Twelfth Night and the Drive Towards Wholeness
All comedies drive towards the birth of a new society. Comedic action moves from trouble, through chaos, into resolution and social harmony. The great critic Northrop Frye calls the scene where this new society is born the cognitio. This is the obligatory pile-up of recognitions and reconciliations that every Shakespearean comedy must end with, in which that which was scrambled gets sorted, lovers are joined, tyrants are tamed, and the utopian society of peace and harmony is—at least for a moment—achieved. “The appearance of this new society,” Frye tells us, “is frequently signalized by some kind of party or festive ritual. […] Weddings are most common.”
Thus the classic romantic comedy structure we’re all familiar with, whose origins lie in Hellenistic New Comedy and descend through the Roman comedians Plautus and Terrence into the Latin textbooks William Shakespeare recited from in grammar school, then down to Molière, pantomime, The Philadelphia Story, When Harry Met Sally, Friends, etc. But Twelfth Night, written around 1601, may be the Platonic ideal of the form. It’s often referred to as a “perfect” comedy, and it has been offering its audiences a curiously deep satisfaction for over 400 years. More well-built than Much Ado, more fulsome than Midsummer, less bitter than Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night feels somehow grown up, even though it turns on a series of credulity-straining gambits and preposterous coincidences.
The key to its perfection may be the fact that it’s built on a double-helix structure, a braiding of the marriage plot with the ancient story of separated twins finding each other again. It’s hardly a spoiler to talk about how this play ends in a program note; Twelfth Night is not a play that operates via suspense. When we hear at the top of the show that Olivia refuses to be married, we can be certain that we’ll find her at the altar by Act V. When Orsino declares that he’ll perish without love, we know what’s coming down the pike for him, too. And we’d have to be willfully ignorant not to realize by Act II Scene 1 that the twins Viola and Sebastian, who are wandering Illyria, both believing the other to have been drowned in a shipwreck, are destined to find each other again. We don’t come to Twelfth Night to be surprised by outcomes. We come for the pleasure of watching a story unfolding as it must. As Oxford professor Emma Smith says in her “Approaching Shakespeare” lecture on As You Like It, “We all know that Shakespeare’s comedies end in marriage. Comic partners usually meet early in the play. So the play sets up right at the beginning what’s going to happen at the end, and then has to spin out the fact that it can’t happen straight away, otherwise we’d just all go home. […] Comedies thus epitomize the literary pleasure of withheld or deferred gratification. You want to know what’s going to happen, but you don’t want it to happen yet. That’s comedy.”
For Viola and Sebastian, the path they cannot see, but which we know they must walk, is clearly laid, and strewn with ludicrous claims. First of all, we hear a lot about how, although they’re obviously fraternal twins, they’re literally indistinguishable from one another. We don’t hear much about Viola herself. One of Shakespeare’s great heroines, forceful, agile, bold and full of heart, she doesn’t have much of a backstory before she washes up on the play’s shore in Act I. (Famously, her real name isn’t even spoken until the cognition—for the whole play up until that moment, readers of the script would know her as Viola but audience members listening would know her only by her alias, “Cesario.”) It’s a mystery why her first move upon crawling from the scene of a near-fatal shipwreck is to dress herself as a boy and find a local duke to become a servant to. And it’s a stretch to believe that, just by putting on doublet and hose, she could convince both Olivia and Orsino that she’s a strapping young marriageable dude. It would all be a lot to accept, if we were taking the terms of the play at face value.
Yet the play is after something more mythic than mannerly. And by the time we reach the cognitio in Act V, we’re gripped. The necessary complications that are the substance of comedy have played themselves out, and Sebastian and Viola are finally in the same place at the same time. We know the obligatory couples must be paired off in their obligatory couplings. But before the unions occur, Shakespeare gives us the re-union of the siblings drawn from the sea. He lets the moment of reconciliation hold the stage in distended wonder for much longer than it would ever take twins to recognize each other in real life. Viola and Sebastian stand together almost shyly, cataloguing their identifying markers to each other, tentative about releasing themselves into joy. “Do I stand there?” Sebastian asks, baffled and beguiled, as he gazes at Viola. “Do not embrace me,” Viola says, “till each circumstance of place, time, fortune, do cohere and jump that I am Viola.” In other words, “Do not embrace me until you recognize me completely as myself.”
There’s something both primitive and sophisticated about this moment. It makes the weddings—those “solemn combinations of souls”—that cap the play’s conclusion look easy by comparison. This isn’t just the forging of social bonds, it’s a psychological reconciliation, two broken halves of a self merging back into a whole. And everybody seems to realize it: “How have you made division of yourself?” Olivia cries when she sees her husband “doubled” in front of her. “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,” Orsino affirms.
This may be part of what makes the play feel so “perfect,” so mature: it drives towards a wholeness deeper than union, greater than mere sorting out or pairing off. In Twelfth Night, Viola must know who she is before she can get what she wants. It’s a powerful wish in all of us to meet a walking, talking embodiment of that which we lack, to feel ourselves fulfilled not only in a union with another but internally, reunited with the lost or shipwrecked parts of ourselves. This is the gift that Sebastian gives Viola in Act V, as the new society of love coalesces around them.