Twelfth Night characters analysis features noted Shakespeare scholar William Hazlitt's famous critical essay
William Shakespeare's plays, sonnets and poems at
Home Plays Sonnets Poems Quotes Summaries Essays Glossary Links Help

HOME > Shakespeare Essays > Twelfth Night Characters Analysis

Twelfth Night Characters Analysis

Study Guides
Julius Caesar
King Henry IV
King Lear
Merchant of Venice
Romeo and Juliet
The Tempest
Twelfth Night

Bard Facts
Globe Theatre

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 poetry.

"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.

"Enter MARIA.

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 Exit.


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 my
place, as I would they should do theirs,—to ask for my kins-
man Toby.—
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,
yet peace.
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.

Copyright © 2000-2005 All rights reserved.  Contact Us  Privacy  Awards