Shakespearean Comedy's Culminating Jewel
William Shakespeare's play "Twelfth Night" emerges as the pinnacle of his early comedic achievements. The essence and values of his earlier comedies subtly intertwine in this complex narrative, which stands as his most intricate creation to date. However, this play also casts its gaze forward: the pressure to disentangle from comedy, to acknowledge and eventually transcend the weight of laughter, forms an integral part of its "perfection." The protagonist Viola's perceptive and optimistic perspective triumphs, a victory we eagerly embrace. Yet, its fragility becomes evident, teaching us that the strength of virtue in disguise is only fully triumphant when evil is unmasked, not merely potentially lurking. Having ingeniously resolved the challenges inherent in this particular comedic form, Shakespeare wisely refrains from repeating this achievement. After "Twelfth Night," his later "comedies" demanded more audacious characters and devices – all-knowing and all-present Dukes, sorcery, and rebirth. In a world where both goodness and evil coexist, more apparent miracles are required to sustain comedy.
—Joseph H. Summers, "The Masks of Twelfth Night"
Shakespeare's Pinnacle of Comic Vision
At the pinnacle of his dramatic prowess in his mid-30s, William Shakespeare crafted "Twelfth Night," his magnum opus in the realm of romantic comedy. No other work rivals its exuberant, enchanting, and melodious celebration of love's transformative enchantment. Simultaneously, no other play offers a shrewder exploration of its follies and the opposition it faces. "Twelfth Night" stands as the ninth in a series of comedies composed during the 1590s, a synthesis of his prior masterpieces – "The Comedy of Errors," "The Taming of the Shrew," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "The Merchant of Venice," and "As You Like It." Unrivaled in its execution, it anticipates themes that would later permeate his dark comedies and tragedies. It signifies the zenith of his comedic vision, the ultimate expression of his pure romantic comedies, though a shadow of impending darkness looms over subsequent works. While Shakespeare never again captures the exultant, jubilant tone saturating "Twelfth Night," its charm and impressiveness emanate from its candid recognition of the challenges impeding its merriment, acknowledging the influence of sorrow, melancholy, and solitary confinement. The comedy within "Twelfth Night" materializes only after surmounting numerous barriers.*
Delving into "Twelfth Night"* *
Origins and Narrative Elements*
Composed between 1600 and 1602, "Twelfth Night," or "What You Will," presents a captivating blend of sources and plot components. The earliest reference to its performance dates to February 1602, as documented by John Manningham, who likened it to Plautus's "The Twin Menaechmi" and the Italian play "Inganni." This tapestry weaves identical twins and confused identities from previous works with an intricate intrigue involving gender disguises – reminiscent of 16th-century Italian comedies. Shakespeare also draws inspiration from Ben Jonson's comedy of humors, ingeniously reimagining the duping of choleric Malvolio. The play's title alludes to the festive atmosphere of Epiphany, symbolizing the culmination of Elizabethan Christmas revelries – a time of suspended conventions and revelry.*
Patterns of Love and Obstacles*
"Twelfth Night" adheres to a recurrent theme in Shakespearean comedies – the hurdles lovers encounter while pursuing their desires. Scholars, exemplified by Sherman Hawkins, discern two fundamental structural patterns in these comedies. One entails escape, where young lovers elude parental or societal opposition by retreating to a liberating realm. In contrast, "Twelfth Night" follows the pattern of intrusion, wherein outsiders' arrival catalyzes the transformation of stagnant relationships and reinvigorates a stagnant community. Here, the impediments are internal; resistance emanates from the lovers themselves. The introduction of new characters facilitates the resolution of emotional impasses, enabling genuine love to flourish.*
Themes in "Twelfth Night"* *
The Melancholic Court*
The curtains rise on the melancholic court of Orsino, Duke of Illyria. His yearning for Olivia is thwarted by her mourning for her brother. Orsino's opening soliloquy encapsulates the anguish of unreciprocated love, where music serves as a poignant reminder of his unattainable desires. Meanwhile, Olivia, equally entrapped in melancholy, has withdrawn from society, grieving her presumed-deceased sibling for years.*
The Arrival of Viola and Love's Dynamics*
The arrival of Viola, who disguises herself as the page Cesario, heralds a transformation in the court's ambiance. Viola, mourning her presumed-deceased brother Sebastian, exhibits resilience and resourcefulness, setting her apart from Olivia and Orsino. Viola's affection for Orsino transcends sentimentalism; it embodies selflessness and generosity. The advent of new characters paves the way for the resolution of emotional impasses, clearing the path for genuine love to flourish.