SpeechTwelth Night The Play By Shakesphere,
This paper is aimed at exploring the play Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare particularly with reference to its emerging theme “social class.” This social issue grabbed my attention because it is still highly relevant in today’s society. The dialogues and behaviors of upper and lower class representatives of this play will be explained using direct quotes. In the end, conclusion section will present brief inferences based on the whole textual activity.
For the audiences of the 21st century, the idea of intensification of social status in 16th century is quite well imaginable. The Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare is immensely concerned with social inequality and prospective ambitions (Draper, 1948). The character of Malvolio best represents the desire of lower class members to fulfill their ambitious to raise social status. He although deemed to be competent servant yet he is a transcendent egotist having intensified ambitions to be considered as a noble and well heeled member of society (Booth, 1985). He feels his purpose to be fulfilled when Maria naughtily writes him a letter acting as Olivia; confesses her love for him and asks him to act like joker in front of all; he does this happily.
Ironically, the upper class members of the play—Sir Toby—make fun of him and laugh hysterically because of his insane fantasies of marrying Olivia as he is financially pauperized and immensely unattractive. In the era where Shakespeare lived, a noble woman was supposed to marry a noble man and not to taint her honor and reputation by marrying a man belonging to lower socioeconomic status (Booth, 1985). Hence, Malvolio’s desire to marry him was nothing more than “hilarious” fantasy for other upper class members out there. Interestingly, Shakespeare himself did not belong to a noble family however his lucrative career of theatre enabled him purchase the title of “Gentleman” after many years of creative work.
Upon deliberate contemplation, it was concluded that like many other Shakespearean writings, the Twelfth Night also depicts some disparities between high and low set of characteristics; belonging to the nobles and servants respectively (Draper, 1948). These distinctive bunches of characteristics and their identical plots provided humorist counterpoint and mirrored the nature of Twelfth Night Holiday; in which a servant acted foolishly and became talk of the town over his maladjusted and mentally retarded behaviors and he tried to reinforce the idea of reinvigorating social order by doing this.
Besides, Malvolio—who is kind of obsessed with high social class; fantasizing for marrying noble woman; Olivia and condescending to the other servants for modesty—Sebastian also moved in the scene when he accepted Olivia’s proposal because she belonged to a noble family and has wealthy background (Booth, 1985). Besides this, Viola—who lost her identity and status in shipwreck and started working for a noble man after disguising her gender—also depicted that like gender identity, social class can be subjected to change as well; it is a purely dynamic factor amenable to remain constant. In other words; by adopting certain sets of characteristics, behaviors and clothing, social status can apparently be altered.
Proceeding towards the characters of Maria and Andrew, author attempted to challenge the typically existing hierarchy of social class in the Elizabethan Era (Draper, 1948). He tried to depict the characters of lower middle class as “more disciplined” than the characters of high socio economic status who were interestingly depicted as selfish, hedonistic and foolish. Although the upper class individuals were perceived as educated, they were presented foolish in this play such as people like Feste and Maria—belonging to the lower social classes—proved themselves to be more educated and sensible. For example; Sir Andrew says, "Fair lady, do you think you have fools in hand?" Maria then says, "Sir I have not you by the hand". He replies, "Marry but you shall have; and here's my hand" (Berry, 1998).
Despite belonging to the higher social class and being a Knight, Andrew is actually having a hard time contemplating that Maria is trying to call him a fool (Berry, 1998). By this, it can safely be assumed that Sir Andrew is unable to understand the true and hidden meaning behind sarcasm; appears dim witted and foolish and is still laughing and mocking over Maria’s mean jokes. Besides indirect sarcasm, Maria constantly mocks and calls Sir Andrew a foolish knight throughout the play; which can be cited as a reference to support his absurdity.
Moreover, he considers lower class to be more disciplined than upper class quoting the example of Sir Toby; "Confine! I’ll confine myself no finer than I am; these clothes are good enough to drink in’ (Berry, 1998). Sir Toby does not give much attention to what he wears and disregards the expectation of public for the upper class being well- behaved and properly dressed. As he tried to go against stereotyping expectations, he was depicted as a black sheep in upper class. Likewise, Maria’s saying that “my Lady takes great expectations of your ill hours” depicted that Sir Toby is not punctual at all and Maria is emphasizing him to be disciplined because she herself arrives punctually and is highly disciplined as she questioned and insisted Sir Toby to be punctual and disciplined (Berry, 1998).
Shakespeare attempted to depict the upper class as selfish by presenting the compelling example of Olivia; "till seven years heat shall not behold her face at ample view” (Barton, 1986). After her brother’s death, Olivia mourned for seven years because she felt empty and grieved. Despite knowing that she is now the in-charge of household, she kept herself refrained from fulfilling her expected roles and responsibilities and completely neglected her obligations under her perceived sense of loss and emptiness. She not only ignored her responsibilities but also refused Orsino’s proposal who was madly in love with her; she never cared for his feelings and preferred wallowing in her own agony.
Likewise, when Curio asks the Orsino about going on hunt; he completely disregards and ignores what he said and continue describing his fondness for Olivia; “when mine eyes did see Olivia first, Me thought she purged the air of pestilence” (Barton, 1986). Like Olivia, he is too preoccupied with his own feelings and interests that he ignores his duties being Duke and prefers personal meanings over professional obligations. A self-centered person always does the same; disregards professional obligations due to personal reasons and failures. As both Olivia and Orsino belong to upper social class, they are preoccupied with emotions only, their emphasis on “grief” and “love” indicates their selfishness.
Shakespeare sees upper class as hedonistic—always focused on stay happy and contented paying less attention to all the other things. As Sir Andrew and Sir Toby were portrayed involved in dancing, drinking, partying, merry- making and have no other concerns that matter. The quote of Maria; “that quaffing and drinking will undo you” demonstrates his excessive drinking habit which might affect his health gravely (Barton, 1986). The drunkenness of Sir Toby coupled with his constant merry- making exposes the hedonistic component of upper class—the only component that matters. Through these characters, Shakespeare enables us analyze the subversions of classification in the Elizabethan era of social classes.
Although the current era of technological advancements is substantially different from Elizabethan era of 16th century yet we find some factors that are still identical and perpetuating the cultures equally. For example, the difference between high and low socio economic status is still very relevant; globalization has widened the gaps between rich and poor and a society has been developed where poor strive hard to fulfill their basic human needs and try effective “short cuts” to have struggle-free life. Rich people in the 21st century are also hedonistic; they have plenty of resources to ensure their survival hence they are more concerned for additional happiness attained from partying, dancing, drinking and merry- making. High class people are still very selfish and the widened gap between rich and poor is the best depiction of this selfishness; they just consider nurturing their wealth no matter how many people are drawn below the line of poverty. However, Shakespeare’s notion that high class people are foolish and not punctual and disciplined is not very promising in 21st century because it is hard to find such people who are dressed pathetically however being foolish and late can be added but it is still very individual-specific in nature.
Although in the literature, upper class individuals are presented as learned, well- respected and educated yet Shakespeare—in his play the Twelfth Night—portrayed his upper class characters lacking these attributes. He used characters like Sir Andrew, Sir Toby, Feste and Maria to mock the social class system hierarchy of Elizabethan era. For example, Maria—a lower class servant—has been depicted mocking Sir Andrew—an upper class representative— intelligently and cleverly over his foolishness of not understanding a mean joke. Hence, we can assume that Shakespeare considered upper class as selfish, undisciplined and foolish and demonstrated the perpetuating gaps between upper and lower classes. All these attributes hold promise in today’s era except the foolish and undisciplined attitude of rich—there might be some rich foolish but we cannot generalize this trait because it is purely innate in nature; both rich and poor can have it.
Barton, A. (1986). Shakespeare’s Sense of an Ending in Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night: Critical Essays. Ed Stanley Wells. New York: Garland, 303–10
Berry, R. (1988). Shakespeare and Social Class. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities International 1988
Booth, S. (1985). Twelfth Night: The Audience as Malvolio. Shakespeare’s ‘Rough Magic’: Renaissance Essays in Honour of C.L. Barber. Ed Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn. Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 149–67
Draper, J. W. (1948). The ‘Twelfth Night’ of Shakespeare’s Audience. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
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