Twelfth Night: Comedy or Tragedy?

Shakespeare’s plays have often been categorised into three types: comedy, tragedy and history. The structure of Twelfth Night, or What You Will seems like a comedy at first, but once you delve more into the narrative there is the revelation that it is also very much a tragedy. While the play expresses this blend of genres in an effective manner, the film adaptation by Trevor Nunn executes both the contrast and blend of these two wildly different genres in a far more impactful and thoughtful manner. He manages to not only further emphasise each of the genre’s main elements through the visual medium of the film but intertwines them together in an understandable manner for a modern audience.

From Page to Screen

Viola (disguised as Cesario) and Olivia

Trevor Nunn, director of ‘Twelfth Night’, had long wished to direct the play. For eighteen years, he was known as the head of the Royal Shakespeare Company, helming various stage productions but it would on the big screen that he would ultimately direct 17th-century play, ‘Twelfth Night’. Nunn was an inspired choice to helm the picture not only because of his vast experience with Shakespeare but also his deep understanding of the source material. He described the play as “a strange mixture of poignant romance, broad comedy and subtle melancholy’’. The intention of the play was to incorporate all these thematic elements into an entertaining piece of work though, through some general structural changes that Nunn wisely makes for the play’s transition to film, these elements are given more time to resonate and connect with the viewer.

The major alteration that Nunn makes from the first frame is the reordering of certain events. While the play begins with Orsino describing his love for Olivia, the film adaptation instead begins with showcasing the shipwreck which results in Viola and Sebastian separated. Not only does the opening sequence introduce a major theme that of mistaken identity with the sequence of Viola and Sebastian’s musical act, but it also allows the viewer to connect with the character of Viola on a deeper, more personal level. Viola is the central character of the narrative whose journey reflects the traits of both comedy and tragedy so it is vital that the viewer is emotionally invested in her journey right from the start. By providing backstory to how Viola ends up shipwrecked and the loss of her brother, there is this additional emotional weight, which helps better paint the picture of a woman seeking frivolous love though also suffering from great tragedy. Since the viewer has already gained a general knowledge of the core themes of the film early in the runtime, this provides more context to the events on display and a more intimate understanding of the intention that Shakespeare aims to achieve with his genre-blender.

Visualising Comedy

From its outer appearance, ‘Twelfth Night’ is a comedic play of mistaken identity and frivolous love. At the forefront is the narrative involving the love triangle of Viola (disguised as Cesario), Olivia and Orsino. Running alongside this narrative is another tale involving the manipulation of Malvolio, the character who undergoes a significant tragic downfall. The play consists of several noteworthy comedic sequences that work effectively due to the staging, but through the construction of the film, many of these iconic sequences are made even more hilarious to revel in. What makes ‘Twelfth Night’ work well is having comedy that stems from or initiates tragedy. This means that there is not only purpose to the comedy but that the bond between the two genres is felt more clearly and can be embraced by the viewer to gain the full entertainment experience.

Malvolio reading the forged letter (Film)

A noteworthy comedic sequence whose cinematic presence benefits it greatly is the manipulation of Malvolio. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Fabian and Maria have had enough of Malvolio’s uptight, arrogant nature. Earlier in the story, he admonishes Sir Toby and Sir Andrew for revelling, mocking them by asking “Have you no wit, manners, nor honesty but to gabble like tinkers at this time of night?”. They decide to humiliate him for payback by having Malvolio read a forged letter, tricked into believing that Olivia is in love with him. To further humiliate him, the letter tells Malvolio to conduct various embarrassing tasks such as wearing cross-garters and yellow stockings. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian watch in delight behind a box-tree as their plan comes into fruition.

Malvolio reads the forged letter (Play)

When staging the sequence in a play, there needs to be a way that the actors can be showcased clearly while also maintaining the idea that they are hiding. In a play, everything can only be watched from one perspective, so there are more restrictions set to carry out the staging. Several versions of the play carry out this task in a variety of ways such as having them hide inside little holes of a bush prop, a curtain and even behind a box-tree of actors! These all serve their purposes fairly well but the advantages that come with the art of film allow this scene to truly come alive in Nunn’s adaptation.

What benefits the film so well is the ability to cut between multiple perspectives in a streamlined fashion. With this comedic sequence, the camera can cross back and forth between Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian hiding behind the bush, while Malvolio reads the forged letter. Having this cross between the two perspectives means that the viewer is given time to appreciate the dialogue and performances of each perspective, by having the camera focus on one and then another. In the play, your eyes have to track both perspectives simultaneously which can make it difficult to appreciate the comedic dialogue and actions the actors take the time to deliver. The film version completely eliminates this abstraction.

Malvolio displaying his crazed love for Olivia

The major element that makes the film version far more enjoyable to watch is the brilliant performance of Malvolio by Nigel Hawthrone. His wonderfully expressive nature adds this colourful, bombastic feeling that enlivens the viewer. The way he grips the buttocks of the sculpture to emphasise his crazed love to the way he practices smiling for Olivia in an eerily unsettling manner bolsters the comedic value. These extra actions aren’t changes that necessarily had to be made for the film but it is a key aspect of the film’s success and thus should be commended.

Though what makes the comedy more meaningful is how it initiates a great tragedy. Reading the forged letter eventually leads to Malvolio frightening Olivia and resulting in him being locked up for supposedly going insane. With every major comedic moment, comes an equally prominent moment of tragedy, almost as though they are reflecting one another which relates to a common motif of self-reflection. There are various scenes throughout the film of characters looking at their own reflection, symbolising the theme of mistaken identity. It is clever that Shakespeare structures his story in such a manner where the different genres reflect on one another, acknowledging the balance of comedy and tragedy in a subtle but powerful manner.

Visualising Tragedy

As much as “Twelfth Night” is a series of comedic antics, it is also an exploration of the deep tragedy which its characters suffer from. Olivia is mourning the death of her brother, Viola and Sebastian are both mourning the assumed deaths of each other, Orsino is on a desperate search for love and Malvolio is dealing with his descent into supposed madness. Most of the tragic sequences occur as quiet moments of self-reflection, allowing the viewer time to gather their thoughts after the latest hilarious antics which they have recently witnessed. The tragic moments help fuel the comedy and give it substance. Without a dramatic arc for each of the main characters to embark upon, the comedy is lightweight and superfluous.

Staging a tragic moment in a play can be done in several ways such as dimming the lighting and focusing on the expressions of the actors so that it is the emotions of the actors which the audience is directed towards. In a tragic moment, it is key that an audience can clearly see the agony which the actor is portraying and thus can sympathise with their emotional plight. The means to which the film enhances the tragic elements are very similar to how the film enhances the comedic elements.

An intimate moment between Viola and Orsino (Play)

A noteworthy sequence which showcases true vulnerability in its characters as they acknowledge the tragedy which they have been dealt with is a quiet, very sincere moment between Viola and Orsino. It is based on Act 2 Scene 4 of the play, however, it is presented in a more intimate manner with only Viola, Orsino and Feste present. Feste sings a melancholic song about the tragic story of a lover who died for her love. During that song, Viola and Orsino wistfully embrace each other and almost kiss. The tragedy present in the scene is the unrequited love which Viola has for Orsino, due to the fact that Orsino himself is infatuated with Olivia, a seemingly lost cause.

Viola and Orsino almost sharing a kiss (Film)

All the aspects of the film elevate this tender moment so well compared to the play. In the play, there is the intimate touching, the melancholy song but the crowded setting and the distance from the actors prevent the moment from fully reaching the audience’s hearts. The way the film executes the moment allows this emotional connection. Using natural lighting gives the scene a sense of wistfulness with the lovely moonlight shining down on the actors. The close-ups on the actors as they embrace, strengthen the emotional bond that the audience shares with these characters. When the melancholy music plays in the background and the camera zooms on Viola and Orsino almost kissing, the audience fully understands the emotional tragedy which Viola is facing. The expression which can be so clearly seen on Viola’s face affirms how she has completely fallen for Orsino and at that moment, she is so close to revealing her feelings for him. Then that beautiful moment ends and they let go of one another. In that current section of the story, Viola is grasping onto something that she can never have. That is undoubtedly a tragedy, emphasised wonderfully by the film adaptation.

Tragic Comedy or Comedic Tragedy?

A happy conclusion, similar to a Shakespeare comedy

A question debated amongst fans of Shakespeare’s works is whether “Twelfth Night" classifies as a comedy or a tragedy. It is stuffed to the brim with humorous sequences and ends on a happy note unlike Shakespeare’s famous tragedies such as “Romeo and Juliet”. However, tragedy is still very much present with many characters dealing with grief, rejected love and humiliation. From the examination of both the play and the film, it is clear that “Twelfth Night” requires both comedic and tragic elements to craft its story. They are both key to what has made the story stand the test of time. The film adaptation succeeds though where the play couldn’t in terms of emphasising the two contrasting genres to create a far more emotionally rewarding and enjoyable experience. The film is highly recommended viewing for anyone who enjoys Shakespeare and an interesting genre-blender.

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No Sweat Shakespeare. (2019). Shakespeare’s Play Types: Comedies, Tragedies, Historic, Roman, Problem. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Nov. 2019]. (2019). Royal Shakespeare Company | RSC. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. (2019). William Shakespeare Biography. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019]

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