[Malvolio] has Wit, Learning, and Discernment, but temper'd with an Allay of Envy, Self-Love, and Detraction.
– Richard Steele, 1711
[Twelfth Night] is in the graver part elegant and easy, and in some of the lighter scenes exquisitely humorous.
– Samuel Johnson, 1765
When we consider the Variety and proper Contrast of Characters, the many uncommon Situations to unfold and bring forth the several Humours, Passions, and Peculiarities of the Dramatis Personae, there is no Performance of five short Acts which contains such Matter for Mirth, arising from the happy Disposition of the Scenes and from the natural, though unexpected, Mistakes of the Characters.
– George Stevens, 1772
Twelfth Night, or What You Will, unites the entertainment of an intrigue, contrived with great ingenuity, to a rich fund of comic characters and situations, and the beauteous colours of an ethereal poetry.
– August Wilhelm Schlegel, 1808
[Twelfth Night] is justly considered as one of the most delightful of Shakespeare'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. Shakespeare's comic genius resembles the bee rather in its power of extracting sweets from weeds or poisons, than in leaving a sting behind it.
– William Hazlitt, 1817
Malvolio is not essentially ludicrous. He becomes comic but by accident. He is cold, austere, repelling; but dignified, consistent, and, for what appears, rather of an over-stretched morality.
– Charles Lamb, 1822
Twelfth Night is a genuine comedy—a perpetual spring of the gayest and the sweetest fancies. In artificial society men and women are divided into castes and classes, and it is rarely that extremes in character or manners can approximate. To blend into one harmonious picture the utmost grace and refinement of sentiment and the broadest effects of humour, the most poignant wit and the most indulgent benignity, in short, to bring before us in the same scene Viola and Olivia, with Malvolio and Sir Toby, belonged only to Nature and to Shakespeare.
– Mrs. Anna Jameson, 1833
[The] piece in truth is constituted throughout to make a strong impression of the maddest mirth. Rightly conceived and acted by players who even in caricature do not miss the line of beauty, it has an incredible effect.
– G. G. Gervinus, 1850
[In Twelfth Night] Shakespeare erected the exquisite, graceful structure of the most perfect of his comedies, and at the same time, by the most complete scheme and by a rarely full range of characters, he drew the attention from external circumstances and concentrated it on the inner life of the action, and by giving an absolute unity of interest he breathed into it all the true dramatic soul.
– F. Kreyssig, 1862
Twelfth Night is, we think, on the whole, one of the bright, fanciful, and varied productions of Shakespeare's less earnest dramatic mold; but it possesses neither complete imagination nor complete natural truthfulness; and it seems to us to be more or less deficient throughout in consistency, in harmony, in the depth and firmness of touch, which distinguish the finer creations of his genius.
– Thomas Kenny, 1864
We are all, in varying degrees, insane...Some have a graceful poetic madness, others a madness grotesque and trivial.
– E. Montégut, 1867
In none of his dramas, to my sense, does the Poet appear to have been in a healthier or happier frame of mind, more free from the fascination of the darker problems of humanity, more at peace with himself and all the world, or with Nature playing more kindly and genially at his heart, and from thence diffusing her benedictions through his whole establishment.
– H. N. Hudson, 1872
The poet has emphasized his meaning, furthermore, by the expedient of contrast between the two women. Olivia—self-absorbed, ostentatious in her mourning, acquisitive and voracious in her love, self-willed in her conduct, conventional in her character, physically very beautiful but spiritually insignificant—while she is precisely the sort of woman for whom men go wild, serves but to throw the immeasurable superiority of Viola into stronger relief.
– William Winter 1893
Twelfth Night is, to me, the last play of Shakespeare's golden age. I feel happy ease in the writing, and find much happy carelessness in the putting together.
– Harley Granville-Barker, 1912
Shakespeare's sympathies were so wide and his dramatic genius so universal that it is always dangerous to give him a point of view and dower him with various likes and dislikes. Nevertheless it is true to say that certain types of character very clearly aroused his dislike; and it is also true to say that these are the very types of character that appear to have some fascination for our world. In short, his villains are rapidly becoming our heroes. Thus, Shakespeare clearly detested all hard, unsympathetic, intolerant persons, the over-ambitious and overweening, the climbers and careerists, the 'get-on-or-get-outs' of this world.
– J.B. Priestley, 1925
[In Twelfth Night there is] a silvery undertone of sadness, which makes it perhaps the loveliest of all Shakespeare's high comedies. Maybe, in this, my ear is super-subtle and self-deceived; but the impression is unfailing.
– John Middleton Murry, 1936
“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” This most famous sentence in the play is more than Sir Toby disposing of his niece's steward; it is the old world resisting the new, it is the life of hiccups and melancholy trying to ignore latter-day puritanism and efficiency...[Malvolio] is of a new order—ambitious, self-contained, cold and intelligent, and dreadfully likely to prevail.
– Mark Van Doren, 1939
The thing that this society of pleasure-seekers has forgotten is the wind and the rain. It's all right to play with toys while we are children, and later we may thrive for a little time by swaggering or crime. But knaves and thieves are soon barred out. There is such a thing as coming to man's estate, such a hard reality, for instance, as marriage, which all the cakes and ale will not turn into what it is not. The world, with its weather, is an ancient fact.
– Harold C. Goddard, 1951
Shakespeare's play is, of course, a romantic comedy, with even less of a threat to a happy outcome than there is in his other plays in this genre. No Shylock whets his knife, no Don John lurks malignantly in the shadows; indeed, there is not even a Charles who threatens to crack an Orlando's ribs.
– Sylvan Barnet, 1954
Twelfth Night deserves special consideration because it has the greatest complexity of plot structure [of the great comedies of Shakespeare's Middle Period] and because the net effect of the play, in spite of Malvolio, is not comic.
– Milton Crane, 1955
I have always found the atmosphere of Twelfth Night a bit whiffy. I get the impression that Shakespeare wrote the play at a time when he was in no mood for comedy, but in a mood of puritanical aversion to all those pleasing illusions which men cherish and by which lead their lives. The comic convention in which the play is set prevents him from giving direct expression to the mood, but the mood keeps disturbing, even spoiling, the comic feeling!
– W. H. Auden, 1957
Feste is the principal link between the other characters in Twelfth Night. Unless Puck is counted, he is the only clown for whom Shakespeare provides an epilogue. And as it happens, his is the epilogue to the whole group of Shakespeare's romantic comedies.
– L. G. Salingar, 1958
The role of Malvolio is proper enough in the context of revelry, but the context is hardly strong enough to drown completely the overtones of Hamlet; the malcontented outsider is not always despicable. In Twelfth Night the impetus towards reconciliation is sufficiently tentative to allow such thoughts, and in such thoughts lies the death of Comedy.
– G. K. Hunter, 1962
To see Twelfth Night is to be reminded of occasions when we are making merry with those who are closest to us in sympathy and affection, and yet, though the pleasure is keen and genuine, we are fractionally conscious that the formula is not quite right, so that we cannot quite keep it from ourselves that an effort is needed for the contrivance of harmony.
– Clifford Leech, 1965
Twelfth Night or what you will. What will you have, a boy or a girl?...Viola transformed herself into Cesario, the Cesario became Viola, who turned into Sebastian. Ultimately, then, in this comedy of errors, what was just an appearance? There is only one answer: sex. Love and desire pass from a youth to a girl and from a girl to a youth. Cesario is Viola, Viola is Sebastian. Passion is one; it only has different faces: of man and woman; of revulsion and adoration; of hate and desire.
– Jan Kott, 1965
The truth is that Malvolio is mad: he is a classic instance of what the psychoanalyst calls erotomania. His treatment for madness is therefore well deserved, though apparently it is unsuccessful and the prognosis is bad. His attitude toward life—his self-love, his “seriousness”—are inexcusable in the world of the play, and we should never pity him.
– Elias Schwartz 1967
Twelfth Night is a festival that has already been going on too long. Twelve days and nights of overeating and overdrinking, little or nothing done in the way of useful work: the Elizabethans were not so different from ourselves. By 6 January they were ready enough for one more party, and then back to work.
– John Barton, 1969
'I'll be revenged,' he pauses and pouts, 'on the whole pack of you.' It is a totally empty threat. The House, Illyria, the World, will shortly be laughing at his predicament. I believe there is but one thing for Malvolio—suicide.
– Donald Sinden (Malvolio in John Barton's 1970 production at the RSC)
At a party where everyone is joyously drunk Malvolio is the guest who insists on remaining cold sober, who reads long lectures on temperance to everyone else, and threatens to summon the police. As such, he is our enemy as well as Sir Toby's, not only because he tries to suppress music and revelry which we find entertaining, but because we recognize that, in his view, we ought not to be indulging ourselves by going to the theatre at all. This is why his downfall, in its early stages, is so delicious.
– Anne Barton, 1974
[Malvolio] too is in the prison of his ego, but for him it is a gorgeous palace...In fact Malvolio is fully happy only when he is alone; his prickly manner at other times is his reaction to the presence of other people, whose very existence is an irritating intrusion.
– A.S. Leggatt, 1974
We are all actors assuming various roles with various degrees of competence. Like Viola and Malvolio, we are defined not by our 'real selves,' but by our ability to play our roles, to step outside them, to understand the roles of others. Absolute reality and even absolute identity are illusory. This is the Rome celebrated by Ovid, and it seems much like Shakespeare's Illyria.
– M.E. Lamb, 1980
As we watch Viola mediating between Olivia and Orsino, inhabiting one sex with them and another with us, we are forced to conceive of novel and conflicting ways in which sexual identity might be detached from personal identity; we are cut loose from our habitual assumption that the two are inextricable, that the person is defined by his or her sex.
– Coppélia Kahn, 1981
Twelfth Night poses questions about 'the purpose of playing' and about whether illusion is perhaps too deeply embedded in human experience to be ever completely separated from reality.
– Karen Greif, 1981
One is always aware of mixed responses in the theatre, of laughter in the wrong places. It's a general hazard of playgoing, and one accepts it without comment. But once [while watching a production of Twelfth Night]...I understood it as the dramatist's design: what had seemed an imperfection of theatre experience become the truth of the play...The laughter of others, but not of oneself, became the experience of the drama. One by one the laughs ceased, like lights going out in the house, as the edge of the great play, dark as logic, moved over the consciousness of the audience. It received in total silence the destruction of Malvolio...That silence, that end of laughter, is today's Twelfth Night.
– Ralph Berry, 1981
Feste is an outsider because his experience has damaged his capacity for joy...Life is hard, and love does not last, he insists. He is right. But it an error, I think, to find his truth the central truth of the play. It is one truth among many in this round view.
– Marilyn French, 1981
As Feste moves through the world of Illyria, he challenges our assumptions about festivity and foolery; he suggests not only that the fool is the only sane person in this world, but also that festivity is not as satisfying an experience as we might imagine... Feste does not often amuse us, or the other characters; we do not often laugh with him—he does not give us occasion to do so... Feste is distanced from the other inhabitants of Illyria because he is immune to the lures of drink, love, fantasy, and the distortions they create: he seems to have known these things and come out the other side. The festive experience is his trade; it holds no mysteries for him, and no delights.
– Thad Jenkins Logan 1982
There is something anarchic about sexual desire which is to be feared, and the fear is less moral than political: in exposing the provisional nature of any particular commitment, Eros offers a potent threat to social order. And if desire is 'natural,' then the unwelcome corollary of this is that it is natural for things to wander, deviate, stray out of place.
– Terry Eagleton, 1986
Like Measure for Measure, the play would be perfectly rancid if it took itself seriously, which it wisely refuses to do. Twelfth Night, I would suggest, is a highly deliberate outrage, and should be played as such. Except for Feste...none of its characters ought to be portrayed wholly sympathetically, not even Viola, who is herself a kind of passive zany, since who else would fall in love with the self-intoxicated Orsino?
– Harold Bloom, 1987
Like Rosalind...Viola is a teasing representation of the convergence of opposites, a man-woman like the strange figure from earlier revels...disquieting unions of the dissimilar, which represent the imagination's power over difference.
– Nick Potter, 1990
The erotic twist in Twelfth Night is achieved by the irony that it is Olivia—the lady of significant independent means and a disinclination to submit herself and her lands to any ‘master’—whose eroticized relationship of ‘service’ with Cesario is most socially and sexually transgressive. I think critics are right in seeing this as Olivia’s ‘come-uppance’—patriarchy’s retribution for mistaking the conventions both of service and of marriage as a female head of household in an order explicitly designated male in its defining relationships.
– Lisa Jardine, 1992
Malvolio is still around, closing the theatres...The revenge taken on him is extreme because what he stands for is so massively dangerous, starting as it does with an utter denial of tolerance and good humor. The Elizabethans would have been scared stiff of him, getting a whiff of the puritanical bigotry that within their lifetimes would close the playhouses and damage the subversive cosmopolitan vitality of the theatre almost beyond recovery....When Malvolio leaves the play vowing revenge on the company, they know he will be back in a moment; the original audience knew it and so should we. Malvolio is the one who cuts off the grant, tears up the agreement, won't lift the tax...He doesn't want you to go to the theatre at all.
– Michael Pennington, 1992
“Property” in all its senses, along with the related ideas of possessing and possessions, having, holding, appropriating for the self and bestowing from it, is at the heart of the giddy swirl of foolery in Twelfth Night. To wish to possess in the romantic sense is to become possessed by the madness to which love is repeatedly compared; to hold the self in aloof reserve, as Olivia tries to do in her protracted mourning, is in a paradoxical way to lose it.
– Ronald R. Macdonald, 1992
In Twelfth Night, and by way of the self-righteous Malvolio, Shakespeare interrogates the degree to which a closed political system, one which survives by maintaining the strictest control over competition for place, is also a system that maintains itself by devising means of controlling meaning. Such a society is not, however, secure, for contrary to the fiction created at the top, the systems of control are not invisible. Moreover, the marginalized, who ultimately come to understand those systems, indeed have the option of breaking away and so of defeating or severely rupturing the strategies of containment that worked for a while
– Donna B. Hamilton, 1992
Shakespearean comedy is typically complicated in its narrative structure: even so, Twelfth Night is unusually ambitious in the number of narratives which it sets going simultaneously, and the complexity with which they need to interrelate. It attempts simultaneously to create both the accelerating fugue-like structure of good farce, and also a series of characters who are allowed their own space to develop emotionally complex or subtle relationships with each other and with the audience. There are so many narratives going on at the same time that it is easy for the audience to lose track of everything that is happening. Plots of disguise and cross-dressing become interwoven with stories of mistaken identities, separated twins, and lost brothers; tricks are played on several characters simultaneously; and there is not one love-story but many.
– Michael Mangan 1996
Cesario has the same effect on Orsino that he has on Olivia, drawing both characters out of self-absorption by riveting their attention onto himself. But whereas Olivia was attracted by the audacity of one who dared to be “saucy at my gates,” Orsino finds himself drawn to the feminine qualities of his page... Cesario’s feminine male persona, like the image of the master-mistress of sonnet 20, must have made Orsino’s attraction to him both more understandable and more troubling. But unlike the speaker at the end of the sonnet, Orsino never explicitly dissociates himself from a sexual relationship with Cesario, and the actor can choose whether or not to make the duke self-conscious about his attachment to the youth.
– Michael Shapiro 1996
Of all the characters, Maria has the most to gain from Malvolio’s fall. As fellow servants (if highly placed servants) they compete for power over the members of Olivia’s household. Malvolio’s officiousness can annoy Sir Toby and Olivia, but it cannot really affect their behavior. As steward and lady’s maid, Malvolio and Maria are in parallel—not necessarily hierarchical—relationship to one another, but they both occupy precarious positions. Malvolio uses his authority in the household to threaten Maria. Maria uses hers to crush him.
– L. Caitlin Jorgensen 1999
The last scene of the play is complicated in its stage business, with many comings and goings and careful postponements of the full comical conclusion. Disguises are dropped and misunderstandings resolved only when it is abundantly clear that the twelfth-night festival of folly has led each character to a manifestation of “What they will.” Through madness, folly, confusion, revels, and disguises, the “truth,” as Shakespeare calls it, has become progressively apparent.
– John Russell Brown 2001
There is a lack of community exhibited in this play... But this sense of fragmentation begins to turn with the entrance of Viola, who after her shipwreck advises her new society that death will come for all and that, therefore, one must live wisely while there is time to do so.
– Lisa Marciano 2003
Viola as a boy, though carefully described as high-voiced and clear-complexioned, is able to educate both Orsino and Olivia in love, as Rosalind did Orlando in As You Like It, because she is herself in a middle space, in disguise, and in both genders.
– Marjorie Garber, 2004
Unlike her counterparts in Shakespeare’s other comedies, Viola experiences her transformation into a boy as a form of imprisonment. Although she plays her part with admirable forthrightness and self-sufficiency in Orsino’s service…her commitment to such service goes beyond even the self-sacrificial poses of the Sonnets’ servant-poet. In a show of ecstatic devotion, Viola finally ‘comes out’ by declaring her complete willingness to sacrifice her life to appease her master’s jealousy.
– David Schalkwyk, 2005
Unlike Iago, who also entertains fantasies of social advancement and empowerment, Malvolio is not a playmaker. And since he never addresses the audience in speeches normally marked as asides, that audience lacks access to the reflections that threaten to make viewers complicit with Iago’s destructive actions. Like Iago, however…Malvolio lives with the ‘curse of service’ and the resentment of the tenuously positioned subordinate, delegated to serve his superior.
– Barbara Correll, 2007
– Contributed by the CST Education Department