The style of Twelfth Night is festive, mischievous, and witty. The title of the play refers to the twelfth night after Christmas, which is the night before Epiphany. Epiphany is a religious celebration marking the time the three Magi brought gifts to the infant Jesus. Traditionally, Twelfth Night is a day of celebrations, frivolity, song and music, and an overall topsy-turvy spirit. The style of the play Twelfth Night taps into the holiday’s playful irreverence. The play’s festive elements find clearest expression through the characters of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, who stay up late drinking, dancing, and instigating mischief. “I delight in masques and revels sometimes altogether” says Sir Andrew (I.iii.). Sir Toby frequently echoes this party sentiment: “…Let us therefore eat and drink. Marian, I say! A stoup of wine!” (II.ii.). Similarly, the ample use of music in the play further channels the celebratory mood of Epiphany, such as Sir Toby and Andrew’s fun and improvised “catches,” and the songs that Feste performs throughout.
Meanwhile, the frequent use of puns and double entendre (deployed mostly by Feste) give the play its distinctly witty feel. “A sentence is but a chev’ril glove to a good wit,” Feste says to Viola (III.i), meaning that a clever imagination can twist language inside-out like a glove, manipulating sense at will. Feste often skillfully uses verbal puns to reveal the hidden traits of other characters. When he brazenly calls Lady Olivia a “fool,” and insists that she (not him) be taken away, he reasons that since her brother is now in a better place, as she herself believes, then she is foolish to grieve as intensely as she does: “The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul in heaven” (I.v.). Feste’s pun questions the true meaning of a word like “fool.” Is Feste a fool simply because of his profession as a jester and clown, or is Olivia a fool for her indulgent attachment to an irrational melancholy? In general, the use of puns serves to cut through characters’ delusions about themselves and reveal their true motivations.
Prose and Verse
The use of prose and verse reflects the mischievous upturning of social identities and hierarchies in Twelfth Night. For most of the play, prose and verse signal differences of privilege among the characters. Aristocratic characters tend to speak in verse when either addressing one another or when engaged in introspection, while servants tend to speak in prose. The first two scenes of Act I are perfect examples of this rule. The noble-born Orsino and Viola speak in verse (which end in rhyming couplets) while Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew speak in prose. However, once Viola has disguised herself as Cesario, she speaks both verse and prose. For example, when she goes to see Lady Olivia in Act I scene v, she speaks prose while Olivia’s servant, Maria, is in the room. Once Maria exits, Cesario switches to verse to praise Olivia’s beauty. Lady Olivia is initially reluctant to reciprocate with verse, still seeing Cesario as a lowly servant, but she eventually capitulates, effectively expressing romantic interest. Anomalies in the interchange of prose and verse complement the mischievous style of Twelfth Night.