“Bittersweet, lyrical, and deeply emotional, “Twelfth Night” has long been thought of as perhaps Shakespeare’s most “perfect” comedy.”

Twelfth Night

An Introduction

By Dennis Abrams

Bittersweet, lyrical, and deeply emotional, Twelfth Night has long been thought of as twelfth night ppperhaps Shakespeare’s most “perfect” comedy.  Written shortly after Hamlet and As You Like It, its mood is delicately posed:  while its title seems to promise carnival misrule, what the play offers us is grave and searching as well as riotously funny.  It also stands at the very center of Shakespeare’s career as a dramatist – looking back to the twinned chaos of The Comedy of Errors and the knockabout laughs of Falstaff while seeming to anticipate the miraculous resolutions of two of the late romances:  Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale.  As so often in Shakespearian comedy, here romantic love is both plague and cure – at the climax of the action nearly everyone on stage is in love with the wrong partner, and unscrambling the mess takes formidable, not to say mischievous dramatic skill.  The insanity of desire is a major theme in Twelfth Night (one of Shakespeare’s favorites – think about Midsummer…), and so is its potential to humiliate, as we will see in the subplot of a household servant, Malvolio, who is tricked into falling for his employer:  it’s a story that Shakespeare does not allow to end happily.

Tellingly, this is the only play of Shakespeare’s to be equipped with an alternative title, What You Will; this play teases its audiences with dizzying implausibilities alongside searching and very real insight into human nature.

It’s a marvelous play.

From Bloom:

“Despite my personal preference for As You Like It, which is founded on my passion for Rosalind, I would have to admit that Twelfth Night is surely the greatest of all Shakespeare’s pure comedies.  No one in Twelfth Night, not even Viola, is so wholly admirable as Rosalind.  Twelfth Night or What You Will probably was written in 1601-2, bridging the interval between the final Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida.  There are elements of self-parody in Twelfth Night, not on the scale of Cymbeline’s self-mockery, but holding a middle ground between Hamlet’s ferocious ironies and the rancidity of Troilus and Cressida, most memorably expressed by Thersites.

Shakespeare, I suspect, himself acted the part of Antonio both in The Merchant of Venice and in Twelfth Night, where the homoerotic second Antonio travesties the first. But most of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies are quarried in Twelfth Night, not because Shakespeare slackened at humorous invention, but because the zany spirit of ‘what you will’ dominated him, if only as a defense against the bitterness of the three dark comedies just after: Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure. An abyss hovers just beyond Twelfth Night, and one cost of not leaping into it is that everyone, except the reluctant jester, Feste, is essentially mad without knowing it. When the twelfth_nightwretched Malvolio is confined in the dark room for the insane, he ought to be joined there by Orsino, Olivia, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Maria, Sebastian, Antonio, and even Viola, for the whole ninefold are at least borderline in their behavior. The largest fault of every staging of Twelfth Night I’ve attended is that the pace is not fast enough. It ought to be played at the frenetic tempo that befits this company of zanies and antics.  I am a little sorry that Shakespeare used Twelfth Night as his primary title; What You Will is better, and among much else means something like “Have at You!”

Not that Twelfth Night is a high farce. Like all the other strongest plays by Shakespeare, Twelfth Night is of no genre. It is not of Hamlet’s cosmological scope, but in its own very startling way it is another ‘poem unlimited.’ One cannot get to the end of it, because even some of the most apparently incidental lines reverberate infinitely. Dr. Johnson, rather irritated with the play, complained that it rendered ‘no just picture of life,’ but by the grand Johnsonian test it certainly is ‘a just representation of general nature.’ I worship Johnson, particularly on Shakespeare, and suspect that his own perilous balance, the fear of madness, made him seek rational design where none exists.

‘Viola seems to have formed a very deep design with very little premeditation: she is thrown by shipwreck on an unknown coast, hears that the prince is a bachelor, and resolves to supplant the lady whom he courts.’

That is not at all like Viola, even though she evidently falls in love at first sight of the crazy Orsino. We wince at most Shakespearean matches, and this may be the silliest, altogether unworthy of the integral, good-natured, only somewhat wacky Viola. Twelfth Night, though, refuses to take itself seriously, and we would do it violence by such realistic expectations, except that Shakespeare’s invention of the human surges with astonishing mimetic force in this play.  Its most absurd characters, Orsino included, open inward, which is disconcerting in a farce, or a self-parody of previous farces. Malvolio obviously does not possess the infinitude of Falstaff or Hamlet, but he runs away from Shakespeare, and has a terrible poignance even though he is wickedly funny and is a sublime satire upon the moralizing Ben Jonson. Shakespeare is still closer to Hamlet’s mode than to Measure for Measure’s: subjectivity and individuality, his invented distincts, are the norm of Twelfth Night. I think the play is much Shakespeare’s funniest, more so than Henry IV, Part One, where Falstaff, like Hamlet after him, is intelligent beyond intelligence, and so provokes thoughts that lie too deep for laughter. Only Feste in Twelfth Night has any mind, but everyone in the drama pulsates with vitality, most mindlessly Sir Toby Belch, the least truly Falstaffian of roisterers.

C.L. Barber classified Twelfth Night as another ‘festive comedy,’ but he accurately added so many qualifications as to place the festive motif in considerable doubt.  A Feast of Fools touches it limits soon enough; Twelfth Night expands upon any rereading, or even in a less than brilliant performance. The play is decentered; there is almost no significant action, perhaps because nearly everyone behaves involuntarily. A much funnier Nietzsche might have conceived it, since forces somewhat beyond the characters seem to be living their lives for them.”


From Marjorie Garber:

“Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, or What You Will takes the first half of its title from the English holiday celebrated on the evening before January 6 – the Twelfth Day of Christmas, otherwise known as the Feast of the Epiphany. According to Christian tradition, this was the time when the Magi, the three wise men, journeyed from the East to Bethlehem, bearing offerings for the infant Christ.  The word ‘epiphany’ has a more general meaning, denoting a revealing manifestation, a sudden flash of insight, or a sudden recognition of identity. On the biblical Feast of the Epiphany it meant the showing of Christ to the Magi, a manifestation of godhead. In England, Twelfth Night was a feat of misrule, a festival of eating and drinking, during which masques and revels were presented. A large cake with a bean or a coin baked into it was served to the assembled company, and the person whose slice of cake contained the coin became the Christmas King, the Lord of Misrule. What You Will, the second half of the play’s title, speaks both to this customary season of topsy-turvy revelry and to the space of fantasy and wish fulfillment that was the early modern playhouse. Like Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It – and many similarly self-dismissive titles of plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries – this apparently deprecating phrase can come back to bite. If some of the play’s characters do find that their fantasies come true, others are punished for daring to have fantasies as well.

Twelfth Night was first presented as a private entertainment at the Middle Temple, a law school in London, in 1602, and the play as we have it shows a number of evidences of its Christian festival origins. The fool in this play whose name – Feste – suggests the spirit of feasting, is constantly speaking about wise men. In act 1, scene 5, for example, addressing ‘wit,’ he observes that while man who think they have wit are often fools, ‘I that am sure I lack thee may pass for a wise man.’  Wise men who crow at fools, in Malvolio’s words, are no better than the ‘fools’ zanies,’ the fools’ fools. And the Countess Olivia, the lady of the house and Feste’s employer, is the biggest fool of all. Feste undertakes to prove this in a wonderful little piece of fool’s patter (to which we might compare Lear’s Fool’s equally deft demonstration of the ‘sweet and bitter fool.’

Feste:    Good madonna, why mournest thou?

Olivia:  Good fool, for my brother’s death.

Feste:    I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

Olivia:  I know his soul is in heaven, fool.

Feste:   The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul, being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.

There is an echo of the Twelfth Night occasion, too, in the name Viola chooses for her disguise, ‘Cesario,’ the king. ‘Cesario’ will become the ‘one self king’ Olivia wishes to rule her, and, unmasked as Viola, ‘Cesario’ will participate with Sebastian in a real epiphany, or discovery, as the two reveal…

Typically, though not always, Shakespearean comedy encloses a transforming middle world – what Northrop Frye, thinking of the forest plays in particular, called a ‘green world.’ There is no forest here, no Belmont world of music and art, no realm of fairies. Instead we have, on the one hand, a world of madness and dream, a relatively familiar world of mistaken identity and playing and disguises, like that found in The Comedy of Errors or Love’s Labour’s Lost, and, on the other hand, what amounts to an invasion from without. Instead of the court world going to the forest, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It, in Twelfth Night we have the spectacle of a ship foundering off the coast of Illyria, a sea world invading a land world. This is the comic pattern of Much Ado About Nothing, where outsiders – in that case, soldiers and lovers – come to a fixed place and change it. Indeed, it is the pattern of The Comedy of Errors, where all the action takes place in Ephesus.  But in Twelfth Night the ‘outsiders’ not only bring the comic elements of energy, desire, and fruitfully mistaken identities; they also bring key elements from another literary genre: romance. The world of romance invades the world of comedy.

Romance, the genre of Shakespeare’s late plays, was a popular Elizabethan mode. Among its signature elements were shipwrecks, the rediscovery of lost brothers and sisters, physical marks of recognition, and rebirths from the sea. A fundamentally narrative genre, which would eventually give rise to the modern novel, romance always turns on epiphany, and on moments of rebirth. These elements, it is worth noting, were also present in the farcical Comedy of Errors, the plot of which turns on separated twins, lost and found parents, a shipwreck, and the miracle of rebirth, all with a definite Christian undertone. In Twelfth Night Shakespeare returns to this basic pattern, as he will have recourse to it yet again in The Tempest, near the end of his career.  But in Twelfth Night he makes an important change from the earlier Comedy of Errors design, by making his ‘identical’ twins of different sexes.  By doing this he is able to combine an old theme with a newer one, the theme of rebirth with the theme of sexual love and growth, and the freeing and educative function of erotic ambiguity and sexual disguise.  Viola as a boy, though carefully described as high-voiced and clear-complexioned, is able to educate both Orsino and Olivia in love, as Rosalind did Orlando in As You Like It, because she is herself in a middle space, in disguise, Twelfth Night at the Apollo Theatreand in both genders. Once again the fact that boys actors played the roles of women on the public stage meant that a boy played a young woman playing a boy – one reason for the plentiful reminders in this play that ‘Cesario’ is not a man, but a woman in disguise. If the audience were to make the same ‘mistake’ as Orsino and Olivia, there would be no comedy, and no play. But if Orsino and Olivia did not make this crucial error, falling in love with the elusive and delusive ‘Cesario,’ they would learn nothing.  There would be no romance, and no play.”

This one’s going to be fun.


Our next reading:  Twelfth Night, Act One

My next post:  Tuesday night/Wednesday morning


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1 Response to “Bittersweet, lyrical, and deeply emotional, “Twelfth Night” has long been thought of as perhaps Shakespeare’s most “perfect” comedy.”

  1. artmama says:

    Thanks for dishing up this dishy dish!

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