William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night


A collection of ten critical essays on the Shakespearean comedy, arranged in chronological order of original publication.


Clearly a kind of farewell to unmixed comedy, Twelfth Night nevertheless seems to me much the funniest of Shakespeare’s plays, though I have yet to see it staged in a way consonant with its full humor. As some critics have noted, only Feste the clown among all its characters is essentially sane, and even he allows himself to be dragged into the tormenting of the wretched Malvolio, whose only culpability is that he finds himself in the wrong play, as little at home there as Shylock is in Venice.

Everything about Twelfth Night is unsettling, except for Feste again, and even he might be happier in a different play. Perhaps Twelfth Night was Shakespeare’s practical joke upon his audience, turning all of them into Malvolios. Like Measure for Measure, the play would be perfectly rancid if it took itself seriously, which it wisely refuses to do. Twelfth Night, I would suggest, is a highly deliberate outrage, and should be played as such. Except for Feste, yet once more, none of its characters ought to be portrayed wholly sympathetically, not even Viola, who is herself a kind of passive zany, since who else would fall in love with the self-intoxicated Orsino?

What is most outrageous about Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s deliberate self-parody, which mocks his own originality at representation and thus savages representation or aesthetic imitation itself. Nothing happens in Twelfth Night, so there is no action to imitate anyway; The Tempest at least represents its opening storm, but Twelfth Night shrugs off its own, as if to say perfunctorily: let’s get started. The shrug is palpable enough when we first meet Viola, at the start of scene 2:

VIOLA. What country, friends, is this?

CAPTAIN. This is Illyria, lady.

VIOLA. And what should I do in Illyria?

My brother he is in Elysium.

Perchance he is not drown’d—what think you, sailors?

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