The Ironies of Happy Endings: An Introduction to Twelfth Night
[The following is the text of a lecture prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, for students in English 366: Studies in Shakespeare, in January 2001. References to Twelfth Night come from the Kittredge edition of the play (revised by Irving Ribner). The text of this lecture is in the public domain, and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledge, released January 2001. For list of other lectures in this series, please click here.]
Twelfth Night, written around 1600, is the last of the great romantic comedies of Shakespeare's early maturity (e.g., Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It), immediately preceding the period of the so-called Problem Plays and the great tragedies. Like these other comedies, Twelfth Night is written in the pastoral tradition and explores, as its central concern, the nature of love between men and women as a preparation for marriage and integration into a richer and fuller social existence.
However, Twelfth Night is, in some ways, somewhat different from the other plays mentioned. In the first place, it incorporates in its sub-plot a style of comedy derived from a different tradition from pastoral, namely, the comedy of manners, something which gives the play a sharper cutting edge insofar as attention to social issues is concerned. In addition (and related to this feature) Twelfth Night is clearly a more fragile and ambiguous affirmation of the values all these plays endorse. Coming to this work directly from the much more robust world of As You Like It or Much Ado About Nothing, we cannot help being struck by the ways in which, for all their clear similarities, Twelfth Night raises ironic questions about the ways in which the difficulties of young love are resolved.
In this lecture I would like, first of all, to explore some of the ways in which the treatment of the issue of love is here recognizably similar to and yet significantly different from the treatment of the same theme in As You Like It. Then, I should like to qualify those remarks by considering how Twelfth Night, in the very process of affirming the importance of love, raises questions about the very things it seems to celebrate. The most obvious manifestation of this sense occurs in the situation and character of Viola (especially in comparison with Rosalind from As You Like It). And finally, I'll be directing my attention to the sub-plot of Twelfth Night.
The Pastoral Romance in Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night is clearly part of the same tradition as As You Like It, and many of the dramatic elements are very similar. In both plays, the main plot features a young, intelligent female faced with the task of negotiating her way through a courtship with a man who needs to be educated into an understanding of what it means to love intelligently (rather than sentimentally). To carry out this task, she adopts a disguise as a young man and improvises her way through a series of meetings and conversations with a wide variety of people (prominent among them the young man who is the object of her affections), until, through a series of circumstances the complexities are happily (and somewhat implausibly) resolved. Part of the plot clearly raises gender issues and explore homoerotic possibilities in much the same way as in As You Like It.
All of this takes place in an environment far away from the realities of urban political life, in a never-never land, so to speak, not quite as rustic as the Forest of Ardenne, perhaps, but divorced from the immediate demands of normal social living, a place where no one seems to do any work or to answer to the demands of significant social responsibilities, at least not as an immediately urgent priority. The country estate of Olivia and the court of Orsino are places almost exclusively devoted to leisure, music, love, and much fun—in that sense, they are removed from the practical realities of urban life and continue the pastoral tradition. At the same time, they both contain structures of authority, so that we do not have here the sort of freedom Rosalind enjoys in the Forest of Ardenne (more about that later).
[Parenthetically, we might observe here the absence in Twelfth Night of parents, a feature of the play which confers upon the participants a greater sense of freedom than in other Shakespearean comedies. Here the lovers are free to shape their lives without answering to the most obviously controlling features of the social tradition into which they are born]
The central issue in the courtship of Viola and Orsino, as in the courtship of Rosalind and Orlando, is the need to educate the man out of his excessively sentimental vision of love, a wallowing in the conventional literary emotions appropriate to love, so that he reaches a sharper, more intelligent and aware vision of the reality of the experience. By the end of the process, the man has learned to alter the language with which he expresses his feelings, the most immediately indication of a transformed understanding of his own feelings.
Parenthetically, it is worth stressing here the importance in all these comedies of what I call emotional intelligence. Shakespeare's main point here seems to be that the powerful and important feelings of love can be easily corrupted by a false appreciation for the experience, especially as that corruption manifests itself in sentimentality and posing, a tendency not to confront the experience directly and honestly but to wrap oneself up in the conventional language of love and to adopt the conventional poses of the distraught lover. It's as if these plays are, in part, a warning about the dangers of falling in love with love or with the conventions of love rather than looking directly at or listening clearly to the object of one's love. Such tendencies are dangerous because they cloud people's perceptions and blunt their feelings. The continuing attention in As You Like It and Twelfth Night to the language of love, therefore, is clearly linked to an important moral issue: those who describe their highly charged emotional states in conventional terms or who adopt conventional ways of describing their emotional state are, in a sense, corrupting the experience. They are being unintelligently sentimental and therefore dishonest (to themselves and to others).
For all these similarities between As You Like It and Twelfth Night, however, there are some obvious differences, all of which tend to stress that Viola's task is considerably more difficult that Rosalind's and that the happy outcome is much more in doubt and (as we shall see) less unambiguously celebratory than in As You Like It. I'll be going into this last point in greater detail later, but for the moment let me list some obvious differences which bring out the issue I mentioned.
Prominent among these differences is the fact that Viola has far less freedom and authority than Rosalind does. Viola may be dressed up as a man, but Cesario is a servant to the man she loves and has to act on his misguided instructions. She certainly cannot challenge him directly or engage in complex role-playing games as Rosalind can freely do. Moreover, the love Olivia expresses for Viola complicates this issue, because Viola/Cesario is not free to treat Olivia as she might like. She lacks the face-to-face equality Rosalind has with Orlando, a freedom which frees Rosalind to initiate the courtship games and to address Orlando as an equal (and to childe him and mock him as she wishes), and obviously she has the class authority to dismiss Phoebe with a curt reminder about selling when she can.
Viola's situation is further complicated by the fact that Orsino is far more in love with love than is Orlando and hence much more difficult to move out of his emotional wallowing (Orlando, by comparison is a very quick learner). This difficulty is compounded by the fact that Orsino is a man capable (as we see) of a violent streak when thwarted (there's a much more powerful and vulnerable ego working in him than in Orlando). Similarly the complication of Olivia's feelings introduce complexities which are not easy for Viola to solve, because Olivia is also a person with some authority and because Viola cannot confront Olivia as she might like to without offending Orsino.
Viola, in other words, cannot take charge of her courtship, as Rosalind can. Viola has to hang on in shifting circumstances (where other people are in charge) and hope things will work out in the end. In that sense, she is more passive than Rosalind, or at least less of an actor that a reactor, and the happy outcome at the end of the play is less a tribute to her ability to shape events than to her faith in love, her ability to endure in difficult circumstances, and to win through because of her enduring faith in people (and, of course, her luck).
[Rosalind, by comparison, is in charge of her own script. She can determine the schedule of her meetings with Orlando, set the rules (especially the linguistic rules), and decide when to reveal her identity. And she knows all this from the start. In that sense, she does not have to wait for circumstances to sort themselves out—she has the freedom and power to set the circumstances herself. She also knows where she is and who all the people around her are all the time. She has a friend to confide in and a Fool to amuse her. Most important, she is sure almost from the start that Orlando loves her. And so on. All of these features make the comedy in As You Like It far more robust than in Twelfth Night.]
Viola: Some Observations
We can sense some of these important differences the very first time we meet Viola. She has been cast up on the shore of a strange land. She does not know where she is, and she has no close friends to turn to. Not surprisingly, her very first words indicate confusion and a sense of despair (or disorientation): "What country, friends is this? . . . And what should I do in Illyria." Her first response is dismay, a sense of disorientation. But (and this is her most important characteristic) she moves out of her dismay to engage others around her, to ask for help. In her initial circumstances, a woman alone surrounded by strange men in a strange country, she has every reason to be afraid.
Given some reassurance, she seizes upon a slender hope and initiates a plan. She knows she's taking a dangerous chance (after all, the Captain might abuse her trust), but within a few moments, she is offering him money (again a potentially dangerous act) and within moments she is moving purposefully away with a plan and a group around her. The initial confusion and despair are being addressed with courage and hope. The shift in her situation from the beginning of the scene to the end of it may not seem like much, but it sets the rhythm of her encounters with life and establishes for us the major outline of her character.
The staging of this moment can really bring out these aspects of Viola's character. In one production I saw (at the Old Vic in the late 1970's), at first she was lying unconscious on the ground, soaking wet. The first sight she saw on waking up were some strange men standing around her—a potentially frightening situation (and her first instinct was to find somewhere to hide). But she, with some difficulty and trepidation, gathers herself together, establishes contact with that word "friends" (which is a gamble) and trusts them, in spite of the risk. She has no precise sense of what she's getting into or where it will lead, but she takes active charge of situation (to the extent she is capable of), hoping that things will work out: "What else may hap, to time I will commit. . . ." (1.2).
The dynamic of this opening scene is the key to understanding the quality of Viola, a dynamic we see repeated throughout the play. Unlike Rosalind, she is in a potentially desperate situation and there is always an awareness in her that things may not work out—she is always only one step away from disaster. But she puts her trust in other people to help her and (most importantly) in time: things will work out if only she can just keep up her courage and hope.
The issue of trust in this play is important, and it's particularly noticeable when we come to it from the history plays, where trusting people, even one's own family, is a risky business, something to avoid. Those who do trust too easily are, as often as not, destroyed through that very trust (another common experience in the tragedies). One of the features which makes this play a comedy, of course, is that trust in our fellow human beings is not betrayed—most people respect others enough not to let a potential personal advantage overcome their generosity of spirit.
This issue is not so prominent in As You Like It, because Rosalind is surrounded by people whom she already trusts (Celia, Touchstone, Orlando, Duke Senior and his followers)—she doesn't have to take potentially dangerous chances on people (she runs no risks if her disguise is revealed, for example).
Another point to notice in this scene is Viola's spontaneous generosity—she freely gives money to the Captain for his good news and later promises more. Again, this is taking a chance—after all, if she reveals she has money, there's always a risk that the men will simply rob her. But, again, the generosity is met with a similar generosity from the Captain. In terms of the language we used to discuss earlier plays, what's happening here is that Viola is trusting in social bonds, and the people she trusts are honouring those bonds (the same principle is brought out in the relationships of Sebastian, Viola's twin, and the people he meets).
This symbolic importance of money, introduced here for the first time, is worth attending to throughout the play, especially in the case of Viola. Such spontaneous giving declares a character who is ready to honour and reward others as fellow human beings and who is not motivated (as others are) by self-interest or a deceitful wish to get rich at other people's expense. Giving money, like singing, is an obvious gesture of one's desire to share what one has with the world, to open oneself up to the world—not a prudent gesture in some environments (as the advice of Polonius to his son in Hamlet reminds us) but the mark of a truly comic spirit, one which trusts in the goodness of others.
Viola in the Courtship of Orsino and Olivia
The situation into which Viola walks is a complex romantic relationship based on mutual posing, in which Orsino and Olivia, in their different ways, are equally committed to wallowing in a conventionally emotional language, to enjoying the delicious but self-absorbed feelings of selfish emotional excess.
This quality emerges most famously in the opening speech of the play, when Orsino calls for music, his "food of love," only to order it to stop when it fails to live up to his expectation. What's important to notice here is Orsino's language, particularly the way in which his vocabulary defines an attitude of self-indulgence. The speech is justly famous as expressing a fine poetical attitude, and it suggests there's a latent emotional intelligence in Orsino—for the image of love as the sea swallowing up everything and instantly dissolving it so that its value is destroyed is the obvious criticism of his attitude to love, which for him is an experience that transforms beautiful things into nothing, based, as it is, on his own appetite surfeiting on excess (in other words, Orsino is his own best critic, even if he is not intending that). Earlier I used the word "wallow" to depict such an emotional excess, and this image brings out the sense precisely. The fact that Orsino himself delivers the strongest criticism of his own attitude is, as I say, an endorsement of the notion that Orsino is intelligent enough to see the limitations of what he's doing (even if he's not about to abandon it).
The clearest visual evidence of Orsino's self-indulgent infatuation with an attitude is the way in which his emotions, his love, de-energize him. He has no wish to engage with the world or, indeed, to do anything but luxuriate in his own feelings. Here the reactions of those standing around are important in any staging. We sense in the immediate reaction of Curio ("Will you go hunt, my lord") a certain impatience with all this languor, a desire to engage in some physical activity. Orsino's extremely hackneyed response, which turns the hunting metaphor into the most conventional of Petrarchan puns, the lover as a stricken deer, confirms the attitude first illustrated in his speech (as does his style of courtship, of course, which involves no active efforts on his part).
Olivia is in a situation somewhat similar. She has vowed to remain hidden from the world for seven years, living as a nun, weeping her way around her room once a day, all to keep her grief alive, as she puts it, "to season/ A brother's dead love, which she would keep fresh/ And lasting in her sad remembrance" (1.1.30-1) (Viola, we know, also has lost a brother). We learn this about her before we meet her, so in a sense we are set up to see her as wrapping herself up in an excess of her own emotionalism, just as Orsino is doing (the fact that he admires this trait in her drives home the comparison).
Once we meet Olivia, we can see immediately that this report of her is clearly false. She may be dressed in mourning attire, but unlike Orsino she is enjoying talking and interacting with others (particularly the Fool) and, significantly, she speaks prose. (In the production I have referred to earlier, Olivia's first entrance was preceded by an infectious merry laughter, a mood which contrasted with her formal mourning attire). It's difficult not to entertain the notion that she has concocted her "mourning," at least in part, as an excuse not to commit herself to marriage, to enjoy being an independent young woman in charge of her own properties: the formal grieving gives her a reason to deflect Orsino's romantic overtures.
In that sense, Olivia is clear much more emotionally intelligent at first than Orsino. That becomes evident by the speed with which she drops her adopted pose and commits herself to a new erotically charged experience. The first meeting with Viola arouses in her feelings which she recognizes as urgent and important—and rather than fighting them or denying them, she decides to act on them, in the full knowledge that she is taking an enormous chance. Like Viola she decides to act and put her faith in time working things out:
I do I know not what, and fear to find
Mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind.
Fate show thy force! Ourselves we do not owe.
What is decreed must be—and be this so! (1.5.287-290)
This instant willingness to break out of her artificially imposed isolation and take a chance on her deepest feelings is a mark of Olivia's emotional courage. Unlike Orsino (at the moment), she is not one to deny the chance to escape her self-imposed emotional isolation. The fact that she is wrong about the gender is no indication that she is wrong, although (as we shall see), her sudden love for Viola raises important issues of love and gender.
The Language of Love
What's important to note in Viola's interactions with Olivia (and later with Orsino) is the manner in which she awakens Olivia's interest. This response is generated above all by Viola/Cesario's language, which both mocks the conventionality of Orsino's and Olivia's emotional posturing and educates Olivia into the reality of true passion.
The issue of the language of love, in other words, is important here (as in As You Like It) but in Twelfth Night the issue is more complex. Rosalind's basic strategy for dealing with Orsino's or Phebe's or Silvius's attachment to sentimental conventions as the appropriate language for love is constantly to deflate the language of those conventions with vigorous colloquial prose which challenges the sincerity of the artificial diction in an attempt to wake the sentimental lovers up to the realities of their feelings. Thus, Rosalind can happily dismiss the notion that any male lover has ever died for love and can curtly instruct Phebe to sell when she can.
This strategy is not available to Viola/Cesario, simply because she cannot afford to insult either Orlando or Orsino, from whom she takes orders. She cannot speak to either of them directly about how she feels. Nevertheless, she strives to make them aware of the ways in which their attachment to the conventional sentiments of love is false, unintelligent, and inappropriate.
For instance, when Viola/Cesario first approaches Olivia (with the first message from Orsino), she deliberately mocks the language of the message she is bringing:
Most radiant, exquisite, and unmatchable beauty—I pray you tell me if this be the lady of the house, for I never saw her. I would be loath to cast away my speech; for, besides that it is excellently well penn'd, I have taken great pains to con it. . . . Alas, I took great pains to study it, and 'tis poetical. (1.5.157)
Olivia is astute enough to see what is going on (as her curt response "It is the more like to be feigned; I pray you keep it in" suggests) and asks Viola if she is a comedian. In fact, Olivia's first interest in Viola/Cesario may well be awakened by the sense that here she is dealing with someone who is not playing the conventional game who is, in fact, deliberately, although very subtly, mocking them—as is clearly suggested by the combination of the highly inflated language describing the unmatched beauty of the lady of the house alongside the genuine doubt about which woman such language is intended for (one would think that if the lady is indeed as magnificent as the words indicate, Viola would have no trouble recognizing her).
But Viola's real strength with language—something which really opens the eyes of both Orsino and Olivia—emerges when she puts all her pent-up feelings about being in love at a time when she cannot speak openly about it into a speech defining for her what true love is. One such moment comes at near the end of 1.5:
VIOLA: If I did love you in my master's flame,
With such a suff'ring, such a deadly life,
In your denial I would find no sense;
I would not understand it.
OLIVIA: Why, what would you?
VIOLA: Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloa your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out "Olivia!" O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth
But you should pity me!
This very famous speech announces clearly the difference between heartfelt emotion expressed with intelligent passion and the conventional language of Orsino's message ("adoration, fertile tears,/ With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire"). Viola's emotional outburst is clearly motivated (she's under considerable strain in this scene, confronting the woman loved by the person she wants for herself), and the integrity of the feeling manifests itself in the rich colloquialisms in the language ("Halloa your name to the reverberate hills/ And make the babbling gossip of the air/ Cry out "Olivia!"). The sincerity in the utterance stops Olivia in her tracks, for by the end of this speech her feelings for Viola/Cesario are clearly engaged. This transformation is not just a matter of Viola's taking her to task for hiding herself away from the world, refusing to give anything of herself, but also a response to the urgent emotional spontaneity—the sharing of an urgently felt human feeling which Viola's speech communicates.
The fact that Olivia responds so quickly to this emotional urgency in Viola is a testament to Olivia's essentially healthy emotional state. She understands well enough what Viola is talking about and is ready to take a chance, to drop the emotional pretense she has been engaged in and follow where he deepest feelings lead, even though that represents a great gamble.
Viola has the same effect later in the play on Orsino in 2.4, when the two of them have a conversation about love, particularly about the different natures of men and women in love. The scene culminates in this exchange:
DUKE: Make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.
VIOLA: Ay, but I know—
DUKE: What dost thou know?
VIOLA: Too well what love women to men may owe.
In faith, they are as true of heart as we.
My father had a daughter lov'd a man
As it might be perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.
DUKE: And what's her history?
VIOLA: A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' th' bud,
Feed on her damask cheek. She pin'd in thought;
And, with a green and yellow melancholy,
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
We men may say more, swear more; but indeed
Our shows are more than will; for still we prove
Much in our vows but little in our love.
DUKE: But died thy sister of her love, my boy?
VIOLA: I am all the daughters of my father's house,
And all the brothers too—and yet I know not.
Sir, shall I to this lady?
Here again, Viola is speaking out of a complex emotional tension—confronting the man she truly loves and unable to speak directly of her feelings to him. But the fiction of her sister "like Patience on a monument,/ Smiling at grief" is an eloquent expression of her own feelings—and the intensity of the moment pulls Orsino momentarily out of his self-absorption, and he becomes, for the first time, genuinely interested in someone else. She's forcing him to listen to a voice of love which is not simply giving him back the conventional sentiments he uses to assess his own feelings for Olivia.
It seems clear in moments like this (and elsewhere) that Orsino, perhaps like Orlando (in As You Like It) falls in love—or at least is brought to a better understanding of what it means to be in love—by having his feelings engaged by a woman in disguise as a man. There may even be a sense here that such gender confusion is necessary to shake Orsino out of his gendered understanding of love which is so frozen in conventional sentiment that he is unable to deal with the reality of other people's feelings. Perhaps it takes the love for a man (or someone he thinks is a man) to teach him that love is not first and foremost an exercise in linguistic conventionality.
In fact, considering this theme in As You Like It and Twelfth Night, one is tempted to offer the (perhaps overstated) suggestion that love between and man and woman is rendered problematic, especially for the man, because society and tradition instantly offer (and perhaps, in his mind, require) a conventional language and behaviour for dealing with the experience. In that sense, there is instant pressure for him to corrupt the experience. These plays offer the idea that a growing erotic attachment to someone of the same gender (in disguise, to be sure) challenges that conventionality precisely because such love can develop without the instant pressure to conform to traditional expectations (in the case of homoerotic attachments traditions do not provide the same pressures to conform to convention). I don't mean to press this suggestion too hard, but it is noteworthy how in both plays, homoerotic love is presented as a wonderfully educative experience, presenting the man with emotional possibilities which overcome the barriers to a full and rich and intelligent sense of love in a way that seems prohibited by conventional heterosexual courtship rituals.
This point seems evident in Orsino's reaction when he learns ( in 5.1) that Olivia has apparently married Viola/Cesario. He's intensely, even murderously, angry, but it's worth probing the nature of that anger. What is it that most disappoints him, the loss of Cesario ("the lamb that I do love"), or the loss of Olivia. His own speech reveals that the loss of Olivia is less a blow to his feelings of love than to his ego—his will to marry Olivia has been thwarted. So he's in a position where his deepest feelings of love are fighting his desire to manifest his own power to enforce his will (or at least to punish those who have thwarted his will).
At this point, we can recognize, if we have not already, the tragic potential in this situation (not unlike, say, Othello). The deceptions which have brought about this situation bring with them the possibility for fatal mistakes and enormous suffering. Viola calls disguise a "wickedness/ Wherein the pregnant enemy does much" (2.2.25); the fact that here disguise brings about no irreversible disaster, as it routinely does in the tragedies, perhaps is a tribute to a world in which no one is using disguise actively to promote evil or self-interested ends. Nevertheless, true, intelligent love wins out here largely as a matter of timing and luck as much as anything else. Hence, Viola's triumph, the fact that the dedication to her own true feelings and to trusting others succeeds, is much more fragile than in As You Like It, where there is never any threat to Rosalind's scheme to educate Orlando (mainly because Orlando has no strong ego or the power to enforce his will on anyone) and never any doubt about the outcome (in her mind or in ours).
The Sub-Plot: The Gulling of Malvolio
The sub-plot of Twelfth Night, the gulling of Malvolio by Sir Toby Belch, Maria, Feste, and Aguecheek, is justly famous as one of Shakespeare's funniest experiments in New Comedy, that is, in a style of comedy which is basically quite different from the pastoral romantic style of the main plot. The basis for the sub-plot is one of the oldest and most popular subjects for New Comedy, the unmasking of the hypocrite, a satiric exposure of apparent virtue so as to humiliate the hypocrite and make him ridiculous. I don't propose to say much about this sub-plot by itself, but I would like to make some observations of the connection between this story and the main plot involving the young lovers.
The duping of Malvolio is linked to main plot thematically in the obvious sense that it deals with a variety of love, namely, self-love, a wholesale preoccupation with self-interest and a refusal to see anyone as important other than oneself. Such a preoccupation, as in the case of Malvolio, leads to a misconception of the world and a total vulnerability to being manipulated into betraying oneself, as Malvolio does, by trusting that one's desires match the reality of the situation. Malvolio is punished—and is relatively easy to punish—because he is so wrapped up in his own importance that he sees no value in anything else or anyone other than himself, and his conceit about himself, along with his secret desires for social advancement and power, make him easy to tempt into ridiculous behaviour.
This point is made most obviously by the instant antipathy between Feste, the fool, and Malvolio. Malvolio sees no point in having a Fool around, especially one who seems as old and tired as Feste, in whose jokes Malvolio finds no amusement. It's important to note that the major motivation for the trick on Malvolio is the insult he makes to the Fool when we first meet them, together with his total dislike for any sort of fun.
Malvolio, in other words, is a kill-joy, a person with no sense of humour and with no place in his scheme of things for anything other than what he thinks is important. Everyone (other than Malvolio) recognizes this. Olivia tells him he is sick of self love, and Sir Toby Belch roars at him some of the most famous lines of the play: "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" (2.3.104). This quality in Malvolio makes him, rather like Jaques in As You Like It, the character most at odds with the comic spirit of the play.
But there's an essential difference between Jaques and Malvolio which makes the latter's presence in the play a good deal heavier. Malvolio is Olivia's steward, the person chiefly responsible for running her household, the master of the accounts. And Olivia tells us quite clearly that Malvolio is essential to her—"I would not have him miscarry for the half of my dowry" (3.4.57). He may be Olivia's servant, not of the same class as Sir Toby or Sir Andrew, and he may be a hypocrite with thoughts well above his station, but his work carries a weight that clearly matters. And that makes some difference to his final words, in which he promises revenge on all those present.
Let me elaborate this a bit further (at the risk of making an unnecessary digression). Three times in one scene (2.3), other characters call Malvolio a Puritan, using that term in a derogatory sense to indicate someone they hate, someone who needs to be exposed for what he is. This does not necessarily mean that Malvolio is a radically religious Protestant, but it suggests that what they don't like about him is his his excessive devotion to those things the Puritans were known for: seriousness, work, enforcing a strict code of morality in which there was no room for fun, colour, and entertainment (the Puritans were the moving force behind those who wanted to close the theatres as immoral places), and a hostility to art generally. In that sense, the Puritan often becomes (as here in this play) the symbol for an attitude excessively hostile to certain aspects of human experience. Exposing Malvolio thus becomes a way of neutralizing his power as a kill joy.
[Parenthetically, we should note here that exposing or attacking the Puritan character—or a character manifesting the Puritan spirit—is a major theme in English literature. In one way or another, many great writers take aim squarely at the dehumanizing qualities they see in the Puritan understanding of life: Jonson, Shakespeare, the Brontes, George Eliot, Dickens, Lawrence, to name some of the most prominent. Many of the most famous villains of traditional literature (Bulstrode, Gradgrind, Joseph, and so on) are presented to us in explicit Puritan form. Literature celebrating Puritanism is less rich, but there are some famous books in that tradition, notably Pilgrim's Progress and Robinson Crusoe.]
Malvolio is, of course, successfully humiliated and exposed—the trick is very funny (and helps Shakespeare to put into the play his crudest joke) and the punishment in the prison a damning parody of Puritan doctrine. But one wonders about that promise of revenge. If Malvolio is, as Olivia tells us, essential to the running of her estates, the one who does the major work of keeping the place going (and no one else seems interested or capable of doing that), then his departure at the end of the play casts a certain ironic shadow over the communal joy. The effect is not a major one, of course, but it registers as having more weight than the refusal of Jaques in As You Like It to return to the court, for Malvolio has social power through his utility. He may not rank as high as Sir Toby Belch, but it's clear enough which one of the two we want to have around if there's work to be done.
In fact, there's a sense in Twelfth Night that the traditional aristocracy or upper middle class is not nearly as robust, healthy, and capable as in As You Like It. That point is clear enough in the figures of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who are (though funny) boorish and ridiculous. But one might also get a whiff of decadence from Orsino as well, since we never see him here actually doing anything really significant or very active. Throughout much of the play there's a languor about him which might convey a sense that he doesn't have much to do or is so fully committed to his own leisure that he has no real duties, no responsibilities to his dukedom or to other people, whose job is to entertain him.. I don't want to belabour this point or undercut the fine points of Orsino's character, but simply to call attention to a quality of this play which conveys a sense of what one interpreter (whose name escapes me) has referred to as a golden sunset falling over Orsino's palace at the end of the play. For all the beauty of young love and the happy working out of all complications, the ending is in a far lower key than the other comedies, where multiple wedding ceremonies and dancing and joyous group music seal the final celebrations.
[To inject a more personal note here: for some reason I always sense that Twelfth Night takes place in a very hot climate (like the Mediterranean or Latin America) where a certain lassitude is the order of business among those with money, in contrast to the world of As You Like It where the robust climate of the Forest of Ardenne promotes a more active life. That may indicate as well as anything else the sense of ripeness or over-ripeness or incipient decadence in Twelfth Night, in contrast to the more youthful vigour of As You Like It]
But the character who does the most to establish the curiously ironic tone of Twelfth Night is Feste, the clown, one of Shakespeare's most interesting and elusive characters. Feste's official role is clear enough—he's a licensed court jester, given the liberty to mock those around him (like Touchstone). What makes him particularly interesting is the note of sadness that seems to come from him, especially in his songs.
From the start, there's a sense that Feste is old or feeling old and tired. He's been absent from Olivia's home for some inexplicable reason (in some productions there's a clear indication that he's been drinking). And the first impression we get is that he's not a particularly good fool—his jokes lack the wit and energy of Touchstone, and thus there's a real sting in Malvolio's initial insult that Feste is no longer up to the job of being funny—and it seems clear that that insult really connects ("Look you now, he's out of his guard already"). He has no answer ready for Malvolio, and has to rely upon Olivia to rescue him.
Throughout the play, Feste is far more the observer than the active participant. He joins in the revels and the plot against Malvolio, but doesn't initiate them. His most distinctive active contribution to the play is his singing, which always carries a sombre, elegiac note.
What is love? 'Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty!
Youth's a stuff will not endure. (2.3.43)
The song (of which this is the second verse) is justly famous as a beautiful love song, but the joy at lovers' meeting which the first verse celebrates is seriously qualified in this second stanza by the sense of its impermanence. That impermanence is not, as with Rosalind, a source of robust humour but rather of an underlying elegiac note, a note of sadness.
The final note he gives to the play leaves us with a pleasant, but distinctly sombre note (quite different from the final comic twist in the epilogue of As You Like It). That final song repeatedly comes to rest on the image of rain coming down every day, delivered to us as a solo by the character who best sums up, in his own personality, the elusive quality of the wise comic, the person who has become a professional jester, not because he is, like Touchstone, filled with an exaggerated sense of fun and wit, but because faced with the sadness of life and the impermanence of young love, the best thing to do is to celebrate what joys life does offer.
Feste is, in other words, Shakespeare's tribute to one of the most eloquent and elusive figures in our literature, the sad clown--the person intelligent enough to see through any of the easy superficial solutions to life's pains but wise enough to understand that there is little use in protesting the tribulations of human life (since that leads to self-destructive tragic conclusions). Hence, the best thing one can do is to turn away from the mystery and ultimate questions about the meaning and value of it all to celebrate the joys that are possible. But the awareness that such celebrations are not the reality of life and may not be sufficient to compensate for the final destructiveness of time introduces a mature note of sadness into his jesting and singing.
In that sense, Feste's presence in the play, his movement back and forth between one character and another, his singing, and his final goodbye help to establish a distinctively different tone for this play. Yes, the ending is structurally comic in a very conventional way (lovers reunited, villain no longer present, marriages pending), but the ironic undertones of his presence, more than anything else, inject a note of fragility into the proceedings, not enough to destroy the joy, of course, but sufficiently strong to cast some shadows around the young lovers.
The fact that Shakespeare gives such a prominent role to Feste, the sad clown, and lets him have the final word, together with the other elements which make the comedy in Twelfth Night so much more fragile than in As You Like It, suggests that Shakespeare's comic vision was, by 1600, running out of confidence and energy, coming under strain, and becoming qualified by all sorts of doubts. So it's not surprising to note that this is the last of the great romantic comedies, still affirming that comic pastoral vision, but only just. Beyond this ambiguous final affirmation lies a very different world, the much more problematic and troubling vision of the tragedies.
[Back to johnstonia Home Page]
Page loads on johnstonia web files