Twelfth Night’ is the most delightful Shakespearean comedy because it has an abundance of sweetness. Hazlitt even thought that the play is too good to be deemed as a comedy. Moreover, it has very little satire, and is more concerned with the ludicrous than the ridiculous. Shakespeare hat already been very gentle while exposing the follies of mankind.
Shakespeare’s comedies have an abundance of conceits and quibbles. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from hi career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble. poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.”
It is to be understood that Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous sense either tragedies or comedies, since they have a fair mingling of good and evil and joy and sorrow. He united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind, but in one composition. Almost all his plays are divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and sometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter.
Shakespeare’s happy comedies have a surfeit of high spirits. His characters experience absurd situations, and do ridiculous things. This makes us laugh, but the characters laugh along with us. Most characters are laughed at by other characters of the play as well as by the audience. Laughter on stage is the hallmark of any Shakespearean comedy.
This laughter on stage is to a substantial extent generated by the Clown or the Fool, who is fundamental to Shakespearean comedy. In “Twelfth Night” Feste not only furnishes the very salt of the play but also is an embodiment of what is one of the most remarkable features of Shakespearean comedy in general. He is at once a butt and a critic.
A Shakespearean comedy is primarily romantic. It is a story which has a surfeit of love. Almost every character falls in love – passionately and intensely with little or no scope for logic. In fact everyone including the minor characters are in love. In ‘Twelfth Night’ everyone including the grim Malvolio is in love. The only person who does not fall in love is Feste, but then he has a distinct purpose in the play.
A Shakespearean comedy is invariably set in remote and distant lands which exist nowhere barring the imagination of the dramatist. In the ‘Twelfth Night’ the action occurs on the shores of Illyria. Though some critics have identified it as a region on the east-coast of the Adriatic, Shakespeare, however does not really connect the events of “Twelfth Night’ with any precise locality. and the ambiguity is apt for a romantic comedy. It is not without purpose that the period in which the events are supposed to happen is also indefinite.
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There is no doubt that Shakespeare’s play’s main strength is characterisation, and “Twelfth Night’ is no exception. A Shakespearean comedy has a predominance of exquisite characters. Through his comedies Shakespeare has given such exquisite characters as Portia and Rosalind. The women in Shakespearean comedies hold the front of the stage. They are more enterprising than their male counterparts, and when things go wrong it is the heroine of the play who takes charge, and through her ingenuity and effort resolves the problematic situation. Twelfth Night’ is no exception, since Viola is the life and soul of the play.
Shakespeare often resorts to giving his female characters, specially his heroines, the disguise of a man. Though it may have been prompted more out of the law prevailing in England during Shakespeare’s time, whereby no female could act on stage, in Shakespeare’s hands this law is converted into delicious dramatic irony as well as an abundance of humour. In ‘The Merchant of Venice’ both the heroine of the play, Portia, and her nurse in waiting. Nerissa are disguised as males, for the crucial trial scene. In ‘As You Like It’, Rosalind is disguised as a male for the major part of the play, specially in the forest of Arden. In Twelfth Night Viola is disguised as a male throughout the entire play. Disguise also causes enormous anguish to another lady. Olivia, who falls ardently in love with Viola disguised as a male.
Music is another important factor in Shakespearean comedies. It is music and melody that is the food of love in his comedies. Shakespeare primarily lets the Clown sing these songs in the play. Twelfth Night’ opens with music, and Orsino’s love for music makes him endearing to us from the very beginning of the play. Music enhances the romantic atmosphere of the play considerably.
Shakespeare is never pedantic. He does not wish to preach or rectify the follies of the mankind, which was the sole motive of the classical dramatist. who ridiculed and exposed the follies and vices of mankind in such a manner as to rectify them. Since Shakespearean comedy is primarily romantic in nature, its prime motive is to provide innocent, good-natured amusement. There is an abundance of fun and laughter. The laughter is kind and gentle, and is rarely sarcastic.
Though Shakespeare is predominantly romantic in the treatment of his comedies, he is also an authentic realist.
Charlton summons up the characteristics of a Shakespearean comedy beautifully when he states that: ‘Shakespearean comedy is not finally satiric, it is poetic. It is not conservative, it is creative. The way of it is that of imagination rather than that of pure reason.”