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Twelfth Night: Enduring the Test of Time

Updated on September 19, 2012

What makes a work timeless? Is it the diction, syntax, or rhythm? Certainly it must be the rhyme of poetry that gets us every time. While these may be key elements to what we love about a play or a poem, what keeps it around for hundreds of years is the story itself; the plot. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare offers us an incredible plot filled with many different themes of love, disguise, comedy, and intrigue. While there may be certain themes that are hard to relate to in today’s society such as the social hierarchy of the renaissance time period, the overall story line is quite relevant to the twenty-first century college reader.

The play begins with Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, declaring is Patrarchan nature of love-sickness saying, "If music be the food of love, play on, / Give me excess of it, surfeiting / The appetite may sicken and die, / That strain again, it had a dying fall" (I.i.1-4). Orsino longed for Shakespeare’s idea of courtly (romantic) love. While we've already seen depictions of courtly love recur as a dominant theme in much of the literature, in Shakespeare's time, ideas about love were changing. Orsino dedicates himself to obtaining Olivia, something that can never be his, which reveals his view of himself as a courtly lover. He views his painful dedication as a sign of his deep love for her. In today’s society, Orsino may compare to a love-sick adolescent with his exaggerated characterization. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Shakespeare seems to portray Viola’s unrequited love for Orsino as more mature, selfless love, whereas Orsino focuses more on himself and his own feelings. Other forms of love Shakespeare incorporates into the play are brotherly, familial, and self-love. Sebastian and Antonio represent the brotherly love, however, modern audiences cannot help but interpret their relationship as possibly homosexual. With homosexuality being so accepted in today’s culture it is easier for us to assume that was the way Antonio loved Sebastian. Familial and self-love are also easily relatable in any time period, as we all either have or desire strong bonds with siblings such as Olivia and Sebastian have, and to an extent we all have vanity in some form or another. Some more than others, in Malvolio’s case as his self-love causes him to make a feel out of himself, which results in somewhat tragic consequences. Finally, Shakespeare ties this all together by taking a more serious topic of the “madness of love” and expressing it comically to emphasize the universality (and timelessness) of this behavior. We see how each kind of love causes them to lose control in some form or another, an emotional condition other authors have been dissecting for ages. This theme of insanity brought on by love is still a prominent theme in films and novels today because it is something that plagues so many. Fortunately, instead of presenting this with its real weight, Shakespeare lightens it up with comedic relief.

Shakespeare was a master of making the audience laugh. Characters like Feste, the “court jester,” keep our spirits up with their humor and wit. Most noble households kept a clown, or a "fool," for entertainment. Feste is an example of a "wise" fool who was employed and admired for his intelligence and wit. Viola remarks this by saying "This fellow's wise enough to play the fool"(III.i.61). In one example he proves Olivia to be a true fool by asking her what she was mourning about. Feste was trying to get her to consider why she was mourning for a person whose soul is in heaven.

CLOWN Good madonna, why mourn'st thou?

OLIVIA Good Fool, for my brother's death.

CLOWN I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

OLIVIA I know his soul is in heaven, fool.

CLOWN The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's soul, being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen” (I.v.61-67).

Shakespeare reveals that these "fools" had a special place in their employers' household, and were given more license to speak freely than other people. A couple things that came to my mind when thinking of modern day "fools" were stand-up comedians, the TV show "Jack Ass," and "America's Funniest Home Videos." Basically, they get paid to do stupid things. We laugh as they humiliate and hurt themselves. Stand-up comedians are a bit different in that, like Feste, more intelligence is required and their attention to detail in bringing out the humor in the every-day life we can all relate to. While we don't employ these people to actually live in our homes, sometimes we watch them so often on our televisions that it seems like they do live with us. People take their lives much too seriously these days and comedic relief is necessary. I think watching other people act like "fools" takes our minds off of our own troubles and folly.

Of all of this evidence that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is relevant even in today’s society, the icing on the cake is the movie “She’s the Man.” Even film writers saw this play as incredibly relatable and translated it into a modern day film. They kept all of the character’s names and the story line was the same, however, it was college students attending the college Illyria. Viola had to disguise herself has a man so she could play on their all-boys soccer team and the same intense love triangle is formed with Orsino, Viola, and Olivia.

While, as readers, we love a good written work for its technicality, what makes it truly resound in our spirits is a story we can relate to. And isn’t that something we all desire in life, to know that we’re not in this alone? Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare offers a timeless story driven by themes of love, disguise, comedy, and intrigue. This plot is what has kept it around for hundreds of years. While certain themes aren’t quite as easy to relate to in today’s society, the overall story has kept readers intrigued for hundreds of years and this is only the beginning.


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