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Masks in Twelfth Night

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    “Women are central to the comedy in Twelfth Night. ” Explore how Shakespeare uses the characters of Viola, Olivia and Maria to create comedy in the play. In the play ‘Twelfth Night’ all of the women are given power, either over each other, over men, or over their servants. The women in the play are used to add a comic effect by having some of the comedy caused by them and some directed at them. Shakespeare uses a combination of comic techniques such as misunderstandings, dramatic irony and physical elements to create a comical effect, all of these are centred on and around the women in the play.

    Olivia is the most powerful woman in the play as she has servants who work for her. The extent of her power is evident in Act 1 Scene 5 when Olivia pretends that Cesario has left a ring as a present from Orsino. She says; “Run after that peevish messenger, the County’s Man. ” When Cesario delivers a message from the Duke, Olivia suddenly shows early signs of becoming obsessed with Cesario. In Act 1 Scene 5 she says; “Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions and spirit, Do give thee five-fold blazon” Olivia seems to think that everything about Cesario is attractive.

    Cesario, is attractive to Olivia because “he” is both masculine and feminine looking. ‘thy tongue’ indicates Olivia likes ‘Cesario’s’ way with words, and ‘actions and spirit’, suggests she likes ‘his’ friendly nature and she believes he has no imperfections. She also says; “Even so quickly may one catch the plague? Methinks I feel this youth’s Perfections with an invisible and subtle stealth to creep in at mine eyes. ” She has fallen for Cesario quite quickly, therefore, comparing it to a disease as diseases are caught quickly.

    She also explains that she has fallen for him from the mere sight of him, and has caught love for him through her eyes like you would catch an illness from breathing it into your lungs. The second female character who is in possession of a lot of power, gains it in a different way. Maria is Olivia’s servant, but has spent so much time around Olivia that she can mimic her handwriting, exactly as Olivia’s is- hence being able to forge the letter to Malvolio, pretending to be Olivia, which is one of the most dramatic parts of the play.

    She says; “I can write very like my lady your niece, on a forgotten matter we can hardly make distinction of our hands. ” The letter that Maria creates is one of the main motives for a comical and dramatical effect in the play. There is an element of physical comedy which adds to the comical effect as the letter is telling Malvolio that Olivia wants to see him ‘cross-gartered’ and in ‘yellow stockings’.

    This creates comedy as the audience can foresee what is coming and the fact that he will be dressed in this way will embarrass him and make it look like he has gone mad, which is what Maria intended. In the RSC adaption of ‘Twelfth Night’, the sight of Malvolio dressed in such a way gained a lot of laughter from the audience which, therefore, indicates that in this part of the play, the comedy stems from something bad happening to someone else. This anchors the idea that some of the drama and comedy in the play is caused by women.

    The third most powerful woman in the play is Viola, who gains power from pretending to be a male called Cesario and gaining the trust of Duke Orsino. Violas cross dressing would have been seen as ‘sinful’ in the Elizabethan era, but is used as a motive for comedy in the play. In Act 1 Scene 4, Orsino commands that, since he has told Cesario the extent of his love for Olivia, the young man must woo her on Orsino’s behalf. Viola has to control her own passion for Orsino, whilst hiding her true identity, in the form of ‘Cesario’.

    She could, therefore, be seen as ‘powerful’ in the way that she has strong feelings towards Orsino but is able to control them. The main comical effect that Viola creates is dramatic irony; the audience know that ‘Cesario’ is really a woman called Viola. Comedy is created when Viola says; “Above my fortunes, yet my state is well: I am a gentleman” She is deceiving herself and the other characters in the play by pretending to be something she’s not. Hayley Bevan

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