As a comedy, Shakespeares Twelfth Night, is not only meant to entertain its audience but also bring attention to problems in society. One must let go of several realistic concepts before they can truly understand Shakespeares intentions. The audience must suspend their logic to believe that so many coincidental situations could occur. They are taken far away to a romantic land, where no penalties or consequences exist for practical jokes and constant drunkenness. It is this incongruity compared with our, everyday mundane lives that provides for the humor in this play.
Humor is used to point out social concerns, such as balance in ones life, and the not to judge based solely on appearance; however, the humor is not blunt, but brought out by puns and subtitles and is meant not to take away from the greater themes and morals of the play. Shakespeare has carefully intertwined comedy and pain in both the main and the subplots to highlight the comical situations of irony and coincidence and explore the social themes. A balance in ones life is based around self awareness: something achieved through being well balanced rather being excessive.
This theme is developed from the opening were Orsino proclaims his love for Olivia, If music be the food of love, play on. / Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,/ the appetite may sicken and die (I. i. 1-3). The idea that Orsino is in love with the idea of love, rather than the actual person is prevalent here. He cares more for the association with something as intangible as love, rather the person and the emotions that go along with love. Olivia is also a person of excess, mourning her brothers alleged death for seven years, an action which appears more for her sake rather than in actual despair of a loss such as death.
The element itself till seven years heat,/ Shall not behold her face at ample view (I. ii. 28-29). The audience also sees an excess in Sir Tobys character with his drinking. This concern is brought through Maria, hes drunk nightly/ in your company (I. iii. 36-37). Malvolio is really the big joke of play, or rather who the big joke is played on. The other characters are able to pull off such a prank because of Malvolios excess of self pride and self image. He has too much pride to participate in the fun with Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria at one of the late drinking parties.
In fact he openly scolds them, taking pride in his matureness and being respectful of Olivia, My masters, are you madIs there no respect of/ place, person, nor time in you (II. iii. 87,92-93), this however does not help out his chances with her. The audience also sees that he regards himself very highly by his reaction to Olivias forged note, She did commend my yellow stockings of late, she/ did praise my leg being cross-gartered, and in this/ she manifests herself to my love (II. v. 170-172).
Through comedy, both verbal and physical, Shakespeare is trying to point the need for balance in ones life by giving examples of who and what not to be. Another major theme in the play is not to judge solely on appearance. The first instance of this is when Viola disguises her identity as woman to appear as a man, named Cesario. With here disguise, she makes Olivia, the object of her masters love fall in love with her, I am a gentleman. Ill be sworn thou art. / Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions, and spirit/ Do give thee fivefold blazon (I. v. 296-298).
Also, she falls in love with her master, Orsino, but cannot act on it because their culture did not permit homosexual relationships (it is also questionable whether or not Orsino wouldve participated in such a relationship has then been allowed). Olivia was only in love with the appearance of her man. This is evident when she discovers that Viola is a woman, but conveniently her brother (who she was disguised as) shows up to reep the benefits of the previous interactions between them. Viola and Orsinos love is not as superficial as Sebastian and Olivias love.
Once the societal barricade of homosexuality is relieved by the unmasking of Viola, they can truly bask in each others love. This theme of disguise raises questions about illusions, whether they be self-inflicted or not, and the characters willingness to be blinded by the love or by the idea of love. Shakespeare uses comedy to bring out his concerns about society and how it acts towards one another. The first theme is the theme of excess. In almost every character, we see some type of excess throwing that character out of balance.
This unbalance effects how effectively the character can act to towards other characters and how he/she views him/herself. The second theme is how society should not judge based solely on appearance. This theme is echoed very vividly through Viola assuming another identity of a man. She fools everyone with her boyish looks and Olivia even falls in love with her, refusing to believe that she is anything but a man. Shakespeare is trying to evoke from the audience to be fooled by such superficial things as looks, but to gaze deeper into a person and see who they truly are.