Today many people think of ‘Twelfth Night’ as a time to put decorations away and check there are no more pine needles in the carpets. Some people enjoy taking their energetic children to see a pleasant pantomime and let their favourite fairy-tales be performed in front of their eyes.
However in Elizabethan times the twelve days following Christmas were a time for a mixture of emotions; disguise, madness and boisterous frivolity. So common sense and sanity were not part of these twelve days after Christmas. As these were days when a topsy-turvy festive world of fools and confusion was created as people swapped roles e.g. masters become servants and servants had control of their masters. It was a time of excitement for everyone. But sadly it was a momentary pleasure for as soon as the sixth of January came round times went back to normal.
‘Twelfth Night’ has elements from mummer’s plays dating back as far as the thirteenth century and even has elements the same as today’s pantomimes. The elements included are cross-dressing, bawdy humour and daft slapstick sword fights.
Traditionally in mummers plays there are men dressing as women e.g. dames and this is also present in pantomimes. ‘Twelfth Night’ also has this humorous factor as Viola cross-dresses as Cesario.
Similarly all three types of plays have some kind of amusing fight like the pleasing half hearted sword fight between Cesario and the pathetic Sir Andrew in ‘Twelfth Night.’ Even though the fights aren’t real or serious they capture the audience’s attention and spirit. Mummer’s plays and pantomimes also include this fun aspect.
There is a huge amount of suspension of belief in ‘Twelfth Night’ as the audience will be wondering how no one could see that Cesario was a women not a man! In modern day soaps today like ‘Eastenders’ so many things happen to so few people it is unbelievable yet, whilst watching the audience is drawn into believing what they are seeing. This same aspect is used in ‘Twelfth Night’.
The time it takes characters in ‘Twelfth Night’ to fall in and out of love is incredible two examples of this are Orsino to Viola and Olivia to Cesario.
“Cesario, by the roses of the spring,
By maidenhood, honour, truth and everything,
I love thee so that maugre all my pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.”
Act 3 Scene 1 Line 148. It is unrealistically fast.
It is obviously Shakespeare didn’t want the play to be taken seriously just the name of it gave the fact it was serious away as he named it ‘Twelfth Night’ or ‘What you will.’
Even the dialog states that the things aren’t real such as when Viola/Cesario says “I am not what I am.” Act 3 Scene 1 Line 126. Blatantly proving she is dressed as a man. Just as in mummer’s plays and pantomimes the whole play is centred on the suspension of disbelief particularly about how everyone knows the males and females have cross-dressed.
The scenario in ‘Twelfth Night’ where Sir Toby Belch and Maria put a fake love letter down for Malvolio to find is rather far-fetched. For instance why would Olivia have left the letter there, on the path in the first place? Anyone could have picked it up it was just pure coincidence that Malvolio happened to walk by and pick it up this is one of the un-credible storylines in this play. But today in modern times plays are full of un-credible storylines these are there purely and simply for entertainment. So in truth it doesn’t need to be realistic.
Orsino shows extreme infatuation for Olivia which he deems to be love. This is show when he says,
“O when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence.” This was in Act 1 Scene 1 Line 19-20. But what proves it isn’t true love is the fact he sends a messenger (Cesario) in his place to tell Olivia of his love for her. This would make the audience consider his true feelings for Olivia because if he truly did love her he’d go himself.
What is credible in the play is the feelings and the emotions characters show. Since some people may mistake infatuation with love. But one feeling which is particularly credible is Olivia’s falling for Cesario/Viola. Also Malvolio’s mixed emotion of greed and love for Olivia,
“I will smile,
I will do everything that thou wilt have me.” From Act 2 Scene 5 Line 47.
Sir Andrew like Malvolio shows that hope and greed can blind one from reality, since they are both hopeful of becoming Olivia’s husband. Malvolio, simply for the money and Sir Andrew because of his love for Olivia. It also represents Sir Andrew’s human side when he hints at a little comedown,
“I was adored once too”, Act 2 Scene 3 Line 153. It shows he isn’t really a prankster like Toby Belch but a man in search of the true love he yearns.
Malvolio seems to be a puritan but shows he isn’t true to his faith, when he doesn’t wear all black to impress Olivia in his bright yellow stockings. This flaw in his faith shows he has a humane side, and so does the section where he is enraged at losing his dignity and being tricked.
“I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” Act 5 Scene 1 Line 371.
“Twelfth Night” does lack credibility as Samuel Johnson criticised but this is purely and simply because Shakespeare had never meant the play to be real and credible but funny. It doesn’t present a true picture of life as it was funny and not serious; it is clearly like a pantomime. It was made with the sole purpose of being entertaining. However it does have the real human feelings and emotions that people feel in real life.