Play On: Madness and Reality in Twelfth Night

By Cory Downing

I’ve always seen Twelfth Night as perhaps Shakespeare’s most extreme experiment with human psychology. For a writer who is successful in large part due to an understanding of human psychology, Twelfth Night takes enormous risks in terms of the sheer number of characters whose actions, back to back to back, threaten to strain credulity. I simply can’t think of another writer who could take proud, pious Malvolio and drive him so swiftly and completely to yellow-stockinged, cross-gartered puppyhood, and then, even further, to piteous vulnerability. Certainly there are stories such as that of Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or even Athelstan from the History Channel’s show Vikings, with straight-laced characters struggling with and abandoning some of or all of their virtues for lust or love or some other purpose. But Twelfth Night has always struck me as pressing the boundaries of plausibility, without once (barring a bad performance) truly breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

Think of Duke Orsino, who goes through fewer character changes than the rest of the cast, and who, in the hands of a lesser playwright, might be a very weak character. Instead, he is at once brilliant, absurd, relatable, and memorable. We have all heard his famous line “If music be the food of love, play on,” though few remember that the following lines are “Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,/The appetite may sicken, and so die.” He’s willing to go to enormous lengths not so much for any love interest in particular, but for the sake of love itself.

Twelfth Night is arguably Shakespeare’s most homoerotic play, taking especially the impetus of Duke Orsino’s obsession with love to force not only himself, but two other characters (Olivia and Viola) into situations of questionable heterosexuality. Olivia lusts for Viola-as-Cesario, while Viola-as-Cesario-as-Olivia helps Orsino practice his fantasies with his “male” servant. Both instances serve as sources of comic relief, and perhaps they subtly gesture also toward Shakespeare’s own bisexuality. The veil of laughter, pulled back, unmasks questions at the forefront of today’s political landscape regarding sexual identity and sexual orientation. What would happen if there were no Sebastian, the “male Viola”, to come in, pair off with Olivia, and tie up all the loose ends? Would Olivia really abandon her attraction to “Cesario”? Is her attraction to Sebastian really the same as her interest in Cesario—is she, a smart, layered, powerful woman, truly that shallow? Is it not interesting how Orsino, immediately upon revelation of Viola’s true gender, instantly agrees to a relationship with her, no questions asked? Is this merely Orsino being Orsino? Shakespeare tying up loose ends? (Go look at Shakespeare’s genderbending Sonnet 20!)

Along the way to the absurd conclusion of Twelfth Night – duels, mistaken identities, psychological torture, pranks, marriages—every step is marked clearly by completely reasonable choices made by understandable characters. A woman dressing as a man for safety of travel, particularly in a dangerous and comparatively sexist time, makes plenty of sense. For a woman pretending to be a man to continue pretending, long after it starts becoming dangerous and ironic, if only to keep her position’s advantages, makes just as much sense. Pranking a hated, stuffed shirt of a person in power is a desire many have—and it is perfectly understandable, on the other end—who hasn’t been crazy for love with no reasonable hope of success? This is the magic of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Who needs powerful, mysterious fairies when humans will make wonderful fools of themselves all on their own?

Share