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The Twelfth Night Comedy by William Shakespeare

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The Twelfth Night is a comedy written by William Shakespeare and was set in an island across the Adriatic called the Illyria. The main characters are Viola, Sebastian, Orsino and Olivia. These characters, coupled with a few more, make up the tangled web of chaos that is depicted in the play (NCSF, 2004).

            At the age of six or seven, William Shakespeare could have entered the Stratford grammar school – becoming the King’s New School of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1553 (Mabillard, A. 2000). His literary training revolved around Latin composition as was characteristic of Elizabethan learning and reflected in his careful demonstration of plots and characters. After leaving the academy due to financial reasons, Shakespeare might have emerged as a professional stage performer in the 1580s, perfected his literary skills while involving himself in theatres outside Stratford. In 1593, Shakespeare established himself in the English theatre and literature with the publication of Venus and Adonis in Southampton, performing for the Chamberlain’s Men before Elizabeth I, and with the creation of Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, King John and Love’s Labour’s Lost. He wrote his own plays, acted in them, and owned his playhouse.

            Twelfth Night referred to the final night of mayhem, revelry, showcase of social and sexual mores, twelve days after Christmas. In Shakespeare’s time, the Twelfth Night celebration was almost banished as the Anglican Church or the English Puritans espoused a Reformed Christianity by detaching tradition that rooted from Catholicism. Malvolio is the Puritan in the play, a political suggestion of the play (Novelguide, 2007). Shakespeare had attempted to direct hate towards the Puritans’ movement against the theatre and the Twelfth Night celebration. English Puritanism was a threat on the pillars of Shakespeare’s art: the crown and the stage.

            For the play Twelfth Night, Shakespeare sourced out Apolonius and Silla by Barnabe Riche, and The Italian G’Ingannati staged by the Academy of Intronati in 1531. The separation of the twins Viola and Sebastian was taken from the separation of the G’Ingannati’s siblings Fabrizio and Lelia. The concept of love tends to be rather complicated in the Italian play than that of Shakespeare’s (Lockett, 1991). Apolonius and Silla gave the Twelfth Night its concept of a lady disguised as a boy. The elders in the G’Ingannati became Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in the Twelfth Night. The title, Twelfth Night, stemmed from the request of Her Majesty, the Queen Elizabeth I, to attune the performance of the play during a night of rich clothing, and music and dances.

The Twelfth Night happened to be the Roman Saturnalia, a feast where dreams turn real, reversals are in mode – which is, the theme of the play. Twelfth Night is considered among Shakespeare’s best comedies since he wrote it in 1601, at the height of his career. It contains illusion and deception – seemingly silly things that love causes its victims to commit.  The only Shakespearean play with a second title, the Twelfth Night was also called What You Will. The Twelfth Night or the Epiphany was a night of topsey-turveys, very much like the play in Illyria. Apart from being a romantic comedy, The Twelfth Night is also a transvestite comedy – often featuring female protagonists disguising as young lads.

            As a Shakespearean comedy, The Twelfth Night moved from a conflict into a resolution, ending in unity and revelry (Schwartz, D. 2006). It frequently involved cutting off characters misguided as they cannot fit into society, i.e. Malvolio. The ending may seem a combination of melancholy and joy. Further categorized as a romantic comedy, The Twelfth Night revolves around love. Part of being a romantic comedy, The Twelfth Night also contained an element of the impossible – like the coming to life of Sebastian, whom Viola thought was dead. Finally, The Twelfth Night has presented a philosophy as in any other mature comedies Shakespeare has staged. This included the prevalent English Puritanism in his time which threatened the English Theatre.

            In studying The Twelfth Night as a comedy, it is essential to subject it to the six prerequisites that have been established (Taflinger, R. 1996). The first prerequisite is for the play to appeal to the intellect than to emotions. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has fulfilled this requirement as it painted a picture of the lowly but haughty Malvolio. In the play, Malvolio is degraded from his arrogant stature by being tricked into making fun of himself. Malvolio can be considered as Polish (Taflinger, 1996) and the play’s audience as the other people who will view Malvolio’s misfortunes as humorous.

The second and third requirements are: the play must be mechanical and it should be inherently human. Again, the Twelfth Night has satisfied these. The antics of Sir Toby and the stupidity of Malvolio supplied the borderline slapstick comedy. Unexpected humorous acts (such as Malvolio’s gullibility to wear such funny clothing and Sir Toby’s enjoyment to play tricks on people) make this play funny. Audiences are reminded of humanity by being exposed to human nature displayed by the characters. The play showed the inherent human nature of love. The characters have fallen in love literally with each other, even resulting in a very tangled web. Olivia, Viola, Orsino and Sebastian are the main characters who fall prey to this chaotic web.

Viola dressing as a man is her adjustment to the new territory she had landed on. Besides, this transvestitism, according to the Anti Essays, becomes an object of the odd nature of Illyria and its people – a basis for confusion and comedy. The transvestitism played by Viola was funny in the Elizabethan era – a time when women wearing men’s clothing were ridiculous, as women were still confined in the patriarchy of the society. This leads to the next fifth criterion which states that the play’s situation and its component parts must be inconsistent with the societal norms.

The sixth and last requirement states that the violence used as a comedic act must not be perceived by the audience as actually harmful to the characters/ actors. In the Twelfth Night, Sir Andrew and Cesario (who is actually Sebastian) engage in a fight. In here, Cesario beats Sir Andrew. Their violent act does not really constitute physical harm to the actors involved- and this act even highlighted the humorous aspect of the scene which is confusion and stupidity. Furthermore, Malvolio, even though he was the greatest fool of this romantic comedy, wasn’t permanently hurt. He never killed himself – as that would forfeit the purpose of the Twelfth Night as a comedy, thus, making it a tragedy (Taflinger).

In summary, the Twelfth Night perfectly satisfied Dr. Richard Taflinger’s entire requirement for a comedy. The Twelfth Night is a perfect example of Taflinger’s Theory of Comedy as every prerequisite was met and fulfilled.


Knight, C. (1971). Studies of Shakespeare. New York: AMS Press, Inc.

Friedlander, E. (2005). Enjoying “Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare [Electronic Version]. Retrieved May 19, 2007 from http://www.pathguy.com/12n.htm.

Lockett, J. L. (1991). An Improbable Fiction [Electronic Version]. Retrieved May 17, 2007 from http://www.io.com/~jlockett/Grist/English/12thnightsources.html.

Mabillard, A. (2000). William Shakespeare of Stratford [Electronic Version]. Shakespeare Online. Retrieved May 17, 2007 from http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/#actor.

NCSF. (2004). Twelfth Night, Or What You Will By William Shakespeare – Synopsis [Electronic Version]. Retrieved May 17, 2007 from http://www.ncshakes.org/twelfthnight_synopsis.pdf.

Novelguide. (2007). Twelfth Night [Electronic Version]. Retrieved May 17, 2007 from http://www.jiffynotes.com/TwelfthNight/HistoricalContext.html.

Schwartz, D. (2006). Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night [Electronic Version]. Retrieved May 17, 2007 from http://cla.calpoly.edu/~dschwart/engl331/12thnight.html.

Taflinger, R. (1996). A Theory of Comedy [Electronic Version]. Sitcom: What It Is, How It Works. Retrieved May 17, 2007 from http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~taflinge/theory.html.

Twelfth Night – Critical Commentary of Major Themes and Analysis of Language [Electronic Version]. Anti Essays. Retrieved May 19, 2007 from http://www.antiessays.com/free-essays/1651.html.

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