He implements many new ideas in this play with his use of altered gender roles, untraditional relationships, and marriages involving unusual circumstances. At the same time, he stays within the traditional formula for romantic comedy that he used in his earlier works. The result is a play that has evolved from it’s traditional form, yet goes all out to exaggerate and accentuate all things that make a romantic comedy. The use of disguises, mistaken identity, and twins are nothing new to Shakespeare, as it is seen in earlier plays like As You Like It and A Comedy of Errors.
As in other Shakespearean works, Viola uses reversed gender as a disguise with which she gains many things, such as access to a male dominated world, control over her own fortune, and a relationship with Orsino, with whom she ends up falling in love with and marrying. A side effect of this is that, to Viola’s surprise, she is the only person in the play “man enough” to win the love of the most sought after woman in Illyria. Women have fallen in love with other women in disguise in previous Shakespearean comedies.
However, the aspect of a twin brother, coming into the play and taking over the role of himself from his sister, and no one being able to tell who is who is a more original twistand seems an appropriate addition to this whimsical comedy. While it’s farfetched under the close scrutiny of the video we watched, it would have been wonderful performed on a stage of the early seventeenth century, and regardless of where the play is performed, it’s not a challenge to convince oneself that it’s all quite believable.
The most peculiar part of this play takes place in the closing act, when a plethora of completely bizarre marriages and relationships culminate. In an era where marriages outside of one’s social class, particularly in the aristocracy, are extremely rare to nonexistent, they come out of the woodwork at the conclusion of this play. As if that weren’t odd enough, all of the marriages have additional extenuating circumstance that would make them seem out of place regardless of the social mobility issue.
Olivia, who has been unapproachable for men throughout the play due to excessive grieving over her lost brother, decides she is completely in love with Viola and wants to marry her/him, without very much of anything resembling courtship. Although it’s fine by her, it could be said that Olivia was tricked into getting married, as she doesn’t know her groom’s true identity until after the fact. Orsino, after crooning over Olivia the entirety of the play, doesn’t take time to cry over her, but, upon discovering Viola’s true identity, says, “Oh, what the hell.
I think I’ll get married too”. Yet again in this instance, no courtship takes place, as Orsino only knows Viola’s true gender for a few seconds before deciding they’d make a perfect couple. Then comes the unexplained marriage of Sir Toby and Maria, for which the only explanation offered is that they had such a good time scheming against Malvolio that they decided to make it a permanent partnership. None of these motivations are logical or make any sense at all.
Paired with the fact that all three marriages involved upward movement in social status, this makes for a humdinger of an ending that doesn’t quite fit the mold. Normally Shakespeare’s characters, although they may get a glimpse into a different way of life, always return to their relegated places in society. In Twelfth Night however, the main characters all end up challenging convention and normality for seemingly absent reasons, which, although not logical, certainly proves to be good, humorous entertainment, and the conclusion of one of Shakespeare’s last and greatest romantic comedies.