Barber, C. L. “Testing Courtesy and Humanity in Twelfth Night.” In Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy, pp. 240–61. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959.
Barber’s well-known essay treats the festive spirit implied in the play’s title. Malvolio’s presence is appropriate in this sense, for he acts as a foreign body that must be expelled by laughter. By moving the audience through release to clarification, the play explores the powers in human nature that make good the risks of social courtesy and liberty displayed in Viola’s character.
Belsey, Catherine. “Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies.” In Alternative Shakespeares, edited by John Drakakis, pp. 166–90. London: Methuen, 1985.
By disrupting the difference between masculine and feminine, Shakespeare’s comedies radically challenge patriarchal values. As one instance, Belsey pursues the way Twelfth Night unfixes gender distinctions toward comic, romantic ends. Twelfth Night’s ending depends on the closing off of “glimpsed transgression” and the reinstatement of a clearly defined sexual distinction. But, as Belsey reminds us, “plays are more than their endings.”
Brown, John Russell. “Directions for Twelfth Night, or What You Will.” In Shakespeare’s Plays in Performance, pp. 207–19. New York: St. Martin’s, 1967.
For Brown, Twelfth Night poses a greater challenge to the theatrical practitioner than most plays. Exploring possible solutions that will answer the demands of both the text and the modern stage, Brown imagines a production that would bring together the varied elements of the Illyrian world, a world alternately—and often simultaneously—“gay, quiet, strained, solemn, dignified, elegant, easy, complicated, precarious, hearty, [and] homely. . . .”
Everett, Barbara. “Or What You Will.” Essays in Criticism 35 (1985): 294–314.
Everett explores musicality, characterization, verbal style, the significance of the play’s subtitle, and the role of Feste in response to what, for Everett, is the primary question posed by Twelfth Night and Shakespeare’s earlier comedies: “Why do we take them seriously? Or how, rather, best to explore the ways in which it is hard not to take them seriously—the sense that at their best they achieve a lightness as far as possible from triviality.”
Greenblatt, Stephen. “Fiction and Friction.” In Shakespearean Negotiations, pp. 66–93. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Exploring his sense that Twelfth Night forever skirts illicit, homosexual desire, Greenblatt traces the course of the “swerving” necessary to avert social, theological, and legal disaster. By historicizing the sexual nature of Shakespeare’s work within other social discourses of the body, Greenblatt establishes that, since women were understood to be inverted mirror images of men, there would be an inherent homoeroticism in all sexuality, although consummation of desire could be licitly figured only in the love of a man and a woman. It is this “mobility of desire” upon which the “delicious confusions of Twelfth Night depend. . . .”
Hartman, Geoffrey H. “Shakespeare’s Poetical Character in Twelfth Night.” In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Geoffrey Hartman and Patricia Parker, pp. 37–53. London: Methuen, 1985.
Analyzing the ways Shakespeare’s language, especially punning and wordplay, relates to character, Hartman examines the flux of language between real consequence—as in Malvolio’s desperate pleas for release—and mere quibbling. Twelfth Night hints at moments of clarification (“Good madam, let me see your face”) but defers pure revelation because the text, sustained by wit, keeps turning. According to Hartman, “There is always more to say.”
Howard, Jean E. “Crossdressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 418–40.
Howard uses preachers’ and polemicists’ attacks on cross dressing during the 1580–1620 period as signals of a sex-gender system under pressure to argue that cross dressing threatened the normative social order of hierarchy. But Howard argues that, in Twelfth Night, the cross-dressed Viola fails to challenge this social order, while Olivia powerfully challenges it.
Kermode, Frank. “The Mature Comedies.” In Early Shakespeare, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, pp. 211–27. Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3. London: Edward Arnold, 1961.
Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the comedy of mistaken identity takes subtlest form, for Kermode, in Twelfth Night, where the inability certainly to distinguish between what is meant and what is said, between things as they are and things as they appear to be, develops “a peculiar relevance to life itself.” Kermode terms the play a “comedy of identity, set on the borders of wonder and madness.”
Novy, Marianne. “ ‘An You Smile Not, He’s Gagged’: Mutuality in Shakespeare’s Comedy.” In Love’s Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare, pp. 21–44. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Novy follows the linguistic implications of “mutuality”: the mutual dependence of romantic couples in Shakespeare’s comic world. Marking the similarities of the suppliant lover and court jester—both depend for success upon a response of acceptance—Novy reads both wooing speeches and jokes as attempts to establish relationships. Shakespeare’s most interesting comic lovers depend upon these verbal modes of interplay to develop their relationships. In this way, Shakespeare departs from both classical Roman comedy and the Petrarchan tradition in which “the focus is on the man, the initiator.”
Rackin, Phyllis. “Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stages.” PMLA 102 (1987): 29–47.
Rackin explores the changing conceptions of gender and theatrical mimesis through transvestite heroines in five English Renaissance plays, including Twelfth Night. Topics include the sexual ambiguity of the boy heroine in association with the problematic relationship between the male actor and the female character he plays, the dramatic action and the reality it imitates, and the play and the audience that watches it. The increasingly rigid gender distinctions and the devaluation of the feminine are associated with a rejection of fantasy and a deepening anxiety about theatrical representation.
Summers, Joseph. “The Masks of Twelfth Night.” In Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by Leonard F. Dean, pp. 134–43. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Noting that in Twelfth Night the usual Shakespearean barrier to romantic fulfillment—a “responsible” older generation—has been abolished, Summers examines why the inhabitants of Illyria discover that they are anything but free. Summers removes the mask of each character, determining that most of them know “neither themselves, nor others, nor their social worlds.” Within comedy, “we laugh with the characters who know the role they are playing and we laugh at those who do not.” Summers divides the cast into those two broad categories but points out that the professional fool, Feste, “never makes the amateur’s mistake of confusing his personality with his mask. . . .”