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Answer: William Shakespeare has written a number of romantic comedies. Twelfth Night is one of the finest comedies of the author. We know that a romantic comedy is a play in which the romantic elements are mingled with comic elements. It is a form of comedy which deals with love. Love at first sight is often its main theme. Generally, a romantic comedy starts with some problems that make the union of the lover difficult. But it ends with their happy union. Twelfth Night is a typical romantic play of Shakespeare. It has some elements which give the play a romantic air. It is romantic in its setting and theme. Love at first sight, music, improbabilities and the violation of the classical rules have lent weight to the view that Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy.
Love is the very essence of romance. Twelfth Night is a romantic play. Because the passion of love dominates it. It is the tale of love ending with the ringing of marriage bells. It is also a tale of love at first sight. The Duke, Orsino falls in love with Olivia as soon as he has seen her. Viola falls in love with the Duke immediately. Olivia falls in love with Cesario in the course of her very first interview with him. As soon as Cesario has left, she says to herself-
“Even so quickly may one catch the plague.”
This love is romantic, intense and passionate. It has nothing to do with reason. It is not directed and run with argument.
A Shakespearean comedy is a romantic comedy. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has treated love as main theme. All the principal characters in the play are passionately in love. They have no other business but that of love-making. The play opens on a note of love. At the very beginning of the play and in the starting dialogue, Orsino says-
“If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, the surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.”
Thus the Duke is love-sick. Passionate love expressed in poetical language. Love also dominates the hearts of Sir Andrew and Malvolio. They both love Lady Olivia and want to marry her. In this way, the treatment of this theme makes the play even more romantic.
We know that the setting of a Shakespearean comedy is romantic. It is generally, unfamiliar, remote and distance. It exists only in the imagination of the dramatist. The scene of action is not laid in familiar and realistic London. But it occurs in Venice or in the Forest of Arden. The scene of action of Twelfth Night is Illyria. Actually, Illyria is a country having no reality. But it exists only in the imagination of the playwright. It is in such a romantic setting that the character dance the merry dance of love. Whereas by the end, they are happily united with their lovers.
We have already tried to catch the attention that love is the dominating theme in Twelfth Night. But music comes next in importance. Love of music is also a romantic quality. Most of the songs in the play are provided by the Clown or the fool. Thus the play opens with music. We find that the Duke feeds his love with music. He is a man of a genuine musical taste. He likes sentimental melodies which deal with the subject of love and death. Even Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are fond of music. Thus music does much to heighten the romantic atmosphere of the comedy.
Twelfth Night is also romantic in the sense that it does not follow the classical unities of time, place and action. Here the unity of place has only been observed. There is no unity of time or action. There is no one plot in the play but two plots. The tragic and the comic scenes are also mingled. The main plot is serious and tragic in tone. On the other hand, the sub-plot is entirely comic. Thus there is no unity of action in the play. There is no unity of time because the action of the play is spread over many days and is not limited only to twenty-four hours.
Confrontation of realism and romance is another quality of twelfth Night. It makes the play romantic. Moreover, several situations in this play are highly improbable. A romantic play is generally unrealistic; improbabilities enter a romantic play for the power of imagination. A dramatist’s imagination creates situations which may not occur in real life. In this play Sebastian and Viola are separated from each other for a ship-wreck. A ship-wreck is a distinct possibility. But brother and sister land safely in the same sea-coast, the coast of Illyria. They go to the same place, Duke Orsino’s court, to try their luck. This is certainly improbable.
In estimation, we may say that the important characteristics or features of a romantic comedy are presented in Twelfth Night. The treatment of love, the setting, the ignorance of the classical rules of drama and improbable activities are unmistakable in the play. They have made the drama romantic. Like As you Like It, this play bears these romantic elements. So we cannot but regard Twelfth Night as a romantic comedy.