Twelfth Night is the merriest of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, it is also the saddest. The Christian associations of the title suggests the carpe diem theme which runs through the play. Epiphany, according to Christian mythology, is the time when the shepherds recognized the birth of Christ. The feast of epiphany is the last festival of the Christmas season, after which death takes over. This cycle of life is an extension of the ancient pagan fertility rituals. The mood is similar in Keats’s ‘To Autumn’, Hedge-crickets sing; and now with a treble soft The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies. Only, Keats finds reassurance in the fact that swallows will return, but Shakespeare is concerned with the cessation of life which looms over the whole play. Here the recognition is of the transience of life, unlike in Cymbeline where the rediscovery of Perdita symbolises the rediscovery of one’s soul. Significantly, Twelfth Night is the last of the romantic comedies. After this Shakespeare moves on to the tragedies and the problem plays – this is the last play where joy is not alloyed with problems of evil and anti-life.
Everything that is subject to time is valueless, this was the medieval conception. Thus during the middle ages all human activity was directed towards God. Man was given little importance. Then with Renaissance came yet undiscovered knowledge. The new astronomical discoveries allowed man to explore the universe independent of the scriptures. With this was born man’s pride in being man in the mortal universe. And thus man became conscious of the beauty and transience of life. This removed the concept of life everlasting from the framework of eternity.
This introduced the prominence of mortality. The dance of death was now more feared than ever. New questions about human existence took form. Comedy seeks to find answers, a meaning of life; yet Shakespeare presents a frail shadowy background to his actions. One of the main governing thoughts in Twelfth Night is the fragility of life. This is the play of youth, almost all the characters are young, and this generates the sadness. Shakespeare asks all to enjoy fleeting life, make the most of the twelve days, scorning the Malvolios.
A pattern emerges from all this lot which gives life some meaning. Twelfth Night, despite all its laughter, seems to play upon the keys of loss, affliction and deep bewilderment, which sounds through the gentle beauty of the romance convention and the festive humour. The bonded family words – father, brother, sister – signifies absence, loss of security and a longing. It is this sense of irreparable loss, and the mild apprehension that all this might prove to be a dream provides the poignant dream-like feeling which pervades the play.
The loss is internal as well as external. The recognition of one’s self is a dominant theme, and almost all characters are haunted by this and hunt for their selves as well as their lost loves. Orsino’s languorously insatiable desire for love and ‘food of love’ in the first scene presents a parodic statement of the omnipresent sense of want. The hunting pun serves to express the search which is already begun. Nevertheless, Orsino’s words set the mood of the play, which, even through all the ‘caterwauling’ of the kitchen group, never fades. Orsino says
That strain again, it had a dying fall: O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound That breathes upon a bank of violets, Stealing and giving odour Orsino’s appetite is soon satiated. The music loses its appeal and his love for love becomes evident. Even the hunting image takes on contemporary significance – Diana becomes the naked truth which makes Acteon wild. This is a parody of Petrarchan conceits and it is fittingly given to Orsino, who, like all in Illyria, is in a state of illusion. According to Plato’s Symposium love is a hole, an absence longing to be filled.
So Twelfth Night is a play of pining: Orsino for Olivia, Olivia for Viola, Viola for Orsino, and comically Sir Andrew and Malvolio for Olivia. This emphasis on pining invokes the classical myth of Narcissus and Echo, and makes a narcissistic triad of self enclosed loneliness. Each of them playing simultaneously Narcissus and Echo with respect to others. They seek their own reflections in the other’s face and own echo in the other’s voice. But more melancholy than this ‘love-sorrow’ is the separation of loved ones by real or apparent death. This again can be traced to the sense of romantic lack as embodied in this state of primary loss.
Nearly all characters bear traces of such loss – from the father-brother loss which provides similar traumatic experiences for Viola and Olivia, down to the farcical yet nostalgic exclamation of Sir Andrew: ‘I was adored once, too. ’ While Viola’s sorrow is genuine, Olivia’s vow to keep her face veiled for seven years seems more like a ploy to ward off Orsino’s unwanted advances. Otherwise her whole behaviour is comically excessive in place of being melancholy. Seven years in black violates the Elizabethan mourning etiquette which prescribed a period of one year for a brother.
Olivia closely parallels Orsino – both in her reclusiveness more alleged than borne out – and as a willing victim of introspective melancholia. Olivia’s unnamed brother fades from the surface of the play. But his spirit continues to haunt. For no sooner has the theme of brother loss been sounded in the minor key than it recurs in the major. The ‘eye-offending brine’ of tears gives way to the sea. Olivia’s brother fades into Viola’s. In a drama greatly concerned with wholeness of identity, the twinned heroines are each presented as halves of a pairing, cloven away from the male counterpart with whom she started life.
In Jungian terms, when Viola assumes the male disguise, it is as if she recapitulates in her own person the lost other, dressing exactly like Sebastian, and as if Olivia also locates her own in Viola. Herein lies the fact that both of them are in an illusory world, it is only the presence of Sebastian which allows a happy resolution, otherwise the imminent result was definitely tragic. There might be an autobiographical element in this brother-sister separation theme. Shakespeare himself was the father of boy-girl twins of whom the boy died before the composition of this play.
The twins were eleven and half years old when death separated them. Shakespeare must have felt at heart the wistful sadness in the eyes of Judith the surviving child, which he endowed to viola. Twelfth Night contains a calm, loving elegy, and a myth of rebirth. It feigns that Hamnet, the boy twin, is not dead, but lingers in the unknown, washed up on the shores of Illyria, the land of illusion and lyricism. Prove true, imagination, O prove true This is not only Viola’s, but also Shakespeare’s heartfelt cry. Thus Viola’s sadness resounds with a new meaning. Her exclamation at her entry is,
And what should I do in Illyria? My brother he is in Elysium. Her brother comes back to her, but Hamnet does not. Unlike Sebastian, Viola controls herself and centres her thoughts on immediate problems. Her wit allows her to obtain a shelter in an alien and unfriendly world. But her wit also has a touch of the autumnal – in keeping with the autumnal note of the play. And even in her sorrow she can sympathise with others. She understands Olivia’s plots instantly in place of scorn, shows tender understanding, she says, Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we, For such as we are made of, such we be.
Her identification with Olivia is appropriate in more ways than one – not only both of them are lovesick, but also they long for a brother figure. But Viola’s pathos is more touching. She has to bear messages to her rival from the man she loves. This she does without a murmur and with all sincerity. Her praise of Orsino comes straight from her heart. She is pained to the extreme, and almost reveals herself when Orsino calls women less faithful and lacking in depth of emotion. She tells the Duke: My father had a daughter lov’d a man, As it might be perhaps, were I a woman, I should your lordship.
Thus secretly professing her love. But her suppressed agony is felt when she tells Orsino the supposed ending of her non-existent sister’s love whose history was, she tells Orsino, A blank, my lord: she never told her love For she never expects to have Orsino and she dares not aspire to the impossible. As when her brother’s name is mentioned she fears to hope for the best. Shakespeare saves the play from ending in total disaster by bringing in Sebastian and thus allowing Viola to have a happy end, in an union with Orsino. In the first scene orsino begins with an imagery of flowers.
And the scene ends with flowers: Away before me to sweet beds of flowers! Love-thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers. The image of flowers comes again and again throughout the play. Flowers symbolise transience – momentary beauty, something that does not last. So Feste tells Olivia: As there is no true cuckold but calamity, so beauty’s a flower. Reminding her that times are never always bad, thus to keep on mourning for something that is past is to waste precious time and no one has world enough and time. Orsino talks about woman’s beauty, asking Cesario to fall in love with some woman younger than he,
For women are as roses, whose fair flower Being once display’d, doth fall that very hour. Viola has to agree. She admits that death comes when one has just reached perfection. Speaking not only for women but for all mankind. The flower imagery stresses the carpe-diem theme of the play – cease the day before it ends. This theme is also propagated through the music of the play. In Twelfth Night music plays a vital role, establishing the tone of the play. Through music the emotive basis of human existence is emphasised, which is to be felt rather than perceived cerebrally.
There is rare music in Viola. She does not sing, but her words carry poetic inspiration. She echoes Shakespeare’s sonnets when she tells Olivia: Lady, you are the cruell’st she alive If you will lead these graces to the grave And leave the world no copy. Like the early marriage sonnets the theme here is of beauty perpetuated through marriage. But the character who is full of music and is truly melancholy, though not in his attitude or expression, is Feste. Feste is the first true fool of Shakespeare’s plays. One of the functions of the clown is to sing. He sings to Toby and Andrew:
What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter, Present mirth hath present laughter: Whats to come is still unsure. In delay there lies no plenty, Then come kiss me sweet and twenty: Youth’s a stuff will not endure. The fragility of youth and shadow of death – this is in line with the play’s theme and mood and also Feste’s character. His other song, which he sings to please Orsino, is equally sad, Come away, come away death, And in sad cypress let me be laid. Fie away, fie away breath, I am slain by a fair cruel maid. This song continues to reveal Feste’s own bleak future.
He is outside the action, an objective onlooker. There is no involvement. He is poor, has no security. He begs to acquire money. For a man of his intellectual capacities this must be disgusting. He has no past, no future and no considerable present. He is a relic of the past, from Olivia’s father’s time. He is constantly threatened with discharge which is as bad as hanging for him. But he lets summer bear it out. Only his song betray his state. Thus in his songs the thought of hereafter is subordinated. In the final scene everyone leaves except Feste, who stays to give the audience a song.
A song in which he is transformed from the character to the actor. His final song marks the ending of the play, the ending of the twelfth night. Death’s reign starts from the next day. Feste’s song is nostalgic, he recalls when folly was not as unacceptable or threatening. He also gives a cynical view of marriage as an unwanted responsibility. This casts an oblique perspective on the centrality of marriage in the play as a symbol of concord and resolution. A great while ago the world begun, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, But that’s all one, our play is done, And we’ll strive to please you everyday. That’s all one’ signifies from one perspective that since nothing is really important enough to worry about, pleasure and folly are the only activities worth undertaking. From another, similar, perspective the phrase can be read as hopeless, despairing resignation, pleasure and folly are doomed attempts to escape from an intolerable consciousness of futility. In ‘our play is done’, it is more about the innocent activities than about the play itself. It is a nostalgic recognition of the post innocence state. Feste’s song probably takes place on a dark, empty, silent stage, encapsulating Feste’s loneliness.
His life is really as empty. He is as much an outcast as Malvolio, only he is not embittered. He is the artist. Isolated, presenting life, but not belonging to it. His song is a very cynical comment on human existence. To Feste the world does seem like … a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. The song is a reminder of the theme of the play – youth and its subjection to time. The question which arises is whether this kind of existence is worth the strife. With this question the curtain descends on Shakespeare’s romantic world.
The final song, which brings together all the melancholy passages in the play, leaves a yearning in the reader’s mind. A tinge of sadness which fills the heart and leaves a deep impression, is given to the whole play. This song marks a turning point in the world of Shakespearean drama. The playful attitude is done, now it is time for serious businesses of life, which involves the greatest of calamities. Perhaps at the moment Shakespeare himself identified with Feste. He who even with his immeasurable height of mind had to be the public’s jester and servant. Perhaps for an idle moment he wondered, if all this is worth the complications or not.