To what extent does confusion and disguise contribute to dramatic comedy in Twelfth Night?

8 August 2016

To what extent does confusion and disguise contribute to dramatic comedy in Twelfth Night? Twelfth Night in set in an era of dramatic comedy under going changes, certain themes that used to perfectly acceptable although controversial was now seen to be distasteful and often looked down upon, this was due to the emergence(or rather acknowledgment) of two very different types of comedy: old comedy and new comedy, although neither were genre had a very high status in theatre compared to tragedies.

Old comedy was used in theatre for a very long time, from the era of Aristophanes right up until Plautus, and included devices such as satire and bawdiness, often old comedy would be quite cruel to political figure or to those of high status whereas in new comedy often it was the complete opposite. New comedy came about in the era of Plautus and was a lot more refined and civilised compared to old comedy using techniques such as witty banter, farce and irony.

To what extent does confusion and disguise contribute to dramatic comedy in Twelfth Night? Essay Example

Shakespeare’s comedies combined some elements of old and new comedy yet was still rather sophisticated compared to new comedy playwrights like Plautus and Menander although often his tragedies contained more laughs than his comedies. Dramatic comedy of the time still used devices such as sexism, bawdiness and romance to show the misfortunes of others, but it also incorporated disguise and carnivalesque features.

Not all of Shakespeare’s comedies were as classic, relatable comedies as theatre was now more commercial and less community based yet unlike Aristophanes he made the witty banter fun and light and theatre became more refined yet relatable to those attending. Due to this Twelfth NIght contains features from both old and new comedy(cross dressing and disguise as well as light bawdiness) which was quite common for Shakespeare’s plays at the time.

Twelfth Night is a good example of a comedy of the time due to its very farce like events and use of confusion. William Shakespeare’s use of love triangle is example of this as well as his use of cross-dressing, creating much confusion. Conceal me what I am … For such disguise will haply become the form of my intent’ From this quote much confusion stems and was arguably the crux of all that transpired in Twelfth Night. This is due to the comedic techniques of disguise and confusion which allows for mistaken identities.

A mistaken identity often alters the characters view of love, as a members of the same sex will more often than not fall in love: Twelfth Night with Olivia and Viola/Cesario but also in other plays of Shakespeare’s such as The Comedy of Errors; Antipholus of Ephesus/Adriana and Antipholus of Syracuse/Luciana, although this is not the only reason for cross dressing to be present in a Shakespearian play, often it will be featured to raise doubts on status and power for genders within the patriarchal society that Shakespeare lived in, as the women will only find the right solution whilst playing a male showing that males get the outcome they wish while women have to be disguised to get what they desire. Mistaken identity and confusion are often used in Shakespeare’s plays as while the characters are still unravelling the mysteries, the audience know the details that allow understanding; dramatic irony is used to create humour as the audience feel a sense of superiority in knowledge and therefore find amusement in the characters mishaps and antics.

While there are many instances of confusion and transvestism in Twelfth Night many of the most memorable and climatic events happen in Act 2 and 5; which see tricks played upon characters and the creation and resolution of love triangles. One such love triangle is that between Orsino, Olivia and Viola which is the cause of much mayhem throughout the play. In act 2 scene 2 Viola says: ‘she mistaken, seems to dote on me’ this creates humour as Viola is seen to be a witty character of intelligence and has deduced the situation she is in(the love triangle), but unwittingly flirted with a female causing Olivia to fall in love Cesario, not her master Orsino which was her intent.

The humour comes from the good intentions gaining the wrong reactions as the audience can see the implications that the characters can’t. This contributes to the dramatic comedy in Twelfth Night as the audience knows it is a female in love with a female yet the high class character does not which brings in the satirical element in old comedy. The quote also foreshadows much of the comedic events to come; ‘mistaken… dote’ this encapsulates the play as from this point on many characters fall in love with the wrong people. Viola creates humour in Act 2 scene 4 as she finds herself in much the same position as Olivia, where she is experiencing unrequited love only centered around Orsino; ‘As it might be perhaps, were I a woman I should your lordship’ .

This creates humour here as Viola is hinting that she is a woman yet is ignored, the fact that if Orsino had of been as wise as his servant and realised her gender and love must would of been prevented; the inversion of wit creates humour as the high class(Orsino) is oblivious to the matter and his servant(Viola) is more intelligent which in turn makes the audience laugh at Orsino’s views on love. This quote is relevant at the end of Twelfth Night when the twins are revealed Orsino sees Viola for a woman which allows his revelation that she in fact loves him as a man which is comedic as the audience knew this in act 2 yet he only realised at the end, again mocking his intelligence.

Act 5 is the climax of all confusion in the play but like all Shakespeare’s romantic comedies there ultimately is a happy ending. Act 5 sees Orsino travel to Olivia’s household whilst there he and his men are accosted by Antonio’s accusations of Cesario(Viola) whom he assumes to be Sebastian which is then heightened by Olivia’s confusion between the twins believing she is married to Cesario, angering Orsino from the betrayal of Viola, then to add more tension and folly Sir Toby accuses Cesario of beating him. This is undoubtably the height of all confusion and the most comedic yet tense scene and the audience find humour in the climax as well as the resolution which comes in the form of Sebastian appearing and clearing up the misconceptions.

Confusion and disguise are imperative to the comedic effects in Twelfth Night as they set the basis for the entire play, they also allow for techniques such as inversion to happen as well and relief theory and superiority theory to takes place. Shakespeare’s humour in Twelfth Night is often from mistaken identities which is a key factor in confusion, throughout the play there are at least 5 instances of mistaken identity which create humour due to the fact that they are speaking to the wrong twin or that they are in love with the wrong person. The beginning quote still offers the play in a nutshell as disguise helps everyone fall in love with the right person which is Shakespeare’s intent as he believes in happy endings.

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