Twelfth Night: The Key Tools of Shakespeare’s Vision


By Marc Connor, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

William Shakespeare is a celebrated playwright. His plays may seem complicated to some, but knowledge of the key tools make it easy to understand the message conveyed through them, and make the plays worth watching.

A collection of Shakespeare's publications.
Twelfth Night is full of key tools, which are easy to understand and accurately convey the meaning of the play. (Image: stevemart/Shutterstock)

‘High Plot’ Figures

In the play Twelfth Night, the discovery-of-the-letter scene, and the gulling of Malvolio was funny. For Malvolio’s resentment of the fun of others, the revenge plot borders on cruelty, needed education. Moving into Acts 4 and 5 of the play that element increased. At the same time, Twelfth Night moved toward a beautifully redemptive and positive conclusion for some characters, notably the ‘high plot’ figures of Viola, Orsino, Olivia, and Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian.

Learn more about how to read and understand Shakespeare.

Key Tool of Shakespeare’s Plays

A key tool for understanding Shakespeare’s plays is the ‘double plot’ tool. What was remarkable about Twelfth Night was that the ‘high plot’ and the ‘low plot’ mirrored one another, but at the same time the two plots went in opposite directions toward regenerative, festive comedy, and also toward scenes of malicious cruelty and rejection.

An oil painting of the members  of the King's Men, the acting company to which Shakespeare belonged.
A painting, done by artist John Faed, shows members of the King’s Men, the acting company to which Shakespeare belonged. (Image: John Faed/Public domain)

Negative elements, which were not limited to Malvolio, but also included Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Antonio – a sailor who befriended Viola’s brother Sebastian and formed a strong attachment to him. In Shakespeare’s plays, negative elements really depended on how the director and actors decided to play the parts.

The character of Antonio could not bear to let Sebastian out of his sight, even though he followed him at some personal risk to himself. At one point in the play, he said:

I have many enemies at Orsino’s court,
Else would I very shortly see thee there:
But come what may, I do adore thee so,
That danger shall seem sport, and I will go.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Character of Antonio in Twelfth Night

Antonio followed Sebastian throughout the play, giving money, and even protecting him when he was attacked by Toby and Andrew except Viola, in disguise as Cesario, involved in the comic fight with the two drunkards. At the play’s end, Antonio was left alone when Sebastian paired up with Olivia and Orsino with Viola.

Learn more about the comic tools used in Twelfth Night.

Vision in Shakespeare’s Comedies

In many productions, Antonio walked offstage alone, a sad figure of isolation, another concept for Shakespeare’s toolkit. It was interesting to watch how those figures functioned, and why they were excluded from the happiness at the end of the comedy. Not just in Twelfth Night but also in As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice, such a tool takes us far in understanding Shakespeare’s vision in his mature comedies.

Geeky Andrew

Andrew’s character suffered a similar fate. Toby told Maria that he kept Andrew around only for his money. He kept Andrew in constant hope that Olivia, Toby’s niece, would accept his marriage proposal and by constantly telling him, “Tut, there’s life in’t, man.” Andrew stated that unless he obtained Olivia, he would be ruined. Toby fooled him of money too. Andrew was like the geeky kid in high school who could not believe his good fortune to be liked and befriended by one of the popular boys of the school. At the end of the play, Toby turned on him telling him what he truly thought of him:

Will you help?” Toby exclaims. “A coxcomb, and a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull?”

A ‘coxcomb’ was the mask worn by a professional fool.

That was one of those moments when looking up a few of the rare words in the play could really help to see the meaning. Toby brutally striped the illusions from Andrew, without his so-called friend and the woman he had hoped to woo. Andrew too was sacrificed to the larger comic ending.

Malvolio’s Fantasy

Malvolio, an isolated figure, who neither had nor seemed to crave friends. He took pride in his demeanor, decorum, and restraint. His desire that Olivia might love him was the channel for all his fantasies and hopes for promotion, for rising in the world, and for achieving a blissful love. He thought that Olivia really loved him, despite all evidence to the contrary. He was like the high school nerd, tricked into thinking the head cheerleader loved him.

Shakespeare’s Dark Comedy

In the play when Olivia said, “this is very midsummer madness,” Toby and his gang believed he had taken the bait so completely. It was at that point that they planned to carry it too far. Different suggestions from the gang to lock him, make him mad showed there was a disregard for human feeling, which unnerved the audience. And when they do put Malvolio into a prison, the scene was pitiful even though we tend to laugh at it, raising question on comedy, which Shakespeare’s plays constantly provoked.

A scene from Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night is considered a comedy, but has characters depicting dark shades that audiences can relate to. (Image: Folger Shakespeare Library/Public domain)

Why do we laugh at comedy? At what do we laugh? Always a cruelty lurking beneath our laughter, a sense of relief that someone else had stepped forth to be at the receiving end of our jokes, the very essence of the scapegoat mechanism. Shakespeare realized in his mature comedies that no matter how redemptive and life-generating the comic vision was, there was also a dark undercurrent at work showing that we laugh at others in order to keep the laughter and the isolation from turning upon ourselves.

Consequently, the view of Malvolio at the end of the play was deeply unsettling. After Viola had been revealed in the final scene, and she and Orsino confessed their love, and Olivia and Sebastian had been married, then Shakespeare brought Malvolio back onto the stage, disheveled, dirty, tormented by his ill treatment. He confronted Olivia with the forged letter, asking why she deceived him into thinking she loved him but Olivia, revealed that the handwriting was Maria’s.

Learn more about appearance versus reality in Twelfth Night.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Malvolio was speechless, but the minor figure Fabian, stepped in to reveal the whole malicious plot. Feste, the figure of wisdom in the play, stepped forth and reminded Malvolio that at least the start of the plot was a recompense for Malvolio’s own ill will toward others. Feste spoke a line expressing Shakespeare’s deepest thought on what drove the human comedy: “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” Which meant that time brings about a rough justice, and the cruelty we visited upon others, ultimately visits back upon ourselves.

Even though a tough lesson for Malvolio, he rejected it, storming off the stage. It was a very hopeful lesson, implying that the world does tend toward a certain fairness over time. Once more it was proved that Shakespeare’s mature comic vision, and his vision in his great tragedies, had much in common.

Common Questions About Key Tools of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’

Q: What kind of play is Twelfth Night?

William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night had all the elements of love, hate, comedy, tragedy portrayed through different characters in it. Those subtly teach lessons of morality to the world.

Q: What is the main theme of the play, Twelfth Night?

The main theme of Twelfth Night is that of a romantic comedy revolved around love where some characters find love but at the same time it also depicts pain to some due to disguise and betrayal by fellow humans.

Q: Is Twelfth Night a tragedy?

Twelfth Night is considered a romantic comedy, but it has an undercurrent of dark comedy where it sends message about love and how it can also cause pain in different situations.

Q: What is the main conflict of Twelfth Night?

The main conflict of Twelfth Night is the confusion among the characters where each one loves the one who is further in love with someone else. Also the disguise of females as males creates a conflict when it comes to falling in love.

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