How far do you think Twelfth Night succeeds as a comedy?

Category: Comedy, Love, Twelfth Night
Last Updated: 02 Aug 2020
Pages: 7 Views: 374

When one considers the convention of the Elizabethan romantic comedy, a light-hearted tale of love in which obstacles are overcome- often to resolve with a marriage, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night certainly challenges the convention. Although the resolution of the joining of three couples: Orsino and Viola; Olivia and Sebastian and Sir Toby and Maria satisfies the criteria for a romantic comedy in some way, the bizarre nature in which some of these relationships come about makes the audience question the likelihood of their successes.

In addition, Shakespeare leaves an open denouement in that the amorous outcomes some characters (Malvolio, Antonio and Sir Andrew) are negative- being left alone or unresolved. The melodramatic manner in which Orsino muses over Olivia at the very start of Act 1 seems to suggest that the unrequitedness of love is more for comedic value rather than a valid representation of true love and thus cannot be taken seriously.

Orsino’s hyperbolic soliloquy of his love, “give me excess of it, so that it may sicken and so die” and later the pun of “was I turned into a hart, and my desires, like fell and cruel hounds, e'er since pursue me” support this as this painful love is unbelievably developed seeing as he hardly knows Olivia and one could say he is in love with the chase of Olivia- the challenge.

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To me, this behaviour is reminiscent of the young Romeo’s fanciful love for Rosaline when he soliloquises with confused oxymoronic language, and, as in Romeo and Juliet, it could be interpreted that Shakespeare uses Orsino to make a satirical comment on the shallowness of courtly love. The contrived speech Orsino gives to Cesario to recite to Olivia, a common occurrence in Elizabethan times, includes “most radiant, exquisite and unmatchable beauty. There is a lack of conviction in these disingenuous words- only used to fulfil the romantic expectation. This disingenuousness is further comedically lampooned by Shakespeare by the way in which Cesario explains that this speech “took great pains to study” and how she “can say little more than [she has] studied. ” This foreshadows the fact that lack of love or happiness will be present at the ending.

However, when one compares this relationship to that between Orsino and the revealed Viola at the climax, it seems as though it was inevitable, as Orsino seems attracted to Cesario’s feminine features from the start, as he states that “Diana's lip is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound, and all is semblative a woman's part,” which provokes comical dramatic irony to the audience.

In addition, the iambic pentameter which the two share in act 2 scene 4, “Viola: I should your Lordship. Orsino: And what's her history? Viola: Sir, shall I to this lady? Orsino: Ay, that's the theme” has become synonymous with the inevitability of a couple’s destiny to be together, highlighting the balance the couple share with each other and is used frequently in Romeo and Juliet for this reason.

However, it could also be said that the success of this relationship is unlikely due to the fact that Orsino goes as far as to wish death upon Cesario, although I believe that Shakespeare uses this purely to express Orsino’s frustration for having sexual feelings towards a boy, and feelings which seem more genuine than his courtly, more suitable love for Olivia, although Cesario does continue to call Viola “Cesario” and “boy,” which could mean that Orsino’s dramatic purpose is to prove that one can be attracted to both the masculine and feminine features of a person, as Shakespeare seemed to have experienced himself as mentioned in the “two loves” of sonnet 144. Shakespeare portrays a more blatant presentation of homosexual attraction through Antonio.

To me, Antonio’s love for Sebastian seems the truest of all, with him revealing the extent of which as he says “I do adore thee so, that danger shall seem sport and I will go”, and he does keep to his word as he is willing to enter Orsino’s court, going as far as risking his life, yet Shakespeare leaves him “unhappy and alone. Shakespeare uses this love to make a serious point rather than a comedic one about how the most passionate loves can be found in circumstances other than the conventional man and woman, as at the time of the play, homosexual relationships in theatre were usually presented in a ridiculous manner for comedic value to laugh at the ostensible folly of it, or mere carnal lust, as opposed to the utter devotion spoken of when Antonio says “if you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant,” whereas in Twelfth Night, the most conventional love, that between Orsino and Olivia, is the least realistic- and Antonio’s for Sebastian the most.

Antonio’s loving actions juxtapose with the disingenuous fancifulness of Malvolio’s mere speeches of love- proving Shakespeare’s intent for the construction of a more genuine homosexual love. Antonio expresses his love beyond words- offering Sebastian his purse for the eventuality that his “eye shall light upon some toy [he is] willing to purchase. ” This selfless sacrifice of something necessary to Antonio for the mere materialistic pleasure of his beloved is quite representative of their quite one-sided relationship of servitude. When Cesario is mistaken for being Sebastian, fitting in with the recurring theme mistaken identity, the intensity of Antonio’s passion is revealed.

His feelings of betrayal and solitude are not, however, resolved with the revelation that Cesario is not in fact Sebastian, as shortly after, before Antonio can even think of having Sebastian to himself, he is engaged to Olivia. As Laurie E. Osborne puts it, Antonio’s final predicament “gives us at this moment an image of loss that it can do little to assuage, since at the end Antonio finds Sebastian only to stand silently by, watching him commit himself to Olivia. ” Also, earlier in the play, Sebastian’s “my kind Antonio, I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks; and ever thanks; and oft good turns” suggests that Sebastian aware of Antonio’s romantic feelings for him, but respectfully denies him, stating that he’d prefer a platonic relationship.

The aforementioned melancholy of Antonio’s predicament at the play’s denouement is a message too sombre to succeed comedically to a modern audience due to the attenuation of heteronormativity over time, thus making empathy for a homosexual love easier. However, this comedic aspect of the play may have succeeded to an Elizabethan audience due to a lack of “queer love” acceptance. Nevertheless, I believe that, due to Shakespeare’s ostensible bisexuality (evidenced through such works as sonnets 15, 18 and 20) it is probable that Antonio’s misfortune in his love for Sebastian is intended to be sympathised with- most likely failing at this to an Elizabethan audience. However, of course, as it is a Shakespearean romance, it is one of many to consider and thus cannot deem the play a holistic failure with regards to its comedy.

The amorous feelings which Sir Andrew has for Olivia throughout the play are completely unrequited, although, unlike Antonio, the audience never really empathises with him due to his function being solely to fulfil the low-comedic aspects of the play- Shakespeare constructing an “aristocratic fool” stock character in Sir Andrew, seeming almost incapable of emoting the complexity in which love is presented in Twelfth Night, the wittier Sir Toby, who fulfils the high-comedic aspects of the play seem to understand what true love is, therefore Shakespeare succeeds in making Sir Andrew’s unhappiness and aloneness comedic. Sir Toby lampoons Sir Andrew, presenting Sir Andrew’s stupidity to the audience- reinforcing that the audience shouldn’t feel guilty for laughing at him.

The ridiculousness of the duel scene between Sir Andrew and Cesario over Olivia makes it one of the most comically entertaining scenes in the play, and yet, beneath the folly of its surface, proves Sir Andrew’s devotion to Olivia, making his feelings seem unimportant to the audience, regardless of their truth, therefore succeeding in being a comical ending in this instance. Malvolio is, like Sir Andrew, left alone without sympathy from the audience. Tricked by Sir Toby, Maria and Sir Andrew and seeking revenge, it could be interpreted that Shakespeare uses Malvolio to lampoon the prudish views of the Puritan- Maria calling him “a kind of Puritan,” a “time-pleaser” and an “affectionate ass” due to the Puritanical traits which Shakespeare had installed into him, the combination of these surely indicating that Shakespeare intended on making “Puritan” a negative insult because during the period of the play’s release, Puritans tried to close down theatres due to their lack of concurrence with Puritanical doctrines.

However, Malvolio’s true religious views are never explicitly mentioned, possibly so that a Puritanical backlash wouldn’t occur. Alternatively, as Allison P. Hobgood interprets, “Malvolio hides his truer "appetites"[for higher power and status] beneath a constructed outer persona, a "shell” of sobriety, moderation, and propriety. The steward merely acts the role of a Puritan, that is, and hence is perhaps much more un-puritanical than one might imagine. ” Malvolio’s construction fits the criteria of the Theophrastian stock character Mikrophilotimia, or “the man of petty ambition,” the word “petty” in this categorisation enabling the audience to laugh at Malvolio’s misfortune, thus succeeding comedically.

The Humanistic revival of the Renaissance Era makes it highly likely that Shakespeare was conscious of this allusion in his production of the play. Feste brings the play to its denouement with his dejected song, repeating the line “for the rain, it raineth every day” encapsulating the dark, serious undertone of the play-without which it could be easily interpreted as a resolved, conventional romantic comedy, although Feste’s song reminds the audience that not all characters are left happy and fulfilled. The fact that Feste, a mere “fool,” gets the concluding lines of the play highlights the transposition of social roles which is an important part of the Twelfth Night festival on which the play is based.

Feste, contrary to his title of the “fool” is also one of the wisest characters, and thus has the power to see and tell beyond the play’s superficially happy plot. To conclude, I believe that the characters which are left “unhappy and alone” are usually characters used by Shakespeare to be laughed at as opposed to sympathised with- with the subtle exception of Antonio, who is meant to send a more serious message to the audience over sexuality, thus succeeding as a comedy, yet one which deviates from the conventions of its time. Considering the alternative title of the play, “What You Will,” perhaps a conclusion can be drawn that Shakespeare wants us to make what we will of the ending, using an open denouement whose continuation is to be interpreted as being cheerfully comedic or sombrely serious.

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How far do you think Twelfth Night succeeds as a comedy?. (2017, Aug 27). Retrieved from

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