The humour in Twelfth Night focuses around the concept of mistaken identity and deception. Viola, in her guise as Cesario, is the cause of much confusion as various characters mistake her for her brother Sebastian; the minor characters spend much of the play pulling a cruel prank on Malvolio. It is intriguing how much Shakespeare tells us about the characters of Twelfth Night by the ways they view and trick each other, and indeed themselves. Orsino has us paying attention from the very start of the play.
Within seven lines of the opening, we already know that he seems to be a capricious character, from asking the musician to ‘play on’ to deciding that ‘Enough, no more/’Tis not so sweet as it was before. ‘ The faux finality provided by this couplet makes the reader consider to what extent Orsino means what he says, including his professed love for Olivia. Does Orsino really love Olivia, or is he just enjoying the feeling of being a rich romantic, madly “in love”?
The way that Orsino is not able to see what he really is, gives us little hope of his ability to see who he really loves – Viola, which we can see from his rapid, no nonsense redirection of affection – “Let me see you in thy woman’s weeds. ” The fact that Orsino has dropped all the romance and “passion of loins’ from his new courtship with Viola suggests that he has realized the folly of his “love” to Olivia; an insight that is almost out of character. Olivia, unfortunately, appears to undergo no such personality transition.
She appears thoroughly unperturbed upon the revelation of her marriage to Sebastian and not Cesario, and indeed makes it seem as though she deems the two interchangeable. However, looking back at Olivia’s first meeting with Cesario, she does not quite conform to our expectations of a woman “till seven years’heat/Shall not behold her face at ample view’.
Continually plaguing Malvolio with queries – ‘What kind o’man is he? ‘ , ‘Of what personage and years is he? , she reveals her boredom with the mourning persona she has created for herself; already she is wondering whether the ‘divinity’ this young ambassador brings is worth giving up her carefully crafted character for. She, in a way similar to Orsino, is in love with the idea of being the target of Cesario’s love, explaining her rapid change of feeling. Olivia fools no one but Orsino in her disguise, even befuddled Malvolio does not see Olivia as so unattainable as to soliloquize about her. Orsino and Olivia are the romantic couple of the play, in personality if not in plot.
They remain misled, unwitting, by the rest of the cast until the revelation at the end of the play. Maria and Sir Toby are the orchestrators of the antics surrounding Malvolio and Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night. They are a rarity in Shakespeare’s works; few Shakespearean couples seem to be so suited for each other while also having no obstacles to their relationship. Toby declares that he ‘could marry this wench for this device’, referring to her ingenious forging of the prank letter for Malvolio.
The letter is perfectly designed to humiliate Malvolio, who is trapped, almost as Olivia, in his role as the stiff, uptight butler, by forcing him to deny his personality – ‘he does smile his face into more lines than is in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies’ and ‘will be strange, stout, in yellow stockings, and cross-gartered’. Sir Toby also entertains the audience incredibly well with his incitement of Sir Andrew and Cesario, known cowards, into a duel.
All of this is not just for Toby and Maria’s amusement; they genuinely want to try and teach Malvolio a lesson, and with Toby’s increasingly close relationship with Maria, he begins to stop defending Sir Andrew – ‘He… hath all the good gifts of nature’ – or tolerating his rather irritating habits – his continuing agreement (when Sir Toby declares to Maria, ‘Shall I play my freedom at traytrip, and become thy bond-slave? ‘, Andrew adds, ‘I’ faith, or I either? ‘).
Maria and Toby have eloped by the end of the play, leaving Feste to reveal their pranking; they have understood what makes Malvolio and Sir Andrew tick and manipulated it to their own ends. Viola, arguably the primary protagonist of the play, appears to be remarkably more discerning than some of her cohorts. From early on, she begins moving freely between the two households of Orsino and Olivia, maintaining good relationships with each of them through her disguise of Cesario. She demonstrates a surprisingly ability to deal with the situations which she is presented with, providing the force which drives the play forwards.
Unlike many of the other characters, she does not seems to have the same problems with love and romance that they do; she has an extremely pure love, born of passion: ‘She pin’d in thought, And with a green and yellow melancholy She sat like Patience on a monument, Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed? ‘ Today, an audience listening to this comment would probably only recognise it as a charming simile, but to Shakespeare’s contemporaries, this idea of a love that wasn’t merely impractical, but completely out of the question, would resonate much more strongly.
Viola’s dual identity as Cesario is the only real obstacle to her love of Orsino, but also paradoxically the means through which she has come to understand her love, and consequently herself. Viola must have a very clear idea of what she is and what she has made Cesario, otherwise the other characters would not find her convincing. When she wants to express her true feelings, she invents a “sister” who is the real Viola, behind Cesario’s guise.
It is possible to excuse Olivia’s switch to Sebastian in this sense; since Sebastian is barely his own character and is where Viola offloads those parts of her which were not really her. Cesario is largely indistinguishable from Sebastian, except where Cesario lets Viola show through, such as in Toby’s duel of cowards. Viola understands what Orsino, Olivia, and most importantly herself really want, and this is what makes her deception so successful. The classic Shakespearean fool of Twelfth Night, Feste is extremely enigmatic.
While he does not go as far as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and break the fourth wall by speaking directly to the audience, several of his lines, especially his final song, seems as though it could be targeted at those watching. Cesario/Viola notes that: ‘This fellow is wise enough to play the fool; And to do that well, craves a kind of wit’. Indeed, even while Feste joins in with Sir Toby’s revelry and mockery, he displays a sharp intelligence that only Viola can see, though Olivia notices something and is baffled when Feste plays word games with her and Malvolio.
Feste also has a less jovial side, however, he finds great pleasure in tormenting Malvolio when he has been locked away. Disguised as “Sir Topas”, Malvolio is brought to desperation by his talk of ‘bay-windows transparent as barricadoes’, ‘clerestories toward the south-north’, plain nonsense to humiliate him further. He follows up by creating a conversation between himself and “Sir Topas”, a feat that is either significant of brilliant acting or Malvolio’s continued inability to see what is in front of him.
Feste is clearly a sly, witty character, his wordplay even earning him a couple of coins from Orsino, but his role as the audience’s bridge into the play conflicts with some of his fatalistic nature; he sings of the ‘stars’ and ‘Fate’, and he does not show remorse for Malvolio’s treatment, merely that ‘the whirligig of time brings in his revenges. ‘ Feste reveals to the audience much about the other characters of Twelfth Night. through deception and cunning.
InTrevor Nunn’s film adaptation of the play, Feste is shown as knowing about Viola’s arrival in Illyria and her alter ego from the start, while his link to destiny almost suggests to the audience that he knew the resolution of the play as well. In Twelfth Night deception is the mechanic of humour primarily due to the dramatic irony inherent. The characters are completely taken in by the web of trickery, yet we, as the audience, are not fooled for a second. However, the viewers must also appreciate that Twelfth Night does not go out of its way to be convincing, nor does this detract from the entertainment value of the play.
A seventeenth century audience would be very familiar with the conventions of romantic comedy, more so than us watching the play today, but we do not throw our hands up and denounce the play for its lack of realism. Shakespeare pushes boundaries and makes it clear that this is not the real point behind the play, instead disguise ironically reveals the characters’ personalities. I think that the more perceptive characters in Twelfth Night – Feste and Viola – are indeed better at playing the fool; they keep the network of disguise running, the network that Shakespeare has woven in is what makes Twelfth Night such a compelling play.