Today Twelfth Night is considered to be Shakespeare’s greatest romantic comedy. Written at roughly the same time as Hamlet (1600), it draws from its comic predecessors in clearly identifiable ways, but it also looks forward to the more sombre, emotionally troubled and troubling “problem plays”: Measure for Measure (1602), All’s Well That Ends Well (1604) and Hamlet itself. There is no evidence that Twelfth Night was especially popular in Shakespeare’s day. William Hazlitt, however, thought it Shakespeare’s consummate, quintessential comedy. Many modern critics agree. “Twelfth Night is surely the greatest of all Shakespeare’s pure comedies,” says Harold Bloom, while another American academic, Stephen Booth, judges it to be “one of the most beautiful man-made things in the world”. In it, claims Mary Beth Rose, Shakespeare “completely masters and exhausts this form of drama”. The mastery and the exhaustion are equally important. With Twelfth Night Shakespeare achieved an unmatched blend of plot and subplot, erotic lyricism and festive laughter, edgy satire and romantic melancholy. But he also suggests that the social and personal tensions that comedy is supposed to resolve cannot easily be dispatched in a “happy ending”. With its main plot involving unrequited desire and loss of identity, and its parallel sub-plot of household jealousy and cruel gulling, Twelfth Night is as multi-faceted as any well-cut jewel. It is no wonder critics have disagreed about it so vehemently.
About the Author
David Schalkwyk is currently Academic Director of Global Shakespeare, a joint venture between Queen Mary and the University of Warwick. He was formerly Director of Research at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. editor of the Shakespeare Quarterly. Before that he was Professor of English at the University of Cape Town, where he held the positions of Head of Department and Deputy Dean in the faculty of the Humanities. His books include Speech and Performance in Shakespeare's Sonnets and Plays (Cambridge, 2002), Literature and the Touch of the Real (Delaware, 2004), and Shakespeare, Love and Service (2008). His most recent book is Hamlet's Dreams: The Robben Island Shakespeare, published in 2013 by the Arden Shakespeare. He is currently working on a monograph on love in Shakespeare.