27 May 2019
Dramatic Irony in Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night is considered one of the best romantic comedies in Elizabethan English as it combines a love story, gender roles, and most importantly, dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is an important factor in Twelfth Night because, without it, the audience would not be able to follow the plot. Dramatic irony occurs when the audience is aware of what is happening in a situation, but the characters are not. If Shakespeare had not used dramatic irony, the audience would not have known that Viola disguised herself, why Malvolio had acted like a fool in front of Olivia, or why Sebastian was mistaken for Cesario.
The main plot of Twelfth Night revolves around Viola’s disguise. In Act 1, scene 2, Viola decides to disguise herself as a man so that she can gain employment with Duke Orsino. She feels that this will provide her the security she needs being alone now that her brother is not with her: “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid/ For such disguise as haply shall become/ The form of my intent. I'll serve this duke” (1.2.53-55). The audience watches Viola’s transformation into Cesario, but the characters are not aware that this has happened. Viola’s transformation into Cesario is important because her true identity is not revealed until the end of the play. No one but the Captain, Viola, and the audience are aware that Cesario is actually female: “Be you his eunuch, and your mute I’ll be. When my tongue blabs, then let mine eyes not see” (1.2.59-61).
This secret plays a very important role in Twelfth Night as it develops the plot, and allows the remaining parts of the play to unfold with a number of scenes that include dramatic irony.
Secondly, in Act 2, Scene 5, Malvolio is fooled into believing that Olivia is in love with him. Shakespeare does this by having Maria and Sir Toby write a love letter to Malvolio and seal it with Olivia’s stamp. The letter requested Malvolio show up at Olivia’s house smiling and wearing yellow cross-gartered stockings:
...M, O, A, I. This simulation is not as the former;
and yet, to crush this a little, it would bow to me, for
every one of these letters are in my name. Soft! Here
follows prose. (2.5.130-133)
This is ironic because Olivia is actually annoyed that he is there, and does not love him. However, Malvolio thinks Olivia is in love with him and believes that his smile...