The Wit And Humour In The Play “Twelfth Night”

Shakespearean comedy differs fundamentally from the comedy of most of the other comic dramatists in modern literature. Shakespeare’s comedies are never ever critical. Shakespeare merely gets his audience to laugh, quite as often with his characters as at them. The predominant emotion of his plays is high spirits, and Shakespeare’s characters in comedy tend to be extremely gay. Though this cannot be said about Malvolio, for he is more of a butt to be laughed at, but Shakespeare manages to invoke our sympathy even for him. It is true that we laugh at him along with the other characters of the play, hut what we remember is “the laughter and not the ridiculing, since laughter is the one thing that Shakespeare’s plays generate in us in the greatest amount.”

The greatest amount of humour in the play is provided in the scenes in which Malvolio is tricked; by the scenes of revelry in which Sir Andrew is made a butt of ridicule by his companions: by the duel scene and the confusion that the resemblance between Sebastian and Viola creates. There are less obvious but equally delightful incidents in the play, Orsino’s relentless wooing of a changeless Olivia, the ease with which Olivia’s self-imposed mourning vanishes the moment her eyes set on the disguised Viola, the transfer of love from Olivia to Viola by Orsino in the twinkling of an eye titillate us to the fullest. Olivia protests that she would remain cloistered in seclusion and away from the sight of men to mourn her dead brother. She wants to keep fresh a dead brother’s love for seven summers. Her love for her brother vanishes the moment she sets her eyes on the first handsome man who crosses her path. We do not hear of the dead brother even by mistake throughout the remaining part of the play. Equally amusing is Sir Andrew’s amorous fatuity in believing that the imperious Olivia would marry him. Then of course there is the calm acceptance of Sebastian when Olivia hastily arranges her marriage with him. It is so much in contrast to the prolonged agony and the uncertainties of love that are experienced by Olivia, Viola and Orsino.

Most critics believe that Shakespeare experimented with his earlier comedies and are not surprised that he experimented on further with this play. It has the kind perfection which marks the end of a process of development. It is completely dramatic for we find no unresolved residue which may have inspired Shakespeare to write another play to embody more of what he has to say. The influence of Ben Jonson’s early comedy, more particularly ‘Every Man In His Humour is pervasive in Twelfth Night. This is more evident in Malvolio’s gulling by Sir Toby and his associates, but one of the most remarkable features of the play is the absence of a clear division into main action and sub plot.

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Twelfth Night, does not contain the customary great characters that Shakespearean plays, and particularly the comedies, have.

An enormous amount has been written about the gulling Malvolio, which definitely is the most comic element in the play. But Malvolio is not predominantly ludicrous; he becomes so by accident. It is true that he is cold and austere, and this makes him repulsive; but he is also dignified, consistent and moral, though the morality is overstretched and also misplaced in Illyria. His pride or his gravity is native to the man; it is inherent and not affected; had it been affected it would have been a fit object to excite laughter. His qualities are at best unlovely, but they definitely are not contemptible, and definitely do not invoke laughter. The dialect in which he speaks also reveals a gentleman and a man of education. He is definitely not the low steward which some of the comedies had in them. Even in the abused state of chains and darkness the grandeur that we see in him throughout the play does not desert him. Yet his gulling does cause amusement because of the felicity with which Maria manages to confound such a grand man. He is a man in love with himself and the intelligent Maria takes full advantage of his vanity in making him feel that he is a probable candidate for Olivia’s love and hand. The yellow stockings, the cross garters and the perpetual grin on a man as austere as Malvolio is exquisitely comic, primarily because it works with such a nicety. Olivia herself has a flippancy of character which makes the request of yellow stockings, etc. highly probable, and Malvolio is prepared to carry out what must have appeared a ludicrous request to him, primarily because the reward is so gratifying.

The fool is an exquisite creation of Shakespeare. He was the creation of the courts and of the plays prior to Shakespeare, but it was in the hands of the great dramatist that it found newer, profounder meanings.

A humour is a mental quality that apprehends and delights in ludicrous and mirthful ideas. It is a state of mind which causes mirth and amusement. Though the word humour is sometimes used as an alternative of caprice, it is not in that sense that we are considering humour here. Feste provides both mirth as well as laughter, through a combination of farce, satire and wit. Since he is a Clown of higher intellect, farce is rarely seen in him. The amusement he causes is primarily through his exquisite wit and profound satire on those who surround him and when he comments on the world at large. Shakespeare’s satire is rarely biting or excessively critical; Feste’s is even less so. His wit has a lilting musical quality about it which exposes the follies of the world with gentle warmth. The world of quibbles which are pointless to his audience, of incongruity which nobody else can see, of flitting fancies which only he cares to pursue, is his sunny realm. In addition his voice is as melodious as the sweet contents of his soul. Every element of music in the play is directly linked with Feste. We cannot conceive it being linked with anybody else. This drama is full of humour hence a farewell to mirth (laughter).



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