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Explore the Ways That Shakespeare Links Madness with Love to Create Comedy in Twelfth Night

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Explore the ways that Shakespeare links madness with love to create comedy in Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night or What You Will, which was first performed in 1602, includes words such as “mad”, “madman” and “madness” more than any other Shakespearean play. It is a reasonable assumption that Shakespeare was interested in the connections between madness and love and desired to explore it in Twelfth Night, which is undoubtedly one of his greatest comedies. The general comedy and chaos that results from madness and confusion, references the ritualised chaos of the twelfth night holiday (the Christian feast of the Epiphany) in Renaissance England.

Madness and love are two key themes of Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night. The characters in the play, who are inspired by comedia stock characters, are the true source of the madness and love in Illyria; for example, Malvolio would be one of the funniest characters to the audience, however this humour is rooted in the madness of Malvolio’s misfortune.

A sense of dark humour is portrayed when Malvolio is tricked into thinking that Olivia loves him and is then imprisoned. The heightening sense of dark humour is portrayed when Malvolio miserably questions why he had to suffer and be “imprisoned, kept in a dark house, visited by the priest, and made the most notorious geck and gull
 that e’er invention played on?” (Act 5, Scene 1). The semantic field of internal pain, consisting of “imprisoned…dark…geck” may have different effects on various audiences from different eras, for example, an Elizabethan audience may find this more humorous than a modern day audience due to different cultural views; Elizabethan audiences commonly watched hangings of people or bear fights for entertainment. This is evident when Maria says they need to “set the trap” when describing the plot against Malvolio. The word “trap” has the connotation of animals, which therefore links to the idea of Malvolio being treated like an animal, which somehow creates humour.
An alternative viewpoint could be that a modern day audience would use the quote to sympathize with Malvolio as the love he felt for Olivia was used for a joke. Due to this quote being at the end of the play, it illustrates their doomed love as all the characters finds their lover except Antonio and Malvolio. This may cause sympathy for the audience towards Malvolio or, more likely, humour, as Malvolio could be seen as deserving the trick against him. This could be, because of the way he treated others due to him being power hungry or because of him being a puritan. From this, it is evident that one way Shakespeare links madness with love to create humour is through misfortune.

The audience also sees that love makes you do mad things, especially through Malvolio. Upon receiving the fake letter that is supposedly from Olivia, Malvolio’s nature suddenly changes because “for every reason excites to this, that my lady loves me” (Act 2, Scene 5) which consequently results in Malvolio going entirely against his nature by being “strange, stout, in yellow stockings.” This creates humour for the audience as they see Malvolio going against his nature by smiling and wearing yellow stockings, as he is a puritan. An alternative viewpoint could be that a modern day audience may find this to not be mad but more romantic as Malvolio is so deeply in love and is willing to change completely for Olivia. Another alternative interpretation could be that Malvolio desperately wants to be loved, which would most probably make an audience sympathize for Malvolio. This can be seen through the use of “my lady loves me.”

In addition, we see through Malvolio’s misfortune, that some of the acts of madness are connected to social status being broken, such as servants manipulating and controlling their masters. For example, Maria plans her trick on Malvolio and orders Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian to carry out the plan. Furthermore, Olivia falls in love with Viola/Cesario who is supposedly a servant and Sir Toby marries Maria who is a servant, so this would be thought of as mad to an Elizabethan audience as there were strong divides between class and social status’. This could be a reflection of Shakespeare’s views on status as Joseph H. Summers wrote in his book, The Masks Of Twelfth Night, “Twelfth Night does not follow the customary pattern. In this play the responsible older generation has been abolished, and there are no parents at all”.

Another character that is part of the madness and love is Orsino. The main type of madness in Twelfth Night is love. Orsino appears to be madly in love with Olivia and with the idea of love for its own sake. The Duke is famous for his metaphorical line: “If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die” (Act 1, Scene 1). From the first line of the play the audience is informed that Orsino is, quite simply, madly in love. The word “excess” stresses how desperate Orsino is for love as it has the connotation of overindulgence. The complex, long sentence could be reflecting Orsino’s journey to find ‘true’ love.
We also see from the very first line, Shakespeare’s style of writing. Shakespeare’s plays are mainly written in ‘blank verse’, it was the form that many dramatists favoured in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. As blank verse has a regular rhythm, but does not rhyme, it is a flexible medium, and sounds much like the human speaking voice. Shakespeare used a particular form of blank verse: iambic pentameter.

Joseph H. Summers writes that “Orsino is a victim of a type of madness, the victim is unaware that he is in love with love, rather than with a person.” This implies that love in Illyria is infectious; that it is to some extent contagious. This can be seen through how fast Viola/ Cesario falls in love with the Duke Orsino. The Duke goes on to say “Enough; no more; 'Tis not so sweet now as it was before” this shows that not only is Orsino passionate, he is slightly moody. The rhyming couplet “more” and “before” highlights Orsino’s fickleness suggesting how this idea of love makes Orsino mad and like a child with mood swings and indecisiveness. Further on, in the play, Feste sums up Orsino’s erratic moods when he says the Duke’s “mind is very opal” (Act 2, Scene 4). An opal gemstone changes colour in different lights, Feste therefore implies that Orsino is temperamental, unstable and mad. An audience may find this funny, at how melodramatic Orsino is. An alternative viewpoint could be that Orsino may be desperate to be loved.

Carrying on the theme of love being infectious, Olivia admits that she is “as mad as he if sad and merry madness equal be” (Act 3, Scene 4). The words “mad” and “madness” highlights the theme of madness in the play.
The audience sees Olivia’s madness from Valentine in the very first scene of the play. Valentine compares Olivia’s tears to “eye offending brine” (Act 1, Scene 1). This metaphor is humorous, for the reason that ‘brine’ is a salty pickle, which is used to preserve cucumbers, meaning her tears is used to “season a brother’s dead love”. The word “offending” has the connotation of being wrong and could highlight Shakespeare’s view that Olivia’s tears are not genuine.
Before the audience has even seen Olivia, the audience has the perception that Olivia is being rather overemotional and that her grieving does not deserve sympathy, as all she wants to do is grieve for seven years.

The audience could easily compare Olivia with Viola and see that although both have lost their brothers (Viola assumes she has), Viola still manages to be practical, the first thing the audience hears her say is “What country, friends, is this?” (Act 1, Scene 2) after being shipwrecked, which could explain why the audience may have no sympathy for Olivia and find her overdramatic behavior humorous.

Madness and confusion is also rooted in disguises, which is a key theme in Twelfth Night. As Feste put it, “nothing that is so is so” (Act 4, Scene 1). One way this would be is that the performance would be an all-male company, with males also playing female roles. This was also used for the recent production of Twelfth Night in the West End, directed by Tim Carroll. Another device would be Viola dressing as a man to trick people, mainly for her safety. Madness and the confusion of disguises in Twelfth Night creates humour for the audience.

Despite all the madness, confusion and divides, it never quite gets out of hand. As John W. Draper wrote in his book, The Twelfth Night of Shakespeare's Audience in 1950 “There is only one character [Feste] who can restore some sense of unity to Twelfth Night at its ending.”
In Tim Carroll’s production, the actors were getting ready on stage before the performance for all the audience to see. In addition, the play has metatheatrical language such as Feste singing “but that’s all one, our play is done, and we’ll strive to please you every day” (Act 5, Scene 1) to remind members of the audience it is a performance so they do not feel emotionally involved with the play.

In conclusion, love is intertwined in the story line and causes confusion and chaos, which results in comedy. Each character seems to be involved with this one feeling- love. For example Orsino appears to be madly in love with Olivia and with the idea of love for its own sake. Malvolio acts madly because of his love for Olivia and Olivia loves Viola/Cesario whom she then mistakes for Sebastian and marries him. Shakespeare links madness with love in many ways such as misfortune and disguises.
Shakespeare’s genius as a playwright lies in his ability to blur the lines between madness and love to create comedy in one of his greatest comedies- Twelfth Night.

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