CAPE Literature- Twelfth Night

So all my Caribbean readers will know that CAPE exams start tomorrow, beginning with Literature/Physics.  As such, I wanted to post these essays today to help any of you who may be doing some last minute review for Literature Unit 1.  Good luck!!

Question: The theatrical appeal of Twelfth Night depends primarily on Shakespeare’s skillful use of props.

Discuss the extent to which this is a fair assessment of the play. (CAPE 2016)


Theatrical appeal refers to how much the audience enjoys a play. Twelfth Night is rife with theatrical appeal created through the use of many dramatic elements.  In order to heighten this theatrical appeal, Shakespeare uses props as well as costumes/disguises and soliloquy, to eveoke emotional responses from the audience.  When used together these techniques contribute very significantly to heightening the theatrical appeal of the play.

Props and costumes, seen in Act 3, Scenes 3&4 are primarily used to enhance the humorous appeal of Malvolio’s gulling.  The main prop in this subplot is the letter, forged by Maria, which mimics a love letter from Olivia to Malvolio.  This letter confesses a “forbidden love” between a mistress and servant and reveals to the audience Malvolio’s designs on the power that would come from a union with Olivia.  These illusions of grandeur cause Malvolio to be swept up in an elaborate fantasy wherein he imagines himself in a ‘branched velvet gown’, ‘calling [his] servants about [him]’ and being ‘opposite with a kinsman’, his archenemy and antithesis, Sir Toby Belch.  His daydreams involve wealth as he imagines himself playing with ‘some rich jewel’ as he wields his power.  The letter as a prop serves two main dramatic functions.  Firstly, it advances the progression of the plot as it is this letter that prompts the black-robed Puritan to don garish yellow stockings and cross garters to attract Olivia’s attention.  It further functions as a vehicle of humour as the hilarity of the conservative Malvolio prancing about in yellow, cross-gartered stockings is undeniable.  Furthermore, Olivia’s horrified reaction enhances the dramatic irony of the scene; the audience knows the letter is a hoax but Malvolio believes it to be real.  Olivia’s bewilderment only adds to the comedic impact of the scene.  However, prop alone does not constitute the entirety of the comedy, as the scene would not have nearly as much humorous appeal were it not for the yellow cross-gartered stockings.  This aspect of costume is comical when read, however a live presentation of the play would rely heavily for comedy on the audience’s view of this odd hosiery.  As such the theatrical appeal in this scene is not solely reliant on prop, but necessitates a combination of prop and costume to be fully conveyed to the audience.

In contrast to Malvolio’s humorous costume, Viola’ disguise or Cesario’s costume is the source of much tension and unrequited love in the play.  While it does utilize humour as the actor is (according to Elizabethan tradition and the cross dressing done on the Twelfth Night celebration) a man playing a girl playing a man, the disguise of Cesario is a confusing and perplexing ordeal for both Olivia and Viola.  Viola originally disguises as a man to obtain work and search for her lost brother Sebastian, an assertive and proactive action.  However, as explored by critic Peter Hyland in Conventions of Shakespearean Comedy Viola’s disguise is highly confining and isolating, as she must occupy the liminal space between male and female with no one to confide in.  This has negative repercussions for her identity and sense of self as she slowly loses more and more autonomy until she becomes a mere pawn for Orsino to kill to spite Olivia.

In fact, Viola seems to  ‘become’ Cesario, as we do not ever see her dressed in women’s clothing after Act 1 scene 2.  Even Duke Orsino refers to her as Cesario despite the fact that she reveals herself to him and that they are about to marry.  This creates theatrical appeal because the audience is left with several uncomfortably unanswered questions in the resolution of the play.

Viola’s disguise or Cesario’s costume also creates theatrical appeal in building tension throughout the plot.  This is especially emphasized through Viola’s and Olivia’s soliloquies in Act 2.  In Olivia’s soliloquy, she ‘feels this youth’s perfections’ after briefly meeting with Cesario, the emissary of Orsino.  Indeed, she seems to be rapidly falling for ‘Cesario’ as she comments ‘How quickly may one catch the plague!’ as she realizes her growing feelings.  This is a major source of dramatic irony in the plot as the audience knows that Olivia is falling in love with a woman.  It also builds tension as the audience is almost immediately shown Viola’s soliloquy in act 2, scene 2 in which she realizes that Olivia has feelings for her as Cesario.  The isolatory nature of this disguise is emphasized by her cry of ‘poor monster’, showing the helplessness of her situation.  Tension is also built by Viola’s question ‘What thriftlesss sighs shall poor Olivia breathe?’ as the audience sees the plot thicken and become more complex.  We are also inclined to feel great sympathy for both women as the objects of their affection cannot return their love.  Viola, because though she ‘fonds as much’ on her master as Olivia does on her, due to her male attire.  Olivia, because she mistakenly loves a cross dressing woman.  This dramatic irony creates theatrical appeal for the audience by building tension and anticipation as to how the situation will ‘fadge’ or turn out.  Viola’s surrender to time in ‘ O time thou must untangle this, not I’ furthers excites the audience, who anxiously await the resolution of the play.

In conclusion, while the use of props does contribute to the theatrical appeal of Twelfth Night, it does not accomplish this alone.  Rather, it works alongside costume, disguise and soliloquy in order to deliver the maximum theatrical appeal for the audience.  The combination of these three devices is what delivers maximum audience enjoyment in Twelfth Night.

©Rajini Coore 2017


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