“The humor of Twelfth Night is certainly one of its Chief charms.” Illustrate.
Answer: Shakespeare is able to incorporate much humor in the play Twelfth Night through the physical comedy, wit and wordplay and the use of dramatic irony. Shakespeare brings out the elements of comedy to the audience, keeping them entertained and creating a general appeal for the play.
Humor of situation and humor of character: Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy. Humor is, therefore, one of its outstanding features. There are several situations which make us laugh and there are several characters at whom we laugh in this play.
Sir Andrew as a comic character: Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Malvolio are the two characters who make us laugh by their absurdities. We laugh at Sir Andrew whenever he appears on the stage. He is truly a comic character. For instance, we laugh when we read Maria’s description of him. Maria calls him almost a “natural” that is, an idiot. She says that, besides being a fool, he is a great quarreler and that, at the same time, he has the gift of cowardice. We laugh at Sir Andrew’s ignorance. He has no proficiency in languages. He thinks, that ‘Accost” is part of Maria’s name. We laugh when he says that his wit has been blunted by eating too much beef He says that many people “do call me fool”. We are greatly amused when he boasts of his fighting qualities, because actually he proves himself a coward. The manner in which he writes his challenge to Cesario is a convincing proof of his foolishness and cowardice. He claims that there are both “vinegar and pepper” in his challenge, but Sir Toby rightly calls this challenge “excellently ignorant”. When he is told that Cesario is a dangerous opponent, Sir Andrew promptly offers his horse to Cesario as compensation provided he is allowed to withdraw from the proposed fight. The manner in which Sit Toby exploits him also makes us laugh. He is Sir Toby’s butt and dupe. Sir Toby makes fun of him by praising his dancing skill and by setting him up as Olivia’s wooer. We also laugh at Sir Andrew because he is all the time repeating and echoing Sir Toby’s words and phrases.
Malvolio as a comic character: Malvolio makes us laugh by his self-love and self-conceit. He is so foolish as to think that Olivia has fallen in love with him. He imagines a scene in which he, as Olivia’s husband, will rebuke Sir Toby for his drunkenness. No wonder, then, that he easily falls into the trap laid for him by Maria. As he finishes reading the letter forged by Maria, he comes to the conclusion that now there is no room for any doubt that Olivia loves him. He carries out all the instructions contained in this letter. He appears before Olivia in yellow stockings and cross-gartered. He wears an endless smile on his face and addresses Olivia as his sweetheart. Maria makes, indeed, a complete fool of him by playing on his high opinion of himself. The Clown befools him still further by pretending to be a priest and talking to him as if he were possessed with the devil.
Comic irony: There is humour in all those situations in which Viola appears in male disguise as Cesario. The harmour here arises from what is known as comic irony. We know that Cesario is a woman, but this fact is not known to the Duke, to Olivia, to Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and to the Clown. The result is that we are much amused when Cesario goes to Olivia to plead the Duke’s love and when Olivia falls in love with this messenger. Olivia’s passion for Cesario knows no bounds, and Olivia speaks of this passion in eloquent and moving words. Sir Toby brings about a misunderstanding between Cesario and Sir Andrew, but he and his friend Fabian are themselves deceived about Cesario’s identity. Antonio gets involved in a brawl because he mistakes Cesario for Sebastian. Viola’s disguise, thus, leads to several comic situations including the beating which Sir Andrew and Sir Toby receive from Sebastian.
Other humorous situations: There is humour in the manner in which Olivia gets married to Sebastian. There is humour in the Duke’s quick transference of his love from Olivia to Viola. There is humour in the way Olivia takes a vow to live like a nun for seven years and soon afterwards falls over head and ears in love with the first handsome young man she comes across.
Much of the charm of Twelfth Night, says a critic, lies in the humour of the play. Says this critic: “There is the obvious humour of the scenes in which Malvolio is tricked; of the reveling scenes wherein Sir Andrew is made the butt of his wittier companions; of the duel scene and of the confusions that arise through the resemblance of the brother and sister. And a less obvious but equally delightful humour animates many another incident and idea in the play.”