Melancholy in Twelfth Night

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Twelfth Night is the merriest of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, it is also the saddest. The Christian associations of the title suggests the carpe diem theme which runs through the play. Epiphany, according to Christian mythology, is the time when the shepherds recognized the birth of Christ. The feast of epiphany is the last festival of the Christmas season, after which death takes over. This cycle of life is an extension of the ancient pagan fertility rituals. The mood is similar in Keats’s ‘To Autumn’,

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with a treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Only, Keats finds reassurance in the fact that swallows will return, but Shakespeare is concerned with the cessation of life which looms over the whole play. Here the recognition is of the transience of life, unlike in Cymbeline where the rediscovery of Perdita symbolises the rediscovery of one’s soul. Significantly, Twelfth Night is the last of the romantic comedies. After this Shakespeare moves on to the tragedies and the problem plays – this is the last play where joy is not alloyed with problems of evil and anti-life.

Everything that is subject to time is valueless, this was the medieval conception. Thus during the middle ages all human activity was directed towards God. Man was given little importance. Then with Renaissance came yet undiscovered knowledge. The new astronomical discoveries allowed man to explore the universe independent of the scriptures. With this was born man’s pride in being man in the mortal universe. And thus man became conscious of the beauty and transience of life. This removed the concept of life everlasting from the framework of eternity. This introduced the prominence of mortality. The dance of death was now more feared than ever. New questions about human existence took form. Comedy seeks to find answers, a meaning of life; yet Shakespeare presents a frail shadowy background to his actions. One of the main governing thoughts in Twelfth Night is the fragility of life. This is the play of youth, almost all the characters are young, and this generates the sadness. Shakespeare asks all to enjoy fleeting life, make the most of the twelve days, scorning the Malvolios. A pattern emerges from all this lot which gives life some meaning.

Twelfth Night, despite all its laughter, seems to play upon the keys of loss, affliction and deep bewilderment, which sounds through the gentle beauty of the romance convention and the festive humour. The bonded family words – father, brother, sister – signifies absence, loss of security and a longing. It is this sense of irreparable loss, and the mild apprehension that all this might prove to be a dream provides the poignant dream-like feeling which pervades the play. The loss is internal as well as external. The recognition of one’s self is a dominant theme, and almost all characters are haunted by this and hunt for their selves as well as their lost loves. Orsino’s languorously insatiable desire for love and ‘food of love’ in the first scene presents a parodic statement of the omnipresent sense of want. The hunting pun serves to express the search which is already begun. Nevertheless, Orsino’s words set the mood of the play, which, even through all the ‘caterwauling’ of the kitchen group, never fades. Orsino says

That strain again, it had a dying fall:

O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odour

Orsino’s appetite is soon satiated. The music loses its appeal and his love for love becomes evident. Even the hunting image takes on contemporary significance – Diana becomes the naked truth which makes Acteon wild. This is a parody of Petrarchan conceits and it is fittingly given to Orsino, who, like all in Illyria, is in a state of illusion.

According to Plato’s Symposium love is a hole, an absence longing to be filled. So Twelfth...
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