The Serious Comedy of Twelfth Night: Dark Didacticism in Illyria

By Marciano, Lisa | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Serious Comedy of Twelfth Night: Dark Didacticism in Illyria


Marciano, Lisa, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


IN "Or What You Will," Barbara Everett notes that Shakespeare's Twelfth Night "poses in a nicely acute form a problem inherent in all the earlier comedies: why do we take them seriously? Or how, rather, best to explain the ways in which it is hard not to take them seriously-the sense that at their best they achieve a lightness as far as possible from triviality" (294). Everett has discovered a question that surely concerns any scholar of Shakespearean drama, for the bard's comedies are undoubtedly serious. But what, precisely, accounts for the dark dimension that pervades so many of the plays? My response is this: close scrutiny of the dramas indicates that, beginning as early as Love's Labour's Lost and continuing on into the romances, Shakespeare's comic characters repeatedly come face to face with mortality, learn that one must, therefore, live well, and teach others wisdom accordingly. Oddly enough, then, having a brush with death and urging others to live wisely are staples of Shakespeare's comedies. Twelfth Night is a good test case, for this drama, perhaps more than any other, abounds with jests and merriment, yet it also brims over with situations in which characters who are aware of mortality try to bring others to reform by means of this knowledge. Examining Shakespearean drama through the lens of Twelfth Night, then, we can respond to Everett's question as follows: a dark didacticism, an urgent sense that life must be lived well because it is short, often underlies Shakespeare's plays, and this principle, at least in part, accounts for the seriousness with which we regard Shakespeare's comedies.

As a brief survey of the canon indicates, several plays have distinct moments in which characters become wiser after encountering death. For instance, in Love's Labour's Lost, Marcade's abrupt announcement that the King of France has died impels the Princess to diagnose the defects plaguing the court of Navarre; Shakespeare declines to make clear, however, whether the young gentlemen will indeed change their ways. In Much Ado about Nothing and All's Well that Ends Well, either the wronged lovers or their advisers circulate false news of the women's deaths to provoke Claudio and Bertram to repentance. In Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale, Posthumus and Leontes instantly feel the weight of their guilt upon hearing of the "death" of their wives. And in The Tempest Prospero deliberately makes the shipwrecked parties on his island think that he is dead or that others have perished, all to make the castaways repent and reform. (1) REN 56.1 (Fall 2003)

Yet few critics systematically examine how the awareness of death is a didactic tool in Shakespearean comedy, and in Twelfth Night in particular. One critic who does speak of didacticism in his work is John Hollander, author of "Twelfth Night and the Morality of Indulgence." In this essay Hollander asserts that there is a "moral process" at work in this play: characters indulge themselves to their hearts' content, eventually purging themselves of at least some undesirable elements (221-222). In Hollander's own words,

   The Action of Twelfth Night is indeed that of a Revels, a
   suspension of mundane affairs during a brief epoch in a temporary
   world of indulgence, a land full of food, drink, love, play, disguise
   and music. But parties end, and the reveler eventually becomes
   satiated and drops heavily into his worldly self again.... The
   essential action of a revels is: To so surfeit the Appetite upon
   excess that it "may sicken and so die". It is the Appetite, not the
   whole Self, however, which is surfeited: the Self will emerge at the
   conclusion of the action from where it has been hidden. The
   movement of the play is toward this emergence of humanity from
   behind a mask of comic type. (222)

There is, of course, merit to Hollander's argument, for the characters in this drama do indulge themselves and do show signs of reform before the final curtain. …

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