Research on Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

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Context, Plot, Climax, Characters, and Themes

William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first published in 1601, and regarded as one of the most masterful comedies of Elizabethan England. Contextually, Twelfth Night in medieval England referred literally to the twelfth night after Christmas Day, which is January 6th. January 6th was observed as a day of social release, especially marked by expression of temporary sexual freedom. Beginning in 1570s and through to 1640s, the Anglican Church took over the social and religious spheres of England, and promised to rid England of amoral celebrations, including the celebrations surrounding the Twelfth Night (Bamber 35). Thus, Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night at a time when the puritans behind the Anglican Church’s reformations were determined to shut down theatres perceived to be perpetrating amoral themes in the society.

Technically, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night belongs to the category of transvestite comedies whereby the female protagonists in a play cross-dressed as men. In Elizabethan England, cross-dressing reflected the prevalent plight of women characterized by high number of widows and high number of unmarried women. In Elizabethan England, women were barred from engaging in professions deemed masculine, including the profession of acting in theatres (Rudat 14). Thus, the gender discrimination of the 1600s meant that women had to disguise themselves as men to gain privileges in the society. Consequently, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is centred on Viola, a female protagonist who disguised herself as a man.

Regarding the plot, Twelfth Night revolves around a love triangle comprising of Viola (disguised as Cesario), Duke Orsino, and Lady Olivia. The female protagonist named Viola finds herself stranded in the Kingdom of Illyria after being washed ashore following a shipwreck. Viola has to disguise herself as a young man to secure employment and survive at Illyria (Theisen 11). While disguised as Cesario, Viola secures a job at Duke Orsino’s household whereby the unsuspecting Orsino would send her to deliver love letters to Lady Olivia. Amidst the household chores and the delivery of letters, Viola falls in love with her master Orsino and Lady Olivia falls in love with the character of Cesario.

The love triangle involving Viola, Olivia and Orsino is further complicated by auxiliary characters including Sir Toby, Malvolio, and Viola’s brother Sebastian. Eventually, the intrigues surrounding the love triangle reaches climax when Viola and Sebastian are for the first time reunited after the shipwreck. The joy of the sibling reunion leads Viola to step out of her disguise as Cesario. Lady Olivia is has already married Sebastian thinking that Sebastian was Cesario; thus, the revelation of Cesario as Viola left Olivia in awe. On the other hand, Duke Orsino became furious at first after learning that Olivia had married Cesario. Later, Orsino is relieved after learning that Cesario was indeed Viola. Orsino expresses his relieve saying, “Cesario come; for so you shall be, while you are a man; but when in other habits you are seen, Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen” (Hall and Warren 83). Thus, the plot folds when Orsino married Viola.

The primary themes in Twelfth Night include the theme of mistaken identity and the trials of love. Regarding mistaken identity, most character in Twelfth Night mistook Viola as a young man after Viola successfully adorn male attire and disguised herself as Cesario (Bamber 40). Similarly, Olivia mistook Sebastian is Cesario and eventually marries him. The theme of mistaken identity revealed that the outward appearances as portrayed by cross-dressing, can be deceptive; hence, underscoring the metaphor that ‘don’t judge the book by its cover.”

Regarding the theme of trials of love, characters in Twelfth Night describe love as a desperate, painful and plaguing experience. At some point, Orsino threatens to kill Olivia after learning that Olivia had married Cesario. In expressing his anger, Duke Orsino says, “Why should I not, had I the heart to do it, like to the Egyptian thief at point of death, kill what I love, a savage jealously that sometimes savours nobly” (Hall and Warren 79). In this context, Shakespeare revealed that whereas love is sometimes sweet, it can lead to violent and desperate outcomes. Therefore, Twelfth Night also underscores the importance of exercising caution during romantic relationships.

Literary Criticism of Twelfth Night

Experts have criticized Twelfth Night as a successful piece of romantic comedy. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night succeeded as a theatrical comedy because of the articulate interweaving of humour and tension (Theisen 84). Shakespeare develops the character of Cesario in such a way that the audience are aware of the disguise but the play’s characters including Orsino and Olivia remain unaware of the actual gender of Cesario. Use of the transvestite protagonist and the pairing of Cesario with both male and female characters as to produce the love triangle build the tension towards the climax where the true identity of Cesario would be revealed. In this context, Shakespeare had mastered the art of using character concealment to build tension; hence, maximizing the potential for dramatic irony in the play.

Also, Twelfth Night has been criticized as underscoring the centrality of physical appearances in romantic relationships. Both Viola and Sebastian are youthful and their physical appearances are presented as being almost similar. Cesario was easily mistaken as Sebastian and vice versa.  Olivia and Orsino fell in love with both Sebastian and Cesario because of their youthful experiences; hence, highlighting that romantic attractiveness is primarily based on visual stimulus. On highlighting the importance of physical attractiveness, Duke Orsino was quick to say, “Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?” (Hall and Warren 27) Thus, Shakespearean’s Twelfth Night has been criticized as revealing that visual perception plays a central role in mediating heterosexual relationships.

Moreover, Twelfth Night has been criticized as serving the purpose of promoting gender equality in the society. As aforementioned, females were not allowed to act in theatres in Elizabethan England. However, Viola was able to disguise herself as a male actor by merely wearing male attire. None of the other actors throughout the play suspected Viola’s gender until Viola revealed herself at the final scene. Shakespeare sustains Viola’s disguised identify as a young man throughout the play to highlight the premise that men and women have equivalent capabilities; thus, the Elizabethan notion that women were lesser than men in professional duties was merely a subjective and outward stereotyping of women (Rudat 91). Therefore, Twelfth Night is an excellent piece of art that lent credibility to feminine strength.

How Twelfth Night has inspired Society

Twelfth Night laid the foundation for feminism discourses in the society. Twelfth Night revealed an accurate representation of the society not only during Shakespearian era but also in decades and centuries after Shakespearean era. Since time immemorial, societies around the world have placed women in subordinate roles compared to their male counterparts (Schiffer 109). Women have always been discouraged from pursuing roles reserved for men, including engaging in military duties and participating in paid professions. Shakespeare could give women voice only after disguising them as male artists. Therefore, the transvestite style employed in Twelfth Night inspired multiple cross-dressing pieces of art works including novels and films in the society. Notably, novels including Redefining Realness (2014) and Transgender History (2008) plus films including Cockpit (2012) and She’s the Man (2006) have featured cross-dressing as their central plots. Therefore, Twelfth Night continues to inspire filmmakers and novelists to give voice to women in patriarchal societies through transvestite techniques.

Also, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night inspired innovations in production techniques. In particular, Twelfth Night influenced the use of narrative structure in engaging the audience. Structure in novels includes the ordering, sequencing, and transition of scenes as to create the intended meaning (Baker 64). In particular, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night reveals an ingenuous concealment of the true identity of characters as to enhance dramatic suspense throughout the play. Twelfth Night delays the revelation of the disguised characters until the final minutes of the play; hence, achieving maximum concentration from the audience in anticipation of the climax. Therefore, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has influenced the use of character concealment for dramatic purposes in today’s novels and films.

Real-Life Implications of Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night contributes to the betterment of the society. Notably, Viola needed to gain masculine appearances to survive in a strange island after the shipwreck. Towards the end of Act one Scene two, Viola expresses her necessity to disguise herself as a man saying, “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid for such disguise as haply shall become the form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke; though shalt present me as a eunuch to him” (Hall and Warren 08). In real-life context, Viola’s need to assume a male identity to survive highlights the plight of women while striving to secure gainful employment in male dominated professions. In real life, occupations in military, construction, engineering and economics are largely preserved for men. Contrarily, women are assigned jobs in subordinate professions including nursing, teaching, and secretarial duties.

Women must demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that they possess qualities similar to those possessed by men to gain employment in male-dominated professions. In real life context involving engineering or military duties, women must maintain masculine qualities including keeping short hair and adoring pairs of trousers to meet the masculine nature of the professions (Theisen 52). Therefore, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night brought the society to the attention of challenges encountered by women; hence, helping in sensitizing the society towards the need to abandon gender stereotypes.

Also, Twelfth Night contributes to the betterment of romantic relationships in the society. Twelfth Night portrays the risks of relying on outward appearances when selecting partners in romantic relationships. In real life contexts, romantic partners often fall for each other based on their outward attractiveness. After marriage, the romantic partners reveal their true identities; hence, leaving a trail of divorces in today’s marriages. In Twelfth Night, Duke Orsino expresses his disappointment after realizing the true identity of Viola by saying, “Be not amazed; right noble is his blood. If this be so, as yet the glass seems true, I shall have share in this most happy wreck; boy, though hast said to me a thousand times though never shouldn’t love women like to me” (Hall and Warren 75). In this context, Orsino’s disappointment after learning the true identity of Viola is applicable in real-life contexts where married couples end up disappointed of each other after their blinding obsession with each other’s physical attractiveness fades.

Who is the Author?

Twelfth Night was authored by William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Shakespeare is fondly referred to by his protégés as the national poet of England. Shakespeare was among the most prolific writers in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare’s writings including the Twelfth Night reflected the actual happenings in the social lives of Elizabethan era. In particular, Shakespeare had first-hand experience in the conservative nature of medieval English societies in regards to the place of sexual liberation and the place of women in professional services. Shakespeare chose the title ‘Twelfth Night’ to match the period when Elizabethan England allowed for temporary sexual freedom (Rudat 116). Thus, Shakespeare’s real-life experiences with the Twelfth Night ensure that the play Twelfth Night, which is centred on sexual liberalities, was situated within a brief window when sexual freedom was considered permissible in Elizabethan England.

From a personal perspective, Shakespeare was committed to elevating the role of women in the society. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare chose a female protagonist to play the role of a man. In most plays of Elizabethan time, both male and female characters were played by male actors. However, Shakespeare’s deliberate decision to place women at the centre of the play, especially at a time when women were not included in theatre plays, meant that Shakespeare was willing to violate the social norms in his quest to give voice to the oppressed female gender. Therefore, Shakespeare could have passed for a modern-day feminist activist as evidenced by the deliberate transvestite characterization in Twelfth Night.

In conclusion, Twelfth Night revealed the skilfulness of Shakespeare regarding the use of artistic techniques including concealment and disguise to achieve optimal dramatic effects in theatre plays. Also, Twelfth Night revealed Shakespeare’s sensitivity to the prevalent norms in the society as evidenced by the selection of relevant themes of love, gender stereotypes, and the necessity for disguise to evade gender discrimination. Shakespeare’s use of effective artistic techniques and the selection of socially-relevant themes ensured that Twelfth Night would inspire future society. Overall, Twelfth Night remains relevant in today’s real-life experiences pertaining to gender stereotypes and the application of character concealment for dramatic purposes.

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  1. Baker, Jerschel., editor. Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will: With a New Dramatic Criticism and an Updated Bibliography. New York: New American Library, 1987, Print
  2. Bamber, Linda. Comic Women, Tragic Men: Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare. Cambridge: Stanford University Press, 1982. Print
  3. Hall, Edward and Warren, Roger., editors. Twelfth Night. Pittsburgh: Oberon Books, 2015. Print
  4. Rudat, Toni. Twelfth Night, and the Renaissance Idea of Man. Berlin: GRIN Verlag, 2010. Print
  5. Schiffer, James. Twelfth Night: New Critical Essays. London: Rutledge, 2011. Print
  6. Theisen, Nicolas. Shakespeare Action and Words: Analysis of ‘Twelfth Night’ (Act II, Scene IV). Berlin: GRIN Verlag, 2017. Print
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