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Comedy in Twelfth Night

Comedy in Twelfth Night

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

Shakespearean comedy is concerned with desire and its satisfaction; characters yearn for something, this leads to frustration but eventually satisfaction achieved and a happy conclusion. Twelfth Night, and Shakespeare’s other comedies, are concerned with love, desire, and overcoming barriers to the fulfilment of these desires and end in physical and emotional union, usually marriage. Shakespeare’s comedies are romantic. They have a certain mood and set of expectations; dealing with society rather than the individual, there does not tend to be a dominant character or Hero/Heroine. The theme is renewal; taken unexpectedly from ordinary life characters are placed in an unusual setting and allowed to escape from the repression within the society that is thwarting, for whatever reason, their desire. Twelfth Night is no exception; but there is an “emphasis on the pains rather than the pleasures of love” (Leggatt, 1974).

Northrop Frye identified three stages of a Shakespearean comedy: the play establishes a rigid rule-bound arbitrary society; this society descends into confusion and suffers a lack of identity. In the third stage, it is reborn as more liberal, issues that caused the loss of identity are welcomed. Marriage typically holds together this “new” society. (Frye, 1983).

The aesthetic philosopher Susan Langer analyses comedy, humour, and laughter. (Langer, 1953, pp. 338-341) “Laughter is physical, it occurs when one is tickled”. Humour merely “one of the causes of laughter” and “humor has its home in comic drama. Laughter springs from its very structure” and

“Humor is not the essence of comedy, but only one of its most useful and natural elements”. (Langer, 1953, p. 346)

Shakespearean comedy has patterns related to the renewal and rhythms of human life. As Langer says, the human race regenerates generation by generation in a rhythm of renewal, comedy celebrates this. Comedy is concerned with desire and fulfilment, tragedy with decline and death. (Langer, 1953)

The plots of Shakespeare’s comedies concern overcoming obstacles to love. In Twelfth Night characters fall in love quickly, Viola falling in love with Orsino at first sight and Olivia with Cesario/Viola. Obstacles are external or internal. External obstacles are usually a disapproving Patriarch, a powerful rival or a law. In A Midsummer Nights Dream, all are present. The plot involves escape from the “old” society that is preventing love: the characters leave Athens and go into the wood outside

Athens. In As You Like It the characters leave for the

Forest of Arden; the characters are closer to nature and resolve their difficulties away from the obstacles. In Twelfth Night obstacles are internal: Orsino’s love for Olivia is unrequited because she has sworn to mourn for seven years, so neither can achieve reciprocal love. Illyria, in a state of melancholy, caused by the characters, requires new characters to free it: Viola and Sebastian, shipwrecked, unexpectedly find themselves within the unusual surroundings of

Illyria. (Saccio, 1999)

Shakespearean love is a paradox: foolish and wonderful. Falling in love is moving and thus wonderful. Juxtaposed against this is the bizarre and artificial

behaviours of the participants in a courtship. The expression of love is something that an audience will find amusing and comic. In As You like It Shakespeare considers such behaviour in the Seven Ages of Man speech by Jaques:

And then the lover,

Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. (II, vii,146)

Shakespeare illustrates contemporary methods men use to express their love: ballads, poems, sonnets or love letters. Orsino, in Act I Scene I, rebuffed when sending Olivia a love note, dwells on this and in his melancholia says:

The instant was I turned into a hart,

And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,

E’er since pursue me. (

I. i. ll 22-24)

He refers to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Greek Myth of Actaeon and Diana, in which Actaeon happens upon the naked and virginal Diana when hunting. Transformed into a hart (deer), by Diana, his own hounds devour Actaeon: if our desires are not satisfied they will devour us. Viola, playing a man, Cesario, is asked by Orsino to deliver a love note to Olivia. She immediately falls in love with Orsino: I’ll do my best To woo your lady – [aside] yet a barful strife –Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife. (I, v, ll. 40-41) This love faces a comic internal barrier: Viola is posing, implausibly, as a man. Cesario/Viola visits Olivia, as ambassador for Orsino, attempting to change Olivia’s mind and make her love again Viola mocks the method by which Orsino is stating his love. Viola interrupts herself saying she is not going to waste her time upon it for the wrong woman:I pray you, tell me if this be the lady of the house,for I never saw her: I would be loath to cast awaymy speech, for besides that it is excellently wellpenned, I have taken great pains to con it. (

I. v. ll. 151-155)

He/she is not behaving like the standard lover; this spikes the interest of Olivia. After the ladies in waiting leave Viola as Cesario tries again, this time Olivia mocks the convention:O, I have read it. It is heresy. Have you no more to say? (

I. v. ll.201) The formal convention established by both is mocked. Cesario/Viola during this scene speaks with two voices one a man and the other a woman. When speaking as a man he says:Good Madam let me see your face. (

I. v. 11. 202)
Olivia replies when unveiled:Look you sir, such a one I was this present. Is’t not well done? (

I. v. ll. 206)

Cesario/Viola in a man’s voice replies:Excellently done, if God did all. (

I. v. ll. 207)
This “man’s” voice complements Olivia on her beauty, suggesting that it is God made and not artificial. Later in the scene, Cesario criticises Olivia:I see you what you are, you are too proud,But if you were the devil, you are fair. (

I. v. ll. 219 – 220)
The first line is the female voice, the intuitive observation that Olivia is vain. The second line is a male voice complementing Olivia’s beauty again. The conflicting sexuality and the tension caused by Viola’s cross dressing is effecting Olivia, for by the end of the scene she has fallen in love with Cesario. Viola chides Olivia for locking herself away from love:What is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve (

I. v. ll. 167 – 168)
And later:Lady, you are the cruellest she aliveIf you will lead these graces to the graveAnd leave the world no copy (

I. v. ll. 211 – 213)

In other words, you should not die without having children (and thus sex – with me perhaps?). Viola would have been played by a teenage boy establishing an androgynous appeal to Orsino and Olivia. Olivia, like Viola and Orsino, faces a barrier to her love: differing social status and Cesario’s gender. Viola causes both Orsino and Olivia to transform themselves: from being melancholy and introspective to generous and kind. By the end of the play, the rebirth of these characters is complete: when both attain, apparently, the reciprocal love they desire. The situation is improbable, comedy allows this suspension of belief. The setting allows the foolishness of love to fully express itself and appear comic to the audience. (Saccio,1999)

Shakespeare uses comedy to make profound points about love and relationships, in this case unrequited homosexual love. The play exhibits many of the characteristics of “Shakespeare’s festive comedies” what Cesar Lombardi Barber sees as the spirit and the tradition of festivals that Shakespeare’s contemporary audience associated with festivals celebrated during their youth and prior to their new urban existence. Barber expounds: “I have been led into an exploration of the way the social form of Elizabethan holidays contributed to the dramatic form of festive comedy [and] we can see here” the way in which “art develops underlying configurations in the social life of a culture” (Barber). Twelfth Night is a celebratory comedy, set during a holiday: The Lords of Misrule traditionally would take charge on this day, the Feast of Fools, involving a reversal of roles; reflected in the gender role reversal of Viola, “For Elizabethans this title [Twelfth Night] would have stirred…associations with…time in which normal rules were suspended” (Barton, 1994, 105).

The characters in Twelfth Night placed in comically preposterous scenarios, the improbability of which we accept, and Shakespeare has freedom to explore issues of sexuality behind this veil.

Illyria, “the society” of the play, is undemanding: time is spent on singing and dancing, leisurely courtship, drunkenness and practical jokes; Malvolio, ridiculed for being out of place, behaves like a puritanical pessimist, intent on ruining the carefree atmosphere. However, Malvolio is just a nuisance not a barrier to love and romance; the victory of love in the play is dependant upon overcoming

other obstacles. Orsino and Olivia create internal obstacles; they assume the mantles of romantic lover and grieving Lady. Viola because of her disguise becomes an obstacle to her own fulfilment. The outwardly comic fool, Feste, displays a degree of tired cynicism on occasion: for example in the final song: a mocking of these artificial marriages: Olivia and Orsino would rather have married each other’s spouses. The humiliation of Malvoli and his subsequent incarceration, as a lunatic, is totally out of proportion to his transgression. This sub text gives the play a darker edge than is outwardly apparent from the frivolity and implausibility of the setting, suggesting darker undercurrents. (Leggatt, 1974, pp. 221 – 254)

The play, as a comedy, conforms to convention and is concerned with marriage in the same way that, conversely, tragedies consider death (Romeo and Juliet

is an exception and considers both death and marriage). Viola, like Rosalind, in As You Like It, dresses as a man. As in The Comedy of Errors there is a shipwreck and mistaken identity of a pair of twins. The Comedy of Errors has same sex twins. By contrast, in Twelfth Night, by utilising different gender twins, Shakespeare is able to subtly consider sexual and gender ambiguity. The title of the play Twelfth Night or As you Will, gives a hint to the homoerotic imagery in the play: anything goes on the Feast of Fools.

Boys played women and girls in Elizabethan times; the introduction of gender ambiguity provides a subtle, homoerotic subtext. Comic effects of role-play are used to explore this. Viola is a boy playing a woman in turn playing a man; Olivia is a boy playing a grieving and cloistered nun and confusion over sexuality is established.

Consequently, closely entwined within the plot are issues of heteroeroticism, Viola courting Olivia on behalf of Orsino, and homoeroticism, Olivia’s love at first site for Cesario. When Orsino is speaking with who he believes to be a man, Cesario, he declares his homosexuality:

Dear lad, believe it;

For they shall yet belie thy happy years,

That say thou art a man: 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. (

I. iv. ll. 29 -33)

Act II scene II considers female homosexuality, and Viola’s subsequent difficulties:

How will this fadge? My master loves her dearly;
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him;
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master’s love;
As I am woman,–now alas the day!–
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!
O time! Thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me to untie! (II. ii. ll. 31-39)

Furthermore, Antonio appears to have a homosexual attraction to Viola’s male equivalent, Sebastian:

But come what may, I do adore thee so

That danger shall seem sport, and I will go. (II. i. ll. 41-42)

The ambiguity of sexual attraction due to the comic cross dressing of Viola blurs gender boundaries. Allowing consideration of sexual and emotional possibilities normally repressed by strict rules imposed by the “old” society. Shakespeare uses comedy to do this. The imposed barriers, of the “old” society, prevent Orsino and Olivia enjoying full expression of their repressed homosexuality. Biological limitations, and economic necessities, conspire against Orsino and Olivia internally: sexual attraction normally leads to marriage and financial consequences and must, even in the “new” society, be a cross gender union. However, in a romantic comedy, set in the carefree magical region of

Illyria, when it always seems to be a holiday, barriers to these attractions are removed. There is confusion in the “old” society concerning sexuality. The freedom and carefree nature of a festival makes everything seem possible. So, temporarily at least, the audience see sexual love unrestricted by the “old” society rules of gender and status, before heterosexual conformity is re-imposed at the end of the play. Northrop Frye’s three-stage dynamic of comedy is evident here: deadlocked and unproductive social pressures transform to a freedom facilitated by comedy prior to nature and convention returning to an acceptable “normality”. Olivia and Viola attain their desires. Malvolio and Orsino do not. Orsino fails in his courtship of Olivia and his desire for Cesario thwarted by virtue of the fact

that “he” is female. Sebastian, Toby and Orsino “acquiesce to the role of object of female desire” (Dympna, 2001, p. 138). Both Olivia and Orsino do not achieve the original objects of their desire. Olivias marriage to Sebastian and Orsinos to Viola, diverts attention away from the homosexual attraction that both exhibit to their respective partners earlier in the play. (Suzuki, 2001)

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