An Opal of a Play
The twelfth night of the festivities is the “topsy-turvy” night when servants become masters and, in turn, masters become servants. It is an unpredictable time when strange things could happen. Who knows what Shakespeare has in store for the innocent inhabitants of Illyria … and their uninvited guests?
When this play was written in the early 17th century, England was undergoing a mood of seriousness and a sense of loss. Britain had been very successful in everything that it did under the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st, however the Queen was now elderly and sick. She had no heirs and these two problems combined made the nation uneasy and uncertain about what would happen when she died. This play could be described as a “festival of fun”, designed to cheer up the whole country.
Although Twelfth Night is designed as a comedy, it has a very sad beginning. The Lady Olivia on Illyria has turned down the Duke Orsino’s love as she is in mourning for her dead brother, and will be for seven years. Also, the twins Viola and Sebastian, who performed together for a living, are separated in a shipwreck. Although both survive, they reached different parts of the shore and each believe the other to have perished. This is terrible for them and the mood is imposed on the minds of the audience by the words “death and dying” being used often. It is also achieved metaphorically, an example of this is by Orsino in the opening lines of the play – “That the appetite may sicken and so die”. However, both twins realize that it pointless lingering on the past and must move on. Shakespeare wanted England to apply this message after the inevitable death of their Queen.
However, Twelfth Night is supposed to be a cheerful play. Viola rejects mourning her dead brother, the same as Olivia, as she regards it as pointless. Although she feels sad for her loss, she decides to see what she can make of herself in Illyria. The comedy begins when Viola realises that the only job she could get is as a eunuch in Orsino’s court. She could sing and dance well and Orsino took an instant liking to her. She renamed herself Cesario. This would be funny to see on stage in any situation, but in Shakespeare’s time there would be another element of humour. All of the actors were boys in this period so this part would have to be a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy.
While Viola is finding work in Illyria, her twin brother Sebastian, is being cared for by Antonio, a sea captain. Sebastian behaves differently to his sister. He is more emotional and impulsive, and is convinced that Viola has drowned. He blames himself and an unlucky star, and declines Antonio’s offer to be his servant as he says “the malignancy of my fate might perhaps distemper yours”. However, he trusts Antonio and shares many his problems and history with him. In a previous war Antonio had fought against Orsino and had caused Orsino’s Titan to lose his leg. For this reason he had many enemies in Orsino’s court. In spite of this, when Sebastian says he was going to Orsino’s court alone, Antonio decides to secretly follow to make sure he doesn’t get into trouble, despite the danger he is putting himself in. This shows the unconditional love Antonio has for Sebastian.
Meanwhile, we learn that Orsino was in love with Olivia. He is an example of a courtly lover. At this time women were put “on a pedestal” and worshipped from afar as unattainable goddesses. Only by long devotion, many trials and much suffering, could a man win his ideal woman, the “fair, cruel maid” of literature. Such love was sexless and idealized. In reality, it usually meant that men (like Orsino) were in love with the idea of love. Orsino always sent messengers of love, rather than visiting himself and didn’t even prepare the speeches on his own behalf. Previously a messenger named Valentine had been put in charge of this task, but Orsino thought that Valentine was failing as he hadn’t managed to woo Olivia for him, because she had said that she was in mourning for her brother and couldn’t love another man. Due to Valentine’s failings, Orsino let Cesario take over.
Cesario did not really want to woo Olivia. She had begun to fall in love with Orsino herself, but she could not show her love as she was pretending to be a man. Cesario did as she was told. She loved Orsino so much she wanted him to be happy even if she was not “the man for whom I woo, I would be his wife”, but when she left she realised that Olivia had fallen in love with her. This put her in a very difficult situation. Not only was she a woman pretending to be a man, another woman had fallen in love with her. Also she was trying to woo this woman for her master. If Orsino found out that Olivia had fallen in love with his servant whom he had trusted to woo for him he would be very angry.
But Viola’s actions were only a build up. The comedy really begins with the introduction of Sir Toby Belch. One of his lines in the play is “Care’s an enemy to life”, and this is a good character analysis of him. He is Olivia’s uncle, and he has brought one of his “friends” along with him to try and woo her. At least this is what he has told Sir Andrew Aguecheek, an idiot with an appropriate name for his personality. Andrew is really there so Toby can leech off him. Andrew isn’t clever enough to realise that he is being used and doesn’t stand a chance with Olivia. But the comedy wouldn’t be complete without Feste. He is employed by Olivia as a professional fool – he is witty, funny and plays music. However, although he is supposed to cheer up everyone, he is described as a “sad fool”. This is contradictory in itself, and is another way that Shakespeare makes everything topsy-turvy. He was the court fool of Olivia’s father, but when he died Feste didn’t accept this and although he was working for Olivia, he was still mourning the death of his true master. Although he was employed by Olivia, he moved freely between both her court and the court of Orsino, his antics thus appearing throughout the island. He is very good at his job and is paid for his wit on several occasions in the course of the play.
This trio acquires its main source of entertainment (closely followed by alcohol) by playing practical jokes on other people.
The first victims are Cesario and Andrew (this proves that Toby has only invited Andrew to finance his regular drinking sessions, and doesn’t care what happens to him as long as he stays). Andrew is a coward and as Cesario is a woman she would not have had any experience in sword play. Sensing their weaknesses, Toby stages a fight between them over Olivia, his niece. Although neither really want to fight, Toby provokes them. Andrew has become jealous of Cesario as he still thinks he has a chance with Olivia. This is how Toby manages to egg him on. Just as they draw their swords, Antonio arrives. Believing Cesario to be Sebastian, he threatens Andrew. Toby then drew his sword. However, some soldiers from Orsino’s court had seen Antonio on the street; they arrive and arrest him for the crimes he had committed against Orsino during the earlier war. Antonio asks Cesario for help and for the return of some money he had lent him. Cesario denies knowing him, but offers him money as he had shown her kindness. Antonio then says “But O how vile an idol proves this God! Thou hast, Sebastian, done good features shame.” Antonio is taken away by the soldiers, but Viola heard her brother’s name and is brought hope that her brother had not died in the ship wreck.
This staged fight was only a source of entertainment for Toby, but his next prank becomes more serious. The only real villain in the play is Malvolio – Olivia’s steward and an important member of her household. However, he is not as important as he would like to be. He is socially inferior to Sir Toby and he resents the irresponsible knights’ riotous behavior. He has no sense of humour and always dresses in black. He could be described as a “puritan”. At the time of Shakespeare, the puritans were a religious group who condemned theatres, believing them to have a corrupting effect on the audience. They dressed plainly, disliked drinking and had a strict code of personal behavior. The ordinary people regarded them as hypocrites. Malvolio embodied all of these attributes, which the Elizabethan audience would obviously despise. There is absolutely no explicit sympathy for him in the play whatsoever.
One night when Andrew, Feste, Toby and Maria (a servant in Olivia’s house) are partying late, Malvolio ordered them to bed. The others already dislike Malvolio, and after this incident they plot his downfall. They write a letter supposedely from Olivia to Malvolio, confessing her undying love for him. Malvolio falls into their trap. He is self-conceited, and marrying Olivia would put him socially above Toby and Andrew – his dream come true. The letter requests that he do certain things so she would know if he returned her love. He was to wear yellow garters and smile all of the time. This is the opposite of what Malvolio would normally do, and the result made him look ridiculous. Olivia assumes he is mad and puts him under Toby’s control. Up to this point the mocking of Malvolio had been lighthearted and funny, making him seem an idiot, but now Toby takes it too far. Contrary to his claims of being light hearted, Toby becomes bitter and puts Malvolio in a darkened cell. He also asks Feste to humiliate him further by pretending to be “Sir Topas” a priest, and condemning him to hell.
In the final scene of the play, all of the plots, mistakes and confusions are resolved. Sebastian arrives as Viola leaves. Toby and Andrew pick on him and are shocked by his willingness to fight (they think he is Cesario). Sebastian easily beats them both. Sebastian then meets Olivia, and after she has confirmed her undying love for him (she thinks it is Cesario), they get married. Sebastian is taken aback by her beauty and doesn’t care that he has only just met her. Orsino now arrives, after finally deciding to woo Olivia himself. When Olivia tells him that she has married Cesario, Orsino is filled with anger and a feeling of betrayal. He threatens to kill Cesario. Cesario emphatically denies having married Olivia, but when the priest who married Olivia and Sebastian confirms that Cesario (getting him confused with Sebastian) had married just two hours before, Cesario appears to be a liar. Toby and Andrew make matters worse when they arrive complaining of being beaten by Cesario in a sword fight, which she also denies. Soon after, Antonio the sea captain arrives, brought in by the soldiers. He claims that he had been caring for Cesario for three months, and that he had been bewitched by that “ungrateful boy”. Cesario also denies this. Orsino assumes that Antonio was a madman as Cesario has been in his court for the previous three months, and sends Antonio to prison.
It is obvious there is something wrong, and Cesario knows she has a lot of explaining to do. When Sebastian arrives the problems are clarified. Everyone is shocked by their similarity. Even Sebastian asks himself “do I stand there?” while looking at his twin. All of the problems become clear, and Orsino forgives Cesario for the things that she had been accused of. The play ends on a happy note with a triple marriage. Sebastian and Olivia are already married; Sir Toby marries Maria – according to Feste this was due to her part in the gulling of Malvolio, and Orsino promises to marry Viola who has now revealed herself.
The only thing that intrudes upon this wonderful moment is when Malvolio is released and realises that he has been made to look foolish. He has lost respect from the other servants and his dignity. He also discovers that Olivia had married another man and that she did not love him or write him a love letter. Instead of forgiving Toby and the others involved in this prank, he leaves shouting “I will be revenged on the whole pack of you.”
In conclusion, Twelfth Night is a play of mixed moods. Although it is considered a romantic comedy it deals with serious themes – love and disguise both add a lot to the play’s humour, but also reflect society and some of the ridiculous ideas and actions that people can be drawn into. Love dominates the minds of most of the characters in this play, whether its real, imagined, wanted, idealized or unrequited. Although Olivia said she was in mourning for her dead brother and used this as an excuse so she didn’t have to marry Orsino, the moment that Cesario turned up she fell in love at first sight. Was this true love? Malvolio was in love with himself and just wanted power, but was quite prepared to marry Olivia for it. Also, did Toby marry Maria for the right reasons – for playing a dominant role in one of his biggest tricks – was this true love?
Not only the obvious are disguised – Viola pretending to be a boy was very obvious, but emotions and intentions are also disguised behind an outer appearance or attitude. Olivia soon stopped mourning her brother when she met Cesario, and Orsino switched his affections towards Viola when he realised that she loved Sebastian. Toby pretends to like Andrew for his money and Feste dresses up as a monk to trick Malvolio even further.
Love and disguise are both everyday occurrences in Illyria, but it is not too different here. Twelfth Night makes the reader consider what our beliefs about ourself and others are based upon. The action brings out the true nature of Olivia, Orsino and Malvolio, but Malvolio is unable to accept what he is really like and this leads him to be excluded from the festive spirit the others are sharing.
In the play everyone’s truths were brought out, but not everyone liked the consequences. What would happen if the same thing happened here?
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