The Lord of Misrule in Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare’s ambition in Twelfth Night: What You Will is to unite the concepts of madness, love, and foolishness through the actions of his many characters all suffering from varying combinations of the three. Love is the center of this triumvirate as the main driving force of the plot. Madness and foolishness are tools used to show the range of emotion that love can imbue in individuals; they are shown as symptoms of lovesickness in the characters. The overall meaning of the play is that love does crazy things to us and makes us to crazy things to each other.

The freedom of the subtitle on this play “What You Will” allows viewers to not only interpret the events of the play through their own perspective, but also gives them permission to experience love as they will. The actions of all the characters can be seen as mad and illogical, but there is no doubt that they believed themselves justified in those actions because they knew it was love driving them. Love inspires flights of fancy and grandiose illusions about how others may reciprocate one’s love, and this play explores all those adventures into the irrational nature of love and its warping affect on the human mind. All of the references to madness could possibly be more than parallels but a diagnosis of the dangerous effect love has on the human mind. The characters show no shame in reveling in their foolishness for the sake of love, furthering the tone of a world turned on its head by the Lord of Misrule.

Many aspects of this play are associated with the concept of the Lord of Misrule. The title refers to the closing night of the Christmas season, when the celebration would be at its most riotous. The dislocation of the setting, a far-off land called Illyria, gives the play a tone of a topsy turvy world: the kind that the Lord of Misrule sends everyone to on celebrations like the one the play is named after. Illyria is the perfect place for Misrule to take over: women become men, servants trick nobles, and logic becomes madness, et cetera. The mad antics of the characters become everyday occurrences, and by the end everyone is satisfied with the sudden dénouement that successfully tied up every conflict between them. No one questions the coincidence of Sebastian’s appearance to save Viola from Olivia, and Orsino himself isn’t bothered by his marriage to the women whom he. just a few minutes ago, was convinced was a male eunuch. Under the influence of the Lord of Misrule, none of these events bother them, and the particular device the Lord uses to upset the logical order is love.


Orsino’s opening monologue introduces the play’s definition of love: “If music be the food of love, play on, / Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die / … Enough, no more! / ‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before” (I.i.1-8). Orsino’s speech is rich in characterizing love, likening it a voracious appetite and music to the substance it feeds on gluttonously. He very quickly changes his mind and decides his taste for music has changed, showing that love makes him (and every other character in the play) flighty and prone to sudden changes in temperament. Sudden and irrational change becomes a major motif in the story. Orsino closes his speech with “So full of shapes is fancy / That it alone is high fantastical” (I.i.14-15), which evokes the hallucinatory properties of love, introducing the comparison of love to madness.

Love confusticates reason and there is no cure for it; the same could be said for madness. Malvolio is at the center of this parallel, with his story of bizarre pranks and unjust incarceration providing raucous humor. The character is in love with the idea of class mobility, and this desire signals his downfall when it is used to have him locked away as a madman. The servants fool Malvolio into thinking Olivia’s love for him exists, which leads him to fool Olivia into thinking Malviolo’s madness exists. Fancy is “so full of shapes” as Orsino says and love itself becomes fantastical, just another illusion. When told that Malvolio seems tainted in his wits, Maria says, “I am as mad as he, / If sad and merry madness equal be” (III.iv.13-14). She mourns the deaths of her father and brother and refuses any suitors during her grief, which she herself has just described as madness. She claims to be equal to Malvolio if his happy madness is equal to her sad madness. Then enter Malvolio and cue his attempts to please her by following the love notes’ insane instructions. He seems to have no control over himself, which is why he is tossed into the madhouse, but it goes further than that. Malvolio follows the fake love note to the letter, despite its illogical nature just as any person follows the irrational urges that love inspires, be it true love or as imaginary as the feelings in the note. Malvolio is a victim of the deceit of the servants but also the deceit of love itself, which cruelly makes madmen of even the most refined individuals.

Viola is the protagonist of the play and the ultimate beguiler. By creating the illusion of Cesario, she fools everyone in the play into thinking an entire person exists. Olivia is fooled into loving this false man, and marries Viola’s twin under even more bizarre circumstances. The events aren’t so much a farce of romance as they are a showcase of the deformations of romance and the lengths to which it can deform people. At the end of the story, Orsino discovers Viola’s true identity and says to her, “Cesario, come– / For so you shall be while you are a man, / But when in other habits you are seen, / Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen” (V.i.387-390). His final words in the play reference fancy as he does with his opening words. Most oddly, Orsino refers to Viola by the name of the man she masqueraded as. Orsino just told Cesario the man that she will live as his queen in other clothes (or habits). He acknowledges that the man has every right to be real just as do the fantasies of love that pervade the story. Orsino is a sentimentalist who gives love a chance and makes Viola the queen of his love. It’s mad, but that’s the nature of the play.


Another altered state of mind that is shown is drunkenness in scene five of act one, when Toby confuses words and makes a fool of himself long before he turns the ridicule on Malvolio. Olivia and Feste enjoy Toby’s antics, and when Olivia asks the Clown what a drunken man is like, he responds with: “Like a drowned man, a fool, and a madman. / One draught above heat makes him a fool, the / second mads him, and a third drowns him” (I.v.130-133). As the crowned fool of the play, Feste understands all the comparisons to be made and exposes them when witnessing the effects being drunk has on a man, which is a precursor to love’s effects on every other character. Straightforward foolishness is another state of mind that is used to set the precedent for love in the scene between Andrew and Toby in act one. Andrew makes several mistakes in defining words and makes a fool of himself in front of Toby and Maria, but it’s of no great matter. His foolishness is trivial next to the madness and lovesickness that ails so many others around him. Sir Andrew’s description of himself in this scene also sets the precedent for the entire play: “I am a fellow o’ th’ / strangest mind i’ th’ world. I delight in masques and / revels sometimes altogether” (I.iii.109-111). He outs himself as a strange-minded man, who delights in tricks. Later we’ll see Violoa use her tricks on Orsino and Olivia, and we’ll see Maria and company trick Malvolio, who in turn tricks Olivia. Andrew expresses the revelry that he has in such antics and characterizes the entire cast at the same time.

The ending of the play is an enigmatic song performed by Feste alone on stage (in most interpretations). The refrain of every stanza is “for the rain it raineth every day,” until the last stanza where it is replaced with “But that’s all one, our play is done, And we’ll try to please you every day” (V.i.409-410). As the epilogue of the action, it serves a very important purpose to thematically tie it all up. By calling out the actors attempts to please the crowd, Feste compares them to the rain of earlier stanzas and the experience they have which is eternal rain (at least from their perspective). Feste could be commenting on the character’s eternal struggle in the trenches of conflict for the sake of the audience, and in the context of the play this would be mean having love be an ever-present source of grief for them. But also ever-present sources of revelry, as the characters love to practice their silly games on each other. In the Land of Misrule, love has chaotic command over the happy inhabitants, and the audience gets to enjoy the show like the celebrators of the Christmas season. Shakespeare captures the nature of that world and shares it onstage for fools and lovers to share in for centuries to come.


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