Date:December 16, 1992
Class:Literature & Arts A-40a, Harvard University
Comments: I really love Twelfth Night. It is extremely complicated, but done in a way that does not immediately appear so. This paper, however, doesn't really do it justice. It is solidly constructed, but fairly lifeless.
  This is one of the few times that I had something to say but didn't write it down because it couldn't make it come out right. Usually, I just trowel on the point, even if it is sloppy. This is also one of the few times I didn't come up with my paper topic on my own, but followed a TF's suggestion.
Hook: The hook here was really looking into Twelfth Night deeply. I only scratched the surface.


“If we’re offensive and pose a threat,
You feel what we represent is a mess,
You’ve missed the message that says it all,
And you’ll never know why….”
   —Ozzy Osbourne

On the surface, Twelfth Night seems to end on a perfectly satisfying note—a triple marriage—where the proverbial ‘they’ live happily ever after; however, this ending is only happy if you don’t think about it very much. A deeper look into the final scene of the play finds it dismissing (and even missing) so many characters and so rife with violence and uncertainty, that the intent of Shakespeare to make this more than just a happy ending must be considered. Reinforcing this is the problem that, based on their actions, the newlyweds are unlikely to be truly happy for very long. In fact, Shakespeare seems to go out of his way to hint (and only hint, not show) that the ‘heroes’ of the play will end up unhappy. While this makes Twelfth Night less appealing to an audience (although perhaps not immediately) because it makes the ending less joyful by concealing sadness, this hidden depression gives the play much more meaning and depth, in the end making it much more satisfying.

As with most things, the road to satisfaction in Twelfth Night contains moments of dissatisfaction masquerading as satisfaction. On this particular road, it is the impending marriages of the betrothed couples, which—after initially pleasing—leave a sour taste. It seems extraordinarily unlikely that any of these marriages, all based on misunderstanding, conceits and flawed preconceptions, will survive more than a month after the curtain drops.

The matching of Viola and Orsino seems plausible, as they seem to adore one another; however Viola doesn’t really know her new husband, although she thinks she does. Throughout the time Viola has been working for her master, Orsino has been a romantic to the bone, his heart yearning and breaking for Olivia, who does not want him. He begins the play with an impassioned statement of music and love, and speaking of Olivia in high romantic praise. The next time we see him, he is singing the same tune, and asking for one as well, saying that music “did relieve my passion much” (II.iv.4) and refusing to give up his doomed love. We do not see Orsino again until the final scene, where he is still pining for Olivia. “Here comes the Countess,” he says. “Now heaven walks on earth” (V.i.94). Yet, when it is finally clear that Olivia is married to someone else, he looses this romanticism, even when speaking romantically to his new bride Viola. His swirling, romantic speeches are then forsaken in exchange for clipped, blank statements: “Here is my hand. You shall from this time be / Your master’s mistress” (V.i.322-3). It is as if the search for Olivia was what was exciting, not achieving her, as if romance, like rock and roll, is a trip, not a destination. It seems most unlikely that this attitude of Orsino’s, his only real character trait and the only measure besides looks with which Viola has to judge him, will sit well with Viola when they are married. More likely, it will drive her to loathe him.

Orsino himself will likewise find fault with Viola once married, because Viola’s true self has been hidden from him since he has known her; he has never seen her as a woman. Also, while Viola, as Cesario, indicated feelings for him, he spoke in no such language. He even went so far to threaten to kill Cesario when he discovered he (she) was loved by Olivia and not himself. The marriage of Viola and Orsino is doomed, if not to failure, at least for some choppy water, because the masks which they wear, formed by their situations and attractive to the other, will disappear with the situations which prompted their donning.

Still, if Viola and Orsino may have rough times ahead, Olivia and Sebastian are screaming down the abyss headlong into destruction. These are two people who know as much about each other as they do about themselves, which is to say, not very much. It took all of 80 words from Olivia’s mouth for Sebastian to agree to marry her from the time when he first saw her, hardly a well conceived plan (IV.i.51-64). Olivia, even though she was, in a sense, fooled into wedlock with Sebastian by thinking that he was Cesario, seems to accept Sebastian with love or, at least, not reject him, another action unmotivated by any sort of cerebral activity. If even the audience, who has seen far more of Sebastian than has Olivia, knows very little about him, how can she know him better? Shakespeare makes it clear that they have not been together off-stage, by indicating that only “two hours” (V.i.163) had passed since the wedding, and Sebastian entering the stage independently from Olivia.

In Olivia’s defense, however, Shakespeare hints that she is not entirely happy with what is transpiring, and thus sows the seeds for what will likely destroy the couple after the play is over. We hear no response from her about Sebastian’s speech that everything is all right, as she fell in love with his perfect likeness:

So it comes, lady, you have been mistook;
But Nature to her bias drew in that.
You would have been contracted to a maid,
Nor are you therein, by my life, deceiv’d,
You are betroth’d both to a maid and man. (V.i.261-263)

It is significant that we never hear Olivia’s commentary about this statement, especially the last line. By her silence and by Orsino’s command to “Be not amaz’d” (V.i.264) upon hearing it, it is clear that she is somewhat stunned by this turn of events, and that, perhaps, she would prefer the maid to the man, were that possible. She is in the horrible position of having the exultation of marriage to her perfect man replaced by the despair of her perfect love being close by, but forever impossible to reach, within the space of a few minutes. Her continuance of the marriage seems almost like a societal obligation, much like a comedy’s demand for a happy ending, which will undoubtedly fall apart quickly.

The last marriage, between Sir Toby Belch and Maria, is almost never spoken of in any way, which in itself indicates that it is not strong enough to weather potential marital problems, such as the groom being a complete lush. We never hear Mrs. Maria Belch* comment in any way on the marriage. In fact, she is missing from the final scene, the one scene in which such a comment would be expected. The marriage as a whole is only mentioned in passing, indicating that that is what it will do: pass.

By making these marriages so unstable, Shakespeare subtly creates the feeling that Twelfth Night is not as jolly as it would seem. This is further reinforced by the structure and content of the last scene. Generally, a ‘happy ending’ scene would flow smoothly, joy and reconciliation building on joy and reconciliation; this is not the case with Twelfth Night. No sooner have Olivia and Sebastian and Viola and Orsino been paired, than Malvolio enters the fray like coitus interruptus, spurting revenge and danger, exposing what had been a practical joke as a spiteful evil, and generally spoiling the day for all concerned. This is not just another day at the beach, or, as Orsino says “This savours not much of distraction” (V.i.311).

Furthermore, the entire scene, which should be pastoral and bright is filled with violence and anger. Even before Malvolio vows to “be revenged on the whole pack of you,” (V.i.374) there is an angry exchange between Orsino and Antonio, with much gritty talk of battle imagery:

Yet when I saw it last it was besmeared
As black as Vulcan in the smoke of war.
A baubling vessel was he captain of,
For shallow draught and bulk un prizable,
With such scatheful grapple did he make
With the most noble bottom of our fleet… (V.i.48-53)

“War”, “scatheful grapples” and sinking ships are hardly proper gifts for a wedding. Nor are two men with bloody skulls, yet this is how Sir Andrew and Sir Toby enter the scene.

It is these two which highlight yet another out of place device for a happy ending: uncertainty. By accusing Viola of assaulting them, the two men add to the confusion surrounding who is married to Olivia. Given what has gone before, this confusion is itself perfectly in place for this scene, as it attempts to wrap up all the loose ends and mistaken identity in the play; however, the confusion is based on the fact the Viola does not know about Sebastian. Yet when Sebastian finally enters, Shakespeare allows the confusion to continue. While Viola had been so clever earlier in the play, as her sharp-witted seductions of Olivia for Orsino indicate, she suddenly get struck dumb, unable to recognize her identical twin brother. It seems unacceptable that Shakespeare included this merely as a comedic device, but rather to increase the subtle unease which would clue the audience into seeing the happiness as a veil to tragedy. This confusion, added to the violence and shattered nature of Twelfth Night’s final scene, creates an ending which goes beyond the happy ending while masquerading as one, giving a tenuous sense of something amiss or out of kilter.

Two other characters, Antonio and Feste, may provide us with the meaning of this unease. To what end did Shakespeare make Twelfth Night this way? And why so subtly? I submit that the answer to this, and the true depth of Twelfth Night, lies in who these two characters are and how they are treated. Although the two characters serve very different functions in making Shakespeare’s point, both seem above the other characters of the play, immune from the foolery which infects the others, yet one remains unaffected in any way and the other seems destined to be ignored. The statement from Shakespeare seems to be “Well, it would be great if men like this could achieve their dreams, as they deserve them more that these other fools, but it doesn’t seem to work out that way in a world pre-occupied with triviality.”

Antonio forms the tragic example of Twelfth Night, an illustration of what is ill in Illyria and wrong with the world. He is honest with others and is the only main character other than Feste to be honest with himself, secure in who he is and asserting it with vigor:

Be pleased that I shake off these names you give me.
Antonio never yet was thief or pirate,
Though, I confess, on base and ground enough
Orsino’s enemy. (V.i.69-72)

He is never seen in a comic capacity, giving him an innate nobility, reinforced by the depth of his friendship to Sebastian. Antonio avoids turning into a Malvolio, however, and keeps his nobility unoffending and to himself. Shakespeare seems to have much respect for a man like this, and if anyone has earned happiness, it is Antonio, yet he ends with nothing; there is no one left to love Antonio, although his love of Sebastian never seems in doubt. It is very significant that Antonio remains on stage throughout all of the last scene, even though he has nothing to do. While characters who needed to be dealt with at the end were brought on stage quickly, and then disposed, Antonio remains through it all as a silent observer. His is a most subtle presence on stage, commanding attention, but not demanding any. Through Antonio, Shakespeare seems to be protesting that the real world is unrewarding to men of real merit.

Shakespeare reinforces this stance in the last scene with commentary upon the world from his other ‘higher’ character, Feste. It falls to Feste to close the play, which he does by making absolutely no reference to what has happened in any way, and instead singing a song about man’s journey through life. By ignoring the play in this way, he indicates how irrelevant what we have just enjoyed is and emphasizing that the world is a pretty dreary place—that “the rain it raineth every day” (V.i.388). This tends to subtly amplify the effect Antonio has on the audience’s subconscious, as in the winding down back to reality, the shallowness of the other characters is even more exposed. It seems clear that Antonio is meant to have our pity, but it seems clear that Shakespeare didn’t necessarily wish the audience to think about this until long after the show.

To this end, he set up Twelfth Night as comedy, satisfying on the surface, with thinly hidden tragic elements which are lost in the play until reflected upon. By doing so, Shakespeare make Twelfth Night ultimately more meaningful and satisfying.

*There is a temptation here to create a pun with this name and the song lyric “they call the wind Maria”, but I will refrain.

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