I believe that Twelfth Night is a satirical fantasy comedy with an outrageously improbable plot that depends on the imagination of the audience. The implausible situations and unrealistic coincidences require a suspension of disbelief to revel in the entertainment value of the play. The comedy engages in real life themes, such as love, mistaken identities, ambition, homoeroticism, and deception, but although seemingly conceivable, these themes are exaggerated to a point of scepticism.
I thoroughly agree that Twelfth Night is ‘a joyful fantasy full of impossibilities’, as although there are undoubtedly plenty of points in the play when the situation seems too unlikely to believe, there are also parts of the plot which emphasize the believable realism in the play and prevent it from being purely an escapist play. Shakespeare achieved prominence during the Elizabethan period when society was in an epoch of socio-political security and respect for the arts. The ‘twelfth night’ in the play’s title is an unambiguous reference to January 6th, the final night of the twelve day long Christmas season.
This ‘twelfth night’ was seen as a time of wild revelry and mayhem, and when social and sexual freedom could be freely contravened. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was inspired by this occasion, in which temporary sexual independence and social release is clearly shown (i. e. : Viola’s mistaken gender). Furthermore, the title of this play has no relevance to the actual storyline, and so suggests that this playwright is something to help you escape from the unhappiness of real life. The sub-title, ‘What You Will’ suggests that we can interpret the play individually so as to not take the plot too seriously.
Attitudes to Puritanism were particularly negative in Shakespeare’s time, as a number of people sought to purify England of catholic religious ceremonies – which threatened the Christmas tradition. Puritans wanted rid of all arts and moral beliefs, as they felt it was incompatible with a properly reformed Christianity. In Twelfth Night, Malvolio exemplifies Puritanism, as he is regularly called a Puritan by the other characters because of his self love. Therefore, the character’s pranks at his expense are more political than their outside appearance of playfulness and innocence suggests.
Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed to an audience that were full of different types of people. Among the audience would be different social classes and people with different levels of intellect. Twelfth Night contains unpretentious characters who appeal to the working class, and the complex plot appeals to the upper class in the audience. Twelfth Night is set on a fantasy island named Illyria where the improbable is probable, and the plot is so absurd that the character’s worlds in relation to ours are literally opposite.
The audience would have enjoyed watching a play that has no relevance to their real lives, as people went to the theatre to escape and have a good time, so the plot would have made them forget about their troubles. Fabian sums up the fantasy element well in Act 3 Scene 4, ‘If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction. ’ Shakespeare has used dramatic irony here to involve the audience in the play as it would have been humorous as the playwright is in actual fact being acted upon a stage.
The structure of Twelfth Night contributes to the meaning of the play – it’s what you make it mean to you. It is made up of establishing character relationships (mostly done through absurd arguments), the building up of theatrical tension (which brings all the conflicts to a climax), and understanding the plot. Shakespeare carefully set out the scenes in an order that we can understand, but also to create tension and hilarity between the different moods of each scene. Each scene prepares us for the next one, and we are given crucial information throughout the play, so the already know.
In Act 1 Scene 1, the theme of unrequited love is introduced right at the very start of the play. Although this is a serious issue in contrast to the rest of the play, it enables us to find out about Orsino and leaves us unexpected for a humorous scene. Orsino opens the play with a speech: ‘if music be the food of love, play on’. The speech is a metaphorical relation of music and love; where Orsino relates music to food and overindulgence of music to eating. Ultimately he is wishing that listening to too much music would kill his desire for love.
The music that Orsino is listening to pleases him at first, and he compares the music to ‘the sweet sound’ (signifying a breeze), that picks up the smell of flowers (‘that breathes upon a bank of violets’). Orsino then contrasts love, which he portrays as stealing away the value of things, and the sea, which transforms things. ‘O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou, that, notwithstanding thy capacity, receiveth as the sea, nought enters there, of what validity and pitch soe’er’.
He then continues his figurative relation of love with appetite; he states that love is ‘quick and fresh’, meaning keen and hungry, and takes in more than its capacity to swallow. ‘So full of shapes is fancy’, Orsino continues , relating all the many things that love swallows up to loves power to be imaginative and fantastical. He is portraying that your mind is so occupied by love that everything that used to matter no longer does. Orsino is speaking in verse throughout this; showing that he is a noble character who is important.
This use of verse contributes to the mood of the scene because he is talking about unreciprocated love, and verse is often used by Shakespeare when exploring this theme. This use of characterisation for dramatic effect is very useful, as Shakespeare has expressed Orsino as a ‘lovesick puppy’. Shakespeare also wrote his lines using iambic pentameter ‘if music be the food of love, play on’. This gets across the idea that Orsino wants to overindulge in music so it kills his desire for love because he is suffering from the pangs of unrequited love.
Orsino repeatedly leads his conversation back to the topic of love; when his servant Curio asks him if he will go hunt a ‘hart’ (the pun on heart). ‘Will you go hunt, my lord? ’ ‘What, Curio? ’ ‘The hart. ’ Orsino answers by speaking of his heart, but then relates the topic of hunting to his lonely state. He then refers to Ovid’s account of Actaeon, who was punished for seeing the goddess Diana naked by being made into a hart, and then attacked by his own dogs.
Another indication to Ovid is made when Orsino refers to the ‘rich golden shaft’ of Cupid’s arrow that will strike Olivia and make her love him, as according to Ovid, Cupid caused love with an arrow which was keen, sharp, and made of gold. The language that Orsino uses in this scene is full of deceit, but it also indicates his ability for strong emotions and heartiness. Orsino is yearning for love, but the way that Shakespeare has wrote his lines make his feelings sound urgent, as the imagery of him being torn apart by hounds (Ovid’s account of Actaeon), expresses the great impact that his emotions have on him.
This shows that Orsino is determined to woo Olivia, but he doesn’t change who he loves hastily, in contrast to how his moods change. ‘Enough, no more, tis not so sweet as it was before. ’ This suggests that his moods vary all the time, as at first he was asking for music to be played, and then he asked them to stop playing it. Orsino feels very deeply about Olivia; ‘O when mine eyes did see Olivia first, methought she purged the air of pestilence’. This is a reference to the Elizabethan belief that illnesses was caused by miasma.
Orsino also says ‘when liver, brain and heart, these sovereign thrones, are all supplied and filled, her sweet perfections, with one self king. ’ This means that Orsino wants Olivia’s passion, reason and emotion centred on him. When Viola is first introduced, she learns that she has been rescued from the shipwreck by the captain, and tells us that ‘my brother he is in Elysium’. Viola is continuing the mythological allusions started by Orsino, by referring to ‘Elysium’ (heaven), and Illyria. The two names of the places help to contrast the difference between the two places.
In my opinion, it’s almost as if Elysium is a peaceful place with order, whereas Illyria is chaotic and the unthinkable manages to happen. Viola tries to be optimistic about the possibility of her brother Sebastian drowning in the shipwreck, as she says ‘perchance he is not drowned’. However, the captain then plays on her use of ‘perchance’ by saying ‘it is perchance that you yourself were saved’. I. e. : it is an accident that you were saved. The captain then exclaims ‘like Arion on the dolphin’s back, I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves’.
This conjures up the image of Sebastian being carried to shore on a dolphin’s back, therefore being saved. The dialogue between Viola and the Captain is in verse, suggesting respect and that they are important characters in the play. In this scene, the gentle and hopeful side of Viola is shown, as although she fears she has lost her brother, she has hope for him, therefore she tries her best not to succumb to grief. In contrast to Orsino’s poetic tone and exaggerated imagery, Viola’s lines are more plain and straight forward, representing anguish but also her sensibility. There is fair behaviour in thee, captain. ’
Although Viola has never met the captain before, she assumes he has a fair and outward character because he offers to help her disguise herself as Sebastian, which ties in with the absurdity of mistaken identities. Viola feels sorry for Olivia as she too is experiencing the same thing as Olivia. The fact that they are both mourning their brothers creates a bond of sympathy between them, which is why Viola wishes to serve Olivia. ‘O that I served that lady and might not be delivered to the world, till I had made mine own occasion mellow, what my estate is.
This compassion for Olivia is understandable even though they haven’t met each other, and Viola’s caring nature towards her is shown later in the play when she is disguised as Cesario. Shakespeare’s use of characterisation portrays Viola as a complex character who is independent, intelligent, and resourceful. The first sign of fantasy is when Viola turns up at Orsino’s palace as a Eunuch, and Orsino agrees to let ‘Cesario’ wait on him. Orsino himself speaks of how close they have grown; ‘I have unclasped to thee the book even of my secret soul’. This speech uses the metaphor of an unclasped book as personal secrets.
The idea that he has shared it with a servant who has only been there for three days suggests that there is a bond between them, and Viola (Cesario), ends up falling in love with Orsino. This shows how much trust he shares with Cesario. Without realising, Orsino states the truth about Viola’s disguise, which again adds to the unbelievable plot. ‘thy small pipe is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound, and all is semblative a woman’s part. ’ This statement would have been very effective for the audience as it is full of dramatic irony, because Orsino has already guessed the truth about Viola without knowing it.
It would be effective for the audience because they know who Cesario is and it seems more than coincidental that Orsino could guess as good as that. Orsino asks Viola to go to Olivia and tell her of Orsino’s love for her; he believes that Cesario, being youthful and handsome will succeed. Viola says she will obey, although she confesses aside that she already feels love for Orsino, and would rather be his wife than try to woo Olivia for him. ‘Yet, a barful strife. Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.
This suggests that doing this for Orsino is practically impossible, with play on the word ‘strife’ which refers to both hard labor and Viola’s war within her. When Cesario finally gets to tell Olivia how Orsino feels about her, the theme of false love is introduced. At the start of Twelfth Night, Olivia exclaimed, ‘the element itself, till seven years’ heat, shall not behold her face at ample view’. This means that Olivia will keep her face veiled for seven hot summers, and this is suggested to be because she is mourning the death of her brother and father.
However, Olivia contradicts herself when she ‘falls in love’ with Cesario, ‘even so quickly may one catch the plague? ’ This conjures up the image of Olivia catching the disease of love. This is ironic because at the start of the play, Orsino said that she ‘purges the air of pestilence’, referring to Olivia as cleansing the air of disease. However, when Olivia says this, she’s saying she ‘caught’ the disease of love. This would have shocked the audience greatly as Olivia told everyone she would see no man for seven years, and suddenly, a young man she likes the look of turns up and she is in ‘love’.
This is unrealistic, as it is very unlikely that Viola would be able to dress as a man, yet still talk like a woman, especially as Olivia still finds her attractive and so falls in love with her. Furthermore, it is implausible that Olivia could change her mind so quickly – she fell in love right away which doesn’t happen in real life. I don’t think that this scene is supposed to sound joyful and funny because of Shakespeare’s use of verse, which makes it more serious especially as the theme of love is being portrayed again.
A major theme is shown at this point in the play – how Olivia and Orsino are both changed by their relationships with Viola. Before meeting Viola, Orsino spoke poetically but also expressed his artificial love for Olivia, however, after he meets Viola he gets straight to the point, sharing with Cesario the extent of his love for Olivia and his plans to woo her. In Olivia’s first encounter with Viola, her shows of mourning are suddenly forgotten, and Olivia must use her wit to deal with Viola. In Act 2, Scene 2, Viola notices what the audience have perceived the whole time – the irony of the situation she’s in.
She sees that Olivia is in love with her disguise Cesario, but Viola realizes how problematic her disguise will be because it restricts her from telling Orsino how she feels about him. She states ‘as I am man, my state is desperate for my master’s love’; but that, ‘as [she is] woman what thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe! ’ Viola also considers how Olivia could fall in love with Cesario so quickly; and metaphorically compares women’s hearts to sealing wax. ‘She made good view of me, indeed so much that sure methought her eyes had lost their tongue.
This means that Olivia liked what she saw of Cesario which left Olivia tongue tied – this shows how quickly Olivia fell for Cesario. Act 1, Scene 3 involves the sub plot, which includes the characters Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Maria. This scene is spoken in prose as it is a light hearted scene with less important characters. The language involved in this scene is mostly literal misunderstandings, quibbles, and wordplay, that a lot of the characters don’t understand themselves. The comedy and unrealistic theme is portrayed right at the start, as Sir Toby attempts to introduce Sir Andrew to Maria.
Sir Andrew addresses Maria as ‘a fair shrew’ which is laden with contradiction because he didn’t intend the statement to sound nasty. However, it did because ‘shrew’ refers to an ill-tempered woman who wouldn’t be addressed as ‘fair’. This shows that Sir Andrew is fundamentally a misunderstood character who interprets things as they are not meant to be – he is portrayed as a fool. Sir Toby tells Sir Andrew to ‘accost’ Maria, meaning to greet her, but Sir Andrew asks what ‘accost’ means and Sir Toby takes this as him asking who Maria is.
Sir Andrew then wrongly assumes that her name is Miss Mary Accost, and then Sir Toby has to explain what ‘accost’ means. Although Sir Andrew is not very good at perceiving what people mean, he does get the impression that Maria thinks the two of them are fools; ‘do you think you have fools in hand’. Although Sir Andrew wanted it to mean are you in the company of fools, Maria takes it literally and answers ‘I have not you by th’ hand’, which shows her poor opinion of them both. Sir Andrew being a fool takes this the wrong way and gives her his hand to shake.
Sir Toby and Sir Andrew then go on to exchange ridiculous things, and therefore they would have both appealed to the audience because they are very entertaining and foolish. Shakespeare’s use of characterisation here leaves the audience believing that Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are irrational characters who are very easily confused. Act 1, Scene 5 is when Feste the jester is introduced which although includes the fantasy element, also shows the darker side of the play. Feste is the only character who is allowed to speak out of term to someone higher than him (although Malvolio regards himself as being able to do this too).
This is because as a jester, you were allowed to be a fool and speak out of term, and so Feste does. Feste is part of the main plot and the sub plot, as he links both the plots together, and the play wouldn’t be a comedy without him. Feste is allowed to mock other characters and make humorous jokes and use puns, because of his role in Olivia’s household. It becomes clear that Feste ridicules characters when he is convinced to join in with revenge on Malvolio. In scene 5, Olivia and Feste exchange wit, leading to Olivia being shown up. The more fool, Madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen. ’ Feste argues that Olivia is the greater fool as she mourns her dead brother instead of rejoicing that he is in heaven. Olivia plays off of Feste’s false wit about “a drowned man, a fool, and a madman” with ease, as Feste is playing on words. When Feste confronts Olivia, he speaks in a mock-religious tone and would-be sayings. For example, ‘God give them wisdom that have it, and those that are fools, let them use their talents’.
He addresses Olivia as ‘Madonna’, which shows his upmost respect for her, as it means ‘my lady’. It is ironic that Feste is mocking religion here, yet later he taunts Malvolio disguised as a cleric. This would have appealed to the audience because it makes them feel like they know more than what the characters know about each other. Shakespeare’s use of characterization portrays Feste as a witty fool, who has the authority to be rude to those higher than him. Malvolio is established at an early point through Olivia’s perceptiveness. ‘You are sick of self-love, Malvolio’.
Olivia says this and the audience realize that this is said only after a brief appearance of Malvolio. Although Malvolio’s vanity, arrogance, and self-deceptive qualities are not clearly shown at this point, Olivia talks about them and her judgment of him proves correct. However, Malvolio is easily manipulated later in the play as the conspirators sought revenge on Malvolio. After Maria wrote the note from ‘Olivia’ to Malvolio claiming her love for him, Malvolio regards himself as the person that the letter is implying. ‘M. O. A. I. doth sway my life’…
M – Malvolio – M – why, that begins my name’, this suggests that Malvolio is taking everything from the letter and applying it to him – he wants Olivia to love him because he loves her. Feste, Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew played this trick on Malvolio because they are sick of his pompous regard for himself and his sick self love (Puritanism). He thinks he is in a higher position that what he really is, ‘to have the humour of state; and after a demure travel of regard, telling them I know my place as I would they should do theirs, to ask for my kinsman Toby’.
This suggests that Malvolio would enjoy being in authority to tell the other character off, as he would gravely scrutinize those around him and look down upon them. However, Malvolio is no more than a steward for Olivia. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria manage to convince Olivia that he is mad (a recurring theme in the play), after turning up after Olivia’s beckoning wearing yellow stockings and smiling inhumanely. Malvolio is imprisoned as Feste takes the role of ‘Sir Topaz’, and convinces Malvolio that there’s ‘no darkness but ignorance’ – which makes Malvolio believe that he is mad, which is revenge for being his pompous self.
This highlights the moral and philosophical significance of the play as it demonstrates how arrogant Malvolio can be. When he is imprisoned some of the audience will start to feel sympathy towards Malvolio as he is portrayed as being deeply disturbed by the experience. In my opinion, it’s unlikely that Malvolio would have fallen for the trick in the first place, and then it seems implausible that Olivia would allow her best steward to be locked up without enquiring his behaviour. I believe that the ending of the play is ludicrous – the events are so implausible because life doesn’t wrap up nicely like that.
Antonio arrives saying that Sebastian has been in his company for three months, and Orsino states that Cesario has been in his company for three months also. Shakespeare has created a lot of dramatic irony in Act 5, which is used to build up the tension to Olivia’s revelation about her marriage, and the reunion of Viola and Sebastian. The audience themselves know that Olivia has married Sebastian, and that both Sebastian and Viola are alive, but there is suspense throughout the audience as they wait for the characters to find out the truth and resolve the issues.
Shakespeare also used the dramatic irony of this scene to provide some laughs for the audience whilst some of the characters share their deepest emotions. Viola is arguing with Olivia who then claims they’re married, which Viola knows nothing about, however the audience know what’s happened. Olivia is extremely upset by Viola although the twin is genuinely confused. ‘Give me thy hand, and let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds. ’ This implies that Olivia doesn’t really believe what she’s being told – she wants to see ‘Cesario’ in her woman’s clothes to prove that she’s really Viola.
The situation becomes even more unbelievable when Orsino becomes angered about what Viola supposedly did, and the actions of the characters are very dramatic although the audience would have found this very humorous. ‘O thou dissembling cub! ’ This shows Orsino’s anger towards the situation as he implies that either Olivia or Viola are lying – he is genuinely angered at the thought of his servant marrying someone he loves – which is understandable. Shakespeare has combined tragedy and comedy because of the grief of Orsino and Olivia but the happiness of Sebastian and Viola.
However, the most un coincidental part of the play in my opinion is when Sebastian and Viola finally meet. Before this moment, Sebastian had no idea that Viola was alive and so is in a state of disbelief when he sees her dressed as him. ‘Were you a woman, as the rest goes even, I should my tears let fall upon your cheek, and say ‘Thrice welcome, drowned Viola’. This implies that Sebastian is truly surprised to see his sister alive. Viola on the other hand is calmer because after her encounter with Sebastian had led her to believe that maybe her brother was alive, although there is still great heartfelt emotions at this point. Of Messaline; Sebastian was my father. Such a Sebastian was my brother too. ’ This shows that Viola is keeping calm and composed even though her brother is actually alive. Malvolio is then re-introduced and Viola reveals that Malvolio has imprisoned the sea captain that saved her, who has possession of her things. Malvolio speaks with composure and in verse for the first time in the play. He doesn’t appear bewildered – instead he is looking for vengeance for the wrong which was done upon him by Olivia as he believes.
However Olivia has done nothing to her steward, so she defuses the situation carefully and promises him justice. However, Feste then explains the situation which angers Malvolio. Feste mocks what Malvolio had told ‘Sir Topaz’ and Malvolio’s disdainful comments to him and Sir Toby after he catches them making a nuisance of themselves late at night. Feste lets known his resentment towards Malvolio in front of all the other characters, and criticises Malvolio. Malvolio swears ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’, and places the blame on the other characters therefore feeling pompous again.
This is another example of the moral and philosophical relevance as it portrays Malvolio’s comeuppance – e. g. : what comes around goes around. Despite the trick played upon him, Malvolio still doesn’t learn from his mistakes even at the end of the play – which is too astonishing to comprehend – he was tricked, accused of being mad, then locked up, and still he doesn’t learn that how he treats people is wrong. Feste’s statement about how his enemies “tell me plainly I am an ass, so that by my foes, sir, I profit in the knowledge of myself,” could be because he is trying to get Malvolio to realize his mistakes.
Yet again, this is more use of moral content because Feste, the jester, is trying to get Malvolio to accept what he did – although jesters are meant to be fools. The relationship between Sir Toby and Sir Andrew is also unresolved at the end of the play; their last appearance has Sir Toby swearing at Sir Andrew, and apparently quitting Sir Andrew’s company. All of this going on around them gives Sebastian and Viola time to work through their undoubtedly passionate feelings about each other and actually understand what happened to them.
Sebastian renews his pledge to Olivia and they remain married, and Viola and Orsino end up marrying. This is total fantasy because before this Orsino thought Cesario was a man, and now he knows who Cesario really is he suddenly loves her – which is far-fetched. However, although Orsino closes the play on a happy note with an optimistic statement about the ‘golden time’ the newlyweds are about to enjoy, Feste sings a song that ruins the possibility of a completely happy and perfect ending, reminding us that the play has ended and now you have to go back to reality.
It talks of the sad life of actors, jesters, and humans in general, but he declares that he and his fellows will continue trying to make the audience laugh. In conclusion, I thoroughly agree that Twelfth Night is ‘A joyful fantasy full of impossibilities’, because I believe that the play is mostly fantasy with many unfeasible events, however, themes such as unrequited love, cruelty, grief, and friendship are all portrayed, which restricts it from being total fantasy.