Critics of Twelfth Night

James Boaden

"(Viola) a character of infinite delicacy and enchanting eloquence"

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E. Montégut

"Twelfth Night is a masquerade, slightly grotesque, as benefits a play whereof the title recalls one of those festivals which were most dear to the jocund humour of our forebears." 

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August Schlegel

"The play unites the entertainment of an intrigue, contrived with great ingenuity, to a fund of comic characters and situations and the beauteous colours of ethereal poetry" 

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William Hazlitt

“It makes us laugh at the follies of mankind” 

“There is a certain stage of society in which people become conscious of their peculiarities and absurdities”

“The disguise of self-love, and…assumptions of vanity”

“This is the comedy of artificial life, of wit and satire”

“By neutralising the materials of comic character, both natural and artificial, leaves no comedy at all”

 “This may be called the comedy of nature, and it is the comedy which we generally find in Shakespeare”

“What we so much admire here is not the image of patience but the lines before and after”

“Absurdity has evert encouragement afforded it; and nonsense has room to flourish in”

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Charlotte Lennox (1753)

‘This sorrowful lady’ (about Olivia) 

·         Argues Olivia’s sorrow is not sincere, given how quickly drops her vow not to let men see her face, then she “bandies jests and smart sentences with all the lively wit of an airy coquet.”

·         She is somehow completely devoid of “any of those emotions that bashfulness, delicacy, and a desire of preserving the decorum of her sex and birth oblige her to observe”

·         Also argues it is implausible that Orsino should have so “passionately adored Olivia” then commits himself to marrying Viola, “a stranger whom he had never seen in her proper garb”. She argues it is unlikely that he “could in a moment pass from the most extravagant passion imaginable for Olivia, to one no less extravagant” for Viola. 

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Anna Jameson (1833)

Twelfth Night is ‘a perpetual spring of the gayest and the sweetest fancies’ 

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William Arthur (1884)

‘Feste is… one of the shallowest of Shakespeare’s jesters’

·         “[the gulling of Malvolio] is a very simple invention. Much more ingenuity is shown in the second practical joke of the duel, with the recoil upon the head of [Sir Toby] through the intervention of Sebastian”

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Jonathon Bate (1993)

‘Constancy and inconstancy in love shape both the twists of the plot and the preoccupations of the characters’

‘Orsino is in love with the idea of being in love’

‘Viola’s function is to enable characters to respond, to see that love requires echoing instead of narcissism’

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W H Auden (1947)

‘Women have become dominant in Twelfth Night and taken initiative’

‘Malvolio… is weak’

‘The characters in the play are out for gain’

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C L Barber (1959)

‘Poor Viola absurdly perplexed behind her disguise’ 

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Elliot Kreiger (1979)

‘The plays celebrate hierarchy in society and correspondence between nature and society’

‘Malvolio’s fantasy of narcissistic withdrawal into a world in which he can be Count Malvolio’

‘Madness pervades the play’

‘Malvolio is sick of self-love’

“ Twelfth Night does not dramatize strategies of bourgeois opposition so much as of aristocratic protection”

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Michael Bristol (1985)

‘Carnival misrule in the persons of Toby and his companions’ 

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Charles Lamb (1817)

“The part of Malvolio has in my judgement been so often misunderstood”

“Malvolio is not essentially ludicrous but his morality and his manner are displaced in Illyria”

“His quality is at the best unlovely, but neither buffoon nor contemptible.”

“ (Malvolio) becomes comic by accident. He is cold, austere, repelling; but dignified… his pride or his gravity is inherent, and native to the man, not mock or affected”

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Samuel Peyps (1662/3)

“Saw Twelfth Night acted well, though it be but a silly play” 

“Silly mixture of good and bad moments” 

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Samuel Johnson (1765)

“The soliloquy of Malvolio is truly comick; he is betrayed to ridicule merely by his pride” 

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A C Bradley

"(Feste) our wise, happy, melodious fool” who links both the love plot and the comic plot of the play”

"We never laugh at Feste… he is as sane as his mistress… being lord of himself, he cares little for Fortune.”

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Harold Jenkins

“ Malvolio aspires towards an illusory ideal of love, but his mistake is a grosser one than theirs, his posturings more extravagant and grotesque. So his illusion enlarges the suggestion of the main plot about the mind’s capacity for self-deception"

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Caroline Spurgen

“The types of images reflect subtly and accurately the rather peculiar mixture of tones in the play, music, romance, sadness and beauty interwoven with wit, broad, comedy and quick moving snappy dialogue.”

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“(comedy) finds the art crippled if not destroyed, in those who lack the genial sense of fellowship with mankind. A Malvolio sick of self-love”

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John Mason Brown

“The charming and fine actors were truly beautiful and intelligent”

-1940 production starring Helen Hayes and Maurice Evans

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Robert Coleman

 “Lively and buoyant production of Twelfth Night” “Larkish comedy”

-1958 production of the play in The Old Vic, New York

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John McClain

One of Shakespeare’s best… most delightful job” 

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Homer Swander (1964)

“Twelfth night even at its joyous best is only a romantic romp”

 “sloppy an entertainment”


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Lamb (1811)

“Distinctions of dress, the badges of different professions, and the very signs of the shops” 

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Carol Neely

“Important for Viola to assume a male role if she wanted to successfully break the barriers that Elizabethan society had forced upon her sex.”

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“one must adopt a mask for self-preservation”

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Northrop Frye

“Orsino and Olivia are in search of self-knowledge.”

“these characters temporarily lose their identity in order to achieve a sense of self-knowledge”

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Larry Champion

“Viola was able to see romance from a male perspective.”

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John Russell Brown

“Orsino’s new identity is characterized by his passion for Cesario”

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Terry Eagleton

“Marriage helps to solve any sexual issues that arise during the course of the play (…) stability is found in marriage.”

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Anne Barton

“It is as if these characters’ reason has been swept away by an emotional thunderstorm”

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