A Comedy Without a Resolution: Character Fates in ‘Twelfth Night’ and Its 1988 Version

In the resolution of most of Shakespeare’s comedies, the main characters, almost without exception, find love and happiness. However, this is certainly not the case in Twelfth Night. Whilst the marriages of Olivia and Sebastian, and Orsino and Viola do comply with the general idea that a comedy should end with resolution, they also bring uncertainty and unhappiness for the other characters. In Olivia’s marriage, Feste’s earlier statement that ‘fools are as like/husbands as pilchards are to herrings’ is proven true, as Feste is forgotten when he is effectively replaced by Sebastian, and he loses the woman he loves. This is particularly prominent in Branagh’s 1988 version of the play, in which, at the end, Feste is left singing a mournful song before he turns and shuts himself out of Olivia’s grounds. In this final act of desolation, Branagh makes it clear just how much Feste has lost through Olivia’s marriage, and, as this ends the play, it is certainly not a satisfactory resolution.

Furthermore, the image of the solitary figure in the frozen garden returns the audience to the melancholy mood of the opening scene, and so Orsino’s loneliness has simply been replaced with Feste’s. Similarly, Sir Andrew not only loses the possibility of ‘wooing’ Olivia (although this admittedly seems unlikely ever to have been successful), but also his closest friends through the marriage of Sir Toby and Maria. This marriage perhaps signifies the end of the entertaining camaraderie between the two knights, Fabian, and Maria who had provided the majority of the humour, an idea which is supported by Sir Toby’s final lines, in which he rejects Sir Andrew’s offer of help, and instead calls him an ‘ass-head’, a ‘coxcomb’, a ‘knave’, and a ‘gull’. Whilst this is possibly simply a drunken outpour of rage, these lines may indicate Sir Toby’s true feelings for Sir Andrew from the beginning, and so we begin to suspect that what appeared to be light-hearted teasing was in fact more malicious. Either way, with this abrupt end to the relationship between Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, the audience loses the satisfaction of a joyful resolution, and Sir Andrew, who was ‘adored once’, is once again left alone. Antonio too loses his lover in the form of Sebastian; whilst in Branagh’s version he is shown to be freed from his handcuffs, we are left with the sense that he is doomed to an imprisonment of another kind: that of a lonely return to the sea. Thus, there is a sharp divide in the ending of Twelfth Night between those who are married and those who are left alone and loveless, and so the audience is denied a completely satisfying resolution.

In addition, even the marriages that Shakespeare does allow are not wholly satisfying. Even once her identity has been revealed, Viola remains dressed as a man and Orsino continues to address her as Cesario. Shakespeare uses the imprisonment of the captain (with whom Viola explains she left her ‘maiden weeds’) as an excuse for this, but he perhaps intends it to serve as a reminder that it was Cesario, not Viola, who Orsino fell in love with. Therefore, whilst Viola may have secured the man she adores, Orsino is left with the more socially-acceptable female version. Although the Elizabethans were far more relaxed about the idea of sexual relationships between men than the Victorians, ‘sodomy’ was still a capital offence, and so Orsino’s marriage to Cesario, had he not in fact been a woman, would have been unthinkable. Ergo, both the audience and Orsino lose Cesario, who, in a way, facilitates the entire comedy. Viola herself perhaps also mourns this loss; following the revelation of her true identity, Shakespeare gives her a much smaller proportion of the lines, making her seem far more subdued. Because of society’s view at the time that women should be subordinate to men, perhaps in revealing her true identity Viola loses some of her autonomy. Although for a Shakespearian audience this may not have been particularly troubling, and in fact may have added to the sense of restored order, today it is deeply unsettling, and imbues the ending of Twelfth Night with a sense of loss, even if this was not what Shakespeare originally intended. Much like Orsino, Olivia too does not end up married to the person she fell in love with. Whilst it was Cesario’s poetic claim that, were he Orsino, he would ‘make the babbling gossip of the air cry out ‘Olivia’’ which seduced her, Sebastian in comparison seems very shallow, shown through his immediate and unquestioning acceptance of Olivia’s offer of marriage, despite the fact that it would require his rejection of Antonio who had faithfully helped him. Again, Olivia’s marriage to Sebastian would probably have been interpreted very differently by a Shakespearian audience who may have been inclined to agree more with Sebastian. On the revelation of Viola’s true identity, Sebastian comforts Olivia by saying that ‘nature’ has returned to her ‘bias’ in making her marry him instead, and so order has been restored. To a modern audience with a more sophisticated notion of homosexuality, Olivia’s marriage is nothing but uncomfortable. In fact, it would perhaps feel more natural if Olivia was to marry Viola, and Orsino Sebastian. Furthermore, neither of the marriages are actually performed on stage, at least in Branagh’s and Armfield’s productions (where the couples disappear into Olivia’s house, and a mysterious white door respectively), and so the audience is denied even the pleasure of witnessing their union, even if it does not seem the most natural. Therefore, rather than adding to the pleasing resolution typical of comedies, the marriages which do take place, at least for a modern audience, detract from this.

Again, unlike most of Shakespeare’s comedies, social order does not completely return by the end of the play. Whilst Twelfth Night revolves around the subversion of social order which often accompanied holidays such as twelfth night, by the end of the play, order has not completely been restored. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Malvolio; following the trick which was intended to humiliate him, Malvolio still does not seem to accept his position, and certainly does not accept the lesson which Sir Toby and Maria tried to teach him, as is shown in his final line when he says ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’. Instead of returning to societal order, Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘pack’ implies that Malvolio sees himself as an outcast, separate from the other characters, and so has stepped outside of social order entirely. As has been performed in some productions, Malvolio could also be addressing the audience with this line, reminding us that we are not blameless in Malvolio’s fate, as we too laughed at the prank which was played on him. Because of this, the consequences of the trick played on Malvolio not only destroys all possibility for a satisfying resolution, but leaves us questioning whether Twelfth Night is even a comedy, as we regret having laughed at it. However, whilst Malvolio ultimately fails in his bid to increase his social status, Maria succeeds through her marriage to Sir Toby. Shakespeare perhaps permits this because Maria, unlike Malvolio, did not actively try to improve her station, and, in being female, has less to gain. Nevertheless, it is another indication that order has not completely returned and so Twelfth Night cannot be said to have been completely resolved.

Despite the lack of satisfactory marriages and the perversion of social order, some elements of the ending of Twelfth Night are satisfying, as is typical of a comedy. The most prevalent example of this, in my opinion, is the reunion of the twins. This is certainly the dramatic climax of the play, as the truth of Viola’s identity is revealed, and, in that way, order is to an extent returned, but it is also an extremely emotional and touching moment. When Sebastian says ‘were you a woman…/I should my tears let fall upon your cheek’ it is perhaps one of the only times he shows any strong emotion, and this, combined with Antonio’s comparison to an ‘apple cleft in two’ based on Greek mythology, creates the idea of unity, much stronger than the unity created with their marriages. Similarly, whilst Olivia does not have her dead brother returned to her in the same way that Viola does, Shakespeare implies that Orsino will take his place when he calls Olivia his ‘sister’, in a way fulfilling his prediction at the beginning of the play that her ‘affections’ for her brother will be replaced with love for himself, or ‘one self king’. Therefore, any resolution which is created in Twelfth Night is through the restoration of sibling love, rather than the creation of romantic love, perhaps an indication that Shakespeare viewed the former as superior.

Overall, comedies are supposed to end with resolution, but in the case of Twelfth Night this concept is blurred. The uncertainty surrounding whether or not the ending of Twelfth Night is satisfactory is possibly a reflection of the uncertainty as to whether or not Twelfth Night is a comedy. At the end of Twelfth Night, because matters have largely returned to the way they were are the beginning (Orsino still does not have the person he truly loves, Feste, Sir Andrew and Antonio are still without lovers, and Sir Toby is still drunk and unruly), the ending in my opinion is far from satisfactory. Possibly, then, this suggests that Twelfth Night is not truly a comedy. The question of whether Shakespeare intended it to be viewed as such is perhaps more difficult to answer; without modern interpretations, the resolution of Twelfth Night would undoubtedly be more pleasing, yet there is still an underlying sense of unease created through the treatment of Malvolio. Either way, Twelfth Night certainly pushes the definition of precisely what a comedy is, and perhaps marks a move away from the traditional classification of dramas.