Lydia Forbes (essay date autumn 1962)

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SOURCE: Forbes, Lydia. “What You Will?” Shakespeare Quarterly 13, no. 4 (autumn 1962): 475-85.

[In the following essay, Forbes examines Shakespeare's vivid character portraits in Twelfth Night, including the self-assured and charming Viola, the courageous and forthright Sebastian, the narcissistic and self-serving Malvolio, and the bawdy, witty, and wise Feste.]

A play is not necessarily spoiled by study. If you think that its theatricality is shackled when the author's theme or meaning is taken into account, that restraint is gentle compared to the chains hung on the author by opinionated thespians.

The interpreted arts suffer as often as they are exalted by the actions of interpreters. A play, the very raw material of which is the human image, is especially vulnerable to human interference. “How do you think we ought to do this play?” Ask this over-worked question of the author first, of the author as playwright. It is not his psyche, his literary life or contemporary social scene that is primarily involved, but his play. When the effect that the author wants is clear to the director and the players—so clear that they have some notion of how to approach their tasks—then it is time to look for useful help from other sources. And only then, after this much study, may a play be judged bad or frail enough to receive support from irrelevant theatricality.

I propose to show that Twelfth Night does not deserve such trimmings, and that Shakespeare did not attach his only subtitle to give his producers licence. This pungent and apt predecessor to Shakespeare's most serious plays can be liberated, by study, from smothering bonds of fantastical romance and rich vinous fumes. This study, of course, must take place in thoughtful rehearsals as well as in the closet or the classroom.

Superficial academic study can alleviate the players' ignorance of outmoded social customs and archaic words. By enlightened acting, their meaning becomes clear to the audience. Similarly, the whole play is not likely to get across to an audience unless the producers know what it is all about. Only the text, entire and in order on the stage, can guide a director to the theatricality that this particular play requires.

Reading Twelfth Night for the first time, a prospective director is introduced to a set of poetical and funny people involved in different kinds and stages of love. If he stops without finding out why these people have been assembled, if he makes the variousness of the forms of love—or the jollity of the characters—the basis of his theatrical presentation of Twelfth Night, he will present a series of sketches agreeably set off against each other—not a play. This elementary view lets directors and actors add to the play as they will, supplying the kind of laughs and sentiment which they feel it lacks. To load Twelfth Night with romping and by-play (Shakespearewrights, 1957), to embellish it with a pitfall for Sir Andrew (Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada, 1957), or crossgarters that become dexterously entwined to hobble Malvolio (The Old Vic, 1958) is to miss the point of the play as much as those who mistake its romance for sentimentality, exploiting pretty scenery and parasols (American Shakespeare Festival, 1960), introducing a non-existent love affair (The Old Vic, 1949) or drowning the production in golden light and drifting rose leaves (Ngaio Marsh, director, in Australia—and many another production). Would you keep a Breughel painting under an amber light? Play Mozart like Strauss? The primary job facing the director and the actors of a play is to show the audience all that study and technique can reveal of the effect intended by the playwright himself.

The director must find out what Shakespeare intended Twelfth Night to be like. How can he tell? To begin with, he can look at the plot, as Shakespeare set it up and made his characters act it out. The plot is a vital part of a good play. This we would more readily acknowledge were we not constantly assaulted by plots that are overworked for their own exciting sakes. From Aristotle, who called the plot the “soul” of a drama, to the Existentialists, who call the essence the product of all the actions, the behavior of the characters in a play has been considered inseparable from the intrinsic life or movement of the play itself as a work of art.

The two stories that Shakespeare uses in Twelfth Night can be summarized in the same words: A clear-sighted, purposeful woman, in dealing with self-deluded men, makes use of trickery to achieve her purpose. The incidents, as Shakespeare has chosen and arranged them, say two things: First, this play is about deceptions. Second, those who know themselves have an advantage over those who do not. Olivia says it tersely in lines whose choppy beat and alliterations force an actress to speak slowly and impressively even in the “whirlwind” of her passion.

Be that thou know'st thou art, and then thou art
As great as that thou fear'st.

(V. i. 152)

Some of the characters act rationally, some intuitively, some emotionally, but it is their shifts between the strength and weakness of honesty and dishonesty, and the action of self-knowledge on self-deception that make the basic movement of the play. “Main plot” and “sub-plot” are useful terms, but misleading when the weight of interest is as evenly balanced as it is here. The use of a story told concurrently in two ways allows great variation on the single theme and a wide opportunity for contrasts. It also gives a chance to demonstrate theatrically one important source of this vital self-knowledge that is explained by Feste:

Truly, sir, [I am] the better for my foes and the worse for my friends. … [My friends] praise me and make an ass of me; now my foes tell me plainly that I am an ass: so that by my foes, sir I profit in the knowledge of myself, and by my friends I am abused.

(V. i. 19)

In order to lay bare the “worm” of “concealment”, to distinguish between “seems” and “is”, Shakespeare uses several comic devices. First, he develops to their logical end types of behavior which seem reasonable, or at least harmless. The disproportionate, and even inverted results are often more satiric than comic. For examples of this, consider Sir Toby's last bitter jibes at Sir Andrew, or the transformation of Orsino's pretty flowery love for Olivia into a hunger like that, says Orsino, of the all-digesting sea. Second, the author uses abrupt juxtaposition of characters or incidents to reveal poignantly the real nature under their dissembling masks. If the play is shown fluently, without breaks between scenes, these sometimes bring about what seems like the pratfall of a pretense. Look at the sea-captain's terse announcement “This is Illyria, Lady”, following immediately the extended periods and conceits of the opening scene. Or Maria's trap for the “trout that must be caught with tickling” which succeeds Viola's “patience on a monument” speech, so carefully attuned to Orsino's mood. Third, the outright mistakes made by the dissembling characters taking each other at face value are funny. This is most obvious in the duel scenes. But mistakes made by characters in the play, as part of the story, cannot be demonstrated to the audience by actors who have themselves failed to distinguish between what is supposed to be real and what is supposed to be mistaken. How many aging, failing Festes have we seen because Olivia's and Malvolio's lines are taken as the key to the Clown's own nature? Should Olivia be enacted as Orsino sees her? Malvolio as Sir Toby sees him? Or Orsino as he imagines himself to be?

These comic devices in Twelfth Night are not used to make the play seem realistic. Shakespeare works out the various aspects and consequences of dissembling with variations and permutations like those of a fugue. Here are the false-faces of the Elizabethan Twelfth Night masquerade, as well as the topsy-turvydom of the feast of Misrule, and, above all at Epiphany, the showing forth of man. The formal arrangement of Twelfth Night includes the title, and the humor loses its bite outside of the context the author made for it. This play has more of the critical comic spirit of Jonson and Molière, carefully expressed in artifice, than Shakespeare's other comedies.

Much of the perspective that the audience has on the action of the play is afforded by the comments of a character who has a thoroughly artificial place in his society—the official Clown or Fool. The whole play is carefully limited in three very special ways. Socially: The principal characters are all “gentlefolk”, with the exception of the sea-captains and the Fool, who serve the exposition and the commentary more than they do the plot. Geographically: No one arrives in Illyria except by shipwreck, and there is no attempt to create a microcosm or any sense of the wide world beyond. Verbally: The poetry and prose in which the play is expressed are graceful and perfectly suited to its restrictions. Rarely is there intense emotional pressure or elaborate imagery. It seems, rather, that the characters are themselves symbols of the various facets of the underlying idea.

The story of the nobly born Viola, disguised as the page boy, “Cesario”, is usually considered the principal plot of Twelfth Night. She sets her heart on the Duke Orsino of Illyria, and finally weds him. He is a good man and worthy of her, but temporarily so confused by a romantically far-fetched notion of love that he would not be able to appreciate her in her own feminine dress.

Beside this story we have a series of events engineered by a gentlewoman, Maria, attendant on the Countess Olivia. Maria's aim is to marry Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch. By pretending to gratify Sir Toby's desire to be revenged on the officious steward, Malvolio, Maria succeeds in getting Sir Toby so far out of favor with his niece that he marries Maria in order to remain a member of the household.

Linking these two patterns, the Lady Olivia, as the unresponsive object of Orsino's attentions, moves briskly but with dignity, and an outstanding appreciation of honesty in respect to both the good and the bad.

In the opening scene of the play the audience is regaled with the full exuberance and verbal confusion that deception and self-delusion bring about. It is like a musical opening by Brahms, in which the themes are developed before they are stated. With the second scene, austere and isolated on the seacoast, the premises and the thesis of the play are demonstrated. The sea-captain, who rescues Viola from the shipwreck and brings her ashore in Illyria, describes the country and what he knows of its people. Viola gives us her own measure and his in her famous lines:

There is a fair behavior 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.

(I. ii. 45)

While an ironic contrast exists between Viola's speech and her intention to disguise herself, her recognition of her own limitations and her own “fair behavior” after real peril clear the unreal atmosphere of the opening scene, and also put the following extravagances of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in their place.

Viola's charm and wit and continual self-consciousness about her own disguise help us understand the people she is dealing with. She is so reasonable and patient that when she trusts someone we are persuaded that her faith is justified. Only the unreasonable in human nature forces her to disguise herself. As a woman of her position, and in such a situation, she could not be a free agent; so she dresses like her brother and calls herself “Cesario”. She, like Olivia, needs time to get her bearings after a calamity in her family. She and Olivia dissemble in various ways to gain time.

Viola's first thought after being rescued is the hopeful one that her brother may also have survived. Her second thought is that she must now act on her own account. She has no family here. Since she has apparently heard of Orsino as a possible husband, she becomes a page in his household, to see for herself whether he might fill the bill. Though her deception serves her well, before the play is done Viola admits that disguise is, in fact, a “wickedness” wherein “the pregnant enemy [i.e. the Devil] does much.”

The portrait of Viola shows that Shakespeare, in writing a stylized play, does not prevent his characters from coming alive. Their energy does not seem confined by any pattern, but occasionally the pattern becomes so clear that characterization takes second place. The two sea-captains who rescue Viola and Sebastian are a case in point. Shakespeare makes them both men of profound integrity. Antonio, who rescues Sebastian, scorns any disguise even though he knows his life is in danger here, and he is arrested by Orsino's men. Viola's nameless rescuer goes so far as to help her to disguise herself, and keeps her secret even when he is “in durance at Malvolio's suit”. Both honest, both imprisoned in this odd land, these two men of the sea make a strong and arbitrary contrast to the prevailing distortions of life on shore in Illyria.

The first sight of Orsino, the Duke, should be as different from the first sound, as Viola's swaggering costume is from her very feminine nature. The reader of the play sees only the Duke's fantastic words, the actor will show the outward form of Orsino, who, in the last act, says to the sea-captain Antonio

That face of his I do remember well,
Yet, when I saw it last, it was besmear'd
As black as Vulcan in the smoke of war:
A bawbling vessel was he captain of,
For shallow draught and bulk unprizable;
With which most scathful grapple did he make
With the most noble bottom of our fleet,
That very envy and the tongue of loss
Cried fame and honor on him.

(V. i. 55)

This Duke, who can recognize so well the quality of Antonio, is “noble in nature as in name”. Yet for the greater part of the play he is baffled and deluded. Imagining that he is in love with Olivia, he feels both exalted and harassed by his “desires”. He grants that he does not prize her riches, but he cannot see that he does not even prize her. Her beauty and her sex arouse in him a kind of emotion, conceit and mixed metaphor which he enjoys and thinks he needs so desperately that, at the end, he cries out for the heart to kill Olivia rather than lose her. So strong can the shape of fancy become!

By the fourth scene, Orsino has actually fallen in love with Viola. She wins him “liver and all” in the second act by talking to him in his own “fantastical” way. Her disguise lets him become devoted, without being confused by the erratic passions he associates with love of woman. That devotion is clear in one of the most comic moments in the last act, when his greeting to Olivia: “Now heaven walks on earth” is followed abruptly by a return to the puzzle of Antonio's identification of Cesario. The only sudden change in Orsino at the end of the play is his loss of the delusion that he loves Olivia.

Olivia's message to Orsino in the opening scene, refusing his suit, should seem like too much protestation, even without the benefit of hindsight. Here is a girl who is suddenly left all alone to manage the affairs of a great estate. She is saddled with her father's younger brother—a liability—and with an importunate neighbor who insists that she wed. She cannot accept him; so she publicly exaggerates out of all reason her natural grief at the death of her brother, so as to keep the unwelcome suitor at arm's length.

Viola, as Orsino's ambassador to Olivia, cannot help judging Olivia by what she has heard, and by the rebuffs encountered at the Countess's gate. To Viola, Olivia is like the subject of Shakespeare's 94th sonnet, one of those who “moving others, are themselves as stone”, who take care to be “the lords and owners of their faces”. Viola calls her “too proud” when Olivia's unveiling and itemizing of her face emphasize this attitude. There is certainly further deception, conscious or unconscious, by Viola in this first dialogue between these ladies. Viola carries out her master's orders to woo Olivia in a way that cannot succeed.

Viola's wit and aplomb, her independence and scorn for her own well-conned flowery speech are at once congenial to Olivia. When Viola, in exasperation, pulls out all the stops on her own natural poetry, Olivia dives into her bag of tricks to win “him”. She tries to give “him” money, she sends “him” a ring, she wonders, when all her pleading seems to no avail: “How shall I feast him—what bestow of him—For youth is bought more oft than begged or borrowed.”

Olivia is very young, then, and probably slight of figure to be suitably matched to “Cesario”. Anyone as competent as she shows herself to be, as Sebastian notes that she is, and as a mistress would have to be to suit Malvolio, would not mismatch herself. She has been forced to grow up quickly in the last months, and her discovery of her own capabilities has gone to her head. But, since she is reasonable as well as practical, she can see that she is being swept off her feet and put suddenly into the position she has always objected to in Orsino (that of unrequited lover). This forces her to conceal her own nature from herself, to speak of “enchantment”, and say in most un-Olivia-like tones these lines, which are noticeably difficult to say naturally:

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

(I. v. 331)

However this may comfort her, she does not actually leave to Fate anything which she can manage.

At her second visit as Cesario, careful to seem more courtly, formal and remote than the first time, Viola is met by the full storm of Olivia's recklessness. This is not only caused by passion, but by intuitive uneasiness:

I prithee, tell me what thou think'st of me.
That you do think you are not what you are.
If I think so, I think the same of you.
Then think you right: I am not what I am.
I would you were as I would have you be.

(III. i. 151)

Sebastian, Viola's twin, is exactly what Olivia would have him be.

The most fundamental consideration in the relationship between “seems” and “is” arises with the confusion of Sebastian and Viola. When Olivia mistakes Sebastian for “Cesario”, she is seeing the same spirit in both. Her eye is not stopped at the surface by any probable difference of height and voice. She did not fall in love with a physique. This is a difficult theatrical problem, certainly, but one to be tackled with bravado rather than coyness, because it is more than a casual assumption of the plot—it is a considered criticism of what we are accustomed to call “real”, the façade. Olivia must be consistently shown as a person who is wary of letting her eye be “too great a flatterer for [her] mind”. Her intuitive summing up of people is always made at a deeper level than this. As for the confusion of Antonio in mistaking Cesario for Sebastian, I believe that the only assumption the actor can make is that that honest stalwart could never entertain the suspicion of a disguise. He is far too much upset by the overwhelming sin of ingratitude to notice any surface changes in his erstwhile idol.

Sebastian has as much romantic venturesomeness, courage, charm and—all important to this play—integrity as Viola. But in his astonishing impetuosity he is a mirror image, rather than a copy, of his twin's equally astonishing patience. Their intentions are the same, their ways of carrying them out are very different.

Two such spirits as Viola and Sebastian are required as “fitting climax to the swelling act” which in the end unmasks all the characters of this play. They are needed by Olivia and Orsino as mates of the appropriate sex. They are used by Shakespeare to emphasize “what a piece of work is man”.

The same theme as that of the story of Viola is also developed on another set of instruments. The story of the winning of Sir Toby Belch by Maria shows her determination and successful ruse prevailing over the weakness of his self-deception.

In Maria, to use the language of her intended husband, the spirit of the queen of the Amazons is incarnate in the body of a “wren”. Maria knows herself, her wit and abilities, her place in the household and her exact intentions, or perhaps ambitions would be the better word. The first time we meet her there is a conjugal ring to her nagging of Sir Toby that is different from the way she teases Sir Andrew and the camaraderie with which she jokes with the fool. (She is as adept as Viola in observing the “quality of persons” with whom she jests.) Her treatment of Sir Toby not only gives the lie to his masterful air, but makes it seem likely that his wedding her is only a matter of time. The problem, as the Fool states it at first, is to get Sir Toby sober. At the end he is not only still drunk, but beaten up—yet Maria has marshalled her forces successfully. She alone proposes the writing of a love letter to Malvolio purporting to come from the Lady Olivia, asking the steward to behave in a rude and ridiculous way. She is careful not to be watching with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew when Malvolio is taken in by the trick, nor ever to say anything impertinent in front of Malvolio. Malvolio realizes, however, that Maria is not stopping Sir Toby's noisy revels, which have so annoyed Olivia that she asks him to leave the house if he cannot behave himself. After Malvolio is imprisoned for lunacy, Sir Toby confesses that he is “now so far in offense with [his] niece, that [he] cannot pursue with any safety this sport to the upshot.” We hear no more of Maria until the end of the play, after Sir Toby's disastrous encounter with Sebastian, when Fabian solemnly states, as if he believes it, that Sir Toby made Maria forge the letter to Malvolio—and married her in “recompense”!

This is as superficially sudden as Orsino's capitulation to Viola, and Sir Toby will never be any more aware than Orsino that this result has been in the making since Act I. In many ways the figures in the “sub-plot” seem like the figures in the “main plot” reflected in a carnival mirror, distorted by their greater selfishness and lesser grace.

Sir Toby is no more stupid than Orsino, and can be really forceful on occasion. Viola's remark that “wise men, folly fall'n, quite taint their wit” is immediately followed by the appearance of Sir Toby's paunch upon the stage. But his follies are of a variety which we are accustomed to stereotype as a vague and pleasant muddle of the “Falstaff” image and Old King Cole. (We are too lenient with Sir Toby, as we are inclined to be too stern with Orsino.) Sir Toby has always presented a bold front, by means of drink and bullying, but, within the play, he deceives only Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the “little-wit”. Sir Andrew is very easily fooled by anyone who cares to try, including himself. Sir Toby preens himself before this insubstantial figure, and seems to profit as much from this self-aggrandizement as from the Aguecheek purse, which he is milking with false promises of marriage to his niece.

Sir Andrew is amiable and ingenuous in regard to his foolishness as well as to his pretense of robustness and valor. But, unless Twelfth Night is considered only as a revel, there would seem to be little in this gullible little playboy to attract the attention of leading actors, as the part undoubtedly does. All the shallowness of Sir Toby is in his sycophant, without any of the intelligence and vigor that Sir Toby is misusing. Sir Toby is a strong man, weakened by aimlessness, covering himself boisterously with false strength. Sir Andrew makes a more clearly defined impression by being uncomplicatedly weak. But Sir Andrew is definitely the straight man for Sir Toby, not Sir Toby for Sir Andrew. The director who helps Sir Andrew to steal scenes with overdone clothes and builds him up with extra stage business is helping a natural difficulty of the situation to become a calamity to the play.

And then there is Malvolio—who has probably fascinated more Twelfth Night audiences than any of these other characters. Although his place in the story is only that of a butt for Maria's joke, his monumental simplicity gives him great strength in the play. Like Antonio, he “looks on tempests and is never shaken”. In his self-love, ambition, and lack of imagination, he is the focus of very real wishes that he may come to grief through overpresumption. But his masquerade is an involuntary mistake, and Olivia sympathizes with this “poor fool” because he is honest, he cannot be other than he is. Olivia “would not have him miscarry for the half of [her] dowry”, and, for his part, Malvolio has a profound respect for his Lady, and believes her household and family should befit her. There is no fun or revelry in this naive man, and that is why he cannot understand the fun of others. They call this attitude malice.

Malvolio's first entrance obviously follows his disparaging report to Olivia that the Clown has grown “dishonest” (in the Elizabethan sense). The repercussions of this piece of undoubtedly accurate reporting he lives to regret, though never understand, in prison when “Sir Topas” comes to call. Between the rather austere satisfaction Malvolio has learned to make for himself by “practising behavior to his own shadow”, and the straightforward anger and determination to have revenge that he feels in the last act, his mistaken efforts to please and woo his Lady should bloom earnest and vivid and unbecoming. His imprisonment cannot make him more or less understanding—he is only hurt and wants to get out. It is Sir Toby who is penalized for something he only wished for and watched, and Malvolio who is to judge him—Malvolio, who thought he had his heart's desire and did not. To play Malvolio “straight”, as Howard Hewes is startled to admit after seeing the production of the Canadian Stratford Festival, does help the balance of the play, much as he seems to prefer the simultaneous view of the twins so deftly managed to confuse the poor steward.

Olivia's professional Fool, Feste, is silently present when Maria tells Sir Toby and Sir Andrew her plan to trick Malvolio into thinking Olivia loves him. He is not there to see the trick played out. Fabian, a straightforward sporting individual, may be left over from some casting change early in the life of Twelfth Night, but he serves well as a buffer between the Clown and the plot. Except for his masquerade as “Sir Topas, the curate” visiting “Malvolio, the lunatic”, Feste takes no part in other people's schemes, and this bit of personal revenge is quickly balanced by his promise to help Malvolio. It is quite in character for him to bring light and the means of freedom, and his superlative discourse on dissembling is also germane to the whole play. But his roles would not be well served by any participation in the trick of the letter or in its defense at the end. Hence Fabian.

That Olivia delights in Feste—the Clown, the Jester, the Fool—is a strong recommendation of them both. Olivia's ability to recognize and like an honest soul intuitively shows itself in her attachment to Feste, as well as to Viola, Sebastian, and Malvolio. She is willing to consider Malvolio's charge against Feste, but she is equally willing to see that on the Fool's own terms—“there's no true cuckold but calamity”—Feste is not “dishonest”. If she really wanted to discharge him, he would be gone.

An undue penchant for women and bawdry was, of course, the Fool's prerogative, and Feste takes advantage of this. When he will not say where he has been for “so long”, Maria calls his pun on being “well-hanged” by retorting that he has learned his courage “in the wars”. Mentioned only in passing, this provides a needed glint of contrast to Orsino's kind of love making, as the Clown's forthright begging contrasts with Sir Toby's confidence tricks.

In giving us perspective on these people and events, the Fool has two roles to play. First, in being all things to all men, he holds up to them a mocking mirror where they may not see themselves, though we, the audience, do. In singing “Come Away Death”, he out-Orsinos Orsino (and—possibly—exploits an Elizabethan synonym for “dying”); in witless joking he surpasses Sir Andrew to his face. He also comments directly on the characters and progress of the interwoven stories. In his first scene, after he has been “so long absent”, he absolves Olivia of mourning, which frees her to become infatuated with Cesario. In Viola, Feste meets his match. “I do not care for you, Sir”, says he. Can he not penetrate Cesario's mask? Though the Clown's wish does not make Cesario invisible then, by the end of the play that “gentleman” is certainly on his way out.

Feste, naturally, has the last words of the play. Why is it that theatrical and literary appraisal of his final song agree on a relaxed tone and kindly purpose for this ditty that are completely out of character for Feste? Even if he were “dissolving the ‘present laughter’” and “returning us to the ‘real’ world”, his apparent gentleness would be far from kind. But have we been so separated from reality all evening that we must be returned? We all recognize the catalogue of childish follies listed in his song which are no longer toys in the grown-up world: knavery, swaggering, drunkenness. In vehement anger at Antonio's accusation, Viola lists “lying, vainness, babbling drunkenness” as only less hateful than ingratitude. Now, Feste is holding his mocking mirror up to us, and we join the characters of the play in being unable to recognize ourselves and what the jester is really doing. He is parodying our ability to slough off Viola's anger and the anger of her creator, to enjoy the music and laugh at the characters in this play, to shield ourselves from the wind and the rain and go away untouched. This play, to Feste (and he seems to include even the author in his wry commentary), is too “bawbling” a vessel to grapple with the course and nature of the world. The audience will be “pleased” and, if they think of anything less gay will only say: “Oh, well, ‘the rain it raineth every day.’”

In addition to the plot and characters of Twelfth Night, Shakespeare uses the very forms of speech in this play to exhibit the deceptions he is talking about. In this comparatively inarticulate age, we revel in Shakespeare's mastery of language. Listening to Feste, we understand what aversion Shakespeare felt when he came to make his way with words, only to find that these tools of his trade had been degraded and made “wanton”, made to lie with many meanings, here in this capital of wit and poetry. Much has been said about the contrast between the love of delicacy and beauty which Shakespeare shared with his audience, and the stench and cruelty of their city. The Globe could be separated from the bear pits by the force of Shakespeare's power to invoke Illyria or Elsinore and the audience's willingness to concentrate its attention on this kind of poetry. Was it also willing to pay attention to the poet's exasperated cry: “To see this age! A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit: how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward!” The twisting “rascal” words that weave through Twelfth Night are essential ingredients in the careful pattern of deceptions.

SIR Andrew.
… I know that to be up late is to be up late.
SIR Toby.
A false conclusion; I hate it as an unfilled can. To be up after midnight and to go to bed then is early: so that to go to bed after midnight is to go to bed betimes.


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


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


Feste claims that his jesting is corruption of words, and in his dialectic he demonstrates what he is doing. He wears no motley in his brain—but he can show you Orsino's “doublet of changeable taffeta”.

When the difference between what is seen and what is understood is too great, the people who are involved, and far from objective, cry “madman!” By the nature of its theme, this cry is often heard in Twelfth Night. Toby in drink is “mad”. Malvolio, of course, is “mad” to Olivia, and is teased about being possessed of the Devil. All the people are “mad” to poor Sebastian, who is so effectively disguised by looking like “Cesario”. And the climax comes when Antonio confronts Cesario with:

Thou hast, Sebastian, done good feature shame.
In nature there's no blemish but the mind;
None can be call'd deform'd but the unkind:
Virtue is beauty, but the beauteous evil
Are empty trunks o'er flourish'd by the devil.
FIRST Officer:
The man grows mad: away with him!


The Illyrian officer calls Antonio mad when Antonio, with the authority of demonstrated honesty, blazons the real nature of madness. He can say that the devil possesses the “beauteous evil”, that the “deformed” mind, masquerading under “good feature”, is the only blemish in nature. Sir Toby naturally dismisses Antonio's words immediately as “most sage saws”, going on to decry Viola's dishonesty and topping that with her cowardice. “A coward, a most devout coward; religious in it”.

Where Toby sees platitudes and weakness, there is the courage that takes Antonio undisguised into the hostile city and makes him, flanked by guards, such a powerful figure on the stage when he is a captive. There is the courage that sustains Viola throughout the play and makes her willing to die at Orsino's whim. Here is the upshot of this exposition of pretenses.

Be that thou know'st thou art, and then thou art
As great as that thou fear'st.

Shakespeare, with faith in his “powerful rhyme”, meant this play to be a lasting, stageable product, not too intricate to be acted out well. It certainly stood the test of production under his eye. Will the audience meet his effort, and that of the director and actors, halfway? A play needs as much consideration as painting or sculpture or music. “I've seen it” is not a permit to say “I know that play”. How soon does one admit to “knowing” a symphony? However, good plays are not so readily available in this country as other forms of art. So we have not yet been made to learn our jobs as play-goers, our responsibility to look beyond plots and characters to the whole play. Nevertheless, a play's director does not owe us, for our ignorance, ingratiating decorations. He owes us a simple, unified production.

Nevertheless, Twelfth Night cannot fairly be presented as merely an entertainment, a revel, a festival or as Saturnalia. Critics like Mr. Clurman and Mr. Tynan should be moved to do more than call it a “nice”, “sweet”, “dewy”, “mellow”, or “cool” theatrical pastime, begging your indulgence for its “transvestite situations” which are “hard to bring off with any conviction”. It should not, moreover, be staged as if it were by A Comedy of Errors out of Much Ado About Nothing. It has a sinewy, wiry fabric of its own, with its own brilliance and beauty. And a player who asks, like Orsino, “What shall I do?” should attend to Olivia's answer: “Even what it please my lord, that shall become him.” To stage Twelfth Night, learn its own lesson: “What You Will” must be disciplined by what is honestly becoming to the proper nature of this individual play.


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Twelfth Night

Viewed as one of Shakespeare's finest romantic comedies, Twelfth Night (c. 1600-01) continues to be praised by scholars as a fascinating and evocative study of love, sexual desire, and personal discovery. Its central plot concerns a love triangle between the Illyrian nobleman Orsino, his beloved but unattainable Olivia, and the shipwrecked Viola. After disguising herself as the male page Cesario, Viola takes a position in Orsino's court and swiftly becomes enamored of her patron even as he sends her to woo Olivia on his behalf. Olivia, in turn, falls in love with Viola, whom she believes to be a man. The play also features a subplot centered on the priggish Malvolio, steward to Olivia, and the punishment he endures at the hands of his fellow servants. Modern critical assessments of Twelfth Night have tended to focus on the drama's captivating characters as well as on its themes of love, gender, and sexuality. Regarding Twelfth Night's place within the Shakespearean canon, S. Musgrove (see Further Reading) describes the work as the last in a series of harmoniously resolved festive comedies that includes the plays As You Like It and Much Ado about Nothing. J. M. Gregson (see Further Reading) distinguishes Twelfth Night as the epitome of Elizabethan romantic comedy, and finds in its skilled blending of disparate and contradictory elements “an almost perfect play.”

Critics have long acknowledged the appeal of Twelfth Night's principal characters, particularly the play's protagonist Viola and the abused Malvolio, who are both considered to be among Shakespeare's most outstanding comic characterizations. Lydia Forbes (1962) examines Shakespeare's vivid portraits of the self-assured and charming Viola, the courageous and forthright Sebastian, the narcissistic and self-serving Malvolio, and the bawdy, witty, and wise Feste. In Forbes's estimation, these and the remaining personalities in Twelfth Night intricately combine to produce a highly satisfying symphony of language and character. Larry S. Champion (1968) also examines the complexity of character in Twelfth Night. According to the critic, the characters' true but hidden identities are revealed over the course of the play as they experience a deepening sense of their own self-knowledge. Cynthia Lewis (1986) questions the traditional assumption that Viola is the moral center of Twelfth Night. Instead, she maintains that Antonio, rather than Viola, is consistently portrayed as the ideal moral figure in the drama, but acknowledges that the play is principally concerned with Viola's moral development. Edward Cahill (1996) concentrates on the figure of Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Much-maligned by his compatriots, Malvolio has generally been a favorite of audiences and critics precisely because of his combined tragic and comic potentiality. Cahill examines this intriguing mix by delving into the psychology of this character, noting his narcissism and painful identity crisis as well as his thwarted and obsessive desires for sexual, social, and personal fulfillment.

Twelfth Night remains among the most popular of Shakespearean comedies on the stage. While some directors stress the comic aspects of the drama, others have emphasized the play's more troubling undertones. Robert Brustein (2002) reviews Brian Kulick's 2002 production of Twelfth Night at the open-air Delacorte Theatre in New York City's Central Park, starring Julia Stiles as Viola and Christopher Lloyd as Malvolio. The critic observes that the production relied too heavily on facile visual conceits and contends that Kulick and his star-studded cast barely explored the depths of character and theme offered by Shakespeare's text. While light comedy was the focus of Kulick's staging, director Sam Mendes's 2002 Donmar Warehouse Theatre production stressed the play's darker elements. Appraising Mendes's work, critic John Mullan (2002) contends that an overemphasis on the erotic and sensual aspects of the drama, as well as on the suffering of Malvolio, obscured its comic elements and proved detrimental to the production. Reviewing the 2002 Holderness Theater Company production of Twelfth Night directed by Rebecca Holderness, Kenneth Gross (2002) praises the minimalist staging of the play and calls attention to its fine dramaturgical effects, including the setting, lighting, dance, and music. In his appraisal of the 2001 to 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company season, Russell Jackson (2002) comments on director Lindsay Posner's Twelfth Night, which was set in the artistic milieu of fin-de-siècle aestheticism. The critic observes the erotic and decadent qualities of the production and highlights several individual performances, including Guy Henry's strangely empathetic Malvolio and Mark Hadfield's touching Feste.

Contemporary scholars continue to be interested in Twelfth Night's themes concerning love, gender, sexuality, and self-discovery. A. Fred Sochatoff (see Further Reading) concentrates on the play's presentation of love in its many manifestations, including obsessive, fickle, self-pitying, narcissistic, buffoonish, and true. The critic also provides a survey of character in relation to the drama's theme of love, noting in particular how Feste frames the various love and pseudo-love relationships of the play through his witty observations on the events that unfold before him. Camille Slights (1982) maintains that Twelfth Night illustrates the thematic principal of reciprocity as the foundation of successful human relationships. The critic notes that the characters in the play achieve personal fulfillment and social accord through generosity, compassion, service, alliance, and awareness of the restrictions imposed by personal ambition and self-absorption. F. B. Tromly (1974) suggests that Shakespeare combined a comic and moral purpose in Twelfth Night by allowing his characters to learn of the hardships and dangers of the world through the spirit of folly. According to Tromly, folly is a positive force in the play, one that allows the characters to come to terms with life by learning to accept “delusion, vulnerability, and mortality.” In his 1982 essay, Thad Jenkins Logan claims that Twelfth Night—despite its ostensible depiction of a festive and happy resolution—contains glimpses of the darker side of human desire. Lastly, Marcus Cheng Chye Tan (2001) discusses the relationship of music to the play's theme of sexual ambivalence, focusing in particular on the character of Viola/Cesario and the motifs of cross-dressing, bisexuality, and androgyny.

F. B. Tromly (essay date spring 1974)

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SOURCE: Tromly, F. B. “Twelfth Night: Folly's Talents and the Ethics of Shakespearean Comedy.” Mosaic 7, no. 3 (spring 1974): 53-68.

[In the following essay, Tromly suggests that folly is a positive force in Twelfth Night, one that allow the characters to come to terms with life by learning to accept “delusion, vulnerability, and mortality.”]

Well, God give them wisdom that have it, and those that are fools, let them use their talents.

(I, v, 13-14)

To speak of the ethics of Shakespearean comedy, and especially those of a play so dedicated to “good fooling” as Twelfth Night, smacks of critical perversity. When Feste asks Toby and Andrew, “Would you have a love song, or a song of good life [a song praising the virtuous life],” the two superannuated roaring boys surely answer for the audience as well as for themselves. Toby exclaims, “A love song, a love song,” and Andrew's response, as usual, is a vacuous echo: “Ay, ay, I care not for good life” (II, iii, 32-35).1 Only a Malvolio would want to deny the play the cakes and ale of comic release. The vision of romantic comedy tends to hold the reality principle in abeyance, to dissolve it in music and moonlight, and hence our quotidian notions of ethical conduct may seem irrelevant to Illyria and the forest of Arden.

Also, one hesitates to dilate on the ethics of Shakespeare's comedies because there is a sense in which the comic world actively subverts moral codes. It does so by suggesting that people stumble upon rather than earn their happiness, and hence it reassures us that felicity is not reserved for the conspicuously virtuous. As every Jack gets his Jill, hormones seem as instrumental as head or heart in bringing about the inevitable mass marriages. The romantic comedies manage to sidestep the crushing moral issues which lie at the core of tragedy because they insinuate that mistakes simply don't count. To borrow the Captain's words to Viola, comedy works to “comfort you with chance” (I, ii, 8).

Whatever the ethics of the comedies may be, they have nothing to do with law. The comic form capitalizes on an important psychic fact: that breaking the law, and watching it be broken, are deeply satisfying. The exhilaration which comedy creates stems partially from its systematic violation of statutory law as well as the law of probability. Shakespeare's comedies insist on the inadequacy of the law, and their denouements often turn on its violation. In The Merchant of Venice Shylock gets his comeuppance when his insistence on the strict application of the law backfires. The attempt of the humorous Egeus to inflict “the ancient privilege of Athens” upon his nubile daughter carries the plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream into the license of the woods. Nowhere in the comedies does the law seem so inimical and foreign to human needs as in Measure for Measure, where the “most biting laws” (I, iii, 19) are often imaged as a beast of prey. Frequently the comedies insinuate that the law is itself unlawful. In his first appearance on stage, Falstaff derides the “rusty curb of old father antic the law” (I, ii, 56), which implies that the law is the true lord of misrule. It is no coincidence that many of Shakespeare's comedies locate their action during a time of Holiday or Carnival, when the proper law is the inversion of law.

This enmity between comedy and law is a consequence of comedy's most fundamental ethical axiom—that only limited moral achievement can be expected of man. Comedy discovers its perspective on morality in its insistence on human weakness. It is that great melancholic, Hamlet, who voices the discrepancy which comedy creates between the demands of the law and man's congenital inability to fulfill them. When Polonius says that he will treat the visiting players “according to their desert,” Hamlet retorts:

God's bodkin, man, much better! Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.

(II, ii, 516-19)

Man delights not Hamlet, nor woman neither, as he has told Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a few moments earlier. The actions of Claudius, Gertrude, and Ophelia, and his mistaken sense of his own cowardice, have given him ample cause to revile human frailty, and yet, for a moment, he contemplates moral failure with a tolerant equanimity. Since everyone merits the whip for misdemeanour, no one should have to suffer what he deserves. Huck Finn, the Hamlet of Hannibal, shares the Prince's point of view when he decides to help the murderers trapped on a sinking steamship:

I begun to think how dreadful it was, even for murderers, to be in such a fix. I says to myself, there ain't no telling but I might come to be a murderer myself yet, and then how would I like it?2

Like Hamlet, Huck never forgets that he is “low-down and ornery.”

No less an authority on comedy than Falstaff endorses Hamlet's and Huck's viewpoint. When Hal tries to shame him for cheating Mistress Quickly, Falstaff replies:

Thou knowest in the state of innocency Adam fell, and what should poor Jack Falstaff do in the days of villainy? Thou seest I have more flesh than another man, and therefore more frailty.

(III, iii, 158-62)

Shakespearean comedy acknowledges the consequences of the Fall, but, like Falstaff, it proceeds to turn Calvinism inside-out by suggesting that man's frailty should exonerate rather than damn him. For the Calvinist, man is depraved, but for the comic artist he is only deprived. In Shakespearean comedy the key terms for man's limitation are two: frailty and folly. These terms are close in meaning, but not interchangeable. Folly resides primarily in the mind, while frailty is weakness of the flesh. In the romantic comedies, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night, folly predominates, while in the so-called “dark comedies” the emphasis shifts to frailty. But, regardless of differences of emphasis, comedy always fashions a world of diminished moral expectation. Paradoxical as it may sound, Shakespeare's comedies are less sanguine about human potentiality than the tragedies. The gentle scepticism of the comedies questions excellence in evil as well as in goodness; as Don John and Oliver discover, comic villainy is destined to incompetence, vulnerable to the sleuthing of a Dogberry.

Twelfth Night, the last and richest of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, gathers up the themes of the earlier comedies, and one senses in the play a new exploration of the possibilities of comic form. It is almost as if Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night after mulling over his earlier comedies and deciding he would have a last try. The most telling manifestation of Shakespeare's new commitment is the play's emphasis on human limitation. None of the other romantic comedies forces us to question human capability in the way Twelfth Night does. None of the earlier comedies gives us so much of the dark side of comedy's moon. The movement from Twelfth Night to Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida (all written in about two years) is not as surprising as it may first seem.3

Twelfth Night is of course not unique among the romantic comedies in its reference to the sadness of things. All the comedies employ what might be called tragic relief. In Northrop Frye's phrase, “in almost any comedy we may become aware of having been delivered from the tragedy.”4 In fact, most of Shakespeare's so-called “happy comedies” begin and end in shadow. A Midsummer Night's Dream, for instance, begins with images of the waning moon, the wasting away of desire, and love won by inflicting injury. It ends with a lamentable comedy (lamentably acted), with the tolling of “the iron tongue of midnight,” and with Puck describing how the screech owl “Puts the wretch that lies in woe / In remembrance of a shroud” (V, i, 366-67). Similarly, the opening lines of Love's Labour's Lost refer to “brazen tombs,” “the disgrace of death,” and “cormorant devouring Time,” and at the end the sombre announcement of the King's death breaks in upon the festivities. A pair of seasonal songs concludes the play, with the song of Winter significantly following that of Spring. Thus, the whirligig of Time brings in his revenges on us all. The romantic comedies always hint at the incompleteness of their vision.

Twelfth Night is a play of much mirth, good fooling. Twelfth Night, itself, we should recall, was traditionally a time of licensed festivity and carnival. Inversions of hierarchy, masqueradings, song, and excessive drink were the disorder of the day. Shakespeare's play beautifully recreates the celebratory nature of its social occasion.5 Yet, the play constantly reminds us that its lovers and roisterers are playing out their games in a context of suffering, hazard, and death. To put it another way, the foreground of the play is festive, but in its immediate background Shakespeare constantly reminds us that life isn't always happy, and in fact cannot sustain happiness for long.

At the outset, we hear of the recent deaths of Olivia's father and brother, as well as a reference to pestilence in the air. Then in the next scene we hear a vivid description of a shipwreck, meet a defenceless young woman cast ashore in a foreign land, and entertain the likelihood of yet another dead brother. The ensuing complication of the action creates confusion and anxiety among the characters, who experience intensely such painful emotions as jealousy and impute ingratitude and disloyalty to the people closest to them. Also, the sub-plot concerning the gulling of Malvolio leaves a bad taste in many readers' mouths and suggests that even foolery has its dark side. The play reminds Clifford Leech of those social occasions on which “we look coldly on the merry-making and the good relationship and see the precariousness of our tolerance for one another, the degree of pretence in all sociability.”6

Perhaps the darkest aspect of the play is its frequent reference to the remorseless attrition of mutability. It refuses to let us forget that “beauty's a flower” (I, v, 47) and that women are as roses, which die “even when they to perfection grow” (II, iv, 40). Even its songs, which dally with the innocence of love, concern themselves with the interment of dead lovers and remind us that “youth's a stuff will not endure” (II, iii, 49). The play ends with Feste's piercingly lonely and plangent song—as we leave the playhouse we walk into the world of its insistent refrain, where “the rain it raineth every day.”

The darkness of the play is not confined to these sombre references to disaster and time's ruthless passage. The action of the plot creates for the audience a constant spectacle of illusion and deception. The limitations of the characters are bodied forth most vividly in their lack of knowledge about the world and themselves. They are constantly deceived about their own identity as well as that of others. To borrow a phrase from Feste, the play gives us “Misprision in the highest degree” (I, v, 50). Shakespeare sharpens the audience's awareness of the characters' illusions by always giving it more information than the people on stage possess. In none of the other romantic comedies is the discrepancy between the Olympian awareness of the audience and the limited awareness of the characters so sustained. Bertrand Evans informs us that in no less than seven scenes in Twelfth Night, the audience holds an advantage in awareness over all who take part. He goes on to say that “In the course of the action every named person takes a turn below our vantage-point, and below the vantage-point of some other person or persons; in this play neither heroine nor clown is totally spared.”7 Nor, it might be added, is the audience itself totally spared. In Act II, Feste refers to what the Elizabethans called the “picture of We Three” (II, iii, 15-16), which was a picture of two asses, the looker-on becoming the third. The audience's enjoyment of a fictional representation of deluded people ironically suggests that it, too, is part of the picture—the third ass.

To catalogue all the illusions which beset the characters would require a sizeable essay in itself. But a casual sample may suggest the frequency of delusion in the play. Toby gulls Andrew into thinking he has a chance with Olivia; in a parallel action, the downstairs people memorably gull Malvolio with similar hopes for Olivia. Of course they only intensify a process of self-deception in Malvolio which is already well under way. Meanwhile, Viola deludes everyone by posing as a man named Cesario. But it is only with the appearance of Sebastian in Act III that confusion reaches its climax. Antonio is baffled by the apparent refusal of his bosom friend Sebastian to recognize him; Sebastian, in turn, is baffled by the vigor of Olivia's advances (he must have thought that Illyrian women were uncommonly brazen), and by the people who walk up and hit him for no apparent reason; Viola is deluded not only in her ridiculous fear that Aguecheek is a mean man in a duel, but she is also puzzled by Olivia's insistence that they are married and by Antonio's insistence that they are old friends; Toby and Andrew are bruised as well as baffled by the sudden show of manliness on the part of Sebastian (who they think is Cesario); and even Feste, the most distanced and objective spectator in the play, is baffled by Cesario's apparent refusal to recognize him. Feste expresses the pervasive sense of bewilderment when he remarks that “Nothing that is so is so” (IV, i, 8). For its inhabitants, the world of Illyria increasingly assumes the fierce vexation of a dream and even the terror of nightmare. As the play dances to its conclusion, characters increasingly speculate on the possibility that they have become mad. And Malvolio remains locked in his darkened room, accused of madness and demoniacal possession. Like Puck, the audience may well exclaim, “What fools these mortals be.” But there is no Puck-figure in Twelfth Night, no need for supernatural high jinks and magic potions to confuse the characters. The Illyrians are quite capable of creating their own confusion.

The ethics of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, and of Twelfth Night in particular, center on one problem: given the harshness of the world, given man's vulnerability and frailty, given his propensity for self-deception, how can he get by? How can the play resolve itself happily? One indication of Shakespeare's deliberate exploration of comic form in Twelfth Night is that he poses this question explicitly. When Viola realizes that Olivia is in love with her impersonation of a man, she soliloquizes:

Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
How easy is it 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?

(II, ii, 26-32)

The modulation of tone in Viola's speech suggests the great range of feeling that Twelfth Night contains. She begins in the idiom of theology, with sombre reference to “wickedness” and “the pregnant enemy,” but her language soon descends to the reassuringly colloquial: “How will this fadge?” And notice the comic implications of the rhymed lines:

Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we,
For such as we are made of, such we be.

Although Viola's logic scarcely would suffice in an ethical treatise, it is convincing in the same way as Falstaff's is. Since we are what we are made of, our frailty is the cause of our moral shortcomings, not ourselves. Her clear implication is that man is too frail to be punished. But her question remains: How does life fadge?

As I mentioned earlier, it is always dangerous to imply that comic characters are fully responsible for earning or creating their happiness. Luck is usually involved in bringing about the vital recognition which resolves the plot; at the end of Act V, happiness seems to come wheezing in from the wings. In Twelfth Night the appearance of Viola's shipwrecked twin Sebastian intensifies and then suddenly disentangles the perplexities of the plot. If Sebastian had not found a mast in the shipwreck to buoy him up, or if he and his sister had not chanced to meet in Illyria, then the major characters in the play would have remained permanently stuck in an increasingly intolerable situation.

But to say that Lady Luck presides over the resolution of comic plots is not to say that comic characters, frail as they may be, can do nothing to advance the resolution. Most emphatically, Shakespeare's comedies do not embody or advocate a philosophy of fatalism, cosmic do-nothingness. Sebastian does, after all, actively bind himself to the mast that saves him, and he does choose to visit Illyria (even though he doesn't know that his sister is there). If human resolve counted for nothing, then the comic world would become farcical or absurd, and ethical discrimination about its inhabitants would become impossible. Such is not the case in Twelfth Night.

As John Russell Brown has argued convincingly, the romantic comedies “do not formulate a judgement in the manner of the history-plays and early tragedies, nor in the manner of satirical comedy, but a judgement is implicit nevertheless.”8 What we need to discover in Twelfth Night is the precise relationship between the plentiful limitations of its characters and the happiness that befalls most of them at the end. What values mediate between the characters' frailty and the fadging of the plot? It may be helpful to recall a sententious couplet that Antonio delivers:

In nature there's no blemish but the mind;
None can be called deformed but the unkind.

(II, iv, 347-48)

The word “unkind” here means both “un-natural” and “un-loving.” If, as Brown has suggested, there is an implicit judgement in Twelfth Night, it will take its positive force from such values as love, the heart, and nature.

My contention is that folly is the idea which resides at the center of the play's implied values and focuses them. It may seem strange to talk about folly as a positive value, since it would seem to be the opposite of wisdom, and therefore a bad thing. And, at first glance, the constant delusion which the characters suffer would seem to be their greatest limitation, the greatest barrier separating them from their happiness. But a closer look at the plot will change our negative valuation of folly. The task of a satirist like Ben Jonson is to scourge folly, but in Twelfth Night it becomes a great and positive, if mischievous, force. Folly bestows upon the characters the delusions which allow them to embrace their limitations. It liberates those natural qualities which enable them to pursue a life of fulfillment in a very harsh world. The play suggests that one can come to terms with life only by accepting the nature of things—delusion, vulnerability, and mortality.

But if the play reveals the wisdom of a foolish acquiescence to nature's order, it unequivocally condemns passivity. Throughout the play the positive aspect of folly is associated with the notion of spending one's talents, of sharing one's gifts with the world. The notion of sharing talents appears often in Shakespeare, and most notably in the early sonnets, which exhort the young man to procreate and thereby increase nature's store.9 In the language of Sonnet #4:

Nature's bequest gives nothing but doth lend,
And, being frank, she lends to those are free.

Nature's ideology here seems distinctly socialistic—to those who share, more will be lent. Or, as a popular collection of ethical sentences put it: “God will increase that little that thou hast, if thou purposest to giue of that little.”10 The play's emphasis on giving is apparent in its stage-business as well as in its plot and language; coins, purses, jewels, and rings are constantly being exchanged.

The most telling reference in the play to folly's talents is a remark by Feste: “Well, God give them reason that have it, and those that are fools, let them use their talents” (I, v, 13-14). The implication of Feste's oblique remark is that God may well give reason to those who have it, because no one in fact does possess it. The category of “those that are fools” includes everyone. The fools of the world must live by using their talents. Giving is the proper fruition of folly.

A brief and very selective glance at Erasmus' Praise of Folly may help to illuminate Shakespeare's concerns in Twelfth Night. Erasmus' personified Folly is the self-appointed scourge of Stoical restraint, and she identifies herself with the natural world of impulse, passion and energy. She defines herself as the principle which makes life and its constricted possibilities not only tolerable, but even fun. “Would life without pleasure be called life at all?” she asks.11 Constantly she reminds us of how harsh life would be without the amelioration of folly. Through her banter and foolery runs an awareness, as in the comedies, of the sorrow and limitation to which man is born. Unlike all the other gifts of the gods, folly is available to all (p. 135).

In the wisdom of her folly she realizes that the examined life is hardly life at all, much less worth living. For Folly, pleasure and delusion are synonymous. She would agree with Mark Twain's exhortation: “Don't part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.”12 Folly proceeds to inform us, with characteristic immodesty, that she is the only begetter of all social bonds; without the illusions which she bestows beneficently on man, everyone in his wisdom would scorn love, friendship, marriage, and even procreation (pp. 111-13). It is folly's deluded happiness which makes fellowship and sharing possible. She argues, in short, that all of life is nothing more than a play of folly. The world is a great stage of fools, and folly is its producer, director, and ever-diligent prompter.

Erasmus' Folly tells us that without folly life is a sombre play, that our illusions and self-love make life bearable, that folly ministers to our infirmity. Twefth Night dramatizes and concretizes the Erasmian notion that life is but a play of folly. In the microcosmic “wooden O,” the Globe Theatre, the price of a penny turns Erasmus' metaphor into reality. In Twelfth Night Feste, the professional fool, defends the significance of foolery (to say nothing of his job) against the attacks of Olivia and Malvolio. It is Feste who states the hallowed transvaluation which places Folly above Wisdom:

Wit, an't be thy will, put me into good fooling. Those wits that think they have thee do very oft prove fools, and I that am sure I lack thee may pass for a wise man. For what says Quinapalus? “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.”

(I, v, 29-33)

Shakespeare frequently uses Feste as a chorus to comment on various renderings of his theme, but to catalogue his remarks on folly is not itself enough. The notion of folly and its talents pervades the play—shaping its plot, individuating its characters, and supplying some of its dominant symbols.

The first two scenes of Twelfth Night have the impact of expanded metaphors, since their distinct environments suggest the contrasts which shape the play's values. The first scene gives us the Duke's too-famous “If music be the food of love” speech and an attendant's revealing description of Olivia's elaborate plans to “season a brother's dead love.” The second scene presents Viola's conversation with the Captain about her shipwreck and the possibility of her brother's survival, and it concludes with her plans to disguise herself and attend the Duke. The rhythm joining the scenes is a common one in Shakespeare: they move from elegant verse to expository prose, from court to country, from the artifice of fashionable poses to the elemental strife of nature. Also, the scenes contrast two quite different attitudes toward life—a prudence which is sterile, since it is isolated from nature and human community, and a folly which is fruitful, since it is open to the hazard of nature and human relationship.13

In the first scene Duke Orsino manifests the constricting prudence of isolating oneself in a world of artifice. Associated with his need for artifice is a self-dramatizing passivity. Thus, his language alternates between magniloquent gesture (he apostrophizes four times), and languorous, cloying sweetness (his stock of adjectives seems limited to “sweet,” “rich,” and “fine”). In his sybaritic self-indulgence, he intends to bombard his sensorium, so that “surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die” (I, i, 2-3). Passivity and lassitude seem to be central ingredients in his notion of love. Images of downward motion dominate his speeches, and it soon becomes apparent that he is a connoisseur of love's dying falls. Whatever enters into the sea of his love, he tells us, “falls into abatement and low price / Even in a minute” (I, i, 13-14). As he leaves the stage, his intention is to lapse into “sweet beds of flow'rs” (I, i, 41).

Although Olivia will have nothing of the Duke, the description of her plans for mourning suggests that the two of them are kindred spirits. Like the Duke, she has adopted a role and intends to play it to the hilt. Her role also is passive and life-denying; she will savour her sorrow and use the brine of her tears to season and indeed pickle “a brother's dead love” (which is not the same as a dead brother's love). The languor of the Duke finds its counterpart in Olivia's unnatural rigidity; for seven years (no more, no less) she will impose on herself the regimented life of a cloistress and “water once a day her chamber round / With eye-offending brine” (I, i, 30-31). Doubtless, she will place saucepans in strategic places, so that her tears won't streak the furniture. Implicit in Olivia's scenario is a callow contempt for time and nature. She must learn the lesson that Benedick learns in Much Ado about Nothing; as Don Pedro says of Benedick's tidy plans: “Well, you will temporize with the hours” (I, i, 244).

The second scene of the play carries us from the sea of Orsino's hungry love and from Olivia's briny tears to the driving element that casually splits ships in two. The cloistered world of the Duke's canopied bowers and Olivia's chamber gives way to a liquid world of hazard. The sea symbolizes the relentless reality which both Orsino and Olivia have structured their lives to avoid. But their self-indulgent roles are a luxury which chance doesn't afford Viola. She must set aside her sorrow for her brother and get on with the difficult business of living. The briskness of her language stands in sharp contrast to Orsino's prolixity and suggests the pressure of the moment:

And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium.
Perchance he is not drowned. What think you, sailors?

(I, ii, 3-5)

Though Viola realizes that “nature with a beauteous wall / Doth oft close in pollution” (I, ii, 48-49), yet she takes the calculated risk that the Captain's mind accords with his trustworthy appearance. She must rely on other people to survive. With surprising rapidity, she formulates an ad hoc plan of action—to disguise herself and serve the Duke. Viola realizes the hazard of the future, but she still manages to commit herself resolutely to it: “What else may hap to time I will commit.” Unlike the Duke and Olivia, Viola opens herself to the processes of time and nature. Using imagery that suggests childbirth and maturation of fruit, she hopes that she might not

                                                  be delivered to the world,
Till I had made mine own occasion mellow,
What my estate is.

(I, ii, 42-44)

Her final words to the Captain suggest her stance toward life: “I thank thee. Lead me on” (I, ii, 64).

As many critics have noted, the movement of Shakespearean comedy is toward community; in the final scene congestion takes on symbolic value. Twelfth Night is no exception; it opens with its central characters in isolation and it reaches its resolution when they come together. The principal human agent for creating this community is Viola. This is not to suggest, however, that she foresees the happy consequences of her actions. Until the final scene, Viola has every reason to fear that her disguise has begotten disaster. When she realizes that Olivia loves her, Viola invokes a higher power to resolve what seems a hopeless dilemma: “O Time, thou must untangle this, not I; / It is too hard a knot for me t'untie” (II, ii, 39-40). Not only does her disguise as the page Cesario lead a woman to fall in love with her, but it also prevents the man she adores from recognizing her proper sex. Yet Shakespeare also suggests that the delusions created by Viola's disguise serve a positive function, since they draw Orsino and Olivia out of themselves and into the world. Paradoxically, Viola's disguise creates a hard knot of cross-purposes which both entangles the three characters and releases them from themselves.14

Viola's effect on Olivia is immediate and shattering. Significantly, Olivia allows Viola to enter her presence, even though to do so violates the oath she has just taken, only when she learns that Viola is “Not yet old enough for a man nor young enough for a boy … 'Tis with him in standing water, between boy and man” (I, v, 150-53). Because Viola is not threateningly masculine, she is allowed to enter. When Olivia identifies herself as lady of the house (“If I do not usurp myself, I am”), Viola impresses on her the need to share her gifts:

Most certain, if you are she, you do usurp yourself; for what is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve.”

(I, v, 179-80)

And a few lines later Viola states an argument familiar from the early sonnets:

Lady, you are the cruell'st she alive
If you will lead these graces to the grave,
And leave the world no copy.

(I, v, 227-29)

Olivia responds with a playfully legalistic travesty of the notion of sharing talents:

O, sir, I will not be so hard-hearted. I will give out divers schedules of my beauty. It shall be inventoried, and every particle and utensil labeled to my will. …

(I, v, 230-32)

But Viola's energetic description of how she would woo Olivia, along with the force of her beauty and sententious comments, shakes Olivia to the core. After she decides to pursue Viola's love, she soliloquizes:

I do I know not what, and fear to find
Mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind.
Fate, show thy force; ourselves we do not owe.
What is decreed must be—and be this so!

(I, v, 294-97)

Her language here is reminiscent of Viola's commitment to time and chance at the end of I, ii. Olivia realizes that her love for Viola may be misguided, and yet she commits herself to an active role in the world. Consequently, her commitment is to folly: “I do I know not what.” Viola's presence has awakened in her the crucial perception: “ourselves we do not owe.” By Act V, Olivia will be ready to love Viola's double—who can return her love. It is Olivia's folly, not a growth into self-knowledge, that leads her to Sebastian. As Sebastian memorably tells her:

So comes it, lady, you have been mistook.
But nature to her bias drew in that.

(V, i, 251-52)

Our generous delusions are part of nature's bias—they lead us along paths we don't understand, to a joy we fear to expect.

The Duke's response to the disguised Viola is less dramatic than Olivia's; the apparent masculinity which they share confines the Duke's affection to a loving friendship. And yet, in retrospect, it seems clear that the only way that Viola possibly could have reached the Duke is indirectly, through the masculine disguise which she has assumed. Just as Viola's disguise prepares Olivia for Sebastian, so it prepares Orsino for Viola's revealed feminine self, a self which he both sees and doesn't see beneath the thin disguise. The example of Viola's dedicated friendship is the proper antidote to the Duke's conception of himself as a “high fantastical” lover, for whom giddy fancy is the badge of authenticity. For instance, Viola's description of her father's daughter, who loved a man, concealed her love, and “sat like Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief” (II, iv, 113-14) creates a tender pathos. But it also gives the Duke an example of feminine constancy, and suggests how the refusal to love results in sepulchral rigidity. As Feste's song puts it, “In delay there lies no plenty” (II, iii, 47). In the final scene, the Duke discovers the full force of his passion for Viola only in the rich confusion surrounding Olivia's betrothal to Sebastian. The Duke realizes that, unbeknownst to himself, he cares far more about losing his page than Olivia. Just as the shipwreck becomes “a most happy wrack” (V, i, 258), so the Duke's folly carries him to his happiness. In a way that the politic Polonius couldn't begin to comprehend, it is with “assays of bias” and “by indirections” that the lovers find directions out.

If a production of Twelfth Night is to realize fully the play's concern with investing folly's talents in a world of hazard, it must carefully exploit the possibilities of gait and gesture. One of the central metaphors, both in the action and language of the play, is the journey. The willingness of certain characters to journey, to wander by indirection, suggests their openness to life. The play's cloistered figures, on the other hand, employ messengers to avoid undertaking journeys themselves. Until the final scene, Duke Orsino is a virtual recluse. He is, as he says, “best / When least in company” (I, iv, 36-37), and he communicates with the world through messengers—first Valentine, then Viola. He never leaves the refuge of his palace until the final scene when his very appearance at Olivia's house suggests that he is a changed man. At the beginning of the play Olivia too relies upon messengers for her commerce with the world. She dispatches Maria and Malvolio to restrain the antics of Toby and Andrew, and she sends Malvolio after Viola to present her with a ring. The character who perambulates most in the play is Viola; her constant motion suggests her commitments. And, in the person of Feste, “Foolery … does walk about the orb like the sun” (III, i, 37).

The metaphor of the voyage is perhaps most significant in the subplot concerning the friendship of Sebastian and Antonio. The major function of this brief subplot is to infuse the reality principle into the play, to stress the risk involved in loving. Antonio has befriended the shipwrecked Sebastian, who insists that he must leave his host and search for his sister. Significantly, Sebastian says that “My determinate voyage is mere extravagancy” (II, i, 9-10), which suggests that he (and, by implication, all men) is a wanderer in a world of chance. What he doesn't know is that, hopeless as they may seem, “Journeys end in lovers meeting” (II, iii, 40).

Antonio resolves at once to follow Sebastian to Orsino's court, even though he knows the Illyrians have a price on his head for his past military exploits. His brief soliloquy before he exits reveals his commitment:

I have many enemies in Orsino's court,
Else would I very shortly see thee there.
But come what may, I do adore thee so
That danger shall seem sport, and I will go.

(II, i, 40-43)

Antonio's language and situation here recall Viola in the first act (“What else may hap, to time I will commit”), and Olivia's closing words in the previous scene (“I do I know not what …”). And, in another symbolic action, when he catches up with Sebastian in Illyria, Antonio insists that his friend take his purse. Antonio stands in the play as a paradigm for giving “without retention or restraint” (V, i, 75). But the danger is not sport, and the giving is fraught with hazard. When Antonio comes to the aid of Viola (who he thinks is Sebastian) in her quarrel with Andrew, he is immediately recognized by the law and clapped into irons. Like another Antonio who hazards himself to help a friend, he doesn't miss death by far. He is as foolish as everyone else.

The theme of sharing one's talents takes a hilariously comic direction in the person of Sir Andrew Aguecheck. In the play's cast of fools, Andrew is the thing itself, and he admirably discharges the part of the natural fool, the moron. Nature has been uncommonly parsimonious in her gifts to Andrew; he has neither good looks, not wit, nor skills to recommend him. He takes upon himself the demanding role of virile suitor, and, as his surname suggests, he is singularly ill-equipped for it. But nature has compensated for her niggardliness by bestowing upon Andrew a generous capacity for delusion. In the words of Erasmus' Folly, where nature “has kept back some of her gifts, she usually adds a little more Self-Love.”15 Andrew has the joyful obliviousness of a small boy admitted to his big brother's circle of friends—the mockery of the big people is forgotten in the ecstasy of being part of the gang. Life presents itself to Andrew's glazed eyes as glorious spectacle; as he fatuously proclaims: “I delight in masques and revels sometimes altogether” (I, iii, 101-102). And the sum of his consciousness seems monopolized by his desperate attempt to remember the big words which his friends use.

Dr. Johnson informs us, with customary forthrightness, that Andrew's “character is, in a great measure, that of natural fatuity, and is therefore not the proper prey of a satirist.”16 Johnson here is not giving folly its due; not only is Andrew not fair game for the predatory satirist, but he is a positive figure in the play. Fool that he is, he is a totally social creature and draws his sustenance from good fellowship. Whatever gifts he may have he is willing to share. It is not merely in regard to his ducats that “He's a very fool and a prodigal” (I, iii, 22). When he tells Toby of his skill at cutting capers, Toby exhorts him to share his great gifts with the world:

Wherefore are these things hid? Wherefore have these gifts a curtain before 'em? … Why dost thou not go to church in a galliard and come home in a coranto? … Is it a world to hide virtues in?

(I, iii, 112-18)

(Toby's words are of course an implicit comment on the self-imposed isolation of Olivia and Orsino, which we have seen two scenes earlier.) As always, Andrew takes Toby at his word, and the scene ends with one of the great moments of the play—Andrew vigorously executing spavined capers all over the stage.

Andrew is one of many foils (and fools) which the play sets up in opposition to Malvolio. The discrepancy between the harshness of Malvolio's fate and what the play awards to the other characters is striking, and it compels us to consider whether he has indeed “been most notoriously abused” (V, i, 368). The baffling of Malvolio, like the rejection of Falstaff and the punishment of Shylock, has occasioned so much critical debate that we should be prepared to accept the complex and perhaps ambivalent responses which it evokes. Only the most rigid of positivists would argue that there is a single “right” way to respond to Malvolio at the end of the play. But in the context of the play's examination of folly and its talents, Malvolio's function is clear: he serves as the antitype of the ideas I have been discussing. In terms of the biblical parable, he is an anomaly, a steward who refuses to share his master's talents.

More than anyone else in the play, Malvolio is associated with law. We learn, for instance, that the kind Captain who befriended Viola has been imprisoned “at Malvolio's suit” (V, i, 266-69); the closing lines of the play recall this legal action, perhaps to temper the sympathy the audience may feel at Malvolio's exit. Also, he is the zealous enforcer of law and order in Olivia's household. Ironically his insistence on order seems itself disorderly, since Twelfth Night festivities are properly a time for licensed disorder. His concern for order seems hypocritical, since his own secret desire is to violate the social order by marrying Olivia and becoming owner rather than steward. One recalls Ophelia crying out in her madness: “It is the false steward, that stole his master's daughter” (Ham, IV, v, 171-72).

Malvolio remains isolated throughout the play. His dismissal of the plotters is telling: “Go off; I discard you. Let me enjoy my private” (III, iv, 83-84). As his name suggests, he is the bad appetite, the inward-turning love; Olivia's incisive rebuke points directly to his shortcomings:

O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite. To be generous, guiltless, and of free disposition, is to take those things for bird-bolts that you deem cannon bullets.

(I, v, 85-88)

Olivia's criticism of Malvolio here is occasioned by the anger which he has shown to Feste, and this antipathy to foolery manifests his lack of fellow-feeling. Nowhere is his lack of generosity more striking than in the way he relishes the time when “the pangs of death” will shake Feste out of his folly (I, v, 70).

Although Malvolio of course does not know it, he is the greatest fool of all in the play.17 As Viola tells us, “wise men, folly-fall'n, quite taint their wit” (III, i, 66). His delusion that Olivia loves him is monstrous, the offspring of a self-love that is more monstrous yet. The forged letter deceives him with ridiculous ease (an effect magnified by the voluble comments of the conspirators hidden in the box-tree), and he reveals his weakness when he says of the cryptic M.O.A.I.: “If I could make that resemble something in me” (II, v, 112-13). He defines the world in terms of himself, and his folly is totally unredeemed by generous impulse. His intention is to read “politic authors” (II, v, 148).

The punishment which Toby and Maria devise for him (to lock him up in a dark room and convince him that he is possessed by a devil) fashions multiple ironies. First, Malvolio's incarceration recalls his imprisonment of the Captain as well as the virtual isolation he has imposed on himself throughout the play. Also, the darkness of the room suggests his deluded mind; at one point he cries out “this house is dark as ignorance” (IV, ii, 45). And the business about demoniacal possession is also appropriate, since he has been possessed with self-love and since acquiring possessions has been a major aim of his life.18

Malvolio is not the only character to feel the sting of poetic justice for the manipulation of others. Andrew's plans to marry Olivia come to nothing but an empty purse, and his challenge to Viola bloodies his own coxcomb. But even with these disappointments, Andrew's folly remains invincible, his lack of self-knowledge intact. The play metes out a harsher, three-fold punishment on Toby. For his attempt to extend Carnival indefinitely, he is denied the services of Dick Surgeon, who is dead drunk at eight in the morning (V, i, 190-91). For his bullying of Viola, he has his pate cracked, courtesy of Sebastian. And, perhaps most painfully of all, he pays for his exploitation of Andrew when his erstwhile gull humiliates him by offering to help him dress his wounds (V, i, 196-99). The spirit of folly, even though it descends in the play to “sportful malice” (V, i, 355), prevents the calculation of Toby and Andrew from reaching the invidious form it assumes in Malvolio.

At the end of the play, we may feel that Viola, Sebastian, Olivia, and Orsino have had happiness thrust upon them. They have done they knew not what and discovered their hearts' joy. Their folly has allowed nature to draw them, almost in spite of themselves, to her kind bias. The conclusion is especially poignant because of its tentativeness. The play has given full exposure to the hazard of folly, and Feste's concluding song (another stanza of which the Fool sings in King Lear) reminds us that, outside the artifice of the play, the consequences of folly can be hangovers, marital strife, and beggary. The conclusion of the play becomes even more poignant when seen in the context of Shakespeare's career. In the plays which follow Twelfth Night, comedies and romances as well as tragedies, Shakespeare will not allow his central characters to escape the heavy burden of self-knowledge.


  1. All Quotations of Shakespeare are from the revised Pelican Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore, 1969).

  2. The Portable Mark Twain, ed. Bernard De Voto (New York, 1946), p. 274.

  3. For some interesting connections between Twelfth Night and King Lear, see Julian Markels, “Shakespeare's Confluence of Tragedy and Comedy,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 15 (1964), 75-88.

  4. “Comic Myth in Shakespeare,” rptd. in Discussions of Shakespeare's Romantic Comedy, ed. Herbert Weil, Jr. (Boston, 1966), p. 133.

  5. For the holiday aspect of the play, see C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, 1959) and John Hollander, “Twelfth Night and the Morality of Indulgence,” The Sewanee Review, 67 (1959), 220-38.

  6. Twelfth Nightand Shakespearian Comedy (Toronto, 1965), pp. 42-43.

  7. Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford, 1960), pp. 118-19.

  8. Shakespeare and his Comedies (London, 1962), p. 23.

  9. “There is no idea to which Shakespeare returns more often than the doctrine taught by the parable of the talents.” Edward Hubler, The Sense of Shakespeare's Sonnets (Princeton, 1952), p. 95. John Russell Brown terms this idea in the comedies the theme of “Love's Wealth” (op. cit.).

  10. William Baldwin, A Treatise of Morall Philosophie (1547), ed. Robert Hood Bowers (Gainesville, 1967), p. 179.

  11. “The Praise of Folly,” in The Essential Works of Erasmus, trans. John P. Dolan (New York, 1964), p. 106.

  12. The Portable Mark Twain, p. 566.

  13. For the relationship between hazard and giving in The Merchant of Venice, see Sylvan Barnet, “Prodigality and Time in The Merchant of Venice,PMLA, 87 (1972), 26-30.

  14. For a similar, but fuller discussion of the fruits of deception in the play, see Porter Williams, Jr., “Mistakes in Twelfth Night and their Resolution,” PMLA, 76 (1961), 193-99.

  15. The Essential Erasmus, p. 114.

  16. Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. (New York, 1960), p. 81.

  17. In several places the play suggests paradoxically that the characters who do not recognize folly are the true fools; cf. Feste's catechism of Olivia in I, v.

  18. For the play on the demoniacal and acquisitive senses of “possession,” see RII [Richard III], II, i, 107-08. Also, Malvolio's cry that “They have here propertied me” (IV, ii, 89) ironically reminds us of his acquisitiveness.

Russell Jackson (review date winter 2002)

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SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. Review of Twelfth Night. Shakespeare Quarterly 53, no. 4 (winter 2002): 536-49.

[In the following excerpted review of the 2001 to 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company season at Stratford-upon-Avon, Jackson observes the erotic and decadent qualities of director Lindsay Posner's staging of Twelfth Night and highlights several individual performances, including Guy Henry's strangely empathetic Malvolio and Mark Hadfield's touching Feste.]

[In the set designed by Ashley Martin-Davis for Lindsay Posner's Twelfth Night,] Olivia's household was represented permanently by the furnishing of [an] alcove on the right of the forestage: black furniture, including a piano, a grandfather clock, a small table, some austere chairs, and a row of ancestral photographs. There were also two telltale Beardsley drawings that slyly indicated her suppressed longings. Orsino's court was exclusively male and military, but he openly indulged himself in the tastes of a fin-de-siecle aesthete. After a mimed prologue representing the storm, in which two figures struggled against a translucent plastic drop that billowed up and away as if it were at once clouds, sea, and a sail, the play proper began with the duke (Jo Stone-Fewings) listening to a melancholic performance on flute and guitar. The walls of his apartment were hung with a collection of decadent art, including more or less erotic and vivid contributions from Klimt, Matisse, and others. As confirmation of his openly passionate nature, he also owned a red sofa. In the center of the stage, covering the whole area up to the backcloth, was a flowery reddish carpet, and green louvered screens were drawn across at proscenium-arch level to close off the front for interior scenes. These pulled back to reveal a stormy sky and sea on the backdrop and the very wet Viola and the captain, who came up over a slight rise onto the carpeted acting area, followed by two sailors carrying a large trunk.

Thus Illyria was specific in time and social register but, at the same time, a palpable fiction. It accommodated the social relationships of the play well but did not aim for a realistic sense of the country-house milieu. The program indicated that it was situated in the 1900s, but in fact this was the long nineteenth century beloved of stage designers. The period allows characters to wear swords, employ servants, and show signs of wishing to escape from the sexual and social constrictions of a formal society. Toby's perilous tightrope walk along the edge of social acceptability, ending with his downwardly mobile marriage to the lady's maid Maria (Alison Fiske), paralleled Malvolio's hapless social and romantic adventure. (In “Victorian” productions, the more exalted status of waiting gentlewoman usually translates down a class or two.) Olivia treated Malvolio with affection and trust, and for all his self-absorption, he would not have been an implausible or absurd partner for her if she had been minded to match below her degree. Maria's affection for the impossible Toby (Barry Stanton) was touching: when they first appeared, she was sponging the vomit off his jacket after another hard night's drinking. Toby reciprocated with possessiveness, if not the same degree of feeling for her. “She's a true beagle” was followed with an aggressive territorial claim—“and one that adores me”—to which Sir Andrew's sad “I was adored once” was not so much a moment of pathos as an attempt not to be cut out by Toby's claim to the glamour of being worshipped. Toby's grossness (he vomited on his tie before “A plague o' these pickled herring”) was accompanied by a constant undertow of bullying, which qualified his regret at the extreme humiliation of Malvolio and confirmed the brutality with which he finally discarded the foppish, vacuously sparkish, and ever-hopeful Sir Andrew (Christopher Good.)

When Toby speaks of being adored, the verb has been heard once already, on Antonio's lips: in fact the most outspoken passion of the play was that of Antonio (Joseph Mydell) for Sebastian (Ben Meyjes). Viola's brother and his friend were discovered on a bed, which they had evidently shared, Antonio reaching out toward Sebastian, who got up and put on his jacket with no apparent sense of his friend's loving gesture. There was strong suggestion of sexual opportunism in the young man. He emerged from his encounter with Olivia with his shirt hanging out of his trousers, happy to be shown a good time and bribed with pearls when occasion offered. At the end of the play neither Sebastian nor anyone else noticed that nothing had been done to free Antonio, who was left in manacles. Sebastian's willingness to make the most of his bisexuality, according to the circumstances in which he found himself, was an appropriate counterweight to Viola's equivocal situation. Olivia, played with a slightly eccentric precision of enunciation by Matilda Ziegler, was just as ready as Sebastian for the main chance, and her earlier demureness was soon discarded. She positively dragged Sebastian off, first to her bed and then to the altar, and as usual there was a big laugh for her exclamation of “O wonderful” in the final scene at the prospect of two men at her disposal. Cesario/Viola's promotion in Orsino's exclusively male world was signaled by her being entrusted with his clothes when he appeared in his underwear at the beginning of 2.4. There was the by-now-customary moment during “Come away, death” when his hand reached out to her hair, and she yielded for a moment to the impulse to accept the caress. She withdrew when she realized what had happened, but it was not made a moment of embarrassment. At the end of the play, however, Olivia kissed “Cesario,” but Orsino, who had already shown some confusion at the prospect of seeing Viola as his “fancy's queen” in her “woman's weeds,” pulled back from kissing “him.”

At the beginning of the season Viola (Zoe Waites) was passionate but a little too energetic and waggish, which may have been the result of overprojection on a wide stage in a large space. As the season progressed, her performance relaxed and grew in subtlety. Guy Henry as Malvolio tended to get broader and more physical, particularly in the letter scene and in his appearance before Olivia with his trousers rolled up to reveal yellow socks with suspenders and painful-looking cross-garters. He thrust his pelvis at her and lolled his tongue suggestively, bounding about like a demented kangaroo. From his first appearance, his slightly strangulated voice, with a touch of Welsh beneath the overpolished vowels, and stiff gait betrayed the not-quite-complete acquisition of upperclass demeanor. His notions of upward mobility and romance were soon evident. When Olivia gave him her ring to carry to Cesario, he handled it as though it were a love-token for himself and after discovering and interpreting the letter, the conclusion that she loved him was followed by a sob. For all his arrogance and folly, and the absurdity of his behavior, Malvolio's degradation was moving. Only his hands were visible through a grating in the forestage during most of his imprisonment as a madman in the “dark house.” In the final scene, as he learned the cause of his discomfiture, he continued to clutch the now soiled but still potent letter. After a quiet but bitter “I'll be revenged—on the whole pack of you,” his final exit was simple and dignified. He walked quickly but not hurriedly to the back of the stage and off. It was a hard exit to follow, but in one of the productions most revealing moments, Orsino and his men laughed: the women, shocked by both Malvolio and this faux pas, remained silent.

This was an enjoyable, thoughtful interpretation, with some moments of real eloquence, an Orsino who was ardent and handsome enough to justify Viola's love, and an affecting Feste with a wistful voice. Mark Hadfield's fool had acquired an anthology of mannerisms and gags from several sources, including Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Little Tich—a famously agile and strikingly diminutive music-hall performer, whose yard-long shoes were alluded to but not quite imitated in Feste's oversized footwear. He was for all weathers but resigned to the effects of the wind and the rain. During his final song, in a production gesture that has become familiar, Andrew, Toby, and Maria were seen making their exit from Illyria. Joseph Mydell's being the only black actor among the principals emphasized Antonio's status as an outsider, although the final sight of him in manacles had a resonance of which the production itself had not in fact taken notice.

Kenneth Gross (review date January 2002)

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SOURCE: Gross, Kenneth. Review of Twelfth Night. Theatre Journal 54, no. 4 (January 2002): 650-51.

[In the following review of the 2002 Holderness Theater Company production of Twelfth Night directed by Rebecca Holderness, Gross praises the minimalist staging of the play and calls attention to its fine dramaturgical effects, including the setting, lighting, dance, and music.]

At the opening of Rebecca Holderness's production of Twelfth Night, one saw on the stage floor an elongated pile of crumpled sheets of paper. Over the course of the show these were variously kicked at, danced over, scattered, rearranged, and blown away. Given the plot of Twelfth Night, the papers suggested the detritus of sea-storm and shipwreck, seaweed and shells, also rejected and lost letters, even discarded scripts and newspapers. Mere litter at one moment, at the next they could be carefully arranged into a circle to create the sad, enclosed garden of Olivia. (Other props were scarce: a stool, a fishbowl, some umbrellas.) Without calling too much attention to the idea, they might have made the New York audience think of the chaos of paper that filled lower Manhattan in the weeks after the World Trade Center disaster—the snow of pages from destroyed offices as well as the innumerable messages, memorials, and photographs affixed to walls in the surrounding neighborhood, fading and tearing over time. This was a Twelfth Night after the Eleventh, alive to the sense of mourning and disaster, the feeling for the fragility of things, that sifts through Shakespeare's comedy.

In this minimalist setting (designed by Christine Jones) the words of individual actors could carry a peculiar weight. Shakespeare's text overall came through with great clarity, with a sense of each moment being open to a new thought. One felt a quick, ferociously direct confrontation between speakers, which was by turns comic, seductive, mocking, and aggressive. The disguises so many of the characters assumed heightened rather than blocked this directness, as if their own masks betrayed them, making them speak their minds more clearly and dangerously. This suggested the director's stark reading of the play: that in a world so endangered, the only community worth having is one in which people are ready to challenge each other, to risk offense, if it compels others to reveal their hearts.

Close attention to the text was combined with a more postmodern interest in layers of performance and choreographed movement. Multifaceted forms of music and dance that took their cue from the original text's preoccupation with the erotic and oceanic power of music connected the action of the play. The young, punkish Sir Toby (Jared Coseglia) danced to raucous and noisy techno-music from his boom box. The court of the youthful and melancholy Orsino (Bob Airhart) included a lounge singer (Andrea Haring) who serenaded the duke with old torch songs, including Peggy Lee's “Perhaps.” Feste (Kevin Kuhlke), alone on the stage at the beginning of the second act, strummed Bach on his guitar. And when Viola (Jocelyn Rose), disguised as the boyish messenger Cesario, told the mourning Olivia (Christianna Nelson) how he/she would woo her, she (Viola) broke into a brief impromptu aria, as much to her own surprise as to Olivia's.

A corps of dancers on stage (guided wonderfully by Dan Weltner) also formed an ever-changing, secondary world of bodily motions, picking up on hidden energies in the plot. In the show's opening scene, for example, two groups of dancers faced each other, moving in wave-like, advancing and retreating masses to create onstage the sea-storm that divides the fated brother and sister—a storm described but never shown in the original text. In Orsino's house, the torch singer seemed to draw dancers onto the stage for an impromptu tango. And following Olivia's speech acknowledging her fearful love for Cesario, a solitary dancer (Ellie Dvorkin) moved with slow, meditative simplicity across the stage, translating the note of Olivia's love into a different key. Another lone dancer (Brendan McCall), moving behind a scrim, imaged for us the menaced, isolated feelings of Antonio (Craig Bacon), apparently betrayed by the young man he had saved from drowning.

These elements of movement and music—supported by Loren Bevan's sparely elegant costumes, a subtle score of storm-noises and melodies by composer Elizabeth Stanton, and lush, shifting lighting by Matthew Adelson—did more than just provide a symbolic accompaniment or underscoring for the action. It reinforced the intense, sometimes mysterious sense of complicity that marked the work of the ensemble cast and produced such unexpected turns on the text. A single example will suffice here. Kevin Kuhlke's volatile but reflective, brooding Feste was protective of Olivia, and often distrustful of the work of amateur fools. He could even at moments show a strange solicitude for the very man he had helped to gull, the steward Malvolio (strongly and scarily played by Randolph Rand). This was especially marked in the cellar scene, as the abject, imprisoned servant lay half-naked on the ground, staring into the fictive darkness with wide open eyes. In the original text, Feste, having agreed to convey a letter from Malvolio to Olivia, departs the stage singing a song that invokes the comic Vice of the morality plays, fighting the devil with a wooden sword. At the end, the “old Vice” cries “like a mad lad, ‘Pare thy nails, dad / Adieu, goodman devil!’” In this production, while Feste began the song, it was completed by the imprisoned Malvolio as he rose and walked slowly offstage, half stealing the song for himself, half accepting it as a gift. Sung with restrained, dream-like menace, the ditty became both a token of some shifted self-knowledge in Malvolio and an expression of his wished-for (if still comic) revenge against those who had so notoriously abused him.

Larry S. Champion (essay date October 1968)

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SOURCE: Champion, Larry S. “The Perspective of Comedy: Shakespeare's Pointers in Twelfth Night.Genre 1, no. 4 (October 1968): 269-89.

[In the following essay, Champion argues that Twelfth Night features some of Shakespeare's most well-developed comic characters whose true but hidden identities are revealed over the course of the drama.]

It is commonplace to speak of the different kinds of Shakespearean comedy. The “happy” or “joyous” comedies, for instance, are contrasted with the “enigmatic” or “problem” comedies on the one hand and the “philosophic” or “divine” comedies on the other. And, among the first group, we are sometimes told that The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a less successful “romantic” comedy than Much Ado About Nothing or that Twelfth Night is pure comedy whereas As You Like It incorporates potentially tragic motifs. In a broad sense, of course, the attitudes toward life expressed by comedy can range from the satiric to the sentimental, the farcical to the melodramatic—distinctions invariably based upon the nature of the plot. With Shakespeare's comedy, an equally valuable insight is gained through an investigation of the characterizations and the devices by which they are rendered humorous, a perspective which suggests that Shakespeare's concern was not with different kinds of comedy but rather with plots involving an increasingly complex depth of characterization. Obviously Shakespeare began with plot—not character,1 but the kind of characterization demanded by these plots reveals both his changing interests and his increasing abilities.

More precisely, comedy can avoid individual characterization by focusing entirely on the humor of physical action; or it can stress the disparity between appearance and reality—what in his society a character sets himself out to be as opposed to what he is in reality behind the social mask; or it can portray an experience involving a spiritual catharsis which transforms a personality or reconstitutes an entire society. In other words, a comic dramatist can depict character to any depth which is appropriate to his narrative. The character who inhabits a stage-world in which evil is a reality and who is involved in ethical and moral decisions through which the spectators see into the foundations of his personality is completely human; portrayed on the level of “faith,” he undergoes an experience—like those of the great tragic figures—which effects a basic transformation of values. The character who inhabits a stage-world in which there is no fundamental evil to force decisions revealing his spiritual or philosophic values is, of course, removed from reality. Yet, when—on the social plane—he pretends to be something which he is not, the gap between appearance and reality becomes material for comedy. In this situation the comic experience for the character is one of self-revelation; portrayed on the level of “identity,” he is humorously forced to recognize or to acknowledge his true nature. It is primarily of such drama that Northrop Frye is speaking when he remarks that comedy “is designed not to condemn evil, but to ridicule a lack of self-knowledge.”2 The character who is delineated only on the level of “physical action” never invites our response to him as an individual. Our detachment complete, the comedy is that of manipulation, and the humor is drawn not from character involvement or character incongruity but rather from our observation of puppet-like characters maneuvered into ludicrous situations.

Shakespeare, whose development as a comic playwright is consistently in the direction of complexity or depth of characterization, deals with each of these levels of characterization. His earliest works are essentially situation comedies; the humor arises from action rather than character. There is no significant development of the main characters; instead, they are manipulated into situations which are humorous as a result, for example, of mistaken identity and slapstick confusion. Thus, the characters are revealed only in terms of what they do, outer action. The Antipholuses and the Dromios of The Comedy of Errors are cases in point, manipulated as they are amidst a confused wife, courtesan, kitchen wench, sea captain, and goldsmith. So also the princess with her ladies in Love's Labor's Lost are played puppet-like against Ferdinand and his lords who have renounced sex for Academe. In A Midsummer Night's Dream the Athenian lovers—Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius—are puppets manipulated into ridiculous self-contradiction by Oberon and Puck. The ensuing phase of Shakespeare's comedy sets forth plots in which the emphasis is on identity—character revelation—rather than physical action. This revelation occurs in one of two forms; either a hypocrite is exposed for what he actually is or a character who has assumed an unnatural or abnormal pose is forced to realize and admit the ridiculousness of his position. Of the first type Malvolio and Don John are prime illustrations, their true nature hidden from the other characters for much of the play by their moral hypocrisy. Of the second type, Benedick, Beatrice, and Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing and Orsino and Olivia in Twelfth Night are characters, for example, whose experiences reveal to themselves as well as to others their true personalities. With individuals of either type, actions are a facade to conceal true identity; and, to the extent that the spectator is aware of this incongruency, the hypocrisy on the one hand and the lack of self-knowledge on the other are ridiculous and the ultimate exposure humorous. Admittedly there is no fundamental transformation of character; yet the false pride which blinds one to fully knowing himself is purged. In any case, the emphasis in these comedies is on the ridiculousness of the character, not his danger to society; he is funny, not evil, because in these stage-worlds we assume that normality will ultimately prevail and that he will never be allowed to engage in activities of permanent consequence either to himself or to others. In the final comedies, however, involving sin and sacrificial forgiveness, character development is concerned with a revelation of faith.3 In these stage-worlds the power of evil is not harmlessly contained within a circle of wit; and the characters, struggling on the fringe of comedy, must cope with the actual consequences of sin moral and political. The “comic” transformation of, for instance, Leontes in The Winter's Tale or of Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian in The Tempest is the result of a character's conversion to belief in a universe controlled by a principle of love most fully realized in its redemptive powers.

The fully developed character obviously creates problems for the dramatist who must maintain a comic perspective for the spectator or see his narrative turn to melodrama or tragicomedy. Since the spectator's involvement with physical action does not extend beyond the superficial laughter that a humorous situation arouses, the playwright—to the extent that he can maintain such a perspective—has no difficulty in achieving a comic tone for “flat” characters who make no ethical decisions. On the other hand, with greater character complexity, the spectator is provoked into emotional identification with character and situation, and his comic perspective is blurred. Whether the Renaissance comic form took shape primarily from “Saturnalian release” or from “Terentian intrigue,” the dramatic experience which is to divert rather than distress is possible only so long as the spectator is either emotionally detached from the characters or, if emotionally involved with them, in possession of such knowledge or provoked into such a mood as to be assured of a happy end accomplished by means which only temporarily appear unpleasant. Consequently, as Shakespeare's conception of character expanded, so also did his problem of maintaining a proper perspective for the spectator.4 His success is the result of experimentation with a kind of comic pointer or comic controller who is himself involved in the action and yet whose relationships with the other characters or whose actions and comments provide us a sufficiently omniscient view—whether he himself possesses this view or not—for us to rest secure that an impenetrable circle of wit has exorcised any dangers of permanent consequence.5

An investigation of the level of characterization and the method of comic control in Twelfth Night underscores the significance of the play in the evolution of Shakespeare's comedy. In his richest comic creation to this point,6 with character developed on the level of identity as well as on the level of action, Shakespeare has moved far beyond the one-dimensional character of farce. At the same time, he has achieved one of his most successful integrations of comic device and character revelation. Through association with Viola, Sebastian, Feste, and Maria, each of the other characters reveals his abnormal or hypocritical posture, comes to understand his true nature, and is absorbed into a normal society. The twins Viola and Sebastian, separated in a storm antecedent to the action of the play and reunited in the fifth act, are the primary comic pointers in that they establish the proper comic perspective for the spectator by providing the information necessary to create the dramatic irony.7 Their apparent shifts in personality—Viola's disguise and the subsequent mistaken identity—produce actual exposures in the surrounding characters. Feste and Maria, a second pair of comic pointers outside the primary action, serve a similar function for the low characters. These four characters, in no way self-deceived, create a rapport with the spectator; and their comments function to provide information about others necessary to guide the laughter.

Concerning the level of characterization in Twelfth Night, the basis for comedy, more specifically, is the incongruity between action and identity.8 Major characters at the outset attempt to hide their real nature behind a facade of physical action which is eventually revealed as a mere pose—Olivia as a victim of fashionable melancholia, Orsino as the disconsolate and unrequited lover, Malvolio as the puritanical jack-in-office.

The duke, like Romeo in love with the idea of love, strikes an immediate tone of hyperbolic sentimentalizing as he revels in the music which feeds his passion. In love with Olivia at first sight, he delights in the fancy of puns to describe his languishment:

That instant was I turn'd into a hart;
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me.

(I, i, 21-23)9

Informed in no uncertain terms that Olivia is unreceptive to his suit, he is nonetheless determined to pursue his love when we see him three scenes later unclasping to Viola (Cesario) “the book even of [his] secret soul.” Now, however, he is to woo by deputy both because he assumes Olivia “will attend it better in thy [the page's] youth” (I, iv, 27) and because, as he himself admits, he is “best / When least in company” (I, iv, 37-38). Thus far, then, the spectator is confronted with a melodramatic duke who, while avowing an overwhelming love, admits to a preference for solitude at the same time he commands another to continue his suit.

In the duke's next appearance (II, iv), two remarks, in the midst of his continued pose, signal his true identity as a prideful man infatuated with the social pose of the romantic lover. First, his description to Cesario of feminine beauty simply does not correspond with his Petrarchan posture. While he mouths praise to Olivia's immortal beauty, he advises Cesario rather cynically to find a lover younger than he, “For women are as roses, whose fair flower / Being once display'd doth fall that very hour” (II, iv, 39-40).10 Secondly, in the course of his conversation he flatly contradicts himself in comparing the quality of a man's love with that of a woman's. At one point he says:

Our [men's] fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,
Than women's are.

(II, iv, 34-36)

Yet, a few lines later he avers:

There is no woman's sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman's heart
So big, to hold so much. They lack retention.
.....                                                                                                              Make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.

(II, iv, 96-99, 104-106)

Even though the duke again calls for music to feed his passion and listens to Feste's song describing the melancholy death of a distraught lover, his contradiction in advising one concept of love for Cesario and claiming another for his personal commitment reflects intellectual toying with the idea of love rather than a direct emotional involvement in it.

When Orsino appears again in the final act, his actions render his character revelation complete. Both the rapidity with which he can turn angrily on Olivia and the poised alacrity with which he can accept Cesario (now Viola) as his heart's substitute reveal how deeply indeed he has been committed to the stakes of love! When the countess first enters, Orsino speaks metaphorically of heaven walking on earth. But, his suit again rejected as “fat and fulsome,” he suddenly alters his metaphor to “perverseness,” “uncivil lady,” and, instead of heaven and its shrines, speaks of her “ingrate and unauspicious altars” (V, i, 115-16). The “marble-breasted tyrant” has made his thoughts “ripe in mischief” as he threatens to tear her minion (Cesario) out of her cruel eye as a sacrifice to her disdain. In effect, within the space of a few short lines his unbounded love has been exploded by an equally unbounded temper. The second shift is even more revelatory of the true quality of his love. When Olivia's husband is produced, Orsino, at the point of being outfaced altogether, determines to “share in this happy wreck.” He agrees to take Viola to wife asking to see her in woman's weeds, later even foregoing that precaution.

The development of Orsino's character, then, takes the form of revelation to himself and to others. His Petrarchan pose for Olivia is revealed as merely the cover for a man enjoying the fascination of his romantic adventure and too proud to accept rejection.11

The incongruities in Olivia's character are developed even more extensively throughout the drama. Her true identity is that of a normal young lady capable both of loving and being loved and possessing a sense of humor which enables her to understand and appreciate the good fun in a practical joke. This personality she attempts to conceal, however, through her actions. And, as a result of this melancholy pose, her reputation for morbid solemnity has grown throughout the land.

Although the countess does not appear on stage until the final scene of the first act, her haughty posture is established through prior conversation. For instance, in Scene ii the spectator is told that, because of the recent deaths of her father and brother, Olivia “hath abjured the company / And sight of men” and “will admit no kind of suit” (ll. 40-41, 45). More specifically, we learn in Scene i that she intends to wear the veil of mourning for full seven years and to “water once a day her chamber round / With eye-offending brine” (ll. 29-30). When the jocularity of her household in Scene iii appears inappropriate to her pose, she remains in character through a mild reprimand to Sir Toby Belch delivered by Maria:

Your cousin, my lady, takes great exceptions to your ill hours. … That quaffing and drinking will undo you. I heard my lady talk of it yesterday, and of a foolish knight that you brought in one night to be her wooer.

(I, iii, 5-6, 14-17)

Olivia's posture, then, is clear before she appears on stage. Determined to mourn her relatives beyond normal bounds, she will reject all suitors and will soberly hold herself aloof from the slightest household merriment. Interestingly, Sir Toby's best comment on her pose is the suitor (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) whom he has cast in the face of her resolution to abjure the society of men.

This facade of character dissolves, at least for the spectator, at her first appearance on stage. For in the lengthy final scene of Act I, Feste flatly proclaims the absurdity of her attitude, and, later, with Cesario she is unable to maintain the posture she has so carefully cultivated. At our first glimpse, she is testily chastizing Feste for his having been so long absent from the house and for his continued foolishness. The clown, however, as Cesario is to do later, confronts her with polite but firm rebuttal, mockingly proving her a fool for her protracted melancholy:

Good madonna, why mournest thou?
Good fool, for my brother's death.
I think his soul is in hell, madonna.
I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.

(I, v, 72-78)

Her genuine nature is further revealed as she, not altogether displeased with Feste's wit, defends his catechism against Malvolio's charges. Even so, she is in no way ready to drop her demeanor. When a messenger arrives to plead Orsino's case, she orders Malvolio to report that she is sick or not at home. And, when Cesario's persistence prevails, she calls for her veil—the physical symbol of her artificial pose. Not awed by Olivia's cold and haughty disdain, Cesario frankly accuses her of being “the cruell'st she alive” and “too proud.” The countess, though supposedly abjuring the sight of men for the sake of her brother's memory, listens with obvious delight—but her interest is in the messenger, not the message. The result is a flagrant revelation of the insincerity of her earlier posture as she not only displays a normal and healthy interest in what she assumes to be the opposite sex but is willing to act the aggressor's role in her affair of the heart. To that end she encourages Cesario to come again for further consultation and sends him a ring on the pretense that she is returning what he had earlier forced upon her. In the final moments of the act, she voices her dilemma in soliloquy:

Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions and spirit
Do give thee five-fold blazon. Not too fast! Soft, soft!
Unless the master were the man. How now!
Even so quickly may one catch the plague?
Methinks I feel this youth's perfections
With an invisible and subtle stealth
To creep in at mine eyes.

(I, v, 311-317)

Her two appearances in Act III develop further the contrast between her true nature and her assumed posture. Her pursuit of Cesario more pronounced, she is not without moments of remorse as she realizes the indignity of her actions. For instance, in Scene i she tells Cesario not to be afraid, that she will pursue no further (ll. 141, 143), and in Scene iv she laments:

I have said too much unto a heart of stone,
And laid mine honour too unchary on't.
There's something in me that reproves my fault.

(ll. 221-223)

She is unable to contain her love, however, and at this point openly declares her affection:

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

(III, i, 161-164)

Moreover, a short time later she becomes ridiculously flustered at Cesario's very approach:

I have sent after him; he says he'll come.
How shall I feast him? What bestow of him?
For youth is bought more oft than begg'd or borrow'd.
I speak too loud.—

(III, iv, 1-4)

In truth, her love for Cesario is no less outrageous than Malvolio's for her, once the steward has become convinced that he is the secret object of her attention.

By the end of the third act Olivia's true identity has been fully revealed to the spectators. Her remaining actions leading to marriage will complete the revelation to the other characters as well. For, in the following scenes Sebastian, who has replaced Viola and who admittedly is bewildered by the advances of the beautiful countess, is nevertheless willing to receive them and to tell her that he, “having sworn truth, ever will be true.”

Malvolio is perhaps the most obvious illustration of comic character incongruity. As Olivia's steward he pulls moral rank on everyone in her household and delights in contrasting his grave prudence with their apparent hedonism. Even Olivia, herself engrossed in sombre lamentation for her deceased brother, perceives the excess prudishness in his manner:

O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distemper'd appetite. To be generous, guiltless, and of free disposition, is to take those things for bird-bolts that you deem cannon-bullets.

(I, v, 97-101)

Similarly, Maria in a later scene expresses concern that Toby's late carousals have awakened Malvolio, who—as anticipated—rushes in and exclaims against the “caterwauling” and the “gabbl[ing] like tinkers at this time of night.” He in effect orders them out of the house unless greater self-discipline is exercised, singling out Maria for especial chastisement. Because of his grave disposition Olivia later summons him to entertain Cesario: “He [Malvolio] is sad and civil, / And suits well for a servant with my fortunes” (III, iv, 5-6).

When Malvolio appears before the countess, however, his true nature is showing as a result of his avarice. His puritanical facade, labeled time-serving by Maria, has been profitable only so long as he was convinced such posture was desired by his employer. Since he is motivated by ambition rather than principle, he now hesitates not a moment to accept a diametrically opposite pattern of action. His erstwhile grave face is lined with the wrinkles of a plastered smile; his conservative attire is replaced with cross-gartered yellow stockings. As commanded in the note which he assumes to be Olivia's, he is “opposite with kinsmen, surly with servants,” and his “tongue tang[s] arguments of state.” Olivia, amazed at Malvolio's antics and shocked at the effrontery of his remark that he will come to her bed, declares “this is very midsummer madness.” Later, Feste (Sir Topas) exorcises the evil spirit from the steward, who refuses to pray in his new role as a festive gallant. And, as from the dark room Malvolio accurately parrots the orthodox answers to the theological questions posed by Sir Topas, the spectator observes how distant indeed is this religion of action from his religion of words. The action, then, has flayed the pious cover and revealed the obsession of ego and ambition from which his personality suffers.

Revelation of the disparity between action and identity in Twelfth Night involves several of the minor characters as well. Aguecheek, for instance, masks his cowardice behind a volley of words and fatuously challenges the reluctant Cesario to a duel, but his courage persists only so long as his agressor's timidity.12 So also, Sir Toby stakes his pursuit of the jolly life on his ability to control any situation which he creates—and here he fails physically in his inability to manipulate Sebastian (whom Aguecheek has unwittingly provoked) and emotionally in his inability to control his fascination for Maria (to whom he loses the freedom of his bachelorhood). Even Antonio and the theme of friendship are not exempt from Shakespeare's pattern. When Sebastian reveals his identity to his rescuer and describes his destination, the sea captain hyperbolically pledges his affection: “If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant. … [C]ome what may, I do adore thee so, / That danger shall seem sport, and I will go” (II, i, 36-37, 48-49). Similarly, his love and “jealousy what might befall your travel, / Being skilless in these parts” motivate Antonio to accompany Sebastian despite his own physical danger resulting from his previous banishment from Illyria for engaging in a sea-fight. With magnanimous affection he forces his purse upon Sebastian, and without hesitation he later intervenes in the duel between Aguecheek and Viola (whom he assumes to be Sebastian), swearing that he “for his love dares yet do more / Than you have heard him brag to you he will” (III, iv, 347-348). But the hyperbole proves bitter when Sebastian appears to deny knowledge of him or his money:

… O, how vile an idol proves this god!
Thou hast, Sebastian, done good feature shame.
In nature there's no blemish but the mind;
None can be call'd deform'd but the unkind.
Virtue is beauty, but the beauteous evil
Are empty trunks o'erflourish'd by the devil.

(ll. 399-404)

When next on stage (V, i), he speaks of the “false cunning” of the cold and deceitful thief. And his wrath abates only when the twins are onstage in the final scene. Antonio's friendship, then, has faced the human problems of confusion and misunderstanding, and his reactions have reflected the variable effects of such problems on the personality. Aguecheek, Toby, and Antonio, in short, provide an appropriate background for Shakespeare's portrayal of character revelation.

Incongruity between a character's surface action and his true identity is, of course, only the basis for comedy. The realization, as previously described, depends upon the success with which the dramatist uses comic devices to achieve a perspective from which the spectator will enjoy the situations which dislodge the characters from their abnormal posture. In Twelfth Night, the comedy of the first three acts results from the spectator's awareness, through the comic pointer, of the role that each character is playing and of the fact that the role is a pose; the humor of Act IV arises from the pointer's forcing each character into action contradictory to his pose which reveals his true nature to the other characters. And, in Act V with both twins on stage and with each character forced to eat the humble pie of exposure, the comic catharsis is achieved and each character restored to normality.

Shakespeare carefully sets up his pointers early in Act I. In Scene ii Viola describes the shipwreck which she has survived, a twin brother of whose life she is uncertain, and the disguise of eunuch which she will assume for reasons of safety as she travels to Orsino's court. Her ability to moderate her grief for Sebastian provides a foil for the excessive nature of Olivia's mourning. The following scene introduces Olivia and her household, with Maria tolerantly chiding Toby for his late hours and openly flouting the fatuousness of Sir Andrew. In Scene iv Viola assumes her disguise as Cesario and quickly gains favor with her new master. At this point the dramatic irony becomes significant for the function of the comic pointer as Orsino unwittingly sends female to woo female and thus subconsciously reflects the artificiality of his passion. The final scene of the act introduces Feste as a clown who travels in the households of both Orsino and Olivia. He immediately establishes himself as one who dispassionately observes this circle from the outside, with remarks such as: “Those wits, that think they have thee, do very oft prove fools; and I, that am sure I lack thee, may pass for a wise man” and “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit” (I, v, 36-40). And his first action is mockingly to reveal to the countess and to the audience the foolishness of her inordinate mourning. In the ensuing scene Shakespeare inserts a brief moment to reveal that Sebastian is indeed alive. Since he too is moving toward Orsino's court and since Viola's disguise is masculine, the comic trap of mistaken identity is constructed, and the middle acts will bait virtually every aspect of the trap in order that the catastrophe or resolution of the final act will be more effective.

The comic pointers introduced, the major portion of the plot now utilizes the rapport created between Viola (and later Sebastian) and the spectator to effect the comic exposure of Olivia, Orsino, Aguecheek, Belch, and Antonio. Feste and Maria will successfully exploit Malvolio's presumptuous nature. The steward—whether patterned after William Ffarrington,13 Sir Ambrose Willoughby,14 Sir William Knollys,15 or none of these—functions in the context to heighten the absurdity of Olivia's romantic liaison with Cesario in Act III by himself becoming her lover.16 To carry out Malvolio's duping and derision, Shakespeare prepares these servant figures who move in his circle and have the best opportunity to know his true nature.

Viola, far from being a totally disinterested person, is enamored of Orsino though her masculine disguise renders any such relationship ludicrous—just as ludicrous as Olivia's passion for Cesario. But her primary function in the play is to reveal Olivia's hypocrisy to the spectator so that he might fully appreciate the process of comic deflation which will restore the countess to normality. To this end, once the touchstone relationship is established, Viola in soliloquy carefully identifies Olivia's infatuation for the spectator:

Fortune forbid my outside have not charm'd her!
.....She loves me, sure. The cunning of her passion
Invites me in this churlish messenger.
.....Poor lady, she were better love a dream.
.....How will this fadge? My master loves thee dearly;
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him;
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.

(II, ii, 19, 23-24, 27, 34-36)

In two later scenes (II, i; III, iv) as Olivia becomes increasingly the agressor, Cesario warns her that “I am not what I am” and that, in light of her haughty pose of immunity to romance, she is pitifully deceiving herself: “You do think you are not what you are” (III, i, 151).

Once Shakespeare has set in motion Olivia's passion, which is to result in her ultimate exposure and which will be all the funnier for the delay, he diverts the focus by manipulating the comic pointer into a series of intrigues by which to expose the surrounding characters. Throughout the third act, for each of these characters the trap is set which is to be sprung in Act IV as Sebastian replaces Viola upon the scene. In Scene ii, for instance, Aguecheek is goaded into challenging Cesario to a duel. Toby and Fabian persuade the fop that Olivia really loves him and that she is feigning interest in Cesario to test the mettle of his manliness. The ridiculous challenge is subsequently forced upon the distraught Viola, who declares she “will return again into the house and desire some conduct of the lady. I am no fighter. … I am one that had rather go with sir priest than sir knight” (III, iv, 264-265, 298-299). Viola, of course, realizes the danger of her disguise—which Shakespeare has no intention of destroying before the full range of exposure is effected. Aguecheek, on the other hand, senses in her reaction an even greater coward than himself, and in Act IV flagrantly pursues the challenge. Andrew, too, Shakespeare has prepared for the appearance of Sebastian! In Scene iii, the dramatist also primes Antonio for his moment of self-knowledge. Pouring forth his friendship in hyperbolic terms and risking his life through his presence in the city, Antonio insists that his friend accept his purse for what needs might arise and meet him an hour later at the Elephant.

Thus, at the end of Act III, each character has exploited his character facade to its height. And, even though the twins are meaningfully integrated into the plot in their own right, their sudden reversal in Act IV presents the comic shock which will transform each of the characters and will reveal their true identity. Aguecheek, for instance, rushes upon “Cesario” to “cuff him soundly,” but the tables are turned as Sir Andrew moans, “We took him for a coward, but he's the very devil incarnate” (V, i, 183). Similarly, Sir Toby, intent upon fostering the mock combat but equally intent upon preventing either party from actually drawing a sword, now finds “Cesario's” wrath quite unmalleable and consequently gets his head bloodied for his mischievous connivances. So also, Olivia suddenly finds “Cesario” amazingly susceptible to her charms and rushes the docile youth off to a priest. Meanwhile, lest any spectator be confused and the ironic humor lessened, Sebastian—clearly functioning as Shakespeare's comic pointer—explains in soliloquy his confusion at Olivia's behavior and his inability to locate his friend Antonio at the Elephant:

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. …

(IV, iii, 11-14)

And, in turn, Olivia's hypocrisy in coveting the affection of Cesario despite her original pose provokes the sudden transformation of Orsino in which he denounces her haughty disdain and snatches Viola to his heart, a heart which only a few moments earlier was abjectly prostrated before his self-constructed altar of undying love for the countess.

Shakespeare's comic device, apparent to the spectators since the second scene in the play, is fully revealed to the characters of the plot in the final scene as a capstone to the character revelations:

One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,
A natural perspective, that is and is not!
.....An apple, cleft in two, is not more twin
Than these two creatures.

(V, i, 223-224, 230-231)

The close integration of the subplot reveals further the careful construction of the plot of Twelfth Night. Malvolio's puritanical posture as the zealous moralist and the flagrant exposure of his hypocrisy by Feste and Maria reinforce both the theme of character revelation and the tone of tolerant mockery. The group of Maria, Feste,17 Toby, and Fabian, planting deceptive information and observing from the side as Malvolio is duped into rejecting his original pose, suggest the group of spectators as they too—cognizant of the deceptive twins which the author has planted in the main plot—look on as the major characters are run through similar paces. Thematically, Malvolio is a third suitor for Olivia in Acts II and III, his presumptuous wooing occurring as a corollary to Olivia's ridiculous pursuit of Viola-Cesario. Structurally, Shakespeare utilizes the gulling and exposure of Malvolio (II, iv; III, iv) as a prelude to the major character revelations in Act IV.

Malvolio sets himself in enmity with Feste in his first appearance on stage. As he gripes about the clown's foolishness, Feste quips:

God send you, sir, a speedy infirmity, for the better increasing your folly! Sir Toby will be sworn that I am no fox, but he will not pass his word for twopence that you are no fool.

(I, v, 83-86)

More specifically, Maria brands Malvolio “a kind of Puritan”:

… [A] time-pleaser; an affection'd ass, that cons state without book and utters it by great swarths; the best persuaded of himself, so cramm'd, 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, 160-166)

She then carefully describes, both to inform her cohorts and to establish the comic irony for the spectators, the device by which she will drop a forged love-note in his way. And two scenes later she directs Toby, Andrew, and Fabian to get “into the box-tree: Malvolio's coming down this wall” (II, iv, 18-19). Throughout the scene the pompous and gullible Malvolio is taken in completely—while his prepared audiences in the galleries and on the stage delight in watching his vaunted sobriety and conservative manner sacrificed for the opportunity of social and financial gain. Similarly, as he parades himself before Olivia in ridiculous attire and later as he is accused by Feste-Sir Topas of being a puritan possessed of the devil, Feste and Maria deliver a steady volley of comments designed to focus the spectator's attention on the humor arising from Malvolio's hypocrisy, an inversion of values so drastic that, as Fabian remarks, “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction” (III, iv, 140-141).

Malvolio's role, then, forms the subplot of the play; it has no direct narrative connection with the primary comic device of Viola-Sebastian.18 Once Maria and Feste have goaded him into exposure through his wooing Olivia, he is conveniently removed to the dark room as the action of the major plot resumes. And he returns to the stage only after the full range of character revelations has occurred. His presence in Act V is not insignificant, however, because it enables Shakespeare to maintain a comic tone. It may be true that Malvolio's refusal to take his ignominy in the spirit of a joke and his determination to “be revenged on the whole pack” forfeits any opportunity for our ultimate sympathy, but his action also maintains the comic perspective of the play. Through restoring a character to his true nature, the comic catharsis achieves a harmonious social relationship: Orsino weds Viola, Olivia weds Sebastian, Toby weds Maria, Sebastian's friendship with Antonio is restored, Sir Andrew accepts his cowardice. Malvolio's singular unwillingness to learn through laughter provides the spectator a final chuckle at one who remains a comic butt. And, for that matter, his action is not exceptional to the theme of the play. He has, like the others, been forced to face the revelation of his true personality, and in his case the revelation is not an idyllic one.

As described at the outset, character revelation does not involve actual transformation. While the characterization is indeed more complex than the mere manipulation of the Antipholuses and the Dromios of The Comedy of Errors, there is no innate alteration of personality such as is to be depicted in Leontes of The Winter's Tale and in Antonio, Sebastian, and Alonso of The Tempest. In Twelfth Night the character is identical at the beginning and at the conclusion.19 In Illyria no crimes have been committed; nothing needs to be forgiven. The characters, motivated at best by a cultivated social dilettantism and at worst by an obsession for social status and wealth, make asses of themselves as a result of their failure to use common—not moral—sense. But the characters know themselves more fully at the end of their experiences. They have faced the therapy of exposure, have been laughed from their abnormal postures, and, we assume, have every reason to expect a richer and more productive life as a consequence of their self-knowledge. With Feste, they might all say: “By my foes, sir, I profit in the knowledge of myself” (V, i, 21-22).

Shakespeare in his subsequent plays will move toward a deeper comic vision involving a society in which evil is a reality and in which characters are spiritually transformed through the quality of love's forgiveness. His continued efforts in these comedies to establish an effective perspective—with varying degrees of success—will reveal his persistent concern for comic control over a narrative replete with potential tragedy. But Twelfth Night has no potential tragedy; it is among Shakespeare's most successful realizations of “romantic” comedy based on character revelation. And clearly this success results in a large measure from the effective comic perspective—the creation of characters who, while playing a significant narrative role, also serve as comic pointers by providing vital information for the spectator and by functioning as the primary device for character exposure.


  1. Northrop Frye, in “Characterization in Shakespeare's Comedy,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], IV (1953), 271-77, points out that character depends upon function, function in turn upon structure, and structure in turn upon the category of the play. See also his A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York, 1965), p. 14.

  2. “The Argument of Comedy,” English Institute Essays, 1948 (New York, 1949), p. 70. Such characters are “people who are in some kind of mental bondage, who are helplessly driven by ruling passions, neurotic compulsions, social rituals and selfishness. The miser, the hypochondriac, the hypocrite, the pedant, the snob: these are humours; people who do not fully know what they are doing, who are slaves to a predictable self-imposed pattern of behavior.”

  3. Robert G. Hunter, in a recent study (Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness [New York, 1965]), has described the form of these comedies as a secularized pattern of the medieval morality involving sin, contrition, and forgiveness.

  4. Concerning the late comedies, Joseph Summers expressed something of this general idea in his comment that “after Twelfth Night the so-called comedies require for their happy resolution more radical characters and devices—omniscient and omnipresent dukes, magic, and resurrection. More obvious miracles are needed for comedy to exist in a world in which evil also exists, not merely incipiently but with power” (“The Masks of Twelfth Night,The University of Kansas City Review, XXII [1955], 32).

  5. Measure for Measure, All's Well That Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida, currently described as “dark” or “problem comedies,” have always frustrated the critic. In them Shakespeare is searching for a method of comic control sufficient to contain characters developed on the level of faith. In Measure for Measure, for example, Duke Vincentio, as a deus ex machina figure of ambiguous motivation and limited control, fails to provide a satisfactory comic perspective for a stage-world in which evil is so pervasive.

  6. “With the writing of Twelfth Night Shakespeare reached perhaps his highest achievement in sheer comedy” (Louis B. Wright, ed., Twelfth Night [New York, 1960], p. vii). Such statements concerning this play are commonplace in Shakespearean criticism. Both the dramatist and his characters appear at ease (C. Bathurst, Differences of Shakespeare's Versification [London, 1857], p. 89) in this “most perfect of his comedies” in which Shakespeare has “set himself the task to show, within the limit of one treatment, like a recapitulation, every combination of comedies in one single comedy” (F. Kreyssig, Vorlesungen über Shakespeare [Berlin, 1862], III, 268). J. O. Halliwell-Phillips describes the work as “the most perfect composition of the kind in the English or in any other language” (Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare [Brighton, 1882], p. 247).

  7. Viola's importance in the plot has been frequently described. Bertrand Evans, for instance, comments that in Twelfth Night “the spirit of the practiser prevails. Seven of the principal persons are active practisers, and they operate six devices. All action turns on these, and the effects of the play arise from exploitation of the gaps they open.” Of these devices, “Viola's is truly a practice on the whole world of Illyria” (Shakespeare's Comedies [Oxford, 1960], pp. 118, 120). John Russell Brown, who explains the theme of the play as “love's truth,” sees Viola and her disguise as central to the development of the action (Shakespeare and His Comedies [London, 1957], p. 168). H. B. Charlton calls her “the peculiar embodiment in personality of those traits of human nature which render human beings most loveable, most loving, and most serviceable to the general good” (Shakespearian Comedy [London, 1938], p. 288). Viola “represents a genuineness of feeling against which the illusory can be measured” (Harold Jenkins, “Shakespeare's Twelfth Night,Rice Institute Pamphlet, XLV [1959], 30). In effect, she “teaches others the true meaning of love” (Porter Williams, “Mistakes in Twelfth Night and Their Resolution,” PMLA, LXXVI [1961], 197). She, since Orsino will marry her and Olivia will marry Sebastian, is allegorically the spirit of love, which functions to redeem the disordered society (William B. Bache, “Levels of Perception in Twelfth Night,Ball State Teachers College Forum, V [1964], 56). To the contrary, Clifford Leech recently described her importance to the plot “exaggerated by the critic”; she is by no means “a reformer of the Illyrian emotional condition” (“Twelfth Night” and Shakespearean Comedy [Toronto, 1965], p. 36).

  8. “In Twelfth Night, affectation is everywhere—among the heroic as among the foolish, among the central characters as among the marginal. … Olivia cannot bear to be known for what she is—a healthy and nubile woman; Viola cannot permit herself to be known for what she is, a girl; Orsino cannot bear to be known for what he is—a lover in love with the idea of love; Sir Toby cannot bear to be known for a parasite, Sir Andrew for a fool, Malvolio for a steward” (G. K. Hunter, Shakespeare: The Late Comedies [London, 1962], p. 36). Jenkins (p. 21) describes the action as “the education of a man or woman,” a plot fundamental to comedy. The characters, wearing psychological masks (Williams, p. 193), are “caught up by delusions or misapprehensions which take them out of themselves, bringing out what they would keep hidden or did not know was there” (C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy [Princeton, 1959], p. 242).

  9. All citations to Shakespeare's text are from The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, ed. W. A. Neilson and C. H. Hill (Cambridge, 1942).

  10. We are later told by Sir Toby that Olivia will not “match above her … years” (I, iii, 115-16).

  11. Irving Ribner has suggested that Shakespeare's critical attitude toward the affectations of Petrarchan love was influenced by Barnabe Riche's puritanical attack on the convention in “Apolonius and Silla.” Ed., Twelfth Night, The Kittredge Shakespeares (Waltham, Mass., 1966), pp. xv-xvi.

  12. If Aguecheek is intelligent enough to boast of his prowess in pressing a duel with one whom he assumes to be a coward and then to recoil in terror when his adversary appears to have a backbone, he is intelligent enough to be the object of satiric humor since he can learn something from his comic experience. Any assumption that, in this aspect of his character, he is not the proper prey of a satirist—and the charge is as old as the editorial commentary of Samuel Johnson—is surely missing the point.

  13. Esquire of Worden, steward until 1594 to Lord Fernando Strange, Earl of Derby and patron of Shakespeare's company (Alwin Thaler, “The Original Malvolio,” The Shakespeare Association Bulletin, VII [1932], 57).

  14. Queen Elizabeth's chief steward and Squire of the Presence (Israel Gollancz, A Book of Homage to Shakespeare [London, 1953], pp. 177-78).

  15. The Comptroller of the Royal Household, first suggested by E. K. Chambers (Shakespeare: A Survey [London, 1925], p. 178) and extensively supported by Leslie Hotson (“The First Night of Twelfth Night” [London, 1955], pp. 93-118).

  16. Malvolio has been of particular interest to commentators on the play. He has been described as Shakespeare's grand attack upon Puritanism (Joseph Hunter, New Illustrations of Shakespeare [London, 1845], I, 381), as a Philistine (William Archer, “Twelfth Night,Macmillan's Magazine [August, 1884], p. 275), as “an excellent specimen of the sentimental fool, … the fool-part of masculine vanity exposed” (Henry Giles, Human Life in Shakespeare [Boston, 1868], p. 177), as “a spoil-sport, a fussy, pompous upper servant” (David Cecil, “Malvolio, Sir Andrew, and Feste,” The Fine Art of Reading, ed. R. M. Ritchie and R. A. James [London, 1957], p. 52), as an illustration of “overstretched morality” (Charles Lamb, “On Some of the Old Actors,” The Essays of Elia, ed. Saxe Commins [New York, 1935], p. 119), as a narcissist suffering from an inferiority complex (Norman N. Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare [New York, 1964], p. 278; Theodore Reik, The Need To Be Loved [New York, 1963], pp. 53-54), as a reflection of the large number of malcontents in London in the early seventeenth century, unemployed university-trained men (L. C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson [Manchester, 1936], pp. 315-32). M. Seiden (“Malvolio Reconsidered,” The University of Kansas City Review, XXVIII [1961], 105-14) finds the steward a form of scapegoat who undergoes sacrificial comic death so that comedy itself may live.

  17. Francis Fergusson says that Feste, “keep[ing] his sanity better than any of the other characters” and “mov[ing] through the play like a modern master of ceremonies, commenting on the characters with elaborate mockery,” seems to represent Shakespeare himself (“Introduction to Twelfth Night,Shakespeare's Comedies of Romance [New York, 1963], p. 304). As a ringleader (Enid Welsford, The Fool [London, 1935], p. 253) who remains outside the action with telling remarks (John Hollander, “Twelfth Night and the Morality of Indulgence,” The Sewanee Review, LXVII [1959], 226), Feste plays a “role as observer [which] is analogous to Viola's role as ‘actor’” (Summers, p. 27). “If the Fool be cleverly played, it can be a guide through the most important points of this comedy” (G. G. Gervinus, Shakespeare [Leipzig, 1862], p. 438). “Twelfth Night is Feste's night. … It is [his] function in both parts of the action to make plain to the audience the artificial, foolish attitudes of the principal figures” (Alan S. Downer, “Feste's Night,” College English, XIII [1951-52], 261, 264).

  18. Certainly the role of Malvolio is a dramatic highlight of the play. In fact, a court performance of February 2, 1623, is recorded as Malvolio. Nevertheless, I cannot agree with those critics who would make him the central figure in the play. See, for example, Milton Crane, “Twelfth Night and Shakespearean Comedy,” Shakespeare Quarterly, VI (1955), 4. Cf. also Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (New York, 1939), p. 169: “The center is Malvolio. The drama is between his mind and the music of old manners.” Morris P. Tilley (“The Organic Unity of Twelfth Night,PMLA, XXIX [1914], 554-556) sees Malvolio and the forces to whom he is opposed as reflective of the parting of the ways of the Renaissance and the Reformation in England. “Shakespeare composed Twelfth Night in praise of the much-needed, well-balanced nature, to extoll that happy union of judgment and of feeling which is the basis of a higher sanity.” With greater restraint, H. C. Goddard speaks of Twelfth Night as—in retrospect—Shakespeare's “farewell to comedy. … It marks the end of Merry England, of the day of the great Tudor houses where hospitality and entertainment were so long dispersed. … It seems like an imitation of the Puritan revolution with its rebuke to revelry” (The Meaning of Shakespeare [Chicago, 1951], I, 295).

  19. It is impossible to conclude within the context of the drama, for instance, that Viola is “Shakespeare's ideal of the patient idolatry and devoted, silent self-sacrifice of perfect love” (W. Winter, Shadows of the Stage [New York, 1895], III, 24) or that Orsino is a man of “deep sentiments of the most sacred tenderness and truth” displaying a “firm constancy in his love” (Gervinus, p. 429). And it borders on the ridiculous to describe Orsino as one doting on Olivia as a mother substitute because he suffers from a mother fixation and Olivia as frigid, sexually terrified of men in positions of power (W. I. D. Scott, Shakespeare's Melancholics [London, 1962], pp. 57-60; Holland, pp. 278-79).

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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SOURCE: Hartman, Geoffrey H. “Shakespeare's Poetical Character in Twelfth Night.” In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, pp. 37-53. New York: Methuen, 1985.

[In the following essay, Hartman examines Shakespeare's use of poetic language, punning, and wordplay in Twelfth Night.]


Writing about Shakespeare promotes a sympathy with extremes. One such extreme is the impressionism of a critic like A. C. Bradley, when he tries to hold together, synoptically, Feste the fool and Shakespeare himself, both as actor and magical author. Bradley notes that the Fool in Lear has a song not dissimilar to the one that concludes Twelfth Night1 and leaves Feste at the finish-line. “But that's all one, our play is done …” After everything has been sorted out, and the proper pairings are arranged, verbal and structural rhythms converge to frame a sort of closure—though playing is never done, as the next and final verse suggests: “And we'll strive to please you every day.” Bradley, having come to the end of an essay on Feste, extends Twelfth Night speculatively beyond the fool's song, and imagines Shakespeare leaving the theater:

the same Shakespeare who perhaps had hummed the old song, half-ruefully and half-cheerfully, to its accordant air, as he walked home alone to his lodging from the theatre or even from some noble's mansion; he who, looking down from an immeasurable height on the mind of the public and the noble, had yet to be their servant and jester, and to depend upon their favour; not wholly uncorrupted by this dependence, but yet superior to it and, also determined, like Feste, to lay by the sixpences it brought him, until at least he could say the word, “Our revels now are ended,” and could break—was it a magician's staff or a Fool's bauble?2

The rhetoric of this has its own decorum. It aims to convey a general, unified impression of a myriad-minded artist. Shakespearean interpreters have a problem with summing up. Leaning on a repeated verse (“For the rain it raineth every day”), and more quietly on the iteration of the word “one” (Lear: “Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart / That's sorry yet for thee”; Feste: “I was one, sir, in this interlude; one Sir Topas, sir, but that's all one”), Bradley integrates Shakespeare by the deft pathos of an imaginary portrait. Today's ideological critics would probably purge this portrait of everything but Shakespeare's representation of power-relations and hierarchy. Such critics might note that the portrait's final question serves only to emphasize the artist's marginality, his loneliness or apartness, as if by a secret law of fate being an artist excluded Shakespeare from social power in the very world he addresses.

The relation of “character” in the world (domestic or political) to “poetical character” (the imaginary relations to that same world which make up our image of a particular artist) is always elusive. Especially so in the case of Shakespeare, of whose life we know so little. A myth evolves, given classic expression by Keats, that the mystery or obscurity enveloping Shakespeare's life is due to the fact that a great poet has no “identity,” that he is “everything and nothing”—as Bradley's evocation also suggests. John Middleton Murry's book on Shakespeare begins with a chapter entitled “Everything and Nothing” in which Murry explores his reluctant conclusion that “In the end there is nothing to do but to surrender to Shakespeare.” “The moment comes in our experience of Shakespeare when we are dimly conscious of a choice to be made: either we must turn away (whether by leaving him in silence, or by substituting for his reality some comfortable intellectual fiction of our own), or we must suffer ourselves to be drawn into the vortex.”3

The focus moves, in short, to the character of the critic, determined by this choice. Can we abide Shakespeare's question? Does the critic have a “character” of his own, or is he simply a bundle of responses accommodated to a special institution or audience: university students and dons, or other drama buffs, or the general public? Unlike Eliot, say, or Tolstoy, Murry has no body of creative writing to back up the importance of his interpretive engagements. There is, nevertheless, a sense that the critic's identity is formed by his selfless encounters with artists of Shakespeare's stature.

The “vortex” that threatens readers, according to Murry, includes the fact that Shakespeare delights as much in Iago as Imogen (Keats's words); and to shuffle off our ordinary conceptions of character—in Murry's phrase, the “mortal coil of moral judgment”—is both painful and necessary. Always, Murry claims, “when Shakespeare has been allowed to make his impression, we find the critic groping after the paradox of the poetical character itself as described by Keats.” In an earlier essay, closer to Bradley's era, Murry had already put the problem of Shakespeare criticism in terms that showed how aware he was of reactions to the “vortex.” He rejects the “‘idea’-bacillus” that reduces Shakespeare to universal themes or the creation of character-types, yet he refuses to relinquish his rigorous quest for “the center of comprehension from which he [Shakespeare] worked.” Programmatic as it is, Murry's statement of 1920 remains relevant:

Let us away then with ‘logic’ and away with ‘ideas’ from the art of literary criticism; but not, in a foolish and impercipient reaction, to revive the impressionistic criticism which has sapped the English brain for a generation past. The art of criticism is rigorous; impressions are merely its raw material; the life-blood of its activity is in the process of ordonnance of aesthetic impressions.4

The rejection of impressionism leads, if we think of Eliot, and of Murry himself, simply to a more rigorous formulation of the paradox of the impersonal artist. For Murry it meant comparing Christian and post-Shakespearean (especially romantic) ways of annihilating selfhood. Blake becomes even more crucial for such a formulation than Keats. G. W. Knight also joins this quest. Other rigorous escape routes, that lead through impressionism beyond it, make Shakespeare's language the main character of his plays, the everything and nothing. Empson's colloquial fracturing of Shakespeare's text, from Seven Types through Complex Words, as well as Leavis's emphasis on the “heuristico-creative quality of the diction” avoid, on the whole, totalizing structures. Rigor consists in having the local reading undo an established symmetry.

Another form of rigor, historical scholarship, can be outrageously speculative. (The trend was always there in the work of editors who unscrambled perplexing expressions or normalized daring ones.) One might escape the Shakespearean vortex by discovering a firm historical emplacement for the plays, by clarifying their occasion as well as the characters in them. The work of referring the plays back to sources mysteriously transformed by Shakespeare (minor Italian novellas, or poetics derived from Donatus and Terence, such as the “forward progress of the turmoils”5) gives way to an ambitious reconstruction of a particular, sponsoring event. The quest for the identity of W.H. or the Dark Lady or the exact festive occasion of Twelfth Night exerts a prosecutory charm that attests to the presence of character in the critic-investigator (that stubborn, scholarly sleuth) as well as in Shakespeare the historical personage. Consider what the ingenious Leslie Hotson does with the “jest nominal,” or play on names. It is as intriguing as anything ventured by newfangled intertextualists.

Hotson claims in The First Night of Twelfth Night that the figure of Malvolio is a daring take-off of a high official in Elizabeth's court: Sir William Knollys, Earl of Banbury and Controller of her Majesty's household. This aging dignitary, we are told, had become infatuated with a young Maid of Honor at Court, Mall (Mary) Fitton. In the “allowed fooling” of Twelfth Night festivities, “old Beard Knollys,” suggests Hotson, “is slaughtered in gross and detail.” Here is his description of how it was done:

while exposing both the Controller's ill-will—towards hilarity and misrule—and his amorousness in the name Mala-voglia (Ill Will or Evil concupiscence) Shakespeare also deftly fetches up Knollys' ridiculous love-chase of Mistress Mall by a sly modulation of Mala-Voglia into “Mal”-voglio—which means “I want Mall,” “I wish for Mall,” “I will have Mall.” It is a masterpiece of mockery heightened by merciless repetition, with the players ringing the changes of expression on “Mal”-voglio … it will bring down the house.6

The play becomes a roman à clef, and so delivers us from a verbal vertigo it exposes. Shakespeare's improvisational genius, moreover, his extreme wit and opportunism, may recall the methodical bricolage by which earlier mythmakers, according to Lévi-Strauss, sustained their tale. Here it explicitly pleases or shames the ears of a court-centered audience. Yet this shaming or delighting is not necessarily in the service of good sense or the status quo, for it can subvert as well as mock and purge. The one thing it does, as in the case of the Controller, is to acknowledge the law of gender—of generation and succession—which, as Erasmus saw, compels us to play the fool. Such allowed slander, whether or not reinforced by Elizabethan festivities, by periods of compulsory license, also penetrates Shakespearean tragedy:

Even he, the father of gods and king of men, who shakes all heaven by a nod, is obliged to lay aside his three-pronged thunder and that Titanic aspect by which, when he pleases, he scares all the gods, and assume another character in the slavish manner of an actor, if he wishes to do what he never refrains from doing, that is to say, to beget children. … He will certainly lay by his gravity, smooth his brow, renounce his rock-bound principles, and for a few minutes toy and talk nonsense. … Venus herself would not deny that without the addition of my presence her strength would be enfeebled and ineffectual. So it is that from this brisk and silly little game of mine come forth the haughty philosophers.7


Generation and Succession are so fundamental to almost all classes and types of humanity that to reduce them to their verbal effects might seem trivializing. Yet, as Erasmus's Folly hints, the very category of the trivial is overturned by these forces. The “striving to please every day,” which is the fate of the player, is equally that of lover and courtier. It quickens even as it exhausts our wit. It points to a relentless need for devices—words, stratagems. More is required than a “tiny little wit” to sustain what every day demands.8

There exist eloquent characterizations of Shakespeare's understanding of the common nature of mankind. As Bakhtin remarks of another great writer, Rabelais, there are crownings and uncrownings at every level.9 No one is exempt, at any time, from that rise and fall, whether it is brought on by actual political events or social and sexual rivalry, or internalized pressures leading to self-destructive illusions and acts. The vicissitudes of Folly and Fortuna go hand in hand. Yet no conclusions are drawn; and it does not matter what class of person is involved—a Falstaff, a Harry, a King Henry; a clown, a count, a lady; a usurper, a porter. What happens happens across the board, and can therefore settle expressively in a language with a character of its own—apart from the decorum that fits it to the character of the person represented. The pun or quibble, Shakespeare's “fatal Cleopatra,” is a quaint and powerful sign of that deceiving variety of life. Hazlitt, following Charles Lamb, remarks that Elizabethan “distinctions of dress, the badges of different professions, the very signs of the shops” were a sort of visible language for the imagination. “The surface of society was embossed with hieroglyphs.”10 Yet the showiest and most self-betraying thing in Shakespeare is the flow of language itself, which carries traces of an eruption from some incandescent and molten core, even when hard as basalt, that is, patently rhetorical.

Structurally too, the repetitions by which we discover an intent—a purposiveness—do not resolve themselves into a unity, a “one” free of sexual, hierarchical or personal differentiation. Feste's “one” is an Empsonian complex word, which seeks to distract us, by its very iteration, into a sense of closure. Yet there is never an objective correlative that sops up the action or organizes all the excrescent motives and verbal implications. Feste's phrase is found, for example, in the mouth of another clown figure, Fluellen, in a scene one could characterize as “Porn at Monmouth” (Henry V, IV.vii). The scene, through the solecisms and mispronunciations of Fluellen, his butchery of English, makes us aware of what is involved in the larger world of combat, to which he is marginal. The catachresis of “Kill the Poyes and the luggage!” expresses the cut-throat speed with which matters are moving toward indiscriminate slaughter. An end penetrates the middle of the drama; the grimace (if only linguistic) of death begins to show through.

Yet even here, as the action hits a dangerous juncture, as decisions become hasty and bloody, this verbally excessive interlude slows things down to a moment of humorous discrimination. Fluellen draws a comparison between Harry of Monmouth and “Alexander the Pig” of Macedon (Henry V, IV.vii). That “big” should issue as “pig” is a fertile and leveling pun, which the macabre turn of this near-graveyard scene could have exploited even more; but the uncrowning of Alexander in Fluellen's mouth leads to a series of images (mouth, fingers, figures) that suggest a “body” less mortal than its parts. Harry's transformation into King Henry, and Fluellen's comparison in his favor—that Harry's bloodthirsty anger is more justified than Alexander's—appear like a jesting in the throat of death, a vain distinction already undone by the battlefield context that levels all things, as by an earthy vernacular, or quasi-vernacular, that can slander all things in perfect good humor.

It seems impossible, then, to describe the poetical character of Shakespeare without raising certain questions. One concerns the character of the critic (choices to be made in reading so strong and productive a writer); another what happens to language as it nurtures a vernacular ideal that still dominates English literature. A third, related question is whether what that language does to character and to us can be summed up or unified by methodical inquiry. Does an “intellectual tradition” exist, as Richards thought, to guide us in reading that plentiful “Elizabethan” mixture? “The hierarchy of these modes is elaborate and variable,” he writes about sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature. To “read aright,” Richards continues, “we need to shift with an at present indescribable adroitness and celerity from one mode to another.”11

By “modes” Richards means different types of indirect statement, which he also characterizes as “metaphorical, allegorical, symbolical,” yet does not define further. In some way they are all nonliteral; at least not directly literal. Like Coleridge, whom he quotes, Richards is impressed by the role that “wit” plays in Shakespeare's time, although he does not discuss the complicit or antagonistic and always showy relation between wit and will. He simply accepts Coleridge's thesis on wit and Shakespeare's time:

when the English Court was still foster-mother of the State and the Muses; and when, in consequence, the courtiers and men of rank and fashion affected a display of wit, point, and sententious observation, that would be deemed intolerable at present—but in which a hundred years of controversy, involving every great political, and every dear domestic interest, had trained all but the lowest classes to participate. Add to this the very style of the sermons of the time, and the eagerness of the Protestants to distinguish themselves by long and frequent preaching, and it will be found that, from the reign of Henry VIII to the abdication of James II, no country ever received such a national education as England.12

Yet Coleridge's notion of “national education” may be too idealistic—Arnoldian before the letter. It downplays the subverting character of Shakespeare's wit, one that is not put so easily in the service of the nation-state and its movement toward a common language. The “prosperity of a pun,” as M. M. Mahood calls it, in what is still the most sensitive exploration of the subject,13 offended rather than pleased most refiners of English up to modern times. “Prosperity” may itself covertly play on “propriety,” which is precisely what a pun questions. The speed and stenography, in any case, of Shakespeare's wordplay in the comic scenes undoes the hegemony of any single order of discourse, and compels us to realize the radically social and mobile nature of the language exchange. And, unlike the novel (which allows Bakhtin his most persuasive theorizing), these scenes display less a narrative or a pseudonarrative than oral graffiti. Verbally Shakespeare is a graffiti artist, using bold, often licentious strokes, that make sense because of the living context of stereotypes, the commedia dell'arte, and other vernacular or popular traditions.

Is it possible, then, to see Shakespeare sub specie unitatis, as the younger Murry thought? “There never has been and never will be a human mind which can resist such an inquiry if it is pursued with sufficient perseverance and understanding.”14 Yet in this very sentence “human mind” is fleetingly equivocal: does it refer only to the object of inquiry, Shakespeare's mind, or also to the interpreter's intellect, tempted by the riddle of Shakespeare? The later Murry too does not give up; but now the unity, the “all that's one,” is frightening as well, and associated with omnia abeunt in mysterium: all things exit into mystery.15

It seems to me there is no mystery, no Abgrund, except language itself, whose revelatory revels are being staged, as if character were a function of language, rather than vice versa. More precisely, as if the locus of the dramatic action were the effect of language on character. Twelfth Night will allow us to examine how this language test is applied. If we admire, however ambivalently, the way Iago works on Othello by “damnable iteration” (cf. Falstaff: “O, thou hast damnable iteration, and art indeed able to corrupt a saint” (1 Henry IV, I.ii.90), or the way Falstaff shamelessly converts abuse into flattery, we are already caught up in a rhetoric whose subversive motility, moment to moment, can bless or curse, praise or blame, corrupt words or (like Aristotle's eulogist) substitute collateral terms that “lean toward the best.”16 It is this instant possibility of moving either way, or simultaneously both ways, which defines the Shakespearean dramatic and poetical character. In Twelfth Night, with Feste a self-pronounced “corrupter of words” (III.i.37), and Malvolio's censorious presence, the verbal action challenges all parties to find “comic remedies,” or to extract sweets from weeds and poisons.17


“Excellent,” says Sir Toby Belch, “I smell a device.” “I have't in my nose too,” Sir Andrew Aguecheek echoes him (II.iii.162). Toby is referring to the plan concocted by Maria, Olivia's maid, of how to get even with the strutting and carping Malvolio, steward of the household. The device is a letter to be written by Maria in her lady's hand, which will entice Malvolio into believing Olivia is consumed with a secret passion for him, his yellow stockings, cross-garters and smile. The device (not the only one in the play—Bertrand Evans has counted seven persons who are active practisers operating six devices)18 succeeds; and Malvolio, smiling hard, and wearing the colors he thinks are the sign commanded by his lady, but which she happens to detest, is taken for mad and put away.

The very words “I smell a device” contain a device. Toby, mostly drunk, knows how to choose his metaphors; and Andrew, not much of a wit (“I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit”), merely echoes him, which makes the metaphor more literal and so more absurd. A device is also a figure, or flower of speech; both meanings may be present here, since the content of the device is literary, that is, a deceivingly flowery letter. Flowers smell, good or bad as the occasion may be. “Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds” (Sonnet 94). Sometimes figures or metaphors fly by so thick and fast that we all are as perplexed as Sir Andrew:

Bless you, fair shrew.
And you too, sir.
Accost, Sir Andrew, accost. (…)
Good Mistress Accost, I desire better acquaintance.
My name is Mary, sir.
Good Mistress Mary Accost—
You mistake, knight. “Accost” is front her, board her, woo her, assail her.
By my troth, I would not undertake her in this company. Is that the meaning of “accost”?
Fare you well, gentlemen.
And thou let part so, Sir Andrew, would thou might'st never draw sword again!
And you part so, mistress, I would I might never draw sword again. Fair lady, do you think you have fools in hand?
Sir, I have not you by th' hand.
Marry, but you shall have, and here's my hand.
Now, sir, thought is free. I pray you bring your hand to th' buttery bar and let it drink.
Wherefore, sweetheart? What's your metaphor?
It's dry, sir.

(I. iii. 46-72)

Awkward Andrew starts with a mild oxymoron and compounds the error of his address to Mary by a further innocent mistake—the transposition of a common verb into a proper noun, which not only unsettles parts of speech but creates a parallel euphemism to “fair shrew” through the idea of “good Accost.” The entire scene is constructed out of such pleasant errors—failed connections or directions that hint at larger, decisive acts (accosting, undertaking, marrying). At line 62 the verbal plot becomes even more intricate, as Andrew strives to “address” Mary a second time. “Marry” (66) is an oath, a corruption of the Virgin's name; but here, in addition to echoing “Mary,” it may be the common verb, as Andrew tries to be witty or gallant by saying in a slurred way (hey, I too can fling metaphors around!), “If you marry you'll have me by the hand, and here it is.” (He forgets that that would make him a fool, like all married men.) Maria bests him, though, suggesting a freer kind of handling, with a new metaphor that—I think—may be licentious. What is that “buttery bar”? Probably, in function, a bar as today, for serving drinks; but could it be her breasts or … butt? That same “bar,” by a further twist or trope, echoes in Maria's “marry, now I let go your hand, I am barren” (77). No wonder Andrew, out of his range, stutters, “Wherefore, sweetheart? What's your metaphor?”

Somewhere there is always a device, or a “hand” that could fool just about anyone. Nobody is spared, nobody escapes witting. Yet it remains harmless because all, except Malvolio, play along. There is rhetoric and repartee, puns and paranomasia, metaphor upon metaphor, as if these characters were signifying monkeys: the play expects every person to pass the test of wit, to stand at that bar of language. Yet “wherefore?” we ask, like simple Andrew.

That question returns us to the poetical character. It “is not itself,” Keats wrote, “it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character.” He says other things, too, which make it clear he is thinking mainly of Shakespeare. “It lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher [a Malvolio in this respect] delights the chameleon Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than for its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation” (letter to Richard Woodhouse, October 27, 1818).

Much depends on that word “speculation” in Keats; a “widening speculation,” he also writes, eases the burden of life's mystery, takes away the heat and fever (letter to J. H. Reynolds, May 3, 1818). You have to have something to speculate with or on; some luxury, like a delicious voice, whose first impact you remember. Speculation is making the thing count again, as with money, yet without fearing its loss.19 The Shakespearean language of wit is like that. Though penetrated by knowledge of loss, aware that the most loved or fancied thing can fall “into abatement fnd low price, / Even in a minute!” (I. i. 13-14), it still spends itself in an incredibly generous manner, as if the treasury of words were always full. However strange it may seem, while everything in this play is, emotionally, up or down—each twin, for example, thinks the other dead; Olivia, in constant mourning and rejecting Orsino, is smitten by Viola/Cesario in the space of one interview—while everything vacillates, the language itself coins its metaphors and fertile exchanges beyond any calculus of loss and gain. When I hear the word “fool” repeated so many times, I also hear the word “full” emptied out or into it; so “Marry” and “Mary” and “madam” (“mad-dame”) and “madman” collapse distinctions of character (personality) in favor of some prodigious receptacle that “receiveth as the sea” (I. i. 11). No wonder modern critics have felt a Dionysian drift in the play, a doubling and effacing of persons as well as a riot of metaphors working against distinctions, until, to quote the ballad at the end, “that's all one.”


I think, therefore I am. What does one do about “I act” or “I write”? What identity for that “I”? For the poet who shows himself in the inventive wit of all these personae? Twelfth Night gives an extraordinary amount of theatrical time to Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and to clowning generally. These scenes threaten to erupt into the main plot, which is absurd enough, where love is sudden and gratuitous, as in Orsino's infatuation for Olivia (two O's) or Viola's for Orsino, or Olivia's for Cesario. Everything goes o-a in this play, as if a character's destiny depended on voweling. “M.O.A.I. doth sway my life” (II. v. 109). Whose hand directs this comic tumult of mistaken identities, disguises, devices, and names, that even when they are not Rabelaisian or musical scrabble (Olivia: Viola) or transparent like Malvolio (the evil eye, or evil wish) are silly attempts at self-assertion? So it doesn't really help when Sebastian in II. i. 14-18 identifies himself. “You must know of me then, Antonio, my name is Sebastian, which I called Roderigo; my father was that Sebastian of Messaline whom I know you have heard of.” We have two Sebastians, and one Sebastian is Roderigo. In addition, as we know by this point in the drama, Sebastian and Viola (that is, Cesario) are identical twins, born in the same hour, both saved from the “breach” a second time when they escape shipwreck and find themselves in a land with the suggestive name of Illyria—compounded, to the sensitive ear, out of Ill and liar/lyre. So also Viola enters the play punning, or off-rhyming. “And what should I do in Illyria? / My brother he is in Elysium” (I. ii. 3-4).

The question, then, relates to identity and destiny, or who has what in hand; it is also related to the question of questioning itself, that kind of speech-act, so close to trial and testing, and the legalese or academic lingo in a play perhaps performed at an inn-of-court. In late medieval times, from the twelfth century on, there was a shift in “pedagogical technique (and corresponding literary forms) from the lectio to the disputatio and questio … from primary concern for the exegesis of authoritative texts and the laying of doctrinal foundations toward the resolution of particular (and sometimes minor) difficulties and even the questioning of matters no longer seriously doubted, for the sake of exploring the implications of a doctrine, revealing the limits of necessity and contingency, or demonstrating one's dialectical skills.”20 Another authority writes that “Even the points accepted by everybody and set forth in the most certain of terms were brought under scrutiny and subjected, by deliberate artifice, to the now usual processes of research. In brief, they were, literally speaking, ‘called into question,’ no longer because there was any real doubt about their truth, but because a deeper understanding of them was sought after.”21 From contemporary reports of the “Acts” at Oxford when Elizabeth visited, we know that these questions and quodlibets maintained themselves at least ceremonially.22 Is Twelfth Night's subtitle, “What You Will,” a jocular translation of quodlibet? What significance may there be in the fact that in I. iii. 86-96 Toby passes from “No question” to “Pourquoi” to “Past question?” My own question is: Pourquoi these “kikshawses” (“quelques choses”)? Wherefore, Shakespeare? What's your metaphor for?

Testing and questing seem connected immemorially: it is hard to think of the one without the other, especially in the realm of “Acts” which assert authority or identity by playful display. Even the Academy participates that much in the realm of romance. But my comments are meant to lead somewhat deeper into a drama that relishes the night-side of things with such good humor. If there are low-class mistakes, as when Andrew thinks Toby's “Accost” refers to Mary's name, there are also the high-class mistakes, Orsino's love, principally, that starts the play with a fine call for music in verses intimating that nothing can fill desire, fancy, love. Its appetite is like the sea, so capacious, so swallowing and changeable. “If music be the food of love, play on.” Play on is what we do, as “Misprision in the highest degree” (I. v. 53) extends itself. Everything changes place or is mis-taken, so that Orsino believes himself in love with Olivia but settles “dexteriously,” as the Clown might say, for Viola; while poor Malvolio is taken for mad and confined in a place as gloomy as his temperament. We tumble through the doubling, reversing, mistaking, clowning, even cloning; we never get away from the tumult of the words themselves, from the “gratillity” (another clown-word, that is, gratuitousness or greed for tips, tipsiness) of Feste's “gracious fooling,” as when Andrew, probably tipsy himself, and stupidly good at mixing metaphors, mentions some of the clown's other coinages: “Pigrogromitus” and the “Vapians passing the equinoctical of Queubus” (II. iii. 23-4).

It is not that these funny, made-up words don't make sense: they make a kind of instant sense, as Shakespeare always does. Yet a sense that can't be proved, that remains to be guessed at and demands something from us. Does “equinoctial” hint at solstice or equinox festivals, if Twelfth Night was performed on the day the title suggests;23 is “Queubus” mock Latin for the tail or male, or a corruption of “quibus,” “a word of frequent occurrence in legal documents and so associated with verbal niceties or subtle distinctions” (C. T. Onions)? Did the audience know it was slang for fool in Dutch (“Kwibus”)?

The text requires a certain tolerance or liberality of interpretation: yellow cross-garters in the realm of construing, “motley in the brain” (I. v. 55). To quote Andrew—and it should be inscribed on the doors of all literature departments: “I would I had bestowed that time in the tongues that I have in fencing, dancing, and bear-baiting. O, had I but followed the arts!” (I. iii. 90-3).

There exists a modern version of another “antic” song about the twelve days of Christmas (cf. II. iii. 85). If Twelfth Night, the climax of Christmastide rejoicing, asks that we fill up the daystar's ebb, then the emphasis falls on giving, on true-love giving. Twelfth Night, formally the feast of Epiphany, is when divinity appeared, when Christ was manifested to the Gentiles (the Magi or three kings). Presence rather than absence is the theme. Twelfth Night is not a religious play, and yet its “gracious fooling” may be full of grace. The great O of Shakespeare's stage draws into it the gift of tongues; and in addition to the legal or academic metaphors, the food and sexual metaphors, and other heterogeneous language strains, occasionally a religious pathos, impatient of all these indirections, maskings, devices, makes itself heard. “Wherefore are these things hid? Wherefore have these gifts a curtain before 'em?” (I. iii. 122-3) To the question, what filling (fulfilling) is in this fooling, the best reply might be that, in literature, everything aspires to the condition of language, to the gift of tongues; that the spirit—wanton as it may be—of language overrides such questions, including those of character and identity.

Does Orsino, the Duke, have an identity, or is he not a plaything of fancy; and is love not represented by him as both arbitrary in what it fixes on and as “full of shapes” and “fantastical” as the entire play? These people seem in love with words rather than with each other. More exactly, the embassy of words and the play of rhetoric are essential tests for both lover and object of love. When Curio tries to distract the Duke from his musical and effete reflections by “Will you go hunt, my lord?” (I. i. 16), Orsino answers, startled, “What, Curio?” meaning “What d'you say?”, which is misunderstood when Curio replies, “The hart,” after which the Duke can't restrain himself from an old quibble equating hart, the animal, and heart, the seat of love:

Why, so I do [hunt], the noblest that I have.
O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purg'd the air of pestilence;
That instant was I turn'd into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me.

(I. i. 18-23)

The hunter becomes the hunted; but it is also suggested (though we may not be convinced) that the Duke finds a heart in himself—a sensitivity where previously there was nothing but a sense of privilege.

We see how thorough this full fooling is. In Shakespeare the poetry—the prose too—is larger than the characters, enlarging them but also making their identities or egos devices in an overwhelming revel. The revels of language are never ended. This does not mean that language is discontinuous with the search for identity or a “heart.” Orsino's first speech already introduces the gracious theme of giving and receiving, of feeding, surfeiting, dying, reviving, playing on. Love and music are identified through the metaphor of the “dying fall” (I. i. 4), also alluding, possibly, to the end of the year; and, ironically enough, the Duke's moody speech suggests a desire to get beyond desire—to have done with such perturbations, with wooing and risking rejection, and trying to win through by gifts and maneuvers. “Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, / The appetite [for love, not just for music] may sicken, and so die” (I. i. 2-3). At the very end of the play, with the Clown's final song, this melancholy desire to be beyond desire returns in the refrain “The rain it raineth every day,” and the internal chiming of “that's all one, our play is done.” Even in this generous and least cynical of Shakespeare's comedies, love is an appetite that wants to be routinized or exhausted, and so borders on tragic sentiments.

In drama, giving and receiving take the form of dialogic repartee. Shakespeare makes of dialogue a charged occasion, two masked affections testing each other, always on guard. Usually, then, there is a healthy fear or respect for the other; or there is a subversive sense that what goes on in human relations is not dialogue at all but seduction and domination. To have real giving and receiving—in terms of speech and understanding—may be so strenuous that the mind seeks other ways to achieve a simulacrum of harmony: maybe an “equinoctial of Queubus” brings us into equilibrium, or maybe festivals, like Christmas, when there is at-one-ment, through licensed license, through the principle of “what you will,” of freely doing or not doing. (Twelve, after all, is the sign of the temporal clock turning over into One.) But the turn is felt primarily at the level of “gracious fooling” in this Christmas play. Hazlitt goes so far as to say “It is perhaps too good-natured for comedy. It has little satire and no spleen.” And he continues with an even more significant remark, which I now want to explore: “In a word, the best turn is given to everything, instead of the worst.”


The poetical genius of Shakespeare is inseparable from an ability to trope anything and turn dialogue, like a fluctuating battle, to the worst or best surmise. I see the dramatic and linguistic action of Twelfth Night as a turning away of the evil eye. It averts a malevolent interpretation of life, basically Malvolio's. Though Malvolio is unjustly—by a mere “device”—put into a dark place, this too is for the good, for he must learn how to plead. That is, by a quasilegal, heartfelt rhetoric, he must now turn the evidence, from bad to good. In IV. ii. 12ff. a masquerade is acted out which not only compels us to sympathize with Malvolio, making him a figure of pathos, but which repeats, as a play within the play, the action of the whole. Malvolio is gulled once more, baited like a bear—the sport he objected to. Yet the spirit of this comedy is not that of revenge, malice or ritual expulsion. All these motives may participate, yet what rouses our pity and fear is the way language enters and preordains the outcome. Shakespeare brings out the schizoid nature of discourse by juxtaposing soft or good words, ordinary euphemisms (“Jove bless thee, Master Parson,” “Bonos dies, Sir Toby,” “Peace in this prison”) with abusive imprecations (“Out, hyperbolical fiend,” “Fie, thou dishonest Satan,” “Madman, thou errest”). Malvolio is subjected to a ridiculous legal or religious quizzing: a “trial” by “constant question.” As in so many infamous state proceedings, he can get nowhere. He has to cast himself, against his temperament, on the mercy of the clown he condemned, though never actually harmed: “Fool, I say,” “Good fool, as ever thou wilt deserve well at my hand,” “Ay, good fool,” “Fool, fool, fool, I say!”, “Good fool, help me to some light and some paper: I tell thee I am as well in my wits as any man in Illyria” (“Feste: “Well-a-day that you were, sir!”), “By this hand, I am! Good fool, some ink, paper, and light.”

Every word suddenly receives its full value. A man's life or freedom depends on it. It is not quibbled away. Yet words remain words; they have to be received; the imploration is all. “By this hand” is more than a tender of good faith, the visible sign of imploration. It is the handwriting that could save Malvolio, as that other “hand,” Maria's letter-device, fooled and trapped him. Ink, paper, and light, as for Shakespeare himself perhaps, are the necessities. They must dispel or counter-fool whatever plot has been, is being, woven.

The spectator sits safely, like a judge, on the bench; yet the reversal which obliges Malvolio to plead with the fool reminds us what it means to be dependent on what we say and how (generously or meanly) it is received. To please every day, like a courtier, lover or actor, leads us into improvisations beyond the ordinary scope of wit. It puts us all in the fool's place. It is everyone, not Feste alone, who is involved, when after a sally of nonsense Maria challenges him with “Make that good” (I. v. 7). That is, give it meaning, in a world where “hanging” and “colours” (collars, cholers, flags, figures of speech, I. v. 1-6) are realities. But also, to return to Hazlitt's insight, give what you've said the best turn, justify the metaphor at whatever bar (legal) or buttery (the milk of mercy) is the least “dry” (I. iii. 72). “The rain it raineth every day.”

Bakhtin's view, inspired by the development of literary vernaculars in the Renaissance, that each national language is composed of many kinds of discourse, dialogic even when not formally so, and polyphonic in effect, can be extended to the question of Shakespeare's poetical character. There is no one heart or one will (“Will”). Andrew's querulous “What's your metaphor?” or Maria's testing “Make it good” or the Clown's patter (“‘That that is, is’; so I, being Master Parson, am Master Parson; for what is ‘that’ but ‘that’? and ‘is’ but ‘is’?” (IV. ii. 15-17)) impinge also on the spectator/reader. Yet in this world of figures, catches, errors, reversals, songs, devices, plays within plays, where motley distinguishes more than the jester, and even Malvolio is gulled into a species of it, moments arise that suggest a more than formal resolution—more than the fatigue or resignation of “that's all one” or the proverbial “all's well that ends well.” So when Viola, as the Duke's go-between, asks Olivia, “Good madam, let me see your face” (where the “good,” as in all such appeals, is more than an adjective, approaching the status of an absolute construction: “Good, madam,” similar in force to Maria's “Make it good”), there is the hint of a possible revelatory moment, of clarification. The challenge, moreover, is met by a facing up to it. Yet the metaphor of expositing a text, which had preceded, is continued, so that we remain in the text even when we are out of it.

Now, sir, what is your text?
Most sweet lady—
A comfortable doctrine, and much may be said of it. Where lies your text?
In Orsino's bosom.
In his bosom? In what chapter of his bosom?
To answer by the method, in the first of his heart.
O, I have read it: it is heresy. Have you no more to say?
Good madam, let me see your face.
Have you any commission from your lord to negotiate with my face? You are now out of your text: but we will draw the curtain and show you the picture. [Unveiling] Look you, sir, such a one I was this present. Is't not well done?
Excellently done, if God did all.

(I. v. 223-39)

I was, not I am; by pretending she is a painting, just unveiled, the original I is no longer there, or only as this picture which points to a present in the way names or texts point to a meaning. The text, however, keeps turning. There is no “present”: no absolute gift, or moment of pure being. Yet a sense of epiphany, however fleeting, is felt; a sense of mortality too and of artifice, as the text is sustained by the force of Olivia's wit. “Is't not well done?” Olivia, like Feste, must “make it good.” The mocking elaboration of her own metaphor allows speech rather than embarrassed or astonished silence at this point. The play (including Olivia's “interlude”) continues. There is always more to say.


  1. All quotations from Twelfth Night are taken from the Arden Shakespeare edition, ed. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik (London and New York, 1975).

  2. “Feste the jester”, in A Miscellany (London, 1929), 217.

  3. John Middleton Murry, Shakespeare (London, 1936), 17-19. At the end of his book Murry appends a short imaginary dialogue with Shakespeare, more fanciful than Bradley's surmise.

  4. “Shakespeare criticism”, in Aspects of Literature (New York, 1920), 200. Eliot's epigraph to The Sacred Wood (1921) from Rémy de Gourmont (“Eriger ses impressions en lois …”) discloses the common problem of going beyond impressionism without becoming unduly scientific (i.e. following the Taine-Brunetière tradition).

  5. Consult, for example, J. V. Cunningham, Woe or Wonder: The Emotional Effect of Shakespearean Tragedy (1951), especially “The Donatan tradition”; and Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London and New York, 1980).

  6. Leslie Hotson, The First Night of Twelfth Night (New York, 1955), ch. 5, “Malvolio.”

  7. Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, tr. from the Latin, with an essay and commentary, by Hoyt Hopewell Hudson, (Princeton, 1941), 14-15.

  8. Consider, in this light, the vogue of courtesy books in the sixteenth century, of which the most famous, Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, was done into English by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561, and reprinted 1577, 1588 and 1603. Book 2 of The Courtier treats exhaustively the decorum of jesting.

  9. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, tr. Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge, Mass., 1968). See especially ch. 3, “Popular-festive forms.” Bakhtin mentions the feast of Epiphany, and claims that the common element of both official and unofficial carnivals was that “they are all related to time, which is the true hero of every feast, uncrowning the old and crowning the new.” A significant footnote adds that, actually, “every feast day crowns and uncrowns.” See also Bakhtin's second chapter on “The language of the marketplace in Rabelais.” (For some amusing remarks on Shakespeare and Rabelais, cf. Hotson, op. cit., 155ff.) C. L. Barber in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom (1959) explores the same area.

  10. William Hazlitt, Lectures on the Literature of the Age of Elizabeth (1820), ch. 1.

  11. I. A. Richards, Coleridge on Imagination (London, 1968), 193.

  12. As quoted by Richards, op. cit., 193.

  13. M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London, 1957).

  14. Murry, Aspects, 199.

  15. Murry, Shakespeare, 17-18.

  16. See Hudson, op. cit., xxiii. Also, on the related matter of “praise-abuse,” Bakhtin, op. cit., 458: “The virginal words of the oral vernacular which entered literary language for the first time are close, in a certain sense, to proper nouns. They are individualized and still contain a strong element of praise-abuse, which makes them suitable to nicknames.” On word-formation in Rabelais (often suggestive for Feste's “gracious fooling”), see Leo Spitzer, Linguistics and Literary History (Princeton, 1948).

  17. William Hazlitt, “Twelfth Night,” in Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817).

  18. Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford, 1960), 118.

  19. Just as in comedy, according to Donatan principles, turns of fortune should not include the danger of death (sine periculo vitae, cf. Cunningham, op. cit.). Since Leibniz defined music as a species of unconscious counting or arithmetic, and music enters so prominently into Twelfth Night (as musica speculativa as well as musica practica—see John Hollander, “Musica mundana and Twelfth Night” (English Institute Essays: Sound and Poetry, ed. Northrop Frye (New York, 1957)), an interesting analogy begins to form between comedy, music, and the Shakespearean language of wit. In this respect, the issues of gender difference and succession return, for the action of Twelfth Night is simply the release of Orsino and Olivia from their single state, which cannot occur without the separating out of Viola/Cesario and Viola/Sebastian (“One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons! / A natural perspective, that is, and is not!” (V.i. 214-15)). That “one” is redeemed from both singleness and duplicity: the confounding in singleness, as Sonnet 8, with its explicit music metaphor, suggests, should turn into a harmony of “parts that thou shouldst bear,” a concord of “all in one.” Cf. however Marilyn French's surprising conclusion in Shakespeare's Division of Experience (New York, 1981) that the one not in harmony, Malvolio, wins out in the end as the embodiment of society's repressive stewardship. “Constancy is required; love must lead to marriage; and marriage must lead to procreation” (123).

  20. David C. Lindberg, Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler (Chicago and London, 1976), 145.

  21. M.-D. Chenu, OP, Understanding St Thomas, as quoted by Lindberg, op. cit., 145.

  22. See “The Grand Reception and Entertainment of Queen Elizabeth at Oxford in 1592,” from a MS Account by Philip Stringer, printed in Elizabethan Oxford, ed. Charles Plummer (Oxford, 1877). Cf., on the quodlibets, the same collection of tracts, 18, and the unflattering description of such exercises as they still prevailed into the later eighteenth century, by Vicesimus Knox: Reminiscences by Oxford Men, 1559-1850, ed. Lilian M. Quiller Couch (Oxford, 1892), 160-7. According to J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens (1944), ch. 9, the “whole functioning of the medieval university was profoundly agonistic and ludic.” The word “Act” was formally applied to the degree exercises which conferred the Bachelor and Master of Arts. The use of “act” in Shakespeare (as in Hamlet V.ii. 346 and Winter's Tale V.ii. 86ff.) includes that sense of the presence of a conferring authority.

  23. Cf. T. H. Gaster, Thespis: Ritual, Myth and Drama in the Ancient Near East (New York, 1950). Chapter 2, especially, discerns in ritual dramas a uniform pattern of kenosis, or emptying, and plerosis, or filling. The twelve nights after which Shakespeare's play is named could reflect the agon or combat of those two tendencies: a combat to determine the character of such days, whether they are fasts or feasts, lenten (under the aegis of Malvolio) or copious. The twelve days between December 25 and January 6 have, moreover, a special relation to calendar time: they may be epagomenal or intercalary (Gaster, op. cit., 10, and cf. 369) and as such linked to an “occlusion of personality.” Yet is not all fictional time intercalary? “Twelfth Night” in Shakespeare may stand for every such day or night which requires a release of that “lease” on life which has to be annually renewed, yet which here is a human and ever-present rather than ritually determined necessity.

Thad Jenkins Logan (essay date spring 1982)

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SOURCE: Logan, Thad Jenkins. “Twelfth Night: The Limits of Festivity.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 22, no. 2 (spring 1982): 223-38.

[In the following essay, Logan claims that Twelfth Night—despite its ostensible depiction of a festive and happy resolution—contains glimpses of the darker side of human desire.]

In a recent article, Richard A. Levin has remarked on the existence of “two alternate approaches to Shakespearean comedy”: the one, exemplified by the work of C. L. Barber and Northrop Frye, focuses on the comedies as celebrations of social order, in which the protagonists are engaged in growth and self-discovery; the other, practiced by W. H. Auden, Harold C. Goddard, and Jan Kott, finds in the plays a “serious treatment of psychological states” and a “negative comment about social conditions.”1 Levin attributes this bifurcation in critical response to the fact that our response to the plays is fundamentally complex, and it is the complexity of our response to Twelfth Night that I mean to discuss here. I propose to consider the play as a Saturnalian comedy which evokes in its audience a recognition of the limits of festivity by abolishing such limits in the stage-world of Illyria. While my thesis may not please those who view Twelfth Night as a comedy of romantic education and moral redemption, I am in fact attempting to demonstrate that the divergent approaches cited by Levin may (in some sense) be reconciled if we posit that the locus of growth and self-discovery is the audience.

In Twelfth Night Shakespeare presents us with a world given over to pleasure, intoxication, and freedom. Any accurate interpretation must acknowledge the thematic importance of festivity, and critics like Barber, Leslie Hotson, L. G. Salingar, and John Hollander have provided valuable insights in this respect.2 Yet none of these critics has dealt quite adequately with the particular nature of festivity in this play, and my concentration on the dark side of the carnival world of Twelfth Night should be viewed as a supplement to their interpretations. It is clear that festive experience permits of distinctions: a New Year's Eve party, a Christmas dinner, and a wedding are all festive occasions, but constitute different experiences. Similarly, from a point of view of structure, the formal features which lead Barber to characterize a comedy as “festive” may be discovered in many plays, but crucial differences among the plays exist within that framework. The experience of Twelfth Night is very different from that of As You Like It or Midsummer Night's Dream, plays in which a critic may find similar dramatic elements and a number of formal analogues; I conceive the identifying, distinctive experience of Twelfth Night to be a function of the nature of festivity in that play. As its title suggests, the world of this play is a night world, and festivity here has lost its innocence.

Leslie Hotson has noted that the subtitle “what you will” recalls the motto of the Abbaye de Thélème: “fay ce que vouldras.”3 The phrase suggests that a fundamental concern of the play is what one critic has called “multiple pleasures and wills to pleasure.”4 Jan Kott, in a brilliant though idiosyncratic assessment of Twelfth Night, asserts that sex is the theme of the play;5 this is accurate enough but it is incomplete, since the secondary plot is highly significant in terms of stage time, and that plot is not primarily centered on sexuality, but on a set of drives that have to do with food, drink, song, dance, and fun. “Revelry” is probably as good a term as any to describe these particular sorts of pleasure, and I will use it in this essay to refer specifically to them. The relationship between the two plots is, in part, dependent on the fact that revelry and eroticism are closely allied; they are the two faces of Saturnalian experience.6Twelfth Night, then, is an anatomy of festivity which focuses in the main plot on sexuality and in the sub-plot on revelry; the subtitle implies that these are what we, the audience, want.

It is crucial to recognize that the play makes an appeal to our own drives toward pleasure, toward liberation from the restraints of ordinary life. This is not, finally, an immoral play, but its authentic morality can only be discovered if we are willing to make a descent into the night world: its meaning remains opaque if we insist on seeing at every moment in every play a conservative, Apollonian Shakespeare. (We will do well to remember that Dionysus is the presiding genius of the theater.) Twelfth Night is not an enticement to licentious behavior, but it is an invitation to participate imaginatively in a Saturnalian feast.

A pervasive atmosphere of liberty and license is established by the opening scenes. The first thing we recognize about Illyria is that it is a world of privilege and leisure in which the aristocracy are at play. Goddard, whose vision of the play is in many ways similar to my own, calls Illyria “a counterfeit Elysium” (p. 302), and characterizes its citizens as parasitical pleasure-seekers, partly on the grounds that any aristocratic society is founded on “the unrecognized labors of others” (p. 303).7 Certainly, there are only two characters in the play who seem to have any work to do: they are Feste and Malvolio, whose positions in the social world will be discussed at greater length; for most of the characters, leisure is a way of life. There are no rude mechanicals here. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria are clearly not members of the lower class, although the conventions of comedy and Shakespeare's usual practices have sometimes led directors to make that mistake about them.8 That the characters of the sub-plot are themselves members of the aristocracy is a significant feature of this play. Olivia and Orsino are at the very top of the social hierarchy; they are young, rich, elegant, and fashionable. The captain who rescues Viola suggests something of their éclat in his initial description of Orsino:

And then 'twas fresh in murmur (as you know,
What great ones do, the less will prattle of)
That he did seek the love of fair Olivia.


Even the shipwrecked twins are well-off; Sebastian is amply provided for by the doting Antonio upon his arrival in Illyria, and Viola has somehow emerged from the sea with enough gold to pay the captain “bounteously.”

The wealth and social position of the characters are important in several ways and should be established clearly in production; besides setting the action in a framework of aristocratic values, pleasures, and mores, they contribute a great deal to a sense of liberation and license. Characters are, in part, free to pursue “what they will” because they can afford to do so. The financial conditions upon which Illyrian revelry depends are made explicit by Sir Toby: “Let's to bed, knight. Thou hadst need send for more money” (II.iii.182 and 183). Along with economic freedom, the social status of the main characters allows them to pursue pleasure according to their fancy. Orsino is attended by courtiers who provide him with music, and presumably with “sweet beds of flow'rs,” on command; Olivia speaks to Cesario / Sebastian from a position of power, arranging rendezvous as she chooses. Her disorderly kinsman and his guest may be threatened by her displeasure, but they are apparently in no danger from any sort of civil authority; in the brawl that follows the practical joke played on Viola and Sir Andrew, it is only the outsider, Antonio, who is arrested.

Political power is, in fact, vested in Orsino; as the Duke of Illyria, he might be expected to function as the parent-figure in Northrop Frye's model of the structure of comedy.9 From his first speech, however, it becomes clear that Orsino is not going to embody principles of law, order, and restraint in this comic world. In fact, there are no parents at all in Illyria, as Joseph Summers has cogently noted.10 Here, the social order is in the hands of youth, and wealth and power are at the service of youth's pursuit of pleasure.

It is Malvolio, of course, who fills the dramatic functions of the senex and the blocking figure, but what is curious about Malvolio in this respect is that he is a servant of Olivia. In a comic world noticeably lacking parents, Malvolio becomes a parent figure insofar as he performs some characteristic parental roles: it is he who tells the revellers to be quiet and go to bed. Yet Malvolio is a remarkably ineffective blocking figure; he shows himself powerless to control Sir Toby and Maria, much less to inhibit the actions of the lovers. The figure who stands for law and order in this play is not only made the butt of practical jokes, but is, in the structure of the play's society, only an employee. As such, he has no real authority: his “parenting”may be made use of by Olivia when it is convenient, and dispensed with when it is not. No one is morally or legally compelled to obey Malvolio; certainly no one is inclined to do so, nor is anyone inclined to share his stolid, earnest, workaday consciousness.

In the course of the play, the sort of consciousness that Malvolio embodies is literally locked away in the dark. His imprisonment is a striking emblem of the psychic reversal that underlies Saturnalian festivity: impulses that are normally repressed are liberated, while the controls of the super-ego are temporarily held in check. What gives Illyria its distinctive atmosphere is our sense that in this world such a reversal is a way of life. For most of the characters, everyday is holiday. Festivity is the norm here, and misrule is the order of the night.

The audience of Twelfth Night participates imaginatively in an experience of psychic liberation, but does not share the “madness” of the Illyrians; in Freudian terms, our ego and super-ego continue to function normally. There are modes of awareness available to us that are not available to the characters (we hold, for example, the keys to all riddles of identity in this play), and we retain an integrity of consciousness that the characters do not. Freud, of course, conceived of art as a transformation of unconscious fantasy material into a publicly acceptable form;11 while a Freudian theory of art tends to be limited and reductive, it provides a useful model for an audience's experience of Twelfth Night. Fantasies of love and anarchy, given free rein in Illyria, are presented on the stage, made present for our contemplation as well as our imaginative participation. It is as though we are allowed to be at once asleep and awake; our own fantasies, “what we will,” are newly discovered to us. The sorts of things we learn about the night-world of the psyche are profoundly disturbing. Festivity turns out to be fraught with dangers and complications: Eros mocks the individual; Dionysis is a god of pain as well as a god of pleasure.

According to Leslie Hotson, for Shakespeare and his original audience “what the Dalmatian-Croatian Illyria brought to mind was thoughts of wild riot and drunkenness.”12 In the sub-plot of Twelfth Night, as in the Bacchic rites, what riot and drunkenness lead to are violence and cruelty.13 Among all Shakespeare's comedies, it is only in Twelfth Night and As You Like It that there is literally blood on the stage. It is characteristic of the violence in the former play to be artificial in the sense of being invented by the characters themselves rather than necessitated by the movement of the plot or brought in from outside the comic world by a villain. In As You Like It, for instance, violence is created by the wicked Duke Frederick or by the encounter of man and nature. Because the violence of Twelfth Night, at least that which we see on the stage, is directly or indirectly effected by an appetite for diversion, there is always an element of superfluity about it that is curiously disturbing; it is like the underside of play. Violence in this play is optional, chosen, “what we will.”

Freud has taught us that cruelty is the genesis of practical jokes.14 Whether or not Malvolio deserves his treatment at the hands of Maria, it seems to me that her sadistic impulses towards him are obvious.15 Once he has been gulled into smiles and yellow stockings, her response to him is “I can hardly forbear hurling things at him” (III.ii.81). Her “sportful malice” creates a web of illusion that is, up to a point, very funny indeed. Yet from the moment Malvolio cries out “they have laid me here in hideous darkness” (IV.ii.29 and 30), he begins to claim a share of the audience's sympathy. His plight is too close to our own nightmare fears, his language too evocative, for us to feel quite comfortable laughing at him. The feeling that the joke has gone too far is voiced by Sir Toby: “I would we were well rid of this knavery” (IV.ii. 67-68). The game threatens to come real: “We shall make him mad indeed,” objects Fabian, to which Maria responds, “The house will be the quieter” (III.iv.133-34). She has, she says, “dogg'd him like his murtherer” (III.ii.76-77), and she is in earnest in her perpetration of psychic violence. That Maria bears the name of the Virgin is another example of the reversal characteristic of Saturnalian festivity.

Once Malvolio has fallen prey to the machinations of the revellers and to his own fantasies, Sir Toby's idea of a good time is to set Cesario and Sir Andrew at one another. He does not, of course, expect blood to be spilled—certainly not his own—but he has not reckoned with encountering the energies of Sebastian. Energy is precisely what he does encounter, however, and it leaves him and his companion broken and bloody. The play discovers to us the fact that festive revelry is likely to unleash psychic forces that are not easily controlled. In the metaphoric language of stage action, the wounded revellers function both in terms of myth and in terms of quotidian experience: in one sense, they are suffering the predictable consequences of a drunken brawl; in another, they remind us that the rites of Bacchus culminate in bloodshed.

There is within the play world one character who provides an ironic commentary on revelry, who seems to know that the pursuit of pleasure can be destructive, and who leads the audience toward a recognition of the emptiness of festive excess. Paradoxically, this is Feste the jester, whose name and office closely associate him with the festive experience. Festivity, as I have suggested, is the conceptual and experiential link between the sub-plot and the main plot; similarly, Feste acts in the play as a link between different sets of characters, moving freely from one group to another, like the spirit of festivity incarnate in the world of Illyria. But oddly, festivity itself, as incarnate in Feste, seems to participate in the principle of reversal characteristic of the play, and hover on the verge of becoming its opposite.

As Feste moves through the world of Illyria, he challenges our assumptions about festivity and foolery; he suggests not only that the fool is the only sane person in this world, but also that festivity is not as satisfying an experience as we might imagine. All three of his songs direct our attention to aspects of experience we might prefer to forget: death, the swift passage of time, and the fact that, on the whole, life is likely to bring us more pain than pleasure. Feste does not often amuse us, or the other characters; we do not often laugh with him—he does not give us occasion to do so. He seems to be, on the whole, rather an unhappy fellow. He is first discovered to us as an employee who may be dismissed; like Malvolio, Feste is a professional. Festivity is work for him, and it is evidently work which has become tiresome. He appears on stage as though he is returning from a long absence; his first words are “Let her hang me!” in response to Maria's scolding that his absence has displeased Olivia. It is easy to imagine Feste played as though he were disillusioned, cynical, and bored. Olivia herself calls him “a dry fool,” says he grows dishonest, and tells him “your fooling grows old, and people dislike it” (I.v.110). Feste is distanced from the other inhabitants of Illyria because he is immune to the lures of drink, love, fantasy, and the distortions they create: he seems to have known these things and come out the other side. The festive experience is his trade; it holds no mysteries for him, and no delights.

Feste and Malvolio are, as we might expect, antagonists. They quarrel early in the play, and in the last scene Feste recalls that quarrel, taking special pleasure in Malvolio's humiliation and the part he has played in it. There seems to be a good deal of personal rancor in his “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges” (V.i.376, 377). The experience of dislike is not a common one in Shakespeare's comedies, and its appearance here is disturbing. Feste also does not like Viola, who makes a serious mistake about his nature; “I warrant thou art a merry fellow, and car'st for nothing.” His response is a cold one: “Not so, sir, I do care for something; but in my conscience, sir, I do not care for you. If that be to care for nothing, sir, I would it would make you invisible” (III.i.26-30). The straightforward statement of dislike, of a motiveless personal hostility, sounds a new note in the comic world; it is, of course, Feste who at the end of the play will lead us out of that world.

There is a similar moment of “dis-integration” when Sir Toby reveals his true feelings about Sir Andrew: “Will you help?—an ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave, a thin-fac'd knave, a gull!” (V.i.206-207). There is never much sense of a human community established in Twelfth Night. Friendship is not a significant structural feature of the main plot, as it is in Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It. The revellers' fellowship is broken by the end of the play, and they do not participate in the happy ending. We are, admittedly, told that Sir Toby has married Maria, but we do not see them together on stage at the end. Antonio, so far as we can tell from the script, is never released from arrest, and Malvolio leaves the stage in anger. Critical notions that the end of the play is a vision of harmony and communal integration seem to me totally unjustified.16 A social community based on charitable love is never created in Twelfth Night; here, erotic love does not become a figure for charity, and marriage does not symbolize a universal harmony.

“What is love?” asks Feste. The conclusions we are led toward by the action of Twelfth Night are not, on the whole, happy ones. Sexuality in Illyria is mysterious and illusive. “What are we? What would we?” are questions the play sets for its audience. In Feste's lyric, love is the immediate gratification of desire: “Then come kiss me sweet and twenty.” The play, however, begins with a stalemate: desire is frustrated, and fantasies conflict. Orsino wants Olivia, Olivia “will admit no kind of suit.” It is the characteristic situation of courtly love; the roles Olivia and Orsino choose to play are familiar ones. In the course of the play, Shakespeare leads us from conventional modalities of love to a discovery of other erotic truths. This discovery is effected by the relationship of the four lovers as it is played out in the stage-world.

Part of the extraordinary appeal of Viola and Sebastian (and they have been almost as attractive to critics as to the characters in the play) comes from their air of innocence. Both Olivia and Orsino explicitly use the word “youth” on almost every occasion when they speak to or about Cesario. The twins bring a special vernal quality into the play; it is their appearance that breaks the stalemate established in the first scene. They are, in a sense, the green world. A significant number of critics assume that they teach Olivia and Orsino the meaning of love, and redeem the world into which they enter.17 I believe that such an interpretation does not sufficiently acknowledge our experience of the erotic aspects of the play. It is important, first of all, to notice that both Viola and Sebastian are androgynous.18

Throughout the play we are compelled to pay attention to Viola's shifting sexual identity. We see her first as a girl, and watch her make decisions about how to present herself to the world; the idea of disguise thus becomes prominent, and entails the awareness that we ordinarily determine gender by dress, by appearance. The possibility of disguise suggests that there is something arbitrary about identity, and a disguise that involves a change of gender similarly suggests that our apprehension of sexual identity is mutable and susceptible to illusion. After her first scene, Viola never again appears to us as anything but a boy; unlike Rosalind, she does not re-assume her “woman's weeds” at the end of the play. A number of lines in the play draw attention to her disguise. The most notable is Orsino's description:

                                        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.


A modern audience perceives this as a moment in which Orsino is close to discovering the “truth” about Cesario; Shakespeare, however, must have written the lines assuming that Orsino would deliver them to a boy disguised as a girl disguised as a boy. Viola, in fact, seems to be both a boy and a girl, and is romantically involved with both a man and a woman.

Sebastian also combines characteristics of both genders, Although I have remarked on his energy, Sebastian says of himself (on parting with Antonio), “I am yet so near the manners of my mother, that upon the least occasion more mine eyes will tell tales of me” (II.i.40-42). In relation to both Antonio and Olivia, Sebastian takes a passive, classically feminine role; he enjoys their attentions, and allows them to present him with lavish gifts. Now in one sense Antonio is a nurturing parent-figure, and again the principle of reversal is operative; the parent is subservient to the child: “If you will not murther me for my love,” cries Antonio, “let me be your servant” (II.i.35-36). Antonio not only speaks to Sebastian like a doting parent, however, but also like a lover. Against Sebastian's wishes, he has followed him to Illyria:

I could not stay behind you. My desire
(More sharp than filed steel) did spur me forth,
And not all love to see you (though so much
As might have drawn one to a longer voyage)
But jealousy what might befall your travel.


Like Viola, Sebastian is involved in erotic relationships with both a man and a woman.

The twins' androgyny may be, as some critics have suggested, related to their youth and innocence, but it also makes any romantic relationship into which they enter suspect. As soon as Viola/Cesario becomes an object of desire, we are drawn into the night world. Insofar as Viola is a girl, her encounters with Olivia inevitably suggest lesbianism; insofar as Cesario is a boy, all his relations with Orsino suggest homosexuality. Barber, in attempting to deal with this issue, assures us that “with sexual as with other relations, it is when the normal is secure that playful aberration is benign.”19 Undoubtedly, but what sexual relation can we perceive as normal in Illyria?

What we see on stage in the course of the play is a delirious erotic chase; Viola pursues Orsino who pursues Olivia who pursues both Viola and Sebastian, who is pursued by Antonio. Salingar has noted that “the main action of Twelfth Night, then, is planned with a suggestive likeness to a revel.”20 Indeed. And the sort of revel it is most like is an orgy. Ordinarily, sexual experience is private, and involves two partners. In orgiastic experience, the number of possible sexual partners is multiplied, and distinctions of gender become less important. On the stage, we see Sebastian erotically linked with Antonio and Olivia, Orsino with Cesario and Olivia, Viola with Orsino and Olivia, Olivia with Viola and Sebastian. For the spectators of this “whirligig,” and for the characters caught up in it, the complexities of eroticism in Illyria are dizzying.

There never is, needless to say, a real orgy; the playwright is in control of the revels, after all, and the comedy ends in marriage; sexual energy is channelled into appropriate social institutions. In Barber's words, “delusions and misapprehensions are resolved by the finding of objects appropriate to passions.”21 Well, yes. Orsino marries Cesario, who loves him, and Olivia marries a man. But by this time passions have so slipped their moorings in terms of objects of desire (who, for example, does Olivia love?) that this finding of objects appropriate to passions seems rather like a game of musical chairs. My point is that the marriages at the end of Twelfth Night do not convince us that sexuality is ever ordered and controlled with regard to the individual in society.

In the final scene Olivia and Orsino claim their partners. There is no doubt, from an audience's perspective, who is in control here: Olivia and Orsino are older and they possess social status that the twins do not; they further control the scene in the special theatrical sense of having most of the lines. Olivia has already, by the last scene, engineered a marriage with the complaisant Sebastian. Having effected her own wedding by sheer force of will, it is Olivia who moves at the end of the play to arrange the betrothal of Viola and Orsino:

My Lord, so please you, these things further thought on,
To think me 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.


Orsino embraces her offer, and takes Viola's hand. It is important to remember that if we saw this scene in a theater, we would see him take Cesario's hand; the actor is still dressed as a boy, as he is some moments later when Orsino leads him from the stage.

Throughout the play, Olivia and Orsino are self-absorbed, self-willed and self-indulgent creatures: there is no evidence that they change significantly as a result of their encounters with the twins.22 Orsino's last words, like his first, are about himself: “But when in other habits you are seen, / Orsino's mistress, and his fancy's queen” (V.i.387-88). He is still speaking of “fancy.” Orsino's anagnorisis seems to involve only the recognition that if he cannot have Olivia he may as well take Cesario: “I shall have share in this most happy wrack” (V.i.266). Similarly, there is no reason for an audience to believe that Olivia has made meaningful discoveries about the nature of love. If she was headstrong and reckless in loving Cesario, it is hard to see her as docile and prudent in her relations with Sebastian. At the end of the play, as at the beginning, Olivia is doing precisely what she wants to do.

While Olivia and Orsino have not really learned anything about love during the play, we in the audience have. As I have suggested earlier, when external obstacles to the pursuit of love are removed, as they are in Illyria, it is the nature of passion itself that lovers must contend with. “Bright things come to confusion” readily enough in our world without the interference of blocking figures. Love, first of all, can be unrequited. It is, horribly enough, possible to love someone who—for no good reason—just does not return that love. Olivia makes it perfectly clear:

                                        I cannot love him,
Yet I suppose him virtuous, know him noble,
Of great estate, of fresh and stainless youth;
In voices well divulg'd, free, learn'd, and valiant,
And in dimension, and the shape of nature,
A gracious person. But yet I cannot love him.


Orsino responds, “I cannot be so answer'd,” and continues to long for what he cannot have in a particularly elegant, “poetical” fashion. Olivia, faced with rejection by Cesario, takes a more active approach; her “headstrong potent fault” finds expression in direct, aggressive confrontation with Cesario. It is Viola whose response to loving without requital has become best known:

                              She never told her love,
But let concealement like a worm i' the bud
Feed on her damask cheek; she pin'd in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sate like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.


It has been argued that this is not really an accurate description of Viola; perhaps it is exaggerated, but certainly Viola's reaction to loving one who loves another is of this same kind; she waits for “Time” to resolve a painful situation made more painful by her concealed identity. It seems to me very peculiar to regard this as a norm or an ideal, as some critics suggest.23

At last, of course, Viola has her reward; Orsino's love for Olivia, which could “give no place, bide no denay,” suddenly turns to her. That love can so turn is another of its characteristics that Twelfth Night discovers to us; again, it is an old truth. Here, in a comic structure, love's capriciousness works toward a comic resolution of the plot. Orsino can, after all, love Viola; Olivia can just as well marry Sebastian as Cesario. Yet Dr. Johnson's objection to Olivia's marriage is, as one might expect, lucid and to the point.24 Only in myth and ritual are twins the same person, and while the stage world is, in part, a mythic realm, theater—and Shakespeare's theater in particular—is closely bound to the empirical, naturalistic world the audience inhabits. In that frame of reference, Olivia abandons her vow of chastity to pursue the first new man she meets, marries his (her) twin brother by mistake, and seems willing to transfer her affections to a man she does not know because he looks like the one she fell in love with.

The crucial point is this: at the end of the play we perceive that love really has little or nothing to do with personality. It is, as Kott has said of love in As You Like It, an electric current that passes through the bodies of men and women, boys and girls.25 Passion violates identity. That this is true in terms of the individual's consciousness is a truism. “Ourselves we do not owe,” cries Olivia, succumbing to her feelings for Cesario. The action of Twelfth Night suggests that it is not only the personality of the lover that is disrupted by passion: it is personality itself, the whole concept of unique, distinct identity. Cesario, the beloved, is both Viola and Sebastian; it really doesn't matter. Olivia and Viola are ultimately as interchangeable as their names suggest. As in Spenser's Garden of Adonis, forms change, but Form remains; here, however, the “Form” is not a structure or a pattern, but energy, energy which propels individuals, sometimes agianst their will, toward others who may or may not be so moved. Such, it seems to me, is love in Twelfth Night.

Shakespeare has made similar suggestions about the nature of love in As You Like It and Midsummer Night's Dream, plays which also deal with psychic liberation; yet these plays do not lead us to a dark vision of the psyche. Nor do they have the melancholy tone of Twelfth Night; the language of this comedy is unusual in being not bawdy but grim. There are remarkably few ribald puns in Twelfth Night; by my count, there are twenty-nine references to madness in the play, twenty-two references to disease, twenty-five to devilry, and thirty-seven to destruction and death. The play's somber language would seem to be at odds with its festive structure; in my view, the structure and language are particularly compatible given the nature of festivity in Twelfth Night.

One difference between Illyria and the Wood of Athens is that in the wood, powerful and ultimately benevolent beings exist to set things right, beings who are intimately allied with, indeed embodiments of, the natural world. Illyria is a city, not a forest. In Twelfth Night, unlike As You Like It and Midsummer Night's Dream, festivity is divorced from pastoral, and this is crucially important to our experience of the play, since it means that sexuality is not perceived in relation to nature.

The concept of nature which the Renaissance inherited from the Middle Ages made a distinction between material phenomena (natura naturata) and an organizing principle (natura naturans); the latter was conceived as a structuring energy which, under Divine Providence, brought the physical phenomena into existence and patterned their being. As a manifestation of natura naturans, sexuality may wreak havoc in individual lives, but pursues its own ends of fertility and generation.26 Thus, as in Midsummer Night's Dream, a loss of identity can result from being subsumed in forces greater than the conscious self; personality may be blurred or erased by these forces, but finally they are beneficent in that they drive towards the preservation of life. The multiple marriages at the end of As You Like It provoke even from Jacques the comment (the realization), “these couples are coming to the ark.” But in Twelfth Night, the absence of pastoral distances festivity from fertility, just as the absence of bawdry distances sexuality from a simple, homely pleasure that all humans share with the beasts.27 Illyria is beautiful, aristocratic, and sterile.

Festivity in Twelfth Night is divorced not only from nature, but, as I have indicated, from occasion. It is not a temporary release from social restraints but a permanent condition. The Forest of Arden and the Wood of Athens are places into which people enter in the course of the play and from which they will return; there is, to paraphrase Ralph Berry, “no escape from Illyria.”28 The marriages there do not seem to place erotic love in a community, or to anchor it in a social life where impulses are ordered—not necessarily repressed, but controlled and contained.

That ordering, in a healthy society, provides more, rather than less individual freedom; the ability to control drives and impulses means, for the individual, freedom from the tyranny of the unconscious, while societal restraints ultimately protect the individual from the tyranny of others. The real tragedy of Malvolio lies in the fact that in this play the principle of order has become too rigid and too perverse to accommodate pleasure. Of course we laugh at him, he is ridiculous, yet his expulsion from the comic world brings an end to “Shakespeare's Festive Comedy,” since it means that sobriety and intoxication, parents and children, workday and holiday, restraint and release, cannot be reconciled. In this way, Malvolio's exit is as disturbing as Mercade's entrance in Love's Labours Lost with his message of death. We feel, in the audience, the necessity of somehow making peace with him, and he is gone. His last line must certainly include everyone in the theater.

The play itself has discovered to us the dangers of life without the principle of order that Malvolio stands for; Feste's final song serves as a vivid reminder. The Rabelaisian ideal of freedom (the Abbaye de Thélème) only is possible when human nature can be trusted; doing what we will can be a horror if the forces that drive us are dark. In Twelfth Night Shakespeare leads us to explore the possibility that our drives to pleasure are ultimately irreconcilable with social and moral norms of goodness; it is the antithesis of As You Like It, which works from the hypothesis that people are basically good at heart. In As You Like It, the characters and the audience arrive at a restoration of the world; in Twelfth Night what the characters and the audience come to are the limits of festival, and at that extremity are violence and indiscriminate passion.

The play does not so much tell us but show us that these are what we want. It is the audience who finally approve, with their laughter and applause, the actions of the characters. I do not mean to suggest that we should not laugh and applaud, or that we should become a community of Malvolios, hostile to pleasure. This is a very funny play, and nearly all the characters—certainly including Orsino and Olivia—are enormously appealing. That is just the point. What I am suggesting is this: to delight in the pranks of the revellers is to participate vicariously in a form of Dionysian frenzy; to assent to the ending, to confirm it as a “happy” one, is to embrace the possibility of erotic love as trans-personal and trans-sexual. But the play does not wholeheartedly confirm the value of Saturnalian pleasure; if it is not sentimentalized in production, if festivity is allowed to reach its limits, then the play itself will create an awareness that “what we will” is potentially dark and dangerous.


  1. Richard A. Levin, “Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and Two Alternate Approaches to Shakespearean Comedy,” ES [English Studies] 59 (August 1978): 336-43.

  2. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959). Leslie Hotson, The First Night of Twelfth Night (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954). John Hollander, “Twelfth Night and the Morality of Indulgence.” Sewanee Review 68 (Spring 1959): 220-38. L. G. Salingar, “The Design of Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare Quarterly 9 (Spring 1958): 117-39. All these works have been important to my thinking about Twelfth Night. My vision of the play's morality is similar to Hollander's; we differ in that he posits a surfeiting of appetite occurring in the play-world while in my view the locus of this surfeiting is the audience. The text used throughout this essay is The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  3. Hotson, p. 158.

  4. David Horowitz, Shakespeare: An Existential View (London: Tavistock, 1965).

  5. Jan Kott, “Shakespeare's Bitter Arcadia,” Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. B. Toborski (Warsaw: 1964; rpt. New York: Norton, 1974).

  6. Salingar links the sub-plot and the main plot with reference to the Elizabethan trope of love as madness, and allies madness with revelry.

  7. Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1954), pp. 294-306. Goddard is substantially in agreement with me about the tone of the play and the characters, with the exception of Viola.

  8. J. L. Styan, in The Shakespeare Revolution: Criticism and Performance in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1977) gives an historical perspective on productions of Twelfth Night.

  9. Northrop Frye, “The Mythos of Spring: Comedy,” Anatomy of Criticism (1957; rpt. New York: Atheneum, 1969) pp. 163-86.

  10. Joseph Summers, “The Masks of Twelfth Night,” The University of Kansas City Review 22 (October 1955): 25. Summers makes several interesting points, among them that Olivia and Orsino embody conventional, literary modes of love (p. 26), and that Feste “is the one professional among a crowd of amateurs” (p. 29). His interpretation of the play as a whole, however, is quite different from my own.

  11. Sigmund Freud, “The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming” (1908), rpt. in Collected Papers, 5 vols., trans. Joan Riviere (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1925), 4.

  12. Hotson, p. 151.

  13. The revels of the “lighter people” in Twelfth Night have perceptible affinities with the rites of Dionysus, not so much because Shakespeare was influenced by classical drama or myth, as because he was aware of certain characteristically human modes of experience. Another way of seeing this is to follow Hotson and Barber in affirming the close ties between Shakespeare's drama and traditional British forms of festivity, themselves descended from a Northwest European paganism which in many ways parallels that of the classical world. Sir James Frazer, in The Golden Bough (1922; abridged edn. London: Macmillan, 1923), provides an exhaustive commentary on the pre-Christian rituals of Europe and their structural similarity to the rites and myths of antiquity. His comments on “The Roman Saturnalia,” pp. 583-87, are particularly relevant to Twelfth Night. Robert Graves, in The Greek Myths (New York: Braziller, 1955), also draws explicit parallels between those myths and European paganism.

  14. Sigmund Freud, Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious (1916), rpt. in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. A. A. Brill (New York: Random House, 1938).

  15. Goddard also notes Maria's cruelty (p. 298). I disagree, however, with his conclusion that this cruelty would go entirely unnoticed by an audience in the theater.

  16. In Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1966), Peter G. Phialas sets forth such a view of Twelfth Night's ending. Barber states that this play “moves in the manner of … earlier festive comedies through release to clarification” (p. 242). Porter Williams, Jr., believes that “virtue, open-heartedness, and sense have prevailed” (“Mistakes in Twelfth Night and their Resolution,” PMLA 76 (June 1961): 199), and R. Chris Hassel, Jr., speaks of the creation of a “comic community of joy” in Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1980), p. 162. My own sense of the ending is closer to that of G. K. Hunter, in his section on Twelfth Night in Shakespeare: The Later Comedies, Writers and Their Works no. 143, 1962; rpt. in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Twelfth Night, ed. Walter N. King (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Spectrum-Prentice Hall, 1968).

  17. Walter N. King, in his Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations, notes that Cesario “rouses the best qualities in Orsino and Olivia” (p. 10), and concludes that “as each reaches out toward union with Cesario, each is concurrently discovering what love is and is not” (p. 9). Although Goddard conceived the ending of the play to be ambiguous, he saw the possibility that “these two beings from outside Illyria … will redeem that world by lifting it at least a little toward a more spiritual level” (p. 304). Barbara Lewalski, in “Thematic Patterns in Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare Studies 1 (1965): 168-81, sees Viola and Sebastian as types of Christ, and Hassel remarks on Viola's “ministry” to Olivia and Orsino.

  18. A number of critics have dealt with androgyny in the play: see Rene Fortin, “Twelfth Night: Shakespeare's Drama of Initiation,” PLL [Papers on Language and Literature] 8 (Spring 1972):135-46; J. Dennis Huston, “‘When I Came to Man's Estate’: Twelfth Night and Problems of Identity,” MLQ [Modern Language Quarterly] 33 (September 1972):274-78; Norman Holland, The Shakespearean Imagination (New York: Macmillan, 1964), p. 185; Nancy K. Haynes, “Sexual Disguise in As You Like It and Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare Survey 32 (1979): 63-72. Kott also discusses androgyny at some length, focusing on Mircea Eliade's exploration of the symbolic value of androgyny in Mephistopheles and the Androgyne: Studies in Religious Myth and Symbol, trans. J. M. Cohen (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963).

  19. Barber, p. 245.

  20. Salingar, p. 127.

  21. Barber, p. 244.

  22. In his chapter on Twelfth Night in Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), Ralph Berry argues convincingly that “they have begun neither to understand nor confront their problems” (p. 211). Berry's sense of the play is very similar to my own, although he focuses on different elements.

  23. Porter Williams, Jr., for example, states that “Viola is always the touchstone” (p. 198). Summers sees her as “a standard of normality” (p. 29), while Goddard finds her “a being of higher order … a Lady from the Sea” (p. 304).

  24. From Johnson as a Critic, ed. John Wain (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), p. 189.

  25. Kott, p. 273.

  26. See Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Series 35 (Bern: 1948; rpt. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1953), pp. 106-27.

  27. Barber also notes the scarcity of “direct sexual reference” (p. 258).

  28. Berry titles his chapter on As You Like It “No Exit from Arden.”

Cynthia Lewis (essay date fall 1986)

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SOURCE: Lewis, Cynthia. “Viola, Antonio, and Epiphany in Twelfth Night.Essays in Literature 13, no. 2 (fall 1986): 187-99.

[In the following essay, Lewis contends that Antonio, rather than Viola, is the moral center of Twelfth Night, but acknowledges that the play is principally concerned with Viola's moral development.]

Disguise in Twelfth Night is sheer, a thin veil like the “cypress” that “hides” Olivia's “heart” in III.i.1 Viola, although dressed in sturdier male clothing, almost reveals herself inadvertently at several points, as during the duel with Sir Andrew and the interviews with Olivia. Other of Shakespeare's strong, disguised women do not hover quite so closely on the brink of losing control: Portia commands her identity as judge, and Rosalind manipulates her boyish exterior to teach her future husband about love, only once verging on disclosing her true identity before she is ready to.2 Viola's contrasting lack of sure control over her disguise points to a major theme unique to Twelfth Night: that of Epiphany, or the manifestation of truth. Such revelation is continually suggested in this comedy by the characters' ultimate inability to hide their true feelings and natures. This persistence of truth in coming to light parallels the manifestation of Christ to the Magi. But before any such revelation can occur in Twelfth Night, most of the characters must be transformed by the Christian folly which Saint Paul discusses and which Erasmus further develops.

Understanding how this transformation occurs depends, first, on demonstrating the presence of Christian allusions in the play's title, structure, and language. Only a handful of critics to date have begun to do so. But even these commentators have misperceived Viola's role by proclaiming her to be the play's moral center, though for most of the play she is not. That distinction falls on the sea captain Antonio, who has consistently been overlooked as a mere plot device: Antonio, at first glance, appears to do no more than help Viola to re-discover Sebastian and, later, to reveal her true identity. But Antonio actually serves a far deeper dramatic purpose. His behavior, language, and history mirror Christ's in ways suggesting Christian folly. He embodies and acts out the play's highest standard of Christian love, morally eclipsing Viola at first and yet finally linking Viola to the play's central moral. Viola eventually grows to imitate Antonio, displaying a sacrificial love appropriate to the celebration of holy Epiphany.


Most critics of Twelfth Night, having been reluctant to acknowledge its allusions to Christianity, apparently agree with Pepys' comment that Twelfth Night is “but a silly play, and not related at all to the name or day.”3 One modern example is Anne Barton, who in the introduction to Twelfth Night in The Riverside Shakespeare maintains that the title refers not to holy Epiphany, but to “images of Epiphany as it was kept in [Shakespeare's] own time: a period of holiday abandon in which the normal rules and order of life were suspended or else deliberately inverted, in which serious issues and events mingled perplexingly with revelry and apparent madness.”4 Barton rejects the existence of any “specific references to the Feast of the Epiphany” in the play, as do even the critics who see Twelfth Night in clearly Christian terms.5

Yet a few critics have treated the work as an allusion to Christian Epiphany. Barbara Lewalski, for instance, argues that “… Shakespeare's method resembles, and was probably formed by, … the tradition of Christian typology, whereby certain real historical events and personages from the Old Testament and (more significantly for the present purposes) from certain classical fictions such as the Metamorphoses or the Aeneid were seen to point to aspects of Christ and of the Gospel story without losing their own historical or fictional reality.”6 John Hollander pursues the sort of “allegory” that Lewalski explains here when he notices the connection in Twelfth Night between revelation in general and the spirit of holy Epiphany:

Twelfth Night itself, the feast of the Epiphany, celebrates the discovery of the “True King” in the manger by the Wise Men. … The whole of Act V might be taken, in connection with “the plot” in a trivial sense, to be the other epiphany, the perception that follows the anagnorisis or discovery of classic dramaturgy. … The long final scene … serves to show forth the Caesario-King, and to unmask, discover, and reveal the fulfilled selves in the major characters.7

Hollander's reference to “the other epiphany” summons not only Aristotle, but James Joyce. Of course, Joyce's more general, yet still Christian use of the word postdates Shakespeare by centuries. But long before Joyce redefined it, churchmen appear to have used epiphany in the slightly more general sense of “a manifestation or appearance of some divine or superhuman being.” As early as 1667, Jeremy Taylor mentions in a sermon Christ's “glorious epiphany on the mount.”8 Thus, in the later seventeenth century, the term did not pertain strictly to the manifestation of Christ to the Magi; that Taylor used the more general meaning of epiphany in a sermon implies his congregation's familiarity with—or at least their easy adaptability to—that meaning. Although Twelfth Night predates Taylor's sermon by over sixty years, I do not think it improbable that Shakespeare's audience was equally capable of imaginatively relating the Biblical Epiphany to other kinds of divine revelation, or even to revelation of truth in general. Certainly Shakespeare's extraordinary imagination was up to such obvious leaps. His original audience—possibly members of court or possibly lawyers—could surely follow him. To think that this audience was too steeped in knowledge of Twelfth Night revelry to see more serious, far-reaching implications in the title appears preposterous. The revealing of Christ to the Magi and the disclosure of true identity in Twelfth Night are too easily associated to dismiss the connection.

Hence, views of critics like Lewalski and Hollander, although in a minority, are finally more satisfying than a purely secular reading of Twelfth Night because a Christian approach can include the secular while also going beyond it.9 Such is the case in R. Chris Hassel's more recent discussion of Christian elements in Twelfth Night.10 Hassel does not so much as question the pervasiveness of Christian allusions in the play. He argues that Feste and Viola, agents of Pauline/Erasmian folly, free the romantic characters from childish emotional frigidity and self-love. Hence, Orsino and Olivia become prepared to enter marital relationships as adults, capable of loving others. For Hassel, then, as for Lewalski and Hollander, religious and secular concerns are closely united within a single work.

Yet all of the critics I have mentioned leave major gaps unfilled in discussing the Christianity of Twelfth Night. Like Lewalski and nearly every other critic of the play, for instance, Hassel assumes that Viola can do no wrong and that she has already reached moral maturity when we first see her. Lewalski even goes the extent of linking Viola and Sebastian to the “dual nature of Christ as human and divine”: Viola silently endures her suffering, and Sebastian triumphs by punishing.11 But that reading is strained at best, even in light of Viola's generosity and patience. In fact, Viola has as much to learn about love, both romantic and Christian, as do, in Hassel's view, Orsino and Olivia. For most of the play, Viola remains far from Christlike.


If there is a figure throughout Twelfth Night who calls Christ to mind, it must surely be Antonio, whom Viola, however innocently, “denies” (III.iv.347). The language which Antonio speaks, as well as that which surrounds him, continually implies Christianity. He expresses his love for Sebastian in extravagant, almost unearthly terms: “If you will not murther me for my love, let me be your servant” (II.i.35-36). Later, he uses the language of religious devotion:

                                        This youth that you see here
I snatch'd one half out of the jaws of death,
Reliev'd him with such sanctity of love,
And to his image, which methought did promise
Most venerable worth, did I devotion.


Lest we mistake this language for the overstatement of courtly love, we should look into it further. In the act of rescuing Viola/Cesario, Antonio substitutes himself for the alleged criminal: “If this young gentleman / Have done offense, I take the fault on me; / If you offend him, I for him defy you” (III.iv.312-14). He soothes Viola/Cesario in the thick of his own misfortune: “be of comfort” (III.iv.338). He has “redeemed” Sebastian from the tempest: “His life I gave him, and did thereto add / My love, without retention or restraint, / All his in dedication” (V.i.79, 80-82). No, Antonio's use of religious language strongly suggests that he is returning these much-abused terms to their original meaning: his actions actually bear out his description of his love. His is total sacrifice, which prompts him, completely irrationally, to give Sebastian his entire purse in case Sebastian fancies “some toy” (III.iii.44). Moreover, Antonio is even more endangered than Viola by walking the streets, yet his great love induces him to expose himself boldly, undisguised and vulnerable (V.i.82-85).

Shakespeare seems to have taken great pains to develop and set off this character who in the main source of the play is hardly attractive or essential to the plot. Barnaby Riche's captain forces himself on Silla, thus compelling her to assume a disguise for her safety.12 Shakespeare's departures here are considerable. Antonio seems the antithesis of Riche's captain, and Viola chooses to disguise herself for vaguer reasons than Silla's, reasons that are more psychologically than physically threatening. Furthermore, Riche's story has only one captain, while Shakespeare's includes two. Shakespeare's replacement of the second captain for Silla's faithful servant Pedro suggests his desire to thrust attention on Antonio: the unnamed captain who initially helps Viola and who finally must be released from prison does nothing but echo, and thus reinforce, Antonio's history. Antonio's role as a Christlike giver of love becomes clearer yet when we contrast Riche's moral with the fuller treatment of love in Twelfth Night. Riche writes of well-deserved love. But what distinguishes Antonio's love for Sebastian is precisely that it is unearned.

Despite his affiliation with Christ, however, Antonio is not to be taken as Christ. Unlike Christ, for example, he finally expects something in return for his generosity toward Sebastian, even becoming angered at Viola/Cesario when she refuses him (III.iv). Shakespeare had explored once before the implications of unworldly, idealistic conduct in his other generous Antonio, the one in The Merchant of Venice. There such giving in some sense fails; the setting is wrong for martyrdom to thrive. The practical aspects of Venetian life cannot, apparently, be wholly reconciled with Antonio's oblivious altruism. The earlier Antonio cannot become a full member of the familial society in Act V, where, still depressed, he stands rather apart from the newly-weds. He therefore teaches us that irrational, devoted sacrifice must be compromised because people like Bassanio inevitably have to divide their love between, in his case, wife and friends; he teaches us, in other words, that human love may resemble but cannot equal the divine. But the Antonio in Twelfth Night, although as human as his predecessor, displays the other side of altruism—its ability to inspire others to give more than they otherwise would, its capacity to strip from us all barriers to love.13

If this Antonio were going to be able to convey such high-minded ideas without irony and yet still give Orsino cause to arrest him, then his crime would have to be handled delicately, if not ambiguously. I believe this is why mystery abounds in our knowledge of Antonio's past. Whereas several critics have called him a “pirate,” as does Orsino (V.i.69), Antonio respectfully denies that identity:

                                                                                                                        Orsino, noble sir,
Be pleas'd that I shake off these names you give me.
Antonio never yet was thief or pirate,
Though I confess, on base and ground enough,
Orsino's enemy.


These lines may make Antonio appear the victim of a false arrest, but in truth the presentation of conflict between Antonio and Orsino never allows us to take sides. Whenever either man advances his case against the other, each appears believable and principled. For example, Antonio implies that his quarrel with Orsino has been a matter of conscience, a struggle for justice:

Belike you slew great number of his [Orsino's] people?
Th' offense is not of such a bloody nature,
Albeit the quality of the time and quarrel
Might well have given us bloody argument.
It might have since been answer'd in repaying
What we took from them, which for traffic's sake
Most of our city did. Only myself stood out,
For which if I be lapsed in this place
I shall pay dear.


Antonio alone, by his own account, is unwilling to compromise his standards “for traffic's sake,” as his fellow citizens have done. On the other hand, Orsino's charge of “piracy” against Antonio suggests that the captain has “stood out” against the Duke for selfish gain (l. 35). Similarly, the Duke's officer indicates that the fight between Antonio and Orsino has been bloody, even though Antonio maintains that the conflict never came to bloodshed (ll. 30-32, quoted directly above). Even the name of Orsino's nephew, for whose lost leg Orsino blames Antonio (V.i.63), remains ambiguous. Does “Titus” suggest the pagan slaughterer or Paul's friend? If the first instance were true, we would favor Antonio for subduing a menace; if we believed the second, Orsino would seem nobler, and Antonio would appear a vicious slayer of innocence. As if to compound the problem of judging ethically between these two men, Orsino himself begrudingly commends Antonio's bravery in the face of great danger:

A baubling vessel was he captain of,
For shallow draught and bulk unprizable,
With which such scathful grapple did he make
With the most noble bottom of our fleet,
That very envy, and the tongue of loss,
Cried fame and honor on him.


This sustained tension between the claims of Antonio and those of Orsino appears deliberate indeed. If nothing else, it exonerates Antonio from culpability enough to win him our esteem and does so without seriously damaging our opinion of Orsino, whom we must also finally respect. Thus, Antonio can serve dramatically as a model for candor and the unobstructed giving of love—for, in other words, Erasmian folly. And eventually Antonio's wise folly is reflected in numerous other characters, most notably in Feste.


While Antonio reveals to the characters and the audience an ideal behavior that is difficult for most of us to practice, Feste shows us the next best thing: a worldly, practical honesty. Feste is at home with money, as much of it as he can entice away from his audience, but his financial acumen never sullies his frankness.14 He thus still generously gives of himself. Although his dramatic functions are many and various, one of Feste's main purposes is to remind us that one may possess two types of folly. The two are related in that both represent innocence, yet they differ in their desirability. One, potentially dangerous—even self-destructive—is the folly aligned with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, whose childishness is not only fun, but possibly instructive to a character like Malvolio—that is, until it turns in on the revelers. Anyone but a Puritan would applaud their trick on Malvolio, which Maria calls a “physic” (II.iii.173). Yet when the revelers go on to plot against themselves and hence divide their little society, they demonstrate that childlike insouciance can get out of hand. In the scheme against Sir Andrew, Sir Toby winds up a fool, in the worst sense. He has underestimated his competition, Sebastian, who beats the duper into the duped (V.i.175-76). The revelers' folly, then, can go either way, but it tends to cause harm.

Against this folly Feste juxtaposes another that is also childish and perhaps reckless, but nevertheless fruitful. It involves a lack of pretense and the absence of barriers to truth and love, and it characterizes especially Antonio. Feste aims to make everyone a fool of this higher quality because it is a freeing kind of foolery. It is the wise folly that the Christian Humanists sought and the folly that R. Chris Hassel defends as Pauline: “Let no man deceive himselfe. If any man among you seeme to bee wise in this world, let him bee a foole, that hee may be wise. For the wisdome of this world is foolishnesse with God.”15 R. H. Goldsmith, in his Wise Fools in Shakespeare, believes that this type of folly belongs to Lear's fool.16 But it is Feste's too, for without it the characters in Twelfth Night would never let down the walls that separate them and learn to love one another completely. Feste's jokes on Olivia therefore work to loosen her up, to “mend” her grief with the abandon of laughter (I.v.74).17 Before Olivia acquires a healthy folly, Feste ridicules her restraint in terms of unhealthy folly:

… Good madonna, give me leave to prove you a fool.
Can you do it?
Dexteriously, good madonna.
Make your proof.
I must catechize you for it, madonna. Good my mouse of virtue, answer me.
Well, sir, for want of other idleness, I'll bide your proof.
Good madonna, why mourn'st thou?
Good fool, for my brother's death.
I think his soul is in hell, madonna.
I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's soul, being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.


Feste's “madonna,” which no other Shakespearean fool uses, communicates both the clown's affectionate respect for his mistress and the misguided religious devotion her excessive grief entails. Feste attempts to break down Olivia's stern demeanor, and he succeeds here insofar as he escapes punishment. He prepares for the following meeting with Viola/Cesario, who cracks Olivia's defenses all the more. When Olivia finally becomes “mad” for Cesario (III.iv.14), she is essentially cured of the spiritual illness that has prevented her from loving completely; her feelings for others begin to outweigh her concern for herself: with an action that parallels Antonio's defense of Viola/Cesario in III.iv, Olivia rescues Sebastian from Sir Toby's drawn sword in the next scene (IV.i.45-51). Of course, Sebastian can defend himself, as we later learn (V.i.175-76). But the point is that wise folly is transforming Olivia into one like Antonio.

It is also this folly that could save Malvolio from himself, if he could respond to his embarrassment generously. In exposing his foolishness, Feste and the revelers give him the chance to see through his false god, restraint. But Malvolio proves hypocritical: it is acceptable for him to wear gay yellow stockings in commemoration of his love, but not for anyone else to have fun. Furthermore, Malvolio is blind to his own folly. As Feste/Sir Topas implies, Malvolio will stay imprisoned in his own private “hell” until he opens himself up to the ridiculous (IV.ii.46):

What is the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wild-fowl?
That the soul of our grandam might happily inhabit a bird.
What think'st thou of his opinion?
I think nobly of the soul, and no way approve his opinion.
Fare thee well. Remain thou still in darkness. Thou shalt hold th' opinion of Pythagoras ere I will allow of thy wits, and fear to kill a woodcock lest thou dispossess the soul of thy grandam. Fare thee well.


Perhaps not until Malvolio can indulge in such foolish play with Feste will he be capable of faith in God and in the afterlife, which require a wisely foolish lack of skepticism to endorse.

One could argue that, in prolonging his jokes on Malvolio, Feste becomes cruel—even more cruel than Sir Toby and Maria. All three carry their foolery to the extent of terrifying Malvolio, of realizing his and our darkest fantasy: that we are mad and do not know it. But, whether for guilt or for fear of his niece's displeasure (IV.ii.66-71), Sir Toby departs with Maria from the cell, while Feste lingers to plague Malvolio further (ll. 72 ff.). Still, the fool continues to derive more than mere amusement by torturing Malvolio. In his roundabout way he goes on trying to jolt Malvolio out of his rigid sanity and to instruct Malvolio: “Alas, sir, be patient” (l. 103). Symbolically, it is also Feste who brings Malvolio the instruments of his “delivery” from confinement: paper, ink, and light, suggestive of knowledge and perhaps even of salvation. If in the end Feste's attempts to save Malvolio from himself are unsuccessful, it is not because Feste has failed to show either interest in or compassion toward Malvolio's predicament. Malvolio insistently suffers from the very pride in himself and attachment to his own opinions that work against tolerant Christian love. This believer in his own superiority provides a bad example in Twelfth Night of true spirituality.

Whereas Malvolio is hardened against wise folly, Orsino and Viola are, like Olivia, more pliable. Feste hints that these characters can become wiser fools when he pokes fun at Orsino and Olivia in one breath: “I would be sorry, sir [Viola/Cesario], but the fool should be as oft with your master as with my mistress” (III.i.39-41). Feste's ambiguous line can make either of two statements. First, if “should” is taken to mean “is,” then Feste says that Olivia and Orsino are too often fools, in the undesirable sense of folly. But second, if “should” means “ought to,” the line can mean that Olivia and Orsino should be wise fools more often. Here again, Feste brings the two kinds of folly into play: until later, Olivia and Orsino are wrong-headed fools and, as Feste implies, could benefit from positive, wise folly.

Viola too becomes involved with both types of folly. When her disguise embroils her in the complicated love relationship with Olivia, she indirectly admits to her unfortunate lack of foresight: “now I am your fool” (III.i.144). She has earlier recognized the potential danger of pretense: “Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness / Wherein the pregnant enemy does much” (II.ii.27-28). The threat posed by her unmasking, however, is greater to her than the fear of hurting Olivia. Orsino's love carries a high price. Are we to praise Viola for paying it when it could affect another so adversely? I think not. Without accusing her, I think we need to question her, to look closely at her progress through the play.18 Why, for instance, does Feste, who strives to instill folly in the characters, express a dislike for her?: “… in my conscience, sir, I do not care for you. If that be to care for nothing, sir, I would it would make you invisible” (III.i.28-30). Viola takes his comment in stride, so perhaps he delivers it inoffensively. Yet it is possible that Feste senses barriers around Viola which, like her disguise, inhibit her love and her honesty as much as Olivia's grief has emotionally crippled her.19 It is also possible, if Feste is somehow criticizing Viola's evasiveness, that Viola either ignores him or misses the point. For Viola shows us, in other situations, that she would rather remain safe behind her disguise than risk exposing her true self and losing Orsino. She may ultimately share Olivia's ability to become changed by folly, but she resists that change far longer and more tenaciously than her equally love-stricken counterpart.


Viola's characterization throughout Twelfth Night reveals that the play concerns itself fundamentally with her moral growth. Shakespeare continually plays Viola off the other characters to illustrate how far she has come and how much farther she has to go. Initially, she has all the makings of an Antonio. She generously rewards first the sea captain and then Feste (I.ii.18, III.i.43), and she lashes out at ingratitude when Antonio accuses her of it (III.iv.354-57). Her willingness to woo another woman for the man she loves also indicates her magnanimity.20

Yet she often appears self-absorbed. Nowhere is this trait clearer than when she offers Antonio only half her coffer (III.iv.345-47). Next to the total altruism that Antonio showed Sebastian in the preceding scene (III.iii.38), Viola's reserve seems downright stingy. Granted, Viola is not rich; nor does she even know Antonio. Her giving anything at all under these circumstances could thus be admired. But the contrast between the two characters is evident: Viola is willing to go far for someone else, but only so far.21 Similarly, Viola has good reason in III.iv to be stunned by the sudden possibility that Sebastian may yet live and thus to ignore Antonio's arrest; but Antonio, having intervened to save her life, surely deserves more attention from Viola/Cesario than she gives. Even if Viola exits at the close of this scene in pursuit of Antonio and the officers, she apparently does so not to aid Antonio but to discover more about Sebastian's history.

This key episode in which Viola and Antonio are contrasted reveals the major obstacle that Viola must surmount before she can grow to love completely: fear of losing control. That she loves both her brother and her master is obvious to us, but a great deal of the potential and actual destructiveness in Twelfth Night arises from Viola's refusal to expose herself openly to others—to give herself away. She is consistently associated with walls—barriers to love—throughout the play. Her disguise becomes an emblem of her and others' fear: many such walls appear in the play and must be let down or broken through before genuine love can be enjoyed. Orsino uses clichéd love language to put a safe distance between himself and Olivia (e.g., I.i); Viola refers to the hypocrisy of most people, who hide their wickedness behind the “beauteous wall” of appearance (I.ii.48); Viola herself attempts to use language like Orsino's in wooing Olivia and in protecting herself, until she finds it will not shield her well (e.g., II.ii); Olivia hides in her house and behind her wit and her veil (II.ii, etc.). The spirit of Epiphany, represented by Antonio's willingness to manifest his true self for the sake of another, is stifled behind these barriers.

Viola's brilliant repartee with Feste demonstrates her capacity for folly, for letting go and enjoying another's company (III.i.1-59). Admiring his wit, she expresses appreciation for its wisdom and thus signals her own association with Christlike folly and her own understanding that folly comes in two forms: “For folly that he wisely shows is fit, / But wise men, folly-fall'n, quite taint their wit” (III.i.67-68). But when Feste cuts gently at Orsino's folly (ll. 39-41), Viola resists hearing more: “Nay, and thou pass upon me, I'll no more with thee” (ll. 42-43). Viola here seems reluctant to acknowledge the value of Feste's remarks. For a long time she appears unable either to admit that Orsino's attraction to Olivia is not genuine love or to deal directly with her feelings for Orsino. Her reaction to Feste's song in II.iv exemplifies the poor judgment that results from her infatuation. “Come away, come away, death” has got to be some of the most morbid verse ever set to music, as Feste kindly suggests to Orsino (II.iv.73-78), and the music that accompanies it would be anything but cheering. But Viola identifies with its gloom: “It gives a very echo to the seat / Where Love is thron'd” (II.iv.21-22). Viola's exaggerated sympathy for Orsino's pain mirrors his self-indulgence.

In its irrationality, Viola's love for Orsino resembles Antonio's love for Sebastian and Olivia's for Viola/Cesario. It is potentially good folly. But enclosed within her, it waxes overly melancholic. When she can express it in even veiled language, as she does in II.iv, it regains some of its health:

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

(ll. 107-15)

Perhaps because this passage demands that Viola objectify her feelings, it is less self-pitying than her attraction to Feste's song. Furthermore, Viola's hidden love at least eventually permits her to instruct Orsino:

But if she [Olivia] cannot love you, sir?
I cannot be so answer'd.
                                                                                                    Sooth, but you must.


Yet Viola herself realizes that secret longings fester within, “like a worm i' th' bud.” The self must be honestly exposed to survive; Viola must reveal her inner self to become fully human.

Another of Viola's potential virtues emerges as she is compared and contrasted with Malvolio. In much the same way that Malvolio seeks to unravel the letter he finds in II.v, Viola tries to read the significance of the allegedly returned ring in II.ii. The concept linking the two scenes is interpretation. On this score Viola obviously does much better than Malvolio. Her vision is not so dreamy-eyed as to obscure the true meaning of receiving the ring, whereas poor Malvolio's hopes absolutely blind him to the facts. Viola's visionary quality—composed of a clear-sightedness like Feste's and a power like Antonio's to perceive how others feel—will guide her through the snarls to come. Yet on this point too she fudges, when she thrusts all responsibility onto an external force: “O time, thou must untangle this, not I, / It is too hard a knot for me t' untie” (II.ii.40-41). Notwithstanding the partial truth of this statement, Viola will sooner or later have to participate in shaping her own life. Time can and does help, but it requires a cooperation from her, a total commitment of herself to love.

Whether or not Viola learns how to make such an investment directly from Antonio, the sea captain's dramatic purpose is to provide such an example, and Viola comes to reflect his behavior. The turning point for her, when all the potentially fine qualities we have seen in her come together, is also the heart of the play. It comes in her answer to Orsino's angry threat on her life:

I'll sacrifice the lamb that I do love,
To spite a raven's heart within a dove.


The Christian implications of the “sacrificial lamb” ought to ring clear, and Viola's sudden “willingness” to give not just some, but all, endows her with new virtue:

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

(ll. 132-33)

Like Antonio, who has earlier offered to protect her with his life (III.iv.312-14), Viola now substitutes herself for Olivia, in order to give Orsino “rest.” She gladly takes upon herself the punishment through which Orsino would “spite” another. Here lies the Epiphany in Twelfth Night, where the meaning of Christ's birth, His sacrifice for humanity, manifests itself in the actions of human beings. Viola's commitment of her life to love is the wisest folly she can pursue. To dismiss all barriers to love, to disregard even the welfare of one's physical being, is divine.

Viola's altruistic attitude toward love, which alludes to a Christian ideal, permits spiritual love and romantic love to be linked in Twelfth Night. Ultimately, we are not shown a world in which different types of love—say, physical and non-physical—are qualitatively different or are opposed. Rather, Christian love, as epitomized in Antonio, works itself into the worldliest of relationships through the four lovers, principally Viola, as well as through Feste. Thus, Christian love can inform romantic love, and the two comic traditions that shape the play—the romantic and the serious—are joined compatibly as Viola grows to become more like Antonio. Significantly, in this final scene Olivia also grows to accept Viola/Cesario as a “sister” and Orsino as her brother (ll. 326, 317). The good folly that is well on its way to triumphing over all is not limited to romantic love, but leads to general good will and fellowship.

Appropriately, after Viola's declaration of devotion to Orsino, the majority of the characters are in some respect set free. Viola's self-sacrifice is not the single twist in the plot that accounts for every subsequent revelation: many other actions, like Sebastian's entrance (l. 208), intervene before Viola's true identity is discovered. But Viola's new openness to love sets a tone early in the scene for the series of manifestations and apparent miracles to follow. The twins are reunited; the four lovers are rightly matched; the sea captain who has possession of Viola's clothes is “enlarged” (l. 278); and Malvolio is “deliver'd” (l. 315), though that does not guarantee his freedom, which only he can claim for himself. Even Fabian, caught up in the “wonder” of “this present hour,” freely confesses the joke on Malvolio and tries to ease the tension between the revelers and the steward (ll. 355-68). “Golden time” is ripe for love like Antonio's.

But the play's problematic nature persists to the end, modifying and augmenting the harmonious resolution. For instance, what of Antonio? Are we to assume that Orsino will also set him free? It seems rather that the question of Antonio's future, like so many other questions at the closing, is left dangling for a reason. Interestingly, the other salient loose end here is that Viola has still not removed her disguise by the time Twelfth Night is finished. These two details do more than blur the play's resolution, as do questions about whether Malvolio will repair his ruined pride and whether Maria will help curb her new husband's former excesses. Most importantly, these unresolved elements involve the audience's sense of responsibility in determining their own future. Indeed, Act V would not challenge us morally if it clearly and simply showed that all ended well. Twelfth Night finally asks us whether we will make all well by divesting ourselves of the walls around us that shut out love like Antonio's and keep it imprisoned. Will we embrace the spirit of Epiphany, which shapes the play throughout, and thus free Christian love in our own world? By agreeing to, we will, in effect, liberate Antonio and change as radically as if we moved, along with Viola, from male to female. When Twelfth Night closes, it has already “pleased” us, as Feste promises (V.i.408). If it is also going to teach us when the “play is done” (l. 407), then we must respond to it by unveiling.


  1. G. Blakemore Evans, gen. ed., The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), Twelfth Night, III.i.121-22. All subsequent references are to this edition.

  2. Evans, The Riverside Shakespeare, As You Like It, IV.iii.156 ff.

  3. Pepys recorded this comment in his Diary on Twelfth Day, 6 January 1633.

  4. Anne Barton, Introduction to Twelfth Night in The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 404.

  5. Barton, p. 403.

  6. Barbara K. Lewalski, “Thematic Patterns in Twelfth Night,Shakespeare Studies, I (1965), 169.

  7. John Hollander, “Twelfth Night and the Morality of Indulgence,” 1959; rpt. in Walter N. King, ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), pp. 85-86.

  8. “Epiphany2,” OED.

  9. The question of whether Twelfth Night alludes to Christian concerns contributes to a larger debate about the play's essential nature and tone. Striding the romantic comedies on one end and the problem plays on the other, Twelfth Night reflects shades of both. Most critics have responded to this confusion by singling out either the romantic or the problematic strands and ignoring the rest. Hence, readings of the play as either light or serious (even dark) abound. By far the greater number of these interpretations settle in the romantic camp. One characteristic of this group is their denial of the play's titular reference to Christian concepts.

    As I have implied, however, there are exceptions. In addition to those I mention in my text, Richard Henze explores the juxtaposition between apparently secular and festive elements of Twelfth Night and the play's Christian allusions in “Twelfth Night: Free Disposition on the Sea of Love,” The Sewanee Review, 83 (1975), 267-83. But Henze's chief concern, in contrast with Hollander's, is the very confusion that this mingling of traits produces in the audience. Nor does Henze feel that the play's variety of interpretations can be reconciled, though he develops an entire reading of the work based on doing justice to its several faces: “I should like to propose a solution to this puzzle of interpretations: that Twelfth Night is a play about opposites and that each of [its possible interpretations] tends to treat just one pair of opposites” (p. 267). While I find Henze's discussion stimulating, I shall argue that the “opposites” he identifies—between the religious and the secular—are meant less to conflict than to enrich each other.

    For yet another, fascinating study of how light/romantic and serious/satirical elements complement each other in Twelfth Night, see Ralph Berry, “Twelfth Night: The Experience of the Audience,” Shakespeare Survey, 34 (1981), 111-19. Berry, however, does not address Christian elements in the play.

  10. R. Chris Hassel, Jr., Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies (Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1980).

  11. Lewalski, pp. 176-78.

  12. Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958), II, 348-50.

  13. Two critics have recently addressed the generosity of Twelfth Night's Antonio, each in ways unique from mine and from each other, yet in ways equally provocative. Camille Wells Slights, “The Principle of Recompense in Twelfth Night,Modern Language Review, 77 (1982), 537-46, argues that the play's ideal of love is not altruism, but reciprocated love. Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience (New York: Summit Books, 1981), believes that because Antonio loves so purely and passionately, he is, in the play's context, a “subversive,” a “misfit,” a “starving dispossessed” (pp. 118-20).

  14. Robert Hillis Goldsmith, in Wise Fools in Shakespeare (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State Univ. Press, 1955), has observed that, in this regard, Feste belongs to both the romantic plot and the subplot. He can thus mediate between the two (see especially ch. iv).

  15. R. Chris Hassel, Jr., “Saint Paul and Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies,” Thought, 46 (1971), passim; 1 Cor. iii.18-19, as quoted from the Geneva Bible (London: Robert Barker, Printer to the King, 1615).

  16. Goldsmith, Wise Fools. See especially ch. iv.

  17. For a point similar to mine about Feste's effect on Olivia, see Hassel, Faith and Folly, p. 154.

  18. Richard A. Levin carries this point to what seems to me an unsubstantiated extreme. In “Viola: Dr. Johnson's ‘Excellent Schemer,’” Durham University Journal, 71 (1979), 213-22, Levin not only accuses Viola of self-centered behavior; he sees her as a conniver and the whole play as covered with ironically romantic “glitter” (p. 222).

  19. C. L. Barber, in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959; rpt. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), has also thought about this detail of Feste's distaste. But Barber suggests that Feste does not like Viola because in their exchange “he finds himself beaten at his own game” (p. 254).

  20. A few critics have studied Viola's maturation in psycho-sexual terms. Helen Moglen, who seems to me the best at this approach, sees Viola's disguise as a cocoon within which she can experiment in a “homoerotic relationship” before she is ready to engage in a mature union with Orsino. Such experimentation, of course, centers on Viola's wooing of Oliva in I.v and III.i. Finally, the experimentation leads to a society that can attain “personal freedom,” as well as accept “responsibility.” Moglen's Freudian angle on Viola's growth is important and enlightening, yet it assumes a great deal about the text. In addition, it arrives at moral conclusions less by moral observation than by scientific inquiry. To assess how Viola's role meshes with that of Christian Epiphany, one needs to observe not so much her psychological growth as her moral development. This done, one perceives other changes in her character that have unique bearing on the play's meaning. See “Disguise and Development: The Self and Society in Twelfth Night,Literature and Psychology, 23 (1973), 13-20. For similar approaches to disguise and maturation in the play, see J. Dennis Huston, “‘When I Came to Man's Estate’: Twelfth Night and Problems of Identity,” Modern Language Quarterly, 33 (1972), 274-88; Nancy K. Hayles, “Sexual Disguise in As You Like It and Twelfth Night,Shakespeare Survey, 32 (1979), 63-72; and Robert Kimbrough, “Androgyny Seen Through Shakespeare's Disguise,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 33 (1982), 17-33.

  21. Elizabeth M. Yearling, “Language, Theme, and Character in Twelfth Night,Shakespeare Survey, 35 (1982), 79-86, vividly describes Viola's method of refusing Antonio in III.iv.341-47:

    Viola's [offer of money to Antonio] is a carefully thought-out loan to a helpful but puzzling stranger. She moves slowly towards the offer. “I'll lend” is preceded by a series of subordinate clauses and phrases outlining her reasons and stressing her poverty. “My having is not much” repeats the content of the line before, and adds to our impression that Viola feels an uncomfortable need to justify herself.

    (p. 82; emphasis added)

    Yearling's context here is entirely different from mine, yet she aptly makes my point about Viola's extreme caution in giving, as contrasted with Antonio's boundless, irrational charity.

Camille Slights (essay date July 1982)

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

[In the following essay, Slights maintains that Twelfth Night illustrates the thematic principal of reciprocity as the foundation of successful human relationships.]

Like Shakespeare's other romantic comedies, Twelfth Night moves from personal frustration and social disorder to individual fulfilment and social harmony by means of what Leo Salingar has shown to be the traditional comic combination of beneficent fortune and human intrigue.1 This basic pattern, of course, takes a radically different form in each play. In comparison with many of the comedies, Twelfth Night begins with remarkably little conflict. The opening scenes introduce no villain bent on dissension and destruction, nor do they reveal disruptive antagonism between parents and children or between love and law. In contrast to the passion and anger of the first scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the restless melancholy that pervades the beginning of The Merchant of Venice, or the brutality and tyranny that precipitate the action in As You Like It, the dominant note of Orsino's court and of Olivia's household is static self-containment. To be sure, both Orsino and Olivia sincerely profess great unhappiness, but, as many critics have noted, a strain of complacent self-absorption dilutes the poignancy of Orsino's love-melancholy and of Olivia's grief. Orsino's concentration on his own emotions cuts him off from real personal relationships as effectively as does Olivia's withdrawal or Sir Toby's careless hedonism. The self-absorption of the native Illyrians and Viola's involuntary exile present a spectacle of isolation rather than confrontation, not so much a society in disorder as a series of discrete individuals without the interconnexions that constitute a society.

While the beginning of Twelfth Night is unusually static, the conclusion is strikingly active. Far from tying up a few loose ends, the last scene contains major events in both the double main plot and the sub-plot. Both pairs of lovers meet with full awareness for the first time. Viola finally wins Orsino's love, Orsino and Olivia, in different ways, discover whom it is they love, and Malvolio is released from imprisonment. Beginning calmly and purposefully enough with Orsino's first attempt to woo Olivia in person, the scene gathers intensity through a series of increasingly bitter confrontations. Orsino's banter with Feste is interrupted when Antonio appears, ominously under armed guard. Recognition as the duke's old enemy, however, is less galling to him than the apparent ingratitude of Sebastian (Viola-Cesario). At Olivia's entrance the tone darkens further with Orsino's jealous spite and threat to murder his presumed rival, to ‘sacrifice the lamb that I do love’ (V. 1. 130).2 On the priest's confirming Cesario's marriage to Olivia, Orsino's rage is replaced by even more bitter contempt at such betrayal. In quick succession Viola-Cesario has provoked condemnation as an ‘ingrateful boy’ (l. 77) from Antonio, sorrow at the faithless cowardice of her new husband from Olivia, and, from the man she loves, a threat of death and disgusted rejection as ‘a dissembling cub’ (l. 164). The crescendo of pain and anger climaxes in the bloody spectacle of Sir Andrew's and Sir Toby's broken heads and Toby's vicious attack on his friend: ‘Will you help?—an ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave, a thin-fac'd knave, a gull!’ (l. 206).

At the midpoint of the scene, as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew exit to find help for their bleeding heads, Sebastian enters and the scene reverses direction. In the first half, relationships disintegrate in the whirling confusions of mistaken identities emanating from Viola's disguise. In the second half, new relationships form from the revelation and identification of the twins, Sebastian and Viola. The scene performs the conventional function of uniting lovers and reuniting family, but the emphasis is less on restoration and reconciliation than on the discovery of unexpected relationships and acceptance of new obligations. Sebastian's reunions with Antonio and Viola reveal that Olivia is betrothed not to a cowardly faithless boy but to a strong loyal man. By identifying Viola, Sebastian's appearance transforms Orsino from Cesario's master and Olivia's unsuccessful suitor into Viola's future husband and Olivia's prospective brother-in-law. Viola suddenly hears herself hailed as Olivia's sister and Orsino's mistress. Through marriages prospective and already performed, Maria, Toby, Olivia, Sebastian, Viola, and Orsino become one extended family, in households where Malvolio, Fabian, and Feste have secure positions.

In Twelfth Night, then, the comic movement from disorder to harmony is more particularly the transformation of isolation and fragmentation into mutuality and cohesion. The personal and societal problems at the beginning of the play result not from envy, aggression, or malice, but from a perhaps no less insidious, and equally universal, ambition for self-sufficiency. As the social anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss points out,

mankind has always dreamed of seizing and fixing that fleeting moment when it was permissible to believe that the law of exchange could be evaded, that one could gain without losing, enjoy without sharing. At either end of the earth and at both extremes of time, the Sumerian myth of the golden age and the Andaman myth of the future life correspond, … removing to an equally unattainable past or future the joys, eternally denied to social man, of a world in which one might keep to oneself.3

Orsino's vision of self-surfeiting desires, Olivia's projected isolation, Toby's life of unconfined pleasure, and Malvolio's ‘practicing behavior to his own shadow’ (II. 5. 17) are all versions of this dream of inviolable autonomy. Their various attempts to create these solipsistic paradises in Illyria produce an atmosphere of sterility, a society without cohesion. While a current of self-indulgence runs through Orsino's and Olivia's pain, the real dangers of isolation from the protection of human society threaten the more cheerful characters. Viola and Sebastian are separated and shipwrecked in unknown country, Sir Toby and Feste are threatened with dismissal from Olivia's household, and Antonio is banned from Orsino's territory on pain of death. By the end of the play this sense of incipient disintegration has disappeared from the enlarged and cohesive group, and the communal joy and affection are achieved largely in terms of what Lévi-Strauss, in the passage quoted above, calls the law of exchange.

Instead of celebrating personal and social harmony with the dancing and wedding festivities that end most of the comedies, the final scene of Twelfth Night demonstrates the mutual obligations imposed by the complicated new relationships. Public recognition of Viola's female identity depends on recovering her ‘maid's garments’ (l. 275) from the sea captain who befriended her. The captain, in prison under some legal obligation to Malvolio, cannot be released until Malvolio is satisfied. The need for Malvolio reminds Olivia of her responsibility to him and Feste of the letter in his charge. The letter brings Malvolio's release, which in turn precipitates Fabian's confession of responsibility. Meanwhile Olivia's and Sebastian's wedding festivities wait on Orsino's and Viola's, and Viola remains Cesario until Malvolio is pacified. This cycle of mutual dependence gives an open-ended quality to the ending of the play. Our confident expectation that ‘golden time’ (l. 382) will bring happiness to the lovers is complemented by our sense of continuing obligations. Reciprocal love, the design of Twelfth Night implies, naturally culminates not in a private dream-world of complete fulfilment, but in the give and take of human society.

This happy, albeit imperfect, ending is possible only when the major characters have come to terms with the inescapable mutuality of communal life through a series of exchanges, often financial transactions. We usually think of The Merchant of Venice as Shakespeare's treatment of the relationship of wealth to love, but, as Porter Williams, Jr, has pointed out, ‘seldom in a play does money flow so freely’ as in Twelfth Night.4 Viola gives gold to the sea captain, Antonio gives his purse to Sebastian, Orsino sends a jewel to Olivia, Olivia showers gifts on Cesario, Viola-Cesario offers to divide her wealth with Antonio, and they all repeatedly give money to Feste. Economic advantage is not a prime motive for any of the characters, but hardly a scene goes by when they are not engaged in giving or receiving money or jewels. The lovers in the forest of Arden may rely on Hymen to arrange their nuptials, but in Illyria Olivia knows that someone must pay for the double wedding that is to replace the differences and frustrations of the past with a joyous alliance:

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.

(V. 1. 316)

Illyria definitely is not Gonzalo's imaginary commonwealth without trade, service, or riches.

This emphasis on giving and receiving serves, as Porter Williams says, to contrast the generous and loving nature of Viola, Orsino, and Olivia with the selfishness of Malvolio and Sir Toby, but he oversimplifies, I think, when he suggests that the money and gifts that change hands so freely ‘symbolize generous love and friendship’ and that ‘such giving and receiving must be done without counting the cost or measuring the risk’ (p. 194). Orsino's financial generosity is patently not identified with generous love. Admittedly, he does not count the cost in his courtship of Olivia. His motives are not mercenary and his emissaries bear jewels; nevertheless, his love is self-regarding. In the first scene, for example, when he makes the expected pun on Curio's suggestion to hunt the hart, he first seems to be directing his thoughts beyond himself, thinking of the noble Olivia:

Will you go hunt, my lord?
What, Curio?
The hart.
Why, so I do, the noblest that I have.

(I. 1. 16)

But immediately we discover that the noble heart Orsino pursues is his own:

O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purg'd the air of pestilence!
That instant was I turn'd into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me.

(l. 18)

His love for Olivia does not give rise to thoughts of serving her or sharing with her but of reigning supreme in her:

                                                                                when liver, brain, and heart,
These sovereign thrones, are all supplied and fill'd
Her sweet perfections with one self king!

(l. 36)

In the meantime he seeks solitude: ‘for I myself am best / When least in company (1. 4. 37).

Viola too is generous, but, while her love is more selfless than Orsino's, her economic liberality is less purely spontaneous and more thoughtful. When she gives gold to the sea captain, she does so explicitly in gratitude for the comfort he has given her: ‘For saying so, there's gold’ (1. 2. 18). She promises to pay him more in return for specific help she requests from him:

I prithee (and I'll pay thee bounteously)
Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent.

(1. 2. 52)

She is fully aware that she takes a risk in trusting him:

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.

(l. 48)

And she is not averse to reinforcing his good will with the hope that ‘It may be worth thy pains’ (l. 57). Just as she gladly pays for help she needs, she expects to earn her way with the duke she proposes to serve, confident that she can prove ‘worth his service’ (l. 59). Like the other characters, Viola is tempted by the attractions of solitude: she would like to join Olivia in her isolated grief and postpone being ‘delivered to the world’ (l. 42), but she readily accepts the necessity of taking part in the commerce of human society.

The idea of reward for service continues in Viola's first scene with Orsino. The short scene opens with Valentine commenting on Cesario's advancement: ‘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’ (l. 4). The dialogue between Orsino and Viola ends with the duke's promise:

                                                                                                    Prosper well in this,
And thou shalt live as freely as thy lord,
To call his fortunes thine.

(l. 38)

The effect is not to stress Orsino's generosity, or to suggest his vulgarity in offering reward, but to show that Viola belongs; she has become an active participant in the reciprocal relationships that bind the social group together. Indeed, the play as a whole, I think, demonstrates the principle of reciprocity, the unwritten rule, according to Marcel Mauss and Lévi-Strauss, by which the exchange of goods creates mutually-satisfying relationships among individuals and groups.

Building on Mauss's seminal study of the gift in primitive societies, these social anthropologists point out that exchanges of goods may be complex social events—at once legal, economic, religious, aesthetic, and morphological—rather than solely, or even primarily, economic transactions.5 Most basically, ‘the agreed transfer of a valuable from one individual to another makes these individuals into partners’ because it implies that the gift will be reciprocated with a counter-gift, usually of equivalent or greater value.6 Through the principle of reciprocity, then, the act of exchange binds the giver and the recipient in a relationship. To give is to create an obligation; to take is to imply a willingness to pay that debt. Consequently, to refuse a gift is an insulting rejection of relationship with the giver, and to take without repaying is either humiliating failure or an act of aggression in the eyes of the whole society.

The principle of reciprocity operates most clearly through Feste. His first scene, Act I, Scene 5, establishes his position as a professional entertainer. After Maria's warning that his absence has threatened his security as Olivia's fool, he successfully fools Olivia out of her bad humour and in return receives her support and protection when Malvolio attacks him. In Act II he sings, first for Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and then for Orsino, demonstrating each time that he who pays the piper calls the tune. There is nothing demeaning in the financial aspect of the transaction, despite A. C. Bradley's worry that Feste is offended and disgusted by Orsino's offer of payment.7 Feste sings for pleasure, as he tells Orsino, but ‘pleasure will be paid, one time or another’ (II, 4. 70), and he pockets as his due the money Toby, Andrew, and Orsino pay for the pleasure he gives them. The scenes where Feste is paid for his foolery follow the same pattern. In Act III, Scene 1, his witty wordplays elicit coins from Viola as well as an appreciative analysis of the fool's art. Similarly, at the beginning of Act V, Scene 1, Orsino pays for Feste's excellent foolery and promises further bounty if he will carry a message. Feste's cleverness in getting his tips doubled, as he tells Orsino, is not ‘the sin of covetousness’ (V. 1. 47), but part of his performance, rather like the plea for applause by the epilogue to a Renaissance play. Often, Feste expresses gratitude for these payments in a wittily pertinent blessing: ‘Now the melancholy god protect thee’ to Orsino, and to Viola-Cesario: ‘Now Jove, in his next commodity of hair, send thee a beard!’ (II. 4. 73; III. 1. 44).

The only significant departure from the pattern of a mutually satisfying exchange of talented performance for money comes when Feste tries to deliver to Sebastian a message intended for Cesario. Feste's words, of course, make no sense at all to Sebastian, who in exasperation tips the fool in an effort to get rid of him:

I prithee, foolish Greek, depart from me.
There's money for thee. If you tarry longer,
I shall give worse payment.

(IV. 1. 18)

Instead of begging for more or invoking a witty blessing on his benefactor, this time Feste responds with open contempt: ‘By my troth, thou hast an open hand. These wise men that give fools money get themselves a good report—after fourteen years' purchase’ (l. 21). When the young man seems to deny his identity and his relationships with people in Illyria, Feste's words, his medium of exchange, lose their value, and the exchange process breaks down: ‘No, I do not know you, nor I am not sent to you by my lady, to bid you come speak with her, nor your name is not Master Cesario, nor this is not my nose neither: nothing that is so is so’ (l. 5). Because Sebastian cannot receive Feste's message, his offer of money is not part of a reciprocal exchange but, from his point of view, an insulting dismissal and, from Feste's, a wise man's folly.8

Sebastian's refusal to participate results, of course, from Feste's mistake, not from Sebastian's rejection of the principle of reciprocity. His scenes with Antonio stress his dual awareness that taking implies an obligation to give and that gifts of love cannot be reduced to an economic transaction. ‘Recompense’, Shakespeare's word for the idea of reciprocity, is the subject of his first speech: ‘My stars shine darkly over me. The malignancy of my fate might perhaps distemper yours; therefore I shall crave of you your leave, that I may bear my evils alone. It were a bad recompense for your love, to lay any of them on you’ (II. 1. 3). He pursues isolation because he feels unable to enter into a balanced mutual relationship. But when Antonio persists in offering help and protection, Sebastian understands that rejecting such love would be unkind, although gratitude is the only recompense he can give:

                                                                                My kind Antonio,
I can no other answer make but thanks,
And thanks; and ever oft good turns
Are shuffled off with such uncurrent pay;
But were my worth as is my conscience firm,
You should find better dealing.

(III. 3. 13)

Similarly, Sebastian values the pearl Olivia gives him as symbol of the wonder of her love and reciprocates by vowing eternal love.

Thus the transfer of wealth from one person to another in Twelfth Night creates and expresses a wide variety of relationships: entertainer with audience, employer with employee, friend with friend, and husband with wife. Concomitantly, repudiating the principle of reciprocity signals the breakdown of community and the outbreak of hostility. The extreme case is Antonio, who is excluded from Illyria because he refuses to repay what he has taken from Duke Orsino. His offence, he explains to Sebastian,

                    might have since been answer'd in repaying
What we took from them, which for traffic's sake
Most of our city did. Only myself stood out,
For which if I be lapsed in this place
I shall pay dear.

(III. 3. 33)

Antonio knows that because he has refused to repay, he will pay dearly if he is recognized, for the ugly reverse of the reciprocity binding people harmoniously together is the requital of injury with injury in a divisive cycle of revenge. Similarly, when it appears that Sebastian is unwilling to return his purse, Antonio's love turns to hostility. The refusal is a denial of their relationship, and to claim no relationship is to create a hostile one. Antonio has sincerely believed his love to be totally selfless and his generosity to expect no return. But in the crisis produced by Orsino's revenge and by the confusion of brother and sister, he discovers that he has counted on receiving loyalty and gratitude in return for giving Sebastian ‘his life’ and ‘my love’ (V. 1. 80, 81). Without such recompense love is impossible, and his adulation is transformed to scorn.

Sir Toby's relationship with Andrew Aguecheek also demonstrates the principle of reciprocity by negative example. Toby coaxes money from the thin-faced knight, who receives nothing in return but deceptive assurances of success in his courtship of Olivia. Because Toby is exploitative and Andrew foolish, we see their companionship as a travesty of friendship, and its disintegration in the last act strikes us as no loss and no surprise. Toby's high-spirited gaiety is equalled by his selfish disregard for other people, but even he realizes that ‘pleasure will be paid, one time or another’, and he marries Maria ‘in recompense’ (V. 1. 364) for her part in the gulling of Malvolio.

Only Malvolio stands outside the lines of exchange that link the characters in increasingly complex patterns of relationship. He is the only major character who pays Feste nothing and neither gives nor receives a gift. He lacks the ‘generous’ and ‘free’ temperament that provides a sense of proportion, as Olivia tells him (I. 5. 91, 92), but he is no more greedy than Sir Toby, who calculates that he has cost Sir Andrew ‘some two thousand … or so’ (III. 2. 54-55), or than Sir Andrew, who expects to repair his fortune by marrying Olivia. The measure of Malvolio's self-love is not his miserliness or covetousness but his presumptuous belief that he lives in a sphere above and beyond ordinary human relationships. Maria's attempts to define what is so odious about Malvolio (he is a ‘puritan’ and a ‘time-pleaser’ (II. 3. 140, 148)) at first sound contradictory, if a puritan is one who self-righteously condemns lapses from a moral ideal and a ‘time-pleaser’ one who cynically manipulates worldly affairs for self-aggrandizement. But Maria is right both times; the puritan and the politician meet in Malvolio's self-esteem and in his contempt for people and for human relationships as ends in themselves. This total lack of identification with other people both incites and provides the means for Malvolio's gulling. When his insults provoke the conspirators to revenge, they can easily persuade him that Fortune has singled him out for greatness. Maria's letter merely reinforces his desire to ‘wash off gross acquaintance’ and his assumption that he condescends to speak to ordinary mortals as ‘nightingales answer daws’ (II. 5. 162-63; III. 4. 35-36).

In Twelfth Night money symbolizes not love so much as a broader engagement with the real and imperfect world; paying, lending, giving, and taking are signs of willingness to have commerce with human society. Because the attitude that controls Malvolio's response to other people is ‘I am not of your element’ (III. 4. 124), he does not take part in the exchanges of wealth that engage the other characters. Even when he is duped into believing that Olivia has given him her love and, by marrying him, will give him wealth and power, he feels no obligation or gratitude. He thanks ‘Jove’ and ‘my stars’ (II. 5. 172), but not Olivia. He believes that ‘nothing that can be can come between me and the full prospect of my hopes’ (III. 4. 81) and that no human actions, not even his own, contribute to this perfect felicity.

The success of the plot against him teaches Malvolio the vulnerability he shares with the rest of mankind. In his distress he appeals to Feste for help, and promises, ‘I will live to be thankful to thee for't’; ‘It shall advantage thee’; ‘I'll requite it in the highest degree’ (IV. 2. 82, 111, 118). A demonstration of dependency so humiliating and a promise to reciprocate offered under duress do not promise Malvolio's sudden conversion to brotherly love, but even his departing curse, ‘I'll be reveng'd on the whole pack of you’ (V. 1. 378), does not inspire, in the theatre, the dread or pathos critics often solemnly attribute to it. Malvolio may never learn with Prospero that ‘the rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance’, but even his comically impotent fury registers his dawning awareness that he is ‘one of their kind’ (The Tempest, V. 1. 27-28, 23). In suffering wrong and experiencing the natural human desire to hurt back, he is at least entering the rough give and take of the real world. And Olivia's immediate sympathy and Orsino's command to ‘Pursue him, and entreat him to a peace’ (V. 1. 380) assure the audience, I think, of future reconciliation.

While all the characters take part in the process of exchange, Viola is distinguished by her fuller understanding of the conscious and unconscious operation of the principle of reciprocity. Hating ingratitude more than any other vice,9 she repays Orsino's trust and favour with loyal service, faithfully wooing Olivia for him despite her own longing to be his wife. And the heart of her plea to Olivia is that love deserves recompense; ‘My master, not myself, lacks recompense’ (I. 5. 285), she replies tartly when Olivia offers to tip her. However great Olivia's beauty, she argues, Orsino's love could be ‘but recompens'd’ (l. 253) by winning her. Indeed, Viola breaks through Olivia's reserve by teaching her that the gifts of nature too bring an obligation to give in return, ‘for what is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve’ (l. 188). The lesson Olivia learns, ‘ourselves we do not owe’ (l. 310), strikingly resembles the ‘basic theme’ which Marcel Mauss's English editor finds in the anthropologist's analysis of reciprocity: ‘One belongs to others and not to oneself.’10 Still, for all Viola's advocacy of the human obligation to love and to give, it is impossible for her to reciprocate the love Olivia gives to Cesario, a fiction Viola has created. And she begins to regret her male disguise when she realizes the falseness of her position in relation to Olivia. As Cesario she clearly tells Olivia that she can never love her but, even so, she accepts Olivia's gifts, sparing her the pain and humiliation of having these symbols of love rejected.

Viola, then, understands that we cannot take without giving, but she knows also that giving may not be as selfless as it appears. Just as she sincerely tries to persuade Olivia to reciprocate Duke Orsino's love, she tries to show him the arrogance of his stubborn refusal to accept rejection. When Olivia refuses to return his love, his insistence that he ‘cannot be so answer'd’ (II. 4. 88) reveals his noble passion to be, at least in part, a determination to dominate and an egoist's conviction that reality must conform to his will. Although Orsino does not recognize the self-glorification in his unrequited love for Olivia, when he speaks of Olivia paying a ‘debt of love’ (I. 1. 33) to her brother or when he advises Cesario against loving a woman ‘not worth thee’ (II. 4. 27), he assumes that people seek a return of equivalent or greater value for the love they give. Because Viola is fully conscious that giving love involves asking for love, she denies herself the joy of offering her love to Orsino.

Recognizing the reciprocal nature of human relationships, then, does not solve all problems. It is impossible to give without desiring some return, but to expect exact recompense, as Feste demonstrates to Fabian, makes an absurd sham of giving: ‘to give a dog and in recompense desire my dog again’ (V. 1. 6). Giving without recompense may be self-indulgent, insulting, foolish, or tyrannical, but failing to give is self-destructive, as Viola reminds us, describing her father's daughter who ‘never told her love, / But let concealment like a worm i' th' bud / Feed on her damask cheek’ (II. 4. 110).

Not even Viola, then, can discover a way out of the tangled personal relationships that make up the plot of Twelfth Night. Beneficent fortune, not human wit, creates the happy ending. It is the fact that Sebastian exists, rather than moral education or spiritual growth, that solves the problems troubling the inhabitants of Illyria. The sorting out of couples in the last scene, however, is not merely a mechanically-contrived happy ending; it is, rather, the culmination of the reciprocal exchanges I have been tracing. In the course of the action, all the major characters have been tempted by the dream of self-sufficiency, but have been forced, by circumstances and by their own needs and desires, into relationships where they become aware of their obligations to and dependence on others. Viola-Cesario is the key figure in the process. She triggers Olivia's abandonment of her vows of celibacy and provides her with the humbling experience of finding the real world intractable to her will. She provides Orsino with real human love as an alternative to a self-centred fantasy. When all fantasies of limitless personal power and happiness collapse in the last scene under the pressure of the destructive aspect of reciprocity, Orsino and Olivia are ready to relinquish their dreams of Olivia and Cesario for the real love of Viola and Sebastian. Finally repelled from worshipping at ‘uncivil’ Olivia's ‘ingrate … altars’ (V. 1. 112, 113), Orsino's first reaction is the angry cruelty that is so often the corollary of sentimentality. But when Sebastian's arrival reveals Viola's identity, he asks for Viola's hand and gives her his in grateful recompense for ‘service done him’ (l. 321).

The sudden reversal from hostility and disintegrating relationships to love and alliance results from the amazing yet natural division of Cesario into Viola and Sebastian. This separation of brother and sister into two independent people symbolically illustrates Lévi-Strauss's theory that the principle of reciprocity binds people together in stable societies through the prohibition of incest and its wider social application, the custom of exogamy. He speculates that incest ‘in the broadest sense of the word, consists in obtaining by oneself, and for oneself, instead of by another, and for another’ (p. 489). The functional value of reciprocal exchange in marriage alliances and of the prohibition of marriage within certain degrees is to maintain ‘the group as a group, … avoiding the indefinite fission and segmentation which the practice of consanguineous marriages would bring about’ (p. 479).

So too in Twelfth Night, it is only when Olivia's exclusive allegiance to her brother is relinquished, and when brother and sister are brought together so that they can be publicly divided, that a harmonious and cohesive society becomes possible.11 The strangers from across the sea rescue the native Illyrians both from the sterility of self-preoccupation and from the divisive violence of their inevitable conflicts. Viola and Sebastian free Orsino and Olivia from illusions of exclusive self-fulfilment and total dominance and give them instead the shared happiness of mutual love. Neither Shakespeare nor the anthropologists claim that awareness of the principle of reciprocity can fundamentally alter the finite, complex nature of the human condition, but in his last romantic comedy Shakespeare suggests that by understanding our mutual needs we can choose love, generosity, and alliance rather than isolation, stagnation, and division.


  1. Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge, 1974), p. 20 and passim.

  2. Quotations throughout are from The Riverside Shakespeare, edited by G. Blakemore Evans and others (Boston, Massachusetts, 1974).

  3. The Elementary Structures of Kinship, translated by James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham, revised edition (London, 1969), pp. 496-97; originally published as Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (Paris, 1949).

  4. ‘Mistakes in Twelfth Night and Their Resolution’, PMLA, 76 (1961), 193-99 (p. 194).

  5. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, translated by Ian Cunnison, introduction by E. E. Evans-Pritchard (London, 1954), originally published as Essai sur le don, forme archaïque de l'échange (Paris, 1925); Claude Lévi-Strauss, Elementary Structures, especially Chapter 5, ‘The Principle of Reciprocity’.

  6. Lévi-Strauss, p. 84. The socio-morphological function of exchanging gifts had not, of course, escaped earlier observation. Seneca's De Beneficiis seeks to explain the rules of giving, receiving, and repaying, ‘a practice that constitutes the chief bond of human society’, Moral Essays, translated by John W. Basore, Loeb Classical Library, 3 vols (London, 1928-35), III, 19.

  7. ‘Feste the Jester’, in A Miscellany, second edition (London, 1931), p. 212.

  8. Compare Seneca, De Beneficiis, ‘A gift is not a benefit if the best part of it is lacking—the fact that it was given as a mark of esteem’ (Moral Essays, III, 49).

  9. III. 4. 354-57. Compare Seneca: ‘Homicides, tyrants, thieves, adulterers, robbers, sacrilegious men, and traitors there always will be; but worse than all these is the crime of ingratitude’ (p. 33).

  10. The Gift, p. v.

  11. In her discussion of mutual love in Shakespeare's romantic comedies, Marianne L. Novy presents the meeting of Sebastian and Viola as emblematic of mutual love between man and woman (‘“And You Smile Not, He's Gagged”: Mutuality in Shakespearean Comedy’, PQ [Philological Quarterly], 55 (1976), 178-94). Without denying that the loving reunion is crucial to the mutual happiness of the ending, I want to argue that its primary function is to divide Cesario, the brother-sister amalgam, into two people, a division which allows new love relationships to succeed long-established biological ones.

Robert Brustein (review date August 2002)

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SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. Review of Twelfth Night. New Republic 227, nos. 8-9 (August 2002): 28.

[In the following review of Brian Kulick's 2002 staging of Twelfth Night at the open-air Delacorte Theatre in New York City's Central Park, Brustein contends that Kulick and his star-studded cast barely explored the depths of character and theme offered by Shakespeare's text.]

The season being summer, it is time for Shakespeare, particularly Twelfth Night, which, along with As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream, is a perennial favorite of outdoor festivals. In my time, I must have endured a hundred nights of Twelfth Night, one of them not that long ago in the very Delacorte Theater where the current version is being staged, the sole offering of the New York Shakespeare Festival's summer season. Like that previous production, which starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Goldblum, this one is a celebrity gathering featuring a number of movie and television luminaries. Some of these actors, notably those with stage experience, actually have some chops. Others should have been advised not to serve their theater apprenticeships in important Shakespearean roles.

They have not been helped much by their director, Brian Kulick, whose imaginative contribution seems to have been pretty much exhausted by the visual concept. Walt Spangler's attractive design, set against the green-carpeted, moon-drenched background of Central Park, is composed of a majestic blue fun-park scoop that occupies half the stage, on the rest of which sits a derelict wreck of a blue ship with a huge hole in its side. Through this opening can be glimpsed a bit of the cargo—notably a large nude odalisque—which suggests that Sebastian and Viola might have been engaged in smuggling paintings into the Florentine art market before being shipwrecked in Illyria. The blue ship serves as a prop for the court scenes. The scoop provides the occasion for most of the physical action, which consists mainly of characters sliding down the polished wooden surface on Persian carpets. This is fun for about ten minutes. After the eleventh or twelfth such prank (and virtually every member of the cast gets a shot at it), it begins to grow a trifle tedious.

This Twelfth Night is lovely to look at—Miguel Angel Huidor's colorful nineteenth-century costumes and Michael Chybowski's shimmering lighting are especially attractive. But it lacks a strong interpretive approach other than the way it finds double entendres (otherwise known as Shakespeare's bawdry) in much of the language. Is Kulick trying to prove Viola's belief that “they that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton”? To be sure, Twelfth Night has many such verbal allusions, the broadest being the way Malvolio unconsciously spells out a rude word for Olivia's private parts. And it may be that Shakespeare's adolescent weakness for sexual puns is especially riotous in Twelfth Night (like Feste, Shakespeare in his lighter moments is a “corrupter of words”).

But the play also enjoys a sensual understructure that is almost entirely ignored in this production. The lesbian implications of Olivia's attraction to a young woman disguised as a boy are hardly touched upon, largely because Julia Stiles's Viola fails to summon up more than a pinched smirk in response to Kathryn Meisle's insistent attentions. With her singsong delivery and immobile features, Stiles is the latest in a Central Park tradition of casting untrained movie stars in ingenue roles, and it does not help her already weak vocal projection that the airlines seem to have timed their shuttles over Manhattan to muffle her speeches. Stiles and the considerably more mature Meisle often seem to be in different plays—or, more accurately, different media.

Similarly, although Antonio's passion for Sebastian (Zach Braff) gets some emphasis with the help of a subtle performance by Sterling Brown, the impact of Viola's gender confusion on Orsino's sense of male pride is barely explored. This is not to say that Jimmy Smits's Orsino lacks manliness—he comes off as a very dashing romantic swashbuckler in his red dressing gown and hussar uniform. But once Orsino has established his infatuation with music, the director leaves him nowhere to go. Nor has the composer (Duncan Sheik) provided much in the way of lyrical support. The songs are of indifferent quality, and they are indifferently sung by Michael Potts as Feste.

Where the production finds some strength is in its comic scenes. Oliver Platt as a Dickensian Sir Toby and Michael Stuhlbarg as a spindly Sir Andrew generally form a strong team, looting the beached ship and squirting wineskins at each other. And Christopher Lloyd's Malvolio, a shiny-domed menace out of The Island of Dr. Moreau, is a good foil for their foolery. But considering Lloyd's genius for manic farce, it is puzzling that he seems too restrained here and fails to capture some of the pain and rejection that lies beneath the pompous self-satisfaction of an egregious ass.

By the time this Twelfth Night ends, it seems to be well into its thirteenth night. The production has long since exhausted our goodwill and patience. The recognition scene, in which Viola and Sebastian take about ten minutes to acknowledge that they are brother and sister—surely this is what Ionesco was satirizing in The Bald Soprano, where a long-married husband and wife have a hard time recognizing each other despite mountains of evidence—seems even more interminable than the one in Cymbeline. We are no longer interested in which Jack gets which Jill, because we've never believed in any of the relationships. There was more sense of the play, and more playful sensuality, in the concluding scene of John Madden's Shakespeare in Love—in which Gwyneth Paltrow, her wet smock clinging to her delicate body, walked from the sea to alight upon the beach of Illyria—than in this entire plodding three-hour evening.

Edward Cahill (essay date June 1996)

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SOURCE: Cahill, Edward. “The Problem of Malvolio.” College Literature 23 (June 1996): 62-82.

[In the following essay, Cahill offers a psychoanalytic reading of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, highlighting his narcissism and painful identity crisis as well as his thwarted and obsessive desires for sexual, social, and personal fulfillment.]

The origins of the main plot in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night have been traced to a cluster of earlier comedies and their derivatives; however, the subplot, involving Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria, and their “gull,” Malvolio, was entirely Shakespeare's invention.1 Like the main story, the Malvolio subplot also involves comic “errors,” disguise and performance, and the pursuit of marriage. It similarly explores the themes of identity, desire, and the confusion of both. In fact, the “gulling” of Malvolio and Sir Toby's debauched revelry literalize the “misrule” of the main story. But the subplot does not resolve itself as neatly as the main plot does; indeed, it fails to resolve itself at all. It might be supposed, then, that Shakespeare sought to counter the easy connubial resolutions inherent in his sources with something more problematic, thereby adding to the comic ending of the play something of a tragic one. Joel Fineman wrote that Malvolio “plays the role of the outsider whose unhappiness is the measure of comic spirit, the alternative to comedy that makes us value the comic all the more” (33). To take this idea one step further, we can say that Malvolio alerts us to the necessity of comedy and to the profound implications of its failure. In a sense, with the problem of Malvolio, Shakespeare answers the question: What if things in Illyria hadn't turned out so well?

The source of this potential for failure is the comic force that drives both the subplot and the main story: “misrule.” The subtitle of the play, Or, What you will, offers an ambiguous but provocative addition to our understanding of the “misrule” that was an important element of traditional Twelfth Night celebrations. “Will” has been generally interpreted as “volition” or “desire,” so as to suggest that the logic of the play turns on wishful thinking rather than an objective reality. But in the saturnalian tradition, “what you will” also refers to identity, as in “what you will be.” The narcissistic desires of Orsino and Olivia and the strategic disguise of Viola suggest that one's identity, social or personal, is derived from one's desire. Consider Olivia's question to Viola/Cesario, “What are you? What would you?” (1.5.212-213). Here, identity and desire become almost synonymous, perhaps because under the confusion of misrule both are ambiguous. Further, in Renaissance England, whom one married was an important factor in determining one's identity, particularly if a change in social rank was involved. Thus “what you will,” in this comedy of courtship and marriage, also means “whom you will have” or “who will have you.” In the complicated love triangle of these characters, misrule is the rule, and real desire and real identity become temporarily lost in a conflation of poses and possibilities.

Malvolio also confuses identity and desire when, walking in Olivia's garden, he muses, “To be Count Malvolio!” (2.5.35). But we know that Malvolio's fantasy is a pose without possibility. He is a literal example of the Italian malvoglio, which means “ill will,” but here also seems to imply “wrong desire.” Malvolio's sin is not only his alienating behavior toward others in the household, but also both the inappropriate desire to marry his mistress and rise in social rank and the sin of “self-love.” The punishment for such sins, as he discovers, is severe. By comparison, the desiring characters of the main story, confused though they may be, commit no wrong and receive no punishment. The narcissism of Orsino and Olivia, while potent, is less overt or perhaps an allowed vice of the aristocracy. Likewise, while pursuing Orsino in conscious disguise, Viola goes safely, if miraculously, undetected. Although the plights of the characters of the main story do suggest the precariousness and risk inherent in the confusion of identity and desire, which will be the locus and necessary prescription of the Malvolio subplot, these characters are nonetheless successful. Ultimately, for Viola, Sebastian, Olivia, and Orsino, “what you will” is an invitation to comic possibility; for Malvolio, however, it is an invitation to personal tragedy.2

If identity and desire function in the psychological realm, they also do in the social realm. The dialogic relation between plot and subplot, I submit, works on both levels; and herein lies a crucial difference between the plots. Whereas the main plot invokes a fantastical, almost timeless space, where an unchallenged aristocracy enjoys tremendous (if limited) emotional freedom, the subplot is more historically-specific, more obviously grounded in Elizabethan social relations: a reflection not of another time and place, like Illyria, but of England at the end of the 16th Century. As a result, the characters in the main plot are not ultimately obliged to act in a world with real consequences, while Malvolio most certainly is. Such an obligation or lack thereof is fundamental to the projection of a “self” in that world. With this difference in mind, the project of this essay will be to describe Malvolio's struggle with his identity and desires as historical and psychological “facts” that is, by historicizing the role of the household steward and his social sphere, and by investigating the possible contributions of modern identity theory. Then, I will read the elements of Malvolio's struggle back through the main plot in an effort to more fully describe the relation between the two plots.

Although much has been said of the meaning of Twelfth Night's subtitle, its specific connection to the play's subplot seems to have gone unnoticed. Olivia is the only character in the play to actually utter the words of the subtitle, when she says to Malvolio, “If it be a suit from the count, I am sick, or not at home what you will to dismiss it” (1.5.109-110, emphasis added). In telling Malvolio to use his discretion as steward and to do “what [he] will,” Olivia gives him permission to use any form of falseness to prevent the disruption of her mourning. Although we later realize, through her sudden infatuation with Viola/Cesario, that Olivia's mournful intentions are not altogether sincere, her cloistered behavior is in fact in Malvolio's best interest: it makes him indispensable. I argue, then, that Olivia's command to do “what you will” formally initiates the Malvolio subplot, not only because it invokes verbatim the subtitle of the play, but more importantly because, as we shall see, it reveals much about Malvolio's position as Olivia's trusted steward and the paradoxical role of a steward in a household with neither a master nor a masterly mistress.

While we tend to think of Malvolio as an ambitious social climber who rejects his middle-class origins in hopes of marrying into nobility, we cannot be at all certain that this is what Shakespeare had in mind.3 In most sixteenth-century aristocratic households, particularly those of important noblemen, the steward had his own status. He was often a kinsman of the master and invariably a man of gentle birth. Indeed, during the parliaments of Elizabeth's reign, at least 190 members were, had been, or would become stewards (Hainsworth 7). When the steward was the head servant of the household, as was often the case, he commanded great respect. Thus, Spenser writes in The Faerie Queen (1590): “The first of them that eldest was and best / Of all the house had charge and government / As Guardian and Steward of the rest” ( The “rest” in a noble household of the period may have been up to a hundred servants and dependents, over whom the steward had sway and kept order (Stone 29). As implied by the name of “Order,” the steward in Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts (c. 1630), the keeping of order in the household was the steward's prime objective, and for this reason, he was often likely to be unpopular with the lesser servants. However, this responsibility offered the steward privileges as well. Regardless of his social origins, he dressed as an aristocrat and followed the fashions of the day.4 Because he often acted as a representative of the master and saw to the comfort of guests and visitors, a well-dressed steward reflected positively on the wealth and status of the master.

But this is not to say that the steward had a clearly defined sense of power. In fact, the great challenge of stewardship during the Renaissance was to deftly negotiate the blurred line between responsibility and authority. His position was inherently an ambiguous one.5 Although, as the representative of the master, the steward had a nominal charge of the household, in reality he rarely made important decisions without consulting its head. Lawrence Stone argued that all household servants, stewards included, were considered “equal with children as subordinate members of the household” (27).6 Although this may be somewhat overstated, it does suggest that, while the steward was often charged with the duties and even the authority of a master, he was rarely treated like one. Moreover, the steward's position was inexorably linked to the fortunes of the household, which at the beginning of the seventeenth century were under constant threat of instability. As the size of the aristocratic household decreased during the period of great social, political and economic upheaval of the élite that preceded the English Revolution, the power and significance of the household steward consequently declined.7

This combination of inherent ambiguity and decreasing power undoubtedly presented real problems for the steward of a noble household, such as Malvolio. When we consider further that the death of Olivia's father, followed shortly by that of her brother, has left the household without a paterfamilias, we may suppose an even greater difficulty.8 The lack of a patriarch might have required greater responsibility on the part of the steward, but it did not usually mean that he was given more authority. It appears that the many contradictions involved in stewardship were satisfactorily contained by the presence, or at least the existence, of the paterfamilias; with the permanent absence of the master, therefore, the steward might have been liable to tremendous feelings of role ambiguity.

Indeed, for Malvolio this ambiguity is not uncomplicated. Olivia is aware of her new power as mistress of the household, but she is not particularly interested in exercising it. What she is interested in, in fact, is “misrule.” Thus, Malvolio occupies a subordinate role in relation to a mistress who is neither dominant nor authoritative but playful. As steward, it is his presumptive office to exercise her power for her, but Olivia's own desires prevent that. Even his job of keeping order in the house becomes impossible because Olivia does not support his efforts. Although he has become the ultimate masculine authority in the household, Malvolio is unable to control the debauchery of Sir Toby as Olivia's father or brother might have. Because Olivia is, at least temporarily, undecided about the nature of the relation between her steward and herself, Malvolio is confused about his own appropriate role. A better steward, we might suppose, one with a greater sense of his place and power, would have been able to accept, even easily handle, these ambiguities. But Malvolio, lacking a firm sense of his place in the social hierarchy, cannot accept them. Instead, he tries to amend the situation by alternately railing at the disorder and fantasizing about becoming in name what in some ways he has already become in authority.9

In this way, we can begin to talk about Malvolio's “identity crisis,”10 why he is of “distempered appetite” (1.5.73), and why he cannot live comfortably in Olivia's household. Whether Malvolio is of gentle or middling birth is not so important as the kind of “self” he projects as a member of the household. Critics who have too reductively labeled Malvolio a “social climber” or diagnosed his dissatisfaction as a case of class hyper-consciousness have neglected to consider the role of identity, and its formation and resolution (or their failure), in the development of Malvolio's discontent. I argue that, beyond other valid considerations, the character of Malvolio is principally driven by his anxious but unconscious desire to resolve his ambiguous masculine identity.

The use of modern identity theory to understand early modern drama has received considerable and widely diverse critical attention in recent years. Logical justifications for such an analysis have held that as the rise of a powerful merchant class in the Renaissance disrupted the continuities of feudal and aristocratic life, a modern notion of “self,” divided and in crisis, first appeared. Although historians disagree on the nature of this revolution, I want to suggest that the question of what might have constituted a “self” in the Renaissance is one to which Twelfth Night provides two answers, at least indirectly. As I have argued, there is in the main plot and the subplot a distinct difference in dramatic “subjectivities”: in the former, the self is “fashioned” by the interactions of concrete social status and the free-play of experience; in the latter, status is not necessarily stable and unreliable experience is the source of debilitating anxiety. Regardless of Malvolio's rank, he consistently disrupts the continuities of life in Illyria (however temporarily discontinuous they may be) and does so in terms of the nature of status and the effects of experience. Through these disruptions, Malvolio projects a self that is, above all, divided and in crisis. Thus, in discussing the “identity” of such a character in modern terms, I am assuming that Shakespeare has, in a sense, already done so. At the very least, such an approach offers a vocabulary for understanding the play's treatment of the problem of identity—an understanding that is somewhere between a metaphor for a particular socially and politically informed psychological truth and the thing itself.

Erik Erikson's stages of identity formation offer some insight into the problems of identity formation or psychosexual development.11 In adolescence, a child may be concerned with how he appears to others, compared to how he feels about himself. That is, his social identity and personal or ego identity may seem at odds. In this stage, there is a danger of “role diffusion” or doubt about one's sexual identity, which adolescents may seek to avoid by over-identifying with a person of the same or opposite sex, by having a “crush” or “falling in love.” This response is “an attempt to arrive at a definition of one's identity by projecting one's diffuse ego images” onto another and “seeing them thus reflected and gradually clarified” (Childhood 228). In young adulthood, when one is faced with the social expectation of courtship and marriage, such “role diffusion” may become a fear of ego loss through self-abandon (i.e., intimacy), and may lead to a deep sense of isolation and, ultimately, self-absorption. A normal adult eventually learns to “lose himself” in sexuality and friendship without the fear of being “engulfed.” Where these attempts at intimacy fail, however, the result, in maturity, may be a regression to “individual stagnation,” “interpersonal impoverishment,” and an obsessive need for “pseudo-intimacy” (Childhood 231).

We may detect a disparity between the social and personal identities of the steward who “practic[es] behavior to his own shadow” (2.5.17). Malvolio's personal identity as one deserving “exalted respect” (2.5.23) is significantly different from his social identity as a “time-pleaser” (2.3.148). A healthy person, on the other hand, eventually bridges the gap between the way he perceives himself and the way he believes others perceive him. On this matter, Erikson states:

The conscious feeling of having a personal identity is based on two simultaneous observations: the immediate perception of one's self-sameness and continuity in time; and the simultaneous perception of the fact that others recognize one's sameness and continuity.

(Ego Development 23)12

Even before his gulling, Malvolio lacks the emotional constancy and unity that such simultaneity requires. Once Maria's “device” has been set, the very combination of self-deception and deception by others would seem to make the achievement of a resolved personal identity quite impossible.

The basis of Malvolio's gulling is that only with such an inflated notion of himself could he believe that Olivia loved him. Everyone except Malvolio understands that a match with Olivia is impossible, not only because Malvolio is her steward, but also because he is neither “generous, guiltless [nor] of free disposition” and perhaps completely unable to love. We might call his eagerness to believe an “over-identification” with both Olivia and the possibility of becoming her husband. In his fantasy of becoming Count Malvolio, Malvolio seems to project the ambiguity or “role diffusion” he associates with his position as steward onto both Olivia and the role of her noble husband in order to see the possibility of something better. “To be Count Malvolio” would be, in name and station, to have a much more clearly defined place in life. Yet, in his inability to accept the ambiguities of his role as steward, Malvolio has neither a place nor the companionship it would offer. His isolation and consequent self-absorption seem to derive from his inability to achieve intimacy with any other person. The result of Malvolio's failure to live harmoniously and intimately with others in the household is, as Erikson predicts, something akin to “interpersonal impoverishment.”

An important distinction between Shakespeare's identity drama and modern identity theory is that Renaissance England generally did not distinguish between the specific stages of adolescence, young adulthood, and maturity (Kahn 197). In Shakespeare's day, the status of real “manhood” was not achieved by all men, and a kind of “adolescence” ensued until a man not only came of age but also took a wife and produced an heir. Patriarchal power in Renaissance England belonged not to men generally but to married men with families, and it was unlikely for a bachelor to gain a position of high social or political status.13 Thus, without a wife to confirm his manhood and a household to call his own, Malvolio, like Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, remains in a kind of adolescence. This may further explain his fantasy of becoming “Count Malvolio.” Like an adolescent day-dream of manhood, Malvolio imagines occupying not only a higher social position but also the identity-affirming position of paterfamilias. If we consider Malvolio's masculine identity unresolved in part because he remains unmarried, and therefore childless, then we can see that Olivia's unstable household, because it lacks a patriarch, further problematizes his struggle. Malvolio's situation paradoxically invites and denies his participation in reestablishing such a patriarchy, which for him would help to complete the process of identity formation.

In negotiating the space of ambiguity that comprises his search for identity, Malvolio is caught within still another paradox. Not only is the “misrule” of Olivia's household (and Illyria generally) contrary to his objectives as steward, but the emotional versatility required to accommodate such “misrule” is beyond his ability.14 Because Malvolio can only respond to the revelry and humor of the household with indignation, his officious performance becomes a failure of play. Consider his first appearance in Act 1, Scene 4, which immediately identifies him as the anti-comic figure, the opposite of Feste, Olivia's clown. Although Olivia is purportedly in mourning, she finds comic relief in Feste's jibes at Malvolio, and even provokes her steward by asking him, “How say you to that, Malvolio?” Not only does Malvolio refuse to play Feste's game, but he also insults Olivia for playing it: “I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal.” If we consider the psychological dimensions of the relationship between Olivia and Malvolio that I have discussed, we can see that Malvolio is in an impossible situation. His job is to maintain order in the household so that Olivia may properly mourn; but because she is not really in mourning, she enjoys Feste's disorderly playfulness. Malvolio's reaction to this disorder is “distempered” because his world does not make sense. In attacking what he sees as Feste's vulnerability “Look you now, he's out of his guard” (1.5.82-86) he reveals his own: that he can never allow himself to be “out of his guard.” Olivia shows that she understands this when she exclaims, “O you are sick of self-love, Malvolio!” (1.5.90). His narcissistic isolation is his protective shell that attempts to fend off both the “bird-bolts” and “cannon bullets” (1.5.93) of others. Malvolio cannot distinguish between innocent teasing and real offense because in Olivia's household the distinction is unstable, if not meaningless.

Feste's jesting represents not only the lack of order in the household, but also what appears to be the beginning of the end of Olivia's mourning, which may be a threat to Malvolio's present power. So long as Olivia has “abjured the sight and company of men” (1.2.40-41), Malvolio, as her keeper of the house, retains a special significance. He is, in fact, the most important man in her life, which she admits when, noting his “distract” behavior, she declares, “I would not have him miscarry for the half of my dowry” (3.4.62-63).15 As such status is jeopardized, Malvolio fears not only losing his present power and thus perhaps being “unmanned” but also being reminded of his lack of real patriarchal power. This fear seems to account for his disagreeable behavior in this scene. His description of the “manner of man” (1.5.152) that is Viola/Cesario is a curious one which makes the point:

Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy: as is a squash is before 'tis a peascod, or a codling when 'tis almost an apple. 'Tis with him in standing water, between boy and man. One would think his mother's milk were scarce out of him.


This pubescent youth, he seems to say to Olivia, is hardly man enough for your serious consideration. It is perhaps for the same reason that Malvolio specifically calls Feste a “barren” rascal. On one hand, Malvolio is dutifully protecting his mistress; on the other hand, he is projecting his deepest fear: his failure to achieve a resolved masculine identity.

Similarly, Malvolio's failure to either control or abide the antics of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria, is closely tied to his difficult relation to Olivia. This is evident in Malvolio's first remonstrations against Sir Toby's debauchery: “Sir Toby, I must be round with you. My lady bade me tell you that, though she harbors you as her kinsman, she's nothing allied to your disorders” (2.3.95-97). Whether Olivia actually instructed Malvolio to deliver Sir Toby an ultimatum we cannot be sure, but Malvolio would have her “allied” to order, and therefore to himself. Toby senses Malvolio's implicit meaning and offers his cutting double question: “Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (2.3.114-116). To be “more than a steward,” for Malvolio, might indeed mean to be a nobleman and possibly Count Malvolio, Olivia's husband. Toby and the others object to the fact that Malvolio is overstepping his bounds, not by insisting on order in the house, for that is his job, but by allying himself so closely with Olivia. They seem to realize that this violation of the social order is much more egregious than their late-night revelry.16 Sir Toby's suggestion that Malvolio is “virtuous” is a sharply ironic criticism that subtly points to the steward's hypocritical desire for Olivia. Maria calls him “a kind of puritan” (2.3.139), not because she thinks he is an actual puritan, but because he is like one in his hypocritical, self-absorbed pomposity. The designation, as Shakespeare used it, had no narrowly defined religious or political connotation. One historian notes, of the puritan designation in pre-Revolutionary English writing: “There were many Malvolios. Contemporary references to puritan hypocrisy are frequent, and they usually refer to the combination of godly phrases with economic or other less noble motives” (Hill 25).17 Here, Toby and Maria insinuate the hypocritical righteousness of Malvolio's pretending to protect Olivia from Toby's debauchery while simultaneously entertaining sexual and matrimonial thoughts about her.

Maria, however, also sees beyond Malvolio's “puritan” hypocrisy, to a self-division exceeding that of “phrases” and “motives,” and one that lies at the core of his own self-concept. Thus, she explains to Sir Toby, “it is his grounds of faith that all who look on him love him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work” (2.3.151-153). In constructing her “revenge,” Maria recognizes that the disparity between Malvolio's “self-love” and that fact that others know him as “an affectioned ass” (2.3.148) is his greatest vulnerability. By convincing Malvolio that Olivia loves him, Maria intends to “put him in such a dream that when the image of it leaves him, he must run mad” (2.5.193-194). To put Malvolio in such a dream would be to fool him into believing that his social identity and personal identity were the same indeed, that all his problems were solved. For “to be Count Malvolio” would be to marry Olivia, to rise in station, to bring order to the house, and finally to resolve his identity into that of a mature man.

In Malvolio's performance of his fantasy, he imagines having “the humour of state” (2.5.52), or freedom of rank, that he entirely lacks as a steward: “I frown the while, and perchance wind up my watch, or play with my some rich jewel” (1.5.59-60). On one level, this is a thinly veiled fantasy of lust and power, in which he substitutes a sexually suggestive “jewel” for his steward's chain. Malvolio imagines possessing the sexual liberty that would render Olivia available to him, as well as the sexual potency that would signify his complete manhood. But he also imagines the ability to play, to be “generous, guiltless, and of free disposition,” as if such emotional freedom were the sole property of the nobility. Ironically, of course, even in his luxurious imaginings, Malvolio is not playing as much as he is being played with. Finally, when the gulling is over and “the image of [Count Malvolio] leaves him,” he does not “run mad” so much as he is threatened with what Erickson called “ego loss.” By rejecting his “calling” of stewardship, Malvolio has rejected his own selfhood, and in a sense no longer has any coherent identity at all.

Outwardly, Maria's gulling is intended to make Malvolio an extreme and ridiculous version of the person he desires to be. On another level, however, it also seems clearly calculated to destroy his very identity. We can see in Malvolio's reading of the letter his attempt to “crush” (2.5.140) himself into the identity of “the unknown beloved” (2.5.90) when he is presented with the puzzle, “M.O.A.I. doth sway my life” (2.5.107). Malvolio's effort to “make that resemble something in [him]” (2.5.119-120) results in the literal disintegration of his name. He cannot solve the puzzle because he does not really know who he is. Maria's pithy construction, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em’” (2.5.145-146), similarly reveals her understanding of Malvolio's predicament. To be “born great” is to have an identity that is ontologically fixed: one is simply great. To “achieve greatness” is performative and thus involves attaining an identity through some act. But to have “greatness thrust upon” one involves no willful or original act at all, but merely a reaction, perhaps desperate, to one's circumstances. In Malvolio's case, it is to nominally accept the benefits of a resolved adult identity without actually having achieved one. The letter tells Malvolio, “thou art made if thou desir'st to be so; if not, let me see thee a steward still” (2.5.155-156). Though Malvolio does indeed desire to be “made” into a nobleman and a patriarch, the effect of the gulling is not that he is left “a steward still,” but that he is virtually un-made, his identity left in tatters.

The “Count Malvolio” who presents himself to Olivia “cross-gartered” and “smiling”18 seems to be the imaginary fulfillment of Malvolio's wish to transcend his paradoxical position as steward by marrying his mistress and thereby resolving his masculine identity. When Olivia reacts incredulously to Malvolio's behavior, asking, “God comfort thee! Why dost thou smile so and kiss thy hand so oft?” (3.4.32-33), she fails to acknowledge and endorse the new “identity” Malvolio has assumed. Instead, she answers his gestures with ambivalence and confusion and finally dismisses him, leaving him wholly unsatisfied, “a steward still.” Thus, the truly cruel element of the gulling is the way it sets up an inevitable conflict between what Malvolio unconsciously wishes were true and what he consciously discovers is not. Because the imbrication of the conscious and unconscious seems to direct much of the subtext of the main plot of Twelfth Night, it seems appropriate to investigate Malvolio's fantasy not only in terms of its conscious effects, but also its unconscious causes. I submit that if we read his fantasy as a “day-dream” or even an actual dream, then it may reveal not only something of his hidden desires, but, perhaps more importantly, how he comes to understand, if only unconsciously, the complex social and psychological matrix within which he attempts to define himself.

The work of Freud suggests to me several readings of Malvolio's fantasy that look to childhood desires as the origin of adult fantasies. In the essay “Family Romances,” Freud considers the (male) child who invents an imaginary parentage in order to cope with the realization that his parents are not the heroic, infallible people he thought they were when he was younger. By altering his past, the child effectively alters his conception of the present and future as well. Such a desire can be profound enough to follow the child into adulthood. Freud writes:

A characteristic example of this peculiar imaginative activity is to be seen in the familiar day-dreaming which persists far beyond puberty. If these day-dreams are carefully examined, they are found to serve as the fulfillment of wishes and as a correction of actual life. They have two principal aims, an erotic and an ambitious one.


Similarly, Malvolio imagines “Count Malvolio,” who may be either the invented father or the son the father produced, or both simultaneously, and who may represent the symbolic fulfillment of a wish to correct his origins. Comparing himself, or his parents, with Olivia, or her parents, and finding his own situation inadequate, Malvolio may be said to invent a past, and thus a present and future, which are more satisfying to him. The “ambitious aim” relates to Malvolio's rise in social status and is apparent in his disdainful treatment of Sir Toby in the fantasy. The “erotic aim” is to “bring his mother into situations of secret infidelity” (239), through which such an alternative parent-age might have been possible. Such an adulterous act may be symbolically represented by Malvolio's socially proscribed wooing of Olivia. In this reading, the manifestation of his unconscious desire is largely a function of difference in social rank, a difference first perceived in childhood, but one more fully and perhaps painfully demarcated in Malvolio's adult role as steward.

Yet, as Freud argued in The Interpretation of Dreams, the greatest influences of adult dreams are not experiences of childhood but of infancy: “A wish which is represented in a dream must be an infantile one” (533). But dreams, as wish-fulfillments, are not always inspired by the most obvious desires, and the true wish may be disguised or distorted. Through interpretation, we may find that the latent dream thoughts are altogether different from the manifest dream content. For example, in the dream, Olivia seems to be Malvolio's heterosexual object choice, and Count Malvolio, his id-driven alter-ego. Thus, the dream appears to be a clear fulfillment of Malvolio's ambitious and sexual desire to become her noble husband. Here, the latent infantile wish might involve the satisfaction of Oedipal desire through identification with the father. Yet, the true wish may be less obvious. At the time of the dream, Olivia has officially renewed her interest in Orsino's suit (through Viola/Cesario), and any accepted suitor is, to Malvolio, a rival for Olivia's love. Such a rival might be represented by the stately Count Malvolio. Indeed, the character in Twelfth Night who most closely resembles Count Malvolio is Orsino himself. Thus, it may appear that in becoming the noble Count, Malvolio has identified with his rival and then literally replaced him, thereby removing the threat the rival posed. This interpretation, in which the same latent infantile wish to possess the mother may involve taking the place of the father, suggests that Malvolio's desire for Olivia is part of a larger sense of masculine rivalry, and one derived from his first, infantile sense of it.

However, consider further that, beyond her beauty and charm, Olivia's greatest attraction for Malvolio may be that she, unlike any other, holds the power and title he desires: she is the head of the household. Perhaps his dream is not the fulfillment of a wish to have her, but rather to be her. The latent infantile wish in this scenario might involve the resolution of Oedipal desire through identification with the mother. Of course, in this identification across both class and gender, to be Olivia is also to desire a noble husband. Accordingly, Count Malvolio is not whom Malvolio wants to be, but rather whom he wants to have. Indeed, this may be readily apparent in the dream when we consider that it mentions Olivia only in passing and is primarily concerned with an attractive nobleman being attended by his servants. Malvolio's dream is, in a sense, a sexually charged fantasy whose main figure is another man. Here, the manifest dream of heterosexual jealousy and desire may reflect, in Freudian terms, an insufficiently repressed homosexual impulse. More importantly, however, this interpretation suggests that Malvolio's identification with rank and authority, with real power as he most directly experiences it through Olivia, is stronger than his identification with his masculinity and even heterosexual desire.

To reiterate, the point of these interpretations is not to describe definitively the source of Malvolio's desires; rather, because the correspondences between unconscious desire and conscious action are rarely direct, they may reveal, in their indirection, not only latent desire, but also the social and psychological dynamics that provide the context for such desire. Thus, with a contingent understanding of Malvolio's long held feelings of social inferiority, his native sense of masculine rivalry, and his powerful identification with rank and authority, we can see more clearly how his search for a resolved identity is so vulnerable to the possibility, even the inevitability, of failure.

As I have suggested, the relationship between this failure and Malvolio's dream-turned-nightmare is a symbolic one. Thus, it is not surprising that the action which follows the gulling—Malvolio's cruel punishment—is also highly symbolic. Psychoanalysis, literature, and Western culture generally have found a metaphor for identity crisis or ego loss in various images of captivity, darkness, and maternal engulfment, in which the psychic isolation experienced by the individual is symbolized by his physical isolation. Malvolio's punishment, his being taken to “a dark room and bound” (3.4.135-136), is such a metaphor. Like his fantasy, it suggests more than one interpretation. In an Eriksonian reading, Malvolio's overtures to Olivia may be called a failed attempt at “losing himself” in sexuality and intimacy (or perhaps merely “pseudo-intimacy”), which results in his feeling “isolated” or “engulfed,” or, indeed, in the most literal manifestation of “interpersonal impoverishment.” We may further note that Malvolio's punishment, like Maria's letter, seems custom-designed for his particular sexual crime of wrong desire for his mistress. That is, the “hideous darkness” (4.2.30) of the cellar, like Lear's “sulphurous pit” (KL 4.6.128), may signify feminine sexuality, the sexual darkness of Olivia, to which his unmediated desire has transported him. The lunatic's cellar is also the darkness of Malvolio's identity crisis, which is chiefly manifest as what Maria claims to be his “madness”; thus, the cellar is a public symbol of this alleged madness. Antipholous of Ephesus, in The Comedy of Errors, faces a similar fate when, his problems with identity having caused considerable confusion and provoked accusations of insanity, he is threatened with being “bound and laid in some dark room” (TCE 4.4.94), which was a common and curiously symbolic treatment for those thought to be insane in Shakespeare's day. For Sir Toby, however, who suggests and executes the punishment, the cellar is also a private symbol of the steward's self-doubt, of which Sir Toby and the others are all too aware. But the metaphor is also Malvolio's. Knowing that he has been “madly used” but not knowing exactly how, he is in figurative darkness about the gulling. In his psychic turmoil, the darkness of ignorance and deception, anxiety and sexuality, seem to merge, and his punishment for not seeing the truth (that is, for being gulled) is his not seeing anything at all.

On the other hand, his real “madness” is his obsessive rationality and insistence that the room is dark. Even in his vulnerable position, Malvolio is determined to discuss the matter rationally, “in any constant question” (4.2.48-49). The consummate steward, he refuses to accept any form of disorder. Thus, as it indicates the disorder of both his identity crisis and his physical predicament, this scene is emblematic of Malvolio's inability to accommodate the failures of logic and the chaos of misrule. In Illyria, such reasonableness is problematic.

Learning to accept the disorder of experience, to enjoy its possibilities, and, like Viola, to allow time to “untangle” the hard knots of life's confusion, are what makes the characters of the main plot ultimately successful in finding mates. From their precarious beginnings, Viola, Sebastian, Olivia, and Orsino experiment with adult identities, try them out on one another, and “play” with the possibilities each identity offers. This quest continues until the “play,” and the theatrical performance itself, come to a conclusion, and marriage permanently confirms upon each character his or her adult identity. Along the way, however, in the midst of their experimentation, the potential for error and crisis is apparent, and it is here that we can begin to explore the close thematic relation between main plot and subplot.

An undercurrent of tragic potential, which is first suggested by the deaths and melancholy that begin Act 1, can be found in the language of possiility, uncertainty, and anxiety that each character uses. For example, we hear in Orsino's first speech on the ephemeral nature of love, with its curious phrase, “so full of shapes is fancy, / That it alone is high fantastical” (1.1.1415), an almost infinite multiplicity of desire that seems to be capable of containing, if only for a moment, the wishes of every character in the play, even Antonio's. This possibility is first realized when Viola decides to don the disguise of a eunuch and serve Orsino by speaking to him in “many sorts of music” (1.2.58). The phrase echoes the music that is Orsino's “food of love,” but also looks forward to the very different sorts of music or shapes of fancy, homosexual and heterosexual, that Viola will speak to both Olivia and Orsino, and which will be an important cause of the play's confusion.

This possibility becomes endemic uncertainty when the disguise and self-deception running rampant in Illyria, like the carnival masquerades of the solstitial celebration, manifest various levels of identity and potentially limitless prospects for human interaction. Like Malvolio, the characters in the main plot's love-triangle perform a specific identity not their own, in order to satisfy a specific desire. Viola does this consciously, while Olivia and Orsino, in their obsessive narcissism, do it unconsciously. Even Sebastian, in all his apparent innocence, has used the alias “Roderigo” for unknown reasons. For each of these characters, the outward or performative “self” is capable of splitting off from the inward “self” (a split that is not unlike Erikson's social and ego identities). For example, although Viola compliments the sea captain for having “a mind that suits with [his] fair and outward character” (1.2.50-51), only fourteen lines later she dons a disguise. We are told by Viola's captain that Orsino is “a noble duke, in nature as in name” (1.2.25), yet Orsino's plan to have Viola/Cesario “act [his] woes” (1.4.26) provides strong evidence that his woes are indeed an act, and that he is not what he appears. Olivia too, who “they say … hath abjured the company and sight of men” (1.2.40-41), nonetheless entertains the jokes of Feste and has clearly moved beyond her need to mourn, though she says otherwise.

It is significant that the characters in Twelfth Night acknowledge the falseness that is common to their society and the different levels of identity that are possible (personal and social, inward and outward, ontologically “fixed” and performative). Consistently, almost habitually, they express a conscious awareness “that nature with a beauteous wall / Doth oft close in pollution” (1.2.48-49). Although this was a commonplace of Renaissance, and specifically Shakespearean, speech, as in the “fair cruel” of the Sonnets, the language of Twelfth Night is charged with a distinctive anxiety about the potential for being deceived. For example, Olivia knows that one might easily be taken in by appearances, for the speeches of suitors are “like to be feigned” (1.5.196), and “the eye is too great a flatterer for the mind” (1.5.309). Olivia's visual fixations, indicative of her own narcissism, initially cause her to fall in love with Viola/Cesario (and later enable her to switch to Sebastian in Act 5 without a second thought). Perhaps it is because Olivia is self-conscious of her own falseness that she is so wary of it in others.

In her first meeting with Viola/Cesario, Olivia is almost obsessively aware of the possibility of outward deception, and she reveals her anxiety by asking an extraordinary number of questions regarding Viola/Cesario's identity and desire. Consider those asked in 1.5 alone:

“What is he at the gate?”; “A gentlemen? What gentleman?”; “What kind of man is he?”; “What manner of man?”; “Of what personage and years is he?”; “Your will?”; “Whence came you, sir?”; “Are you a comedian?”; “What are you? What would you?”; “What is your text?”; “Where lies your text?”; “Why, what would you?”; “What is your parentage?” (1.116-117, 119, 150, 152, 155, 169, 177, 182, 212-213, 220, 223, 268, 278)

Taken together, these questions sound like the ravings of a paranoid. Not only is Olivial suspicious of the suit from the count, but she is also skeptically enamored of Viola/Cesario. To be sure, Olivia's questions are part of a ritualized courtly flirtation that is a form of play. But they also represent a tremendous anxiety about the failure of play, or what can only be called reality. That is, if this young man with whom Olivia has fallen in love is something other than the person he seems, the result of courtship could be, by Elizabethan standards, quite disastrous.

Viola/Cesario, in her response to these questions, admits, “I am not what I am” (3.1.141), conceding openly, if ambiguously, that “what I am and what I would are as secret as maidenhead” (1.5.215-216). Despite her disguise, Viola/Cesario makes it quite clear that she “care[s] not who knows so much of [her] mettle” (3.4.272), and she takes few pains to keep her true identity hidden. Perhaps this is because, unlike any other character, she has the singular emotional unity of “one heart, one bosom, and one truth” (3.1.158) and a relatively strong sense of her own identity.19 Nevertheless, on finding that Olivia has fallen in love with her, Viola/Cesario realizes the great danger, for herself and for Olivia, that her falseness has created:

Disguise thou art a wickedness,
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
How will this fadge? My master loves her dearly,
And I (poor monster) fond as much on him
As she (mistaken) seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am a man,
My state is desperate for my master's love;
As I am woman—no alas the day!—
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe?
O time, thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me t'untie.


Despite Viola's own constancy, the “fantastical” possibilities of identity and desire, like Orsino's love, always “receiveth as the sea” (1.1.11) those who entertain them, and, like the sea, either embrace or engulf.20 Viola's “pregnant enemy” is the tragic possibility of identity crisis that Malvolio ultimately suffers. It is Malvolio who becomes the “poor monster” that Viola risks becoming but does not. Viola sees that in her disguise she has caused tremendous confusion of desire brought on by the confusion of identity. Because she does not know how this dilemma will “fadge,” she must trust the untangling of the confusion to time, or to the process of maturation, and hope that “Nature to her bias” (5.1.260) will untie the knot.

In this element of vulnerability, where mistakes create monsters and, as Feste says, “the wrong side may be turned outward” (3.1.13), that we can see perhaps the most important connection between the two plots, which is also the primary cause of the play's confusion: the problem of misplaced desire. In the main story, each of the characters is madly desirous of another, whom he or she cannot have, perhaps in a way similar to what Erikson called “overidentification.”21 Orsino desires Olivia, who desires Viola/Cesario, who desires Orsino (and even Antonio hopelessly desires Sebastian). Ultimately, Viola/Cesario is the only character whose original desires are satisfied; the others must compromise with alternatives. Still, except for Antonio, who in the final act seems to disappear from the story altogether, every character in the main story is satisfactorily re-paired, and thus repaired from the story's confusion and anxiety. For Malvolio, however, no such reparations are possible.22

We are obliged to ask, then, given the extreme narcissism of the other characters and the curiously hurried marriage arrangements in Act 5, whether Malvolio's malvoglio is essentially any different from the desires of the characters of the main story. Why is Malvolio's desire for his mistress so egregious if Olivia has, in pursuing Cesario, evinced few scruples about falling in love with servants? Olivia and Orsino, and arguably even Viola and Sebastian, are full of self-love; why is Malvolio “sick” with it? How authentic is the affection that narcissistic Orsino has for narcissistic Olivia, a woman whom he hardly knows and who has been ever so “constant” in her refusals? What about his sudden love for Viola/Cesario, whom he only recently thought to be merely a nice young man? Likewise, is the “love” Olivia easily transfers from Viola/Cesario to Sebastian born of real affection? Was this love ever anything more than a case of her eyes being “too great a flatterer for [her] mind?” And what about Sebastian's marriage to a perfect stranger? The final act of Twelfth Night elicits an unavoidable feeling that the unlikely, last-minute marriages and the somewhat abrupt conclusion of the play rely on a kind of fairytale artifice, while summarily dismissing these important questions.23 The vulnerabilities and tragic possibilities of Viola's, Sebastian's, Olivia's, and Orsino's quests for love and selfhood seem to have been displaced onto Malvolio, whose quests for the very same things are failed ones. His particular position of ambiguous authority, his own social inferiority, his faltering ego (perhaps his emerging modern “self,” divided and doubtful), all contribute to making him a very convenient scapegoat. For, ultimately, as the receptacle for the play's unwanted tragic potential, the Malvolio subplot makes comedy possible for the main plot.

Yet it is part of Shakespeare's genius in Twelfth Night to make this displacement incomplete, thereby linking plot and subplot even more closely. When in the final scene Malvolio declares, “I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” (5.1.378), we ought not take his meaning lightly. His true revenge, we might say, is his refusal to allow the main plot to be completely resolved before the end of the play. Having jailed the captain who aided Viola with her disguise and held her clothes in the interim, Malvolio keeps Viola from donning her “maiden weeds” (5.1.255) and thereby properly accepting Orsino as her husband. Moreover, Viola says to her brother, Sebastian, “Do not embrace me, till each circumstance, / Of place, time, fortune, do cohere and jump / That I am Viola” (5.1.2251-253). As long as Viola remains in disguise, the “misrule” of the main plot is never set straight.24 Of course, neither is the subplot. When Malvolio enters to announce the wrong that he believes Olivia has done him, she responds with the assurance that he will have justice; but this too must wait until she knows the “grounds and authors” (5.1.353) of the gulling. After Malvolio's angry exit, Orsino selfishly commands Fabian, “Pursue him, and entreat him to a peace; he hath not told us of the captain yet” (5.1.380-381). But neither Malvolio nor anyone else comes to finish the unfinished story.

If the characters of the main plot are fundamentally different from Malvolio, then, as we have seen, they also share much in common with him. There is no final marriage procession in Twelfth Night, as there are in most Shakespearean comedies, because under the circumstances, with a bride in men's clothing and a steward “notoriously abused,” none seems appropriate. The problem of Malvolio has become a problem for the characters of the main plot, and one they can solve only superficially. The underlying darkness of the play is finally, if ambiguously, played out by Feste, the last character on the stage. As the mediator between the play's two plots, Feste seems to be privileged with the wisdom that each plot holds for the other. Part of that wisdom, suggested by his name, is that the revelry and “misrule” of the Twelfth Night celebration are a natural and necessary part of life. From the perspective of modern psychology, we may add that experimentation and confusion are normal aspects of identity development. Feste's second and more ominous truth, however, is that “anything that's mended is but patched” (1.5.47-48): that although the comic fictions of life may conceal tragic possibility, they do not eliminate it. His final song, which comically describes the passage from boyhood into manhood, leaves the play with an ambivalence that points to King Lear, whose clown shares Feste's refrain.25 The concluding lines of the song are as abrupt and apparently unresolved as the play itself:

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


The lines sum up the play and its happy ending by dismissing them altogether. The banal send-off, like the too-convenient marriages, overtly covers over the ambiguous final status of the play's characters simply by ending the play. It is not Feste's theme, as some critics have argued,26 that the progress of life and the coming into “man's estate” (5.1.393) represent a mundane but reliable transition from milestone to milestone or a mere passing of time, but rather than drama, particularly comedy, makes life seem to be so by masking its pitfalls. Although the play's marriages represent the joining of three noble families and the restoration of patriarchal rule in Illyria, the disruptive anger of the steward remains. Thus, Feste's truth resonates: “anything that's mended is but patched.”

Stephen Greenblatt writes that “the form of the drama itself invites reflection upon the extent to which it is possible for one man to assume the identity of another” (219). Twelfth Night and its two plots not only invite such reflection, but they enact it, with only ambiguous conclusions. Such is the nature of identity. The steward's failed imposture of a noble count, and his failure to resolve his masculine identity, are contrasted to the successful identity experimentations of the main plot. However, Malvolio's failures are also analogous to the failure of the main plot to resolve itself completely; thus, they integrate plot and subplot and tie him to the whole structure of the play. For all his differences, he is as much the play's insider as he is its outsider. But he is still its outsider. The play's final word, then, is ultimately dependent upon Malvolio's final status, the valence and social significance assigned to his “difference.” The implications for a materialist analysis are perhaps too neatly apparent from a modern perspective: if the unchallenged aristocracy of the main plot remains unchallenged in a world without consequences, this is only a temporary repression of a dialectical inevitability. Yet, such inevitability is nowhere to be found in the play's text.27 Indeed, the meaning of dramatic non-resolution must not be found beyond the play but within it. In the same way, Twelfth Night must be understood not in terms of the ends of identity and desire, but in their processual struggle. “What you will” signifies many things, but it is also a question, and one whose answers lie inextricably between plot and subplot.


  1. Plautus's Menaechmi, also a probable source for The Comedy of Errors, and Gl' Ingannati, an early sixteenth-century Italian comedy of mistaken identity and surrogate courting, may have been well-known to Shakespeare. A likelier direct source is the English “historie” of “Apolonius and Silla” from Barnaby Riche's Farewell to the Military Profession (1581). Riche's tale, while more violent and bawdy than Shakespeare's version, similarly begins by unraveling the problems of mistaken identity and misplaced desire, only to sew them up again neatly with the reunion of twins and the celebration of a double marriage. See Bullough, 269-372. Israel Gollancz's preface to the 1894 Temple edition of Twelfth Night notes that in Il Sacrificio, the “poetical introduction” of Gl' Ingannati, there occurs the name “Malevolti,” which suggests the name “Malvolio.” However, beyond the nominal connection, there is no evidence that the later character is a substantive derivation. See Gollancz vi-vii.

  2. The word “tragedy” is used speculatively, but not casually. In Aristotelian terms, Malvolio might arguably have the necessary traits of a tragic hero. As the steward of a great noble household and the most trusted servant of its mistress, he has achieved a certain degree of glory and good fortune; most essentially, he is a man of some excellence and uprightness and quite free of baseness. His inadequacy or positive fault (harmartia) concerns his unresolved masculine identity, which is one of the primary subjects of this essay.

  3. See Malcomson 38, who argues that “the play veils and manipulates the rank of Malvolio. …”

  4. Cunnington 66; also the source of the Spenser and Massinger quotations. See also Gouws 478-479; and Hunt 282.

  5. We may be confident that Renaissance audiences recognized this to be true, in the same way, perhaps, that today we recognize—even stigmatize—the very difficult position of the butler, whose character, according to the time-honored adage of mystery novels, is the first to be impugned.

  6. On the treatment of servants in 17th and 18th C. aristocratic households, see Hainsworth 245.

  7. While the role of the household steward declined, that of the estate steward increased. With enclosure and industrialization, the larger noble estates became complicated organizations that required professional management. In the Seventeenth Century, the estate steward was a very powerful figure, while the household steward had become all but extinct and was replaced by the more butler-like majordomo, who wielded much less authority. See Hainsworth 10.

  8. Although there were women, often widows of some maturity, who successfully managed wealth and property during the Renaissance, a great noble household left in the hands of a young, unmarried woman, no matter how capable, signified a distinct disadvantage.

  9. I am indebted to Constance Jordan for helping me to understand the structural dynamics of the Renaissance household. See her Renaissance Feminism.

  10. Following Erikson, I will use this term to mean “loss of ego identity.” For a useful discussion of the early history of the expression, see Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis 16-19.

  11. See Childhood 219-234. While Erikson describes eight stages of ego development, my discussion concerns only three: Adolescence (Identity v. Role Diffusion); Young Adulthood (Intimacy v. Isolation); and Adulthood (Generativity v. Stagnation). The application of Erikson's work to identity formation in Shakespeare is well-developed in Coppélia Kahn's “The Providential Tempest and the Shakespearean Family,” in Man's Estate, 195-225. Although Kahn's work does not consider the Malvolio subplot, I am deeply indebted to her discussions of Twelfth Night, masculine identity in the Renaissance, and the identity theories of Erikson.

  12. See also Lichtenstein 193-195, and Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis 21-26.

  13. See Stone, Family 27; Laslett 12; and Kahn 12-17.

  14. See David Willbern's “Malvolio's Fall,” which considers “the steward's collision with the merrymakers, the nature of the damage he suffers, and its relevance to the general theme of festivity” (86).

  15. Olivia's association of Malvolio with her dowry is further evidence that she considers him to be a kind of temporary, substitute husband.

  16. For a contrary view, see Malcomson 45.

  17. See Mueschke and Fleisher 732-733: “The stage satire of the Puritans was as popular with theater audiences as the Puritans themselves were unpopular, and the occasional suggestion of a Puritanical bias in Malvolio's pretentious virtue added to the opportunities for satire and ridicule of the steward” (733).

  18. In Shakespeare, smiling almost always signifies deception in the smiler, and often leads to his demise. Compare Malvolio's fate with some of Shakespeare's other “smiling” characters: Hamlet's Claudius “O villain, villain, smiling damned villain” (1.5.106); the “smiling” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (2.2.332); Oswald, the “smiling rogue” of King Lear (2.2.79); and Timon's flattering lords, the “most smiling, smooth, detested parasites” (3.6.104).

  19. I agree with Fineman's argument that the main plot's “playfully designed chaos is only possible because the sex difference, the ‘little thing’ (3.4.282-283) Viola lacks, is secure, acknowledged, presumed” (82), and Barber's point that “when the normal is secure … playful aberration is benign” (245). However, as I have argued, there is little that is “normal” or “secure” about Olivia and her household at the time when she meets Viola/Cesario; likewise, from the play's beginning, Orsino's narcissism seems to have him perched at the edge of a pond grasping at a phantasm. Only Viola's singular unity lends benignity to the play's chaos. The chaos that is not so benign is that which leads Fineman to admit that “this is comedy, but comedy that knows worse than itself” (85).

  20. For an interesting recent discussion of Orsino's metaphors of engulfment and digestion, see René Girard 112-114.

  21. This is what C. L. Barber might have called an “inadequate object.” See 246-247.

  22. Perhaps this is because, unlike the apparent desires of the others, Malvolio's misplaced desire for Olivia, does not seem to be based in any real affection at all. Moreover, while the other characters mediate their desires through surrogates and equivocation, Malvolio expresses his overtly, in this way offending not only the decorum of courtly love, but also the rules of social status. While Orsino sends embassies of love, and Olivia gives Viola/Cesario a ring and Sebastian a pearl, Malvolio's material expressions of his affection, his cross-gartering and smiling, are not tokens of real love. Because they are not of his own invention but specifically prescribed by the gulling, they become fetishes or intended symbolic actions that finally have no symbolic content for Malvolio the lover.

  23. David Scott Kastan writes: “To call attention to the formal rather than the psychological justifications of [Twelfth Night's] conclusion … is not to find the ending either inadequate or ironic, but only to see it as it is: as a self-consciously improbable—though thoroughly desirable—resolution of loyalties and affections” (577). Valerie Traub also comments instructively: “Insofar as gender hierarchies seem to be both temporarily transgressed and formally reinstated, the question of subversion versus containment can only be resolved by crediting either the expense of dramatic energy or comedic closure” (120).

  24. See Willbern 89.

  25. Compare Feste's song,

    When that I was and-a little tiny boy,
              With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
    A foolish thing was but a toy,
                        For the rain it raineth every day.


    with the one King Lear's fool sings in the middle of the storm,

    He that has a tiny little wit,
                        With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
    Must make content with his fortunes fit,
                        Though the rain it raineth every day.

    (KL 3.2.74-77)

  26. Although Feste's song suggests various interpretations, I disagree with Barbara Everett's more conventional reading that “the theme of the song is, after all, simply growing up, accepting the principle that nights before have mornings after; that life consists in passing time, and in knowing it” (308). I prefer Coddin's reading of the song as one which “call[s] attention to the illusory nature of comic resolution …”: “The final line, ‘And we'll strive to please you everyday,’ is a reminder that playing itself, while trafficking in illusion, is historically embedded, materially reproducible in time and space, and thus vulnerable to ‘wind and rain,’ to the threats that escape closure,” 323. See also Kastan 578.

  27. Coddin argues that “Twelfth Night pointedly reinforces neither aristocratic nor anti-court values; rather, by exploding the kinds of social classifications propounded by contemporary critics into a multiplicity of slippery, contingent positions, the play subversively confounds holiday and history, festive ‘license’ and contestation,” 312.

Works Cited

Barber, C. L. Shakespeares Festive Comedies. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1959.

Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol II, The Comedies, 1597-1603. New York: Columbia UP, 1958.

Codden, Karin, S. “‘Slander in an Allowed Fool’: Twelfth Night's Crisis of the Aristocracy,” SEL: 1500-1900 [Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900] 33 (1993): 309-325.

Cunnington, Phillis. Costume of Household Servants from the Middle Ages to 1900. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1974.

Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society. New York: Norton, 1974.

———. “Ego Development and Historical Change.” Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: International Universities Press, 1959.

———. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton, 1968.

Everett, Barbara. “Or What You Will.” Essays in Criticism: A Quarterly Journal of Literary Criticism, 35 (1985): 294-314.

Fineman, Joel. “Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles.” Representing Shakespeare. Ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980: 70-109.

Freud, Sigmund. “Family Romances” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 9. Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1959.

———. The Interpretation of Dreams, Standard Edition, Vol. 5. Girard, René. “'Tis Not So Sweet Now As It Was Before’: Orsino and Olivia in Twelfth Night,” in A Theater of Envy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991: 112-120.

Gollancz, Israel. Preface to the Temple edition of Twelfth Night. 1894. London: Dent, 1923.

Gouws, John. “Dressing Malvolio for the Part,” Notes and Queries, (1991): 478-479.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture.” Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts. Ed. Patricia Parker and David Quint. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986, 210-224.

Hainsworth, D. R.. Stewards, Lords, and People: The Estate Steward and His World in Later Stuart England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Hill, Christopher. Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England. London: Secker and Warburg, 1964.

Hunt, Maurice. “Malvolio, Viola, and the Question of Instrumentality in Twelfth Night,Studies in Philology, 90 (1993): 277-297.

Jordan, Constance. Renaissance Feminism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Kahn, Coppélia. Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare. Berkeley: U of California P, 1981.

Laslett, Peter. The World We Have Lost: England Before the Industrial Age. New York: Scribner, 1971.

Lichtenstein, Heinze. “The Dilemma of Human Identity: Notes on Self-Transformation, Self-Objectivation and Metamorphosis.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, (1963): 173-223.

Malcolmson, Cristina. “‘What You Will’: Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night.The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ed. Valerie Wayne. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.

Mueschke, Paul and Jeannette Fleisher. “Jonsonian Elements in the Comic Underplot of Twelfth Night.PMLA, 36 (1933): 722-740.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton, 1974.

Spencer, Edmund. The Faerie Queen. Ed. Lillian Vinstanley. Cambridge: UP, 1924.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. New York: Harper, 1978.

Traub, Valerie. Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Wilbern, David. “Malvolio's Fall,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 59 (1978): 85-90.

Marcus Cheng Chye Tan (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Tan, Marcus Cheng Chye. “‘Here I Am … Yet Cannot Hold This Visible Shape’: The Music of Gender in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.Comitatus 32 (2001): 99-125.

[In the following essay, Tan discusses the relationship of music to Twelfth Night's theme of sexual ambivalence.]


Taken as Shakespeare's farewell to romantic comedy and written around the same time as Hamlet, Twelfth Night presents a high comedy of elusive complexity that preempts the problem plays. Contesting a “universal consent [that] the very height of gay comedy is attained in Twelfth Night,1 modern critics note that Twelfth Night possesses “darker” features of the problem plays but, as C. L. Barber suggests in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, the play manages to restore the festive through its comic resolution,2 affirming what Jonathan Dollimore terms “the telos of harmonic integration.”3

Elements of “dark tragedy” constantly complicate the “sunny identity of spirit.”4 The gulling of Malvolio is often seen by modern sensibilities as an excessively cruel prank passing into the domain of sadism. The latter's ignored plea for help while locked in the dark room, exacerbated by Feste's cruel taunting, becomes a comic joke that proves excessive for the audience.5 In addition, Orsino's unsettling “murderous” rage and Viola's swooning acceptance of a love death cause the play to “walk the edge of violence”6 till the arrival of Sebastian in Act V. Malvolio's unresolved vow of vengeance (V.i.376),7 sworn after the union of the lovers, threatens a newly established harmony, prompting the audience to speculate on his possible return, which could turn comedy into tragedy. Consequently, Harold Bloom asserts that “Twelfth Night is of no genre.”8 The play possesses a generic elusiveness that, like the problem plays, superficially adopts a comic genre but constantly threatens to metamorphose into a tragedy, suggesting that “the whole bright revel emerges from shadow.”9

Twelfth Night also plays about with hermeneutics.10 As Bloom observes, “[the play is] another “poem unlimited.” One cannot get to the end of it, because even some of the most apparently incidental lines reverberate infinitely.”11 Generic uncertainty and the interpretive “reverberations” of the text plunge both literary and performance critics into a crisis of hermeneutic subjectivity echoed in Twelfth Night's secondary title, What You Will. Such an irresolute title playfully jests at hermeneutics, freeing interpretation of the play from the stipulations of its title and flippantly reducing “what it is” to “what you want it to be.”

The multiplicities resultant from varying interpretations of the text contribute to this highly unstable nature of Twelfth Night. Laurie E. Osborne's seminal study of the various performance editions of Twelfth Night proves that the dramatic text is constantly subjected to historically specific tastes. Her work demonstrates how we must avoid “the trick of singularity” (II.v.151), dispelling the myth of a singular text and realising the presence of multiple texts of Twelfth Night.12 Davies echoes this elusive multiplicity when he remarks that “Twelfth Night contains multitudinous Twelfth Nights and the dormant seeds of many more, whether generated by a producer's singular comprehensive reading of the text or the nuanced particularities of the actors' voices.”13

Considering Twelfth Night in performance, Michael Billington believes that this is among the hardest of Shakespearean plays to stage because of its “kaleidoscopic range of moods,”14 from melancholia to drunken revelry, high-strung tension to joyous sadness. In performance, “elusiveness” takes on a different definition. Unlike other Shakespearean plays where temporal location is either “real” (such as in the history plays) or “fantastic” (as in The Tempest), Illyria is at once both. Its dreamlike environment presents difficulties in achieving verisimilitude on the stage.15 Furthermore, the manifold possibilities of staging the “‘darker” and complex elements, such as those mentioned, can disclose directorial bias and effect particularised impressions of character. Malvolio can become the Puritan Shylock or an oppressed victim. The trickery of physical allure between the infatuated lovers can metamorphose into a homoerotic attraction just as the homosocial bond between Antonio and Sebastian proves susceptible to varying interpretations. These possibilities demonstrate, in congruence with Osborne and Davies's observations, Twelfth Night's elusive and unstable nature both as text and in performance.

Perhaps the most salient reason for Twelfth Night's elusive nature lies in the difficulty of striking a balance between the play's light and dark aspects. In its stage history, few directors have managed to evoke what Stanley Wells terms “the transmuting alchemy”—that which unlocks both the play's ambivalent darkness and resonant comedy.16 This dialectical duality of “ambivalent darkness” and “resonant comedy” is not merely resultant from emplotment and dramatic staging. Music also contributes to this elusive nature of Twelfth Night because it eludes any attempts at an understanding of its aesthetics. Twelfth Night becomes a play that, like music, can communicate simultaneously joy and sadness, festive revelry and a deep-rooted melancholy, and so share a common feature of elusiveness. It is perhaps this pervasive presence of music that accentuates the elusive quality of Twelfth Night.


Jean-Pierre Barricelli, in Melopoiesis, observes that Shakespearean plays are “verbal” dramas which transmogrify into “musical” dramas at pivotal interstices in the text.17 This is certainly true of Twelfth Night, where music permeates the play and is tightly interwoven into the dramatic structure and thematic concerns such as love, gender, and time. As Davies observes, “Twelfth Night is all music.”18 It begins, ends and progresses with music, not solely via its quintessential songs but “the melodious recitative of its language,”19 where the verse structure becomes “musical” in form.20

It is by virtue of this musical quality that Twelfth Night has an unsettling elusiveness, a “peculiar sweet sadness,”21 possessing both a spirit of revelry and a pervasive melancholia. Barbara Everett encapsulates this ambiguity when she states that,

Twelfth Night is itself an elusive work, which—perhaps because of this quality of ‘musicality’ or aesthetic self-consistency, an expressive reticence, seems to resist critic's attempts to explain or define or even describe the work as a whole, to say how or why it succeeds and why we value and admire it so.22

Twelfth Night's elusiveness and resistance to critical placement resembles music's elusive nature. Music is “a supreme mystery of the science of man”23 whose inner spirit cannot be easily expressed through language. It is that “which we cannot define in words, or include in any category of thought … a language we speak and understand, but which we are unable to translate.”24 The central dichotomies in musicology and music criticism remain: can music be described adequately by language and is music a “language” in itself? If it is a language system, what it expresses or communicates is ambiguous. Perhaps music will remain perpetually enigmatic and ineffable, just as Twelfth Night proves to be elusive because of this pervasive presence of music.


The difficulties encountered in the discussion of an aesthetics of music amidst the disputations of its nature has confined scholarship in Shakespearean music, and in particular, music in Twelfth Night, to a discursive consideration. Canonical works such as those by John H. Long,25 Richmond Noble26 and Peter J. Seng27 approach music as an idea or theme in the play to evade the hazardous terrain of musical aesthetics. By investigating the lyrical content and contextualization of each song, these works engage music in Twelfth Night as a prevailing thematic concern, and regard it as a conventional adjunct to the dramatic action whose primary function lies in the establishment of mood and atmosphere. Despite their importance in the field of Shakespearean music scholarship, such studies have seldom considered the performative aspects of music or music's musicality, treating it discursively and thematically whilst establishing the historical justification and contextualization of the musical texts. Furthermore, music's contributory role to the elusive and problematic nature of this comedy has not been explored.

As an alternative parameter to the thematic understanding of music (and its functions) in Twelfth Night, this paper seeks to understand music as performative, through an analysis of the songs in the play, and hopes to prove that Twelfth Night's elusive quality is accentuated by the frequency and prevalence of music. A framework of musicological analysis will be employed, through an examination of the music's formal dimensions such as notational sequencing, major-minor contradistinctions, harmony, rhythm, and other properties to show how music, when heard and understood as performative, can modulate responses to the play.

Like a dramatic performance, music varies with nuances in every performance, yielding a diverse range of responses despite an “authoritative” score. Thence, there is no absolute meaning in a piece of music yet an analysis of music's musicality renders a range of possible meanings delimited within the boundaries scripted in the score. These meanings are never arbitrary for the arrangement of an ensemble of notes with its dynamic properties indicates a specific range of particular responses. Meaning in music is then a tonal range of possible responses. This range remains intrinsic to the song despite possible stylistic variations and interpretations.


There is critical consensus in scholarship on Twelfth Night that issues of gender contribute to Twelfth Night's darker tonality. In the play, disguise causes gender confusion that further leads to suggestions of homoerotic love. As Casey Charles observes, “Twelfth Night is centrally concerned with demonstrating the uncategorical temper of sexual attraction.”28 These ever-present “dark” suggestions of homoeroticism and “ambi-sexuality” not only subvert the harmonious order in Illyria but produce the elusive nature of the play.

Shakespearean comedy constantly appeals to the body and in particular to sexuality as the heart of its theatrical magic.29 Cross-dressing, as a central leitmotif in issues of gender, is employed in several comedies and best exemplified in Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night is arguably about bisexuality and the fashioning of gender.30 Exhaustive studies have been done in relation to disguise, transvestism and mimesis leading to notions of androgyny and homoeroticism in the play. The following discussion thus seeks to illuminate the ways in which music contributes to this nexus of issues on gender explored by preceding scholarship.

Illusionism that leads to ambiguity is the very substance of the theatrical experience in Twelfth Night, where Viola embodies this ambiguity effected through the illusion of disguise. On the Shakespearean stage, the double cross-dressing convention (boy playing girl disguised as man) complicates gender relations on the dramatic and meta-dramatic levels. The issue of an artistically licensed homoeroticism effected through stage transvestism becomes then a central problematic in Twelfth Night.

On stage, the three contingent dimensions of Viola/Cesario's corporeality, her physiological sex as a boy actor, her gender identity in the drama as a woman, and her gender performance as Cesario, encourage the audience to view him/her as a sexually enticing qua transvestized boy.31 Because her gender is consistently the ulterior topic of conversation when she is present (I.v.185, I.v.158-161, III.i.143), the audience's eyes are invited to dwell upon the actor's body as a pretty boy, inadvertently stimulating homoerotic desire. Her/his multiple-disguised presence triggers an attraction in both genders, within the fiction of Illyria and the non-fiction of an Elizabethan audience. Furthermore, pederastic intimations between Antonio and Sebastian invite further speculation of same-sex love in Twelfth Night.32

Homoeroticism on the Renaissance stage was neither misogynist nor confined to men. Lesbianism was also a common feature as Valerie Traub shows.33 The stage articulated a discourse of desires and acts that can be articulated and correlated with our modern understanding of diverse erotic practices among women. At the narrative level, the romantic discourse in Twelfth Night is improperly addressed by a woman disguised as a young man to another woman and vice versa (from Olivia to Viola/Cesario). At the performative level, it is still improperly addressed from one boy in boy's costume to another boy cross-dressed as a woman. “The proper axis of desire is thus crisscrossed by improper ones.”34

Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much […]
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 sighs shall poor Olivia breathe?

(II.ii.26-27, 33-38)

Viola's articulation of anxiety has implicitly served as a summation of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century attitudes toward transvestism and homoeroticism.35 Cross-dressing is presented as wicked while homoerotic desire is implicitly monstrous. The pregnancy of disguise threatens to deliver an apocalyptic disruption of a normative social order based upon strict principles of hierarchy and subordination, not only in Illyria but in a conservative English society.36 Anti-theatricalists and religious authorities charged the playhouse as a “Venus Palace,”37 a place of erotic arousal that promoted sodomitical practices among theatergoers and encouraged such behavior and effeminacy in the general population.


Homoeroticism has, in scholarship on Twelfth Night, been the central focus of gender issues in the play. However, recent critics such as Rackin38 and Greenblatt have considered the problematics of androgyny, implied by Viola's disguises, as the pivotal agency of Twelfth Night's double tonality. Music, in performance, is a dramaturgical device that can modulate our understanding of these concerns of androgyny. By being a unique performative discourse alongside the visual and verbal lines of action, the songs in Twelfth Night augment the visual cross-dressing (physical presence and costume) and gender (con)fusion that results.

Music is, as Susan McClary notes, “shaped by constructions of gender and sexuality.”39 In most dramatic music, there exist musical utterances inflected on the basis of gender. The rise of opera in the seventeenth century saw the birth of a musical semiotics of gender—“a set of conventions for constructing “masculinity” and “femininity” in music.”40 Such codes of gender differences are informed by prevalent attitudes of the time, for instance in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, music was regarded as a predominantly male occupation.

These attitudes toward gender and music were inherited from the misogynist ideas of the classical poets and philosophers. Females who undertook music studies or performance were cast as vile and contemptible, unless they were of the highest social classes. This attitude was prevalent because music was considered a representative of the destructive power of feminine sexuality that needed to be disciplined.41 Music is then, as McClary points out, a gendered discourse rooted in social attitudes concerning gender. Musical semiotics can thus tell us as much about the actual music as it can suggest how particular pitches and rhythms, as opposed to others, can delineate gender.

“O Mistress Mine” is among the more popular songs of the play. Although this song is not “gendered” in any deliberate compositional way as the operas of Cavalli were, an understanding of its formal arrangement can possibly suggest the androgynous nature of cross-dressed Viola/Cesario. The song, however, is not sung by Viola/Cesario but by Feste. In its dramatic context, the song, sung as a “love song” (II.iii.38), garners its affective power through irony, for Feste sings seemingly without realising its implications. The audience is, conversely, made aware of not merely the thematics of the song but the musical qualities (and their possible extra-musical connotations) because it is performed. The sub-plot thus comments on the main plot in an intersection of lines of actions (as Trevor Nunn's production demonstrates).

In Thomas Morley's instrumental arrangement for viols (1599), “O Mistress Mine” is set to the key of G.42 Although there is inconclusiveness over the versions Shakespeare employed in his stage productions, there is general consensus that Morley's arrangement, later adapted and varied by William Byrd (ca. 1619), was probably used.43

The G major scale lies “in-between” in the Western harmonic scale of seven major tones in a single octave. In Naylor's version, the song is set to F major, a note whose placement is exactly mid-point in the notational sequence beginning in C.44 Likewise, Andrew Charlton's arrangement sets the song in F major while retaining Morley's original tune.45 Both keys are suggestive of an in-betweenness that could be associated with the gendered “middleness” of androgyny. Hollander suggests that this song directs attention to the overall themes and individual characters, and in particular refers to Viola/Cesario, “the boy-girl true love, ‘that can sing both high and low.’”46

The harmony of the song implies the androgynous nature of Viola as well.47 Morley's settings employ the entire notational range within the octave of G major, beginning with the tonic which ascends an entire scale degree and returns back. The aural patterning of this sequence at once reveals a range of ascending and descending notes indicative of Viola's “high and low” vocal abilities. The almost equal number of downward and upward staves suggests the high and low tonal movements, further indicating the range required in the performance of the song. The singer's ability is challenged by the range—from the VI of the lower degree (lower E in measures 12 and 18) to XIII of the tonic (higher G in measures 10 and 16). High ascending notes have often been associated, in traditional musicology, with higher voices of “the maiden's organ,” whose “small pipes” are “shrill and sound,” and are “semblative of a woman's part” (I.v.32-34). Conversely, lower bass notes of “deep and dreadful organpipe[s]” (The Tempest III.iii.98) are often attributed to the masculine persona. Viola's ability to sing both these ranges, according to Feste, reinforces her dual-gender effected through disguise.

The boy-actor playing Viola (though he does not sing this song) meta-dramatically reinforces this androgynous notion since his pubertal voice lies in-between the shrill “maiden's organs” and the bass “organpipes.” His range and vocal quality would then have resembled the countertenors or male sopranos of the Baroque era.48 “O Mistress Mine” performed by countertenor Alfred Deller of the Deller consort is one such example. The pubertal youth who is “[n]ot yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy” (I.v.158)—a description of Cesario by Malvolio—is then most fitting to portray an androgynous Viola/Cesario. Like the latter, the youth is ambivalent in gender identity and orientation as he embodies a “pre-sexual androgynous youthfulness.”49

“O Mistress Mine,” though not sung in the presence of the androgynous figure, recalls Viola/Cesario's ambi-sexuality as it musically fuses, in an embodied whole of the androgyne, what s/he still considers as dual genders in her/his “poor monster” soliloquy in II.ii. The dramatic irony arises because the song actualises her fears of metamorphosing into an unnatural monstrosity. As a distinctive action in performance, “O Mistress Mine” enhances the visual action of stage transvestism effected through costume and the boy-actor. The tune actualises the notions of androgyny and creates performatively, via an aural experience, the figure of the androgyne because the song's “high and low” tonalities are sung by (and embodied in) the same person. The binary oppositions found in the visual text of costume-change (where gender cannot be “fused” because it is still constructed [and reconstructed] as a superficial switch of clothing) are dissolved in the harmonics of the tune sung by the pubescent youth. The matrix of experience resultant from the conjunction of the verbal text, visual action and aural harmony creates then the notion of androgyny.

In Trevor Nunn's filmic adaptation, composer Shaun Davey exploits this androgynous possibility of “O Mistress Mine” by having the twins disguised as look-alike girls and singing this tune in unison. Davey's cabaret-style adaptation of the folk song provides a different tune in C major but resonates with Morley's melody and tempo. By having the twins sing together, beginning on a middle-C, Davey accentuates the ambivalent gender of the twins for this is a note that plays “mid-way” and can be sung by both males and females. Sebastian sings in falsetto through much of the song but resumes his masculine tenor and descends to a low G when the lyric indicates “both high and low,” demonstrating how musical range can determine or disguise gender.

In Morley's arrangement, Viola/Cesario's androgynous identity is reinforced further with the song's conclusion on a perfect cadence. In the final measure, the chord of the dominant returns to the tonic, implying not just finality but reasserting the “middleness” of androgyny. This perfect cadence, keeping firmly within the harmonic framework, correlates with Rene Fortin's belief that Viola, in her bisexuality, embodies the myth of the androgyne.50 In Neoplatonic tradition, the androgyne was associated with an ideal prelapsarian perfection.51 This perfect figure exemplifies the “primordial totality of being,”52 embodying and displaying the strengths of both sexes, and representing “the ultimate harmony with which the individual might be endowed.”53

Yet the androgyne is “terrifying and seductive precisely because s/he incarnates and emblematizes the disruptive element, signaling not just another category crisis, but—much more disquietingly—a crisis of “‘category” itself.”54 In II.ii, Viola recognizes her state as “poor monster,” a Renaissance appellation reserved for unnatural prodigies. Her androgynous fusion deepens the sense of indeterminacy characteristic of the play itself. As Davies notes,

Shakespeare's cryptic use of the boy-actor playing the girl-boy heroine goes further than mere reversal: it extends female characterisation into a realm which confounds sex-differentiation.55

Viola/Cesario's sexual “ambi-valence,” in Jungian terms, “fuses both gender-polarities, animus and anima, in a transgressive wholeness […] by trespassing over the borders of what society constructs as ‘male’ and ‘female’ behaviour.”56 Although Barber believes that the saturnalian reversal of sexual roles does not threaten the social structure but serves instead to consolidate it,57 the threat posed by transvestism, leading to an ambiguous sexual existence that incites potential homosexual impropriety, causes the play to walk the edge of chaos where social and sexual perimeters are violated. Sexual identity becomes a “performance,” readily transformable by the clothes one wears. Such was the idea antitheatricalists of the Renaissance feared most—a fluidity of gender and the resultant licentiousness. The music of “O Mistress Mine” likewise blurs the distinctions between masculine and feminine. “The homoerotic shades into the heterosexual”58 as they both sing a common tune. Music, via its formal qualities in performance, accentuates as it embodies the themes of sexual ambivalence.


The drunken revel songs in II.iii stand in contrast to the “androgynous” love tune of “O Mistress Mine” as they create a homosocial ethos. In As You Like It, the masculine courtly ritual of hunting ends with a catch (IV.iii.10-19). The hunt and catch become significant masculine activities that reverberate with a homosocial cadence. The image set before us, in performance, is a bond of masculinity where the men move in a circle after killing the deer, rejoicing in a catch that can repeat itself ad infinitum. This motional and musical circle ostracises the women who become “only a ghostly presence.”59

Such a masculine ritual is repeated in the catches of Sir Toby and companions as Maria is significantly left out of the singing though she is physically present. Although many stage (and filmic) productions have interpreted Maria's role as complicit in (and co-opted into) the festivity which gives cause for Malvolio's reprimand, the dramatic text remains silent on her role in this misrule. She can thus be interpreted as a silent associate of the merry drunks or as an ostracised other.

The catches together exude an abrupt male persona with short unison passages and common stresses on the downbeats, especially in the example of “Hold Thy Peace.”60 The dotted figures, accompanied by several quavers and semi-quavers of generally low notes (measures 1-3), create an aggressive downbeat that leads the song into subsequent rounds while creating the whirligig of motion, hence occasioning its ad inifinitum characteristic.

Though a common “cake and ale” (II.iii.115) tune, “Three Merry Men Be We”61 reinforces via its lyrics the visual performance of three men prancing around in a circle of drunken merriment, exemplified in Kenneth Branagh's 1991 production of Twelfth Night. The rise in tone (measures 1, 3 and 7) expresses, as Cooke propounds, “an outgoing emotion.”62 Like “Hold Thy Peace,” the major mode (here in B-flat major) evokes an emotion of joy and pleasure. Such an association of mode and emotion has long been exploited in Western music. The major modes of these songs, then, create a mood of festive revelry that balances the minor modes of ambiguity and melancholy felt in other songs such as “Come Away, Come Away Death” and “Hey, Robin, Jolly Robin.”63

Tonal mode is also a marker of gender. Eighteenth-century theorist Georg Andreas Sorge explained the hierarchical distinction between major and minor triads in terms he regarded as both natural and God-given—the respective powers of male and female:

Just as in the universe there has always been created a creature more splendid and perfect than the others of God, we observe exactly this also in musical harmony … the first (major triad) can be likened to the male, the second (minor triad) to the female sex.64

Arnold Schoenberg's Theory of Harmony (1911) resonates with Sorge's ideas. The major mode, considered as masculine, was “natural” while the minor mode, in its association with femininity, was regarded as “unnatural.”

In traditional, pre-feminist Western musicology, cadence was an important marker of gender. A cadence is called “masculine” if the final chord of a phrase or section occurs on the strong beat and “feminine” if it is postponed to fall on a weak beat. Hence, the masculine ending is identified as the objective and rationale of musical discourses while the feminine is preferred in more romantic styles.65 Such a definition is bound in a binary opposition that associates strength with masculinity and normalcy, and weakness with femininity and abnormality. In “Three Merry Men Be We” and “There Dwelt a Man in Babylon,”66 the cadences fall on the strong beat (first beat in “tree” of “Three Merry Men Be We” and fourth beat in “la-dy” of “There Dwelt a Man in Babylon”).67 Although it is arguable that the songs were never completed and sung only in abstract, they nevertheless, in composition, seem to reinforce a masculine solidarity characteristic of such drinking songs.

Grout notes that these rounds were often accompanied with humorous and ribald texts sung unaccompanied by a convivial group, usually of men because of its lewd content.68 According to Seng, such catches and drinking songs were popular in the sixteenth century and the male audience would have easily recognised them and participated in the singing. The drinking songs then intensify a homosocial ethos, characteristic of Renaissance patriarchy, that merges performance and reality as both audience and characters partake of this masculine ritual.

The drinking songs become more significant because their dramatic placement, following “O Mistress Mine,” undoes the fearful androgynous transgression suggested by the harmonies of the love song. Such a reading of sexual tensions becomes possible when we note how readily Sir Toby shifts focus away from the love tune to the catches (II.iii.57-61). The emphatic masculinity evoked by these catches, though it can be seen as an excess of revelry that leads to disorder in Olivia's household, re-establishes the social system of patriarchy.

Malvolio's interruption gives cause for antagonism in both audience and characters for he disrupts a moment of masculine bonding. Despite legitimately exercising his stewardship, Malvolio is cast as a “Shylockian other” (and possibly a “feminine other” since he disrupts what is considered a virile pursuit) that needs to be expelled. Ironically, another catch (“Farewell Dear Heart”) is used to banish the Puritan steward in an exclusionary manner just as the rounds in As You Like It exclude the feminine “other(s).”


Love is an important aspect in discussions of gender. The Renaissance, inheriting many Neoplatonic ideas, considered music to be intimately connected with love. Thomas Morley (1597) adopted the Platonic definition of music as “a science of love matters occupied in harmonie and rhythmos”69 while Thomas Ravenscroft (1614) notes that music can truly express the universal passion of love and that the power of love may teach a man music. The opening lines of Twelfth Night readily establish this relationship between music and emotion, where “music [is] the food of love” (I.i.1). Although Long notes that this music is one that feeds Orsino's melancholia,70 it can perhaps be seen as a measure by which the latter learns to love and to await his “true love” (II.iii.41).

Love and music are thus considered as “twin themes” in Twelfth Night. As Lynn Liptak Budd notes, “[m]usic is more than a tool of courtship in this play. It is an active ingredient in and metaphor for love itself and for love's frustrations.”71 Much of the incidental (instrumental) music in Twelfth Night then, functions to create an atmosphere of romance (e.g., I.i, II.iv).

“Come Away, Come Away Death,” however, serves to problematize the notion of love in Twelfth Night as noted by critics. This scene (II.iv) is “the emotional heart of the play” and exemplifies the play's “elusive” quality with its shifting and bittersweet mood occasioned by music.72 The song is extravagant and almost parodic of the theme of death from unrequited love. It is unusual that Orsino would find such a song “reliev[ing] [his] passion much” (II.iv.4) since the lyrics propound a hopeless love that ends in death. Davies notes that the song contributes to the atmosphere of melancholy with its “peculiar sweet sadness”73 and feeds Orsino's love-sickness which is now protracted to extremes.

Although the settings of the original song have been lost, Long has attempted to reconstruct the tune by adapting a traditional Elizabethan tune entitled “Heart's ease.”74 Set in the key of B flat major, the song revels in the minor mode, producing a dark tonality that shades the play as well. The predominance of G minor chords (measures 1, 3, 7 etc), together with other minor chords within the diatonic scale (C minor in measures 9 and 10) darkens the modality of the moment. Following a time signature of 6/8, the downbeats (first and fourth beats) constantly articulate the fatalistic sense of the lyrics (e.g. “death” in measure 3, “slain” in measure 7, “‘cruel” in measure 8, “death” in measure 13), accentuating the dark nature of the song. Charlton's adaptation set in F major, a copy of Long's with minor variations, permits the minor mode (G minor and D minor) to prevail over the major as well.75

Musicologists have theorized the affective power of the minor mode in Western music and queried its frequent association with negative emotions. Leonard Meyer postulates the nature of the mode's chromatic potentiality as a possible explanation. Chromaticism possesses ambiguity not only because “chromatic alterations delay or block the expected motion to the normal diatonic tone” but also because a persistent “uniformity of progression” tends to create ambiguity and general tonal instability.76 Peter Kivy explains the power of the minor from a historical perspective, purporting that contentment and joy, among other “resolved” states of feeling, have historically come to be associated with the stable diatonic harmonies of the major mode. Conversely, extreme states have become associated with the “more forceful departures of chromaticism and its modal representative, that is, the minor mode.”77

The tune which is traditionally used for “Gone Away Death” not only darkens the tonality of the play by its musicality but punctuates the dramatic action by its contextual placement as well. It demonstrates the shifting moods, within a single scene, created by music—from the “light airs” (II.iv.5) heard the night before to Feste's melancholic tune. The song precedes Viola/Ceasario's passionate address on love sitting like “Patience on a monument” (II.iv.115). Ironic undertones arise because Orsino fails to realize that it is not his “death” that has been sung but Viola's “death” through her imaginary sister's love.78 Furthermore, in seeking to escape death by demanding the continued pursuit of Olivia's love, Orsino realizes his own “death” by sending his true love away. The song's foreboding melancholy is felt by Viola as well since she realizes that she too, could go to her grave without being able to declare her love. The powerful effect of the song then ironizes Orsino's claim that it is “old and plain” (II.iv.43), sung by common folk about the innocence of love.

“Hey, Robin, Jolly Robin” likewise ironizes its ostensible function via its musicality. Seng notes that the song is used mockingly by Feste to taunt Malvolio, who believes that his lover Olivia loves not him but another—Viola. Though the song may be addressed specifically to Malvolio, it also applies to Viola and Orsino's situation as well since they all share in the knot of confused love.

William Cornyshe's composition (ca. 1485-ca.1523), creates, however, not a tone of mockery (or “jolly-ness”) but of melancholic sadness, particularly because of the use of the Dorian mode where the song is transposed up by a fourth.79 Like “Come Away, Come Away Death,” the song's minor modality predominates yet again (G minor). Fox-Good notes that the minor quality of the initiating G minor chord emerges more clearly because of the entrance of the second and third voices.80 Feste's solitary singing however, heightens the isolation felt not only by Malvolio but perhaps by Feste too since he is the only character not scripted to love another. Furthermore, the singing of fragments from the song without resolutions or cadences amplifies uncertainty.81 Thus, the song's peculiar and affecting melancholy awakens in us a sense of loneliness, sitting like “Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief” (II.iv.115-116)—a grief that clouds the sunny spirit of Twelfth Night.

The songs in Twelfth Night mediate the issue of gender relations and the dissolution of gender categories as they operate within the dialectics of gender. Music's ambiguous nature compels the understanding of such gender distinctions as possibilities rather than absolutes. It can at once delineate masculinity or androgyny or neither, thus exemplifying music's elusive nature. Likewise, music is not only “the food of love” but it exposes love's problematic nature and deep-seated melancholy, thereby creating a double tonality within the play.


  1. Richmond Noble, Shakespeare's Use of Song (Oxford 1923) 80.

  2. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton 1959) 256-258.

  3. Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (Chicago 1984) 58.

  4. Furness notes that these remarks from A. C. Swinburne's A Study of Shakespeare readily summed up the nineteenth-century feeling about Twelfth Night (Twelfth Night, or What You Will, ed. Horace Howard Furness [Philadelphia and London 1901] 386). See the introduction by J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik to the Arden edition of Twelfth Night (1975; London 1988) lii.

  5. Ralph Berry, “‘Twelfth Night’: The Experience of the Audience,” Shakespeare Survey 34 (1981) 112.

  6. Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York 1990) 234.

  7. All quotes are taken from the Arden edition of Twelfth Night (n. 4 above).

  8. Bloom (n. 6 above) 227.

  9. Barber (n. 2 above) 259.

  10. Stevie Davies, Shakespeare: Twelfth Night (England: Penguin Books, 1993), xv.

  11. Bloom (n. 6 above) 227.

  12. See Laurie E. Osborne, The Trick of Singularity: Twelfth Night and the Performance Editions (Iowa 1996).

  13. Davies (n. 10 above) x-xi.

  14. Michael Billington, ed., RSC Director's Shakespeare: Approaches to Twelfth Night (London 1990) ix.

  15. See Billington (n. 14 above) 8-11 for a discussion on Illyria between four RSC directors.

  16. Quote taken from Billington (n. 14 above) xxx.

  17. Jean-Pierre Barricelli, Melopoiesis: Approaches to the Study of Literature and Music (New York 1988) 206.

  18. Davies (n. 10 above) 36.

  19. Ibid.

  20. For a detailed discussion on the musicality of verse, see Davies (n. 10 above) 34-61.

  21. Peter J. Seng, The Vocal Songs in the Plays of Shakespeare: A Critical History (Cambridge 1967) 106.

  22. Barbara Everett, “Or What You Will,” Essays in Criticism 35.4 (1985) 300.

  23. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked (London 1970) 18.

  24. Eduard Hanslick, The Beautiful in Music (New York 1974) 71.

  25. John H. Long, Shakespeare's Use of Music: A Study of Music in its Performance in the Original Production of Seven Comedies (Gainesville 1955).

  26. See n. 1 above.

  27. See n. 21 above.

  28. Casey Charles, “Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night.Theatre Journal 49 (1997) 121.

  29. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations (Oxford 1988) 86.

  30. Charles (n. 28 above) 121-124.

  31. See Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton 1983) 31. See also Charles (n. 28 above) 130.

  32. See Joseph Pequigney, “The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice,English Literary Renaissance 22 (1992) 201-209, for a further explication of the homoeroticism between Antonio and Sebastian.

  33. Valerie Traub, “Lesbian Desire in Early Modern England” in Susan Zimmerman, ed., Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage (New York 1992) 150-169.

  34. Jonathan Crewe, “In the Field of Dreams: Transvestism in Twelfth Night and The Crying Game,Representations 50 (1995) 101-121.

  35. See Traub (n. 33 above) 157.

  36. Jean E. Howard, “Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England,” Shakespeare Quarterly 29.1 (1988) 418.

  37. Greenblatt (n. 29 above) 88.

  38. See Phyllis Rackin, “Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage,” Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 102.1 (1987) 29-41.

  39. Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality (Minnesota 1991) 9.

  40. Ibid. 7.

  41. Linda Phyllis Austern, “Music and the English Renaissance” in Susan C. Cook and Judy S. Tsou, eds., Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music (Chicago 1994) 55.

  42. See appendix 1a. [Appendices contain musical scores that are not here reproduced.]

  43. See Long (n. 25 above) 169-172; Seng (n. 21 above) 96-97; and the introduction of the Arden edition of Twelfth Night (n. 4 above) 181-182, for a further discussion on the authenticity of “O Mistress Mine.”

  44. See appendix 1b.

  45. Andrew Charlton, Music in the Plays of Shakespeare: A Practicum (New York and London 1991) 244-246.

  46. John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry 1500-1700 (Princeton 1961) 157.

  47. In speaking about chordal harmony, I will utilize terms used in music theory. Chords will be referred to by letter and mode (e.g., G major) or Roman numeral (upper case for major chords, lower case for minor). Thus the triad based on the first note of the major scale is denoted as “I” and the second as “II” and so on. The degrees of the scale will also be referred to by their names. The first in the scale degree is known as the tonic of the key, the fourth as the subdominant, fifth as dominant and seventh as the leading note.

  48. Michael Kennedy, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, 3rd ed. (Oxford 1985) 152.

  49. Davies (n. 10 above) 115.

  50. Rene E. Fortin, “‘Twelfth Night’: Shakespeare's Drama of Initiation,” Papers on Language and Literature 8 (1972) 141.

  51. Rackin (n. 38 above) 34.

  52. Fortin (n. 50 above) 141.

  53. Lynn Liptak Budd, Musical Attitudes in the Renaissance: The Structural and Thematic Use of Music in Several Shakespearean Plays (Ph.D. diss., Fordham University 1976; Ann Arbor 1999, no.7625714) 160.

  54. Majorie Garber, “Dress Codes, Or the Theatricality of Difference” in Lizbeth Goodman and Jane de Gay, eds., The Routledge Reader in Gender and Performance (London 1998) 177-178.

  55. Davies (n. 10 above) 114.

  56. Ibid. 56.

  57. Barber (n. 2 above) 245.

  58. Davies (n. 10 above) 59.

  59. Jacquelyn Ann Fox-Good, “Let Rich Music's Tongue Unfold”: A Study of Shakespeare's Songs (Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia 1989; Ann Arbor 1999, no. 9002853) 100.

  60. See appendix 2. Two versions of the song exist. I have here referred to an anonymous composition printed by Thomas Ravenscroft in Deutromelia (1609). This is also the version that Long suggests (n. 25 above, 173). The other is found in a manuscript book of rounds collected by Thomas Lant (1580). See the introduction to the Arden edition of Twelfth Night (n. 4 above) 84.

  61. See appendix 3.

  62. Deryck Cooke, The Language of Music (Oxford 1959) 115.

  63. See appendixes 5, 6a, and 6b.

  64. Quoted in McClary (n. 39 above) 11.

  65. McClary (n. 39 above) 10.

  66. See appendix 4.

  67. “Hold Thy Peace” is not considered here because it is a catch that has no formal resolution and thus, proves difficult to determine its cadence.

  68. Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, 5th ed. (New York 1996) 340.

  69. Quoted in Austern (n. 41 above) 55.

  70. Long (n. 25 above) 168.

  71. Budd (n. 53 above) 179.

  72. See the introduction to the Oxford edition of Twelfth Night (Oxford and New York 1994) 34.

  73. Seng (n. 21 above) 110.

  74. See appendix 5.

  75. Charlton, Music in the Plays of Shakespeare (n. 45 above) 249-251.

  76. Fox-Good (n. 59 above) 67-68.

  77. Quoted in Fox-Good (n. 59 above) 69.

  78. Clifford Leech, “Shakespeare's Songs and the Double Response” in Joseph G. Price, ed., The Triple Bond: Plays, Mainly Shakespearean, in Performance (University Park, PA 1975) 85-86.

  79. See appendix 6a, measure 10. I have provided two different scores of the same composition. The first is the fragment sung by Feste from Cornyshe's composition. The second, appendix 6b, is the complete score for three voices.

  80. Fox-Good (n. 59 above) 67.

  81. Ibid. 69.

John Mullan (essay date 1 November 2002)

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SOURCE: Mullan, John. Review of Twelfth Night. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5196 (1 November 2002): 22.

[In the following excerpted review of the 2002 Donmar Warehouse Theatre staging of Twelfth Night directed by Sam Mendes, Mullan contends that an overemphasis on the erotic and sensual aspects of the drama, as well as on the suffering of Malvolio, obscured its comic elements and proved detrimental to the production.]

We owe to the memoranda book of law student John Manningham our knowledge that Twelfth Night was written just before or just after Hamlet. Manningham records seeing it early in 1602, though until his diary was unearthed in the nineteenth century it was commonly supposed that this romantic comedy of loss redeemed by kind tempests was late Shakespeare. With the confidence of documentary evidence, we now see how close it is to that tragedy of forbidden mourning. Like Hamlet, it opens after a death, and asks how long someone need mourn. Hamlet is told by his mother that, after two months, he has worn his “nighted colour” long enough. In Twelfth Night, Olivia has sworn to devote herself to the “sad remembrance” of her dead brother for seven years, daily watering her chamber “with eye-offending brine”. Manningham described Olivia as a “lady widow”, a mistake that evidences the excess of her grieving. The boy playing her in 1602 must have been veiled and dressed in black, as actresses have been ever since, and the watching student naturally thought her suspended from life by her devotion to the memory of a dead husband. …

… Sam Mendes's already garlanded new production of Twelfth Night … [begins] by inviting us to disbelieve those who mourn. Characters in inky garb are protesting too much. Mendes has Orsino (a gloomy, angry Mark Strong) and his attendants wearing black, in would-be sympathy with the woman the Duke so self-indulgently “loves”. Yet we soon realize that Helen McCrory's Olivia is quite ready for something better than doleful seclusion and can scarcely conceal her kittenish inclinations. She smirks under her veil at Feste's sallies and the tone of her “What kind o' man is he?”, when informed that “Cesario” will not depart without seeing her, tells us that she is no natural “cloistress”. …

[This] Twelfth Night … puts its faith in sexual allure. Helen McCrory's Olivia is a chuckling temptress. The director has surely gone awry here. As Olivia strives to warm “Cesario”, she discards her black robe to reveal a transparent black negligée. Viola's “I pity you” takes on just the wrong implications. Later, Olivia takes Sebastian (Gyuri Sárossy) straight to bed (as she does in the Barnaby Riche tale which Shakespeare transformed into his play). In case we did not follow McCrory's come-hither tone (“would thou'dst be ruled by me”) and Sárossy's laddish alacrity (“Madam, I will”), the two emerge, deshabillés, a couple of scenes later. Sebastian's strange readiness to become betrothed to a woman he has just met is explained away as post-coital euphoria. His lines about it being “wonder that enwraps me thus, / Yet 'is not madness” duly got a laugh.

“Wonder” is just what the erotic theory loses. In that extraordinary interim where the twins finally find themselves on the stage together, and their presence works its amazement on the other witnessing characters, Olivia exclaims “Most wonderful!” McCrory produced a feline growl of relish, as if contemplating double helpings of the sensual delights that she had so recently enjoyed. Again, everyone laughed, and the moment was lost. The erotic element was emphasized by physical contact. There is a great deal of touching for a play whose two figures of authority, Orsino and Olivia, are supposed to command conventional respect. Sometimes this works, as when Emily Watson's Viola unconsciously takes Orsino's hand while they listen to Feste sing, only for both to pull back a moment later. Elsewhere it is distracting. After “Cesario” has captivated him with her tale of her father's daughter's concealed love, Orsino seizes his “page” and kisses him/her passionately. This has happened before in productions of the play, but always risks undoing the perplexing growth of feeling in Orsino. “O learn to read what silent love hath writ” was the line from Sonnet 23 projected on to the back of the set as we took our seats. Orsino must find love where it is not expected (and banish the self-regarding amorousness that he has been displaying before). Here, his physical demonstrativeness substitutes for emotional change.

Yet there are successes. The most striking aspect of the staging is the huge picture frame through which characters sometimes enter or depart, and in which they sometimes remain while the action proceeds. Without being reductive, it catches the sense of characters being preoccupied, foolishly or touchingly, by those who are not present. It also allows Mendes to keep Malvolio, blindfolded and straitjacketed, “in frame” all the while that the lovers are luckily finding their mates. Indeed, rather against the grain of stage directions, Malvolio is with us throughout his scenes of confinement. The Folio text specifies “Malvolio within”, suggesting that he remains concealed as he is tormented by Feste/Sir Topaz. Here, he is entirely visible, preyed on for our discomfiting entertainment. The impression is strengthened by the playing of Sir Toby Belch (Paul Jesson) as a would-be tormentor throughout. His final contemptuous rejection of a weary Sir Andrew (David Bradley) is but the confirmation of what is apparent all along. In this production, Malvolio's suffering is maximized (though it cannot be appropriate to have Olivia actually strike him when he makes those absurd advances to her). In large measure this is made persuasive by Simon Russell-Beale's poignant performance. His self-importance is richly ridiculous—a little camp and very tender of his dignity—yet it always suggests a kind of torment, finally revealed. …

Mendes's Twelfth Night seems not quite able to trust the madness wrought by love and self-love in the comedy. Confidently performed, eloquently spoken, and accompanied by George Stiles's subtle music and song settings, it leaves you entertained, but moved only by that foolish steward's inevitable humiliation.

Further Reading

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Ake, Jami. “Glimpsing a ‘Lesbian’ Poetics in Twelfth Night.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 43, no. 2 (2003): 375-94.

Studies the dynamics of same-sex feminine desire, focusing on the relationship between Olivia and Viola/Cesario in Twelfth Night.

de Somogyi, Nick, ed. Introduction to Twelfth Night / Twelfe Night, or What You Will, by William Shakespeare, pp. xxv-xxxix. London: Nick Hern Books, 2001.

Comments on the textual uniqueness of Twelfth Night and examines some of the idiosyncrasies of its manuscript history.

Gregson, J. M. “The Play.” In Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, pp. 24-58. London: Edward Arnold, 1980.

Surveys language, structure, theme, and characterization in Twelfth Night and describes the play as the epitome of Shakespearean romantic comedy.

Hunt, Maurice. “Viola/Cesario, Caesarean Birth, and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.Upstart Crow 11 (2001): 7-14.

Explores the theme of identity in Twelfth Night and examines the symbolism associated with Viola's pseudonym Cesario.

Kimbrough, Robert. “Androgyny Seen Through Shakespeare's Disguise.” Shakespeare Quarterly 33, no. 1 (spring 1982): 17-33.

Probes Shakespeare's treatment of androgyny through an examination of the disguised Viola in Twelfth Night and Rosalind in As You Like It.

Ko, Yu Jin. “The Comic Close of Twelfth Night and Viola's Noli me tangere.Shakespeare Quarterly 48, no. 4 (winter 1997): 391-405.

Centers on the final recognition scene between Viola and Sebastian in Act V, scene i of Twelfth Night, analyzing its relationship to the play's concerns with sexual indeterminacy and deferral.

Langman, F. H. “Comedy and Saturnalia: The Case of Twelfth Night.Southern Review 7, no. 2 (1974): 102-22.

Questions “festive” interpretations of Twelfth Night that view the play as authorizing a temporary celebration of misrule and personal liberation for the purposes of self-discovery.

Lewis, Cynthia. “Soft Touch: On the Renaissance Staging and Meaning of the ‘Noli me tangere’ Icon.” Comparative Drama 36, nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 2002): 53-73.

Summarizes the history of the “Noli me tangere” (“Touch me not”) icon in Renaissance religious drama and explores the significance of its use in Twelfth Night.

Markels, Julian. “Shakespeare's Confluence of Tragedy and Comedy: Twelfth Night and King Lear.Shakespeare Quarterly 15, no. 2 (spring 1964): 74-88.

Emphasizes the similarities of theme, plot, and structure in Twelfth Night and King Lear.

Musgrove, S., ed. “Critical Introduction.” In Twelfth Night, or What You Will, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-7. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

Presents a summary of Twelfth Night's sources, themes, characters, and circumstances of composition.

Osbourne, Laurie E., ed. Introduction to Twelfth Night, or What You Will, by William Shakespeare, pp. 13-34. London: Prentice Hall, 1995.

Concentrates on the textual history of Twelfth Night, exploring crucial revisions of the play's text that occurred in the early seventeenth century, resulting in the 1623 Folio edition.

Review of Twelfth Night. Economist 366, no. 8305 (4 January 2003): 65.

The anonymous critic approves of director Sam Mendes's production of Twelfth Night at the Donmar Warehouse in London, praising its “intelligent simplicity” despite its relatively subdued comedy.

Sochatoff, A. Fred. “Twelfth Night.” In Lovers Meeting: Discussions of Five Plays by Shakespeare, pp. 33-51. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Institute of Technology, 1964.

Concentrates on Twelfth Night's theme of love.

Willbern, David. “Paranoia, Criticism, and Malvolio.” University of Hartford Studies in Literature 11, no. 1 (1979): 1-23.

Psychoanalytic reading of Twelfth Night's Malvolio that views his character as a dramatic paradigm of the paranoid's unconscious projection of sexual anxiety.

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Twelfth Night Literary Criticism (Vol. 74)