Twelfth Night Twelfth Night Literary Criticism (Vol. 74)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, considered by many scholars to be one of the finest Elizabethan romantic comedies, offers a penetrating examination of gender roles, sexual attraction, and the nature of love. The play relates the adventures of the shipwrecked Viola, who disguises herself as a male and takes a position in the court of Orsino. The disguised Viola, who calls herself Cesario, falls in love with Orsino. Orsino, however, is in love with Olivia, and sends Viola/Cesario to woo Olivia on his behalf. The situation spins further out of control when Olivia falls in love with the disguised Viola. The play's subplot centers on the puritanical Malvolio and the punishment he endures at the hands of his fellow servants. Modern critics, as well as directors of the stage and screen, are interested in the complexities of the plot and subplot, and the relation between the two, as well as the play's interpretation of gender roles, sexuality, and love. Other areas of critical concern include the play's relationship to Elizabethan culture and issues pertaining to its genre and structure.

Examining Twelfth Night as an example of festive comedy, Elias Schwartz (1967) contends that the play's merriment and celebratory atmosphere reveal a vision of life as good and joyful, despite its admitted limitations. Schwartz also contrasts the play with satiric comedy—in which characters are often disliked and become objects of derision—and emphasizes that the play should not be viewed as satire. In his study of Twelfth Night's structure, Porter Williams, Jr. (see Further Reading) identifies a connection between plot and theme. The mistakes the protagonists make, Williams argues, not only generate the action of the plot, but also reveal aspects of the play's underlying themes, which include deception and the nature of love. As critics attempt to unlock the relationship between the play's plot and subplot, they often focus on Malvolio, who is the center of the play's subplot. In their introduction to Twelfth Night, Roger Warren and Stanley Wells (1994) find that Malvolio serves as a means of binding the plot and subplot, and that his “gulling” provides additional insights into the play's treatment of love and the behavior of the lovers. Similarly, David Willbern (1978) identifies Malvolio with integration. In exploring Malvolio's relationship to the play's festive aspects, Willbern demonstrates that Malvolio's puritanical attempts to deny carnal passion in many ways reflects the illusion of romanticism explored in the main plot. According to the critic “both represent denials and sublimations.”

The play's highly charged sexual atmosphere makes Twelfth Night a popular choice for film and stage adaptation. In 1996, Trevor Nunn directed a film version of Twelfth Night in which he offered his interpretation of the play's sexual and gender issues. Donald Lyons (1997) regards the film as a success, praises the accomplishments of the principal actors, and observes that the film teases the boundaries of “heterosexual decorum” but never oversteps them. Like Lyons, Marla F. Magro and Mark Douglas (2001) find that Nunn's film maintains a heterosexual stance, and note that the film attempts to erase the play's homosexual undertones. Laurie Osborne (2002) also assesses Nunn's Twelfth Night, focusing on the director's reliance on film editing to provide a sense of character continuity. Robert Brustein (1998) reviews Nicholas Hytner's stage adaptation of Twelfth Night, performed at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. The critic contends that despite its Hollywood casting, including Helen Hunt as Viola and Kyra Sedgewick as Olivia, the production failed to explore the play's deeper issues and complexities. Brustein also states that Hunt's performance was “clean” and “clear,” whereas Sedgewick's Olivia was overly energetic. Similarly, David Patrick Stearns (1998) describes Hunt's efforts as solid and sincere, but notes that Hunt overlooked the subtextual...

(The entire section is 92,372 words.)