Twelfth Night as a Romantic Comedy
Northrop Frye in his book A Natural Perspective (1965) suggests that “in comedy and romance the story seeks its own end instead of holding the mirror up to Nature. Consequently comedy and romance are obviously conventionalized that a serious interest in them soon leads to an interest in convention itself.” It is true that Shakespeare’s comic plots are descended from the ancient conventions of romantic story-telling, remote as they are from reality; but the divorce of art from nature implied in Frye’s words misrepresents the spirit of comedies. For the question is not whether these plays hold up the mirror to Nature, but how they do so.
The story of Twelfth Night contains many conventional elements: a shipwreck on a strange coast to initiate the action, a pair of identical twins each believing the other dead, the consequent confusions of mistaken identity and the ironic situations arising from these, and from additional complications of disguise, the cross-purposes of amorous intrigue and the remarkable series of coincidences which eventually and conveniently bring about a happy ending. A plot of this kind in Twelfth Night and the other comedies certainly provides fullness and variety. It also produces a paradoxical effect of both artifice and artlessness.
The impression of a loosely-knit, apparently random sequence of events, following no natural laws of causality or necessity is a basic feature of romance and of Shakespeare’s comedy. The imaginative experience of such a plot is not one of pressing forward to a conclusion but rather the sense of meandering and illogical succession of episodes which seem to take us further and further away from any feeling of inevitability. This is surely an important effect of dramatic composition. It gives the sense of life as a pastime.
However, behind this apparent sense of artlessness and looseness of structure, there is the suggestion of the play’s concern with the instability and impermanence of life. The dramatic form corresponds to the flux and changefulness represented in each situation. Orison’s moody restlessness is matched by the perversity of Olivia who first withdraws from life to mourn a dead brother, and then suddenly finds himself wooing her sister’s servant. Malvolio’s influence over his young mistress at the beginning of the play is a kind of an upsetting of the natural order. His ambitions to marry his mistress and to become the Count are outrageously perverse. The clamorous revelry of Malvolio’s enemies, Sir Toby and company constitutes a parallel source of unrest, for they refuse to confine themselves within the modest limits of order. Feste, the ubiquitous fool adds further to be unsettled state of affairs in his restless wandering through the play. Thus the capricious and elaborate artifice in the plot is directly related to a major theme of the play – the theme of mutability.
The confusions and accidents of romance convention, the meandering movement of events are features of the structure of Shakespeare’s comedy. Classical comedy is critical, satirical and conservative: Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is creative, poetic and liberal. It creates a world where things are unsettled only to get themselves restored to the normal rhythm of life. The confusions and disorders brought about by fortune (Viola’s Shipwreck and landing in Illyria, her disguise) are exploited both for comedy and romance in the play. The general condition of mutability produces situations of farcical absurdity. Orsino’s love of love, Olivia’s mourning for dead brother renouncing love and Viola’s disguise involving Olivia’s sudden change from love of dead brother to the love of disguised Viola.
Like all Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night is a love story. But love in this play participates in the waywardness and impermanence that Affects all things in Illyria. Orsino strikes the keynote:
“For such as I am all true lovers are:
Unstaid and skittish in all motions else.”
But in the same scene with Viola, he changes his ground:
But mine is all as hungry as the sea
And can digest as much.”
Orsino’s fancy like the sea is fluid and unconfined. Lovers suffer delusions and mistaking of false for true. Orsino’s love is fed by music and poetry, by art rather than by Nature. Olivia is deluded to love a woman in disguise. She falls in love with a fiction, mistaking art for nature. “Poor lady, she were better love a dream”, says Viola. But the dream proves true, for Cesario is an artificial copy of reality, and Olivia’s marriage to Sebastian involves no change of her affections. To Sebastian, this itself seems a dream, an abuse of his fantasy:
‘Or I am mad, or else this is a dream.’
Thus the confusions and caprices of the lovers are exploited for comedy. Viola who is the constant and unchanging heart at the centre of several shifting and unstable attachments takes a disguise which adds to the delusions of those around her, but it seems to translate her to an order of existence beyond the flux of nature. Cesario is not of Nature, but of art, a fiction in himself, he nevertheless mirrors nature by expressing others’ truth. When Viola casts off her disguise, the termination of Cesario’s existence allows a new set of relationships to come into being based on truth and harmony.
Twelfth Night is a play in which art and Nature are constantly changing places. This is the source of both romance and comedy. At the end, the audience and the characters finally attain harmony, wholeness and completeness, that poise and balance which transcend mutability and that establish love’s order and life’s rhythmic movement. This is the appropriate end of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy.
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