Shakespeare’s Satirical Attitude to Social Norms

Topics: Twelfth Night

The following sample essay is devoted to the topic of Shakespeare’s satirical attitude to the social norms of the Elizabethan era. Read the introduction, body and conclusion of the essay, scroll down.

Twelfth Night (1601) exposes Shakespeare’s satirical attitude toward the societal norms of the Elizabethan era. The Carnivalesque title brings about notions of both the inversion of stereotypical roles as well as the excess of the Christmas period. Feste upholds the carnival spirit while Malvolio is diametrically opposed, historically at this point there was a shift from the feudal household which is more like Olivia’s with the likes of Sir Andrew and Sir Toby to the commercialised private world, much more like count Orsino’s.

“Throughout the play a contrast is maintained between the taut, restless, elegant court where people speak a nervous verse and the free-wheeling household of Olivia, where accept for the intense moments in Olivia’s amorous interviews with Cesario, people live in easy going prose”  However the festive spirit is destructed by the excess of Malvolio’s punishment giving an anti-carnivalesque ending, re-establishing the importance of the social hierarchy.

Appearance and reality proves problematic for an ontological reading, a natural perspective that is and is not “nothing that is is so”  Feste questions the notion of reality and appearance as he is the only character to see through the others masks, while Viola is the only character true to herself, and aware of her own disguise even telling Olivia that her appearance is not reality “I am not that I play” 112, 176, which brings forth a metatheatrical element.

Get quality help now
Writer Lyla

Proficient in: Twelfth Night

5 (876)

“ Have been using her for a while and please believe when I tell you, she never fail. Thanks Writer Lyla you are indeed awesome ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

“The honourable lady of the house, which is she? ” enquires Viola as Cesario, not wanting to “cast away her speech”  that “was excellently well penned” on someone of no significance. In doing so she draws attention to the fallacy of her conventional compliments in addition offending Olivia by not recognising her, or pretending not to recognise her, who in turn refuses to confirm that she is the lady, furthermore proceeding to complain about Cesario, “being saucy at my gate.

”  “What is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve” states Viola as the lady did indeed usurp herself, and now revealed, should not be allowed to keep the gift of herself to herself, she should distribute her affections to Orsino and requite his love. Olivia’s refusal to listen to the praise Viola recites discloses her disinterest and insistence on hurrying up the youth.

“Come to what is important in’t. I forgive you the praise. ” Presently Viola disguised as Cesario and Olivia disguised by her veil both have preconceptions about the others behaviour however Viola’s persistence in identifying the Lady through disguise, warrants Olivia’s interest as Viola asks “Good madam, let me see your face.

”  Olivia reveals herself literally, breaking an oath she claimed she never would, “we will draw the curtain and show you the picture”  Shakespeare often uses wit to imply a potential relationship, as Olivia sharply replies “Tis in grain sir, ’twill endure wind and weather” his leads to the mockery of reducing Olivia’s beauty to an itemised list “item, two lips indifferent red… one chin”  the witty exchange develops Olivia’s feelings of indifference, to interest and finally to love.

Moreover the ‘willow cabin’ speech, willow being symbolic for forsaken love gives Olivia the wrong impression as Viola speaks of how she would love Olivia if she were the Duke, of course revealing her true feelings for Orisno, also seen in Act two Scene four ‘never told her love, but let concealment, like a worm i’the bud, feed on her damask’.  Metatheatre reliant on the performative element often offers an onstage microcosm of the theatrical situation, and such techniques as the use of parody.

When Olivia asks Viola “are you a comedian? ” an actor? Shakespeare relies on audience complicity for Viola indeed is both an actor in a comedy as well as a character acting another. Also contributing to the deception or imaginary deception of the audience is that in Elizabethan times, women were not allowed to be on the stage so the female characters would be played by men pretending to be women.

In a play like Twelfth Night where disguise is integral to the plot, this could become very confusing. For example, Viola would be played by a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man. Deception and Delusion are heavily played upon throughout however it is predominantly self deception, as Orsino proclaims”thy mind is a very opal” a material which changes when light strikes it, he also admits his own fickle disposition “if music be the fruit of love play on…

Enough” in two lines his mood dramatically alters, paralleling his love “more in love with love than with his mistress”  Viola, un-deluded of her true self is incapable of remaining impartial in this scene and becomes insolent in her approach, coming out of ‘character’, and through blind jealousy of the Duke’s passion for Olivia, remarks to Olivia when asking for approval of her beauty, “Excellently done, if God did all” implying she may only be beautiful with make-up, furthermore accuses her of being proud, “I see what you are, you are too proud”.

For a servant this is outrageous, after all she is accusing a Lady of pride-one of the seven deadly sins. Olivia however does not reproach Cesario, simply stating, “you are now out of your text. ” She too begins to come out of ‘character’ and reveal her true self, at first she is very cynical and dismissive of the messengers speech, remarking quite coldly when Viola refers to the Duke’s love lying in his bosom, “O. I have read it: it is heresy. ”  Further on in the conversation however she reveals a more honest insight into her feelings for the Duke.

Cite this page

Shakespeare’s Satirical Attitude to Social Norms. (2017, Nov 28). Retrieved from

Shakespeare’s Satirical Attitude to Social Norms
Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7