Doubles, restoration of proper social convention and order

Doubles, doubling, pairs and reflections are a major theme of Twelfth Night, as well as a central dramaturgical device. Pick one or two pairs of characters and discuss how their pairing is used to drive the plot, build character, reflect on social and gender roles, or any other function they provide.

Doubles and reflective pairings in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1601) add to the “carnivalesque” setting of the play.1 The pairing of Orsino and Viola is a major driving force behind the main plot as well as a comedic element which is created through the dramatic irony of Viola’s disguise as “Cesario”. In this same way, the double of Viola and Olivia becomes a major derivative of comedy within the main plot as well as a source for Shakespeare to explore social and gender roles. However, the main function that Shakespeare relies on his character doubles for is the restoration of proper social convention and order within the resolution of the play after this same order has been challenged through the idea of the “Twelfth Night”.  The whole play is a celebration of the Elizabethan festive tradition of the “Twelfth Night” which encouraged a temporary transgression from the ordinary societal rules which are explored through Shakespeare’s themes of disguise and human folly. Therefore, without the playwright’s inclusion of doubles throughout the play to direct the plot there would be a lack of a conventional ending; in both the contextual and comedic sense.

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Orsino and Viola as a pairing serve many purposes within Twelfth Night; one of those being to drive forward the plot of the play. As early in the play as Act One, Scene Two the relationship between Orsino and Viola has developed shown through Orsino sharing “the book even of my secret soul”.2 This highlights how Shakespeare presents Orsino’s views of their relationship as something precious due to the use of “book” which were very valuable in the Elizabethan period especially if they could be “unclasp’d”, as well as him feeling comfortable enough to share his “secret soul”.3 Due to this new relationship, the plot moves on to Orsino sending Viola to meet Olivia which creates more elements of comedy and drama to the main plot of Shakespeare’s play. In this same act, it is also revealed that Viola loves Orsino and “would be his wife” which further adds to the disguise theme as well as creating comedy on stage through dramatic irony.4 This revelation this early in the play foreshadows the conventional resolution and allows the audience to enjoy aspects that revert social conventions if they know all will end well. For example, within the doubling of Orsino and Viola, there are readings of a homosexual relationship. Mihoko Suzuki argues of a “homoerotic attraction” which is present in “Orsino’s attraction for Cesario” which the critic supports with the “closeness with his page, contrastingly stark with his distant and formal courtship of Olivia”.5 This reading is supported by Act One, Scene Four where Orsino comments on Cesario’s “Diana’s lip” which he goes on to call “smooth and rubious”.6 By having a significant amount of description on Viola’s “lip”, Shakespeare could be hinting at a “homoerotic attraction” from Orsino. To further this view, James Schiffer argues that “”Through this sleight of gender, Shakespeare maintains the non-erotic idealism of amity while also underscoring erotic desire” which supports the argument of a homosexual attraction on stage when Viola declares that she “would be his wife” when she is dressed as Cesario a man, which uses the “sleight of gender” at this point of the play to present a non-conventional relationship to the Elizabethan audience.7 However, as the audience is constantly reminded of Viola’s disguise, for example, in this same scene Orsino refers to her “Diana’s lip” and “maiden’s organ”.8 Although this could be read that Orsino finds androgynous aspects of Cesario attractive, a more convincing reading is that Shakespeare is reminding the audience of Viola’s true gender. This would have been especially confusing during the Elizabethan Era as women weren’t allowed to act, therefore, Viola’s actor would be a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man. This means that Shakespeare is using the double of Viola and Orsino to prepare a conventional ending that allows Viola to shed her disguise and remove any element of homosexuality from the relationship.

Viola as the central character of the play helps to build other characters to aid the resolution. In her doublings with both Orsino and Olivia, Shakespeare uses her to remove elements of excessiveness from the ruling class. Viola and Olivia, both presented as grieving young women are reflections of each other, however, the way their grief is handled is very different within the play. One of the first things we hear about Olivia in Act One, Scene One is her plan to be shown “like a cloistress she will veiled walk” for “seven years’ heat” which introduces the excessiveness of Olivia’s character and grief at this point in the play.9 The idea to wear a “veil” for “seven year’s” is ridiculous and highlights Shakespeare’s characterisation of the upper class in Illyria as this follows Orsino’s overdone “if music be the food of love” speech in the opening scene.10 In this aspect, Orsino and Olivia are also reflections of each other. However, after Olivia has fallen in love with “Cesario” she decides it is “time to smile again”, symbolising how Shakespeare has used Viola to help develop the character of Olivia out of an excessive grief-stricken state and towards the conventional happy ending of a comedy play.11 This argument is supported by Andrew McCulloch who says Viola “shakes Olivia (and Orsino) out of their obsessive attachment to lost emotional causes and makes them feel the flesh and blood reality of passion”.12 This criticism and argument are further supported through Shakespeare’s symbolism when Olivia “removes her veil” shortly after meeting Viola for the first time. This suggests that Viola draws Olivia away from her grief and into the “flesh and blood reality” of Illyria. However, although it is clear to argue that Viola helps Olivia manage her grief, it is a less convincing argument that Olivia witnesses the “flesh and blood of reality” due to the superficial presentation of her love for Cesario, exemplified by her asking “What is your name?” after declaring her love for him.13 Therefore, Shakespeare uses the pairing of Viola and Olivia to develop Olivia’s character away from excessive grief and into true happiness which cannot be provided from this pairing due to the need to maintain Elizabethan conventions. Therefore, due to Olivia falling so easily in love with “Cesario” it makes it more believable that her transition of love to Sebastian is as fast, especially without her grief. This conforms to the argument that the doubling of Viola and Olivia has the main purpose to restore conventional order by the end of the play as well as to provide an ending suitable for the comedy genre.

In a similar manner, through the doubling of Viola and Orsino Shakespeare uses the character of Viola to develop the characterisation of Orsino so that he is a suitable match for Viola by the resolution of the play. In the opening scene, the Orsino presented to the audience is self-involved and hyperbolic about his “love” for Olivia. The language in Act One, Scene One highlights Orsino’s initial self-indulgence such as the repetition of personal pronouns like “me”, “my” and “I” as well as vocative expression such as “o” that adds to the hyperbolic nature of the opening speech.14 However, through the play the audience sees a noticeable development in the character of Orsino. In Act Two, Scene Four Viola draws Orsino away from his own “passion” and engages him into the story of her “sister”. Within this scene it is not only Orsino engaging in someone else’s pain that is noteworthy but Viola opening up to Orsino about her sister who “sat like Patience on a monument, smiling at grief”.15 This is significant as it shows that Viola is also developing through her relationship with Orsino as she decides to share her “grief” in a way to him, despite talking about her sister rather than herself. This also highlights how Orsino and Viola reflect each other as they are both experiencing unrequited love at this point in the play. However, Andrew McCulloch argues that “The contrast between Orsino and Viola is between one who is eloquent about a largely imaginary passion and one who is suffering a concealing real emotional pain”.16 This is supported by the argument that Orsino needs to be drawn away from his “imaginary passion” in order to be a suitable husband for Viola by the end of the play. On the other hand, in some aspects, McCulloch overlooks the fact that Viola does not always manage to “conceal” her “emotional pain”, for example in Act Two, Scene Four (although she disguises who she is talking about) she is still expressing her love in a way to Orsino. This reading overall supports the view that the double of Viola and Orsino’s main function is to aid the conventional ending of the play: Orsino becomes less self-involved and a traditional “Duke” figure and Viola can express her real gender and identity in order to begin her marriage with Orsino.

Through the pairing of Olivia and Viola, Shakespeare explores gender roles and temporarily challenges Elizabethan conventions. Sophie Duncan argues that  “all the female characters transcend their social roles in unusual ways” which she goes on to specify with “Viola cross-dresses and works as a boy in a nobleman’s court” and “She (Olivia) proposes marriage to a young man beneath her social rank”.17 This view is supported by various parts in the play, especially in Oliva’s pursuit of Viola in Act Three, Scene One which shows both women subverting typical gender roles within Elizabethan society. In this scene, Olivia tells “Cesario” that she “loves thee” and decides that Viola’s “pity” is “a degree to love”.18 Shakespeare uses Olivia’s desperation in this scene to highlight how far she has transcended from her ” social role in an unusual way”, epitomized through her changing a man’s pity into “love”. Also, the determination of Olivia’s pursuit after Viola revealing that “no woman has” her heart and “never” will, which like other parts of this scene emphasizes the theme of disguise. A woman taking control of her own courtship and pursuing a man would have been entirely wrong and condemned within the Elizabethan society due to their strict courtship rules. As well as Olivia negating restrictions from her gender, throughout the play Viola also defies all Elizabethan expectations of women such as “cross-dressing” and fighting Sir Andrew in Act Three, Scene Four. This means that the doubling of Viola and Olivia helps drive the carnivalesque setting of the play, but it is also key to resolving the play in a conventional manner which Duncan fails to acknowledge that the transgression of the female characters is mainly corrected by the resolution. Olivia’s pursuit of Viola results in her marriage to Sebastian and Viola’s “cross-dressing” leads to her marriage to Orsino. Through the women’s marriage, Shakespeare ensures the conventional ending of comedy is achieved as well as regressing into Elizabethan societal rules. The marriage of both women restores them into their expected gender roles. Therefore, this also supports the argument that the doubling of Olivia and Viola is used to celebrate the “Twelfth Night” tradition in a gender-based manner, but is evidently used by Shakespeare to restore proper social order by the end of the play.

By having doubling characters as a central dramaturgical device in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare celebrates the festive traditions of Elizabethan England as well managing to restore the normal social order. Viola and Orsino as a double create comedy through the dramatic irony on stage as well as creating elements of a possible homosexual attraction which Shakespeare negates through the revelation of Viola’s gender which therefore creates a conventional ending in a spontaneous coupling.  Olivia and Viola are strong female lead characters (similar to women in Shakespeare’s play such as Katrina in The Taming of the Shrew and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth) which subvert typical gender roles of women and explore their independence, however, Shakespeare has both women marry by the end of the play to revert back into women suitable for the Elizabethan era. Viola as a connection for both pairs of doubles explored in the essay is used by Shakespeare to compare the other characters to. Viola, in comparison to both Orsino and Olivia, is neither excessive or superficial about her emotions. Therefore, by having her as a central character Shakespeare can direct his other characters towards a less shallow representation of human nature, and become reflections of Viola’s perception and portrayal of love which further allows for the ending of the play to fit with Elizabethan societal conventions.

1 Andrew Robinson, In Theory Bakhtin: Carnival against Capital, Carnival against Power. (Online article, 2011. )

2 William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986) p.12 (Page numbers of subsequent reference will be to this addition and will be given in parenthesis in my text thus (TN, p. x))

3 (TN, p12)

4 (TN,p12)

5 Mihoko Suzuki, Gender, Class and Social Order In Late Elizabethan Drama (Theatre Journal, Vol.44 No. 1, John Hopkins University Press 1992) pp.31-45

6 (TN, p12)

7 James Schiffer, Twelfth Night: New Critical Essays (London, Routledge, 2011)

8 (TN, pp. 12- 13)

9 (TN, p.2)

10 (TN, p.1)

11 (TN, p.54)

12 Andrew McCulloch, Love and Lovers in Twelfth Night (The English Review, 2001)

13 (TN,p.52)

14 (TN, p.1)

15 (TN, p.39)

16 Andrew McCulloch, Love and Lovers in Twelfth Night (The English Review, 2001)

17 Sophie Duncan, Maids and Men: Gender Roles in Twelfth Night (The English Review, 2015)


18 (TN, pp.53-54)