The tone of Twelfth Night is irreverent and bemused, mocking the self-seriousness and pretensions of the most self-deluded characters in the play. The play’s antic energy, bolstered by songs, jokes, drinking, and dancing, incorporates the topsy-turvy, irreverent spirit of the Epiphany celebration. During Epiphany, the social order is temporarily suspended. Accordingly, in the play, those who transparently aspire to gain power are the most viciously mocked. Malvolio is the chief example. Once he finds Maria’s note, and believes that Lady Olivia loves him, he instantly abandons his sober, straight-laced demeanor and becomes unexpectedly giddy at the prospect of elevating his social status through marriage: “Daylight and champion discovers not more,” he says after reading Maria’s forged letter, “This is open. I will be proud, I will read politic authors, I will baffle Sir Toby, I will wash off gross acquaintance, I will be point-devise the very man” (II.v.). This fevered list of “I wills” makes Malvolio’s thirst for power glaringly obvious, while the exaggerated, pompous tone of his declaration suggests his plan is worthy of derision, and we should root for him to fail.
The tone of the play becomes more serious to punctuate specific scenes and provide contrast to the apparently boundless good cheer and mischief of the plot. The songs performed by Feste are romantic and mournful, representing a departure from the lighthearted tone found throughout most of the play. The lyrics of “Come away, Come away death” are distinctly grim, relating a fatal case of unrequited love: “And in sad cypress let me be laid;/ Fly away, fly away breath;/ I am slain by a fair cruel maid” (II.iv.). The forlorn tone here reveals the internal weather of Duke Orsino, whose unrequited love for Olivia mirrors the lovesick, tragic narrator of the song. The song Feste sings to close the play, which may have been written by Shakespeare himself, is similarly melancholy. The lyrics tell the story of the fool’s life, from when he a “little tiny boy” up until the present; throughout, “the rain, it raineth every day.” The more elegiac tone of these songs suggests that under the mischievous fun of the play lies the bittersweet reality of the brevity and hardships of life.