What can be learned from a play where all is topsy-turvy, where logic and reason are abused and rejected just as thoroughly as Malvolio is? Not much, if Harold Bloom is to be believed. In his view, “Twelfth Night does not come to any true resolution, in which anyone has learned anything. . . . No one could or should be made better by viewing or reading it” (“Introduction,” Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night,ed. Harold Bloom [New York: Chelsea House, 1987], 3). Restoration critic Samuel Pepys, despite being drawn back to see Twelfth Night several times, condemned it as “a silly play,” and “one of the weakest plays that I ever saw on the stage” [cited in Hazelton Spencer, “Mr. Pepys is not amused,” ELH: A Journal of English Literary History 7.3 (Sept 1940): 175].
While these criticisms may be unduly harsh, the play is nonetheless perplexing. The atmosphere of the play resembles that of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when the lovers are wandering in the enchanted forest under the influence of fairy potions, except that the characters of Twelfth Night cannot blame their antics on fairy mischief. And whereas in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the lovers eventually return to a rational world and wonder if their experiences were only dreams, the inhabitants of Illyria never definitively emerge from their irrational dream world.
While gorgeously poetic, the play’s initial scene illustrates the social disorder in Illyria. Twelfth Night opens with Duke Orsino, the purported social and political leader of this strange country, spouting a self-indulgent and vaguely decadent tribute to music and love. Unlike analogous figures in other plays (Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Duke Vincentio of Measure for Measure, for instance), Orsino has no concern for politics or maintaining order, and is apparently unable to simultaneously manage affairs of state while conducting a courtship. He cannot even be bothered to woo Olivia in person; rather than going himself to plead his case, he prefers to send his minions, so that he may lounge about sighing and listening to love songs.
Sebastian is likewise passive, and instead of investigating the irrational behavior of everyone around him (“Are all the people mad?” [4.1.27; The Signet Classic Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, or, What You Will, ed. Herschel Baker [New York: New American Library, 1965]), he allows himself to be courted by and become engaged to someone he suspects may be deranged, however beautiful she may be. Sir Toby Belch is a jovial sponge, good for consuming “cakes and ale” (2.3.115), dancing and “caterwauling” into the wee hours of the morning (2.3.72), and wreaking havoc with practical jokes, but not much else. Sir Andrew Aguecheek is weak as well as foolish, easy prey for parasites of the pocketbook like Sir Toby Belch.
As W.H. Auden argues, the normal social order with regard to gender roles has been overturned: “Women have become dominant in Twelfth Night. . . . The women are the only people left who have any will, which is the sign of a decadent society. Maria, in love with Sir Toby, tricks him into marrying her. Olivia starts wooing Cesario from the first moment she sees him, and Viola is a real man-chaser” (Lectures on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Kirsch [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000], 154).
Although they exhibit the ambition and initiative lacking in their male counterparts, the females in the play are no more rational than the men. Viola, perhaps driven by grief for the loss of her twin brother, impulsively sets out to attach herself to the nearest eligible bachelor. Samuel Johnson sums up the situation thus: “Viola seems to have formed a very deep design with very little premeditation: she is thrown by shipwreck on an unknown coast, hears that the prince is a batchelor [sic], and resolves to supplant the lady whom he courts” (cited in Bloom, 2). Olivia is similarly volatile, though the loss of her brother is much less recent. Given an eloquent and moderately attractive romantic prospect, she abandons her vow of seven-years’-mourning in an instant and chases Cesario with no regard for either her own dignity or the inclinations of her beloved.
Malvolio, perverse killjoy that he is, appears to be the sole advocate of reason (or at least order) in the play, and he does his best to keep Olivia’s rowdy houseguests in line. Nevertheless, even he is lured into irrational behavior by his own “self-love” (1.5.90), greed, and social ambition. It takes little more than a few hints and an obscure letter to induce Malvolio to abandon his “sad and civil” demeanor (3.4.4) and prance about “in yellow stockings and cross-gartered” (3.2.73–74), grinning like a maniac. Ironically, Feste, the allowed fool, is the only character who consistently behaves in a “normal” manner throughout the play, but normal for him is zany for anyone else.
So, what can we make of a play that is a composite of delightful madness and irrational dreams? Shakespeare directs us toward a better understanding through the play’s title, which alludes to the chaotic festivals that were often held on the sixth day of January as part of the Christmas season.
The Twelfth Night festival and others like it “took place at regular intervals, and whenever the occasion warranted it, timed to the calendar of religion and season—the twelve days of Christmas, the days before Lent, early May, Pentecost, . . . and All Saints” (Natalie Zemon Davis, “The Reasons of Misrule: Youth Groups and Charivaris in Sixteenth-Century France,” Past and Present 50 (1971): 41-42). During these festivals, social strata were inverted for a short time, giving the disenfranchised an opportunity to mock their “betters” and generally blow off steam without threat of repercussions.
Samuel Pepys missed this association entirely, pronouncing that the play was “not related at all to the name or day” (Spencer, 175), perhaps because no other mention of Twelfth Night or the Christmas season exists in the play. However, despite the dearth of references to this particular carnival, it is interesting to note that the events of the play precede two marriages, and that festivities similar to the Twelfth Night “Feast of Fools” were “timed also to domestic events, marriages and other family affairs” (Davis, 42).
Shakespeare incorporates several elements common to these seasons of misrule into Twelfth Night, including “masking, costuming, hiding; charivaris (a noisy, masked demonstration to humiliate some wrong-doer in the community), farces, parades and floats; . . . dancing, music-making, . . . reciting of poetry, gaming and athletic contests” (Davis, 42). It is easy to detect such features in Shakespeare’s play: Viola’s disguise as Cesario and Feste’s pretence of Sir Topaz; the hazing of Malvolio; the rowdy merry-making of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria and Feste; the many songs recited by Feste; the attempted dueling contest between Cesario and Sir Andrew; and the actual altercations among Sebastian, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew.
What troubles most critics about Twelfth Night is not the madness, per se, but the absence of a return to normalcy by the play’s end. Although the puzzle of Sebastian/Viola/Cesario has been solved with the reunion of the twins, Malvolio’s tormentors remain unpunished, and the lovers’ marriages seem doomed to failure without major changes in behavior and character. W.H. Auden’s scathing commentary is typical of audience reactions: “The Duke, who up till the moment of recognition had thought himself in love with Olivia, drops her like a hot potato and falls in love with Viola on the spot, and Sebastian accepts Olivia’s proposal of marriage within two minutes of meeting her for the first time. Both appear contemptible, and it is impossible to imagine that either will make a good husband” (154).
However, the final scene contains hints that order and stability may soon be restored: First, Olivia promises justice for Malvolio (“Thou shalt be both the plaintiff and the judge / Of thine own cause,” [5.1.356–57]), a promise which is never revoked, despite Fabian’s defensive arguments. More importantly, Duke Orsino’s actions and words begin to agree better with his social position. He begins to take charge, directing matters to his satisfaction, informing Viola that he will marry her and insisting that she change into her “woman’s weeds” (5.1.273). Then he modifies Olivia’s dictum regarding Malvolio, adjuring them all to “Pursue him and entreat him to a peace” (5.1.382).
Whether Malvolio will actually have his revenge, or if the misdeeds of Sir Toby and friends will be forgiven as a type of Twelfth Night revelry, we cannot know. But just as the play’s title suggests a festival of misrule, it also implies that the mayhem is only temporary. Just as order must be restored after a Twelfth Night or Mardi Gras carnival, the lunacy reigning in Illyria must surely end. Natalie Zemon Davis explains that these carnivals “act both to reinforce order and suggest alternatives to the existing order” (50). If this is so, we can hope that after such a prolonged period of disorder in Illyria, the future will hold beneficial change as well as greater peace and stability.