Discuss what conclusions the play makes about the themes of the love, grief and desire. How do the principal characters embody these themes? What effect does the setting, the mythical island of Illyria, have on these themes? Use the evidence from the text of the play to support your discussion.
Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy, and romantic love is the play’s main focus. Despite the fact that the play offers a happy ending, in which the various lovers find one another and achieve wedded bliss, in Twelfth Night Shakespeare shows that love can cause grief and pain. Many of the characters seem to view love as a kind of curse, a feeling that attacks its victims suddenly and disruptively. Various characters claim to suffer painfully from being in love, or, rather, from the pangs of unrequited love.
At one point, Orsino depicts love miserably as an “appetite” that he wants to satisfy and cannot (I.i.1–3); at another point, he calls his desires “fell and cruel hounds” (I.i.21). Olivia more bluntly describes love as a “plague” from which she suffers terribly (I.v.265). These metaphors contain an element of violence, further painting the love-struck as victims of some random force in the universe. Even the less melodramatic Viola sighs unhappily “My state is desperate for my master’s love” (II.ii.35). This desperation has the potential to result in violence—as in Act V, scene i, when Orsino threatens to kill Cesario because he thinks that -Cesario has forsaken him to become Olivia’s lover
Love is also exclusionary: some people achieve romantic happiness, while others do not. At the end of the play, as the happy lovers rejoice, both Malvolio and Antonio are prevented from having the objects of their desire. Malvolio, who has pursued Olivia, must ultimately face the realization that he is a fool, socially unworthy of his noble mistress. Antonio is in a more difficult situation, as social norms do not allow for the gratification of his apparently sexual attraction to Sebastian. Love, thus, cannot conquer all obstacles, and those whose desires go unfulfilled remain no less in love but feel the sting of its absence all the more severely.
The Folly of Desires
The problem of social ambition works itself out largely through the character of Malvolio, the steward, who seems to be a competent servant, if prudish and dour, but proves to be, in fact, a supreme egotist, with tremendous ambitions to rise out of his social class. Maria plays on these ambitions when she forges a letter from Olivia that makes Malvolio believe that Olivia is in love with him and wishes to marry him. Sir Toby and the others find this fantasy hysterically funny, of course not only because of Malvolio’s unattractive personality but also because Malvolio is not of noble blood. In the class system of Shakespeare’s time, a noblewoman would generally not sully her reputation by marrying a man of lower social status.
Twelfth Night features a great variety of messages sent from one character to another sometimes as letters and other times in the form of tokens. Such messages are used both for purposes of communication and miscommunication sometimes deliberate and sometimes accidental. Maria’s letter to Malvolio, which purports to be from Olivia, is a deliberate attempt to trick the steward. Sir Andrew’s letter demanding a duel with Cesario, meanwhile, is meant seriously, but because it is so appallingly stupid, Sir Toby does not deliver it, rendering it extraneous. Malvolio’s missive, sent by way of Feste from the dark room in which he is imprisoned, ultimately works to undo the confusion caused by Maria’s forged letter and to free Malvolio from his imprisonment.
But letters are not the only kind of messages that characters employ to communicate with one another. Individuals can be employed in the place of written communication Orsino repeatedly sends Cesario, for instance, to deliver messages to Olivia. Objects can function as messages between people as well: Olivia sends Malvolio after Cesario with a ring, to tell the page that she loves him, and follows the ring up with further gifts, which symbolize her romantic attachment. Messages can convey important information, but they also create the potential for miscommunication and confusion especially with characters like Maria and Sir Toby manipulating the information.
Many characters in Twelfth Night assume disguises, beginning with Viola, who puts on male attire and makes everyone else believe that she is a man. By dressing his protagonist in male garments, Shakespeare creates endless sexual confusion with the Olivia-Viola–Orsino love triangle. Other characters in disguise include Malvolio, who puts on crossed garters and yellow stockings in the hope of winning Olivia, and Feste, who dresses up as a priest, Sir Topas, when he speaks to Malvolio after the steward has been locked in a dark room. Feste puts on the disguise even though Malvolio will not be able to see him, since the room is so dark, suggesting that the importance of clothing is not just in the eye of the beholder. For Feste, the disguise completes his assumption of a new identity—in order to be Sir Topas, he must look like Sir Topas. Viola puts on new clothes and changes her gender, while Feste and Malvolio put on new garments either to impersonate a nobleman (Feste) or in the hopes of becoming a nobleman (Malvolio). Through these disguises, the play raises questions about what makes us who we are, compelling the audience to wonder if things like gender and class are set in stone, or if they can be altered with a change of clothing.
The instances of mistaken identity are related to the prevalence of disguises in the play, as Viola’s male clothing leads to her being mistaken for her brother, Sebastian, and vice versa. Sebastian is mistaken for Viola (or rather, Cesario) by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and then by Olivia, who promptly marries him. Meanwhile, Antonio mistakes Viola for Sebastian, and thinks that his friend has betrayed him when Viola claims to not know him. These cases of mistaken identity, common in Shakespeare’s comedies, create the tangled situation that can be resolved only when Viola and Sebastian appear together, helping everyone to understand what has happened.
When Olivia wants to let Cesario know that she loves him, she sends him a ring by way of Malvolio. Later, when she mistakes Sebastian for Cesario, she gives him a precious pearl. In each case, the jewel serves as a token of her love a physical symbol of her romantic attachment to a man who is really a woman. The gifts are more than symbols, though. “Youth is bought more oft than begged or borrowed,” Olivia says at one point, suggesting that the jewels are intended almost as bribes that she means to buy Cesario’s love if she cannot win it.
When Sir Toby and Maria pretend that Malvolio is mad, they confine him in a pitch-black chamber. Darkness becomes a symbol of his supposed insanity, as they tell him that the room is filled with light and his inability to see is a sign of his madness. Malvolio reverses the symbolism. “I say this house is as dark as ignorance, though ignorance were as dark as hell; and I say there was never man thus abused”. In other words, the darkness meaning madness is not in the room with him, but outside, with Sir Toby and Feste and Maria, who have unjustly imprisoned him.
Clothes are powerful in Twelfth Night. They can symbolize changes in gender Viola puts on male clothes to be taken for a male as well as class distinctions. When Malvolio fantasizes about becoming a nobleman, he imagines the new clothes that he will have. When Feste impersonates Sir Topas, he puts on a nobleman’s garb, even though Malvolio, whom he is fooling, cannot see him, suggesting that clothes have a power that transcends their physical function.
Twelfth Night is excess. Is gluttony, Is indulgence, Of every appetite. Of every desire. It is no accident that the play begins with Orsino’s.
“give me excess of it, that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.”
Twelfth Night is terribly sexy, raucously funny and potentially deeply disturbing. Twelfth Night shines both the playful, magical light of the moon and the cool, harsh sunlight of the ‘morning-after’ on our longings. Twelfth Night feasts us on longing, on love and foolishness, on revelry. It mocks self-righteousness and all those who take themselves too seriously. In the world of the play, perhaps only Feste is safe from this mockery, because he sees himself as well as those around him with a brilliant, moonlit clarity. Twelfth Night also reprimands those who do not know when the party is over, when the joke has gone too far, when enough is enough.
Illyria has is its own universe, its own time, filled with mischief, raging hormones, swirling movement and play. It is moist and sexy in Illyria; it is a bit too much. We understand from the design as well as from the action that something is a bit off, a bit over the top in Illyria. It is lush like the Mediterranean coast, but the foliage is an unexpected color, purple and royal blue. We play on a wide proscenium and, as things get out of hand, the action spills out of the arch, onto the apron and into the house. The costumes come from the crossroads of the fairy tale, the medieval and Moroccan. The fabrics and the colors define Illyria: sheer, wispy, sometimes iridescent fabrics that swirl when one spins and cling to the body in midnight and lagoon blues, lavenders, magentas, orchids and plums underscore the passion, the abandon, the recognition and, of course, the excesses of Twelfth Night.
At the beginning of the play, Orsino is ‘in love’ with Olivia. Yet he never goes to see her. Like an adolescent alone in his room with Nirvana on the stereo, Orsino is in love with the grief of being in love. Olivia, for her part, has made a lifestyle choice out of mourning her brother’s death. She plans to spend seven years cloistered within her own estate, making a great demonstration of her love for her brother through her grief. Yet after her first conversation with Feste in I,v, she does not speak of her dead brother again. Mourning is certainly ended by the time Viola/Cesario finishes the ‘willow cabin’ speech. Viola takes both Orsino and Olivia on a journey from imagined and self-centered feelings to love turned outward and shared with another.
The gulling of Malvolio comprises some of the funniest scenes in Shakespeare: we all get a good laugh when the uptight steward gets his comeuppance, but the ‘dark house’ scene leads us to a dark corner of human nature. The joke turns to cruelty. Excess comes back with a vengeance: too much revelry and too much drinking on the part of the ‘lighter people’ is coupled with too much arrogance and too little self-awareness on Malvolio’s part. The Elizabethans took great delight in bearbaiting, cock fighting and other recreations that depended upon the merciless taunting and destruction of innocent creatures. We like to think that, as a culture, we have ‘evolved.’ One of the great challenges in working on Twelfth Night is deciding what story to tell here: do we tell the story of a man who has been somewhat ill–used but who is mostly unable to take a joke or do we tell the story of a good joke transformed to vicious cruelty?
I worked to tell the stories of the play as truthfully and as clearly as we can, but I also wanted to celebrate the innate theatricality of the play. We examined every irregularity in the scansion, every short verse line, every shared verse line, every transition from verse to prose: what is Shakespeare telling us about the emotional state of each character? We laid the psychological groundwork for each character. I pushed these student actors both to raise the stakes high and to make big choices; Illyria is a magical place and the emotions need to be as heightened as the language.
- Joseph H. Summers, The Masks of Twelfth
- John W. Draper, The Twelfth Night of Shakespeare’s Audience, 1950
- Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare1939.
- Shakespearean Echoes in A Streetcar Named Desire, Lynn Sermin Meskill.