Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University




Feste "fools" with Orsino, saying that friends "praise me, and make an ass of me. Now my foes tell me plainly I am an ass; so that by my foes, sir, I profit in the knowledge of myself" (V.i.17-20). The arrested Antonio is brought before Orsino and things look grim for him. Olivia arrives and mistakes Viola for Sebastian, whom she just married. Orsino pitches a fit and it seems as if he intends to kill Cesario. "Orsino, not previously high in the audience's esteem, is a criminal madman if he means this, and Viola is a masochistic ninny if she is serious. Why does Shakespeare push us to this perplexity? Would zaniness cross the border into pathology if Sebastian did not suddenly appear ...?" (Bloom 234).

Sir Andrew arrives and complains that Cesario broke his and Sir Toby's heads. Sir Toby arrives with broken head but Feste says that the local doctor is drunk. Sir Toby remarks, "I hate a drunken rogue" (V.i.201). When Sir Andrew is sympathetic, Sir Toby viciously turns on him: "Will you help?--an ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave, a thin-fac'd knave, a gull!" (V.i.206-207). Thus he proves a poor sport after all.

Another side note: there's a perspective on the ending of Chaucer's The Miller's Tale I've never seen in print, the response that when the old cuckold thinks Noah's flood has come again and ends up crashing down to the barn floor, breaking his arm, that it's not really all that funny. If he had simply fallen on his ass, it could be a laugh riot. But Chaucer adds that he broke his arm -- not a slapstick classic. It's as if the joke has gone too far and crossed over into nastiness. So too, Shakespeare may be conveying that notion here. Seeing someone getting bonked on the head is good fun, but Sir Toby and Sir Andrew enter the scene with bleeding head wounds.

Orsino refers to "A natural perspective" (V.i.217);

he means the kind of perspective painting that Shakespeare will use as a telling comparison in other plays, like Richard II and Antony and Cleopatra: a picture constructed so as to produce a fantastic effect, seeming distorted except from one particular point of view, or appearing different from different vantage points. (Garber 518)
Sebastian arrives and all are baffled. Antonio asks, "How have you made division of yourself?" (V.i.222). Dawn breaks on marblehead as brother and sister quiz each other and reunite. Sebastian perceives Olivia's close call: "You would have been contracted to a maid" (V.i.261). Turning new attentions to Viola, the Duke announces, "I shall have share in this most happy wrack" (V.i.266). "The love of brother and sister creates a radiance in which other people's problems are solved; as they discover their true identities by each acknowledging the identity of the other, so Sebastian, Orsino, and Olivia achieve a sense of integrity, of achieved self" (Wells 183).

Feste enters with a letter from Malvolio and starts reading it in an insane voice. Olivia gives it to Fabian instead, and we hear Malvolio's attempt to muster some dignity. Malvolio enters, protesting his having been wronged. "At this point Twelfth Night almost moves beyond the bounds of comedy and toward another kind of accountability, another kind of moral inquiry" (Garber 533). Olivia seems sympathetic: "He hath been most notoriously abus'd" (V.i.379). The odd news emerges from Fabian that "Maria writ / The letter at Sir Toby's great importance, / In recompense whereof he hath married her" (V.i.362-364)! But Feste drives home a point by reminding Malvolio of the moment (in Act I) he insulted Feste, adding, "And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges" (V.i.376-377). "A 'whirligig' is a top, a child's spinning toy. The modern cliché would be 'What goes around, comes around'" (Garber 534). Malvolio exits, vowing, "I'll be reveng'd on the whole pack of you" (V.i.378). "To be sure, Olivia expresses her sympathy again after he leaves and the Duke sends after to have him pacified and brought back, but that last line stands" (Asimov 593). There remains a loose end of the captain being imprisoned, and Malvolio holds the key to that peculiar irresolution, as the Duke notes. So that remains a puzzle. And "Malvolio remains himself even though the fool has put the means of self-knowledge within his grasp" (Wells 184). "He has learned nothing. He excludes himself from the Christmas miracle, and from the comic circle of accommodation and love" (Garber 534). Yet, "It is to the credit of the dramatist that he is never malicious in his characterization of Malvolio; while he plays around the edges of ridicule, he does not make the man contemptible or altogether absurd" (Ogburn and Ogburn 286).

The final perspective grows distant and stilted. The lovers don't speak directly to each other exactly, and both Viola and Sebastian have nothing to say any longer. "Probably the most disappointing thing about Twelfth Night to most readers is the fact that such a rare girl as Viola should have fallen in love with such a spineless creature as the Duke. And Sebastian seems too good for Olivia" (Goddard, I 304). Does all this suggest that the roles of the restricted selves have been adopted, that the formality of marriage ends the interplay between individuals discovering and defining themselves -- that in a sense Malvolio did win? or Illyria? And what does it mean that unlike her cross-dressing couunterparts in other Shakespeare plays, Viola "never gets to reappear as a woman. When the play closes she is still dressed as the boy 'Cesario'" (Garber 518)?

In any case, the play ends with Feste's song: "With a hey ho, the wind and the rain." "To please you 'every day,' to make every day a holiday, is in some sense the role of drama, and especially of dramatic comedy" (Garber 534).

Feste's song at the end ... puts the keystone in place and sums it all up. The thing that this society of pleasure-seekers has forgotten is the wind and the rain. It's all right to play with toys while we are children, and later we may thrive for a little time by swaggering or crime. But knaves and thieves are soon barred out. There is such a thing as coming to a man's estate, such a hard reality.... (Goddard, I 305)

In his suggestions of the repeated frustrations and failures consequent upon mortal folly he may remind us too of the intelligence and understanding -- such as those of Viola -- that are needed rightly to use and control the less rational elements of our natures, that we cannot hope to be fully in control of our destiny but must see ourselves against the backdrop of that great expanse of time that has passed since 'the world begun'. So he may suggest too, as the play has suggested, that by submitting ourselves to chance, by opening our imaginations to experience even if it does seem partly foolish, we may receive the blessings of fortune. (Wells 184-185)


The play is weird, and difficult to dismiss as mere comedy. Bloom says, "The play is decentered; there is almost no significant action, perhaps because nearly everyone behaves involuntarily" (Bloom 228). But he also insists that "Shakespeare's acute sense that all sexual love is arbitrary in its origins but overdetermined in its teleology is at the center of Twelfth Night" (Bloom 235). "The double nature of all human beings, the fact that men and women all have something 'masculine' and something 'feminine' about them" is something Shakespeare considers elsewhere too (Garber 519).

Agonizing cognitively about this play, I asked my Shakespearean e-mail friend Mary what she thought about it. She responded, "What do you mean? This is just a simple love story: self love, mistaken love, same sex (and therefore mistaken) love, love of brothers, obsessive love. What more could you ask for? Besides, it's funny to watch Viola maneuver her way through these relationships without giving herself away."

My next parry: "Simple love story? Maybe for love. And who cares about that crap? I meant the confusing investigation into identity and the thematic matter of things being turned inside-out so that most of these Illyrians are hollow with artificially adopted constructs serving as identity and only Viola and maybe Malvolio have any consistent sense of themselves so that Malvolio in the dark house is the inside-out of most of the other characters (as Antonio at one point accidentally describes them) and one extreme is Sir Andrew who, in not knowing what 'pourquoi' means, assumes Sir Toby was saying 'Do or do not' -- that is, that he is being instructed automatically, which he is in the dancing and repetition of Toby's words without understanding and recognizing that Malvolio is speaking of him because he's often referred to as a fool. The Ghost of Christmas Past in the Bill Murray movie Scrooged accuses: 'You don't know who you are, you don't know what you want [what you will!], and you don't know what's going on.' And that's the premise of this play too, right? Viola tries (in a weird way) to withdraw after an emotional blow, and (odd again) passively recognizes that only time can fix things, not acts of will. Well, nice Epiphany, I think."

The theme of excess can lead to some productive interpretive analysis. Goddard says that most of the characters here are at extreme points from excesses of various things and are therefore about to be converted into something else. "Excessive revelry and excessive sentimental love, the poet seems to be saying, are just opposite forms of the same infection" (Goddard, I 301). This works on the general level too, since this play is sometimes seen as a partial farewell to comedy, at least of the standard sort, by Shakespeare, with later "comedies" really being bizarre or dark or "problem plays." I think Shakespeare bid good-bye to comedy with The Merchant of Venice, and this either leads up to that or maybe goes a little beyond that point, at least the revision we have. At what point does comedy go too far? Must comedy always come at the expense of someone else?

The most intriguing theme to me is that of the explored identity crisis. Orsino, whom Olivia wishes would be a blank instead of a person filled with thoughts of her, arbitrarily adopts a persona, the Petrarchan lover. Olivia arbitrarily adopts the role of sequestered mourner for seven years. These are characters whose identity comes from outside, much like the odd possibility that "greatness" could be "thrust upon" one. Viola loses the male side of herself, her twin brother, and adopts that "self" by wearing it on the outside, which just causes chaos. By contrast, Malvolio retains his identity, however perverse, within the dark house. So he is surrounded by darkness or "blank" whereas the others are blanks cloaked in arbitrary façades. I'm convinced this is all represented by the letter "O" -- and possibly "I" -- and our attention is drawn to mixing letters about through the fake letter with the M.O.A.I. (But that's another enigma.) The entire play is about severings and reintegrations, and a recurring, deceptively throwaway line is "That's all one" (e.g., V.i.196, 373).

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