An exploration of elements of Dark Comedy in the play of twelfth night
The theme of Dark comedy runs throughout the entire play, the eccentric Shakespearian comedy brings a tale of love, hate and dramatic irony and the presentation of the contrasting characters, language and mood all contribute to the plays darkness. The comedy in this play is not entirely light hearted; it is based on the cruel intentions of the characters and can become quite disturbing.
An important plot device in the play is the character of Feste; he is the fool and free spirit of Olivias household. A fool can be defined as one who has little or no reason or intellect, but in the case of Feste- this does not apply. He is a character of wit and sarcasm; he bends the rules yet he never breaks them. He provides dramatic irony, usually through the art of song. Orsino who is depicted as a melancholy lover asks Feste to sing him a song of love.
Feste sings a song of how love can cause death, my part of death no one so true did share it suggesting Orsino would die for a partner who would have as much love for him as he would for them. However he also seems to be mocking Orsino, depending on how the lines are read they could be seen as a sad song just about a melancholy lover, or if it is sung sarcastically then it could be seen as mocking. It would seem therefore that the typical idea of romance, which is normally seen as positive, has dramatically changed and we see it stand for dark and melancholy feelings.
In the song O mistress mine that he also sings is firstly about love and how the journey of looking for love comes to an end, Journeys end in lovers meeting, and its about how you should live for the day- Carpe Diem.
But then it subsides into the more dark nature present mirth hath present laughter; Whats to come is still unsure he sings of how love and time are similar as you havent got as long as you think in life to fall in love. The language is written in prose, as it is a song, he sings almost in riddles as if the song is meant to be about the greatness of love, but is truly speaking of what little time you actually have to find love.
Act 1 scene 3 introduces the first of the comedy scenes, written in prose it provides a good basis for mood change. Sir Toby Belch is seen as a festive character as he likes to drink and joke around, even if it is at the expense of someone elses dignity. He seems festive and full of high spirit and in spite of his background he seems to be well educated. However, his light-hearted antics change and he becomes a key character in the dark comedy as he pleasures on mocking and embarrassing people.
The character of Sir Andrew is introduced as a simple-minded man, who may not have been well educated. This becomes apparent as he doesnt understand the words spoken, Sir Toby Belch! How now, Sir Toby Belch? his not sure what his saying or who he is talking to, he questions himself asking speaking his name. Sir Toby replies with Sweet Sir Andrew! which could be seen as being patronising towards him, its amusing to the audience as he speaks in a laughing tone, however it is at the expense of Sir Andrew himself.
Sir Toby Belch is a kinsman to Olivia, her uncle we assume. He shows no sympathy towards her throughout the start of the play. He is the one who takes advantage of the hospitality she is showing him. Previously in the play we hear of the news that Olivias brother had died in a shipwreck; the element itself, till seven years heat. Shall not behold her face at ample view; but like a cloistress she will veiled walk To mourn her brothers passing Olivia vows to wear a veil for seven years and to walk around her room crying each day as a ritual to remind her of her brothers death. Sir Toby sees this as excessive and attention seeking, What a plague means my niece to take the death of her brother thus? I am sure cares an enemy to life he shows no sympathy for the tragic event that has happened and simply says that she shouldnt let it overtake her life, to be sad is bad for you, however he speaks in such a mocking tone of voice and doesnt care about what has happened that it is hard for todays audience to see the humour in this, whereas in Shakespearian times this would have been amusing.
We see the dark comedy developed further when it comes to the downfall of Malvolio. A character of arrogance and pomposity, he feels he is of higher class and is more important than the comical characters in the play. He is persuaded of his own self indulged excellencies and thinks that he is superior to his social superiors.
The scheming plot is also humorous as the hidden characters decide to trick Malvolio into thinking that lady Olivia wants to be with him. Maria writes a letter to Malvolio in the penmanship of her lady. I can write very like my lady your niece; on a forgotten manner we can hardly make distinction of our hands shes going to write a letter from Olivia declaring her love for Malvolio.
The comedy starts when Malvolio shares his fantasies in soliloquy to the audience, without knowing that sir Toby, Maria, Andrew and Fabian are hiding from him, listening to his every word. He speaks of how he will become rich in life and be happy. The dark humour starts with the characters listening in on Malvolios wishes- things such as you must amend your drunkenness are mentioned, showing that Malvolio strongly disapproves of the drinking and foolery that goes on. Humour is created as the hiding characters start to mock him behind his back. This is internal debate as Malvolio thinks aloud to himself, yet the humour is produced as the three comical characters are present and comment on his arrogant thoughts. He first speaks of his love for Olivia and how he recons he has a chance with her, Maris once told me she did affect me, and I have heard herself come thus near, that should she fancy, it should be one of my complexion He speaks her of Olivias Lady Maria and how she has told him that Olivia once liked him. Fabian replies to this in a quiet voice as he is in hiding with Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock of him; how he jets under his advanced plumes! Its cruel here as Fabian is saying how Malvolio is to old for him and that he is making a complete fool out of himself for thinking he has a chance.
As the scheme continues Malvolio finds the letter addressed to him and reads it. He convinces himself that it is from her. The humour here begins to elevate as he contemplates on his sexual fantasies, completely unaware of the hiding characters mocking him.
The humour comes to a climax as Malvolio arrives at Olivias house. He arrives in odd clothing and speaking very strangely. In the trick letter set to him Maria had stated about items of clothing. She did commend my yellow stockings, she did praise my leg being cross-gartered Malvolio thinks this is the type of clothing she wants him to wear. This is were the humour starts to become cruel as the expectations of Malvolio are risen to an all-time high, waiting to be brought down to ground with a crash. I thank my stars, I am happy. I will be strange stout, in yellow stockings, and cross-gartered Its sad because this is the first time we see Malvolio actually happy throughout this play, and as the audience we know that it is all just a joke to make a fool out of him.
In Act 3 scene 4 we see the start of the downfall really happen. Olivia sends for Malvoilio, but is totally shocked when he appears. We see the start of the next part of the cruelness begin when Maria returns saying how Malvolio is coming Hes coming madam, but in a very strange manner. He is sure possessed Maria tells Olivia that she thinks he is possessed by the devil, when he isnt but is only acting in this way because he thinks this is how Olivia wants him to act, it becomes highly embarrassing for him as he makes a fool out of himself
Malvolio makes a fool of himself in the way in which he speaks to Lady Olivia as well. She is worried that there is something wrong with him, that he is ill, and asks him to go to bed, Wilt thou go to bed Malvolio? to which he replies to bed? Ay, sweetheart, and Ill come to thee he tries to make a joke, but is really referring to his sexual fantasies of her, the whole joke starts to become disturbing as he is starting to scare Olivia, why dost thou smile so and kiss thy hand so oft? she is confused as to why he is like this.
The joke goes too far at this point when Sir Toby, Maria and Fabian convince Olivia that Malvolio is mad and legion himself possessed him, yet ill speak to him straight away Sir Toby goes to the assumption that he is possessed by the devil. Malvolio struggles to deny it I discard you! Let me enjoy my private. Go off! he wants them to leave so he can speak to Olivia alone, but they have already convinced her that he is mad. Malvolio refuses to be teased and leaves. Sir Toby plots to tie him up and put him in prison, come well have him in a dark room and bound. My niece is already in the belief that he is mad The Dark humour really shows now, the joke has carried on long enough they have mad a fool of him, but yet they still want to push it further for there own twisted pleasure. For a modern audience this would be rather disturbing and create immense sympathy for the character of Malvolio, whereas in Shakespearian times, this would be hilarious to watch.
Malvolio is locked away in the dungeon cell, yet this is not enough to satisfy Sir Tobys need for humour. He and Maria encourage Feste to disguise himself as Sir Topas, the priest; He jokes with Sir Toby and begins to torment the trapped Malvolio.
Malvolio thinks Sir Topas has come to help him, as he is a man of god he should be there to help. Its ironic here as the story turns around, Malvolio is usually the one who is always putting Feste down for being nothing but a jester, but now he needs his help. Even though he thinks that Feste he is Sir Topas, the audience know it isnt. Sir Topas never was man thus wronged. Good sir Topas, do not think I am mad. They have laid me here in hideous darkness he wants sir Topas to help him thinking that he will do the right thing, however as it is really Feste he will just mock him until he becomes bored.
To conclude, this play has many aspects of Dark humour throughout it. The characters trick and fool each other to extreme lengths that it actually becomes disturbing for the modern audience. Therefore the concept of humour is based upon the society at the time- for Elizabethan times this play would be humorous to the audience, however for modern society the torment that goes on is considered unfair and disturbing.