Comic Cruelty in Twelfth Night
In a Shakespearean comic setting where chaos, asininity, and insolence reign, the very qualities of comic irreverence become virtues. A comic hero or side character who relentlessly pranks stooges and straight men for the audience's enjoyment is likely to win the viewer's appreciation. Yet it is not just the straight man's suffering -- or even the comic effect itself -- which drives this audience reaction. Rather, the classic traits of charm, guile, wit, and stark honesty with which Shakespeare's jesters and pranksters are all more or less infused come to the fore as eminent values in his several of his plays. One non-comic example: King Lear's Fool, whose antics serve a didactic purpose for the guileless Lear, is maltreated for his insolence and forthrightness, yet is ultimately vindicated when his foreboding proves correct.
In the ensemble of Twelfth Night, the boisterously comic characters of Feste, a protected fool, and Sir Toby, an playful alcoholic, embody these traits as their general mischief both succeeds to great comic effect and ultimately goes unpunished. These two men thus enjoy a great license, one which appears to mirror the atmosphere of freedom that characterized the historic Twelfth Night...
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