ENGL 331: Renaissance Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Shakespeare's Twelfth Night


Review 490-5 on Elizabethan theater and 1026-8 (headnote to Shakespeare); read carefully 1043-5 (headnote to Twelfth Night) and the information below on the genre of Comedy and the Conventions of Shakespearean Romantic Comedy.  Know the principal classical sources of comedy as well as its conventional characteristics.

General:  Comedy as a Renaissance Genre

Because of his humanist education, Shakespeare was familiar with classical (Greek and Latin) comedy. Greek "old comedy" (e.g. Aristophanes, ca.448-380 B.C.) was generally satirical and frequently political in nature. Greek "new comedy" (e.g. Menander, ca. 343-291 B.C.) involved sex and seduction and often showed youth outwitting old age. Although Menander's plays have survived only in fragments, Shakespeare would have known his work through the Latin adaptations of the Roman poet Terence (ca. 190-159 B.C.). The comedies of Terence and another Roman poet, Plautus (ca. 258?-184 B.C.), were much studied in Elizabethan schools. From Terence and Plautus, Shakespeare learned how to organize a plot in a way modern editors represent as a five-act structure. Loosely speaking, it moves from: 

  1. Exposition: a situation with tensions (implicit conflict)
  2. "Rising Action": implicit conflict is developed 
  3. Turning Point: conflict reaches height; frequently an impasse
  4. "Falling Action": things begin to clear up 
  5. Conclusion: problem is resolved, knots untied
The action of a comedy traces a movement from conflict to the resolution of conflict, from some sort of (generally figurative) bondage to freedom, despite obstacles, complications, reversals, and discoveries. It ends with celebration and unity. This stage often includes the expulsion or elimination of characters so lost or misguided that they cannot be accommodated or restored to society (e.g. Malvolio, Shylock). Hence a touch of sadness or reality may impinge on the final celebration. 

This structure differentiates Shakespeare's comedies from earlier works that presented the seemingly random adventures of a hero in a relatively formless way (e.g. a series of episodes of courtship and adultery). A non-dramatic model for this sort of story is found in the playwright Thomas Nash's prose romance, The Unfortunate Traveller (1594). The episodic structure of early Renaissance comedy also recalls medieval Mystery cycles (a series of plays dramatizing sacred history, from Creation to the Last Judgment). 

From the works of Plautus and Terence, Shakespeare learned to use (and sometimes reverse) certain stock characters, e.g. the youthful lovers; "blocking figures" who provide the obstacle to be overcome, such as the senex (Latin for "old man," cf. "senile"), a parent or guardian of the hero or heroine (who may be in love with him/her himself). Other stock characters include the shrewish wife, the pedant, the braggart soldier, the parasite, clowns or "fools," outlaws, clever servants, confidantes. In classical and Shakespearean comedies, the hero and heroine may have socially inferior helpers. The hero and heroine's supporters are frequently led by a jester, fool or buffoon. Pompous sour types (doctors, lawyers, clergymen, police -- and sometimes professors!) uphold the dignity of the institutions they represent and are frequently mocked for their self-importance. Shakespeare's youthful works make extensive use of stock characters; they also appear (less extensively) in the works of his dramatic maturity. 

The Conventions of Shakespearean Romantic Comedy

Conventions assist us in understanding literary works belonging to a particular genre; they help to categorize them and illuminate their common features. Genres set up certain expectations because of their shared characteristics. For example, you know to expect specific features when reading or viewing a western (good guys and bad guys; shoot-outs or duels), a detective thriller (false clues that lead in the wrong direction; ingenious solution to a mystery), science fiction (humans and aliens; futuristic technology; special effects). One's judgment of a given work is affected in part by how it meets or fails to meet generic expectations. An artist may deliberately manipulate or play with conventions, parodying or transcending the limits of a literary genre: Monty Python's Holy Grail parodies Arthurian romances; Blazing Saddles parodies Westerns; the Pyramus and Thisbe play in A Midsummer Night's Dream parodies Shakespeare's own Romeo and Juliet. The Purple Rose of Cairo transcends sentimental romance by raising questions about the boundaries of art, reality and fantasy; Hamlet transcends previous Renaissance revenge tragedy

The major conventions of Shakespearean Romantic Comedy are: 

  1. The main action is about love.
  2. The would-be lovers must overcome obstacles and misunderstandings before being united in harmonious union. The ending frequently involves a parade of couples to the altar and a festive mood or actual celebration (expressed in dance, song, feast, etc.)  Twelfth Night has three such couples; A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You LikeIt have four; etc.
  3. Frequently (but not always), it contains elements of the improbable, the fantastic, the supernatural, or the miraculous, e.g. unbelievable coincidences, improbable scenes of recognition/lack of recognition, willful disregard of the social order (nobles marrying commoners, beggars changed to lords), instantaneous conversions (the wicked repent), enchanted or idealized settings, supernatural beings (witches, fairies, Gods and Goddesses). The happy ending may be brought about through supernatural or divine intervention (comparable to the deus ex machina in classical comedy, where a God appears to resolve the conflict) or may merely involve improbable turns of events.
  4. In the best of the mature comedies, there is frequently a philosophical aspect involving weightier issues and themes: personal identity; the importance of love in human existence; the power of language to help or hinder communication; the transforming power of poetry and art; the disjunction between appearance and reality; the power of dreams and illusions).

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Study Questions for Twelfth Night

  1. Notice how Shakespeare uses different types of language -- prose, rhymed verse and blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter, "Marlowe's Mighty Line") -- to differentiate between characters (i.e. serious and comical; nobility and social climbers) or to create other effects (increased solemnity or silliness; poetic effects; song).  Be sensitive to the way in which the type of language used adds to the meaning(s) Shakespeare is attempting to convey.

  3. Twelfth Night moves from a potentially tragic situation (shipwreck and loss) into the joyous realm of romantic comedy (unions and reunions).  The movement from conflict, sterility and death (two women who mourn supposedly dead brothers) to fertility, harmony and life (three couples happily celebrate marriages that may lead to future births) is typical of Shakespeare's comedies and romances (e.g. The Tempest). What makes the three final couples "well-matched"?  How do they differ from the three potential couples that are not ultimately united in marriages?  What do these pairings teach about what Shakespeare and his audience viewed as an "appropriate" match?

  5. Twelfth Night dramatizes the seduction scenario we have noted as a common thread in much lyric poetry of the Renaissance and early 17th century.  There are six distinct sets of potential or actual couples; three involve Olivia as the female object of desire; one has Olivia as the desiring female subject; one has Viola as the desiring female subject; and one links the comic characters Sir Toby Belch and Maria.  Know the characters (by name!) in each of these potential or actual couples, and be aware of the ways in which the characters and their real or imagined/potential love stories intersect and interact. Which of the couples are parallel to each other?  Which are contrasted?  How much do the different lovers (and love relationships) have in common? (e.g. equality or social inequity of the potential partners; motivation for desired union--social climbing? "love at first sight"-style physical desire? true knowledge of another's qualities and character?). How does Shakespeare use these parallel relationships and characters to unify the play as a whole? 

  7. Consider the comical effect of the gender-bending caused by Viola's masquerade as a young man, "Cesario," who is later confused with her own (supposedly dead) twin brother, Sebastian.  (Given that women's parts in Shakespeare's time were originally played by young boys, the gender-bending gets even more complex.)  How does the gender-bending within the play add to our picture of what the Renaissance and early seventeenth century saw as "appropriate" behavior for women? (For a similar case of gender-bending, compare Rosalind in As You Like It.)

  9. Notice the various uses of the theme of deception within the play (e.g. deceptive appearances, deceptive words/language, and the related theme of self-deception).  Which characters are most clear-sighted about their own qualities and motives?  Which are manipulating appearances in order to deceive others?  What are their motivations for doing so?

  11. Note the imagery of hellfire, demons and damnation (particularly prevalent in the second half of the play).  Are these to be understood literally or figuratively? How is this imagery connected to the theme of deceptive appearances?  Compare/contrast with similar references/themes in e.g. Dr. Faustus, the Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost.

  13. Note the satire of Puritanism (personified by Malvolio).  What is it about Malvolio that the other characters so dislike?  Why does Olivia put up with him?  Is his punishment by the trickery of the comical "low lifes" deserved?  Why or why not?  Is the Malvolio subplot there only for comic relief, or does it convey a more serious message? If so, what? 

  15. It is thought that Twelfth Night was first written for the "Carnival"-like festivities of the feast of the Epiphany (the "twelfth night" of Christmas, January 6); these raucous celebrations involved a temporary inversion of the established social order.  This "world upside-down" theme is reflected not only in some of the mismatched (potential) couples in the play, but in the themes of folly, madness and foolishness.  Which characters in the play behave most foolishly? What do you make of the official "Fool," Feste?  (Note that a court jester such as Feste, Touchstone in As You Like It, or the Fool in King Lear had the license to speak freely things that no one else would dare say openly). Is "folly" or "foolishness" an unavoidable part of being in love? Why is Malvolio punished so cruelly?  (Are his aspirations and behavior any more foolish than those of the other would-be lovers?)

  17. Note the use of music and song in the play.  How do the various songs punctuate or comment upon the action?  Some of the songs may origianlly have been intended for Viola (who notes in 1.2.52-55 a talent for music that she had intended to use to get into the good graces of Duke Orsino).  What is the effect of giving the songs to Feste rather than Viola (or any other of the lovers)?  Do they suggest a special connection between Viola and Feste?  In what ways are they alike?  How do they differ?

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1997-2002

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