Although characters in Twelfth Night constantly throw up barriers to conceal their inner selves and avoid falling in love, something in the play just as insistently works to tear those barriers down. As the play opens, Duke Orsino expresses his one-sided attraction to Olivia with a gusto that, ironically, impedes his love. Using centuries-old clichés about desire, he avoids love, substituting the language of romance for action. Olivia’s barrier to love is her excessive grieving for her deceased brother, represented by her veil of mourning and described in unnatural, nearly revolting language: “like a cloistress she will veiled walk / And water once a day her chamber round / With eye-offending brine: all this to season / A brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh / And lasting, in her sad remembrance.”
Viola, who mistakenly believes that her twin brother, Sebastian, has died in the shipwreck that she has just survived, wraps herself in the cocoon of her male disguise, a kind of womb to keep her safe until she’s ready to be “deliver’d to the world” as herself. When she realizes that Olivia has fallen hopelessly in love with her as the boy page named Cesario, and having fallen hopelessly in love herself with Orsino, Viola commits the remedying of her difficulty to “time” and clings to her disguise, the very root of the problem, for dear life.
Even so, although the characters complicate the action by persistently hiding their true selves behind walls, the force of comedy even more insistently dismantles them. When, for example, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (himself a scaredy-cat) challenges Viola/Cesario to a duel, she quakes to think how “a little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man.” From the start, Orsino senses the woman beneath the boy’s clothing and is drawn to her: “Diana’s lip / Is not more smooth and rubious: thy small pipe / Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound, / And all is semblative a woman’s part.”
And indeed, reluctant as she is to shed her disguise, Viola herself realizes that, as long as she is obscured behind it, she will never be able to satisfy her longing for real love. Rather, “concealment, like a worm i’ th’ bud,” will “feed on her damask cheek”—a sentiment echoed in Feste’s song: “In delay there lies no plenty, / Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty: / Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”
Nor is Viola alone. One by one, the characters surrender their self-protection and succumb to genuine feeling. Each is reduced to a fool for love. In the parlance of the play’s clown, Feste, “Foolery … does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere.” And like Feste’s folly, it is wise folly that strips away the characters’ shells, leaves them exposed for who they are, and thus makes them vulnerable to love. Assailed by “midsummer madness,” Olivia lets go of her grief, raises her veil and falls hard for Viola/Cesario. Small matter that, when Viola’s twin, Sebastian, arrives on the scene, Olivia easily—madly—transfers her attraction to him. Even Olivia’s steward, Malvolio—a stalwart kill-joy who is duped into believing that his mistress adores him—cavorts in yellow stockings and cross-garters in a vain attempt to win her devotion. Almost everyone in Illyria (a name that tellingly resonates with “delirium”) is eventually possessed by generosity and good will. Even the sea captain Antonio, who saved Sebastian’s life, gives his friend all of his money and interposes himself between Viola/Cesario and danger (supposing that she is in fact Sebastian) in the spirit of self-sacrifice: “If this young gentleman / Have done offense, I take the fault on me.”
The play’s title, Twelfth Night, invokes the Feast of the Epiphany and, by extension, the notion of epiphany—the manifestation of the holy in the everyday or, more simply, revelation. Made manifest to the Magi on the 12th day of Christmas was Christ’s love—an unconditional love that, mad in its own way, would culminate in the crucifixion, and a model for the romantic love and friendship between Shakespeare’s characters. When, at the last, Viola openly expresses her love for Orsino in self-sacrificial terms, she mirrors such unconditional love: “I most jocund, apt, and willingly, / To do you rest, a thousand deaths would die.” Moments later, as if to reinforce this mad revelation of devotion, Viola’s true identity as both Sebastian’s sister and a woman is revealed. Although Viola remains clothed as a boy when the play ends, she has nonetheless displayed the reckless abandon that lets love in.
Never one to leave a comic ending uncomplicated, Shakespeare shows that the glorious love between the two romantic couples—Viola and Orsino, Olivia and Sebastian—has been cruelly withheld from Malvolio, who stomps off the stage and out of the golden comic circle vowing his “revenge.” No question but Malvolio’s humorless self-love deserves the ridicule it receives in the hilarious “letter” scene, where the fun-loving revelers dupe him into believing that Olivia desires him. But what begins as a joke that could teach Malvolio a lesson degenerates into what Olivia later confirms as “notorious abuse.” Malvolio is imprisoned in a dark room and treated as a madman by Sir Toby Belch, Maria and Feste, all of whom bear grudges against him. But no one tortures Malvolio more than Feste, whose name, suggestively, glances at both “festive” and “fester.” Feste makes a fool of Malvolio, but not a wise one; he humiliates Malvolio both privately and publicly for presuming to love his mistress. As Olivia acknowledges in sympathy with the steward: “Alas, poor fool, how they have baffled thee!”
How dark is Feste’s treatment of Malvolio? The staging of the “dark room” scene has become a crux that bridges the centuries. It epitomizes the tension between sadness and laughter throughout a play that, chronologically poised in Shakespeare’s career between his comedies and tragedies, teeters between both.
Cynthia Lewis is Professor of English at Davidson College.