Ironically for a Comedy, Suffering and Cruelty Lie at the Heart of the Play, How Far Do You Agree with This View?

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Ironically for a comedy, suffering and cruelty lie at the heart of the play, how far do you agree with this view? Despite the comical premise of Twelfth Night (TN) there is an underlying vein of cruelty and suffering that runs throughout the play. This is often a direct consequence of the humour conveyed through the narrative. Sir Toby Belch’s trick on Malvolio is an example where the letter orders him to wear yellow stockings ‘ever cross-gartered’. A question is raised as to whether Shakespeare intended the play to be solely received as a comedy or whether he intended the tone of cruelty to overpower the comedic aspects.

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I believe that he envisioned the play being received as a balance between the two, with neither aspect protruding more than the other. By opening the play with a dramatic imperative sentence from Orsino, Shakespeare manages to render a detailed image of his melodramatic characteristics, his social position from the use of imperative, as well as suggesting the tone of the play. Orsino demands to Curio and the audience to ‘give me excess of it [love] that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die. ’ This histrionic reaction to anguish can be portrayed hyperbolically and so evoke laughter in the audience: a major aspect of a comedy.

However, it could also be interpreted by the audience in a forlorn manner, setting the audience up for an assumed tragedy by associating the image of love to disease by using ailment lexis, such as ‘sicken’ ‘surfeit’ and die’. This suggests Shakespeare intended Twelfth Night to be interpreted and portrayed to the audience in different ways, with neither comedy nor suffering dictating. In act II scene V however, when Malvolio discovers the letter composed by Sir Toby Belch, Sir Aguecheek, Fabian and Maria posing as Olivia; it is clear that Shakespeare intended the scene to be humorous.

Firstly, Malvolio spells out part of a crude word, “her C’s, her U’s and her T’s”, in reference to Lady Olivia. The use of echo-comedy and sexual innuendo is used here to evoke laughter in the audience. It is ambiguous whether or not Malvolio is ignorant to his pun; it being contrary to his usual puritanical behaviour. The dual nature of this line results in a farcical effect. Similarly, when he follows the letter’s orders to greet Olivia in ‘yellow stockings [… ] ever cross gartered’ it seems unlikely that Shakespeare wanted this scene to be melancholic.

These examples suggest that Shakespeare did not intend for suffering and cruelty to lie at the heart of Twelfth Night even though tragic aspects appear. Conversely these aspects often occur as a result of comedic happenings, suggesting that comedy and cruelty run in correspondence, with neither dominating. As a deplorable consequence of the ‘letter joke’, Malvolio ends up “imprison’d” in a “dark house’” as a result of being made a ‘geck and gull’ of. These adjectives create obscured imagery, distorting a comical scene. Shakespeare is highlighting a satirical message to the audience.

Each taunt played on an antagonist, however amusing, can have a profoundly negative effect on the person and turn of events. This message is also delineated towards the end of Act V. Although characters display little sympathy towards Malvolio before this point, Shakespeare can be seen trying to provoke empathy in the audience. The main example being the ‘confession’ of Fabian and the sympathy expressed by Olivia. By having Fabian address his ‘confession’ directly to his “Good Madam” Olivia in verse, one can assume he has not fully appreciated the wrong he has done. He only addresses his superior and not the victim, Malvolio.

In addition to where he directs his apology, his use of verse, usually adopted by people of a higher social status, creates an air of false superiority making his speech sound arrogant and untrue. This can be seen as humorous as Shakespeare creates black humour through the combination of cruelty and comedy. Furthermore, by using an oxymoron to refer to the joke as ‘sportful malice’, it suggests he still does not understand the consequence of his part played in the joke. This example suggests that suffering and cruelty is an important part of the play as it acts as a catalyst to create a moral and a sub-plot.

The atmosphere at the end of a play affects the audience’s view of the play as a whole. For example, if the last scene is viewed melancholically, the audience may think back through the play’s events with complete despondency. However, in Twelfth Night, the ending of the play is neither particularly positive nor negative which only exacerbates the confusion. Orsino’s quick assumption that Cesario has betrayed him: “I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I love”, enhances the confusing atmosphere. Through the use of religious lexis “sacrifice” and “lamb”, Shakespeare creates a deleterious atmosphere through using the jargon as an insult and threat.

These negative adjectives juxtapose with the use of the positive word “love” creating confusion within in sentence, representing the confusion of the play and concluding scene. The balance between the ending being comic and melancholic is not only dependent on the remorse shown by the people who played the joke on Malvolio, but also on other characters’ attitudes. The sympathy expressed by Olivia to Malvolio through dialogue ‘Alas, poor fool, how have they baffled thee! ‘ could be seen as patronising and insincere by calling the resolutely sensible Malvolio a ‘fool’.

This not only insults his pride but shows how the spirit of the play has upended even the puritanical steward. However, Malvolio’s parting line: ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’ is a rather jarring note in the concluding scene. This anger injects a hint of pathos, realism and impending suffering into the ending, in contrast to the idyllic ending for other characters such as Viola and Olivia. Literary critic Northrop Frye’s theory of ‘Old World, Green World, New World’ can be applied to suggest Shakespeare’s intention of whether suffering and cruelty lies at the heart of Twelfth Night.

Quote. WHAT SORT OF QUOTE?!? Frye’s theory acknowledges a common arc in Shakespearean comedies; there’s usually an ‘Old World’ or existent society: a place of obstructing and blocking characters practicing restrictive rules or laws, preventing protagonists from achieving their goals. Malvolio conveyed ‘sometimes as a kind of Puritan’ and thus an obstructer of fun and so could be seen as working within this model. This is especially prominent in Act II, Scene IV when he scolds Sir Toby and company for having ‘no wit, manners, nor honesty’ as they ‘gabble like tinkers’ late at night.

The ‘Green world’ refers to a dream-like place where magic, chaos and misrule dominates with an undertone of disorientation and fear usually taking place in the form of madness, or what Frye calls ‘confused identity. ‘ This could refer to life in Illyria and the middle of the play where Viola decides to cross dress and become Cesario resulting in comical love confusion. One could assume that the humour of the play comes from the chaos and disorder that occurs in the ‘Green world’.

By placing a majority of Twelfth Night in the Green World it suggests that Shakespeare intended comedy to be a major characteristic of Twelfth Night even though suffering and cruelty are present in the ‘Green World’. The ‘New World’ is usually a reformed version of the ‘Old World’ where love and the young govern and the strife carried over from the ‘Old World’ to the ‘Green World’ is typically reformed. This is apparent in the ending, where identities are revealed and marriages prosper. If viewed in an ‘Old World, Green World, New World context’, the problem of Malvolio is solved.

Although the character is mistreated, the conduct seems less severe if we see Malvolio as a caricature of an unpopular public figure of the 16th century, Sir William Knollys; the controller of Her Majesty’s Household. The position of such figures always makes them vulnerable to satire, and it is his official duty to take it in good sport. This could mean that Shakespeare’s inclusion of Malvolio suffering as the result of a joke, was not to create a vein of cruelty in the play but instead to enhance the comedic aspects through ridicule and satire, suggesting that suffering and cruelty is not at the heart of the play.

Critics such as Ian Johnston, believe that Twelfth Night “is the last of the great romantic comedies of Shakespeare’s early maturity” as love seems to be the catalyst to many of the play’s events, such as Malvolio’s willingness to make a fool of himself for Olivia and the love between Orsino and Viola, thus the element of romance must be an important part to the play’s structure and so what lies at the heart of the play. Despite the positive connotations that the word ‘love’ harbours, the love expressed in the play is often unrequited and results in the imagery of uffering and cruelty, Orsino’s unrequited courtly love for Olivia, for instance. In the first line of play, Shakespeare portrays love as a wanted (give me excess of it) but dangerous ‘disease’ (and so sicken and die) creating a destructive image, this destructive jargon is repeated throughout the play and in act one scene five where Olivia refers to love as a disease: ‘even so quickly may one catch the plague? ‘. The allusion of love as a disease may have been included in Twelfth Night as at the time it was written, the ‘New England’ Plague was at large.

The plague was said to be spread at theatre houses so Shakespeare may be acknowledging the dangers of attending the play. Thus, one could assume the comic elements in Twelfth Night were included as a release for the tragedy occurring in 17th century. England and so the suffering was included as acknowledgment of the audience’s problems. It therefore seems that Shakespeare also intended love to be an important element of Twelfth Night in addition to the comedy, suffering and cruelty which suggests that there are other things at the heart of the play,

Since most characters are suffering – Olivia for the loss of her brother, Orsino for Olivia, Malvolio as a consequence of ‘the letter joke’ – one can assume that suffering and cruelty in Twelfth Night was intended to be a protruding vein and so lie in the heart. Similarly, there are many sub plots and linguistic factors that were included to create a melancholic effect on the audience, such as the allusions to love as a disease.

However the humorous and satirical tones of Twelfth Night run continuously throughout the play, even amongst the suffering and cruelty. Hence, although cruelty and suffering can be seen as a major feature of the play, I believe Shakespeare did not intend for it to be a defining factor as there are other themes, such as romance and disorder, which also lie at the heart of the play, in concordance with comedy, cruelty and suffering.

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