Twelfth Night: elements of comedy and irony
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Trevor Nunn’s adaptation of “Twelfth Night” is a masterpiece of insight and nuance. Instead of simply playing this gender-bending comedy of mistaken identity, the director highlights the dark undertones of the plot which show surprising depth. There are some alterations from the original text, but those who are less familiar with Shakespeare among the audience can appreciate the story being more easy to follow. For example, when Duke Orsino utters the famous opening line of the play, “If music be the food of love, play on,” ten minutes have already elapsed. But what takes place in those ten minutes sets up the plot and brings the characters to life.
Twelfth Night opens with a scene alluded to, but never presented in the original text., The twin siblings, Viola and Sebastian, are aboard a ship that is wrecked off the coast of the imaginary country of Illyria. Explaining the context of the play, it is a mute ouverture which helps the viewer in understanding much of the otherwise complicated situation.
The unique design of the film allows the story to leave the stage. The locations in Cornwall allow for some marvelous, liberating exteriors, and the late 18th century settings and costumes allow the film to balance on the border between period piece and contemporary romance. The veteran stage director has attempted to modernize the play without changing its meaning. The era has been shifted from the 1600s to the 1800s, giving the film a fresher context.
As a comedy, Twelfth Night is obviously intending to not only entertain its audience but also point out problems in society. It is imperative to entire merit of the play not to be realistic but to allow for empathy. Therefore to have a comedy of complete lightheartedness there would be no balance and hence no avenue for audience interaction. Without light we would have no darkness and for this reason Shakespeare has had to incorporate tragedy in order for the comedy to have its desired effect. The two in juxtaposition accentuate each other.
The characters of Twelfth Night are neither bluntly humorous nor artlessly tragic. Twelfth Night, like all Shakespearean comedies is largely about social concerns. The social messages in Twelfth Night are largely about the need for a balance in life, that one should not judge on appearance as they can be deceptive and the importance of self awareness or the humor in lack of. Neither is artlessly or bluntly humorous, as this would detract from the greater issues he is attempting to convey. Humor instead is used in contrast to some pain to antithesis the comedy and accentuate the themes.
The plot of Twelfth Night is comic, it explores many social issues in its comedy, yet is also not unrestrained in its humor. As a comedy Twelfth Night follows, many conventions as far as structure, the setting is in a far away “romantic” land, situation, and events somewhat steer the plot, however this is certainly not without art or subtleties. Shakespeare has carefully intertwined comedy and pain in both the main and the sub plots to highlight the comedy and explore the social themes, and in the film, this light and shadow is retained as well.
This setting is not completely free from conflict. There are some predominately “lighter” characters that serve as comic relief from the more serious main plot and represent a certain “type” of people in society. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew would have been marvelously enjoyed by Shakespearean audiences as they are today. Not a scene goes by involving these to where we can laugh and the slow wit of Sir Andrew and the awkward puns of Sir Toby. However, we find the names and foolish antics of these two rather amusing. It is with a certain hesitance that we laugh at the gullibility of Sir Toby, his disillusioned love for Olivia is rather somber and balances our opinion of him. This balances is representative of all the characters in Twelfth Night, they may be predominately comic yet they are never completely comic or completely serious. This has the effect on Twelfth Night as making it more true to life and therefore we as the audience can relate and understand the themes.
Malvolio and Feste are typical examples of characters that are seen as comic, yet when looking beyond these superficialities, we see a far more important role of their character in the play.
Feste, his name and title as a “fool” is careful balance of light and shadow. He is arguably the most intelligent character in the play and it is evident at the end of the play that he is the most powerful, because he concludes the play. Feste is certainly a vital link between not only the main and sub plots but also as a conveyer of the action to the audience. The character’s ‘omnipotence’ and wisdom are obvious from the beginning on, when we see him witnessing Viola’s transformation, and also his keen attention for detail. It is ironic that such wit and wisdom are found in the “fool.” Cesario refers to Feste as, “This fellow’s wise enough to play the fool: / And to do that well craves wit.” Feste is not a character of low, blunt comedy, his merriment is truthful not scornful or artless. Act 1 scene 5, “The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven. Take away the fool…” Feste is clever well balanced and has a keen understanding of himself and others. This combination of intellect, humor and subtlety effectively conveys the themes of Twelfth Night, rather than a cruel, crude, unreservedly humorous character that would be not nearly as potent.
Malvolio is a prime example of the need for a balanced, self-aware person. Malvolio’s name suggests his character, Mal meaning bad, and volio will. This wicked disposition is his self-deception and lack of balance and it is this that we find comic, however, not bluntly humorous. Especially near the end, the audience, as well as the other characters, transform their revenge into sympathy.
Conflict between characters is an aspect of the plot that makes it certainly more than unreservedly humorous. However, there are also different levels of conflict in Twelfth Night. As far as the conventional structure of a comedy goes, all conflict is minor and usually created merely through the suspense. In Twelfth Night there is conflict concerning who will win the hand of Olivia. Malvolio through his vanity is easily fooled into thinking it is he who she loves although she is most otherwise, “O, you are sick of self love, Malvolio, and taste with a distemper’d appetite.”
Another social and personal theme that is not “unreservedly humorous” dealt with in Twelfth Night is the idea of self-awareness. Self-awareness is based around being well balanced rather than excessive, therefore, to convey this idea, neither the characters nor the plot can be completely, inadvertently “happy.”
Self-awareness is developed by both Olivia and Orsino; they were both creatures of lavishness. Orsino plunged deeply into his unrequited almost courtly love for Olivia his verbose, dramatic language demonstrates this, “If music be the food of love, play on; / Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken and die.” This passionate plea and later exchanges demonstrate Orsino’s developing character. Initially he is more “in love” with the idea of love. The audience and survey of this activity may find his self-absorption laughable but as he develops into a well-rounded character, it is evident why Shakespeare portrayed him in this way.
It is vital for the credit to the play and its issues that we can emphasize with the characters. To understand why Orsino can love and marry Viola soon after discovering her identity, Shakespeare has portrayed him as a man capable of great passion but little sense. Cesario provides this rational, logical way of thinking and so hence, Orsino becomes more self-aware. Initially his lack of perception is comic but it is not without art or intention.
Olivia is also a creature of excess and fraudulent behavior; the mourning of her brother’s death appears more so for her sake rather than in actual despair of a loss. Shakespeare has done this by comparing her reaction to Viola’s, a person of far greater self-awareness. Her character is constantly compared to Viola; Olivia’s self-absorptive, obstinate character again develops through contact with Cesario. The ironic high comedy is balanced by the pain Olivia is obviously feeling. This balance of pain and humor to highlight the themes is common throughout the play.
Song and music are devices that are particularly imperative to a comedy. In Twelfth Night, music emphasizes the mood or balances the scene, controlling and manipulating light, and shade for desired effect. When considering Twelfth Night as a miniature mirror of society rather than a satire, music becomes an integral part of conveying themes. Moments of comedy are sometimes juxtaposed with serious, somber music. Such as when Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are in high drunken spirits, they call for a song from Feste, Toby : “Lets have a song.” Clown : “… a love song, or a song of good life?” Toby : “A love song, a love song.” Andrew : ” Ay, ay, I care not for good life.” The irony of the situation is humorous and through music, we see Sir Toby and Sir Andrew’s serious side. It may well be seen as humorous that these two lonesome drunks care for love rather than the good life they have chosen. The comedy of the situation is tainted by the slight but penetrating sadness we can see in the two.
The language of Twelfth Night, its structure and purpose are area where it is obvious that Shakespeare intended the play, its characters and the plot to be an overlapping indefinite line between light and shade. Maximum suspense is created by the constant balance, though we as the audience know that as a comedy all will end.
Every aspect of Twelfth Night is artistic and controlled; every scene has deliberate intentions to convey messages to the audience. The play in its entirety is effective through the careful balance of humor and pain. Twelfth night succeeds as a comedy because of this careful balance, entertaining its audience as well as allowing people to examine their own failings.
Twelfth Night is chiefly about the similarities and differences between the sexes. By dressing Viola as a man, Shakespeare establishes an opportunity to explore through one character the different manners in which men and women approach the same situation, especially if it involves love. The play also addresses the deceptiveness of judging by appearance. After all, appearance, especially as it relates to identity, is an important aspect of Twelfth Night.
There is a sub-category of Shakespeare’s comedies referred to by scholars as the “problem plays,” and thought this play is not technically one of them, it is rather problematic in its own right. Though primarily a farcical tale of confused romance, mistaken identity and sexual politics, the play also includes a sub-plot in which a character is humiliated, imprisoned as a lunatic and released to vow his revenge on his persecutors. Nunn’s adaptation of the play retains that sub-plot, which makes the film quite faithful. At the same time, it is only that dark business in an otherwise bright and breezy film which prevents the play from being over-comic and lighthearted.