The name of this play, Twelfth Night, is a holiday period, just after Christmas in which things are said to be ‘turned upside down.’ Because of the nature of the plot of the play, this title seems fitting.
Twelfth Night is what we call a ‘romantic comedy,’ a comic play drawing on elements of fable, often concerned with love. It is a story of deceit, deception and disguise and filled with dramatic irony, sexual tension and many different kinds of love, both gay and unrequited. It is also set in this fantasy location called Illyria, where the main character, Viola, is shipwrecked on.
The main story is of a girl, Viola, who, having been shipwrecked from her presumed dead brother, decides to dress as a boy so she can get a job in a noble household. Already this confusion, trickery and a fantasy type location follow the path of a romantic comedy. This is made even more apparent when Viola, pretending to be the boy Cesario, falls in love with her master, the Duke Orsino. Meanwhile Orsino keeps up his obsessions for Olivia, the countess of a neighbouring court, getting the disguised Viola to deliver her his love messages, unaware of her true identity. The situation gets even more complicated when Olivia falls in love with Viola’s disguise, Cesario. ‘To any other trust but that I am mad, or else the lady’s mad.’
The love triangle is the first, and most important part of the plot. Around this main plot are a series of subplots, including Malvolio and the attack on Puritanism, and the story of Sebastian, Viola’s lost brother, and his return.
Not all of these sub plots are comic, or contribute to the genre of a ‘romantic comedy,’ but they all relate to some form of love.
Throughout the play, different kinds of love are felt and expressed by different characters. These loves vary from the self-obsessive exerted by Malvolio when he considers a union with Olivia, ‘she that would alter services with thee,’ to the secret, insecure love both Orsino and Olivia feel for the disguised Viola.
To understand these variations of love we need to know what real love is, or the definition atleast:
‘An intense feeling of deep affection or fondness for a person or thing; involving great liking, sexual passion and/or to delight in, admire, and greatly cherish.’
Each character has his or her own ideas about what they consider true, real love. Olivia has two kinds of love, her deep lost love for her dead brother who she feels means she must spend years of her life mourning for, and her sudden lustful attraction to the disguised Viola, ‘methinks I feel this youth’s perfections.’ Orsino on the other hand, has a desperate, relentless love for Olivia, who turns him away every time, ‘O when mine eyes did see Olivia first, me thought she purged the air of pestilence.’
She does this, not because she feels nothing towards him, but because she is determined to keep her pledge to mourn her dead brother for seven years, before she marries anyone ever again. Orsino appears to love the chase, and the idea of being in love rather than ever actually loving somebody else, ‘If music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it.’
This tells us that like other characters in this play, the love he experiences, or wants to experience is not real love. During the play Orsino also hints about his strange attraction to the feminine Cesario, who is actually Viola in disguise. This slightly gay affection causes anxiety in Orsino’s character, atleast in the subtext, until the truth comes out at the end of the play.
Viola’s love for Orsino is the truest love in the play, unfortunately her plan to disguise herself as a boy causes her a lot of trouble as she becomes unable to tell Orsino her true feelings for him, or tell Olivia why she can’t return the love Olivia wants. Viola’s love for Orsino is an unselfish, aching love. Viola continually visits Olivia’s court in Orsino’s attempt to gain Olivia’s love, and each time she tries her hardest to win Olivia over;
‘My lord and master loves you. O such love
Could be but recompensed, through you were crowned
The nonpareil of beauty.’
Another important type of love exerted by a character in this play is the arrogant self-love, portrayed by Malvolio. The best example of this is where he opens the forged letter which he thinks has been written by Olivia, when really it’s been written by Maria. In this letter he thinks that Olivia loves him, ‘I may command where I adore. Why she may command me: I serve her; she is my lady,’ and he begins to daydream about a life married to Olivia, imagining the wealth and respect he would have rather than the love with Olivia, ‘Calling my officers around me, in my branched velvet gown having come from a day-bed, where I have left Olivia sleeping.’
Typically in a romantic comedy, the lust and love between characters causes them to do outrageous, sometimes funny, sometimes dangerous actions, and Twelfth Night is no exception. Again each different character acts in a different way to satisfy their wants, Olivia for example goes completely against her word in a vain attempt to seduce the messenger boy, Cesario, Viola in disguise, ‘Yet come again: for thou perhaps mayst move, that heart which now abhors to like his love.’ Malvolio on the other hand is so enthralled by the letter he discovers he follows its commands entirely, and Malvolio gives the play a comic twist when he appears on stage with his yellow stockings, ‘Remember who commended thy yellow-stockings – … And wished to see thee cross-gartered.’ The reason why this is comic, aside the obvious laughter it would generate from the audience, is because Malvolio is supposed to represent Puritanism, and dancing, while wearing yellow stockings is the exact opposite to what he stands for, which shows us how powerful his love for Olivia is.
In turn Malvolio, is then imprisoned for his self-delusion by other members of Olivia’s court, who seek to cause Malvolio pain and anguish purely for his views on what they consider having a good time, ‘Alas, sir, how fell you besides your five wits.’
Another good example of the things done by the people in the play, in the name of love, is the duel that follows the confrontation between Sir Andrew and Viola-Cesario, when he observes the attraction between his mistress Olivia, and Viola-Cesario. ‘Marry, I saw your niece do more favours to the count’s servingman than ever she bestowed upon me. I saw’t i’th’ orchard.’ Sir Andrew then baits Viola-Cesario into a duel, and he himself is then urged on by Sir Toby. Having told both Viola and Sir Andrew of the other’s supreme swordsmanship and bravery, the two prepare to fight, Sir Andrew for the affection of his mistress, but Viola for no reason at all. At the last minute Antonio intervenes and stops the duel, mistaking Viola for Sebastian. ‘One sir that for his love dares yet do more, than you have heard him brag to you he will.’
In conclusion, we can see from many examples, that love twists the character’s ideals and morals around, turning them into little more than fools, desperate to be with the ones they love. Throughout the play, the most common type of love shown, is the sexual lust the characters show for another, because most of the character’s do not know their counterparts enough to love them on anything else other than appearance. In answer to the title of this essay, we can infer that Twelfth Night fits Shakespeare’s genre of romantic comedy, almost perfectly.