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    How does Shakespeare create and use comedy in the play Twelfth Night Essay

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    Twelfth Night is a play written by William Shakespeare to be performed on stage. It was written at around 1600 and about half way through Shakespeare’s career as a playwright. The first recorded production was given at the Hall of the Inner Temple, London in 1602. The play is known has ‘Twelfth Night’ because it was originally performed on the twelfth night of Christmas. The play was not officially named, but has a subtitle of ‘Or What you Will’ meaning whatever you want to call it. The play has many of the elements common to Elizabethan romantic comedy, including the devices of mistaken identity, separated twins, and gender-crossing disguise, and its plot revolves around overcoming obstacles to “true” love.

    The play uses many concepts of comedy and there are two main plots in the play, the main love plot and a comic sub-plot.

    The romantic main plot is based around confusion and mistaken identity. There is a love triangle at the centre of all the chaos. The three characters involved in the triangle are Orsino, Viola and Olivia. Viola loves Orsino, Orsino loves Olivia and Olivia loves Viola. Although all three of these characters claim to be in love only Viola is actually in love. Both Orsino and Olivia are in love with the idea and concept of love.

    Orsino claims to love Olivia but barely knows her and over exaggerates his love for her. In Act 1: Scene 1 Orsino opens the play with his feelings for his love for Olivia,

    ‘If music be the food of love, play on,

    Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

    The appetite may sicken and so die.’

    Orsino is ordering the musicians to use up all the love sick thoughts that are torturing him with the help of their music. He claims to want the feelings he is experiencing to go away but I think that Orsino loves every minute of his over-exaggerated love for Olivia. In Act 1: Scene 1 lines 41-42, not long after claiming he wants his feelings to go, Orsino says,

    ‘Away before me to sweet beds of flow’rs:

    Love-thoughts lie rich when canopied with bow’rs.’

    Orsino now wants to go to the garden to enjoy his romantic mood again. In the play we see that Orsino is self-indulgent and cares more about his ‘love’ for Olivia rather than interacting with the outside world. Only after the arrival of Viola in Act 1: Scene 4 does Orsino begins to break out of his self-involved character. Of course Orsino relates to Viola and not Cesario without really knowing it. Shakespeare shows that Orsino is contradicting himself here. He shows the audience that Orsino is fake. The audience find it comical whenever Orsino speaks of his love for Olivia because they know it is fake.

    Viola, who has survived a ship wreck in the play and as lost her identical twin brother in the accident, decides to disguise herself as a man named Cesario. Viola, disguised as Cesario, gets a job as a servant for Orsino. Viola quickly discovers her love for him and this love is the purest of all throughout the play. In Act 2: Scene 4 lines 112-115 Viola speaks of her love for Orsino,

    ‘Feed on her damask cheek. 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?’

    She lets Orsino know that she has been love sick and that the love she has for him has been eating away at her. But she has been enduring it cheerfully.

    Viola is the only character in the play who is not ridiculed. She has no serious faults and is a likable figure throughout the play. Only when her brother arrives in Illyria can she unveil her true self and true feelings. Shakespeare uses Viola as the linking person in the love triangle. She is involved with both Orsino and Olivia. Viola is the link to all of the romantic main plot and Shakespeare uses her to create many comical situations and events throughout the play.

    Olivia is a similar character to Orsino in many ways. She too is self-indulg’nt and cares only for mourning her dead brother than to mingle with the outside world. Olivia seems more concerned about her sorrow and self-pity rather than to go out and find her true love. So false are her feelings for her dead brother are that as soon as Viola, disguised as Cesario, steps onto the scene all her sorrow is forgotten and she is swept away with a new emotion, love. This is again another example of Shakespeare using a character contradicting them to create comedy. In Act 1: Scene 5 lines 285-287 Olivia describes love-at-first-sight when she first saw Cesario,

    ‘Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections

    With an invisible and subtle stealth

    To creep in at mine eyes. Well, let it be.’

    Olivia’s feelings for Cesario are a mirror image of Orsino’s feelings for her and the audience realise that the two of them are similar characters. Olivia and Orsino’s likeness does not resolve itself at the end of the play. With Orsino marrying Viola and Olivia marrying Sebastian the audience see this as marrying a male and female version of the same person.

    All of the dialogue in the romantic main plot is done in versus. From counting the number of beats per line we see that Shakespeare tried to keep it to 10 beats per line. The romantic main plot was probably done in versus to show the importance of the characters involved. The main point that Shakespeare is trying to teach us from this storyline is the concept of love and how it can be shown and received. We see that Viola is in true love whereas Orsino and Olivia are in love with themselves and the idea of being in love. Both go and try to find love instead of love finding them. Shakespeare uses contradiction and mistaken identity (Olivia loving a female).

    The plot concerning Malvolio and the letter from Olivia is seen just as a comic sub-plot to that of Viola, Olivia and Orsino’s love triangle. But just as that plot contained interesting characters and ideas and thoughts from Shakespeare, so does this one. The whole saga begins with the miserable servant of Olivia, Malvolio, interrupting a party held by Olivia’s drunk of a cousin Toby in Act 2: Scene 3. After this Sir Toby Belch (his surname ‘Belch’ basically describes his character) Maria, and a fool named Sir Andrew Aguecheek devise a plan to plant a letter written in Olivia’s writing for Malvolio to find, read and then ridicule himself beyond belief.

    Malvolia initially seems to be only a minor character in the play but as the play progresses he becomes more and more interesting. When we first meet him we see that he is a stiff and proper servant who likes nothing better than to spoil other people’s fun. It is this reputation that Sir Toby and the clever Maria do not like and so therefore decide to play a cruel trick on him. The trick brings out a side of him that otherwise would have remained hidden, his extreme ambition to marry Olivia. When he reads the letter forged by Maria it gives hope to his ambition and he performs a quick transformation. In Act 2 Scene 5 lines 80-82 Malvolio is fooled into believing the letter was written by Olivia,

    ‘By my life, this is my lady’s hand: these be her very

    C’s, her U’s and her T’s; and thus makes she her

    great P’s. It is, in contempt of question, her hand’

    He is ridiculed in the scenes by hopping around in yellow stockings and cross garters showing a vulgar smile on his face. Although the audience find this amusing there is also a sense of cruelty that arises from the situation when Malvolio is confined to a dark room in Act 4 for being mad and he is unsure of his sanity. The more Malvolio claims he is not mad the more the audience begin to respect him. In Act 4: Scene 2 lines 28-29 Malvolio pleads his innocence to Feste (who is disguised as Sir Toby.)

    ‘Sir Topas, never was man thus wrong. Good Sir

    Topas, do not think I am mad; they have laid me

    here in hideous darkness.’

    At the end of the play only the story with Malvolio is not resolved as he storms off stage seeking revenge. Shakespeare uses comic situations or farce with this comic plot. Shakespeare ridicules the most hated character in the play in Malvolio. This amuses the audience because it is natural for somebody to laugh when someone is ridiculed. There is also the use of dramatic irony. The audience know more than what Malvolio does.

    Sir Toby Belch is a heavy drinking, late night carousing, rowdy behavioural male. All of which Olivia, his cousin, disapproves of. His idiotic friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, is everywhere Toby is and agrees with everything Sir Toby says. One example of this is in Act 2: Scene 5 lines 170-171 when both Toby and Andrew are praising Maria’s letter,

    ‘Sir Toby

    I could marry this wench for this device.

    Sir Andrew

    So could I too.’

    Shakespeare uses Sir Andrew as the idiot knowing that everyone loves to laugh at an idiot. Sir Toby is a trouble seeking sort of man and Maria is the only person who can put him back on track. At the end of the play these two marry although it is not witnessed on stage.

    Maria, a servant to Olivia, is the cleverest character in the play along with Feste the clown. She is the architect of the letter that fools Malvolio and even begins to put Sir Toby right where he had been doing wrong. She is sort of like Malvolio in the way that she feels she can only rise in the world through marriage. She succeeds were Malvolio fails because she is more in tune with the topsy-turvy spirit of the play than he is. She also can mix with both the upper and lower class characters in the play, just like Feste the clown.

    All of the dialogue used in this plot is in normal prose. From Act 1: Scene 3 when Sir Andrew and Sir Toby are talking we can see that they are speaking in normal speech and not versus like the romantic main plot. Shakespeare teaches throughout the play that pretence is a bad thing and that you should not be ashamed of whom you are. We know this due to Shakespeare’s constant use of mistaken identity. Also, all the people who pretend to be somebody else find themselves in strange situations and are ridiculed throughout the play.

    Feste the clown is the only character to feature in and out of both plots without getting caught up in any of the chaos and havoc surrounding the play. He mixes with the dirty humour of Sir Toby Belch just as well as he mixes with people with a wittier humour such as Olivia. Also Feste is a character in the play who speaks in both verse and normal prose this proves the point that he can mix with any character on stage. Of all the characters on stage only Viola can match his wits, he even out wits the clever Maria. It is ironic that of all the characters on stage, Feste the clown, the fool, is the most intelligent of all people.

    Shakespeare uses many different comical devices during ‘Twelfth Night’ all of which are still used today in modern comedies. In the play Shakespeare uses hamartia which means that all the characters have a flaw. For example Malvolio’s flaw was that he was arrogant and pretended to be something that he was not and in the end he paid for his flaws. Olivia and Orsino’s flaw was that they were both self-indulgn’t.

    Shakespeare also uses dramatic irony. This is when the audience know more than the characters on stage. An example of this is when the audience know that the letter is forged but Malvolio dresses in yellow stockings and cross garters but Olivia is baffled,


    Remember who commended thy yellow stockings,’-


    ‘Thy yellow stockings’?


    ‘And wish’d to see thee cross-garter’d.’



    Mistaken identity is a device which Shakespeare uses a lot in this play and forms two plots upon it. The main plot, where Viola is mistaken for a man and Olivia marries a man she has never even met before in Sebastian, and the comic sub-plot where Malvolio pretends to be somebody that he is not. This combined with dramatic irony is the funniest device Shakespeare uses in the play.

    Shakespeare also plays on words a lot in this play, or uses a pun, an example of this is in Act 1: Scene 3 line 18,

    ‘He’s as tall a man as any’s in Illyria.’

    This is used by Sir Toby to describe Sir Andrew meaning he is a good fellow but also it could me he is actually tall and that is all that he has to offer. The puns are used a lot throughout the play mainly in the comic sub-plot.

    Also throughout the play there is a lot of reference to sex which Shakespeare used in a lot of his comedies in order to get a laugh. Lots of these references though would escape a modern audience.

    The purpose of this comedy is too make people laugh, and even though times have changed parts of this play are still amusing. This is because Shakespeare created and used elements of comedy that are still regularly used today. He uses the characters to contradict and ridicule themselves to make people laugh. He uses the theme of love to do this because all of the audience can relate to this. Shakespeare is very clever in choosing the characters in the play. The poor people in the audience will find it amusing that the rich people on stage are getting ridiculed, whereas the rich members of the audience will find the more intellectual side of the amusing. Shakespeare was a comic genius and this is proven because the devices he used are still used and are still found funny to this day.

    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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    How does Shakespeare create and use comedy in the play Twelfth Night Essay. (2017, Oct 29). Retrieved from

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