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. 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,...