Twelfth Night Twelfth Night Literary Criticism (Vol. 85)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 73,147 words.)