Twelfth Night Happy Endings in Comedy

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“Comedy is characterised by a happy ending.” In light of this, how far is the ending of “Twelfth Night” satisfactory for a comedy? Make close reference to Act 5 in your answer.

“The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” - Horace Walpole (1717 – 1797)

Walpole’s quote is construed by many critics to mean that a comedy cannot be characterised, as its interpretation can differ amongst individuals. Many people would say “Twelfth Night” meets the expectations of a comedy due to the presence of features (such as mistaken identity) causing discord throughout the play but these problems are resolved when we reach the denouement leading to multiple marriages. It can also be argued “Twelfth Night” isn’t truly a comedy because not all characters meet a satisfying ending, partially due to the fact normality is restored as we see characters conforming to society which does not compliment the prior social inversion present in the play. Referring to Walpole’s claim, I agree with the critics reading that any aspect of life will appear tragic if you become emotionally attached to it. A comedy cannot be enjoyed unless you are able to think of it detachedly and realise it is “an imitation of the common errors of our life” as expressed by Sir Philip Sidney, and accept it as that.

Looking at the title of this play script, we could presume that it’s based around a festive season which was always welcomed enthusiastically by people during the Renaissance period; an “experience of pleasurable merrymaking” as said by Andrew Stott, but also a time which we know must come to an end. As said in Henry IV Part 1: “If all the year were playing holidays, / To sport would be as tedious as to work.” It implies that you must come back from embracing the natural world and acknowledge society’s belief of what is the norm. Dr Eric Langley understands this to mean that even though we appreciate Sir Toby’s drunken behaviour, Viola’s double identity, and the underlying homoerotic tension, we understand that they are mere fantasies; they do not belong in the Elizabethan era in which Shakespeare lived in and would be met with outrage by his intended audience. Due to this, the audience and critic alike would find the script to have a rather bittersweet ending as we are hesitant to believe the marriage will last after so much chaos which eventually leads back to traditional roles. Seeing an independent woman such as Viola conform to society cannot help but perturb the reader as it makes us question the moral of the story – does Shakespeare project his true belief on women’s roles in civilization by taming his female protagonist?

We could however say that “Twelfth Night” fits the comedic criteria set out by Hugh Kelly when he said “The great business of comedy [consists] in making difficulties for the purpose of removing them.” The main characters reach a moment of epiphany in the denouement of the play which leads to a harmonious ending. The audience can understand that had Viola rebelled and not accepted her traditional roles, then such an ending would not be possible. However, Shakespeare’s attempt to “make concord of this discord” does not seem completely successful because we sense an air of “sweeping the dust behind the door” as Puck says in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. What is not lost to the audience is that Malvolio is left displeased in Act 5 Scene 1 which he does not hesitate to express. Critics speak of how there is darkness in the play as Malvolio’s last words are “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” He vows to equal the score which we cannot help but feel quite chilled by as the play soon comes to an end leaving the audience in the unknown.

Malvolio represents the puritans of Shakespeare’s time who were sworn enemies of the playwright and those alike him; Dr Eric Langley alongside many other critics, believes the ambiguity regarding Malvolio is a way of Shakespeare making a mockery out of the...
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