Twelfth Night can be considered a model Shakespearean comedy in that it employs nearly every feature of the genre: a wedding, mistaken identities, misunderstandings, physical comedy, and a happy ending. Like all of Shakespeare’s comedies, the play ends with a wedding – in this case, the joint wedding of two sets of lovers: Olivia and Sebastian, and Viola and Orsino. Also as in many other comedies, the lovers are initially kept apart through misunderstandings, which lead to plot complications. Olivia falls in love with Cesario, (who is really Viola in drag,) but Viola can’t return Olivia’s love. Similarly, Viola falls in love with Orsino, who, believing Viola is Cesario, refuses to return her love. Only once true identities are revealed can the lovers unite with their appropriate partners. In addition to the preposterous plot, cross-dressing, and misunderstandings, the play abounds in silliness. While the main characters are pursuing the wrong partners, the Fool, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew provide plenty of comic relief in the form of ridiculous rhymes, songs, double entendre, and antics.
Within all the silliness, however, Twelfth Night offers an exploration of desire as a fickle, overriding force of nature strong enough to overturn the social order. Shakespearean comedies often take place in societies where the social order is out of whack. In Twelfth Night, erotic desire wreaks havoc on the flimsy structures society has put in place. Under normal circumstances, the noble-born Olivia should not fall in love with a servant like Cesario, who (in disguise at least) occupies a lower social position. Likewise, Duke Orsino, who is pining for Olivia, should not feel an erotic pull toward Viola while she is masquerading as a boy servant. The speed and ease with which lovers shift from one object of desire to another (Orsino loves Olivia but then switches to Viola; Olivia has sworn off love to mourn her brother’s death but then quickly decides she loves Cesario; later she switches to Sebastian) underscores the erratic and all-consuming character of erotic yearning. In the play, desire hops about from person to person with little regard for social status, gender, or other limits that civil society has deemed important.
At the same time, while the play concludes in a happy tone for its noble-born, heterosexual characters, palpable notes of discord remain for others. Malvolio and Antonio are two such unfortunates, left unpaired by the play’s conclusion. Malvolio has failed to win Olivia’s heart because of his lower social status and his humorless Puritanism, while Antonio’s feelings for Sebastian, which can be read as possibly homoerotic in nature, remain unsatisfied. Feste the Fool’s final song adds another dash of bitterness to what should be a cheerful end. While we are asked to rejoice at the imminent marriages of the central characters, Feste’s song reminds us that marriage is difficult, long, and sometimes fails to bring about happiness: “But when I came, alas! to wive/…By swaggering could I never thrive” (V.i.). These departures from a more conventional finale are like a gentle wake-up call, rousing us from pleasant dreams and sending us back into the real world, where love (and the foolishness it engenders) is not always so harmless.