Twelfth Night: Death and Birth

Often, the philosophical or emotional situation of a comedy will move like an example of anti-entropy: from chaos to order, from sadness to happiness, from separation to marriage. Twelfth Night is no different. But looking at it through this perspective, I’m noticing that there is quite a bit of foreshadowing of future happiness, of future order, and re-birth.

We should not be surprised that there are a boatload of death terms used in Twelfth Night (death, dead, dying, etc.). But I was surprised by the birth references sprinkled throughout the piece:

  • The sea captain “was bred and born // Not three hours’ travel” (I.ii.22-3) from his and Viola’s landing spot in Illyria.
  • Sir Toby proclaims that he was “born under Taurus” (I.iv.128-9), the bull being a virile beast.
  • Sebastian tells Antonio that he and Viola were “both born in an hour” (II.i.18), the only reference in the play of their twin status. Even his rescue by the pirates is filled with birth imagery, as he tells Antonio, “you took me from the breach of the sea” (II.i.20-1), almost as if Antonio was a midwife pulling Sebastian from the “fracture” (“breach, n.I.1.a” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 5 February 2015.) of the ocean.
  • The comic pseudo-inspirational quote in the faked love letter to Malvolio: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em” (II.v.136-8).
  • Olivia in her quasi-proposal to Sebastian says that their wedding “celebration (shall be) according to (her) birth” (IV.iii.30-1).

As I mentioned before, death imagery abounds in Twelfth Night, and given the circumstances of the play (Viola assuming her brother is dead; Olivia actually having a dead brother and father), it’s completely understandable. But what’s nice is we get these hints of hope, drawing us to the end of the play, drawing Olivia from her autumnal melancholy to the re-birth of spring.

So it’s completely fitting that the final birth reference in the play is when Viola, as part of her reunion verification with Sebastian, recounts that the day their father died, “Viola from her birth // Had numbered thirteen years” (V.i.239-40). Here, Shakespeare brings together death, birth, and reunion, which in turn allows for the marriages that close the play, and hope of births to follow.

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