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 potential of Viola's character. Like Brustein, Stearns finds that Sedgewick went to comic extremes in her portrayal of Olivia. According to Ted Merwin (1999), the production lacked a sense of eroticism on several levels; for example, the stage design conveyed only languor, and the romance between Paul Rudd's Orsino and Hunt's Viola was never ignited. Merwin applauds the performances of supporting cast members, particularly Philip Bosco's Malvolio, but contends that the production as a whole failed to convey Twelfth Night's emotional disorder and eventual resolution.
Approaching the play's gender issues through an analysis of Viola's disguise, Keir Elam (1996) observes that Viola intends to disguise herself not as a boy, but as a eunuch. Elam explores the cultural history of castration as it relates to drama in general and Viola's role in Twelfth Night in particular. Elam demonstrates that Viola's disguise conveys her desire to hide her own biological sexuality, as well as her apparent masculinity, in order to shield herself entirely from all manner of sexual threats. Elam further describes Viola's eunuch disguise as a gesture of self-effacement with historical and theatrical significance. Critics are also interested in the ways Twelfth Night reflects Renaissance England's society and culture. John Kerrigan (1997) studies the play within the context of the Renaissance conventions regarding secrecy and gossip, finding that gossip is a means—both in early modern society and in the play—of maintaining social bonds. Kerrigan also discusses the affinity between Cesario and Malvolio, noting that as servants both characters are expected to be discreet. Angela Hurworth (1999) explores the representation of deception, or gulling, in Twelfth Night. Hurworth highlights the links between criminal deception as it is described in Elizabethan narratives of the “underworld” and the deception found in the play. Twelfth Night also reflects religious ideas prevalent in Renaissance England. Paul Dean (2001) finds that the play fuses Renaissance Platonic tradition and the theology of St. Augustine relating to the doctrine of the Trinity. Using the device of twins, Dean argues, Shakespeare explored the notion that two individuals are united as one through love, a concept that was understood by Neoplatonists to be analogous to the doctrine of the Trinity.