Twelfth Night

by: William Shakespeare

Point of View

The overall point of view of Twelfth Night is dramatic, but it follows certain characters more than others, encouraging the audience to sympathize with their particular perspective and sensibility. In Twelfth Night, the most privileged characters are Viola and Feste. Viola and Feste possess the greatest insight into themselves and other characters. The play is partial to these two perspectives because they form the sensible and sober anchors of an otherwise raucous free-for-all. We get the least insight into Malvolio’s point of view, so we enjoy the jokes and pranks the other characters play on him. Malvolio is separated from the others both by his Puritanism and his disapproval of the songs, drinking, and frivolity the others value. If Malvolio is the play’s outsider, Viola and Feste are the insiders of the play, providing a consistent point of reference while also instilling a dose of sanity into the madness of Twelfth Night’s universe.

In many ways, Viola is uniquely placed within the play. Until the final act, she is the only character who shares the dramatic irony of Cesario’s double identity with the audience. At several points Viola speaks directly to the audience, such as when she reveals her secret desire to marry the Duke: “Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife” (I.iv.). Furthermore, Viola has the advantage of witnessing the inner workings of both Orsino’s and Olivia’s courts. Because of her cunning, she comes across as one of the more intelligent figures in the play. And the consistency of her motivations makes her one of the most stable and willful; unlike Olivia and Orsino, Viola knows what she wants and doesn’t deviate from her goal. The fact that she begins the play believing she just lost her beloved twin brother makes her sympathetic to the audience, and makes us want to see her joined with another character. Accordingly, the audience is biased toward Viola’s point of view. She serves as a reliable touchstone, and is closely aligned with what we, as audience members, already know and see.

Feste is also specially situated within Twelfth Night. Much like Viola, Feste is privy to the workings of both courts, and is also portrayed as shrewd and discreetly knowing. As Viola admits to herself: “This fellow’s wise enough to play the fool, and to do that well craves a kind of wit” (III.i.). Although he might not be aware of Viola’s disguise, Feste has cutting insight into other characters. He calls Olivia a fool for her self-indulgent melancholy; suggests that Orsino’s moody and erratic mind resembles an opal changing colors; and is not afraid to point out Sir Toby’s excessive drinking. He also has the last say: his pensive song at the end functions as a kind of ultimate judgment, shaping the way the audience will interpret and remember the events of the play. Feste both participates in Twelfth Night and also offers commentary with an objective distance. Feste serves as a stand-in for the consciousness of the audience: he is essentially thinking what we are thinking, and through his witty commentary gives us a vicarious representation within the play itself.