Essay on The Purpose of the Sub-plot in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Essay on The Purpose of the Sub-plot in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

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Twelfth Night or What You Will is one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies. It has been performed hundreds of times and adapted into a number of modern films. The main plot of the play follows Viola, a girl who is rescued from a shipwreck and enters into the service of the Duke Orsino disguised as a man. Rising quickly in his estimation, Viola begins delivering messages of love on his behalf to Olivia, a noble woman who has no interest in Orsino’s advances. Over the course of the play Olivia falls in love with the disguised Viola, Viola falls in love with Orsino, and Viola’s twin brother Sebastian, who supposedly died in the shipwreck, returns. Following Sebastian’s return the twins are mistaken for each other, leading to both misunderstanding and marriage in the final scenes of the play. Alongside the main plot of Twelfth Night is an almost equally prominent subplot involving Malvolio, a servant of Olivia, who falls in love with her and who falls prey to a prank planned by the other members of the household who despise his abhorrence of fun. In the article “The Design of Twelfth Night” by L.G. Salingar, Salingar examines the plot and structure of the play and addresses the significance of the subplot. The purpose of this essay is to examine both evidence from the play and articles from other authors, with a focus on Salingar, who have written on the subject in order to determine the purpose of the subplot. In his article, Salingar comes to the conclusion that the purpose of the subplot is to provide a comic mirror of the main plot while amplifying the main themes of delusion, misrule and festivity. Salingar presents a solid argument, however he has neglected another lesser but significant element of the sub-plot which illustrate...


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...h the underlying theme of festivity in the play. Edward Cahill’s article and evidence from the play provides solid evidence to support this argument. However, what Salingar hasn’t addressed in his article is that the sub-plot also serves to illustrate the dangers of unchecked festivity. The sub-plot is absolutely necessary to the play and adds a layer of depth and insight into the themes of Twelfth Night but most of all, the subplot is what allows this play to be classed as a comedy.



Works Cited

Cahill, Edward. "The Problem of Malvolio." College Literature June 1996: 62-82. Print.
Logan, Thad Jenkins. "Twelfth Night: The Limits of Festivity." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 Spring 1982: 223-238. Print.
Salingar, L. G. "The Design of Twelfth Night." Shakespeare Quarterly Spring 1958: 117-139. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night or What you Will.

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