Twelfth Night (Folger Shakespeare Library)
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Twelfth Night Summary and Analysis

by William Shakespeare

Act 4

Act IV Summary:

Scene 1:

Feste approaches Sebastian, thinking that Sebastian is 'Cesario'; when Sebastian tells Feste that he does not know him, nor Olivia, whom Feste tells him to meet, Feste becomes rather upset, and accuses Sebastian of "strangeness". Then Sir Andrew comes, and strikes Sebastian out of anger, as if he were Cesario; Sir Toby and Sebastian come close to getting in a duel of their own, when Olivia finds them, and charges them to stop. Olivia dismisses Sir Toby, and asks Sebastian "would thou'dst be ruled by me," thinking that he is Cesario, due to his great resemblance to his sister. Sebastian decides to go along with it, struck by Olivia's beauty, thinking it all a pleasant dream from which he hopes he will not awaken.

Scene 2:

Maria and Feste conspire to present Feste as Sir Topaz, the curate, to Malvolio, who is hidden from view. Feste tries to convince that Malvolio that he is crazy, and Malvolio continues to insist that he is not, that he has been wrongly incarcerated. Feste then confronts Malvolio as himself, and torments him some more; he fakes a conversation with himself as Feste and Sir Topaz, and Malvolio begs for paper and ink so that he can send a message to Olivia. Feste promises to fetch these things, and exits with a song.

Scene 3:

Sebastian debates with himself whether he is mad, or whether it is the Lady Olivia; but, he recognizes that is cannot be her, since she is able to command a large household, and therefore would have to be sane and coherent. Olivia asks him to come with her to the parson and be married to her; Sebastian, though he does not know her and cannot figure out exactly what is going on, says he will marry her, and leaves with her.

Act IV Analysis:

Feste the fool confronts Sebastian, and Sebastian, completely baffled about who Feste is and why Feste is addressing him like Feste knows him, adopts an annoyed, and even more formal tone than is usual for him. "I prithee, vent thy folly somewhere else," Sebastian urges Feste (IV.i.9). Feste is displeased by Sebastian's high-flown language, taking Sebastian's normal speech as being designed to sound condescending to Feste. Feste parodies Sebastian's tone and language by asking Sebastian, "I prithee now, ungird thy strangeness," and mocking his use of the word "vent" (IV.i.14). Note the contrast between Sebastian's more stiff manner of speaking, and Viola's more plain and witty way of expressing herself; unlike Viola, Sebastian does not engage in any kind of wordplay with Feste, choosing rather to avoid any type of confrontation of wits. The theme of mistaken identity comes back into the foreground in the scenes with Sebastian in this act, with the issue waiting to be resolved in the final act.

There is one basic similarity shown between Sebastian and Viola in their encounters with Feste, and that is their generosity, shown by their willingness to give Feste money for his troubles. Another common aspect of their personalities is their impulsiveness; Sebastian proves very impulsive, as he chooses to marry Olivia after knowing her for only a few minutes. These shared aspects in their temperament mean that Sebastian and Viola are more easily mistaken for each other; had they been vastly different, then perhaps the difference between the two would have been more easily discovered.

Sebastian's reaction to Olivia's show of affection is parallel to a situation of yet another twin, Antipholus, in Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors; Antipholus too was confronted by a woman claiming his affections, who mistook him for his identical twin. The reaction of the two twins is similar as well; Antipholus reacts by questioning his sanity and whether he is awake, just as Sebastian does in his aside. Both make the same decision in this situation as well; Sebastian himself decides to let his "sense in Lethe steep," alluding to the mythical river of oblivion to convey the capriciousness of his decision (IV.i.60).

Here, again, the play depends on dramatic irony in its entertainment value to the audience, and in getting the characters to mistake each other. This situation presented in this scene is very funny because Olivia mistakes Sebastian for Viola, and Sebastian does not realize this identity mix-up he is involved in. The audience is wise to it all, and is entertained by knowing how these characters are confused, and by knowing that some kind of messy incident will be required in order to sort this situation out, and that both Olivia and Sebastian, not to mention the others, will be shocked by the truth.

Feste continues his mischief in the next scene, with Malvolio; he disguises himself as a cleric named "Topaz," which is a stone that symbolized sanity, and hence was thought to be a cure for madness. Feste again speaks with a tone of fake intellectualism, poking fun of the habit of scholars to quote famous figures by concocting a reference to the fictional "old Hermit of Prague" (IV.ii.13). He corrupts the Spanish greeting "buenos dias" into something that almost sounds like Latin, "bonos dies," also to make himself sound more falsely authoritative.

To convince Malvolio that he is insane, Feste tosses about a few paradoxes, and contradicts some of the things that Malvolio knows to be true. Feste begins by asking Malvolio if it is light or dark where he is imprisoned; Malvolio answers that it is indeed dark, and Feste counters him by swearing that there are "bay windows transparent as barricadoes" and "lustrous as ebony" (IV.ii.37). By barricadoes, Feste means "barricades," which are not at all transparent, and ebony is dark and black, rather than light; these statements are meant to contradict what Malvolio perceives, but also to confuse him through the paradox inherent in the statements. Feste then examines him as to his belief in Pythagoras' theory of souls, and threatens to leave Malvolio when Malvolio says he does not believe in it. It would be odd for a Christian parson to believe that souls inhabit other bodies after death, rather than believing the traditional Christian idea, that souls go to heaven; however, Malvolio does not pick up on this key fact, and does not realize that Sir Topaz is really Feste in disguise.

Continuing his efforts, Feste upsets Malvolio by telling him that he is "more puzzled than Egyptians in their fog," referring to one of the plagues of Egypt in the Bible, which was a heavy fog of darkness that stayed for three days (IV.ii.45). Malvolio tries to reinforce his statement that the place where he is is dark, reasoning that "this house is as dark as ignorance, though ignorance were as dark as hell" (IV.ii.46-7). His attempt to qualify his perceptions through this simile shows how stubborn he is, and how difficult a time Feste and company will have if they want to drive Malvolio truly mad.

Feste addresses Malvolio as himself as well; but to Malvolio's calls of "fool," Feste merely taunts him with a song that rubs in Malvolio's situation, of being in love with a woman who only cares for someone else. Malvolio's cries fall flat with Feste, who acts the part of a fool, but has been displayed as someone who is rather wise; it is ironic that Malvolio would call Feste a fool, since Malvolio has acted more of a fool than Feste usually does.

During this scene, Malvolio is heard, but not seen, on stage. In some versions, he speaks from beneath the stage, and in a few other versions, he is behind the stage; the scene relies on Feste and his impersonation skills and, as written, does not give much sympathy to Malvolio. However, Malvolio's treatment, which was mostly comic in previous scenes, becomes rather cruel; Malvolio keeps begging to be let out, and for light and writing instruments, yet his pleas are ignored while Feste tries his best to make Malvolio seem even more foolish than he is. Feste is rather diffident to Malvolio, and his delight in tormenting Malvolio is rather sadistic as well; while before, Feste was witty, benevolent, and full of jests, here he reveals a darker side, as the play becomes a little darker as well.

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