Shakespeares 'Twelfth Night'

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These lines – and indeed Act Three Scene One itself – is taken from almost exactly the middle of the play. Many of the characters’ secrets are beginning to come out – or are at least suspected. Viola is troubled by her love for Orsino, and it is possible that this is something that Feste explores earlier in the scene. Orsino however is still stuck deeply in the throes of his romantic love, but below the surface there are hints that he is confused by Viola and his feelings for her.

Viola also inspires confusion – or at least infatuation – in the mind of Olivia, who has fallen deeply in love with Orsino’s young servant. Sebastian has not yet arrived, and the play’s subplot is really coming into being – with Malvolio having just received the letter dropped for him by Mariah, much to the amusement of Sirs Andrew and Toby. The extract itself is taken from the end of the scene; Feste has just exited and Viola – alone on stage – delivers her lines of blank verse as a soliloquy to the audience.

The speech at first seems to refer to her recent and uncomfortable encounter with Feste, but also reflects on other ideas including the two key themes of the play. Moreover, when actually delivered in a production, in my opinion the actress could interpret these lines in a variety of different ways and subsequently speak to mean different things. However, it seems to me that the long vowel sounds (occurring especially regularly in the last three lines) lend themselves particularly to a reflective manner of speaking.

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The actress would draw them out – portraying Viola’s pondering of the revelations she has worked out after her encounter with Feste, as was done in the school production of the play. The opening line, ‘This fellow is wise enough to play the fool,’ is a play on the proverbial statement ‘No man can play the fool as well as the wise man,’ and perhaps also ‘He is not wise who cannot play the fool. ‘ Firstly, here Viola is looking back at Feste – she was confused by the encounter, but understands how intelligent he actually is.

It also sets the theme of the passage – the wit of fools and the folly of wise men – an effectively confusing way to end a scene in which ‘foolery’ has been the main theme. Interestingly, this confused content creates a distinct contrast to the solid blank verse – which also happens to be in almost perfect iambic pentameter, but does however gain an extra syllable on the first, fifth, and sixth lines. This changing rhythm adds to the general theme of madness in the play as well as demonstrating further Viola’s confusion.

In particular, the broken rhythm of the lines might show how conflicting emotions – primarily love – could crack her self-control. After this, Viola’s speech continues to elaborate on her comparison between wise men and fools, and her analysis of Feste. The next few lines seem to be her description of what Feste does, and how clever and sensitive he must be to actually is to do this – how he ‘must observe their mood on whom he jests, the quality of persons. ‘ In my opinion, this could also be interpreted as her realisation of how he has read her – that he has worked out all her secrets and she knows this.

There are several hints at this earlier in the scene. After this, the next phrase seems to be more of the same, ‘Not, like the haggard, check at every feather that comes before his eye’ is another acknowledgement of the skill of Feste, but possibly also indication that she sees certain predatory attributes in him. The ‘haggard’ refers to a wild hawk that will seize on any prey it sees – Feste apparently must not do this. Earlier in the scene he hardly treated her respectfully and she could well feel resentful, as if she had been his ‘prey.

Finally she might also have, possibly subconsciously – but in my opinion more likely not – aimed this phrase at herself in a moment of ironic self-deprecation referring to her suddenly and, perhaps, irrationally falling for Orsino. She does not really understand her love and is telling herself that she is the one that must not ‘check at every feather. ‘ Moreover, on the surface, Shakespeare’s use of a hawk as a simile to demonstrate Viola’s point would have been very easy to relate to and understand by his audience, as hawking was still a favourite pastime of the Elizabethan upper class.

The next line returns back to the theme of fools and wise men: ‘This is a practice as full of labour as a wise mans art’ declares Feste’s fooling to be equal to any ‘wise man’s’ profession – and possibly even an acceptable alternative to such a job – as well as declaring how difficult it is. However, in the final phrase, Viola arrives at her conclusion that the Feste’s ‘profession’ is more worthwhile, cleverer and far more sensible than following the path of a ‘wise man’ – as for wise men to act foolishly would be wrong – not in keeping with any ‘wise man’s art’ – if they were to do this they would become stupid, or possibly even mad.

By comparison, ‘folly that [Feste] shows is fit’ – folly that Feste intelligently displays is skilfully adapted (to his current audience) – ‘but wise men, folly-fall’n, quite taint their wit. ‘ This line allows for a whole range of different interpretations. In my opinion, it works excellently to bring the passage back into context with the themes of the play, explored below.

Another very possible interpretation of the phrase might be that Viola is again bemoaning Orsino’s confusion in his idealistic love for Olivia; he has ‘fall’n folly’ to her, or possibly just to his own narcissism, and is blind to Viola’s love for him, and even blind to her actual sex. Secondly, an interesting way to view this particular passage is another allusion to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which appear in several places throughout the play, if interpreted in a certain way. For example, in Act 1 Scene 1: ‘That instant was I turned into a hart And my desires like fell and cruel hounds E’er since pursue me. ‘

If indeed it is an allusion to the Metamorphoses – one way to interpret it with relation to Ovid’s work would be through the same story (of Diana and Actaeon) that the extract above is a play on. Actaeon was a huntsman, not wise exactly, but reputedly sensible – whose ‘folly’ was bad luck in stumbling across Diana bathing. Desperate to keep any living mortal from being able to walk away and tell of what he had seen, and unable to reach her bow, she turned him into a stag. Subsequently, he was then torn to pieces by his own hounds. Significantly – becoming an animal, he could be said to have lost, or ‘tainted’ his wits.

If the passage is read in this way, with Orsino taking the place of Actaeon, Viola could almost be blaming Olivia for Orsino’s lack of interest in her – although this seems really quite unreasonable and unlikely as she knows well of Olivia’s misguided infatuation with Viola herself. Another way to link Actaeon and Orsino is that they both could be seen to objectify women. A feminist might view Actaeon’s watching of Diana bathing as an act of voyeurism. He just sees ‘the woman’ purely as an object to enjoy, and as a result he is torn to pieces by his own animalistic – hence hounds – desires.

Orsino’s enjoyment of his own, self-proclaimed love for Olivia could be seen to amount to much the same thing – and so ultimately ending with his destruction. This is something that the pragmatic Viola fears. An even more relevant tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses is, in my opinion, that of Narcissus himself. ‘Narcissistic’ is often a very obvious and appropriate way to describe Orsino’s actions. Interestingly, Ovid’s version of the story, Narcissus was a famously attractive, but proud, boy punished by the Gods for having spurned all his male suitors.

The fact that Narcissus in this version was a homosexual – or at least loved by other men, with no actual feelings of his own for anyone except himself – makes the moral story even more appropriate when read with regard to Orsino. A common interpretation of his character is that he is actually homosexually inclined, not at all interested in women – except as a far off object with which to entertain himself through his own apparent passion, and the practice of what he believes should be a romantic ideal – the idea of ‘Courtly Love’.

Indeed, he never really ventures near Olivia until the end of the play and even then argues with her almost instantly, obviously finding her difficult to get on with. He is also violently, almost irrationally, shocked and angry at the prospect of Cesario (Viola) being taken away from him by Olivia. Whether this is interpreted as inspired by jealousy and anger at Cesario, or perhaps concealed shock that he is leaving him, is up to the reader. Moreover, once their apparent marriage comes out, he is really very abusive of Olivia, the woman he is meant to be madly in love with.

Crucially, for most of the play, he surrounds himself with men, including the almost constant company of his servant Cesario – whom he believes to be a man. Interestingly, even after he learns the truth he still insists on calling her ‘boy. ‘ The play certainly contains some ambiguity about Orsino’s sexuality. Another narcissistic quality of Orsino’s is his wildly dramatising his ‘love’ for Olivia, in that he idles around his court moaning of his passion to himself. He seems more interested in the passion and ‘purity’ of his own alleged love, rather than the actual object his love is directed at.

In my opinion, Orsino is clearly self-obsessed. To continue with Ovid’s story, a young man named Aimeinias falls deeply in love with Narcissus – but is turned away. Aimeinias then kills himself on Narcissus’ doorstep, praying to Nemesis that one day Narcissus too would know the pain of unrequited love. Later, this prayer is fulfilled when Narcissus becomes entranced with his reflection in the pool, and attempts to seduce himself without realising it is him. Unable to do so, drowned in confusion and sorrow, Narcissus transfixes himself with his sword, completing the symmetry of the tale.

Now, it is possible that at this stage in the play Viola, unable to make Orsino see her for what she really is and how she feels, might be putting herself in Aimeinias’ place – that of one experiencing tragically unrequited love, although she is far too pragmatic to actually kill herself. However, in using this possible reference to Narcissus in her thoughtful soliloquy she is worrying about the future, and what could happen to Orsino if he is not turned from his current, self-obsessed mindset.

She worries that he will destroy himself, never understanding who he really is. In any case, falling in love with oneself to the extent of committing suicide could definitely be described as a ‘tainting of the wit’ of the highest order. Aside form connections with Ovid’s Metamorphoses another, more contextual, way to look at the extract with regard to a possible example of a ‘wise man, folly fall’n’ at that time – Rupert Devereux, Earl Of Essex, and a long-time favourite of Queen Elizabeth.

He was a military hero but, following a poor campaign against Irish Rebels during the Nine Years War, he defied the Queen and was executed for treason in February 1601 – around the time that Shakespeare was writing Twelfth Night. This also ties in with another possible meaning of ‘the haggard, [checking] at every feather. ‘ This could have vaguely alluded to the ailing Queen and her changing selection of favourites, many of whom did her country no good at all. Members of the audience at that time, particularly those directly associated with Her Majesty’s Court, may well have picked up on this.

In fact, most of the passage could be looked at as excellent general advice for doing well in court intrigues – this may also have been of note to courtiers attending Queen Elizabeth when she viewed the play. Incidentally, this important line is clearly stressed and broken up with particular emphasis on ‘folly-fall’n’ to make the words, and their range of meanings, particularly noticeable. This is achieved with the consonance of the letter ‘f’ causing the phrase to stand out.

Moreover, this alliteration, combined with the clear iambic pentameter of the lines and the rhyme of ‘fit’ and ‘wit’ is used by Shakespeare to round off the lines of blank verse in a natural, poetic, way – a technique he often uses to end formal speeches by lead characters. Furthermore, the end phrases are linked clearly – with the wise/fool motif – back to the beginning and the play on ‘He is not wise who cannot play the fool. ‘ Incidentally – in my opinion – this statement in itself, if extracted from its connotations in the top line, could very neatly sum up the point in Viola’s entire soliloquy.

Finally, as I mentioned above, not only do these last lines link the passage back on itself, they link it with the rest of the play – through the play’s two most important themes – love and madness. These two powerful ideas are reflected on throughout most of the play, including much of Act 3 Scene 1 – although not so much my chosen passage, except the last line. If it is read with these in mind ‘folly fall’n’ can easily be read as ‘in love’ and if this is the case, instead of explaining how foolish ‘wise men’ are, it instead states that any normally rational person, when in love ‘quite taint their wit. This idea is demonstrated by several of the main characters throughout the play, Orsino being the most obvious example – although he is complex because he could either be interpreted as madly in love with Olivia, or if you take the narcissistic view, with himself. However, in my opinion, it could certainly be said that every major character – excepting Feste, who appears to be exempt from the tragic trials of the rest of the world and instead seems to act as some short of catalyst to bring the other characters together in the ‘correct’ pairings – loses their wits to some extent because of love.

However, this idea – of love causing madness – does seem to strongly contrast with the entire play, if thought about with its status as a Comedy in mind. At the heart of many ‘traditional’ Comedies, abiding by the Greek rules for the genre, the story will revolve around the correction of certain problems – areas where there is something deeply wrong with the world (these are many and varied in Twelfth Night, but are largely based around the separation of Viola and Sebastian) through music, mirth and marriage. Each of these three mediums is both important and relevant to the play, which contains resonances of all.

Mirth, for example, is used by Shakespeare in many of his plays – both to end them satisfactorily, through the conventions of a Comedy and simply to provide his audience with amusement. In Twelfth Night both of these are evident. The sub-plot involving the entrapment and public humiliation of Malvolio is made up of inherently amusing characters, and is full of puns and other amusing lines – often deliberately sexual. Presumably this was meant to appeal particularly to the lower classes, whilst the comparatively more highbrow drama was assumed to be to the tastes of the noblemen.

However, in my opinion the sub-plot probably provided much light relief and enjoyment, complete with its bawdy jokes, to all. Moreover, the sub-plot also provides us with the rather cruel, but supposedly comic, ending involving Malvolio’s departure – ending the play with ‘mirth’. (Incidentally, this also functions as an attack on Puritanism. Puritans consistently tried to close the theatres, as they were ‘immoral,’ and as such were a popular target for ridicule in plays. Malvolio is described as a ‘kind of Puritan’ and as such ends the play in disgrace – shamed, and leaving the house. Finally, in the actual production of the play, the audience would almost certainly have found the cross-dressing amusing, something Shakespeare must have intended as all actors at that time were male. So, the actor playing the character of Viola would have been a man, dressed up as a woman, dressed up as a man – a very confusing circumstance that almost anyone should find funny! It would also have fit very nicely with the original role-changing traditions of the festival of Twelfth Night.

Secondly, music is particularly evident in the play, which contains two songs actually written in the script – and other references to music being played – which could easily have been introduced in for an actual production of the play, and probably were. Twelfth Night is definitely one of Shakespeare’s more musical plays. Music, in a comedy, is important in itself as a symbol of harmony – but furthermore it is often interpreted as referring to the Ancient Greek idea of ‘Music Of The Spheres. This is supposed to be the original music, originating from the proportions and movements of all celestial bodies – at the time thought to be revolving around the earth. Of this, all earthly music is supposedly a copy, so the theory goes, created since the Fall – after which Adam and Eve could no longer hear this ‘divine,’ perfect harmony. However, in this instance, it is marriage that is especially important. Marriage, as part of a Comedy, not only provides a ‘happy ending’ for the play, but also, along with Music, symbolises social harmony.

As a result, if the end of Viola’s soliloquy is interpreted as an argument that people lose their wits when in love, it could well be seen as a sharp contrast to the Comedic idea that marriage will sort out people’s problems, make everything right and keep everyone in their right minds. Importantly, this basic idea – and the importance of ‘social harmony’ – would probably have been very easy to relate to for the Elizabethans that Shakespeare’s plays would have been performed to, and indeed to most of Europe.

All in all, the late 16th, early 17th Centuries were not times that could be easily described as rich in social harmony, or much harmony at all really. Although on the surface it has been described as a ‘golden age’ – a time that ushered in a new era, breaking away from the past in many ways (for example the new styles of plays written by William Shakespeare); a time filled with exploration and expansion – this can still hardly have been particularly peaceful.

Socially, the growing power of the middle classes, particularly in London, threatened to unbalance the traditions of social hierarchy – a hierarchy created centuries ago, with the evolution of the basic Feudal System. This rise in middle-class mercantile power would have seriously worried established upper classes – perhaps making them unsure of their own security. Another source of worry for the upper classes would have been England’s military security, both internal and external.

Critically, at that time England had a major rival in Spain. The two countries had conflicted often both in Europe and the Americas – the Anglo-Spanish war (1585 – 1604. ) Particularly notable was the Armada, famously defeated in 1588, although less well known is the English retaliation – the disastrously unsuccessful Drake-Norris expedition of 1589. After these Spain provided much support for the Irish Catholics in a draining guerrilla war against England, mentioned earlier with regard to Rupert Devereux.

This, combined with a series of lost skirmishes with Spanish land and naval forces was very damaging both to the English Exchequer and to the economy, so carefully restored under Elizabeth’s prudent guidance after the Wars Of The Roses – another bad memory hanging over the English people. When Twelfth Night was first shown the civil war may have been particularly prominent in the minds of many people, as no-one wanted to repeat it and yet Elizabeth seemed to be becoming more and more infirm (she would die in 1603, the year after Twelfth Night was first performed) and she had no heir.

Consequentially, throughout this ‘Golden Age,’ English society may well have actually been very tense and worried. Even the expression of the great new ideals and style of living in ‘Merry England’ is possibly being mocked by the play. This expression included the evolution of new music and literature, architecture and adventurous seafaring. So, for example, Orsino’s mis-use of very old, classical literature in his language and declarations of love seems at odds with the wave of new writing sweeping the country from authors like Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Edmund Spenser, not to mention Shakespeare himself.

Finally, the exitement and romance of ‘adventurous seafaring’ is really very black humour when looked at with Twelfth Night, a play from which the entire plot origianates from a shipwreck. However, it would certainly be a very topical way to involve the audience, as many may have been involved in such seafaring, or at least interested by it, and opening his play with a shipwreck, Shakespeare may well have interested and excited his audience from the start.

Indeed, London was – and still is to some extent – a very great trading post. Finally there is the idea of Twelfth Night itself. A very popular holiday, Twelfth Night, in Elizabethan England, marked the end of the winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve. It was a time of festivities and merrymaking – indeed, Shakespeare’s play was written to be part of Twelfth Night entertainment and was first performed in Middle Temple Hall, London 1602 as the culmination of the evenings revelry.

The play itself draws heavily from Twelfth Night ideas, not least the name. Crucially, the theme of confusion and back-to-front-ness (for on Twelfth Night a King, or Lord Of Misrule – usually a servant – is elected to lead the festivities) is echoed strongly throughout the Comedy, through ideas like Viola spending much of the play as a man, or Malvolio believing he could wed Olivia and become a nobleman. Even in my chosen passage the idea is reflected, through the theme and repetitive comparison of fools – and wise men.

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Shakespeares 'Twelfth Night'. (2017, Oct 29). Retrieved from

Shakespeares 'Twelfth Night'
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