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    Is Twelfth Night a Comedy or a Tragedy?

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    Although there is little speculation as to whether or not Twelfth Night is a comedy when watching or reading the play, the majority regard the play as a comedy and not a tragedy. Purely because of the many funny scenarios that occur throughout the play, and because of the structure of the play which fits a pattern with other comedies written by Shakespeare. This structure may include: mistaken identities, separation and unification, male friendship, a clever servant, heightened tensions often within a family and multiple plots.

    Many of Shakespeare’s comedies contain most if not all of these elements. In Twelfth Night these elements are clearly apparent which will be explored in our search to answer the question: whether Twelfth Night is a comedy where tragedy lurks just under the surface? Twelfth Night would have undoubtedly been regarded as a comedy in the Elizabethan theatre. Shakespeare obviously intends for it to be perceived as a comedy and not to be taken seriously as the subtitle suggests “What You Will”, meaning the audience can perceive the play how they like.

    Its name “Twelfth Night” has nothing to do with the play but was named after the Twelfth Night holiday and was to be performed as part of Twelfth Night celebrations; further implying the play is to bring happiness and laughter but clearly not sorrow. However even though the play stands as a comedy, the tragedy of the character Malvolio and the cruelty shown towards him still questions the humanity of the audience and society in Elizabethan times in finding such a heartless and spiteful circumstance facetious.

    This play is clearly not a tragedy and even though much cruelty and vindictiveness is projected at Malvolio by the characters Sir Toby, Maria, Sir Andrew, Fabian and Feste; they are not evil, merciless characters of the play. However many of them justify the reason why “Twelfth Night” is a hilarious comedy. Sir Toby Belch, uncle to Olivia, is a fairly important character of the play in ensuring it remains as comical as possible and a distraction for people of Elizabethan times from their daily routine (the real world).

    Sir Toby is fat, crude and spends the entire play drunk; however Sir Toby is witty and intelligent, making many jokes and puns. A prime example would be the scene where he forces the unwilling Cesario into a duel with petrified Sir Andrew, terrifying both of them with personas (lies) he creates of them; telling these lies to the opposite duelling partner. He notifies Sir Andrew that Cesario is the “very devil”, a “Virago”; which causes panic and fear throughout Sir Andrew’s whole body, although she is anything but that.

    He informs Cesario, who is Viola – a woman masquerading as a castrated man that Sir Andrew is “full of despite” and as “bloody as the hunter”, “quick, skilful and deadly”. This is one of the many comical geniuses that Shakespeare creates for the character Sir Toby. Another humorous plot is where Sir Toby tricks Malvolio into dressing stupidly and behaving absurdly; which eventually leads to him being put in jail for supposedly being mad and possessed by the devil. Sir Andrew, the drinking partner of Sir Toby, who was also involved in the callousness shown to Malvolio, is not evil either.

    He is anything but evil; he is a foolish character of the play. He is manipulated by Sir Toby into pursuing Lady Olivia since this will maintain Sir Toby’s drinking lifestyle since Sir Andrew is very rich earning some “three thousand ducats a year” meaning the unintelligent Sir Andrew is greatly valued by Sir Toby. The comical example mentioned of Cesario duelling Sir Toby was not for the benefit of Sir Andrew. Sir Toby manipulated Sir Andrew into duelling with Cesario who became a threat to Sir Toby’s plans; the unwitting Sir Andrew went along with the duel thinking it was for his benefit in trying to win Olivia.

    Clearly Sir Andrew is not evil but foolish. However he did dislike Malvolio for he found him annoying as he threatened to tell Olivia of their escapades (drinking and making noise all night). It would now seem Sir Toby seems immoral with his plot against Malvolio and his constant manipulation of Sir Andrew. He does not even care that Sir Andrew could be injured in the duel with Cesario – but only cares about his money and drinking. Even though the odds are weighed against Sir Toby he is still an entertaining, comical figure of the play making “Twelfth Night” one of Shakespeare’s most loved comedies.

    Fabian – servant to Lady Olivia also dislikes Malvolio and also participates in Malvolio’s downfall referring to Malvolio as a “Cur” – mongrel dog. He relishes the letter: “What dish o’ poison has she dressed him! ” This shows he will enjoy seeing Malvolio completely humiliated and is constantly enthusiastic about the plot devised to get revenge on Malvolio. Fabian may seem cruel and cunning also but he does not play a major part in tormenting Malvolio when he is locked up unlike Feste.

    Feste – “the clown” – jester for Olivia plays a huge part when Malvolio is put in prison as he disguises himself as a priest “Sir Topas”, and goes to speak to the imprisoned Malvolio. Malvolio tries his best to convince Malvolio that he is not mad, but Feste or Sir Topas is not convinced. This is probably the most spiteful part of the play, when Feste allows for Malvolio to be locked up and pretends to be a priest. However he redeems this act slightly by allowing for Malvolio to be given a pen and paper to prove he’s not mad – upon which he is later released.

    Feste is not cruel character but playful as he plays along with Malvolio pretending to be a priest whereas he is a mere clown. The only other character to be involved is Maria – Olivia’s waiting gentlewoman; the architect of this vicious plot as she is the one who conjured up the idea of the letter. If anything Maria is most conniving character as she thought up the plot and persisted until he was thrown in jail. However in a comedy that is meant to make people laugh she is not depicted as an evil character.

    Malvolio – Olivia’s puritanical steward is most definitely not evil, if anything he is the character we should feel compassion for after the way he has been mistreated. Though Shakespeare would have sympathy for such a puritan because the puritans wanted to close down the theatres. Mal means bad or evil, as in malicious; volio means I wish or I desire, from the Latin volo. However this could be coincidence, although the imagery produced by other characters – Sir Toby for example represents the character; as a toby is a jug or a mug which resembles a fat man; belch is a burp.

    The characteristics of his name suit his character completely; this is the same for other characters but none have an “evil name”. However I still firmly believe Malvolio is not an evil character but a grumpy pompous old man – which is how the other characters of the play saw him and so took their revenge, however his personality does not excuse the mistreatment shown towards him. This play seems more probable to be a comedy rather than a tragedy purely because of its likeable characters already mentioned.

    These being Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste – already mentioning the vital role they play in ensuring the play is regarded as a comedy. The antics of these characters define what Shakespearian comedy is all about with characters that the audience love. For their stupidity, the hilarious scenarios they create or engage in. Other than the comedy caused by the mistaken identity of Viola and Sebastian; these characters and the personalities and situations they engage in such as: devious plots, amusing disguises… ingle handily make “Twelfth Night” the comical masterpiece that it is regarded as today and then (Elizabethan times). Another characteristic that defines this play as a comedy is the fact that it’s a happy ending with no deaths. This is the main factor that differentiates from the genre tragedy and the genre comedy. If there is a death then the play qualifies as being a tragedy, if there are no deaths then the play qualifies as being a comedy.

    However we have already asked ourselves is Shakespeare toying around a bit with the boundary between comedy and tragedy with the vindictiveness shown towards Malvolio. However the play does not end so happily for all characters -Malvolio especially but also Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Once Malvolio is released and Fabian reveals the whole truth, Malvolio furious by the truth of this trick says: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”, and storms out. Clearly this is not a happy ending for Malvolio as has been treated terribly throughout most of the play.

    However usually the downfall of a great man – Malvolio in this case usually occurs in tragic play like: “Hamlet” for example – another play written by Shakespeare. Malvolio’s reputation has been ruined by Sir Toby and other characters, he will no longer be a respected man and the audience knows it and wonders what will happen to him next. However this is not enough to verge the play further onto boundary between comedy and tragedy. Malvolio’s deterioration will not affect the whole community as it would in a tragedy like “Macbeth” perhaps.

    Malvolio is not the only character not to end the play happily as Sir Andrew does not have a happy ending either. Throughout the whole play he is manipulated by Sir Toby just because Sir Andrew is rich and strung along to believe that he will marry Olivia; when all the other characters and audience realise that it will never happen except for him. We know this because all other characters think he’s foolish and it is proved by the way Sir Toby so easily manipulates him to make things go his way because Sir Andrew is so foolish.

    In the end he does not get to marry Olivia which was his main aim throughput the play when he duelled with Cesario, and he is less wealthy as cunning Sir Toby has sponged off him. The audience should really feel sorry for Sir Andrew because he is regarded as a fool by all other characters, especially Sir Toby who is supposed to be a good friend of his. However on the whole the play ends happily for the characters, with marriage for the main characters Viola and Orsino who were wedded and Olivia and Sebastian who were also wedded.

    This is the ideal way to end if the play does not want to seem like a tragedy as it is the most happiness for the main characters. Viola who finally finds out her brother Sebastian is alive and vice versa, she also gets to marry the man she has loved from the start Orsino. Orsino is happy as he has someone to love who loves him back. Olivia is happy as she has fallen in love with the words and persona of Cesario and has transferred those feelings to Sebastian because he looks so alike Viola. Sebastian is happy or overwhelmed that he has just married a woman he barely knows but obviously does not mind.

    This happy ending for the main characters that were not involved in the sub plot with the tricking of Malvolio with Maria’s letter which is a trademark for comedies, is ludicrous. In real life we know this could never happen; all those times Orsino spoke of his love so passionately for Olivia he just transfers them simply in the blink of an eye to Viola. This play although deals with real feelings felt by humans such as sadness, pain, anger and hatred it is just joyful fantasy play full of impossibilities.

    For example: grown adults are shown behaving like unruly children, there are no parents to tell the lovers what to do, the behaviour of the lovers as they fall in and out of love is irrational, the story of the play is absurd – it seems unlikely that Viola could disguise herself so successfully as a man and that she and her brother could be mistaken for each other, the realistic and apparently serious and responsible person Malvolio, is actually a hypocrite, has an appalling trick played upon him and is rejected by almost every other character.

    This undoubtedly proves that Twelfth Night is a comedy, however I do agree with the title that states “Twelfth Night” is a comedy with tragedy lurking under the surface. In combination with the humorous characters, happy endings, titanic confusion, and the pure absurdity of this play it is undoubtedly a comedy. However Shakespeare does cut it fine with him playing around a bit too much. The tragedy of Malvolio and the cruelty shown towards him definitely makes people think twice – however he just isn’t an important enough character for the audience to feel the play is a tragedy.

    Sir Andrew neither gets an easy ride as mentioned adding to the tragedy that lurks in this play. Although this is the main misfortune that lurks in this dubious play there is the possibility of a much larger catastrophe with regards to the love triangle that occurs that would completely change the genre of the play from a light hearted comedy to blood ridden tragedy such as was “Hamlet” another prestigious play from Shakespeare. If ever Orsino or Olivia were to find out the Cesario is really a woman (Viola) there could be disastrous consequences.

    If ever Cesario was to react to her feelings for Orsino he may be angered and put Cesario in prison. However, probably the most likely “what if” scenario: if Orsino was to find out Olivia loved Cesario, Orsino would think Cesario has tricked him and betrayed him; since the whole point of Cesario visiting Olivia is to try persuade her to marry or love Orsino. There are also possible other tragedies: if Malvolio was to exert his revenge by killing Sir Toby, Feste, Fabian, Maria or Sir Andrew the play would definitely become a tragedy.

    If Sir Andrew realised Sir Toby had been manipulating and using him, he may declare revenge on Sir Toby and possibly on Olivia thinking if he can’t have her no-one can. In conclusion I certainly agree with the statement that “Twelfth Night” is a comedy where tragedy lurks just under the surface which has been thoroughly proved throughout this essay by the fact that there are elements of tragedy but just not enough for the play to make people think its’ a tragedy.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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    Is Twelfth Night a Comedy or a Tragedy?. (2017, Oct 29). Retrieved from

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