The ending of Twelfth Night can be characterized as inconclusive and unsatisfactory as it leaves several problems unresolved. The instability of the couplings of Viola-Orsino and Olivia-Sebastian, exclusion of Malvolio and Antonio from the festive resolution, and Feste’s song towards the end raises doubts about the so-called ‘happy ending’ of Shakespeare’s comic play.
Unlike the rest of the acts of Twelfth Night, the penultimate act seems hurried in its conclusion and inconsistent in its characterization. Orsino whom we have seen since the beginning of the play as deeply in love with Olivia; who talks about her as ‘heaven walking on earth’; switches his love from Olivia to Cesario, who he was ready to kill a moment before in a fit of ‘savage jealousy’ driven by his love for Olivia. Not only does this reflect on Orsino’s inconstancy but also his violence and vehemence as a lover since he claims to ‘sacrifice the lamb that I do love, To spite a raven’s heart within a dove’. His acceptance of Viola/Cesario whom he has never seen without her masculine disguise but on condition that ‘when in other habits you are seen, Orsino’s mistress and his fancy queen’; doesn’t augur well for the future of their relationship. It is ironic that Shakespeare never showcases Cesario’s transformation into Viola on stage. Her dress and disguise is mentioned four times in the last act of the play but the actual revelation never takes place. Joseph Pequigney remarks that Orsino ‘proposes marriage to someone he knows and has come to love only as a male servant, seen only in masculine clothes, whose feminine name he never once utters, and whom in the scene he twice addresses as ‘boy’-even at the proposal itself-and refers to late as his final speech as being still ‘a man’. Will he accept Viola as a woman still remains under question?
Olivia’s case is even more confounding since it is hard to align her silent and unquestioning acceptance of a betrayal of marriage to Sebastian with the bold, independent woman we have seen throughout the play. Olivia is perhaps the only woman in the entire play who is financially independent and in charge of her entire household. She is a woman firm in her beliefs about whom she likes and dislikes. Uncharacteristic of a woman of her time, she is bold in her pursuit of Cesario, and takes the unabashed initiative of taking his hand and sending him tokens of love. Till the end of the play, she seems very clear in her mind about the kind of man she wants to marry and is thus insistent in her abject rejection of the Duke’s advances. Her statement that ‘I cannot love him’; displays clarity of thought about her prospective husband who shouldn’t be a dominating patriarch like the Duke. Her attraction towards Cesario is perhaps motivated by the same impulse as he is far more sensitive and understanding compared to the Duke. For this woman to suddenly accept a perfect stranger as her husband and say not a word about it; is completely out of line with her character in the rest of the play. What worsens Olivia’s case is that she had taken the lead in her marriage to the person she presumes is ‘Cesario’ but the same person who is actually Sebastian goes ahead with the betrothal knowing full well the implications of such a match and admitting in his own words that it might be an ‘error’. The very foundation of the relationship is laid in deceit and falsehood since Sebastian pleads allegiance to the truth but withholds the most important fact about his own true identity. Various feminist theorists have remarked that the play reins in independent women like Olivia through her marriage to Sebastian.
Contrary to most comedies which end with celebration in marriage ceremonies, none of the marriages in this play take place onstage. Olivia-Sebastian are married offstage, Toby- Maria’s marriage is only mentioned in passing while Viola-Orsino’s marriage is only alluded to and not formalized. Aside from these imperfect couplings, Antonio and Malvolio’s case also problematizes the conventional happy ending. Both of them are left unpaired. Antonio who expressed ardent love for Sebastian is spurned by him in his marriage to Olivia.
However, as Pequigney explains, the marriage only compensates Sebastian’s ‘loss’ of a ‘male lover’. The explicit words of adoration and frequent references to his ‘love’ and ‘desire’ that Antonio oft uses in his conversations with Sebastian leaves no doubt about the extent of his homosexual desire. While Antonio’s sexuality is transparent, Sebastian’s attraction also comes across in various instances. They part like lovers and reunite like lovers. In the final scene of the play, Antonio has far more ardent words for his comrade than for his wife- “Antonio! O my dear Antonio, How have the hours racked and tortured me, since I have lost thee!” Sebastian-Olivia marriage is thus predicated on Antonio’s loss of love and Sebastian’s recompense of that love in the form of Olivia.
Malvolio’s anger and resentment is also left unsolved at the play’s end even when the truth of his entrapment and deception at the hands of Toby, Fabian, Maria, Andrew and Feste is revealed. None of the authority figures- neither Olivia nor Orsino- are able to address the ‘notorious wrong’ done to him. Olivia can only offer empty platitudes about justice being delivered ‘when we know the grounds and authors of it’. However, she remains ineffective in dispensing justice even after the ‘authors’ of the trick are exposed. The only consolation she can offer to Malvolio is her words- ‘He hath been most notoriously abused’. How effective these words are to a victim of brutality when his own perpetrators go unpunished can hardly be wondered.
Lastly, Feste’s song about the passage of time at the end of the play is a reminder to the audience that the holiday world of Twelfth Night is not perfect. It is full of troubles that ‘raineth every day’ and are a part of the general nature and structure of life. According to the essay ‘Twelfth Night: The Politics of Licensing’, Feste’s song proves that “the play’s attempts to produce a semblance of cohesion prove illusory, as the limitations and contrived impositions of the golden world come to the fore…The central issues – disguise and deception, inversion of gender roles, complex gender relations in patriarchal society, the class conflict and the marginalized characters – together prove too complex to be accommodated convincingly within the comic form”. Yu Jin Ko in her article ‘The Comic Close of Twelfth Night and Viola’s Noli me Tangere’ argues that Feste’s song acts as an epilogue that captures the ‘recurrent moment of all things sliding into deliquescence’. While on the one hand, it talks about ‘temporality’, on the other hand, it also ‘initiates in us a new longing for this spectacle that has just passed before our eyes…looking forward to the next performance: “And we’ll strive to please you every day.” While touching upon reflective and philosophical issues such as transience and temporality, Feste avoids going into further meditations into the play’s complex issues; thereby bringing the play to an abrupt closure that holds out the promise of future performances.