Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ And The Corruption of Words – Classics to Never Neglect

Usually when we think of Shakespeare, plays like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘Hamlet’ come to mind. Let me suggest the masterpiece that is ‘Twelfth Night.’

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Usually when we think of Shakespeare, plays like Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet come to mind. But those are only two legendary works out of 38. With as much as everyone praises Shakespeare, most people have not read or even heard of most of Shakespeare’s plays.



But as great as Shakespeare is, it’s not as if everyone is obligated to read all of his work. True, some are particularly motivated and read far more than most. Yet for those with more of a subdued curiosity for Shakespeare, it wouldn’t hurt to read at least one of his lesser-known plays, would it?

Let me suggest the masterpiece that is Twelfth Night.

Why this one? There are several things that make it unique and particularly attractive.

One is its contemplation of identity, where a simple change of clothes can change who a character is. Viola dresses as a young squire of Lord Orsino’s court, and deceives them about her true gender until the end.

The end itself is another fascinating study. On one hand, Orsino and Viola are married along with Sebastian, her brother, and Lady Olivia. All of the mix-ups along the way are thereby sorted out: Olivia loving Viola when she was disguised as a boy and Viola loving Orsino when she was acting as a messenger of his love to Olivia.

But on the other hand, the end is not so happily ever after for Malvolio, Olivia’s butler, who was tricked, scorned, and humiliated before all the other characters. The clown—also known as fool or by his lesser-known name Festefinds himself in a similar state of melancholy, in which he expresses in a strange song that closes the play like dissonant chord:


But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.
(Act V, Scene 1)
Accordingly, it’s difficult to categorize the play as a comedy or a tragedy. Perhaps Shakespeare didn’t want it to be so: at this point, he began to blur those lines he delineated before.




Beyond the play’s ending, Feste the clown takes a surprisingly prominent role. His purpose is to entertain Lady Olivia and her guests, Sir Andrew and Sir Toby, and, by extension, the audience of the play. But he does far more than just entertain. Yes, he also takes action as a messenger, a conspirator in Malvolio’s humiliation, and many other roles.

But Feste’s greatest role is self-confessed: “I am indeed not [Lady Olivia’s] fool,” he says, “but her corrupter of words” (Act III, Scene 1).

For he, the fool, is the wittiest of them all, able to deftly pun on words and make them mean what they were never intended to mean. The fool is not in the trade of entertaining or of being foolish, but seeing two sides of every word and flipping them on their head.

But what’s the point? This skill doesn’t seem particularly useful, except for entertaining. The point is this: Feste shows that language is powerful even when it is only used in jest. The perception of someone’s intentions is at the mercy of one who wields words—or, as Feste says, corrupts them.


Interested in reading other recommendations—and considerations—of classic literature? Check out some of my other articles!

3 Qualities that Make Classic Books Classic

Around the World in Eighty Days And the Value of Time

Oedipus Rex And the Beauty of Tragedy

Gulliver’s Travels And the Mirror of Satire

‘The Lottery’ And the Power of Endings


Here are some others on Shakespeare:

On William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

Interrupted by Flames: The Burning of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater


Featured Image via Thomas Kelley on Unsplash and Amazon