Shakespeare’s romantic comedy ‘Twelfth Night’ involves deception, trickery and love, typical themes in Elizabethan drama. This theme of romance intertwined with comedy is suggested by the title which implies that a play set in the Christmas season is going to be full of love, happiness and celebration. The literary tradition of an Elizabethan comedy would involve many techniques to make the audience laugh, such as a convoluted plot, mistaken identity, disguise, comic characters and verbal humour.
‘Twelfth Night’ is no exception to this. Its main theme is love but the path to true love is not simple for any of the characters and involves certain ‘love triangles’, where Orsino thinks he loves Olivia, who loves Cesario (Viola), who is in love with Orsino. Added to all this is the complication of Sir Andrew Aguecheek being spurred on by Sir Toby to woo Olivia and Malvolio having a trick played on him which makes him believe that his mistress, Olivia loves him. Many of these plots and sub-plots come to a head in Act3 Scene 4 in a very comic manner.
Malvolio provides much of the visual humour in this scene. Olivia sends for him on a serious matter, saying:
‘Where’s Malvolio? He is sad and civil,
And suits well for a servant with my fortunes:’
The audience would be full of anticipation at this point as Malvolio has been told in a letter supposedly sent to him by Olivia to smile a lot more, something which is totally against his usual character. When he walks on stage he is wearing yellow cross-gartered stockings which he thinks he has been ‘commended to wear’. This would make the audience laugh as it is so different to the Puritan’s clothes that he was wearing earlier in the play. It was also mentioned earlier that Olivia despises the colour yellow so her reaction to seeing her steward dressed so comically would add to the humour of the scene.
Malvolio starts to quote from the letter he received from Maria. He never once suspects that it is not real and truly believes that Olivia could love him, which is where much of the comedy derives from, as he is so confident that Olivia understands what he is talking about when he quotes from the letter. His pride and arrogance that he is ‘worthy’ to marry Olivia is extremely funny. It is also the dramatic irony that makes it humourous, as the audience and most of the characters realise where he is quoting from whereas Olivia doesn’t understand what he is talking about and believes it to be ‘midsummer madness’.
It is very entertaining to see Malvolio act in such a way, smiling insanely, as it is a complete contrast between his earlier self, very pompous and arrogant. However, he as he has been told in the letter, he speaks rudely to the other characters and believes himself to be ‘not of (their) element,’ which is funny because actually he is no more important than any of the other servants. It is also the frustration that he shows when people aren’t taking him seriously that makes the audience laugh. It is funny when Malvolio makes his grand exit, as he is acting an extremely bossy and arrogant manner but looks ridiculous so the contrast is comical. In fact, this whole scene is a contrast to the main theme of love and romance.
Another example of visual comedy in Act 3 Scene 4 would come from the ‘duel’ between Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Viola (as Cesario). Sir Andrew is essentially a figure of fun throughout the play, being described as ‘a foolish knight’ by Sir Toby and having hair which ‘hangs like flax on a distaff’ which would make him look really odd. He has written a challenge to Viola because he thinks ‘he’ is a rival for Olivia’s affection, but when Sir Toby reads it out, it is totally nonsensical. Fabian says of it:
‘Very brief and to exceedingly good sense (Aside) – less’.
Sir Andrew is very proud of the challenge so it is funny to see how he takes it so seriously even when the other characters are mocking his prose behind his back by using asides and whispers to each other.
Sir Toby and Fabian decide not to show the letter to Viola, but instead they tell ‘him’ verbally that Sir Andrew is a very noble and valiant knight, something that the audience knows isn’t true and would cause much amusement:
‘He is indeed, sir, the most bloody, and fatal opposite that you could possibly have found in any part of Illyria’.
They then say similar things to Viola about Sir Andrew:
‘Why, man, he’s a very devil….They say he has been fencer to the Sophy’.
When the two come to fight, they are both absolutely terrified of the other and that provides opportunities for plenty of visual humour with Sir Andrew and Fabian practically having to drag them towards each other with their swords drawn. It is comic irony that Olivia is unaware of Sir Andrew’s love for her and has been rejected by Cesario, so really there is no point in the duel in the first place. The actual preparation for the fight is almost slapstick, especially when Antonio comes running in to take Cesario’s place.
The confusion that arises here is humorous, as it is funny to see Antonio confusing Cesario for Sebastian at the same time as Sir Toby would be mystified by who this stranger is. Fabian and Sir Toby then add another part to their joke by convincing Sir Andrew that Cesario is a coward and has run away. They want him to follow and ‘cuff him soundly’, which is funny because Andrew had previously been against the duel because he thought he would be beaten, but now that he thinks he has a chance of winning he is suddenly full of valour. The situation is becoming completely absurd at this point, something that the audience would find very amusing.
Another form of comedy running throughout the play is cross-dressing. Audiences in Shakespearean times would find it funny to see a man acting the part of a woman pretending to be a man. This is because all parts in those days were played by males, with female roles being played by boys before their voices deepened. The fact that there is so much pretence involved makes it doubly ironic. It would be funny to see Viola, a woman, being asked to duel by Sir Andrew and being so scared that she is almost tempted to reveal her disguise. She says in an aside just before she is due to fight:
‘A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man’.
One of the main linguistic forms of comedy used by Shakespeare is puns, which are still used today but probably had more relevance to a Shakespearean audience than to us. This is because the puns were in the language of the time and were understood far more easily than they are today. It is also funny to see other people being the object of the pun, and misunderstanding of words. For instance, when Olivia believes Malvolio to be mad, she suggests that he ‘go to bed.’ However, he misinterprets this remark and believes her to be offering for him to go to bed with her.
‘To bed? Ay, Sweetheart, and I’ll come to thee.’
During Shakespeare’s time, the words ‘made’ and ‘mad’ were pronounced the same. He has used this language to his advantage and creates humour by having Malvolio to say ‘thou art made,’ which Olivia takes to understand that he is telling her that she is mad. This confuses her and the audience finds this funny. Another device used by Shakespeare is oxymorons. Sir Toby says that the ‘letter, being so excellently ignorant, will breed no terror in the youth,’ which emphasises how bad the letter is, but is also funny for the audience to hear because ‘excellently,’ and ‘ignorant,’ are complete opposites.
Yet another form of comedy comes from the characters. Sir Toby spends the whole scene manipulating the actions, firstly of Malvolio because of the letter he dropped in his way and the fact that he is given the task of looking after him, and then, more directly, of Sir Andrew. He is a bit like a puppet master who has Sir Andrew and, although not for such a long period, Viola dancing to his tune. When Olivia becomes worried by Malvolio who is acting totally out of character, she asks Sir Toby to take great care and look after him:
‘Where’s my cousin Toby? Let some of my people have a special care of him; I would not have him miscarry for the half of my dowry.’
Sir Toby willingly plays along with pretending to be concerned about Malvolio when he knows all along what has caused his strange behaviour. He, together with Maria and Fabian, approach Malvolio and try to talk to him:
‘.. .peace, we must deal gently with him. How do you, Malvolio? What, man, defy the devil!’
The audience would find this very funny, especially considering Malvolio’s lack of appeal as a character. Later on, Toby calls him a ‘bawcock’, which would be an insult as this was a term of endearment spoken to a child. Malvolio would have been insulted by this, adding to the audience’s amusement. Toby’s plans for Malvolio, to put him in a darkened room and bind him up, would have met with general amusement as well.
Sir Toby manipulates the whole scene with Sir Andrew and Viola for his own entertainment. Again, as he is a character that the audience would find appealing because he is lively and, on many occasions, drunk and funny, the audience would find the whole business of the duel hilarious. The physical comedy of a man acting drunk was usually very funny to an Elizabethan audience, as it still is now.
However, aside from this comedy, there is a more serious element to the plot. At the end of the scene, there is still comedy, but a hint of seriousness. If this were a tragedy, then things may well have turned out differently but as it is a comedy, we know that everything will be all right in the end. There is a hint of how these problems will be resolved in this Scene. For example, when Antonio asks Cesario for his purse, thinking that he is Sebastian, he is taken aback when he claims to not have it. When Antonio is then arrested, we are reminded that things could actually go down hill. However, Viola realises that her brother may be alive so we know eventually Sebastian will have to be mistaken for Cesario to resolve the confusion.
Even though the trick on Malvolio was very funny at the time, it could have led to him becoming mad and being left in the dark room forever. The audience can even begin to feel sorry for Malvolio as the joke may have gone too far. Some people have even said that the situation with Malvolio is not completely resolved, as on his final exit he says that he will have his revenge.
‘I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you!’
In spite of this, it can be said that Shakespeare never meant for the audience to feel sorry for Malvolio, and that he deserved to get his comeuppance, so there is no need for him to have a happy ending. Still, the other characters were never unpleasant, so deserved to have happy endings. As the title suggests, we know that in the celebration of ‘Twelfth Night,’ all will be resolved.