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Use of Dramatic Techniques in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1673 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Analyse the use of no fewer than three dramatic techniques in the depiction of human desire in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Throughout the Renaissance period, playwright William Shakespeare’s works were being circulated throughout England. Shakespeare wrote Tweflth Night approximately in the middle of his career and it is considered to be one of his greatest comedic plays. Shakespeare uses this play to employ dramatic techniques such as dialogue, soliloquy and dramatic irony to depict human desire – desires that include ambition, identity and relationships. These themes along with the way they are presented is both entertaining and intriguing to an audience, ultimately giving it the popularity that it has.

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Identity is a major theme in Twelfth Night and is most obviously portrayed through the character of Viola. In Act II, Scene II, there is a soliloquy by Viola which emphasises her role as a character who occupies liminal space – in this instance, the space is between her identity as being both male (Cesario) and female (Viola). Viola laments the fact that Olivia will be distressed after her disguise as Cesario is ultimately revealed, especially after realising Olivia has developed strong feelings for her as Cesario. Viola feels guilt towards the situation because Cesario is someone who does not exist and Oliva “were better love a dream”. Viola’s confusion with her identity, however, is intriguing and entertaining to the audience. Common in Shakespearean drama is how appearances are not always as they seem and do not align with reality – presented in this identity confusion. The soliloquy in this act focuses on this discrepancy through the word “disguise” since she is disguised to be a male (appearance) though she is female (reality). Viola’s inner turmoil throughout this soliloquy builds up anticipation in the play and excitement for the audience who become aware of Viola’s feelings.

Furthermore, through his background as a poet, Shakespeare employs the poetic technique of a rhyming couplet at the conclusion of the soliloquy, which is vital to the plot. Often, rhyming couplets suggest a sense of closure to a scene or speech – in the case of a play, the way the actor enunciates the couplet as they read it would imply the finality of the speech. The couplet “O Time, thou must untangle this not I; It is too hard a knot for me to untie” uses both imagery and a pun which amplify the audience’s eagerness for the resolution of the play. The pun is shown in “a knot” and “untangle this not” which plays with the same-sounding words of knot and not. The effectiveness of the word is symbolic of the complicated, messy situation that Viola is in. To “untie” herself of this tangled position she has put herself in is too difficult to resolve, therefore she hopes – out loud – that this situation will better itself in due time.

In addition, Shakespeare uses dialogue – both through his prose and verse – to invite the audience into the thoughts and feelings of the characters’ status and how they strive for a position higher than what they have. For example, at the beginning of the play, Malvolio speaks in prose which shows his intelligence, however towards the conclusion of the play, he speaks in verse

“Lady, you have. Pray you, pursue that letter.

You must not now deny that it is in your hand:

Write from it, if you can, in hand or phrase,

Or say ‘tis not your seal, not your invention” (Act 5, Scene 1).

The rhythm is altered so it deliberately does not comply with the iambic pentameter rules, which highlights the strong emotion and feeling Malvolio has. This humiliation and perplexity is made obvious through the breathlessness of his speech – evident through the consistent punctuation. In contrast, Orsino’s speech is smooth and written in iambic pentameter “If music be the food of love, play on, Give me excess of it, that, suffering, The appetite may sicken, and so die” (Act 1, Scene 1). Shakespeare’s choice to use iambic pentameter for Orsino, as opposed to Malvolio, defines Orsino’s character to an extent. The use of this form symbolises control, although the emphasis is on the instability and intense love he feels for Olivia. In turn, the audience is swayed to pity Orsino for his love-sick behaviour. Simultaneously, however, this is comedic in the sense that he has not yet met Olivia – allowing the audience to think that he is just in love with the idea of being in love.

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Furthermore, this diction that Shakespeare gives his characters plays an integral role in their characterisation. To show characters have more intelligence, he gives them a large vocabulary, as opposed to a more limited vocabulary to characters who have a lower status. Shakespeare employs language characteristics such as metaphors, syntax, vocabulary and imagery used by Malvolio with those used by the Clown. Despite both characters being erudite, the language choice for each varies to quite a degree. The clown, Feste, frequently uses puns, aphorisms and plays on words to show intelligence through both wit and wisdom. This is evident in Act 1, Scene 5, where he says

‘Wit, and’t be thy will, put me into good fooling! Those wits that think they have thee do very oft prove fools; and I that am sure I lack thee may pass for a wise man. For what says Quinapalus? “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.” God bless thee lady!’

However, Malvolio uses language which is less witty, though more well-spoken, however he is also more arrogant. This is encompassed in his final line in Act 5, Scene 1 ‘I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you!’ which makes the audience feel pity for him. The imagery in the metaphor of ‘the whole pack of you’ describes how he feels like the fool as a result of the rest the characters’ actions and how he is singled out, isolated from the rest of the cast in Twelfth Night. This is evident in how the rest of the characters have ended the play with love or companionship with another character, though Malvolio’s character and story is a loose end.

Continually, Malvloio endures self-deception, believing that Olivia has romantic feelings towards him and that is the reason why she agrees with all of his choices and actions, creating dramatic irony in the play. It is according to Malvolio that Olivia’s love for him which allows her to comply with his commands as her own. However, in reality this is the position that was given to any steward throughout the Elizabethan period, and not exclusive to Malvolio. This is supported by Clare Byrne who says ‘an Elizabethan household steward was a gentleman of considerable importance, occupying a very responsible position, which gave him the exercise of very considerable power’ (204). In turn, the audience is made aware, yet again, of the themes of appearance and reality.

Prior to Malvolio giving in to Maria’s trap, the audience identifies that Malvolio is guilty of self-love – which is heard by them through his mentality. The comedic aspect of this is that despite his thinking that Olivia loves him, he does not love Olivia for who she is, but rather for her person. Barber believes that “he does not desire Olivia’s person; that desire even in a steward, would be sympathetically regarded, though not of course, encouraged by a Twelfth Night mood, what he wants is to be Count Malvolio”. Furthermore, through his way of thinking, the audience is informed on the true identity of Malvolio which is masked by his image of Puritanism. According to D.Amir, this concealment can be regarded as spiritual or an internal disguise due to Malvolio possessing both Puritan beliefs and ideologies – due to his claims and actions – and a materialistic nature, also (308). The dramatic irony is most present when Maria forges the love letter, and the audience is made aware of this duplicity whereas Malvolio is completely oblivious when he reads the letter. As a result, his error in following the letter’s instructions, leading to his humiliation, is “a conceited and subjective interpretation of data which confirms instead of challenging his fantasy” (Barber 255).

In conclusion, dramatic techniques are used by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night to encompass the main themes surrounding human desire in the play. Ambition, identity – and the struggles that come with it – and relationships are all themes which the audience can resonate with, making the play relatable yet entertaining in its ambiguity and comedic factors. Throughout various scenes in the play, Shakespeare uses literary devices in a performative way through the dialogue, placing an emphasis on the way characters communicate with one another and how their relationships with each other are effected as a result. Dramatic irony allows the audience to learn about the information which is concealed from the characters which builds up anticipation for the resolution of the play. Soliloquies also allow the audience to gain further insight into the characters’ thoughts and feelings, thus entertaining the audience about what each of the cast desires.


  • Amir, Āla. “Dramatic Irony In William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.” Journal of Missan Researches 5.9 (2008): 308. Print.
  • Barber, C. L. “Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy”, Princeton University Press (1972): 255. Print
  • Byrne, Clare. “The Social Background,” A Companion to Shakespeare Studies, eds. Harley Granville-Barker & G. B. Harrison. Cambridge University Press (1964): 204. Print.
  • Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Singapore: Federal Publications, 1985. Print.


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