Lancaster Writing Awards 2021
2nd Place: Criticism Lidia Goonatilaka - "How does Shakespeare create comedy in Act 3, Scene 1 of Twelfth Night?"
How does Shakespeare create comedy in Act 3, Scene 1 of Twelfth Night?
In Act 3, Scene 1 (an integral scene to the prominent theme of appearance versus reality), Shakespeare draws on several modes of comedy. Skilfully, Shakespeare crafts a scene rife with epigrammatic lines and witticisms and draws upon melodrama (communicated through fanatical Olivia). Interestingly, it is both a play of and ahead of its time. The utilisation of the traditional formula of a comedic play is present, yet Shakespeare mocks Elizabethan courtly love conventions and the theme of gender confusion is predominant— pitting appearance and reality against each other, ultimately crafting hyperbolic comic confusion.
Shakespeare maintains the jovial atmosphere of the previous scene into the conversation between Viola and Feste. They trade witticisms and play with the meanings of words to comic effect: “art thou a churchman?”. Viola’s immediate misconception of Feste’s identity emphasises the stark disparity between appearance and reality. This humorous mistake mocks Elizabethan society who prove to be easily deceived, highlighting its follies. Harmoniously, this brief moment also ties into the theme of confusion and foreshadows at the further tangling of the complex plot: a prominent characteristic of a comedy of errors.
Feste and Viola continue to engage in rapid repartee and Feste’s clever wordplay continues to reinforce the theme of appearance versus reality: “my sister had had no name, sir… her name’s a word, and to dally with that word might make my sister wanton”. He both reinforces the bawdy nature of Sir Toby and Andrew’s revelry in the previous scene and hints at Viola’s façade, mocking and expressing the meaninglessness of names which one would consider important to one’s identity. This notion of meaninglessness is demonstrated through the simple switching of gender by altering something as simple as a name (Viola to Cesario), ultimately ridiculing and highlighting the absurdity of Viola’s façade. Furthermore, this proves to be reminiscent of Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia in Hamlet, whose cruelty partly destroys her identity. Here, the utilisation of wit and dramatic irony build suspense around Viola’s identity and reality. Feste's mockery of Olivia and Orsino (“but the fool should be as oft with your master as with my mistress”), is structured cleverly to succeed after the mocking of Malvolio: comically demonstrating the two ‘nobles’ are not any less ridiculous than Malvolio is. This proves to the audience that the title of a ‘noble’ does not coincide with reality, thus extending Feste’s witty existential questioning of words.
As their conversation draws to a close, Feste comically exclaims, “send thee a beard!”, putting into question Viola’s masculinity through symbolism. The vivid imagery crafted by the symbol of a beard strongly juxtaposes Viola’s rather apparent femininity (as proclaimed by Orsino’s ironic blazon in Act 1). Comedy is extended through Viola’s synecdoche: “I would not have it grow on my chin. Is thy lady within?”. This cleverly placed rhyming couplet reinforces dramatic irony and serves as a reminder of Viola’s genuine identity, also acting as a testament to her intellect. The use of double entendre (“I am almost sick for one”) draws parallels to the love-sick melancholy of Orsino, where love is equated to literal sickness (as portrayed through his languid temperament and meditative tone, particularly in Act 1, Scene 1). This suggests to the audience that, in reality, Viola may not be so different from Orsino, hinting at their union at the end of the play. Ingeniously, the polysemy of the phrase consolidates her love for Orsino and desire to have a disguise. Viola’s display of impressive wit and ability to follow the rapid repartee of Feste starkly dismisses the ‘damsel in distress’ archetype: she jokes in a light-hearted manner and demonstrates independence. This subversion of the archetype rejects the patriarchal norms of Elizabethan society and echoes Sebastian’s words— she is a woman of intellect. Consequently, Viola serves as the embodiment of a reversal of gender roles, undermining male hegemony. This reversal of gender roles also operates as a comedic element: an Elizabethan audience would find humour in such qualities exhibited in a female and the confusion instigated by the deception of reality.
Shakespeare interweaves numerous plots by introducing Viola to Sir Toby and Sir Andrew: further complicating the play and injecting momentary low comedy. Comedy is accentuated by the introduction of the play’s bacchanalian figures into this scene. Immediately, Sir Andrew attempts to craft a good impression (“dieu vous garde, monsieur”), yet his attempt is futile. He then appears to be disconcerted by Viola’s rapid retort. Essentially, this comical figure embodies and satirises the follies and vices of Elizabethan society. This is displayed through his faux pas and stupidity— subverting the Elizabethan expectations of a man of a higher class, which one would expect to be well-mannered and educated, thus, echoing the words of Feste (where Sir Andrew’s title means nothing to reality). Additionally, on stage, another layer of comedy possibly would have been added through Viola’s impressive response. Possibly, her French would have been elocuted far better, emphasising his stupidity and unintellectual quality. For an Elizabethan audience, it would prove to be comically absurd that a woman would ‘outsmart’ a man and this subversion of gender expectations are sustained through his admiration of Viola’s eloquent blazon towards Olivia. The audience would notice the crafting of a new plot: Sir Andrew has a rival for Olivia’s affections.
Sir Andrew and Toby’s entrance marks the departure from clever comedy as they indulge in low comedy, proving Feste to be the wise fool trope often seen in Shakespeare’s plays: an intelligent wise guy who uses ironic wordplay and often determines a special relationship with the audience (as mentioned by Viola: “this fellow is wise enough to play the fool”). Ironically, Feste, although a fool, appears to be much wiser than the characters of superior class— satirising Elizabethan aristocratic society. Furthermore, Feste specialises in bathos, undermining formality and pretensions in others and acting as a comic foil, marked by his mastery of language. Feste’s role in this scene emphasises his significance to setting the mood of the play so that his uncontainable mirth of operates to substantiate the play as a comedy.
Shakespeare then converts from a playful tone to a more serious and sincere tone, emphasising the playful comedy in the first portion whilst utilising irony to mock the supposedly mourning and superior character of Olivia. Notably, this is marked by the shift to blank verse from prose. Olivia’s declaration of her love incites cringe-comedy, placing both characters into an uncomfortable predicament (which, on stage, might be enhanced by physical humour and hyperbolised actions). This is reinforced through the notion that she must confess her love to a man who is her social inferior (which would be rather scandalous for an Elizabethan audience) whilst Viola must hear these claims of love whilst maintaining composure, thus crafting an extremity of tension and comedy. From a psychoanalytical perspective, Olivia’s actions could be perceived as the indulgence of the demands of the id, ignoring the ego. Freudian theory can also link into Marxism through its focus on the subconscious— Freud was preoccupied with the individual subconscious whilst Marx was concerned with the collective political subconscious of a culture. The absurdity of such a predicament is extended through the audience’s knowledge that Cesario is a woman (traditionally) played by a man and Olivia too is played by a man. Moreover, we see a reversal of domination, where (contrasting to Act 1, Scene 5), Olivia dominates the conversation. From a feminist viewpoint, she transcends her role as an Elizabethan woman and usurps the role of a man, ignoring cultural, political, and personal standards, where a woman would usually remain passive and leaves the ‘first move’ for the male. Emphasising the disparity between appearance/expectations and reality.
Rhetorical questions formulate a reasonable portion of her impassioned speech. Much like Orsino, she is infatuated, and her passion is emphasised with a hypermetric line. This indicates the extremity of Olivia’s passion: thoughts cannot be confined by regular iambic pentameter. Comedy is also served through Olivia’s dramatic and hyperbolic imperative statement “stay!”. Structurally, the use of a holophrastic sentence expresses a rapid moment of desperation, mirroring Orsino’s lovesick melodramatic state. This echoes Feste’s comment, “but the fool should be as oft with your master as with my mistress”, demonstrating that in reality both characters prove to be rather similar, not far from a fool. Irony is crafted through the similarities between Olivia and Orsino with their changeable temperaments (from “I will not have you" to "stay!"). This pleading question initiates stichomythia, mirroring the earlier conversation with Feste.
Finally, Viola's enigmatic remark reflects the ambiguity that her disguise has generated around her gender identity and hints at her true identity: “none shall be the mistress of it [her heart]”. Likewise, the paradoxical statement “I am not what I am” drives the comedic effect further, mocking gender roles, identity and the notion of appearance as an accurate representation of reality. This brings into question the metaphysical and philosophical, questioning what the ‘self’ is— connecting to the ‘appearance versus reality’ concept.