Essay on The Brilliant Comedy of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

Essay on The Brilliant Comedy of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

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School House Rock teaches that “three is a magic number.” We see threes all over the place: id, ego, superego; mother, father, child; father, son, holy ghost; reading, writing, ‘rithmatic. One place where the magic of three does not fit is in romance. Sex (conventionally and biologically) only has room for twos: sperm and egg; man and wife; big spoon and little spoon. Groups of three in the world of love create tension for the characters and audience, and the discomfort with the situation and sense of powerlessness leads to comedy. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has central love triangle between Cesario/Viola, Orsino, and Olivia; the excesses and complications within the triangle causes disorder for the characters and audience, and increases hilarity. Shakespeare further confounds the plot by toying with gender-switching, plague imagery, and even homosexuality. The progression of all of these plot devices which are contrary to society’s rules makes Twelfth Night an ideal comedic work because it plays into society’s discomfort at not being in control of its own destiny.

Pain is hilarious. We love to find joy in the misfortune of others. German has its own word for it: schadenfreude. Our laughter is a nervous reaction to disorder. The Chain of Being has been disassembled and, because we have no other way of controlling our fate, we laugh at it and thereby take back our control. Hence, innately, love triangles are a form of schadenfreude because audiences are laughing at the misfortune of unrequited love. When Olivia loves Cesario/Viola but Cesario/Viola loves Orsino, who loves Olivia, the complete chaos of the situation becomes funny because of its ridiculousness. It is difficult to process so much complication,...


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...ightful place.” Tragedies right society by ridding the world of the broken Chain-links, while comedies return displaced protagonists so society can move forward with their new insights. Twelfth Night teeters on the edge of comedy because our sympathy for the displaced characters threatens to “ruin the fun.” In the end, not everyone has a happily-ever-after, but those with the power to improve society get what they need to achieve balance and the rest try to find the place where they belong. Shakespeare shows us that it is not possible for every individual to be happy if a society, the greater good, is going to progress but that the journey to balance can be quite the ride.
Work Cited Shakespeare, William. "Twelfth Night." Norton's Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York City: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006. Print.

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