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Exploring Comedy in the Last Act of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

In: English and Literature

Submitted By AdisSehic
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The last act of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is where the play brings all the subplots together and the play comes to a “resolution”, a typical convention in Shakespearian comedies usually signified by a wedding, in this case there are two marriages, one between Viola and Orsino and one between Olivia and Sebastien.
One of the comedic aspects of the final act of the play is the ever present theme of false appearances and how that creates confusion and ambiguity amongst the characters but the audience as well. In the last scene, it is used by Shakespeare to bring the characters the together and it is very ironic that the source of confusion in the first place is the very thing that ends the confusion in the play. The false appearance of Cesario causes confusion once again as it introduces the theme of homosexuality in the final scene. Viola expresses her love for Orsino through Cesario saying that “more by all mores than e’er I shall love wife” despite the fact that no one knows that Cesario is in fact a women. The fact that Orsino does not deny this love, shows that he has similar feelings, especially because he says that he Cesario is someone that he tenders “dearly”. This is comedic because it shows the reversal of feelings that Orsino has in a very short space of time. Throughout the play he has been infatuated with the concept of a relationship with Olivia, yet now that he is rejected yet again, he turns to his more homosexual side and accepts Cesario’s love for him. This relates to Morreall’s concept of complexity and the sudden switch form heterosexual to homosexual love is comedic, due to its quick and somewhat impulsive nature. An alternative interpretation is that this could be seen as being more sad than funny, this is because this part of the play represents the failure of Orsino’s advances towards Olivia, and now he wants to take Cesario away from Olivia as a sign of revenge. However, this homosexuality is not presented as being unusual or scandalous, the characters don’t dwell on the issue too much. This means that when Orsino proposes to Viola, it is much more natural because he has already given up on Olivia and there are no hindrances to their marriage. To conclude, the final act is comedic because the use of false appearance influences Orsino’s newly found homosexual feelings and it exposes his sporadic and fickle attitude towards love.
Furthermore, another comedic aspect of the final act of Twelfth Night is the conclusion to the gulling of Malvolio and the way in which in unfolds. Malvolio is confused and pleads with Olivia to explain why she has made him do all the things he has done, despite the fact that it is not Olivia who wrote the letter. He asks “Why have you suffered me to be imprisoned, kept in a dark house, visited by the priest and made the most notorious geck and gull that e’er invention played on?” This is comedic because Malvolio is talking to Olivia as if she is well informed about what he has had to go through. This would have been especially funny when acted on stage, because Olivia would be quizzical about what Malvolio is talking about, and since the fact that the audience are more informed about what has really gone on, the unravelling of the truth in Malvolio’s gulling would be presented as being one of the most comedic moments in the entire play. Shakespeare would have done this to create a sense of surrounding embarrassment towards the character of Malvolio, the audience would be laughing and characters on stage would be directing their laughs towards Malvolio as well, which is meant to summarise the mocking of Malvolio’s Puritan character and beliefs. Shakespeare would have wanted this to be a key plot in the play, which it is, because Puritan’s were opposed to any aspect of fun, which included theatre and therefore, Shakespeare expresses his opposition to them through the gulling of Malvolio. This relates to Morreall’s concept of critical thinking, and how Shakespeare mocks the only Puritan character in the play, in doing so questioning its place in society. In conclusion, the gulling of Malvolio is comedic because most characters and the audience are better informed than Malvolio with regards to his gulling, and his realisation that he has been gulled is comedic because of his reaction which would have been one of anger; he ends by saying “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” which seems like an empty threat.
Finally, a comedic aspect of Twelfth Night is Andrew and Toby's dramatic entry, the comic subplot of the servants returns, adding to the bewilderment about Cesario's identity. The Viola/Cesario disguise resides at the centre of nearly all of the chaos in Twelfth Night. This dramatic entrance of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew is very funny because of its spontaneity and its contribution to the unravelling of the truth with regards to Viola’s true identity. Sir Andrew defends the beating they have both taken saying that Sir Toby” if he had not been in drink, he would have tickled othergates than he did” suggesting that Sir Toby would have caused a lot of damage to Cesario had he been sober. This desperate attempt to salvage any remaining pride is funny because they are making excuses for their humiliating failure in defeat despite their perceptions of their own ability being high. It is also funny because when Sir Andrew offers to help Sir Toby, Toby replies saying “ an asshead, and a coxcomb and a knave – a thin faced knave, a gull”. This is particularly comedic because they should unite in protest against the attack they have just received from who they thought was Cesario whereas instead they come to blows with each other. This relates to John Morreall’s idea of body, where suffering is used in comedy for slapstick, which is exactly what Shakespeare does here with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. To put this in context, the desperate attempt to salvage any pride is understandable because to lose a duel with anyone at the time the play was set was very humiliating, especially if the person you have just lost to was outnumbered. Therefore, the making of excuses is seen as quite normal but the desperation that is presented by it is what the audience find funny.
In conclusion, the last act of Twelfth Night is meant to bring the play to a conclusion, bringing the subplots together and unravelling the truth and putting an end to the confusion that has been rife throughout the whole play. However, in doing so it is arguably the most comedic act of the play because the audience are more informed than most of the characters and therefore they find it funny to see the reactions of the characters as they start to realise what is going on as well.

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