Twelfth Night characters analysis features noted
Shakespeare scholar William Hazlitt's famous critical
essay about Twelfth Night's characters.
THIS is justly considered as one of the most delightful
of Shakespear's comedies. It is full of sweetness and
pleasantry. It is perhaps too good-natured for comedy.
It has little satire, and no spleen. It aims at the
ludicrous rather than the ridiculous. It makes us laugh
at the follies of mankind, not despise them, and still
less bear any ill-will towards them. Shakespear's comic
genius resembles the bee rather in its power of extracting
sweets from weeds or poisons, than in leaving a sting
behind it. He gives the most amusing exaggeration of
the prevailing foibles of his characters, but in a way
that they themselves, instead of being offended at,
would almost join in to humour; he rather contrives
opportunities for them to shew themselves off in the
happiest lights, than renders them contemptible in the
perverse construction of the wit or malice of others.-There
is a certain stage of society in which people become
conscious of their peculiarities and absurdities, affect
to disguise what they are, and set up pretensions to
what they are not. This gives rise to a corresponding
style of comedy, the object of which is to detect the
disguises of self-love, and to make reprisals on these
preposterous assumptions of vanity, by marking the contrast
between the real and the affected character as severely
as possible, and denying to those, who would impose
on us for what they arenot, even the merit which they
have. This is the comedy of artificial life, of wit
and satire, such as we see it in Congreve, Wycherley,
Vanburgh, etc. To this succeeds a state of society from
which the same sort of affectation and pretence are
banished by a greater knowledge of the world or by their
successful exposure on the stage; and which by neutralising
the materials of comic character, both natural and artificial,
leaves no comedy at all— but the sentimental. Such is
our modern comedy. There is a period in the progress
of manners anterior to both these, in which the foibles
and follies of individuals are of nature's planting,
not the growth of art or study; in which they are therefore
unconscious of them themselves, or care not who knows
them, if they can but have their whim out; and in which,
as there is no attempt at imposition, the spectators
rather receive pleasure from humouring the inclinations
of the persons they laugh at, than wish to give them
pain by exposing their absurdity. This may be called
the comedy of nature, and it is the comedy which we
generally find in Shakespear.—Whether the analysis here
given be just or not, the spirit of his comedies is
evidently quite distinct from that of the authors above
mentioned, as it is in its essence the same with that
of Cervantes, and also very frequently of Molière,
though he was more systematic in his extravagance than
Shakespear. Shakespear's comedy is of a pastoral and
poetical cast. Folly is indigenous to the soil, and
shoots out with native, happy, unchecked luxuriance.
Absurdity has every encouragement afforded it; and nonsense
has room to flourish in. Nothing is stunted by the churlish,
icy hand of indifference or severity. The poet runs
riot in a conceit, and idolises a quibble. His whole
object is to turn the meanest or rudest objects to a
pleasurable account. The relish which he has of a pun,
or of the quaint humour of a low character, does not
interfere with the delight with which he describes a
beautiful image, or the most refined love. The Clown's
forced jests do not spoil the sweetness of the character
of Viola; the same house is big enough to hold Malvolio,
the Countess, Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
For instance, nothing can fall much lower than this
last character in intellect or morals: yet how are his
weaknesses nursed and dandled by Sir Toby into something
"high fantastical," when on Sir Andrew's commendation
of himself for dancing and fencing, Sir Toby answers—"Wherefore
are these things hid? Wherefore have these gifts a curtain
before them? Are they like to take dust like mistress
Moll's picture? Why dost thou not go to church in a
galliard, and come home in a coranto? My very walk should
be a jig! I would not so much as make water but in a
cinque-pace. What dost thou mean? Is this a world to
hide virtues in? I did think by the excellent constitution
of thy leg, it was framed under the star of a galliard!"—How
Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and the Clown afterwards chirp
over their cups, how they "rouse the night-owl
in a catch, able to draw three souls out of one weaver!"
What can be better than Sir Toby's unanswerable answer
to Malvolio, "Dost thou think, because thou art
virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?"—In
a word, the best turn is given to everything, instead
of the worst. There is a constant infusion of the romantic
and enthusiastic, in proportion as the characters are
natural and sincere: whereas, in the more artificial
style of comedy, everything gives way to ridicule and
indifference, there being nothing left but affectation
on one side, and incredulity on the other.—Much aswe
like Shakespear's comedies, we cannot agree with Dr.
Johnson that they are better than his tragedies; nor
do we like them half so well. If his inclination to
comedy sometimes led him to trifle with the seriousness
of tragedy, the poetical and impassioned passages are
the best parts of his comedies. The great and secret
charm of TWELFTH NIGHT is the character of Viola. Much
as we like catches and cakes and ale, there is something
that we like better. We have a friendship for Sir Toby;
we patronise Sir Andrew; we have an understanding with
the Clown, a sneaking kindness for Maria and her rogueries;
we feel a regard for Malvolio, and sympathise with his
gravity, his smiles, his cross garters, his yellow stockings,
and imprison-ment in the stocks. But there is something
that excites in us a stronger feeling than all this-it
is Viola's confession of her love.
"Duke. What's her history?
Viola. A blank, my lord, she never told her love:
She let concealment, like a worm i' th' bud,
Feed on her damask cheek; she pin'd in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy,
She sat like Patience on a monument
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed!
We men may say more, swear more, but indeed,
Our shews are more than will, for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love.
Duke. But died thy sister of her love, my boy?
Viola. I am all the daughters of my father's house,
And all the brothers too;—and yet I know not"—
Shakespear alone could describe the effect of his own
"Oh, it came o'er the ear like the sweet south
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour."
What we so much admire here is not the image of Patience
on a monument, which has been generally quoted, but
the lines before and after it. "They give a very
echo to the seat where love is throned." How long
ago it is since we first learnt to repeat them; and
still, still they vibrate on the heart, like the sounds
which the passing wind draws from the trembling strings
of a harp left on some desert shore! There are other
passages of not less impassioned sweetness. Such is
Olivia's address to Sebastian, whom she supposes to
have already deceived her in a promise of marriage.
"Blame not this haste of mine; if you mean well,
Now go with me and with this holy man
Into the chantry by: there before him,
And underneath that consecrated roof,
Plight me the full assurance of your faith,
That my most jealous and too doubtful soul
May live at peace"
We have already said something of Shakespear's songs.
One of the most beautiful of them occurs in this play,
with a preface of his own to it.
"Duke. O fellow, come, the song we had last night
Mark it, Cesario, it is old and plain;
The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,
And the free maids that weave their thread with bones,
Do use to chaunt it: it is silly sooth,
And dallies with the innocence of love,
Like the old age.
Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away, breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O prepare it;
My part of death no one so true
Did share it.
Not a flower, not a flower sweet,
On my black coffin let there be strown;
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corse, where my bones shall be thrown:
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
To weep there!"
Who after this will say that Shakespear's genius was
only fitted for comedy? Yet after reading other parts
of this play, and particularly the garden-scene where
Malvolio picks up the letter, if we were to say that
his genius for comedy was less than his genius for tragedy,
it would perhaps only prove that our own taste in such
matters is more saturnine than mercurial.
Sir Toby. Here comes the little villain:—How now, my
nettle of India?
Maria. Get ye all three into the box-tree: Malvolio's
coming down this walk: he has been yonder i' the sun,
practising behaviour to his own shadow this half hour:
observe him, for the love of mockery; for I know this
letter will make a contemplative idiot of him. Close,
in the name of jesting! Lie thou there; for here comes
the trout that must be caught with tickling.
[They hide themselves. Maria throws down a letter, and
Malvolio. 'Tis but fortune; all is fortune. Maria once
told me, she did affect me; and I have heard herself
come thus near, that, should she fancy, it should be
one of my complexion. Besides, she uses me with a more
exalted respect than any one else that follows her.
What should I think on't?
Sir Toby. Here's an over-weening rogue!
Fabian. O, peace! Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock
of him; how he jets under his advanced plumes!
Sir Andrew. 'Slight, I could so beat the rogue:—
Sir Toby. Peace, I say.
Malvolio. To be count Malvolio;—
Sir Toby. Ah, rogue!
Sir Andrew. Pistol him, pistol him.
Sir Toby. Peace, peace!
Malvolio. There is example for't; the lady of the Strachy
married the yeoman of the wardrobe.
Sir Andrew. Fie on him, Jezebel!
Fabian. O, peace! now he's deeply in; look, how imagi-
nation blows him.
Malvolio. Having been three months married to her,
sitting in my chair of state,—
Sir Toby. O for a stone bow, to hit him in the eye!
Malvolio. Calling my officers about me, in my branch'd
velvet gown; having come from a day-bed, where I have
left Olivia sleeping.
Sir Toby. Fire and brimstone!
Fabian. O, peace, peace!
Malvolio. And then to have the humour of state: and
after a demure travel of regard,—telling them, I know
place, as I would they should do theirs,—to ask for
Sir Toby. Bolts and shackles!
Fabian. O, peace, peace, peace! now, now.
Malvolio. Seven of my people, with an obedient start,
make out for him; I frown the while; and, perchance,
wind up my watch, or play with some rich jewel. Toby
approaches; curtsies there to me.
Sir Toby. Shall this fellow live?
Fabian. Though our silence be drawn from us with cares,
Malvolio. I extend my hand to him thus, quenching my
familiar smile with an austere regard to controul.
Sir Toby. And does not Toby take you a blow o' the lips
Malvolio. Saying—Cousin Toby, my fortunes having
cast me on your niece, give me this prerogative of
Sir Toby. What, what?
Malvolio. You must amend your drunkenness.
Fabian. Nay, patience, or we break the sinews of our
Malvolio. Besides, you waste the treasure of your time
with a foolish knight—
Sir Andrew. That's me, I warrant you.
Malvolio. One Sir Andrew—
Sir Andrew. I knew, 'twas I; for many do call me fool.
Malvolio. What employment have we here?
[Taking up the letter."
The letter and his comments on it are equally good.
If poor Malvolio's treatment afterwards is a little
hard, poetical justice is done in the uneasiness which
Olivia suffers on account of her mistaken attachment
to Cesario, as her insensibility to the violence of
the Duke's passion is atoned for by the discovery of
Viola's concealed love of him.