Twelfth Night: More Acted Upon than Acting?

As I reread Twelfth Night, I find myself asking a seemingly simple question: What is the role of fate in the play? For the sake of argument here, I’m lumping together fate/fortune/stars/time. I say “seemingly  simple” because I’m seeing two layers of this “role”: there is the actual role of fate, then there is the perceived role of fate.

There are really only two actual fateful actions: the shipwreck, and the subsequent landings of the separated twins in the same country of Illyria.

For Malvolio, it is “fortune” (II.v.21) or “chance, hap or luck” (“fortune, n.; 1.a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 1 February 2015.) that controls whether or not he will be with Olivia. And both Sebastian and Malvolio refer to their “stars” (II.i.3 and II.v.161, 164), heavenly bodies that control their destiny.

After Olivia sends Malvolio after Cesario under the false pretense of returning the ring, she states, “Fate, show thy force; ourselves we do not owe. // What is decreed must be — and be this so” (I.v.299-300). Even as Olivia takes action, she relinquishes the power of her situation to Fate, admitting that she–and everyone–doesn’t even own (“owe”) her self. Within lines of this statement, Sebastian bemoans “the malignancy of (his) fate” (II.i.2). Sebastian perceives his destiny as malicious not just in his sister’s death but in his own survival as well. And when Malvolio reads the Maria missive, thinking it’s from Olivia, he speaks aloud what he feels are the beliefs of Olivia, that there are “Fortune’s fingers” (II.v.149) and “Fates (which can) open their hands (II.v.138), allowing him to take action to win Olivia.

It’s ironic that the only statement in the play of Fate allowing for human action comes from a letter that is a lie.

If anything holds power over fate and fortune in the world of Twelfth Night, it would seem to be time. Only Time can “untangle” fate, which is “too hard a knot for (Viola) t’ untie” (II.ii.40 and 41). Meanwhile, it is the “whirligig of time (that) brings in his revenges” (V.i.370) on all.

Is there any power that the characters (or actors) have (or believe they have)? Or is it fate which is in control? Or is it the playwright? The most active character–creating situations, not merely reacting to them–is Maria, the playwright behind the gulling of Malvolio. Not once in the play does she refer to fate, or fortune, or nature, or time, or stars.

But is she in control? Or does she merely devise the situation, and allow time to run its course?

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