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Twelfth Night Essay

My internal assessment is a review of the sixteenth century comedy, “Twelfth Night or What You Will” by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. His early plays were mainly comedies and histories, genres he raised to the peak of sophistication and artistry by the end of the 16th century. In his last phase, he wrote tragicomedies, also known as romances. The title, “Twelfth Night”, refers to the celebration of Epiphany, the twelfth night after Christmas characterized by an atmosphere of fun and festivity. With the sub-title, “What you Will”, Shakespeare indulges the audience in this festival mood, allowing the freedom for an open interpretation of his play. Indeed critic, John Nelson, remarks that Shakespearean comedies always involve multiple plot lines, cleverly intertwined to keep the audience guessing but are resolved in a happy ending. “Twelfth Night” is one of Shakespeare’s most complex and intriguing comedies embracing several provocative themes.

These themes include gender ambiguity, love, friendship, mistaken identity and appearance versus reality. Shakespeare illuminates these varied themes through a range of dramatic techniques such as contrast, characterization, verse and prose, word-play, imagery, dramatic irony, literary devices, stage directions and props. In his play, Shakespeare contrasts his female protagonists to the typical Elizabethan women. Women in the Elizabethan era were expected to be submissive to men who possessed authority and domination. Despite the fact that the ideal of women’s chastity, silence, and obedience was proclaimed in early modern England, the women of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” are strong and outspoken, yielding to male power, but firm and cunning enough to outwit the opposite sex in the most critical situations. In the play, Viola’s cross-dressing as a man enables her to speak and act freely as she firmly defends women when Orsino declares man’s love greater than that of women’s, “In faith they are as true of heart as we (men)”.

Unlike Viola, Olivia steps forth undisguised and unchallenged, firm against the tide of the misogynistic elements of the Elizabethan era. Content in wooing Cesario, she takes on the role of the hunter where she would normally be the hunted, “I love thee so, that, maugre thy pride, nor wit, nor reason can my passion hide”. These two characters function as contrasts to the typical stereotype of the submissive Elizabethan woman. Shakespeare cleverly uses the themes of disguise, appearance versus reality and mistaken identity to evoke “Twelfth Night’s” main and sub-plots. Viola’s disguise as a man (Cesario) is the main plot of the play.

Viola finds herself falling in love with Orsino—a difficult love to pursue, as Orsino believes her to be a man. When Orsino sends Cesario to deliver love messages to the disdainful Olivia, Olivia herself falls in love with Cesario, also believing her to be a man, completing the love triangle and creating the play’s main plot which evokes numerous complications in “Twelfth Night”. The theme of mistaken identity is also integrated in the plot when Sir Toby and Sir Andrew mistake Sebastian (Viola’s twin brother) for Cesario and challenge him to a duel, creating the climax of this meandering plot.

The story of Malvolio and those who seek to punish him for his puritanical ways is the subplot. The climax occurs when Malvolio, in yellow cross-gartered socks, confronts Olivia about a letter he perceived to be in her hand but was, in fact Maria’s, “Remember who commended my yellow stockings…and wished to see thee cross-gartered”. Indeed, the deception and cruel outcomes that were bestowed on Malvolio is one of “Twelfth Night’s” serious undertones. However, love and its multifarious complications typify “Twelfth Night” as a romantic comedy. One of Shakespeare’s key dramatic techniques is his skilful use of characterization. Shakespeare uses characterization to reveal hidden truths within the play and also for comic effect. The Fool, Feste, is a major character in this regard. In England’s rustic tradition, he is a central character in both English culture and theatre. The Fool was a comic entertainer, licensed to have fun and enlighten even the most exalted of his patrons.

Feste’s role allows him to speak freely and peel away the pretences of other characters. He uncovers Olivia’s veil of pretence when he remarks, “The more fool, Madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul, being in heaven”, as Olivia appears to be mourning for her brother with the purpose of dismissing the wooing of men, such as Orsino. In addition, the character of Malvolio is a delightful example of Shakespeare’s personal outlook on Puritanism as he is portrayed as arrogant and “sick of self-love”. Malvolio was a Protestant and considered himself purer and more perfect than his fellow Christians, “You are idle, shallow things. I am not of your element.” Indeed, Malvolio is presented as a ridiculous and satirical figure. According to Aristotle, “Comedy aims at representing men as worse than actual life”. Thus Shakespeare uses characterization for comic effect and also as a form of his own personal critique of certain elements of the Elizabethan period. Shakespeare uses different types of language such as verse and prose to differentiate between characters (serious or comical; nobility or lower class).

In theatrical convention, prose was used by the lower class and verse, by the high-status characters, but according to Anne Davis, Shakespeare often ‘broke the rules’. Sir Toby uses prose throughout the play, although he is a high-status character. His dramatic function is comic, as he states, “I’ll confine myself no finer than I am. These clothes are good enough to drink in, and so be these boots too” Shakespeare demonstrates verse in serious scenes as the poetic style is suitable for moments of high dramatic or emotional intensity. In Act 2 Antonio states, “But come what may, I adore thee so, that danger shall seem sport, and I will go”, conveying his intense feelings for Sebastian and his concern for his safety. Shakespeare thus uses these two registers to intensify dramatic effect and to create mood and character. Shakespeare communicates his comedy through his ingenious use of clever word play such as puns and metaphors. Wordplay creates a comic effect and gives a sense of chaotic humour to the play. In an exchange with Maria, the Fool states, “I am resolved on two points”, to which Maria retorts, “That if one breaks, the other will hold, or, if both break, your gaskins fall”.

Here, Maria puns on the word points, which means points of an argument but also refers to the laces that held up a man’s breeches. This exchange is a perfect example of Shakespeare’s profound comedic wordplay. In the opening lines of “Twelfth Night”, Orsino states, “If music be the food of love, play on. Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken and so die”. This metaphorical language is used to express Orsino’s longing for Olivia’s love like a physical hunger for which music is a satisfying food. He also wishes to have an excess amount of music so that love’s appetite will be killed, obliterating his unrequited love. Thus Shakespeare cleverly uses his witty word play to create comic and dramatic effects. “Twelfth Night” abounds in imagery that conjures up emotionally-charged pictures of the imagination which help create the atmosphere of the play. Images of the sea are shown when Orsino states, “But mine is all as hungry as the sea, and can digest as much”.

Here, the ocean represents the Duke’s voracious and insatiable erotic “appetite”. This hyperbolic image shows that his love for Olivia is as vast as the ocean and knows no limits. In an exchange with Antonio, Sebastian says, “She drowned…with salt water, though I drown her remembrance with more”, emphasising the agonizing grief he feels towards his sister’s supposed death. In addition, Antonio states “My desire more sharp than filed steel, did spur me forth”, conveying the sharp, piercing and painful nature of his feelings. Early critics such as John Dryden and Doctor Johnson were critical of Shakespeare’s fondness for imagery and argued that it obscured meaning and detracted attention from the subjects they represented. However, imagery effectively portrays the emotions of characters, giving the play depth and meaning. A crucial technique employed by Shakespeare is his use of dramatic irony which creates suspense and humour for the audience. In an interaction with Viola, Orsino says, “No woman’s heart, so big, to hold so much love”. Here, the audience is aware of the irony of this statement as Viola is besotted with Orsino.

Moreover, in Act 2 Scene 5, the irony is very light-hearted and full of theatrical comedy as Malvolio says, “She did commend my yellow stockings of late, she did praise my leg being cross-gartered, and in this she manifests herself to my love”. This is comedic as the audience knows Olivia dislikes yellow stockings and Malvolio would look foolish wearing them, making a spectacle of himself and deflating his arrogant character. Thus the use of dramatic irony is effective as it provides comedy and serves to develop the plot. Powerful representations of literary devices are portrayed in “Twelfth Night” to convey the theme of love. Viola states, “But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud… She sat like patience on a monument, smiling at grief.” In this paradox, she quibbles that the concealment of love reveals it. Using simile, she also compares concealment to a “hidden worm” and patience to a “fixed monument”.

Olivia also speaks paradoxically when she says, “A murderous guilt shows not itself more soon, than love that would seem hid: love’s night is noon”, emphasizing that trying to hide feelings of love succeeds only in revealing them. In addition, Feste states, “Come away, come away, death…. I am slain by a fair cruel maid.” Here the personification of death and the oxymoron of “fair cruel maid” convey the painful pleasure of love. Shakespeare thus intensifies the play’s themes skilfully intertwining a variety of literary devices. Shakespeare’s use of asides, stage direction, props and songs are crucial stage conventions in Elizabethan theatre. The use of asides serves to reveal a character’s thoughts to the audience without revealing them to other characters in a play. Feste says in aside, “Those wits that think they have thee do very oft prove fools…better a witty fool than a foolish wit”.

Feste is able to bring across to the audience his view of foolery, that self-proclaimed wits are not witty at all revealing his omniscient presence and point of view of the characters. An important stage direction in the play occurs when Olivia “removes her veil”. This act indicates to the audience that Olivia is interested in Cesario (Viola) as she reveals the truth of her emotions. The ring is a prop used to confirm Olivia’s feelings as she says to Malvolio, “Run after that same peevish messenger…he left this ring behind him”. The ring thus fuels the play’s main plot. In addition, Feste’s songs set the tone and the varying moods of the play.

Feste’s closing song is the last of many musical numbers in the play, and it is also one of the most melancholic, recalling the serious undertone of the comedy, “When that I was and a little tiny boy…By swaggering could I never thrive”. Indeed Shakespeare uses props, stage direction and songs to highlight his thematic concerns as well as enhance the dramatic and visual effects of the play. Thus in ‘Twelfth Night’ Shakespeare utilized a range of dramatic techniques to create a masterful comedy. This remains a favourite of audiences, readers and critics alike, with its hectic pace, intriguing characters, tomfoolery, various registers of language and literary devices. According to critic, Harold Bloom, “Twelfth Night” is surely the greatest of all Shakespeare’s pure comedies. [1,958 words]


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