Ganymede never is for Orlando. The language in which he addresses Cesario makes the point:

Orsino … Diana's lip
Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe
Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman's part.

(I, iv, ll. 31-4)

Viola and her friend the sea-captain had originally agreed that she would be presented at Orsino's court as a ‘eunuch’, but there is nothing unsexed about the attraction Orsino feels for ‘Cesario’. The physicality of his language is sensuous even without the double-entendres of ‘organ’ and ‘part’. Moreover, the conversation between them is continually about sexual desire: ostensibly about Orsino's desire for Olivia, but continually charged by the unspoken actuality of Viola's desire for Orsino.

The gender confusions of Twelfth Night are given a context in the portrayal of the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian. In this Twelfth Night recognizes, in a way that As You Like It does not, a homosexual love-relationship. Antonio's love for Sebastian is couched time and time again in the language of erotic attraction, language drawn from the registers of Elizabethan love poetry: ‘I do adore thee so’ (II, i, l. 42); ‘My desire, / More sharp than filed steel, did spur me forth’ (III, iii, ll. 4-5); ‘to his image, which methought did promise / Most venerable worth, did I devotion’ (III, iv, ll. 354-5). He talks of the ‘witchcraft’ which led him to follow Sebastian, whom he calls ‘this god’ (III, iv, l. 357) and to whose physical beauty he continually refers. ‘My love without retention or restraint’ (another image of excess!) is how he describes his feelings for Sebastian, and his actions in defence of the young man he says he adores bear out his words.13

Antonio's adoration of Sebastian gives a depth and a seriousness to the gender confusions of Twelfth Night; the stakes here are higher than they were in As You Like It. There a fairytale logic was available to make everything fit neatly into conventional patterns, so that cruel brothers repented and became kind, and all the complications of the interwoven love-plots could be sorted out by the stage-managed appearance of Hymen, announcing ‘Peace, ho! I bar confusion’ (As You Like It, V, iv, l. 123). The love-plots of Twelfth Night are more urgent and there is a continual sense that things could get out of control.

In both the Viola-Olivia and the Viola-Orsino relationships, then, the text toys with the possibility of same-sex eroticism more intensely than was the case in As You Like It. By balancing these two relationships the play does not allow the audience to explain away the gender confusions easily. Some critics have rationalized the attraction Orsino manifests for Cesario by arguing that what he is ‘really’ responding to is the woman underneath—but if that is so, the same logic leads to the conclusion that Olivia is also ‘really’ attracted not to Cesario but to Viola. Olivia, faced at the end with the realization that she had fallen in love with a girl, is reassured by Sebastian that her mistake was natural enough:

So comes it, lady, you have been mistook.
But nature to her bias drew in that.
You would have been contracted to a maid,
Nor are you therein, by my life, deceived.
You are betrothed both to a maid and man.

(V, i, ll. 257-61)

Sebastian's reassurance, however, does not so much dispel ambiguity as reinforce it: Olivia is betrothed ‘both to a maid and man’.

This is typical of the final scene of Twelfth Night: like the last scene of so many Shakespeare comedies it both offers and resists closure. Narratives are brought to a climax, yet not everything is resolved: the play leaves a great deal open. The scene contains an immense amount of action: again, it works through excess. It is worth summarizing the scene just to show how much there is going on in it:

Feste teases Fabian about the contents of Malvolio's letter; Orsino arrives, and Feste goes through a begging routine with him; Antonio is brought on and his story, including background incidents about his battles against Illyria, is told, ending with his accusation against Viola; Olivia arrives, and Orsino encounters on stage for the first time the woman he has been obsessed with throughout the play; Olivia encounters ‘Cesario’ and confusion arises—firstly because she now thinks he is Sebastian, and secondly because Orsino begins to suspect that ‘Cesario’ has been wooing Olivia on his own behalf; his disappointment at Olivia's rejection is expressed in threats of violence against Cesario, who still professes faithfulness to him, and they begin to depart together; Olivia prevents their exit by revealing that she and Sebastian (Cesario, as she thinks) are married, and sends for the priest to prove it; the priest arrives and confirms the marriage; Orsino's anger against Cesario turns to disgust and he rejects him; meanwhile Cesario's protestations of innocence are making Olivia concerned about ‘his’ love for her.

At this point the action suddenly switches from melodrama to farce: Andrew Aguecheek arrives with a bloodied head (having been fighting with the real Sebastian off-stage); he espies Viola and panics, reprising an earlier encounter between them; then Sir Toby arrives, also with a bloody head, and in a foul temper, rejecting Sir Andrew's offer of help, and going off-stage again almost immediately.

At this point Sebastian finally comes on. Initially he does not notice Viola, although she sees him. He is joyfully reunited with Antonio, and only after that does he see his sister. Carefully, almost tentatively, they begin to come together, testing each other's identity with details of shared memories; Sebastian refers uneasily to the paradox of Olivia's love for Cesario; Viola explains that the sea-captain who saved her life has been imprisoned by Malvolio's request for some unspecified offence.

This reintroduces the Malvolio plot: Feste arrives with the letter and attempts to make a joke of it; Fabian is given the job of reading the letter, which is sober and serious, and Malvolio is sent for; while he is being fetched, attention turns back to the love-plot, with Orsino offering his hand to Viola; Malvolio arrives and he tells his story; Olivia is shown the letter which originally trapped him, and she explains that it is Maria's handwriting; Malvolio is offered recompense; the moment of potential reconciliation is marred by Feste's spiteful interruption as he quotes Malvolio's own words back at him; Malvolio stalks off with threats against the whole company; Orsino sends somebody off to try and persuade him to a peace; addressing Viola, Orsino promises that they will be lovers when she returns to her female attire. At last, the clown steps forward to sing a final song, with the melancholy refrain ‘And the rain it raineth every day’.

All this in about three hundred and eighty lines!

It is not only the number of different actions within this one scene which is extraordinary (each paragraph of the above amounts to a small scene or routine in itself), but the variety of them, the speed with which they follow on one from another, and the resulting emotional range of the scene. Its tone continually shifts, moment by moment, between intensity and frivolity, violence and tenderness, melodrama and downright farce, celebration and discord, wonder and harshness, laughter and melancholy. It starts with a couple of (by now familiar) clown routines. Antonio's entry picks up the narrative, laying out his part of the story so far in a way which seems to prepare for a dénouement in which all the confusions are unravelled. This is interrupted, though, by the Olivia-Orsino encounter, the climax of another strand of the plot. But far from reaching a resolution, this meeting seems only to complicate things further and threaten the ending with tragedy. These complications are then repeated, but in a different key, as Sir Andrew and Sir Toby pass across the stage. Yet even this tiny scene-within-a-scene contains a sharp tonal shift. It looks as if it is going to be a moment of pure farce; then, without warning, Sir Toby turns to Sir Andrew, insults him, and casts him off with a snarl. The carnivalesqe high spirits of their roistering end in a moment of rejection as bitter as that experienced by Falstaff.

The moment at which things do begin to unravel themselves is, of course, the moment when Viola and Sebastian both appear on stage together: from now on, things begin to make sense. Yet some of the surprise value of this moment of revelation was preempted earlier in the play, when Viola first guessed, in Act III Scene iv, that all the confusions were due to her brother's being in Illyria. And then, just as the scene seems set to concentrate on reunions, betrothals and marriages, this, too, is interrupted by the as-yet-unresolved Malvolio plot. The confrontation between Malvolio and his mistress also shifts through a variety of emotional tones, from the comedy of Feste's attempt at ‘vox’, through the pathos of Malvolio's own account, the offer of reconciliation by Olivia, the interruption of that by Feste, spitefully quoting Malvolio's own words back at him, to the anger of Malvolio's exit. The ending of Twelfth Night, in fact, is structured as a series of interruptions. It is this structure which prevents the positive mood of the narrative's romantic-comedy climax from completely dominating the end of the play: the harmony is established and celebrated—but across it can be heard the notes of discord.

Contributing to the same destabilizing effect is the fact that narratives are left unfinished—notably, of course, the Malvolio story itself. Who pursues Malvolio to ‘entreat him to a peace’? With what result? What about the power he still holds over Viola's friend the sea-captain, whose story is so strangely re-introduced in these final moments of the play? Most directly, the audience is left with the question of Malvolio's powerful final threat: what sort of revenge is he envisaging? His exit line contains such a blatant promise of the story's continuance, that if Shakespeare were writing for television or the movies we would assume he was setting up the sequel. But it is not only the Malvolio plot which is left unfinished. The reunion of Viola and Sebastian is not fully celebrated; she says to him:

Do not embrace me till each circumstance
Of place, time, fortune do cohere and jump
That I am Viola, which to confirm
I'll bring you to a captain in this town
Where lie my maiden weeds.

(V, i, ll. 249-53)

Viola's return to her own female identity is incomplete; unlike Rosalind she never appears on stage again as a woman, and as a result Orsino cannot yet begin to see her as Viola. Even at the very end of the play she is still ‘Cesario’ to him:

Cesario come—
For so you shall be while you are a man;
But when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino's mistress and his fancy's queen.

(V, i, ll. 381-4)

Thus Orsino, like Olivia, leaves the stage without having fully resolved the ambiguities about whom he is actually in love with, and the promised love-relationship between him and Viola is deferred until after the play's ending. Feste's final song trips through a nonsense-version of Jaques' Seven Ages speech, set against the gloomy refrain of wind and rain. Its last stanza perfunctorily shrugs away all the problems and uncertainties of the play's ending with an insouciant nonsense of its own:

A great while ago the world begun
With hey ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.

(V, i, ll. 401-4)

And so Carnival gives way to Lent, and the play named after the final day of revelling is finally done.


  1. An entire book devoted to this subject is Leah Scragg, Shakespeare's Mouldy Tales: Recurrent Plot Motifs in Shakespearian Drama (Harlow: Longman, 1992).

  2. Quoted in William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, ed. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik (London: Methuen, 1975), p. xxvi. My modernization.

  3. Twelfth Night, ed. Lothian and Craik, p. liii.

  4. Quoted in ibid., p. liii.

  5. Quoted in ibid., p. xxvi.

  6. Ibid., pp. lxxix-lxxxiii.

  7. François Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage, trans. Janet Lloyd (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 153.

  8. E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923), vol. 4, pp. 338-9.

  9. David Underdown, Revel, Riot and Rebellion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 41.

  10. Underdown, Revel, Riot and Rebellion, p. 41.

  11. See Matthew H. Wikander, ‘As secret as maidenhead: the profession of boy-actress in Twelfth Night’, Comparative Drama, 20, iv, pp. 349-63.

  12. Thomas Rainoldes, The Overthrow of Stage-Plays (Middleburgh: 1599), p. 16.

  13. See Joseph Pequigny, ‘The two Antonios and same-sex love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice’, English Literary Renaissance 22, ii, pp. 201-21 for a detailed analysis of Antonio's language.

Jane K. Brown (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Double Plotting in Shakespeare's Comedies: The Case of Twelfth Night,” in Aesthetic Illusion: Theoretical and Historical Approaches, edited by Frederick Burwick and Walter Pape, Walter de Gruyter, 1990, pp. 313-23.

[In the following essay, Brown contends that Twelfth Night has two plots, one ruled by Olivia and one ruled by Orsino. These plots, argues Brown, are dramatized differently and correspond to two distinct worlds within the play.]

Doubleness of all sorts is typical of Shakespearean comedy. Nowhere, however, is doubling so fully worked out as in Twelfth Night: or, What You Will, the only play for which Shakespeare himself provided a double title, as Anne Barton points out.1 The play's dramatis personae reveals not only the twins at its center, but two rulers (a countess and a duke referred to as count), two sea captains, two authority figures (an uncle and a steward) in the house of the countess (who has lost father and brother), that uncle comically echoed in his friend Sir Andrew, two gentlemen attending on the duke, and even the clown unaccountably split into the figures of Feste and Fabian—a doubling so gratuitous that the roles are often collapsed into one in performance. Theme, structure and plot all turn on the various dualities the play explores, and everything is resolved in a moment of wonder at the doubleness of the play's and our own vision.

For this reason it is a particularly appropriate text in which to explore the kind of doubleness that concerns me today. My argument will be that Twelfth Night is a play of two plots corresponding to two worlds in the play, and that these worlds are represented differently. By represented differently I mean that the relation of language to reality in each is different. Thus, I will argue, the play operates in two modes of aesthetic illusion; furthermore, it contains reflections on its own doubleness and on the range of possible dramatic illusions open to it.


We have become so accustomed to “high” and “low” plotting in Shakespeare that I must point out that I am not drawing that distinction here. I will not group Orsino, Olivia, Viola and Sebastian on the one hand, and Malvolio and the clowns on the other, and thus not high characters versus low, aristocrats versus servants, nor romantic lovers versus clowns. Partly, such distinctions do not work here, for clownish as Sir Toby is, as Olivia's uncle he is nevertheless an aristocrat. Indeed, Barbara Everett has remarked both on the interesting proximity of the romantics Orsino and Olivia to the low characters in the play, and also on the discrepancy between the high seriousness of Orsino's dreams of Olivia and what we actually see of her.2 I am concerned instead with a distinction implied by the way characters interact on stage, and this distinction turns out to be one of style and dramatic mode, not one of content or theme.3

In these terms, the two worlds of Twelfth Night are marked by the presence of their two rulers, the Duke Orsino and the Countess Olivia. Orsino would like their worlds to be one, but Olivia is opposed, so their double messenger Viola/Cesario must form the only link between them, except for occasional visits by Feste to Orsino's court. All the action takes place either at Orsino's court, in the absence of Olivia, or in Olivia's house without Orsino. In the first two acts everything happens within these two enclosures, except only the brief symmetrical scenes at the coast between Viola and Sebastian and their respective captains. Only gradually does the play escape these enclosures as Viola or Sebastian encounter other characters on the street, though never very far from Olivia's house. Orsino and Olivia meet on stage outside of Olivia's walls only at the end of the play and only as the cast assembles for the grand finale.

Their separation has less to do with suspense than with the fact that they were never destined for one another. The audience thus has a split view of the play. On the one hand we see the growth of Orsino's relationship with Viola. At Olivia's house, on the other hand, we see developing the relationship that results in the marriage of Olivia and Sebastian. Since Olivia responds only to Cesario's appearance and highly schooled rhetoric, it does not matter that Sebastian's courtship is actually conducted by Viola; in effect, he has wooed Olivia by proxy, as Orsino attempted to do. Viola is supposed to connect the two worlds, but, by virtue of her being a twin, instead divides the play into two plots.

These two plots are parallel to one another. Orsino and Olivia are tied by the initial letter of their Italianate names, by their rank (Orsino is repeatedly referred to in the play as count, not duke), and by their melancholy situations. Within three lines of the opening, the incapacitated Orsino's thoughts of love lead to death (“The appetite may sicken, and so die”, I.i.3; reiterated in the next line with “dying fall”);4 Feste sings him a song about death (II.iv.73) and invokes the protection of “the melancholy god” for him. His love is a torment, exposing him to the “fell and cruel hounds” (I.i.22) of his desires. Apart from Olivia, only Viola can focus his affections, and only after deciding to marry Viola can he make plans and function as a ruler. He seems like a fairy-tale prince under an enchantment that is finally lifted by Viola. Olivia's melancholy is more obvious. She will mourn the deaths of her father and brother for seven years, and lives in the dubious company of her melancholic steward Malvolio and her riotous uncle, Sir Toby Belch. From this self-imposed imprisonment she is freed by Viola, who wins her trust and love as she did Orsino's. Viola is thus not only the messenger linking the plots, but the redeemer in each, an angel figuratively as well as literally (“messenger” being the root meaning of angel). Viola's identical role in the two plots is the wedge that keeps them separate.


Let me attempt now to characterize the differences in the use of language and therefore in the kinds of illusion that prevail in these two worlds. In Orsino's world we find assertive metaphoric language from the very first line of the play: “If music be the food of love, play on.” The conditional, “If music be the food of love”, makes metaphor the central issue, an issue whose importance is elaborated by the further proliferation: “Give me excess of it, that surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken and so die.” Similarly the rest of the speech bristles with extended metaphors and similes—“like the sweet sound / That breathes on a bank of violets”, “Receiveth as the sea”, “That instant was I turn'd into a hart”, “like fell and cruel hounds”. This metaphoric language is extremely labile; in his fantastical fancy Orsino moves rapidly from love to death, from Olivia's purity to his own suffering. How do we keep up with the rapid transformations of “like the sweet sound / That breathes upon a bank of violets, / Stealing and giving odor”, with the shifts from sound to breath to the sight of the violets, with the confusion between giving and stealing? Or with the abrupt fall from “validity” to “abatement and low price” a few lines later? Such lavish metaphor and simile and such elaborate transformations of givens into fanciful imagery are equally typical of Orsino's speeches and of Viola speaking to or for her master.

The concreteness of language at Olivia's house forms a striking contrast. We first encounter Sir Toby, Maria, and Sir Andrew; they discuss the same topics as Orsino, food (and drink) and love. Maria berates Sir Toby for drinking too much and for bringing Sir Andrew to woo Olivia. Love expresses itself in this scene not in chaste longing for a Diana but in the direct language of “accost”, which Sir Andrew then misunderstands even more concretely as Maria's name. Another parody of Orsino's “food of love” motif appears in Malvolio, who in I.v is “sick of self-love” and tastes “with a distempered appetite”. Here the motif leads not to flights of fancy, but to the comic predictability of the bilious steward. In II.iii Feste will join the crew and the music will be as concretely present as the drinking; one will not be a metaphor for the other. Whenever, in Olivia's realm, words are understood to be metaphors, there is sure to be trouble: when Sir Andrew asks after Maria's metaphor in bringing his hand to the buttery-bar, he gets lost; the two knights cannot agree at the end of the scene whether Taurus represents sides and heart or legs and thighs. Things are little different when Olivia comes on stage. Olivia is introduced to us in an exchange with her fool, and she echoes Maria's complaints about dry jests. Indeed, Olivia is surrounded by a whole pack of fools, for Malvolio and Sir Toby enter in quick succession, both unable to dismiss the importunate Viola at the gates. Their language is none of it fluid or metaphorical. It is characterized—again—not by flights of fancy, but by repeated stumbles into the literal: the humor in all these exchanges involves a more literal, more concrete, meaning for a word than the one first assumed or the reduction of word to name. Repetition and a focus on the word as word or object provide the logic and continuity in this wordplay. Consequently it engenders a certain rigidity that accords with Olivia's rigidity in excluding the world in order to mourn the death of her brother, and that contrasts with the lability of Orsino's language. This is the dominant (though not exclusive) linguistic mode of Olivia's world.

Viola participates in the modes of both plots. Her disguise at Orsino's court divorces her from her real self, who loves Orsino. Since she may not love him when she is his page, she must interject hypothetical relatives and elaborate similes between them—“My father had a daughter lov'd a man / As it might be perhaps, were I a woman, / I should your lordship” (II.iv.107-109). All of her conversation with Orsino is in this “as if” mode. But at Olivia's house, Viola's disguise causes her sense of self to be rigid rather than labile. To Olivia she reports her master's love with literal honesty, and repels Olivia's advances with the same literalism: there is nothing metaphoric about her inability to satisfy the countess. Olivia and her followers may fail to understand, but the audience knows that Viola means exactly what she says. In Orsino's house only the fact of disguise was significant, but in Olivia's it is the content that matters; by impersonating her brother Viola smooths the later transfer of Olivia's passion. (The play emphasizes this continuity by showing Antonio's irrational adoration of Sebastian in II.i just after Viola has awakened the same irrational adoration in Olivia.) In Olivia's realm Viola's language is double. When she speaks for Orsino she uses the most beautiful conventional love language in the play. Her exchange with Olivia in I.v is instructive in this regard, for there Olivia undermines Viola's metaphors with her literalizing wordplay, reducing Viola's words “as secret as maidenhead” to heretical text, her own “graces” to objects on a schedule. Viola's speeches on behalf of Orsino continue in his hypothetical, metaphoric mode, but for herself she is equally capable of entering into witty exchanges with Feste and Olivia that depend on their literalizing reductiveness. Thus once again the contrast between the realms is between metaphoric displacement and literal directness. This difference extends beyond spoken language to include dramatic gesture. Let us compare, for example, Orsino's and Olivia's expressions of trust in Viola. In I.iv Orsino tells Viola/Cesario that he has already opened to him “the book even of [his] secret soul” (14). Typically, Orsino expresses his confidence in words, and in the metaphor of his soul as book. But when Viola tries to recite his “text” to Olivia in the next scene, Olivia enters into the image as game and reduces the text to heresy (I.v.229). Orsino's metaphor destroyed, Viola nevertheless wins Olivia's heart by asking her to lift her veil, which she does, emphasizing the concreteness of the gesture by itemizing her beauty as a schedule of discrete objects. But Olivia's wordplay should not obscure the significance of her action: removing the veil she had sworn to wear for seven years and revealing herself to (presumably) male eyes is an exact parallel to Orsino's declaration of trust in the preceding scene. Here it is expressed not metaphorically but concretely, allegorically. Viola has operated in two different modes of illusion in the two scenes.

Finally, the names of the characters, too, operate in alternative modes of representation. The figures unambiguously associated with Olivia's house have speaking or allegorical names. Sir Toby Belch speaks loudly of gluttony. Olivia is an allegory for peace, a meaning that is underlined when Viola says, “I hold the olive in my hand; my words are as full of peace as matter” (I.v.209-210), and again by the constant use of “Peace” as a command for silence among Olivia's rowdy followers. She is an appropriate allegory for a Christmas season play that celebrates “peace on earth, good will to men” by bringing peace out of her disorderly house and driving ill will (i.e. Malvolio) from the stage.5 Malvolio's name is thus also a simple allegory. Orsino, on the other hand, means “little bear”. A bear is not an abstraction like ill will nor a traditional public symbol like the olive. Orsino is rather, in his melancholy and self-involvement, a little bearish; this is a relation of name to person that is not designation, but similitude, and is thus appropriate to his metaphoric mode.

Viola's and Sebastian's position between the plots is also reflected in their names. Viola means violet, the flower evoked in Orsino's opening speech, and she behaves rather like a shrinking violet in her relation to him. If this is the significance of her name, it is based, like Orsino's, on similitude; it is metaphoric. But the name also evokes music (viol, violin), a sense emphasized by the importance of music to Orsino and by her plan to recommend herself to the duke by her musical ability. She is the singing angelic messenger who makes peace manifest in the world, and in this respect her name is allegorical. Sebastian is similarly double. The Greek root “sebas” means “that which evokes religious awe”. Sebastian's appearance next to his sister evokes the wonder and astonishment of all present. Not only does this event seem supernatural, but it is also part of Viola's message of Christmas, and is thus religious. At the same time, this wonder is buried in a natural man and in a not too uncommon name whose meaning is obscure to those with too little Greek. The association with religious wonder is more likely to be evoked because Sebastian bears the same name as a saint who was widely portrayed as a handsome young man.6 Thus his name also speaks both allegorically and by similitude.

In summary, we are dealing here with an opposition between metaphorical and allegorical discourse. The first term requires no clarification, but the second may. I mean allegorical in the sense that this language meets the three major criteria recently so clearly specified for allegory by Maureen Quilligan.7 The language of Olivia's realm is allegorical first because it is profoundly conscious of itself as language, a consciousness manifested in the ceaseless punning, and further even as text, as we will see in the baiting of Malvolio; second it is consistently literal and concrete—it means its own words, not what its words represent or stand for. Third, this language comments on and elaborates its grounding Biblical pretext, “Peace on earth, good will toward men”. As Quilligan insists, allegorical writing is different from allegorical interpretation or allegoresis. Allegoresis will be rejected in Malvolio's misreading of Maria's note and will in fact be associated with metaphoric language in the play. Thus to refer to the Olivia plot as allegorical is not to deny the reality or the humanity of the characters, nor to say the play is about something other than what it seems. True allegory is literal and does not refer beyond itself; such is the case in Olivia's world.


It is time now to explore the interaction between the modes of illusion associated with the two plots. Let us begin with the play's reflections on the metaphor of “text”. As we saw above, the initial confrontation between Viola and Olivia is couched in terms of Orsino's “text”. Nevertheless, while the beauty of Viola's language evokes repeated comment, the real damage to Olivia's heart is done by her eye: “Methinks”, she says, “I feel this youth's perfections / […] To creep in at mine eyes” (I.v.296-98). Similarly Olivia's first turn to Viola is marked by lifting her veil and revealing her image, and Antonio later refers to Sebastian/Viola as an “image” that has failed him (III.iv.362; cf. “idol” three lines later). Orsino's imagery of text is defeated by Olivia's image. The baiting of Malvolio attacks metaphoric text at a more parodistic level. The joke turns first on mistaking Maria's handwriting for Olivia's, that is, it depends on the literal letters of Maria's note. Second, it depends on Malvolio's misinterpretation of the letters M O A I, which he tries to make “resemble”, as he says (II.v.120), his own name, by crushing the “simulation” to make it bow to himself (139-141). His violent interpretation (allegoresis) in terms of similitude parodies the dependence on simile and similarity in the Orsino plot, just as Malvolio himself parodies Orsino's melancholy self-involvement and love for Olivia. Malvolio has, we might say, interpreted the text, but ignored the absurd image of himself cross-gartered in yellow stockings. At the same time, there is all the noise made by the on-stage spectators as they shout “Peace”: the ready divorce of word from meaning here points up the inherent danger in reasoning by similitude, linguistic or otherwise.

Feste is the focus for some of the most important reflection on language and dramatic form in the play. As Olivia's “corruptor of words” (III.i.36) he reduces all words to concrete absurdity, to themselves as words and not just as the most concrete object signified by them. Unlike Malvolio or Orsino, he does not need to “corrupt” words by forcing them to resemble other things; he knows that words inherently possess the quality of suggesting things other than themselves. Thus his apparently nonsensical formulation, “that that is is” (IV.ii.16), anticipates and prepares the revealed doubleness of Viola and Sebastian that arouses such peace-making wonder at the end of the play—“A natural perspective, that is and is not!” (V.i.216-217). Indeed, Feste's anticipation of Viola's doubleness suggests that he should be understood as a parody of her, just as Malvolio is a parody of Orsino. Except for Viola, Feste is the only link between the two worlds of the play, and like her he is a musician. It is surely to emphasize this likeness that the two have a scene to themselves that does nothing to further the plot, right at the center of the play. Feste, whose name derives from Festus, lord of misrule at Epiphany,8 and thus suggests perhaps good will, mediates for Malvolio with Olivia just as Viola does for Orsino. He is, finally, the only character in the play beside Viola to appear on stage in disguise. As he virtuosically wavers between the roles of Sir Topas the curate and Feste in Act IV he parodies Viola's fluttering between the roles of Viola and Cesario, preparing, as we have seen, the more miraculous doubleness of Viola and Sebastian. If Malvolio reveals and carries off the ill will implicit in Orsino's bearish love for Olivia, Feste's wise fooling reveals Viola's healing of the madness of Illyria to be the good will of the clown. Unlike Malvolio, Feste remains on stage to speak the final word, appropriately, for he is the figure who embodies the mediating grace of play-acting.

In this regard Feste's position on dramatic art is all-important. What matters in Feste's gay alternation of roles between himself and the curate is not that he is taken for Sir Topas, but the pleasure that he and we take in the act of representation. Malvolio misreads Feste's representation mimetically, taking him to be two people: Sir Topas, on the one hand, and a Feste literally opposed to freeing Malvolio on the other. And Malvolio is, as a result, the one spectator (auditor, actually), who derives no pleasure from Feste's performance. Here the triumphant Feste takes the opportunity to connect himself to an older dramatic tradition, alluding to King Gorboduc (IV.ii.13), subject of the first Senecan tragedy in English, and to the Old Vice of the morality in his song at the end of the scene. In Feste's fooling two modes of representation are thus confronted, the mimetic and the festive, and the distinction between them is understood to be historical.

A final reflection on the mode of the play emerges from the allusions to bear baiting. Sir Andrew regrets that he has devoted more of his life to bear-baiting than to the arts (I.iii.93); Fabian is in trouble with Olivia over a bear-baiting. Orsino (“little bear”) sees himself as set upon by the hounds of his unrequited desires (I.i.20-22); Olivia describes her honor as a bear set upon at the stake (III.i.118-120). When Fabian takes revenge on Malvolio (for bringing him out of favor with Olivia over the bear-baiting) by participating in baiting Malvolio, we are once more dealing with a concrete parody of the metaphoric baiting of love. Lest there be any doubt of the implicit context, we are told that Viola flees the equivalent baiting of her by Toby and Fabian “as if a bear were at [her] heels” (III.iv.295). This pattern of allusion is interesting, because bear-baiting was a popular public spectacle of virtually equivalent status to theater, and apparently on occasion used the same facilities.9 The play is thus laced with references to an alternative, generally older mode of public spectacle; a play that sees itself as a near descendant of public bear-baiting is once again calling attention to its non-mimetic aspects.10

Such reflections on the play's own illusions suggest a strong preference for its allegorical over its mimetic mode of representation. And indeed, though I have spoken of two equivalent worlds in the play, much more attention is devoted to the Olivia plot than to the Orsino plot. The play does not just tolerate the allegorical mode, it privileges it. Given this distinction and given the hint from Feste's allusions to the Vice that it is a historical one, I would like to draw it more explicitly as I conclude. I have called Orsino's plot mimetic. In his metaphoric mode every divergence from the literal to the figurative level of meaning is clearly marked. Whenever characters become other than what they appear they express their intention to don a disguise, and repeatedly remind us when they are disguised. Similarly when things become other than what they seem the transition is marked by the rhetorical structure of simile or metaphor. Indeed, it is also necessary to mark when things are just what they seem: Orsino, we are told, is noble “in nature as in name” (I.ii.25). Unless signification is marked, things are only what they seem. In this sense we may say the plot is mimetic; it offers us the imitation of nature, the second artificial nature implied in the ut pictura poesis tradition of early neoclassicism. Thus what we see on stage is an illusion of reality, and it depends on the prevailing metaphoric diction to import significance beyond the literal into its sphere. Olivia's world, on the other hand, is allegorical precisely because it does not take note of the divergence of the figurative from the literal. There is no divergence, because the figurative is always presumed to be incarnate in the literal. Allegory is always concrete in this sense that what you see is what it means. There can, therefore, be no divergence between name and nature in Olivia's world, and the issue need never be raised; nor can there be disguise, only self-consciously theatrical role-playing.

Historically, then, Orsino stands near the very beginning of the tradition of the modern dramatic character we associate with the neoclassical illusion of reality school, for he is, essentially, a melancholy duke who cheers up at the end of the play. Olivia, on the other hand, is Peace in the garb of a countess, and belongs to the allegorical or non-illusionist tradition, in which characters are embodied significations, and hers is the preferred mode of the play. Such preference is, I would suggest, typical of Shakespeare: even A Midsummer Night's Dream, which celebrates the transformative and proliferative power of metaphor above all, moves in the last act to the parodistic, concrete, allegorical realm of the mechanicals. And overall Shakespeare's career moves toward the allegorical, non-mimetic four romances, and the most unrealistic history Henry VIII.11 It would be a mistake to see this preference simply as conservatism on Shakespeare's part. The allegorical mode for which he opts has another eighty years of rich development on the continent—in the sophisticated yet popular Jesuit moralities of Jakob Bidermann, in the powerful martyr tragedies of Andreas Gryphius, but most of all in the flowering of allegorical comedies, tragedies, and Corpus Christi plays in Spain that we associate with the names of Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, and above all Calderón de la Barca. Rather we should see him as experimenting with neoclassical strategies of representation as he experimented with neoclassical plot structure in Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest.

In this experimental doubleness resides, I think, the peculiar elusiveness of the play, which is visible in readers' discomfort to attribute to it any meaning at all.12 It also explains the most popular controversy about the play, that over the degree of sympathy we are to feel with Malvolio. If we respond in the mode of the Olivia plot, Malvolio is ill will personified and we rejoice at his departure; but if we carry over the responses evoked by the mimetic Orsino plot, we are inclined to sympathize with his plight at the end. And since, as we have seen, Malvolio parodies or reflects Orsino in the Olivia plot, we are indeed tempted to accord him some of the same dignity we would to Orsino. At the same time, this parodistic linkage invites us to react less sympathetically to Orsino as personified melancholy. Small wonder there has been confusion. If, however, we are sensitive to the play of the different modes in the text, part of our pleasure in it derives from our own agility in discovering and adjusting our responses. Both the play and our response to it thus become explorations of the complexity of aesthetic illusion.


  1. The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 403.

  2. Everett: “Or What You Will”, pp. 300 and 302.

  3. Kenneth Muir remarks in passing on the “contrast between the levels of reality represented by the two main plots” in Taming of the Shrew (Introduction to Shakespeare. The Comedies, p. 4). In this respect Taming of the Shrew seems to me to have most in common with Twelfth Night. Here again the distinction between plots cannot be social, for the two heroines are sisters; much more important is the difference in the characters' relations to their language and therefore in the kind of illusion in each.

  4. The play is cited according to The Riverside Shakespeare.

  5. For detailed discussions of the play as an Epiphany and Christmas season play, see Lewalski: “Thematic Patterns”, and Hassel: Renaissance Drama, pp. 77-86. I focus here more on the implications of the literal aspects of the plot than on the implications of character development. As a result I would not subscribe to Lewalski's views of Viola and Sebastian as Christ-like (p. 176); Viola is rather just what she is called in the play, a messenger (Greek: ‘angelos’).

  6. I am grateful to my colleague Charles Barrack for this suggestion.

  7. I exploit Quilligan's defining characteristics in The Language of Allegory, although I recognize she intended to describe a narrative genre, not a general linguistic mode. I have left out her reader-oriented categories, whose potential application to drama is beyond the scope of this essay. Elizabeth Freund, in “Twelfth Night and the Tyranny of Interpretation”, has recently explored the tension between mimesis and semiosis in the language of the play, focusing largely on the clowns. While Freund sees Twelfth Night as paradigmatic for the functioning of all literary language, the lines she draws are not unrelated to those drawn here; metaphoric language will be shown below to be associated with mimetic action, while the definition of allegory used here is essentially a semiotic one.

  8. Hassel: Renaissance Drama, p. 77.

  9. Wickham: Early English Stages, pp. 161-66.

  10. A striking parallel example of the use of bears to call attention to non-mimetic dramatic form occurs in Jakob Bidermann's Cenodoxus (1602), III.viii, where a prank involving a trained bear is connected to significant discussion of the nature of dramatic illusion. Closer to home is the bear who apparently eats Antigonus in A Winter's Tale, III.iii; it is the first figure to appear as the play moves into the pastoral mode, and thus again associated with the play's self-consciousness about genre.

  11. Cox, in “Henry VIII and the Masque”, for example, argues that it exploits the dramaturgy of the court masque.

  12. Elaborated with particular delicacy and elegance by Barbara Everett (“Or What You Will”), who sees both the play's reticence and its ultimate seriousness. Compare also Lewalski's extreme hesitation to offer her reading too seriously as allegory (“Thematic Patterns”, p. 177), and Stephen Booth's interesting ruminations on the coherence of the play's language in “Twelfth Night 1.1: The Audience as Malvolio”.

Criticism: The Ending

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SOURCE: “The Dramaturgy of the Ending of Twelfth Night,” in Twelfth Night: Critical Essays, edited by Stanley Wells, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1986, pp. 279-302.

[In the essay below, originally published in 1974, Hasler analyzes the influence of Shakespeare's earlier comedies on the last scene of Twelfth Night.]

The final resolution of Twelfth Night evolves from a process which engages the whole of the play's last scene. Furthermore, there is no lack of consistent theatrical notation in this scene. Employed with remarkable singleness of purpose, it is instrumental in shaping the build-up towards the strong impact of Viola's revelation. Apart from the unusually extensive control of the action, a study of this ending also invites us to glance back at some features of earlier comedies. The view of Twelfth Night as the consummation of Shakespearian comedy is widely accepted.1 At the same time, few commentators neglect to mention the extent to which Shakespeare here draws on his preceding experiments. Barrett Wendell even went so far as to “recognize the Twelfth Night—with all its perennial delights—a masterpiece not of invention, but of recapitulation.”2 This remark has been much quoted, though it perhaps unduly neglects the transmutations that go with Shakespeare's self-borrowings. Harold Jenkins sums up this particular aspect of Twelfth Night when he suggests that

… in however short a time Shakespeare ultimately wrote this play, he had in a sense been composing it during the previous decade.3

The final scene begins very quickly. Orsino has decided to go and see Olivia himself. At her house he meets Feste who, irked a little by Orsino's condescension,4 does a stint of his most artful begging. The mood is relaxed, as so often in Illyria; we get an impression of unlimited leisure and time to jest away. Having exhausted Orsino's bounty, Feste leaves to inform Olivia of her visitor, when suddenly the scene darkens and Viola's trials begin. Antonio is brought in by officers. Viola is first to notice them:

Here comes the man, sir, that did rescue me


she says to Orsino. This is more than the usual formula for putting the spotlight on an actor making his entry. We infer that Viola has obviously told Orsino about the duel Toby inflicted on her. Her reference to that adventure, however, is vague enough to be misunderstood: she thinks of the duel and how this strange seaman got her out of it, but Antonio most likely relates her words to the shipwreck where he rescued Sebastian. To him, her remark sounds like an acknowledgement of their acquaintance, and this can only deepen his grief at her renewed denials later on. As he explains to Orsino why, in spite of the grave risk involved, he exposed himself to “the danger of its adverse town,” he points an accusing finger at Viola:

… A witchcraft drew me hither:
That most ingrateful boy there by your side(5)
From the rude sea's enrag'd and foamy mouth
Did I redeem; …


Antonio very forcefully directs the focus of attention on the young “culprit.” What is more, he “places” Viola at Orsino's side, stressing that at this juncture she is very much the Duke's loyal servant. She is where she most desires to be. This is important in view of the imminent, explosive encounter with Olivia.

Viola's predicament, with Olivia doting on her while she secretly pines for Orsino, is quite enough to have to bear without the puzzling complaints of Antonio. The heavy deictic emphasis is kept up throughout his indictment of the “youth,” and must contribute not a little to Viola's embarrassment.

                                                            … for his sake,
Did I expose myself, pure for his love,
Into the danger of this adverse town; …


There is no time to investigate the matter further, however. Orsino forgets the moving accents of the seemingly betrayed man when Olivia approaches:

Here comes the Countess; now heaven walks on earth


he fatuously exclaims. His hyperbole is too blatantly out of tune with reality: it soon becomes ridiculous in the light of the reception he gets from the Countess, and the childish wrath with which he tries to force her affections. Dismissing Antonio for the time being, he stuns him with his assertion that

Three months this youth hath tended upon me.


Olivia and her attendants are not allowed to obliterate the person around whom everything turns in this scene. Almost immediately “this youth” is back in focus, in preparation for what follows, viz. Olivia's most astonishing breach of etiquette inspired by her love for Cesario.

Oli. What would my lord, but that he may not have,
Wherein Olivia may seem serviceable?
Cesario, you do not keep promise with me.
Vio. Madam?
Duke. Gracious Olivia—
Oli. What do you say, Cesario? Good my lord—(6)


Olivia sees her “husband” at Orsino's side, still posing, she thinks, as a servant. This sight is enough to make her forget her manners. She begins by addressing Orsino—then she interrupts herself to speak to the page at his side. The baffled Orsino tries to regain her attention, but she is only interested in Cesario. The tension now mounts rapidly, to Viola's embarrassment. She steadfastly sticks to her rôle as Orsino's man:

My lord would speak; my duty hushes me.


This—almost a rebuke—is all that Olivia gets out of her, and it does not improve the Countess' temper at all. She adopts a quite unprecedented tone to rid herself of Orsino:

If it be aught to the old tune, my lord,
It is as fat and fulsome to mine ear
As howling after music.


Rejected more bluntly than ever, Orsino indulges in positively childish tantrums which, even at this later hour, make one wonder whether he will ever grow up. He elects to try his hand at a new posture, that of “a savage jealousy That sometime savours nobly.” Since Olivia reserves her love for Cesario, he will do away with Cesario:

But this your minion, whom I know you love,
And whom, by heaven I swear, I tender dearly,
Him will I tear out of that cruel eye
Where he sits crowned in his master's spite.
Come, boy, with me; my thoughts are ripe in mischief:
I'll sacrifice the lamb that I do love
To spite a raven's heart within a dove.


Viola, still by his side, is ready—“most jocund, apt, and willingly,”—to be sacrificed like a lamb. Olivia now tastes the same bitter cup as Antonio. “Where goes Cesario?” she asks as Viola obediently follows Orsino. Viola's answer is a passionate declaration of love for the irate Duke, curious enough on the lips of a “youth.” The Countess is brought so low by this that she begins to sound like the adolescent lovers of A Midsummer Night's Dream in their most plaintive despair:

Ay me, detested! How am I beguil'd!


In her ignorance of Sebastian's existence, let alone of what has occurred between him and Olivia, Viola is bound to appear shamefully, heartlessly, false:

Who does beguile you? Who does do you wrong?


Orsino and “Cesario” have almost disappeared when Olivia finally says the electrifying word that stops them in their tracks:

Whither, my lord? Cesario, husband, stay.


There now develops a tug-of-war between the outraged Duke of Illyria and the injured, deeply disappointed Olivia. They both turn on Viola, Orsino with the vehemence of a nobleman betrayed by his servant (“Her husband, sirrah?”), Olivia lamenting the “baseness” of Cesario's “fear.” This naturally brings about a visible shift: Viola is no longer at the side of her amazed, incredulous master, but rather half-way between him and Olivia. Duke and Countess both stare at her in disbelief. All eyes, in fact, are on her, the mortified, confused bone of contention. Bernard Beckerman has observed that in the last scene of Twelfth Night

Orsino and Olivia … jointly direct the uncovering of the mystery by calling upon others to act rather than by acting themselves. The focus thus lies between them.7

Between them, until Sebastian appears, stands Viola. Caught in the middle as she is, her situation steadily worsens. In her love of Cesario, Olivia appeals to him to show some manly courage. Ironically, she now actually echoes Maria's letter to Malvolio urging the steward not to be afraid of greatness:

Fear not, Cesario, take thy fortunes up;


Viola may well begin to doubt her own sanity when the Priest enters. He comes at Olivia's request to unfold in her words

                                                  …—what thou dost know
Hath newly pass'd between this youth and me.


After a glance at “this youth” the Priest promptly asserts that “A contract of eternal bond of love” has indeed been confirmed, attested, strengthened and sealed only two hours ago. The grave Priest's report, essentially not a narrative but a listing of the symbolic gestures of the formal betrothal, is curiously abstract, drained of all life and devoid of any individualizing details:

A contract of eternal bond of love,
Confirm'd by mutual joinder of your hands,
Attested by the holy close of lips,
Strength'ned by interchangement of your rings;
And all the ceremony of this compact
Seal'd in my function, by my testimony;
Since when, my watch hath told me, toward my grave,
I have travell'd but two hours.


The whole emphasis is on the awesome solemnity and binding power of the ceremony he performed. Against such testimony Viola is helpless. Meanwhile Orsino has recovered the power of speech, and she has to listen to his wild abuse of her:

O thou dissembling cub! What wilt thou be,
When time hath sow'd a grizzle on thy case?


What is worse, he is now quite prepared to give up Cesario, as well as to renounce Olivia:

Farewell, and take her; but direct thy feet
Where thou and I henceforth may never meet.


The finality of the closing couplet strongly suggests that Orsino is again on the point of leaving. Viola can only protest, knowing that it is of no avail against the word of the Priest. She follows Orsino in despair:

Vio. My lord, I do protest—
Oli.                                                  O, do not swear!
Hold little faith, though thou has too much fear.


As “Cesario” walks away from her once again, even the doting Olivia loses patience with him: she interrupts him immediately. The incident causes the three figures to be spaced out more widely across the stage. In view of the sequel it is essential that Viola, in pursuit of Orsino, should move away from Olivia. For one thing, Sir Andrew does not see “Cesario” until he is pointed out to him. What is more, Sebastian does not notice his sister for quite some time. This can only be managed without awkwardness if Viola stands at a sufficient distance from Olivia, quite apart from the symmetrical arrangement of the twins, which also requires some space between them.

This time Orsino is prevented from actually leaving by the comic-pathetic appearance of Sir Andrew with his head “broken,” clamouring for a surgeon. Like all the preceding arrivals, he has a grievance against Cesario. His case, though, is an amusing variation on this recurrent motif. He is not aware of Cesario's presence—probably he enters with his mauled head bent down. He also assumes that everyone knows whom he is talking about:

Oli. What's the matter?
Sir And. Has broke my head across, and has given
Sir Toby a bloody coxcomb too.


Olivia therefore has to ask “Who has done this, Sir Andrew?” and on hearing that it was “The Count's gentleman, one Cesario,” it is Orsino's turn to be amazed. After all, he has long ago declared that “Diana's lip Is not more smooth and rubious” than that of his lovely page, whose whole person “is semblative a woman's part.” It is therefore with understandable scepticism that he makes sure:

My gentleman, Cesario?


Sir Andrew's reaction indicates that Orsino incredulously points to “Cesario” as he asks the question. The effect on Aguecheek is quite spectacular:

Od's lifelings, here he is! You broke my head for nothing; …


The foolish knight recoils from the mere sight of Viola—what could be more incriminating? But there is more to come. The pace accelerates as new accusers turn up at ever shorter intervals. Aguecheek is followed by Sir Toby. In contrast to Sir Andrew, he is above—or past—complaining. In answer to Orsino's questions, he will only say:

That's all one; has hurt me and there's th' end on't …


He can walk only slowly, with difficulty. He has overheard Sir Andrew berating Cesario:

If a bloody coxcomb be a hurt, you have hurt me


before he is near enough to be noticed by his friend: “Here comes Sir Toby halting …” For once there is no accusing finger for Viola. Toby seems too overwhelmed with the fact that the stripling was equal to hurting him—there is certainly no more than a tired nod in the direction of Viola.

This is the last we see of these knights, for Olivia promptly sends them off to bed. The striving for symmetry begins to make itself felt. The two votaries of cakes and ale have played their part; there is no room for them in the final tableau.8 Moreover, at this stage any confrontation between Toby (or Maria) and Malvolio must be avoided.

While the audience is aware that Sebastian is somewhere about Olivia's house, and bound to turn up sooner or later, Viola has gone from bad to worse. She is caught in a maze from which it must seem to her impossible to extricate herself. On an increasingly crowded stage she finds herself surrounded by accusers. Surveying the portion of the scene we have so far discussed, we see that it definitely belongs to Viola. Until Sebastian's entrance baffles all, Shakespeare consistently keeps the focus of attention on her, in spite of the fact that she has little to say. The situation and the technique employed are reminiscent of Hero's arraignment in church. As in the case of Hero, of course, everybody talks about Viola. She is the target of a general wrath. We have seen how at every stage, the gestic impulses of passionate address, and especially the gestic force of that basic tool, the demonstrative, help to keep Viola at the calm centre of the tornado. The others make all the noise, but while they come, have their say, and then make room for the next plaintiff, Viola remains, always involved, always concerned.

A comedy, in the words of Harold Jenkins, “is a play in which the situation holds some threat of disaster but issues in the achievement of happiness.”9 This may remind us more immediately of the merchant Antonio or of Aegeon. In Twelfth Night the concrete threats against Viola do not materialize before the finale. Viola's experience here is not unlike that of Isabella. In Measure for Measure it is the accuser who goes through an ordeal until at last she is taken seriously, listened to, and then vindicated by Mariana's and ultimately the Duke's own testimony.

It is instructive to examine the way in which Viola's ordeal is given its dramatic form. We have observed how every new arrival brings his own, incomprehensible accusations. J. L. Styan has briefly surveyed this technique of “successive entrances” from Henry VI to King Lear.10 The ending of Twelfth Night he views primarily in terms of control. At the end of As You Like It and Twelfth Night, he says, Shakespeare orders

a crowded stage for a scene of artificial symmetry, the visual pattern acquiring some of the qualities of tableaux. Yet Shakespeare had also to overcome the disadvantage of the confusing impact of a full stage …

One method of controlling the action was to fill the stage by a mechanical procession of entrances. The spectator's attention is taken by each new figure and each new voice.11

The final scene of Twelfth Night blends this technical advantage of successive entrances with the purpose the device serves in the histories and tragedies, when a series of messengers with progressively worsening news creates a feeling of calamity and imminent doom, or tests the endurance of the hero.12 We can now see that the passage under review represents an elaborate adaptation of that pattern to the needs of comedy. The mere messengers have been replaced by important figures with whom we are well acquainted, and who all confront the treacherous youth of their imagination in their own characteristic way: the honest, devoted “pirate” Antonio meets Cesario with forthright indignation at his ingratitude; the noble, enamoured Olivia with more restrained, yet deep disappointment; Aguecheek with undisguised terror, Toby still bemused with the shock of being beaten by the young stripling of a gentleman. Furthermore, there is of course a final entrance, Sebastian's, which sets things right again.

An incidental, comic adaptation of the same pattern in its basic form occurs in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dr. Caius and Evans revenge themselves on the Host of the Garter: one after the other, in a sequence blatantly pre-arranged, Bardolph, Evans and Caius appear like messengers at the door, just long enough to shout their increasingly alarming news about the “Germans” who have stolen the Host's horses.13 There is another succession of entrances, again comically calamitous, at the end of the play. Here, Page and his wife are both thwarted by a counter-plot of their daughter Anne. Slender, Master Page's favourite choice for Anne, first returns with a tale of woe: his white fairy turned out to be “a great lubberly boy.” No sooner has Mistress Page explained the misfortune by revealing her own stratagem in favour of Caius, than the doctor bursts on the scene in one of his rages: the fairy in green was a boy too. Now the successful Fenton brings in his Anne to ask pardon of his good father and mother. To our delight, the parental plotters are outplotted, but we are also pleased to see that resentment is remarkably short-lived.

Earlier, in the finale of The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare had used a witty inversion of the successive entrances pattern. There the wager between the three husbands causes them, one by one, to send for their wives. Now it is precisely the non-appearance of the first two wives that spells disaster. Lucentio “bids” his mistress to come to him, but Biondello returns alone. Hortensio, though he cautiously “entreats” the widow to come, fares no better: Biondello has only a defiant message for him. Thus the effect is all the more breathtaking when Kate, “commanded” to come, appears in the doorway:

Bap. Now, by my holidame, here comes Katherina!

TS V.ii.99

In these cases, as in Twelfth Night, the series of entrances strikes us as a formal pattern of more or less transparent artificiality. The sequence works towards a final, important effect. This is not the same as, for instance, the entirely “natural” yet carefully spaced-out returns of Portia and Bassanio, each preceded by a harbinger, from Venice to Belmont.

As Toby and Aguecheek limp away, attended by Feste and Fabian, Sebastian hurries in. There is no time for anyone to mirror his approach, as had been done in the case of Antonio, Olivia and Toby. Yet his is surely the most effective entrance of them all. Eager to justify himself to Olivia, he makes straight for her, ignoring everyone else. This partly explains why he does not notice Viola at first. His entrance, of course, is the one that will undo all the confusion caused by the preceding ones. It sheds light on everything at a stroke. Nevertheless, before meeting his sister, he is made to settle very quickly the various questions, one by one. Almost every line he speaks solves a problem. As the audience knows everything already, no time is wasted in dwelling on this, and Sebastian cannot ignore Viola too long without artificiality.

I am sorry, madam, I have hurt your kinsman.


His apology solves the mystery of Toby's “hurt.” The contrite offender mirrors Olivia's consternation at the sight of this second Cesario:

You throw a strange regard upon me, and by that
I do perceive it hath offended you.


His next words confirm the Priest's account of a secret betrothal:

Pardon me, sweet one, even for the vows
We made each other but so late ago.


Olivia must begin to grasp that this is her husband. Next, he recognizes a familiar face, and his most affectionate greeting disposes of the riddle which has so oppressed Antonio:

Antonio, O my dear Antonio!
How have the hours rack'd and tortur'd me
Since I have lost thee!


Full of joyful emotion himself, Sebastian still spreads nothing but amazement around him. As with Olivia, Sebastian notices the extreme astonishment of Antonio, and again he misunderstands it:

Ant. Sebastian are you?
Seb. Fear'st thou that, Antonio?


For Olivia, Orsino, Antonio and Viola everything falls into place in the whirlwind of Sebastian's entrance. His preoccupation with Olivia and then with Antonio must be quite intense and passionate to keep him from noticing Viola. At the same time it is quite likely that the spectators—who do not need to be enlightened—will not give Sebastian's words their full attention. They are inevitably absorbed by the visual impact of the twins, simultaneously present for the first time. Orsino and Antonio draw our attention to this very emphatically:

One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons!
A natural perspective, that is and is not.
How have you made division of yourself?
An apple cleft in two is not more twin
Than these two creatures. Which is Sebastian?


Both stress the stage-picture created by the resemblance of brother and disguised sister, Sebastian very animated, Viola transfixed. These baffled reactions are not meant as “asides.” At the very moment when Orsino speaks, Sebastian discovers his friend Antonio; it looks as if he is too rapt to heed the strange talk about a “natural perspective.” In contrast to this he does listen to Antonio's stunned comment, and prompted by the deictic “these two creatures” he finally becomes aware of Viola.

When their eyes meet at last, the result is an immediate slowing down of the pace, even a momentary halt, very effective after the tempo sustained since Sebastian's exciting entrance.

Seb. Do I stand there? I never had a brother;
Nor can there be that deity in my nature
Of here and everywhere. I had a sister
Whom the blind waves and surges have devour'd.


There follows the exquisitely beautiful duologue in which the twins gradually identify each other. Their meeting having been put off until now, the positive recognition, viz. the revelation of Viola, is thus further delayed. They are not allowed to race into each other's arms. Nevill Coghill has an excellent passage describing why a delayed recognition can be so particularly moving. He rightly stresses the visual element in this:

It is in the delay that we taste the recognition most feelingly: for with our eyes we see that a longed-for thing is about to happen, even before it has begun: we see the certainty of a joy to come, delayed in order to prolong the thrill of having it in prospect. This is an experience in art that I think can most feelingly be given through the medium of theatre …14

As to the peculiar delicacy and restraint of the twins' duologue, Alice Shalvi has observed how

the use of the third person in their mention of Viola is a beautifully subtle method of indicating the way in which neither wants to be overwhelmed by emotion, even while it excellently conveys the emotion that is pent up, and implied by, their words.15

As regards gesture and grouping, Viola's speech concluding the recognition-passage is particularly interesting:

If nothing lets to make us happy both
But this my masculine usurp'd attire,
Do not embrace me till each circumstance
Of place, time, fortune, do cohere and jump
That I am Viola; which to confirm,
I'll bring you to a captain in this town,
Where lie my maiden weeds; by whose gentle help
I was preserv'd to serve this noble Count.
All the occurrence of my fortune since
Hath been between this lady and this lord.


The desire to withhold the inner surge of joy until the last shadow of a doubt has been removed is most clearly in evidence when Viola requests her brother not to embrace her. This however seems to pose a real problem in performance. Whereas scholars may easily take Viola's words at their face-value, there are few producers who can deny their Sebastian the emotional relief of a brotherly embrace. Alice Shalvi, pursuing her theme of restraint, finds it significant that

Shakespeare even makes Viola delay her brother's happy embrace until she shall have abandoned her doublet for a gown, and the same is true of her betrothal to Orsino.16

This is very persuasive, and soundly based on the text. Yet when it comes to producing the scene, Viola's cautious reserve seems to overtax our strength and even to border on the unnatural. The principle of postponing the happy celebrations is here driven to its limits. Producers must feel that before Sebastian can turn to Olivia to stress the lighter side of what has occurred,

So comes it, lady, you have been mistook,


“each circumstance …” has surely cohered and jumped. In accordance with this, the beginning of Viola's critical sentence tends to get slurred over, while the end, “That I am Viola,” is detached from the rest as much as possible and given the special emphasis of a solemn affirmation.

In Viola's concluding line Shakespeare again hints at the intended stage-picture. During much of the scene, when she was the bone of contention, and again now, when the twins meet at the centre of the stage, Viola has been placed between “this lady and this lord.” The dangers inherent in her false position between Orsino and Olivia had only been latent before this final scene. Now it has all come to a head. Viola's place on stage therefore symbolizes the “occurrence” of her fortune since she came to Illyria, her ambiguous rôle as a go-between

… between this lady and this lord.


Her last words contain a strong gestic impulse to stress her position in the danger zone between the two proud, noble personages, at the very point when this scenic image is about to be replaced by a new constellation. After the arrival of Sebastian and the ensuing revelation of Viola, the happy, permanent equilibrium of two couples is substituted for the uneasy, precarious symmetry of the triangle.

Sebastian, as we have seen, is a resolving figure par excellence, since his mere entrance at the right moment disposes of all the confusions at a stroke. To achieve this startling effect, Shakespeare exploits a theme he has introduced into the play only at a very late stage. Harold Jenkins has pointed out that in Twelfth Night the dramatist “is, in fact, combining the plots of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Comedy of Errors”:

He does not, however, combine them in equal degree. The heartsick heroine who in page's disguise takes messages of love to another woman provided little more than an episode in the complicated relations of the two gentlemen of Verona; but in Twelfth Night this episode has grown into the central situation from which the play draws its life. On the other hand, the confusion of twins which entertained us for five acts in The Comedy of Errors appears now as little more than an adroit device to bring a happy ending.17

This hardly overstates the case. The theme of mistaken identity only begins to make its contribution when Sebastian and Antonio have at last found their way to the capital of Illyria. From the first, of course, there is the similarity in the shipwreck stories of The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, but not before III.iv. does Antonio mistake Viola for Sebastian. In IV.i. Feste for his part believes Sebastian to be Viola. Sebastian's exasperation on that occasion recalls the atmosphere of Ephesus:

Are all the people mad?


he exclaims, in a mood of frustration not unlike that of the Syracusan Antipholus when he concludes that

There's none but witches do inhabit here.


In line with Jenkins' observation, however, most echoes of The Comedy of Errors occur in the last scene. Antonio's sad experience reminds us most strongly of Shakespeare's first comedy. Like Aegeon, he believes himself shamefully betrayed by one he loves.18 Just as Duke Solinus of Ephesus confounds Aegeon:

I tell thee, Syracusian, twenty years
Have I been patron to Antipholus,
During which time he ne'er saw Syracusa,


so Duke Orsino of Illyria reduces Antonio to silence with an unanswerable rebuttal:

…—fellow, thy words are madness.
Three months this youth hath tended upon me—…


At the point when everyone stands amazed by the likeness of the twins, there is even a literal echo. Duke Solinus, beholding the Dromios and Antipholuses together, had wondered:

One of these men is genius to the other;
And so of these. Which is the natural man,
And which the spirit? …


Pointing at Sebastian in disbelief (“So went he suited”) Viola says to Sebastian her brother:

Such a Sebastian was my brother too;
So went he suited to his watery tomb;
If spirits can assume both form and suit,
You come to fright us.


Yet even such a verbal parallel in a similar situation does not necessarily imply the simple repetition of an old idea. In Twelfth Night, “spirit” takes on an additional meaning: it is beyond a Dromio or Antipholus to answer, like Sebastian:

                    A spirit I am indeed,
But am in that dimension grossly clad
Which from the womb I did participate.


Solinus thinks in terms of genius as the attendant spirit of a man, Viola at first fears she has to deal with her brother's “ghost” returned from the grave, like a Hamlet senior or a Banquo, and Sebastian uses the same word to refer to his immortal soul.

Olivia now faces her real husband, and it is all visibly too much for her. Orsino reassures her with new-found consideration and sympathy:

Be not amaz'd; right noble is his blood.


Then it is time for him to grapple with the changed situation himself, to address himself to the newly revealed Viola. Whereas Sebastian, having served his turn, is heard of no more, the fate of his sister remains the central concern of the audience. Orsino now gives the first, veiled, and as yet conditional intimation of his intentions towards the girl:

If this be so, as yet the glass seems true,
I shall have share in this most happy wreck.(19)


Though he could easily be more specific, his meaning is obviously in the spectators' mind when he now faces Cesario/Viola. Addressing her still as a “boy,” he reminds her of her former pledges which, now he knows she is a woman, take on a new significance:

Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times
Thou never shouldst love woman like to me.


This gives Viola her second opportunity to express the full depth of her love for him. His response to her fervent and solemn declaration is ambiguous, to say the least: his gestic reaction may give her hope, but his words are strangely guarded and reserved.

                    Give me thy hand;
And let me see thee in thy woman's weeds.


Now as before, the writing focuses on Viola. Explicit gestic notation, such as Orsino's imperative (“Give me thy hand”) invariably refers to her. In contrast to this, we do not know what is going on between Olivia and her husband. In their case, everything is already settled, whereas Orsino quite understandably needs some time to adjust himself: he cannot transfer his affections from Olivia to Viola too fast, or he risks appearing in too comic a light. It is almost as if he reserved his position until he knows whether Viola's true “outside” can charm him as her male disguise had charmed Olivia. The awkwardness of his situation must explain the discrepancy between his instinctive gesture and his noncommittal words.

Nevertheless, things seem to be drawing to a close. Yet there is still that other matter, the strange frenzy of Olivia's steward, who even now languishes in the “dark house.” Orsino's reference to her “woman's weeds” reminds Viola of the captain with whom she left her things in I.ii. That self-same sea-captain, she reveals, “Is now in durance, at Malvolio's suit …” This—Viola's last speech, by the way—in turn reminds Olivia of her steward. The New Cambridge Shakespeare notes that “we have heard nothing before of this lawsuit” and explains: “it is Shakespeare's device for bringing Malvolio back upon the scene.”20 Yet Shakespeare goes out of his way to show that he does not need the mysterious lawsuit to bring Malvolio back. Before Olivia can even send for the “madman,” Feste comes in, unbidden by anyone, with Malvolio's letter of complaint. Enter Clowne with a letter, and Fabian, as the Folio direction puts it. Evidently there must be some other point to this curious coincidence which led to a case, “Malvolio vs. Captain.” Our recollection of the trusty Captain and of Viola's high opinion of him21 engages our sympathies on his side. The wrong done to Malvolio, on the other hand, will shortly be so much emphasized that we might mistakenly conclude he was more sinned against than sinning. So Clifford Leech may well be right with his reading:

It is evident that the ambitious steward has exercised authority with a long arm: our realization of that moderates our pity for him.22

A sizeable section of the scene is now set aside for the conclusion to the Malvolio-intrigue; the upshot, however, will be that it cannot be truly concluded at all. Olivia and the gull himself must at least learn what really happened. Fabian, who was not among the instigators, is the ideal man to tell them.23 Viola has had no part in all this, yet Shakespeare does not allow her to be totally eclipsed for such a long time. Having heard Malvolio's letter, Olivia sends for him. While we are waiting, she uses the lull to attend to her own business:

My lord, so please you, these things further thought on,
To think me as well a sister as a wife,
One day shall crown th'alliance on't, so please you,
Here at my house, and at my proper cost.


Some reflection has taught her that there is really nothing left to prevent her and Orsino being friends. She moves towards reconciliation. At the same time, she already deals with an important point which is normally part of the closing-speech: she will arrange for the festivities to come. She foresees a double marriage: a curious feature of her speech is the request to Orsino

To think me as well a sister as a wife.


She hopes she will be no less acceptable to him as a sister-in-law than she would have been as his wife. Yet Orsino, as we have seen, has not really committed himself to Viola as yet. Could it be that Olivia, sympathizing with Viola in her predicament, indulges in a bit of gentle prompting on behalf of the girl she once fell in love with?24 If so, it certainly works: Orsino briefly thanks her and then again turns to Viola:

Your master quits you; and, for your service done him,
So much against the mettle of your sex,
So far beneath your soft and tender breeding,
And since you call'd me master for so long,
Here is my hand; you shall from this time be
Your master's mistress.


Now he no longer speaks to “Cesario.” He recognizes and indeed stresses her womanhood and her noble birth, acknowledging all she has done for him. This is not without irony when we remember the vanity with which he used to pontificate about the inferiority of a woman's love to that of a man. He repeats his former gesture, and even here the change from “Give me thy hand” (264) to “Here is my hand” is surely significant. It looks more like a pledge this time—and he comes out with a well-nigh unequivocal proposal. In the case of Viola, we know very well that the Duke's proposal is welcome, but no more than Isabella in Measure for Measure is she permitted to respond. We never hear another word from her after her mention of Malvolio's suit against the Captain. Perhaps the promise in Orsino's words makes her speechless, but there is also the fact that “the madman” now comes in, escorted by the ever-useful Fabian. The investigation of Malvolio's misadventure is resumed.

This short interlude (from Fabian's exit to his return with the steward) inserted into the segment devoted to Malvolio helps to achieve two important effects. It has a bearing on Orsino's switch from Olivia to Viola, which requires to be handled with delicacy and tact. The interlude is a device which allows the change to be effected in three evenly spaced-out steps, so that it appears like a gradual process which is not truly completed even at the end of the play, while assuring us of Viola's future happiness. The other consequence of this insertion concerns Malvolio and his influence on the mood of the ending: many things usually left until the end are already settled before Malvolio enters, so that very little will be left for Orsino's closing-speech. As a result, the totally unreconciled, defiant exit-line

I'll be reveng'd on the whole pack of you


hits the audience as late as possible, only ten lines before everyone else withdraws too, leaving us alone with Feste and his epilogue-song. This harsh and jarring note, placed where it has maximum effect, justifies the view that “the most interesting thing in Twelfth Night is its ultimate drawing back from a secure sense of harmony.”25 Malvolio's last words reverberate in Olivia's sympathetic reaction:

He hath been most notoriously abus'd


which is doubly effective because it echoes Malvolio's first, solemn (if mistaken) accusation when he came in:

Madam, you have done me wrong,
Notorious wrong.


The sorry business is even allowed to spill over into Orsino's closing-speech:

Pursue him, and entreat him to a peace;
He hath not told us of the captain yet.


It is remarkable how consistently Shakespeare discourages too simple, black-and-white judgements of the issue. In referring to the Captain, Orsino provides an immediate corrective to Olivia's sympathy for her steward. We may already have winced at the word “pack,” and now, lest we feel too much pity, we are further reminded of the nasty streak in Malvolio. With the steward in the “dark house,” Maria's jest has no doubt gone a little too far, but on the other hand Malvolio himself is apparently quite prepared to put decent men in prison. It will not be easy to placate him, but Orsino will at least try.

Even if we avoid the gross mistake of turning Malvolio into a tragic figure, his appearance in V.i. is bound to have a sobering effect on the play's ending. With his furious departure, however, his person at least is removed from sight before the actual conclusion. Shakespeare continues to tidy up the stage for the final speech when Orsino says:

Pursue him, and entreat him to a peace.


Though there is no stage-direction in the Folio, and modern editors refrain from supplying one, it would look absurd if no one stirred at Orsino's command. No doubt the invaluable Fabian, perhaps with one or more of Orsino's men, leaves in pursuit of the “madly-us'd” Malvolio: When therefore Orsino closes the play, the two couples have to share the stage only with Antonio and Feste, who are at a respectful distance with attendants, officers, and possibly the Priest.

After all the thoughtful preparation by Olivia, there are no loose threads left for Orsino to tie up:

He hath not told us of the captain yet.
When that is known, and golden time convents,
A solemn combination shall be made
Of our dear souls. Meantime, sweet sister,
We will not part from hence, Cesario, come;
For so you shall be while you are a man;
But when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino's mistress, and his fancy's queen.
[Exeunt all but the Clown.]


Even at the very end Orsino's tone remains singularly subdued. However beautiful his phrase about “golden time,” he still rather ungraciously insists on checking the truth of Viola's story. We, the audience, shall of course never know the circumstances which delivered the Captain into the power of Malvolio. When Orsino knows, and when Viola sheds her disguise, the marriage will take place. In looking forward to the consummation of Viola's desires, Orsino speaks almost with the gravity of the Priest: “A solemn combination Of … souls” will be made. He avoids all mention of “triumphs,” “mirth,” “revels” or “jollity.” We are not invited, as in earlier comedies, to think in terms of merry-making festivity.

Then he addresses Olivia, and one short sentence now suffices to set all things aright between them. In calling her “sweet sister,” taking up her own word of l.313, he accepts her offer of friendship together with the invitation to stay at her house. “Cesario, come” prepares the imminent departure: most likely he takes her by the hand a third time. He will lead her out. Orsino and Viola leave as a couple, like Olivia and Sebastian. Nevertheless, his restraint keeps the upper hand to the end:

                    … Cesario, come;
For so you shall be while you are a man.


The last time he spoke to her, he had been mindful of her “soft and tender breeding,” now he playfully reverts to treating her according to her male disguise. Only the final couplet reassures us that Viola will reap her reward. Orsino reiterates his proposal in much the same terms as he had used before:

But when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino's mistress, and his fancy's queen.


In keeping with the theatrical notation throughout the scene, the place of honour belongs to Viola. Orsino's final gesture is addressed to her, and so are the last words of the play.


  1. There has been little change in this since H. B. Charlton, in his Shakespearian Comedy (London, 1938) discussed the play, together with Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It, in a chapter entitled “The Consummation.”

  2. William Shakespeare (London, 1894), p. 209.

  3. “Shakespeare's Twelfth Night,” in Shakespeare's Comedies, ed. Kenneth Muir (Englewood Cliffs, 1965), p. 72.

  4. Duke. Belong you to the Lady Olivia, friends?
    Clo. Ay, sir, we are some of her trappings.


  5. Italics mine throughout this chapter.

  6. Whereas the New Variorum edition (1901) says this “probably accompanied by a gesture to the Duke to keep silent and let Cesario speak” (l. 110, n., p. 286), it has become “a polite request to Orsino to let Viola speak first” in M. M. Mahood's New Penguin edition of 1968 (l. 104, n., p. 180). The distinction may be a nice one, but Olivia's next speech rather indicates that she is beyond making polite requests.

  7. Shakespeare at the Globe 1599-1609 (New York, 1962), p. 210.

  8. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Speed and Launce never make it to the forest of the outlaws. In A Midsummer Night's Dream the mechanicals are withdrawn first, to make room for Theseus' closing-speech and the incantations of the fairies. In The Merchant of Venice Launcelot Gobbo only just fleets across the stage, announcing the return of Bassanio. Even this brief intrusion into Belmont has been much resented. In Much Ado About Nothing, Dogberry is remunerated and firmly dismissed before the last scene begins. The elimination of Sir Andrew and Sir Toby has thus numerous precedents. While clowns are withdrawn, however, the fool will return. Feste has a word to say to Malvolio, and he is even entrusted with the epilogue-song. Similarly, As You Like It has room for Touchstone and his Audrey.

  9. Jenkins, p. 73. One cannot help suspecting that Orsino's extravagant threat to kill Cesario owes something to the desire to frighten us with a sufficiently lurid disaster. Northrop Frye's statement that “comedy contains a potential tragedy within itself” also comes to mind here: “Even in New Comedy, the dramatist usually tries to bring his action as close to a tragic overthrow of the hero as he can get it and reverses his movement as suddenly as possible.” “The Argument of Comedy,” in Essays in Shakespearian Criticism, ed J. L. Calderwood and H. E. Toliver (Englewood Cliffs, 1970), p. 53.

  10. Shakespeare's Stagecraft (Cambridge U.P., 1967), p. 109ff.

  11. Styan, p. 109.

  12. Styan, p. 111, shows the ultimate refinement of this method in Lear, II.iv., where “the succession of entrances is used to … jar upon the nerves of the hero, each entrance a signal for the redoubling of his fury.”

  13. The Merry Wives of Windsor, IV.v. 58ff.

  14. Shakespeare's Professional Skills (Cambridge U.P., 1964), p. 25.

  15. The World and Art of Shakespeare (Jerusalem, 1967), p. 167.

  16. Shalvi, p. 167.

  17. Jenkins, p. 73.

  18. Aege.                                                  … but perhaps, my son,
    Thou sham'st to acknowledge me in misery.


    Ant.                                                                                … his false cunning,
    Not meaning to partake with me in danger,
    Taught him to face me out of his acquaintance,
    And grew a twenty years removed thing
    While one would wink; …


  19. The central position of Twelfth Night in Shakespeare's work and the peculiar wealth of this play are both illustrated by the fact that while it harks back to his first comedy, it also looks forward to his last plays. Viola's

    Tempests are kind, and salt waves fresh in love!


    and Orsino's reference to “this most happy wreck” evoke an idea which is central to Pericles and important in The Tempest. Likewise, the delayed recognition between Viola and Sebastian looks like a sketch for the much more protracted, almost painfully moving reunion of Pericles and Marina in Pericles, V.i.

  20. Twelfth Night (1930), ll.274-275, n., p. 167.

  21. See I.ii.47:

    There is a fair behaviour in thee, Captain;
    And though that nature with a beauteous wall
    Doth oft close in pollution, yet of thee
    I will believe thou hast a mind that suits
    With this thy fair and outward character.
  22. “Twelfth Night” and Shakespearian Comedy (Toronto U.P., 1965), p. 45.

  23. Malvolio's appearance in V.i. is so important to Shakespeare that he breaks one of his rules. The audience is informed of what it already knows. However, we are rewarded with a piece of authentic, and welcome, news: Toby has married Maria after all.

  24. H. H. Furness, in the New Variorum edition (1901), l.333, n., p. 308, sees her motive as somewhat more selfish. According to him, Olivia “wishes to silence the Duke's importunities for ever, by marrying him to Viola.” Since Olivia is as good as married to Sebastian, however, it would appear that Orsino is already silenced.

  25. Leech, p. 38. In earlier comedies, villains and others who threaten to jeopardize the sense of harmony are either removed long before the end (Shylock), or converted and then allowed to participate in the happy ending (Oliver), or we hear that they will be duly punished (Don John). Some remove themselves because they cannot abide what others call happiness (Jaques). Malvolio is in a quite different category. His case produces a much more subtle effect, as Clifford Leech points out in his account of the peculiar uneasiness we sometimes feel in Illyria:

    To put Malvolio on a tragic level is to disregard the general effect of his appearance on the stage: rather, he is one of those comic figures at whom it is too easy to laugh, so easy that, before we know it, we have done harm and are ashamed.

    (“Twelfth Night” and Shakespearian Comedy, p. 44).

    Even if we add to this the agonizing experience of Antonio, for example, it remains an exaggeration to maintain that “the predominant mood” in Twelfth Night is “one of suffering.” (Shalvi, p. 168). When Malvolio is on stage in V.i., we may be disturbed even while the theatre echoes with our laughter. A comparable incident, though much less disturbing, is Dr. Caius' furious departure at the end of The Merry Wives of Windsor. He too voluntarily withdraws from the festive community, and storms out with the cry: “… be gar, I'll raise all Windsor.” (V.v.198). His exit has however no appreciable effect on the good humour of the ending. It is eclipsed by the generous rehabilitation of Falstaff, the “villain” who threatened the social order of Windsor. Once he is punished and even turned into a victim by the vicious “fairies,” he is invited to Mistress Page's “country fire.”

Further Reading

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Charles, Casey. “Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night.Theatre Journal 49, No. 2 (May 1997): 121-41.

Asserts that same-sex attraction—explored in the relationships of Olivia and Viola, Antonio and Sebastian, and Orsino and Viola-as-Cesario—is a crucial issue in Twelfth Night. Charles maintains that the portrayal of homoerotic attraction serves as a way of representing the social construction of sexuality through gender identity.

Daalder, Joost. “Perspectives of Madness in Twelfth Night.English Studies 2 (March 1997): 105-10.

Explores the ways in which the concept of “madness” is treated in Twelfth Night, noting that words such as “mad” and “madness” are used more often in Twelfth Night than in Shakespeare's other plays.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Fiction and Friction.” In Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, pp. 66-93. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Studies the nature of the illicit attractions in Twelfth Night.

Gregson, J. M. “The Play.” In Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, pp. 24-49. London: Edward Arnold, 1980.

Offers an overview of the plot and characters in Twelfth Night.

Hunt, Maurice. “Malvolio, Viola, and the Question of Instrumentality: Defining Providence in Twelfth Night.Studies in Philology 90, No. 3 (Summer 1993): 277-97.

Argues that through his portrayals of Malvolio and Viola, Shakespeare represented the controversy within the English Church over whether Providence works principally through a primary cause, or through a secondary agent.

Hurworth, Angela. “Gulls, Cony-Catchers and Cozeners: Twelfth Night and the Elizabethan Underworld.” Shakespeare Survey 52 (1999): 120-32.

Compares the portrayal of gulling in Twelfth Night (in which both Malvolio and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are deceived) with contemporary narratives of “underworld literature” in which deception, known colloquially as cony-catching, cozening, and gulling, is fully treated.

Huston, J. Dennis. “‘When I Came to Man's Estate’: Twelfth Night and Problems of Identity.” Modern Language Quarterly 33, No. 3 (September 1972): 274-88.

Explores both the trivial and the more significant of the unanswered questions that arise from a reading of Twelfth Night.

Ko, Yu Jin. “The Comic Close of Twelfth Night and Viola’s Noli Me Tangere.Shakespeare Quarterly 48, No. 4 (Winter 1997): 391-405.

Examines the similarity between Viola's rejection of Sebastian's embrace and Jesus's resisting Mary Magdalene's embrace after his resurrection.

Osborne, Laurie E. Introduction to Twelfe Night, Or what you will, by William Shakespeare, pp. 13-34. Hertfordshire, UK: Prentice Hall International (UK) Limited, 1995.

Discusses the textual features of the Folio, contrasting them with later texts, and examines the numerous performance options inspired by “this Shakespearean original.”

Slights, Camille. “The Principle of Recompense in Twelfth Night.Modern Language Review 77, No. 3 (July 1982): 537-46.

Maintains that the play's comic movement from chaos to harmony may be described as a transformation of fragmented isolation to cohesive mutuality.


Twelfth Night Literary Criticism (Vol. 46)


Twelfth Night Literary Criticism (Vol. 74)