Twelfth Night

The Functions of Comedy in Twelfth Night

Salinger (1974) calls Twelfth Night a “comedy about comedy” in which Shakespeare demonstrates his “fundamental debt to the earlier Renaissance tradition of comic playwriting and his abiding sense of detachment from it” (pg 242), and it is from this point that this essay will discuss functions of comedy in regards to Shakespeare abiding and deviating at various points from traditional Renaissance comedies and into which category of comedy Twelfth Night can be placed. It will also discuss how realism aids the function of comedy in the play in the particular case of Twelfth Night, that function being primarily a celebration of both joy and of Shakespeare’s comedy for its own sake.

Traditional Renaissance comedy is clearly present throughout the text, such as the derisive laughter aimed at Malvolio cross-gartered in yellow stockings or Sir Andrew unsuspecting in the mock duel. The audience laughing at Malvolio serves to ridicule him further for his folly, but also serves comedy value in distinctly Shakespearian terms; we laugh at Malvolio to cast him out and show our dislike of him because he ruins the fun. This is what Charlton (1966) picks as definitive of a Shakespeare comedy, that the characters “inspire us to be happy with...

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