Twelfth Night Comedy Quotes

“music” The stage directions call for music, which would have signified that the play was a comedy to its contemporary audience, due to the link then between the two.
“If music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it” Love and music were immediate signifiers of the comedic genre in Elizabethan times. We also see part of Orsino’s character as an excessive, indulgent, possibly ridiculous lover, which is comedic in nature, and comedic because this behavior is so unexpected of a duke.
“Tis not sweet now as it was before” Orsino seems capricious, with fickle and fluctuating moods which could be viewed as effeminate and ridiculous, a source of humour because it is unexpected behavior for a duke, who should be manly and stable.
“that instant was I turned into a hart” Curio tries to distract Orsino with more ‘manly’ pursuits, but Orsino is too obsessed with love, and immediately turns the conversation back to it with this typically-Shakespearean pun, which is obviously humourous.
“Methought she purged the air of pestilence” Melodrama is very comedic (at least to modern audiences, for whom declamatory, melodramatic acting is a thing of the past).
“like a cloistress, she will veiled walk” Olivia’s grief could be seen as excessive and comic, especially when we see the difference in her and Viola’s reactions to their brothers’ deaths, which are next to each other in the play. Viola spares a few lines (“Oh my poor brother”) only, before planning how to survive, and yet a lady who should now be her social superior, and ergo more stable, is completely consumed with grief.
“conceal me what I am” Not only is gender confusion and disguise a key element of Shakespearean comedy, but for an Elizabethan audience, extra comedy would be in getting to see a boy playing a woman playing a man on stage.
“Belch” Even Sir Toby’s name, in the manner of Restoration Comedies and pantomimes, has meaning, showing his position as a classic male comedic character, being crude, bawdy and drunk, which we see in his “quaffing and drinking” and frequent innuendo (see “front her, board her, woo her, assail her”).
“Mistress Accost” Sir Andrew is almost farcically oblivious, and this is highlighted in his mistaking Maria’s name, which is a source of humour.
“A dry jest” An example of typical Shakespearean innuendo, as Maria now has her turn making Sir Andrew look like a fool by calling him impotent.
“Let me see thee caper” Sir Toby uses Sir Andrew, baiting him into dancing, creating a very physical, almost slapstick comedy (similar to the bear baiting popular at the time of the play, and mentioned earlier in the scene), as well as continuing to emphasise Sir Andrew’s role as the butt of many jokes.
“leap all civil bounds” Orsino is so self-absorbed and blinded by love that he has lost all propriety and ignores Elizabethan mourning conventions, which paired with his hyperbolic ‘suffering’ of love, which seems so ridiculous that his excesses become a figure of fun.
“all is semblative a woman’s part” Humour is derived from dramatic irony, because we as the audience know this to be true, that Cesario is actually Viola, a girl, and Orsino’s love for Olivia is again blinding him to reality. An extra layer of comedy is present due to the fact that contemporary audiences would have a young boy playing Viola, adding to the gender confusion.
“whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife” This sets up a large part of the dramatic irony which occurs in the rest of the play, and that sense of audience superiority is important for creating humour.
“you are sick of self-love, Malvolio” Malvolio has already made himself to be a dislikeable character due to his remarks about Feste being a “barren rascal” etc, and it is therefore humourous to see him being chided. This also establishes the fault inn Malvolio that will become how Maria fools him, which is comedic too.
“Lechery! I defy lechery.” When Toby mistakenly takes “lethargy” (aka drunkenness) for “lechery” because he is in an inebriated state, this creates a lower sort of humour, which also displays itself in how Toby “belches”, giving this section of the scene an almost physical comedy.
“one would think his mother’s milk were scarce out of him” Malvolio in this passage sums up that ‘Cesario’ is very womanlike, which creates more humour because of the gender confusion it plays off, and because of the dramatic irony of such a statement.
“Nay, good swabber; I am to hull here a little longer” Typical Shakespearean punning, as before this Maria asks Viola if she will “hoist sail”. The nautical-themed banter is a form of comedy.
“Even so quickly may one catch the plague?” For the audience, the dramatic irony this phrase allows, and the love triangle it creates, is a huge source of comedy, and a central part of the rest of the plot of the play.
“I seem to drown her remembrance again” This is another example of how the play uses dramatic irony to create humour, because whilst Sebastian mourns his sister, we know that she is alive. Without being able to view this from the comedic lens, Sebastian would become a tragic character, but our perspective as an audience lets us experience Twelfth Night’s signature humour, which has a slightly darker undertone.
“fortune forbid my outside have not charmed her” Realising that Olivia has mistakenly fallen in love with her, Viola reinforces the establishment of a love triangle which goes on to be the source of dramatic tension in the rest of the play.
“Poor lady, she had better love a dream” Viola has a seemingly comic perspective on her situation, knowing everything but being unable to do anything about it, which has its darker aspects, as Viola recognises in this quote, subtextually linking Olivia and herself as both being in helpless situations.
“when thou spok’st of Pigrogromitus, of the Vapians passing the equinoctical of Quebus, ’twas very good” Just one example of how Feste plays Sir Andrew (and everyone) for a fool, here by making him pretend to understand gibberish so that he sounds educated, when really it is obviously made up. He does something similar when he sings a very melancholy song about love and youth not lasting long, and yet Andrew thinks that it is “very sweet”. The comedy here is obvious, though slightly tainted as we see Feste fulfil his role as a clown – pointing out the charcters’ (and ergo humanity’s) flaws to the audience.
“my lady bade me tell you…” Malvolio’s condescending tone here is inappropriate considering his company. Although he has a high position in Olivia’s household, he is a social inferior to Sir Toby, and even to Sir Andrew, so for an Elizabethan audience, seeing Malvolio act like he is their superior would have caused comedy.
“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Malvolio is described as “a kind of Puritan”, and in Elizabethan times, any theatre-goer would not have liked Puritans, who wanted to ban the theatre. Ergo, to see a puritanical character being put down thus would have given the play’s original audiences a sense of superiority, which makes this comedic.
“make him a common recreation” Maria’s plan to use Malvolio’s “grounds of faith that all that look on him love him” by making him think Olivia loves him, is very obviously comedic, because as an audience we get to see a dislikeable character get what (at first) seems like his just deserts.
“of your complexion” This is comedic because Orsino is so blinded by love for Olivia that he cannot recognise it when Viola almost completely openly tells him of her love for him. It is to the point of ridiculousness.
“thy mind is a very opal” Feste calls Orsino out on the fickle nature of his love, but Orsino is once more blinded to thinly veiled suggestions, which is humourous, and which also highlights a character arc that we can derive humour from. Orsino’s love is like “changeable taffeta”, seen in how quickly he can switch his love to Viola, and yet he is so melodramatic and claims great things about his and men’s love in general. It is so contrary, and such unexpected behaviour from what is supposed to be a “noble duke”, that an audience may laugh at it.
“I am all the daughters of my father’s house, and all the brothers too: and yet I know not” Viola has essentially confessed all her secrets by now: she love’s Orsino, she knows Olivia cannot love him, she is a girl. And yet! Orsino does not see it! He is too blinded, and this can be laughed at, despite the melancholy atmosphere Viola’s obvious suffering creates. The humourous element of this is emphasised when, after this Orsino just blindly asks Viola to go see Olivia again.
“here comes the trout that must be caught with tickling” Implying that they will stoke his ego, lull him into a false sense of security and then trap Malvolio, the language used by Maria dehumanizes Malvolio, putting him on the same level as a fish, which is either comic or disturbing, depending on how much sympathy for Malvolio you have.
“these be her very c’s, her u’s, and her t’s, and thus makes she her great p’s” A bit of bawdy humour, considering that the first set of letters spells the Elizabethan slang for vagina, which suggests that the supposedly Puritan Malvolio is indulging in the deadly sin of lust. Also, the use of “p” can be viewed either as a fetish of Malvolio’s or his wish to see Olivia in an exposed situation. Either way, this is comic because Malvolio is a father-like figure to Olivia, which makes this disgusting and out-of-place.
“in yellow stockings, and cross-gartered” Not only does this provide a wonderful visual gag, especially as it opposes the Puritan ideal of modesty, but contextually, it would have painted an outrageous picture. Elizabethan men’s fashion involved many odd shapes meant to enhance the legs (vanity fuelled by lust). By 1601, cross-gartering was outmoded. Yellow was a popular dye in court at the time of Twelfth Night, like Malvolio is pretending to be better than he is (despite English sentiment towards such thing – Sumptuary Laws dictated allowed fashion for different classes), but it was also a cheap and lower-class dye, so Malvolio’s pretensions fail. Finally, yellow stockings were commonly worn by women with cheating or carousing husbands, suggesting a mockery of Malvolio’s “sexual ambition and incapacity” or even a form of transvestism, according to some critics.
“some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em” This is ironic because Malvolio is none of these, but probably thinks he is all three in some sense. Also, if the emphasis is on thrust, it puts Malvolio in a passive and lazy position, and also has sexual undertones (greatness through thrusting). The idea of metriocracy is introduced.
“I could marry this wench for this device” This puts Maria in the comedic trope of clever servant, and opens up the possibility of a relationship between Toby and Maria with a modal auxiliary verb. Contrast is drawn between Malvolio and Maria: the first is arrogant and foolish, the second is clever and merit-worthy.
“Jove in his next commodity of hair, send thee a beard” Dramatic irony because we know Viola is a girl and ergo won’t get a beard. This also compliments Viola’s intellect, because Feste is saying she is wise enough to be an old man, which subverts typical gender roles of the period.
“foolery does walk about the orb like a sun; it shines everywhere” This shows how everyone has good and bad and foolishness in them, and highlights Feste’s role as the omniscient clown/jester position, acting as a corrective to the irrational thoughts of others and pointing out uncomfortable truths to bring other characters towards clarity and redemption.
“I have one heart, one bosom…none shall be mistress of it save I alone” Viola is being very obvious here, like a private joke for the audience (dramatic irony), much like when she says “I am not what I am”.
“I would you were as I would have you be” Olivia is almost willing to forget social convention, class boundaries, everything, for love. This shows how love makes fools of us all, and demonstrates the complications love causes – great comedy plot points. Note Olivia’s use of the conditional, both hopeful and hopeless. Even in a green world, this level of social upheaval is too chaotic.
“you find so much blood in his liver as would clog the foot of a flea” Going along with the ‘Four Humours’ theory, this suggests that Andrew doesn’t have the passion or aggression to be a good fighter, which is comic considering that he duels Viola, both of whom are unsuited to the traditional values of duelling (virility, masculinity, courage). This insult is also comic because it is delivered by Andrew’s ‘friend’ Toby.
“my desire (more sharp than fil├ęd steel) did spur me forth” Sebastian is moving closer to the action of the main plot, showing the audience that the move from disorder back to order is beginning. Also, Antonio is being quite clingy/obvious here, which could be comic, although Sebastian’s rather platonic “thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks”/”my kind Antonio” in return for Antonio saving his life can make Antonio almost into a tragic character.
“To bed! Ay, sweet-heart, and I’ll come to thee” Malvolio has misinterpreted Olivia’s suggestion to “go to bed” as an offer of sex, rather than familial concern, which is a bawdy play on words, and very un-Puritan behaviour. Furthermore, “sweet-heart” is completely the wrong register for a servant-noble relationship, highlighting the ridiculousness of Malvolio’s ambitions.
“he is…the most skilful, bloody and fatal opposite…in any part of Illyria” As the audience, we know that Sir Andrew is the exact opposite of this, but Sir Toby’s hyperbole serves the purpose of creating humour, almost making Viola and Andrew “kill one another by the look”. The idea of this duel is also comic because it fits with the play’s theme of subversion: no normal duel would occur between a woman and a coward.
“I’ll ride your horse as well as I ride you” Toby here admits to his manipulation of others, the language showing his control of Andrew to be similar to that of one controlling something with lesser intelligence. Sir Toby fits in here with the Lord of Misrule role, part of traditional Twelfth Night celebrations: someone who is made master of the household for the day, subverting traditional roles (elements of carnivalisation: “carnivalised literary forms allow alternate voices to dethrone the authority of official culture”)
“a little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man” Another dramatically ironic nod to the audience because Viola is saying she lacks the courage (manhood) to confess that she lacks a penis (manhood), as well as showing the audience how scared of the duel she is, since she is almost willing to lose the safety of her disguise to get out of it. In the topsy-turvy world of the play, this could say many things that either affirm or subvert gender roles of the time.
“thou hast, Sebastian, done good feature shame” Reference to mistaken identity trope of comedic literature, as well as confusion and appearances not being reality, and acts as part of the action moving from disorder to order, as Viola begins to suspect that “tempests are kind, and salt waves fresh in love” as “[she], dear brother, be now ta’en for you!”.
“your name is not Master Cesario…nor this is not my nose neither” This is comedic because as the audience we know that this is not indeed “Master Cesario”, and Feste is wrong (though this is debateable, him being the omniscient jester, and having never addressed Cesario as “Master” before). The use of multiple negatives also continues Feste’s motif of speaking in a confusing manner. Whilst all other characters are beginning to move from diorder to order, Feste is remaining constant in his mannerisms and speech, which may suggest his removal from the other characters, since he does not move in the patterns the rest of them do.
“Sebastian: {hitting him repeatedly}” This draws huge contrast between Viola and Sebastian, feminine and masculine, perhaps showing a world moving back to order, and also being funny because of the difference between the two, Sir Andrew’s lack of valour and probably Toby and Andrew’s confusion.
“If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep” Sebastian’s wonder at his position creates comedy, and indeed to the audience the sudden match and the difference again between Viola and Sebastian is funny. The language of dreaming here also implies that confusion and disorder still rule the stage, because anything can happen in dreams.
“I will dissemble myself in’t” Here, Feste has no need to “don the gown and the beard” to disguise himself, and yet he does, firstly showing how utterly they want to humiliate Malvolio, and also creating a visual gag that causes dramatic irony. For an Elizabethan audience especially this would have been comedic since their Sumptuary Laws dictated who could where what depending on their class, so seeing a clown trade his motley for a priest’s outfit would seem surreal.
“it hath bay windows transparent as barricadoes” The audience knows that the dark room Malvolio is in does not have windows, and may find the dramatic irony of the statement funny. Furthermore, when you look at the language that Feste uses, what he really is saying is ‘white is black’. This language of inversion reflects the topsy-turvy world of the play, in which Feste is a key player. Even more comedy can be found in the superfluous, intelligent language that Feste uses, possibly mocking the clergy/intellectuals. Other examples include “hyperbolical” and “clerestories”, as well as his mock philosophy, from example “That that is is”.
“I say there is no darkness but ignorance” This is a particularly stinging remark from Feste, because it takes to the audience Malvolio’s hamartia: hubris. He thought that he knew best, and now his true ignorance is being thrown back in his face. It is also Feste and co pointing out that Malvolio is supposedly not in a dark room and is actually mad, the irony of which could be comedic.
“there was never a man so notoriously abused”