Twelfth Night is a two-ring circus with a pair of outsiders. It contains two semi-distinct casts: one on the higher level (Olivia, Orsino, and Viola) and one on the lower (Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria). The figures of Feste and Malvolio, neither wholly comic nor wholly tragic, but certainly solitary and unloved, are perpetually bouncing between the two and building dubious bridges between them.
If these entities are coherent, the production works; if they are not, the whole falls slack, and the dynamism of the play collapses. Probably more than any other Shakespeare play, therefore, Twelfth Night depends on a lively chemistry between the characters of these two clusters — not just romantic chemistry (though that’s the implication in the first group), but a sense of crackling interaction at every level. Against those stand the virtuosic solo roles of Malvolio and Feste.
Twoness — both in the sense of doubling and in ambiguity — is arguably the thematic core of the play. It first appears in the Shakespearean convention of confused identity: we are supposed to believe that brother and sister Sebastian and Viola are so similar in appearance that nobody can tell them apart; Viola has effectively two identities — her assumed role as Cesario and her true nature as a lost and fearful girl. We’ve seen this elsewhere: it’s what drives The Comedy of Errors in particular. Here, however, beneath the farcical surface, there is a more serious sense and intent, and the play is not all happiness and lightness. It is not normally conceived as a problem comedy, but it does end with a number of issues unresolved and in a troubled condition — especially the alienated characters of Feste and Malvolio.
Duplicity of language, too, is part of the landscape. “A sentence,” says Feste, “is but a cheveril glove to a good wit: how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward!” (“Cheveril”, not defined in most abridged dictionaries, refers to kid-skin, known and used aphoristically otherwise by Shakespeare as a symbol of flexibility or compliance.) A few lines later, Feste makes the even more peculiar claim, “I am indeed not her fool, but her corrupter of words.”
The corruption of words becomes a major issue in this play, as in many others of Shakespeare’s: it requires actors in all the major parts who not only assimilate themselves to the (occasionally absurd) personalities Shakespeare has constructed for them, but who also understand and simultaneously support all the varied meanings that the text has created for them. When it is pulled off, the play has an unusual magic; otherwise it is flat, stale, and unprofitable, to borrow a phrase from Hamlet.
The title of the play remains a mystery to this day. A number of historical suggestions have been made, none of them very satisfactory. There is plenty of evidence to show that it was not written on the occasion of any Twelfth Night celebration; nor is there within the play any overt (or even oblique) reference to the Feast of the Epiphany (the normal culmination of the Christmas season on Jan. 6.) Just as bewildering is the alternative title, “Or What You Will”. Again, this may be another echo of the play’s double nature, but its linkages to the Twelfth Night festivities are probably lost in obscure historical references or the oblique connections of Shakespeare’s mind, though perhaps containing a play on the author’s name.