Twelfth Night fits rather snuggly into the generic category of Shakespearean "Comedy." But what the heck does that mean anyway? That it's funny? Something else? Well, the play is pretty hilarious, but "Comedy" involves a whole lot more than humor. The genre has a few basic rules to follow so let's look at our handy-dandy checklist and see if Twelfth Night fits:
Light, humorous tone: Check. If Twelfth Night had a slogan it would be "Let the Good Times Roll." There's plenty of humor and foolery in the play and, while Twelfth Night also thinks about some pretty weighty and controversial issues – like sex, gender, love, social ambition – it does so with a light, irreverent hand. (Sometimes, this can be the most effective way to explore heavy topics. Think of Jon Stewart's treatment of politics in The Daily Show. It's silly and light but also pretty shrewd.
Clever Dialogue and Witty Banter: Check. Even when characters are drunk and on the verge of passing out, they somehow manage to blow us away with their snappy wordplay and witty repartee.
Deception and Disguise: Check. Viola cross-dresses as a boy ("Cesario"), her brother Sebastian pretends to be some guy named "Roderigo," and Maria and Toby trick Malvolio into believing Olivia loves him. Sounds like "deception and disguise" to us.
Mistaken Identity: Check. When Viola cross-dresses as "Cesario," she looks a whole lot like her fraternal twin bro, Sebastian. So, when Sebastian rolls up into Illyria, marries Olivia, and beats the heck out of Toby and Aguecheek, everybody blames "Cesario" for his actions and Viola finds herself in quite a jam.
Love Overcomes Obstacles: Check. Viola wants to marry Duke Orsino, but she can't because Orsino is in lust with Olivia. Plus, Orsino thinks Viola is a boy, "Cesario." Also, Olivia wants "Cesario," but she can't have "him" because "Cesario" is Viola, who loves Orsino. We could go on, but you get the picture. Everyone's in love, but things are a mess. That's the "obstacle" part. Here's how love "overcomes" obstacles. When Sebastian shows up, Olivia has no problem transferring her lust for "Cesario" to Viola's look-alike brother. (Yeah, it's ridiculous but so what?) Sebastian's a bachelor so, hey, why not marry Olivia? Now that Viola knows her brother's alive, she can reveal her identity, which is a good thing because now the Duke can marry her. That was easy.
Family Drama: Check. It's pretty clear from the beginning that there's some family drama up in this play. Olivia's brother is dead – he died soon after Olivia's father passed away, which is why Olivia's in mourning for the first part of the play. Also, Viola and Sebastian were separated at sea when their ship sank. Bummer.
Multiple Plots with Twists and Turns: If you've been paying attention to our checklist so far, this one's self-explanatory. So, check.
(Re)unification of Families: Check. We couldn't help it. We snuck a peek at the play's ending. Even though Olivia's dad and brother don't return from the dead, Viola and Sebastian are reunited after Sebastian randomly decides to travel to Illyria, where he finds his little sis has been parading around as a boy.
Marriage: Check. This is a biggie. Even though the play taunts us with the possibility of some unconventional couplings (like "Cesario" might be mauled by Olivia), Twelfth Night, ends in the marriage and/or heterosexual pairings. This is a way for order to be restored to the Elizabethan universe (they were very big on nuptials). By the end, Olivia hooks up with Sebastian in a secret ceremony, Toby and Maria get hitched (off-stage) and Viola and Orsino get engaged. But! Shakespeare isn't so conventional. Viola's marriage to Orsino is delayed (temporarily but it's a delay nonetheless), because she doesn't have a change of clothes. This would be a good time for you to read "What's Up with the Ending?" because we're at the end of our checklist.