Notes on Twelfth Night Themes

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Twelfth Night Topic Tracking: Jokes

Act 1, Scene 3

Jokes 1: Shakespeare enjoys wordplay, and jokes that hinge on word meanings are common in the play. They often indicate which characters are intelligent and which are fools: Andrew misunderstands the meaning of "accost," for example, while Maria, and even Toby the drunk, do not.

Jokes 2: Sir Andrew often takes seriously what others would joke about, with humorous results. He wishes, for example, that he had not spent so much time bear-baiting. His wish is so earnest and heart-felt, and yet so ridiculous (bear-baiting is an extremely foolish pastime) that the audience cannot help but laugh at him. In contrast, Toby, who is just as much of a drunk, seems to at least have a minimal education.

Jokes 3: Sometimes it is unclear whether Sir Toby likes Andrew, or whether he just keeps him around to make fun of him. He leads Andrew to brag about his talents, and then asks him to display those talents so that he can watch and laugh. Toby is entertained, and Andrew has no idea he is being laughed at.

Act 1, Scene 5

Jokes 4: The clown's jokes, like those of Toby, reveal him to be more intelligent than he seems to be. While Toby and Maria seem to enjoy exposing others (especially Sir Andrew) as fools, the clown turns his humorous criticism on the whole world. He suggests that wisdom is sometimes mistaken for foolishness, and vice versa. In fact, he even suggests that wisdom and foolishness might, at times, be the same thing.

Act 2, Scene 3

Jokes 5: Toby is a drunk, but he is not a fool. He thus is able to make fun of himself and Andrew by pretending that their all-night drinking binges are noble and wise activities. Andrew, on the other hand, does not understand this kind of joke. He explains that what they do is actually pretty simple: they have all-night drinking binges. The audience thus laughs both at Toby's overly complex speeches and Andrew's overly simply ones.

Jokes 6: One of the most common types of joke in the play is the confusion of a compliment with an insult. Andrew does this more often than anyone else, and Toby sometimes leads him to it. Toby, for example, calls a song "contagious," (perhaps meaning "catchy") and Andrew heartily agrees, calling it "sweet and contagious." Toby, who is educated and understands subtle meanings of words, is teasing Andrew, but simple Andrew doesn't see that.

Jokes 7: Maria's ability to play a good joke on Malvolio earns her the respect of Toby and Andrew. Toby, whose entire purpose in life seems to be to have fun and make fun of people, admires the special brand of cleverness it takes to play a trick. Andrew finds it even more impressive: he tends to think of practical joking as a form of wisdom.

Act 2, Scene 5

Jokes 8: Maria decides to play a joke on Malvolio because she is fed up with his holy, pompous, superior attitude. She wants to teach him a lesson, and knows that there is no better way to do it than to make Malvolio himself reveal what a fool he is. Since he acts so superior, she wants to bring him down to their level, and tells him to act like a clown, wearing yellow stockings and smiling like an idiot.

Act 3, Scene 2

Jokes 9: Toby has been able to live off of Andrew's stupidity for some time now, while entertaining himself by playing jokes on Andrew. Toby and Fabian do not feel guilty about playing even the most extravagant trick: they incite him to fight in a duel, for example, even though he may get injured or killed. Maria feels the same way about Malvolio: he is such a fool that he deserves to be exposed as one. The group enjoys exposing people for what they really are: Malvolio is a lovesick idiot who pretends to be a wise nobleman, and Andrew is a foolish coward who pretends to be a brave gentleman.

Act 5, Scene 1

Jokes 10: The joke on Malvolio is finally explained by Fabian, who reasons that since the pranksters were all injured by the trick as well, there is no reason to punish them: they have already been punished. Olivia understands that, no matter what happened to Toby, Fabian and Andrew, Malvolio was "notoriously abused." The audience would have to agree--Malvolio was kept imprisoned in darkness for some time. However, since Malvolio cannot see the humor in the situation, and remains at the end of the play the only bitter and angry character (everyone else has something to be joyful about) the audience cannot feel too sorry for him. When he runs away, swearing revenge, his rage is merely comical.

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