Twelfth Night is not one of my favorite plays. I guess it just doesn’t really catch my interest, and I think that it has very dark undercurrents for a comedy. I cannot reconcile what Maria and her companions, especially Feste end up doing to Malvolio.
While in the Shakespeare for Teachers course, I read through Rex Gibson’s Teaching Shakespeare, by Cambridge University Press. It has many helpful tips to understanding and teaching Shakespeare’s works, but one that I found especially helpful was his separation of what he calls the “Four Common Themes” of Shakespeare: conflict, appearance and reality, order and disorder, and change. These can be applied to almost any Shakespeare play, but I found them to be quite relevant to this one.
In Twelfth Night, the main conflict is between Malvolio and the servants/Sir Toby/Sir Andrew/ and company. This conflict is between seriousness and fun, and some see it as between good and evil. For my part, I have a hard time believing Sir Toby to be a likeable character (he seems to be just as full of himself as Malvolio is), so I cannot see him representing “good” (is fun always “good?”), and although Malvolio certainly has his faults, I cannot see him as a villain. There is also conflict between Orsino’s will and Olivia’s will.
Appearance versus reality is one of the central concerns of the play. Most of the play’s conflict does seem to come from this theme, actually. There is the appearance of love (Orsino’s constant complaints, outward shows of love, etc.) vs. its reality (Orsino ends up loving Viola instead of Olivia, and Viola proves that loveinvolves more than its appearance?), Viola’s outward appearance as a man vs. her true identity, Malvolio’s act as his appearance contrasts sharply with reality of Olivia’s sorrow, Sir Andrew’s appearance of being a knight, but in reality being only a wealthy fop who bought the title, and Malvolio’s appearance of insanity vs. his true saneness.
Order and disorder is also present. The order of the court is upset by the twins’ arrival – Viola’s disguise matching Sebastian causes much confusion and disorder, Malvolio’s attempt to order the lives of Sir Toby and his companions and their overthrow of him and resulting disorder.
Change is also a prominent theme of the play. Viola’s change is perhaps most apparent, her initial change into the appearance of a young man, then her reversal back to her old self. But Orsino’s change is also prominent. He appears to love Olivia very passionately at the play’s opening, but his heart changes, and he becomes enamored with Viola. Olivia also changes, and loves Sebastian rather than Cesario. Malvolio also changes from his drab Puritan garb into the gay costume that he believes Olivia will like. However, one character who contrasts all these changing ones, a character remaining constant, is Antonio. He never abandons Sebastian, even when Viola (whom he mistakes for Sebastian) spurns him and denies ever knowing him.