By Jean E. Howard
Twelfth Night, probably written in 1601, is the last of what have been called Shakespeare’s festive or green world comedies, so named because they foreground the high spirits of youthful lovers pursuing sexual pleasure and enjoying the love play that precedes the solemnity of marriage. The emotional register of Twelfth Night, however, is less high-spirited than subdued. The play’s characters find happiness illusive or precarious, sought but seldom grasped. When Feste the play’s clown sings that “Youth’s a stuff will not endure” (act 2, scene 3), he does so as part of a carpe diem lyric, a song meant to persuade a young woman to give up her chastity in order to seize the day, i.e., pursue sexual pleasure before encroaching age takes the bloom off sex and dims reproductive possibility. “Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty, / Youth’s a stuff will not endure.” The song urges lovers to remember that they will only be young once and that foregoing the pleasures appropriate to youth may mean forfeiting them forever. As if in actualization of this warning, Twelfth Night has an unusual number of characters who seem never to have seized the day, emotionally speaking, or who tremble on the brink of a perpetually solitary existence. That some of the play’s characters ultimately do pair up and banish loneliness feels sweetly miraculous, an unexpected gift against the play’s pervasively melancholy aura of missed opportunities and stagnating lives.
Unlike many of Shakespeare’s more boisterous clowns such as Touchstone in As You Like It or Costard in Love’s Labor’s Lost, Feste seems to show his age. He ends the play with a song that recounts a life—perhaps his own—lived without success either in wiving or thriving. The song’s refrain, “The rain it raineth every day” (act 5, scene 1), concludes the play on a note of quotidian sadness. Some lives are lived in the wind and the rain and not in the glorious sunshine. For the protagonist in Feste’s song, none of life’s stages has brought happiness and within the play characters like the aging fool and the ridiculous Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a man both gulled by his “friends” and rebuffed in love, seem destined for lonely futures.
What explains the melancholy aura of Twelfth Night is a mystery with no single explanation. The play is believed to have been written around 1601, which puts it after Shakespeare wrote his other festive comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing. Twelfth Night seems to anticipate and share some of the darker emotions prevalent in his later tragedies. Some scholars have also linked the play’s mood to the uncertainties of the later years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.
It is also notable that a personnel change occurred in Shakespeare’s acting company, The King’s Men, shortly before Twelfth Night was written and first staged. The company’s famous clown, Will Kemp, left the company in the late 1590s. Kemp was followed in the position of company clown in The King’s Men by Robert Armin, an actor with different gifts. Armin had a beautiful singing voice, which is much on display in the many songs of Twelfth Night, and was known for his skill at complex verbal wordplay and puns. As Feste, and probably also later as the Fool in King Lear, Armin made it possible for Shakespeare to explore a more subtle comic palette than he attempted in some of his earlier plays. Whatever the specific reason, and there may be many, Twelfth Night has a different and darker emotional feel than many of Shakespeare’s 1590s comedies.
We feel this change perhaps most strikingly in Shakespeare’s depiction of his comic heroine Viola. In most of Shakespeare’s early comedies it is his heroines who do the active work of setting a disordered world to rights, banishing sorrow by striving for the happiness they want. Cross-dressing is often the device that lets them exercise agency in ways they otherwise could not. Viola, by contrast, in the wake of a shipwreck, puts on male attire to protect herself from unwanted sexual aggression, but the attire does not seem to liberate her to act strongly in her own self-interest. Though she comes to love her master, Orsino, and though she is appalled when Countess Olivia, whom Orsino wants to marry, comes to love her in her crossed-dressed state, Viola does not act to straighten out the sexual confusion and to express her own desires. Rather, she waits, as she says, for time to untangle the knots her disguise has created. This melancholy period of waiting threatens to condemn both Viola and Orsino to perpetual paralysis and Olivia to disappointment.
Twelfth Night is an unusual comedy, then, both for the way its mirth is suffused with sadness and for its emphasis on the many ways life can disappoint hopes and people lose the road to happiness. But though Viola and Orsino seem unable to take control of their destinies, they are nonetheless, along with Olivia and Sebastian, eventually wafted toward marriages they come to want. This seems mostly the result of luck. In the Renaissance, people often evoked the idea of Fortune, the blind goddess, to explain the uncontrollable elements of human life. Portrayed as a woman whirling along on a ball blown by the wind, Fortune was thought to bring both good and bad to mankind. For example, the shipwreck that precedes the play’s opening, an event that separates Viola from her brother, can be seen as Fortune’s work: a cruel and unexpected blow that fatally threatens Viola’s happiness. Equally unexpected is the good fortune that saves her. Had Fortune not smiled, Viola might never have been rescued from the boy’s disguise that stymied her desires and from the partial immobility into which she had fallen.
All of Shakespeare’s comedies invite the audience to laugh at human folly and show lives running amuck before achieving a happy ending. Twelfth Night simply goes further than most of these early plays in stressing the precariousness of those happy endings and in acknowledging that not everyone gets to have one. For some who grow old alone or get emotionally stuck or who simply have bad luck—for them, alas, the rain it raineth every day. The play thus invites the audience to recognize the nearly miraculous good fortune that allows Viola and Orsino, Olivio and Sebastian, their happiness, though it should be noted that at the end of the play, Viola is still in her boy’s disguise. She has not yet re-adopted the female dress that will allow her to be recognized as a proper match for Orsino. Even at the end of the romantic plot, this slight departure from convention thus suspends comic closure just enough to sustain the play’s unique treatment of its comic materials.
Excerpted from full essay in Guide to the Season 2017–2018, available for purchase on Kindle or Nook and at the STC Gift Shop. Subscribers receive a complimentary print copy of the Guide each season.
Jean E. Howard is George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University where she teaches early modern literature, Shakespeare, feminist studies and theatre history.