An Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Comic Tools

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: HOW TO READ AND UNDERSTAND SHAKESPEARE

By Marc Connor, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

Shakespeare has provided the world with useful tools in his plays, which are meant to tell their own story within a play, enriching us with the lessons they teach. Let us explore the key tools here.

An artist poses as Shakespeare with a feather pen in hand and a thoughtful expression
William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy that conveys a strong message about love. (Image: iofoto /Shutterstock)

The Boundary-Crossing Figure in Shakespeare’s Plays

The key role in the play is of Viola, who represented a very important figure in a Shakespeare play: the boundary-crossing figure, which is a key tool used to understand Shakespeare plays.

Viola could speak with everyone, move from the Duke’s palace to Olivia’s house. Her role was to teach the other characters, who they were, or what they really wanted. In Twelfth Night, each character was in a state of excess of self-love, mourning, vanity, and mirth, and Viola’s role was to bring each character into a state of self-knowledge and harmony.

Olivia, one of the characters in Twelfth Night
Olivia was in love with Viola in disguise, thinking she was a man. (Image: Edmund Leighton (artist), Sampson Low, Marston & Co. (publisher)/CC BY-SA)

This was particularly true in her relation with Orsino and Olivia. Viola had already fallen in love with Orsino, who was strangely dependent on this unknown young ‘man,’ as he considered Viola.

There was something about Viola that helped Orsino trust her completely with his ‘secret soul,’ which Orsino thought was his astonishing love for Olivia, but it was assumed that his actual love was for the person beneath the costume—Viola herself. This was one of the curious effects of the cross-dressing dynamic that was seen in the mature comedies.

Learn more about the role of appearance versus reality in Twelfth Night.

Shakespeare’s Use of the Cross-dressing Tool

As in As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night too had the heroine dressed as a man, which was central to the play’s plot.

What was the motivation for this? What did the women gain by cross-dressing? Often the disguised woman became privy to secret confidences, could bring out a person’s inner desires. In Twelfth Night, Viola was the confidante that Orsino needed and could not find elsewhere, just as she became the beloved that Olivia needed.

Viola agreed to woo Olivia on Orsino’s behalf, though, confessing to herself at the end of their first scene together, that she would far rather be the woman Orsino wooed than to woo another for him. The exchange between the two women was one of Shakespeare’s most compelling scenes.

Scene from the play Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy, with elements of dream and inner reality. (Image: Francis Wheatley/Public domain)

Malvolio announced to Olivia that yet another of Orsino’s messengers was at the door, but he was unable to describe Viola, saying:

“Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy: as a squash is before ‘tis a peascod, or a codling when ‘tis almost an apple. ‘Tis with him in standing water, between boy and man.”

It was as if there was a malleable quality to Viola in her disguise as Cesario, she was able to be what people most needed her to be, or, in Olivia’s case, what they most desired her to be. When she met Olivia, she followed the same stereotypical wooing but quickly abandoned that. Instead, Viola became improvisatory, adapting her approach to match Olivia’s response. She asked if Olivia was indeed the lady of the house, and when Olivia said jokingly, “If I do not usurp myself, I am,” Viola responded, “Most certain, if you are she, you do usurp yourself.”

Learn more about how to read and understand Shakespeare.

Cutting Through Appearances: A Key Element of Shakespeare’s Plays

Viola understood that just as Orsino was somehow untrue to his real self, Olivia too had betrayed her true spirit by wallowing in excessive show of mourning. Olivia was wise enough to see through the false love of Orsino, she knew she wanted an authentic love for herself, but didn’t yet see how it would be possible.

Viola too understood the duplicity of the scene, she said to Olivia early on, “I am not that I play” and then she cut to the heart of the matter by saying to Olivia, “let me see your face.” Here it was, the tool of appearance versus reality.

That was an essential part of a Shakespeare play, where the characters would cut through appearance to get at the reality. When Viola asked to see Olivia’s face, she did not just want the lady to drop her veil and show what she looked like; but meant to cut through the pretense and masquerade to reveal themselves for what they truly were. Only by this means, the play suggested, if healing and self-understanding and, ultimately, love could be achieved?

Learn more about the comic tools used in Twelfth Night.

Attraction For a Disguise: A Recurring Theme in Shakespeare’s Plays

Olivia was intrigued by Viola, and mistook that for an attraction to ‘him’ in Viola’s guise as Cesario. Viola knew that would be a mistake, she later said, “fortune forbid my outside have not charm’d her”— because she knew Olivia would fall in love with another illusion, more appearance only.

Olivia opened up to the possibilities of love that she had closed down when her father and her brother died, the trauma of those deaths had convinced her not to risk the pain of loss that was the flip side of love. Viola saw into Olivia’s inner self and knew that love was her fate; so Viola’s job was to cure Olivia of her grief and enable her to experience love once more.

Character Layers vs. Reality at Work in the Twelfth Night

Viola said to Olivia that if she were the one who loved Olivia she would not understand that lady’s denials. So Olivia, intrigued, asks Viola what she would do if she were the actual one wooing her. Viola’s responded:

Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house; Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night; Halloo your name to the reverberate hills And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out “Olivia!” O, You should not rest Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me!

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Viola’s Simple Expression of Love

The response from Viola was an expression of love that was simple, heartfelt, unadorned, and passionate. It was one of the most moving expressions of love in all of literature, which ironically, wasn’t meant for Olivia.

There were complex layers of appearance and reality at work in this play. Viola’s expression of love was quite real, but not directed toward Olivia, and Olivia’s response to it was that she was visibly moved and misdirected at a male version of Viola, but when that male version later appeared in the figure of Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother, she found its true object to be fulfilled.

Common Questions About Shakespeare’s Comic Tools

Q: What is the main message of Twelfth Night?

The main message of Twelfth Night is that love can be found despite the pain one goes through or the challenges it may throw on those in love but at the end, people in love win.

Q: Why is Viola important in Twelfth Night?

Viola’s character in Twelfth Night is bold to cross-dress as a man who could move anywhere, talk to anyone. Her role taught the other characters who they really were and what they wanted.

Q: Why does Viola dress up as Cesario in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night?

Viola dressed up as Cesario in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to gain entry in Orsino’s household and become his confidante, that Orsino could not find elsewhere, besides bringing out his inner desires.

Q: Why does Olivia like Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night?

Olivia likes Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night for her fearless nature who can speak about anything with ease. She is able to bring out a character into a state of self-knowledge and harmony.

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