Twelfth Night: or,What You Will, is one of Shakespeare's most successful plays. In what Harold Goddard calls "an almost unbroken succession of telling scenes," the play is a kind of recapitulation of what has come before especially in the other six romantic comedies composed between l595 and l600 and an anticipation of what is to come in the later, great achievement of the romances. It is as if Shakespeare, for his last unadulterated comedy, summoned, as Goddard suggests, "the ghosts of a dozen different characters and situations with which he had previously graced the stage" and, once again, showed us through a woman the best way to love.
Here Shakespeare, the famous "pilferer of others' plots," pilfers from himself. The situation of the clever, gentile, and disguised Viola recalls Rosalind from As You Like It. Feste, the clown of Twelfth Night, is but another variation of the fool, Touchstone, in As You Like It, who "speaks wisely what wise men do foolishly." Malvolio, who is a sort of unsophisticated and overreaching Don John from Much Ado about Nothing and who, like Bottom from A Midsummer Night's Dream, reminds us that we are all fools in love, anticipates even the perversion and presumption of Cloten from Cymbeline. Orsino, with a touch of the melancholic Jaques from As You Like It, is also Orlando, from the same play, saved from himself by nothing less than the influence of a good woman. And the plot itself requiting unrequited love and thereby rejuvenating a dying race both looks back on the problems of the romantic comedies and forward to the problems of the romances.
Here, as in all of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, women get what they want and men get what they need. Even Olivia, who like Phoebe from As You Like It, has made the mistake of falling in love with a woman disguised as a man, gets the man she wants in the form of the disguised woman's twin brother, Sebastian. And Orsino, who opens the play with his heart-sick lamentations about music and love, gets what he needs: a woman who is capable through lasting love of bringing him out of his self-indulgent melancholy into the real world, in this case, of comedy.
Just as Twelfth Night looks back on the great romantic comedies which come to maturity in that sort of holy trinity of As You Like It, Much Ado about Nothing, and Twelfth Night, it anticipates the situations and solutions of the great romances and problem plays to come Measure for Measure, All's Well that Ends Well, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, especially. For here, men sin and women amend. And while Orsino's sin is only a minor one a miscalculation of Olivia's worth and Viola's devotion it has potential for disaster.
Viola, in the guise of Cesario, woos Olivia for Orsino and tells Olivia and the audience that celibacy is only a means to an end. "What is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve," we are told. Olivia, who wants to indulge in the livery of a nun for several years to mourn the death of her brother, reminds us of Isabella from Measure for Measure, who, until the right man comes along, has all the potential of making celibacy a full-time occupation. And Orsino, who wants Olivia chiefly because she does not want him, has all the potential of a Troilus waiting for his unworthy Cressida. Meanwhile, Viola, the only one of the threesome who may be grounded in reality, wants Orsino. Like many of Shakespeare's plays, this play turns on the problem of rejuvenation. Here again, life celebrates life, not death, and Olivia's chief problem is perhaps a failure to understand that, in the face of her brother's death, she must look not to avoid men but to find the exactly right one with whom she might bring new life into the world.
Twelfth Night was not the first play in which Shakespeare would hint at the moral and intellectual superiority of women in matters of love, and it was certainly not to be his last.