William Shakespeare wrote three types of play; tragedy, comedy and history. It is well known that “Twelfth Night” is a comedy, but why? It’s not a tragedy because nobody dies during it. It’s not a history because at the time it was not written in the past. It is neither of these so it has to be a comedy-but there has to be more to it; and there is…
Right from the beginning of the play, humour is obvious to the audience. If not in a direct way then through the gift of music. In Act One, Orsino calls for music to feed his hunger for love. “If music be the food of love, play on;” He tries to use the music to make him feel better, to rid him of his depression because he is melancholy. Music is seen all over the world to portray any emotion someone is feeling at any given time. Happiness, though, is probably the most common emotion shown through music. Orsino loves music and in act one it is apparent to the audience that this is his obsession.
In the countess Olivia’s household, works Feste, a jester. He makes jokes and makes people laugh. “Well, go thy way; if Sir Toby would leave drinking, thou wert as witty a piece of Eve’s flesh as any in Illyria.” He has a gift for twisting the words spoken by superiors and fellow workers. You can’t assume that because feste is called a Fool, he is foolish. There is often a lot of truth in what he says. He reminds Olivia that he has all his wits about him: “I wear not motley in my brain.” (When acting this play the jester would always wear an outfit called a motley, with bells. He is saying that because he looks the fool doesn’t make him one).
At the beginning of Act Three, Feste and Viola meet unexpectedly in Olivia’s orchard. Feste’s teasing and punning arises from the slipperiness of language: ‘words are very rascals’ and ‘words are grown so false.’ Feste enjoys playing with different meanings of the same word (for example ‘live’=’earn money’ or ‘have a house’). Yet he jokingly accuses Viola of doing the same thing-twisting words to give them different meanings (‘a sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit’). When Feste says that words have become unreliable ‘since bonds disgraced them’, he is probably pointing yet again to the way in which a word can alter its meaning. Promises are made of words, but because words can be interpreted differently, it’s hard to keep promises.
Going back to his first appearance in Act One, Scene Five sees him proving Olivia a fool. He tells her she is a fool not himself, by pointing out that if her brother has gone to heaven then there is no need for him to be mourned. “The fool more, Madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven.” Olivia reacts to this with laughter. At the beginning of Act Five, Scene Five, Feste treats both Fabian and Orsino as the ‘Stooge’ or ‘straight man.’ This the person that feeds lines into the comedian, so as the comedian can make a witty point. Seeing as Orsino is his superior and ultimately the most powerful person in Illyria, this comes across quite funny. The way that Feste is able to get away with treating seniors with what appears, such little respect the whole way through the play, is amazing. Anyone else who would do the same would ultimately lose their job.
Feste’s Latin quote “cucullus non facit monachun” meaning “the hood does not make the monk,” is yet another reminder of a major theme of the play: don’t judge on outward appearances.
Later in the play, a trick is played on Malvolio. This is the sub-plot in the play. Malvolio thinks that he can order people around on behalf of Olivia, being her steward. When Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria get too fed up with it they hatch a plan to embarrass him and might get him fired.
They make Malvolio believe that he is in love with her through the form of a letter, that Maria writes, signing it ‘Olivia’. The letter convinces him of this and wears yellow cross-gartered stockings to impress Olivia; only she hates it. He is surprised because to him, it was she who wrote the letter, “Remember who commended thy yellow stockings-” It is amusing to think of the most serious man in the world dancing around in bright coloured stockings, laughing and joking and then to be locked away in the dungeon and made to believe himself mad. Feste pretends to be one, Sir Topas, to trick Malvolio into thinking he is mad. Malvolio believes himself to be going in sane. Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Maria enjoy Feste’s amusing foolery.
Explaining the joke is a sure way to kill the humour, but two things that Feste says would make his Elizabethan audience laugh and not us because they were well known at the time.
From Act Five, Scene One, line five: “This is to give a dog and in recompense desire my dog again.” Queen Elizabeth the First begged a dog from a courtier saying she would grant him any request in return. He replied, “Give me my dog again.”
Lines sixteen and seventeen: “…if your four negatives make your two affirmatives…” This was a favourite joke among men of the time was that a girl’s ‘no no no no’ actually meant ‘yes yes.’ As you can see these things do not seem amusing but when Shakespeare wrote ‘Twelfth Night’ for the Elizabethan audience, between 1600 and 1605 they were.
If you can imagine this play being acted out on stage or have seen it acted then you know how funny it would be. When this play was written was the time that women could never act. Therefore men had to play every part, including the women. Young boys whose voices had not broken were hired to play the women, which is funny enough as it is. But if you add in the fact that Viola disguises herself as Cesario, a man, then you have a boy playing a woman, playing a man! With this you then have Olivia, a boy playing a woman who is in love with Cesario, the man whose really a woman Viola, played by a boy and who loves a man Orsino, who is in love with the woman Olivia, whose played by a boy. The skill involved when acting this out must be tremendous but extremely funny. The way that Shakespeare wrote this was extremely clever and probably took this fact into consideration when originally writing it and did not edit it because it adds humoristic qualities to the play,
As I have mentioned Viola disguises herself as a man. She does this to get a job in Orsino’s palace when she arrives in Illyria. She goes to woo Olivia on behalf of Orsino but Olivia falls in love with her as Cesario instead. Olivia wants to marry Cesario, but Cesario can’t accept because Cesario is really Viola and in love with Orsino. Act One, Scene Five, “Yet a barful strife! Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.” Viola admits aside that she wants to marry Orsino. The thought of a countess falling in love with someone who she thinks is a man but is really a woman is highly entertaining. When Viola’s twin brother Sebastian (whom Viola thinks is dead) turns up, the complication builds up. Sebastian bumps into Olivia. Olivia thinks that he is Cesario and she asks Sebastian to marry her. He accepts and they marry. After marrying Sebastian thinking that it was Cesario, she meets Viola-Cesario with Orsino, Fabian, Feste and Antonio she then accuses Viola-Cesario of lying about marrying her and the priest justifies it all.
I feel that without Sir Andrew Aguecheek this play would not have such a humorous impact on its audience. It was his stupidity that I found myself laughing at whilst watching it on the video version. With his long straight but thinning hair and the help of Sir Toby Belch, he still believes that Olivia will marry him.” If I can not recover your niece, I am a foul way out.” Each time Sir Andrew feels like giving up, “No, faith, I’ll not stay a jot longer!” because Olivia has still not paid any attention to him, Sir Toby convinces him otherwise. Sir Toby tells him that given a little more time Olivia will marry him and as her uncle he shall make sure of it. Olivia has no intention of this, as she is in love Cesario.
Sir Toby is blatantly lying to Sir Andrew and as the audience can see this, Sir Andrew cannot. Sir Toby deceives his so-called ‘friend’ because Sir Andrew is incredibly rich and Sir Toby wishes to spend it all on alcohol. “Thou hadst need send for more money.”
In Act Five, Sir Toby’s true sentiments are known. He admits his true feelings toward Sir Andrew, calling him ‘an ass-head, and a coxcomb, (conceited fool), and a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull.’
In Act One, Scene Five, Shakespeare may be reminding the audience not to take ‘Twelfth Night’ too seriously, but to enjoy it as a comedy. At one point a line contains the subtitle of the play: “what you will” (whatever you like). The saying was in common use in Shakespeare’s time.
The second is when Sir Toby Belch says “Well, it’s all one.” It is the Elizabethan equivalent of ‘So what,’ or ‘I couldn’t care less.’ The expression is used several times throughout the play. It echoes the subtitle of the play.
Shakespeare did many things to ensure the play was seen as a comedy and not confused with a romantic or a history play and the way he did it was truly remarkable. I must say that Shakespeare was a great writer to do such a thing and to be able to fit everything in together and to perform so many jokes and tricks that don’t confuse each other.