As a fin-de-siècle romantic comedy, Twelfth Night represents Shakespeare’s final working of the genre. The play was written and performed at the cusp of the old Elizabethan courtly and romantic comedy and the new social and satirical comedy aggressively promoted by Jonson in his second ‘humours’ play and second Globe play, Every Man Out of His Humour. It could be argued that Twelfth Night already appeared dated when it was performed at the Globe in the wake of Every Man Out in 1601. Yet that Shakespeare could hardly have been unaware of competing aesthetics and of an apparent shift in taste is evidenced in his experimentation with and dilution of both comedy in Measure for Measure and romance and the romantic in Troilus and Cressida.
The transitional nature of comedy at the turn of the century and the fierce debates about the nature and purpose of dramatic representation have been the focus of much scholarly and critical analysis. Opinions differ as to the complexion of the – now canonical – relationship between Shakespeare’s romantic comedy and what was a radical new departure on the London stage, Jonson’s ‘comical satire’. Does Twelfth Night evince exhaustion with the genre? In Twelfth Night and the subsequent darker comedies, was Shakespeare readjusting to and accommodating satire within his preferred comic forms? Or, on the contrary, was he confidently reaffirming in Twelfth Night the tropes and dynamics of romantic comedy in opposition to rival forms? Recently, contrary to earlier examinations of what has become known as the ‘poets’ war’, Jonson and Shakespeare, rather than Marston, Dekker and Jonson, have been seen as ‘rival playwrights’. In this context intertextual links between Jonson’s ‘comical satires’ and Shakespeare’s later comedies have been examined.
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