Twelfth Night, or What You Will
Letters and love poetry circulate throughout Twelfth Night as the play reflects on the value and hidden dangers of written words. Shakespeare exposes the way poetry can lose all meaning and credibility when it follows formulaic patterns. There are plenty of self-conscious moments where Shakespeare reminds us of his position as a writer, especially when he draws our attention to the follies of conventional poetry even as he participates in the tradition. Yet, at various moments, Twelfth Night reminds us that, when verse is composed spontaneously and sincerely, poetry can have more power over human beings than anything else. Letters, too, can be both deceptive and freeing, depending on the writer. Even when words are "corrupted" by figures like Feste, they very often prove to be the best tools for revealing truth and wisdom.
Questions About Language and Communication
- What kinds of letters and messages circulate throughout the play?
- What is Olivia's response to Duke Orsino's love messages? What does she say about memorized poetry?
- How, exactly, does Malvolio come to believe that Countess Olivia is in love with him?
- What is the play's overall attitude toward written language? Is it a good thing? A bad thing? What evidence would you use to support your claims?
Chew on This
Even though Twelfth Night warns against the dangers of written language, it also suggests that language has the power to reveal the truth.
Several characters in Twelfth Night compose and recite love poetry, which gives the play an opportunity to comment on the conventions of romantic verse.