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Exploring Comedic Themes in Twelfth Night: Gender, Love & Social Advancement

written by: Peter Boysen • edited by: Kellie Hayden • updated: 7/12/2012

Cross dressing, love triangles and innuendo are just some of the elements at play in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Gain a better understanding of the comedic themes at work in the play.

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    You Can Deal With This, or You Can Deal With That: Gender Bending in the Play

    You can't talk about comedy in Twelfth Night without a discussion of the way the characters play games with gender, and the hilarity that results. Viola dresses as a man, but then she falls hard for Orsino. Since Orsino believes she is a man, though, she can't profess her love. Orsino instead loves Olivia, but Olivia doesn't requite his feelings, since she loves Cesario (Viola's male disguise).

    Things aren't quite that simple, of course. There is some homoeroticism at play here, since Orsino compliments Cesario's appearance -- intimating a level of attraction before he finds out who Cesario really is. Antonio's feelings for Sebastian echo this idea, but Antonio isn't as lucky as Orsino, since Sebastian has no disguise to remove.

    All of the hijinks that this series of attractions sets into motion leads to multiple comedic misunderstandings. Every now and then, a situation comedy in our own time (Frasier comes to mind), or a motion picture (Tootsie or Victor/Victoria) deals with similar comedic themes. Even when the play comes to an end, things between Viola and Orsino are not etched in stone, as it were. Orsino continues to call Viola by her male name!

    Further Things to Think About

    Here are some questions to consider that go along with this theme.

    1. What makes this sequence of disguises and misunderstandings funny? Why do we laugh about this?

    Note: This question isn't meant to make you shy away from this theme for fear of offending others in your class. What about human nature makes this humorous? Your answers may vary, but if you and your classmates are honest, you will end up with a brisk, rewarding discussion.

    2. What are some differences in theater production between Shakespeare's time and our own that might make this even funnier?

    It would be good to point out that women weren't permitted to play on the stage, which made for gender-bending chicanery with every production.

    Pop quiz names to know for this theme: Viola/Cesario, Orsino, Olivia, Antonio, and Sebastian

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    Love Bites

    Another crucial theme to consider when looking at comedy in Twelfth Night is the ways that love can make people suffer. Like Shakespeare's other romantic comedies, Twelfth Night ends happily for everyone in marriage (except Antonio and Malvolio). However, the road to this bliss is bumpy for just about all concerned. Olivia refers to love as a "plague" in Act I, Scene v, while Orsino complains about his "appetite" that he cannot sate at the play's opening.

    This idea also appears in some of Shakespeare's other romantic comedies, perhaps most famously in the courtship between Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. In this play, the language has more of an angry undertone -- the desire for love has clearly reached a more primal level for the lovelorn in this story.

    How, you may ask, is this considered comedic? Clearly the language in this play pushes the comedic elements of disappointment in love toward the black, if not the dark. When Orsino threatens to murder Cesario because he believes that Cesario has abandoned him to take up with Olivia, this is comedy at its darkest.

    More to Think About

    Here are some questions to think about as you consider this theme.

    1. Think about a movie you have seen, or a book you have read, in which the characters suffer from disappointed love as the characters do in Twelfth Night. Compare and contrast the circumstances and resolution of the situation in your story with the way things turn out in Shakespeare's play.

    2. At what point does complaining about disappointed love become narcissistic or self-centered? Do any of the characters in this play cross that line? Provide evidence to support your opinion.

    Pop quiz questions about this theme may ask you to match quotations with their characters. Orsino talks of love as an "appetite" and compares his feelings to "hounds." Olivia, as mentioned above, compares love to a "plague."

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    Social Climbers at their Most Ludicrous

    If you have ever seen an episode of the old vaudeville show "The Three Stooges" where Larry, Moe and Curly are bristling inside tuxedoes at a formal dinner, then you have some idea how this theme affects comedy in Twelfth Night. Those three clowns have no business in that social setting, and you can be sure that a cream pie fight is not far off.

    Malvolio comes across as the consummate steward, with his discreet manner, but he quickly shows himself to be a buffoon. He reveals the designs that he has on climbing the social ladder. Maria takes advantage of these designs, writing a letter to Malvolio, pretending to be Olivia, that says she wishes to marry him. The noble characters in the story know about the ruse and can't stop laughing about it. It would have been truly extraordinary for a woman of nobility to marry a man in service.

    While we no longer have these structured levels of society in our own time, this sort of dramatic irony happens every day in middle and high schools, where "losers" have no idea that they are being played by members of the "in" crowd who pretend romantic interest in order to bully them. This is the sort of comedy that makes us uncomfortable to watch -- but not uncomfortable enough to interfere on anyone's behalf.

    More Questions

    1. Why are situations like this funny? What makes us laugh about this sort of humiliation?

    Answers may vary, but discussion might well center on the "I'm glad it's not me" phenomenon.

    2. What does the fact that these sort of situations happened in Shakespeare's day, as in ours, say about human nature in general?

    Answers may vary, but bullying has long prompted this conflicted reaction.

    People who may appear on a pop quiz relating to this theme would be Malvolio, Olivia, Maria, and Sir Toby.

Study Guide for 'Twelfth Night'

Get the most out of Shakespeare's hilarious play with these study guides.
  1. Major Themes in "Twelfth Night"
  2. Exploring Comedic Themes in Twelfth Night: Gender, Love & Social Advancement