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Shakespeare’s Play Twelfth Night

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In the play, Twelfth Night, Shakespeare illustrates the traditional merry-making and social disorder, which occurred upon the Feast of Fools, or the Twelfth Night of Christmas. It is during this time that the normality and social roles of status was reversed, and thus, overturned, in that servants would become Masters, and Masters, servants. In short, this day was a time, where the usual flow of laws, rules and class difference was generally ignored, and therefore, led to a lapse of disorder.

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Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night seemingly echoes a number of aspects, relating to the theory and traditions of such a festival, through his use of mistaken identity, madness, deception, and love.

Within Act One, Scene 2, the character of Viola is introduced, and along with this, the beginnings of chaos starts to unfold. Upon her arrival in the Illyria, Viola encounters the Captain, and asks him to ‘conceal me what I am, and be my aid’ (I.ii.52), which insinuates her plans to dismiss the normal structures of society; more importantly, these gestures are to secure her self-preservation in Illyria.

Through cross-dressing, Viola crosses the boundaries of what was expected of women during the Elizabethan Era, and therefore, the disrupted of order in Twelfth Night is introduced. Through the appearance of Cesario, Viola evidently acquires the privileges of male roles during the time, in which the play is set. As the play develops, dramatic irony is heightened amongst the audience, as they perceive the influence Viola’s disguise holds on the people of Illyria. Shakespeare included this in his play, to suggest his belief that gender is far from a stable normality, whether it be in his time or in the present day.

Further chaos is heightened, when ‘Cesario’, now a servant-boy of Orsino, is sent to woo Olivia on the Duke’s part. Disguised, Viola finds herself falling in love with Orsino, and determinedly voicing that’ Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife'(I.iv.42). With this, Shakespeare develops a further complication in the play, for in the Duke’s eyes, Viola is his entrusted messenger boy, and therefore, both beneath his status, and a male. Nevertheless, earlier in the same scene, Orsino insinuates somewhat of a hidden attraction to ‘Cesario’, admitting how ‘Diana’s lip is not more smooth and rubious.'(I.iv.31-2), and therefore, suggesting that, although Orsino believes ‘him’ to be male, he can see elements of feminine beauty in his boy-servant. Such a description would cast an intriguing sense of chaos and dramatic irony on the audience, for they know who ‘Cesario’ truly is, whereas the Duke does not. Overall, disorder is present during Act One, Scene Four, through the peculiar attraction of Orsino to ‘Cesario’ and vice versa, which would defy the expectations of male relationships in Elizabethan society and emphasise the influence of the Twelfth night on the play.

Olivia becomes an important character in terms of the disorder of Illyria, as she, too, wades against the regularity of typical roles, that society constructs. Following the first meeting of Olivia and ‘Cesario, the former pursues the latter by ordering Malvolio to venture after him, for “he left this ring behind him”(I.v.285).The fact that the Countess has dismissed the supposed love of the Duke, (who is considered the appropriate option as he is her ‘equal’) and instead, chosen to pursue ‘Cesario’ implies a rebellious independence, for she embraces someone of her own decision, whereas, if the consistent order that occurs outside Illyria was influenced, her guardian, namely Sir Toby, would have chosen her husband. Accordingly, Shakespeare displays disorder through Olivia by presenting her as defiant in terms of what society expected of her, when she attempts to pursue, not only someone of her own choosing, but one of a lower status than her own. Generally a noblewoman, such as she, would not besmirch her reputation in this way, which is why Olivia’s actions would be considered a form of surprising ‘chaos’ in the eyes of the original audience.

Another way, in which Shakespeare presents the disruption of order, in this comedic play, is through the breaching of status boundaries. The characters involved in said situations generally seek to alter the rigid structure of the expectations of class. Malvolio, a steward of Olivia, voices what he perceives life to be like, were he ‘to be Count Malvolio'(II.v.33) and, thus wed his Mistress. This would be considered both strange and outrageous during the times of early Shakespearean performances, and clearly reflects the beliefs of the Twelfth Night festival, and the reversal of social
hierarchies. In contrast, Maria, who is Olivia’s waiting-maid, also strives to marry above herself, but having accepted the anarchy of her peers, succeeds in marrying Sir Toby. On the other hand, Malvolio happens to dismiss the flow of order, and unknowingly confirms his mistress’ view, that he is ‘sick of self-love'(I.v.83), when he decides to venture after a rise in status for his own revelry. In conclusion, Shakespeare has created characters, who venture outside the circle of society, in order to gain happiness which is, in this case, true love. Nevertheless, it is through love that the stated chaos is developed.

Disorder in Twelfth Night, comes in the shape of meddling, in the play’s sub-plot, when Maria writes a letter in order to deceive Malvolio into thinking Olivia loves him. Alone, as misread information, the said letter leads to various other bouts of social imbalance. For one, the fact that Malvolio had previously expressed his fantasies of becoming Olivia’s master is only encouraged by the letter’s content, where ‘Olivia’ explains how ‘M, O, A, I, doth sway'(II.v.101) her life, which is followed by Malvolio’s realisation: ‘…Why, that begins my name.'(II.v.117) It is here that some of Twelfth Night’s complications commence. For one, Maria is masquerading as the Countess in Malvolio’s note, and thus, the audience is reintroduced to the theme of deception and disguise. What is more, when Malvolio and Olivia next meet, the latter is confused as to the sudden change in her steward, and proceeds to deem him somewhat mad. Therefore, the meddling of Maria’s writing evidently leads onto the disruption of Malvolio’s puritan reputation, and as explained above, his belief in rising above his rigid rank.

As a minor character, Feste-Olivia’s jester-creates a sense of imbalance of power through his witty intellect. Having proclaimed her decision of mourning, Olivia commands her attendants to ‘Take the fool away’, to which Feste retorts “Do you not hear, fellows? Take away the lady!”, evidently insinuating that the Countess is the true fool. In doing this, the Clown has challenged the respected wishes of his ‘superiors’ with a mere twist of words. As with Viola’s disguise, Olivia has been forced to the lower end of the social structure, whereas Feste has replaced her at the top. The festive
traditions of Twelfth Night are contained in this scene, as the fool’s behaviour, though disrespectful, was overlooked due to his temporary power over the situation. Additionally, dismissing Feste’s ways would be due to the fact that he is “an allowed fool”, and therefore, holds the privlege of speaking the truth that surrounds him. Nonetheless, it would be suggested that Feste’s wisdom foreshadows what is to come later; when Olivia falls in love with the disguised woman, it could be stated that she is a fool for her carelessness.

Accordingly, the collection of disorderly events in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night are introduced in a variety of methods. For instance, Viola’s transformation into ‘Cesario’, although an attempt to preserve herself in a rigid society, merely influences and encourages further disruption throughout Illyria, due to the Countess’ aim to pursue the character she believes to be ‘Cesario’. Such gestures also introduce the common themes of disguise, deception and appearance and reality. Again, dramatic irony would be present amongst both a modern and Elizabethan audience, as they are the only ones, aside from the Captain, who know of ‘Cesario’s’ true identity.

Furthermore, Malvolio and Maria attempt to seek a marriage above themselves- which was considered unwise in Elizabethan times-, and the fact that Maria constructs a letter, encouraging Malvolio’s wish only adds fire to the bouts of chaos and social disruption in Illyria. .

In short, Shakespeare has used the disruption of class and status, in order to reflect the traditional events of Twelfth Night, in addition to the comedic elements involved in the play.

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