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.