Once a year I lead a discussion of one of Shakespeare's plays for a homeschooling group. This year we selected Twelfth Night as the play we wanted to read and discuss. This play would be considered a romantic comedy. It begins with Orsino moaning his unrequited love. He says, "If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it, that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die." This alerts us to one of the themes of the play. Is the idea of love and suffering related? Does everyone in this play who falls in love suffer? Does Orsino enjoy his suffering?
Another theme of this play is the wearing of masks or mistaken identity. In Shakespeare's time, women were not allowed to perform on stage. So, all the roles were performed by boys. Orsino is in Love with Olivia. Olivia is played by a boy. Viola was a boy, pretending to be a girl, pretending to be a boy! Imagine the situation of Orsino. He thinks Viola is a boy and he sends her as a messenger to Olivia. It seems that Orsino's exhibits feelings for Viola who he thinks is a boy. Olivia falls in love with Viola who she thinks is a boy. One can see how this would be quite funny on stage.
There is many kinds of fools in the play. Feste, the official fool seems quite wise. Malvolio is made into a fool. Sir Toby is a type of fool living indulgently with little responsibility. Shakespeare seems to be saying the wise are foolish and the fools are wise.
There seems to be a satire of Puritanism (personified by Malvolio) in the play. Sir Toby Belch tells Malvolio, "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" This seems to say he is a spoiler of fun and is actually opposed to it. This would be significant since Twelfth Night stands for a festive occasion. Celebrating the coming of the wise men to Jesus. Definitely not a time for sadness. Maria says about Malvolio, "sometimes he is a kind of puritan." Sir Andrew responds: "O, if I thought that I'd beat him like a dog!" What is Shakespeare saying? Is he against Puritan. Malvolio has a trick played on him and in the end there is an appeal for him to be reconciled. Malvolio says, "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you." At the end, Shakespeare ties in all the lose ends and peace reigns, except for Malvolio. What is Shakespeare saying?
The play ends with a speech from Feste, the fool. He says, "For the rain it raineth every day. . . But that's all one., our play is done, And we'll strive to please you every day." I think that is what Shakespeare is trying to do- to entertain and teach. I think Shakespeare is a Christian Humanist who affirms the good things of this life. I read once that Eric Voegelin read through the Shakespeare plays annually. I do not do that but I do try to read a Shakespeare play regularly. It is one of the works I would bring with me on a desert island.