Power and Transgression in Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure: Artifice and Ideology as Tools of the Elite

By Jesse A. Goldberg
2011, Vol. 3 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

Shakespeare’s comedies, at first glance, seem to uniformly end on a positive note, with the fulfillment of desires, the overcoming of obstacles, and the victory over malevolent forces. In Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure, however, this is not the case. The conclusions of both plays are reiterations of problematic power structures present in each play. This is not to say that these comedies are absolutely favorable to strict power structures. In fact, both plays are in favor of bending the rules sometimes, though they seem to suggest that there are rules that are not meant to be bent or broken. Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure comedically incorporate characters of transgression in order to expose entrenched and unjust power structures in their respective societies. Specifically, Twelfth Night, in its maltreatment of Malvolio in contrast to other characters such as Viola, Maria, Sir Toby, and Feste, demonstrates the function of holiday as a method of allowing individuals to bend social structures just so much while keeping the potential for complete overhaul suppressed, and Measure for Measure, in its focus on religion and motifs of manipulation and falsity, depicts how those who are empowered by status use their power to reinforce their own position and shape the world around them, thus leaving those who are set in a lower position subject to the power of the elite.

Despite drastically different premises, Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure are both expressions of two key themes through which power and transgression are explored: artifice and ideology. The plot of each play is founded on the explicit presence of illusion and the pervasion of dominant belief systems which serve to legitimize the power structures found within.

The theme of artifice manifests in Twelfth Night through the atmosphere of holiday which envelops the play. As the title suggests, Twelfth Night is a celebration, one which includes indulgence, the blurring of rigid lines of propriety, and humor. This acts as artifice, ultimately, because there is only the appearance of unimpeded indulgence, only the illusion of social mobility, and only humor at the expense of those who do not fit in their places.

It is hard to miss the indulgent behaviors of the characters of Twelfth Night. The opening lines from Duke Orsino, “If music be the food of love, play on;/Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,/The appetite may sicken, and so die” (Twelfth I.i.1-3), establish a focus on “excess” of the means of fulfilling the body’s desires as well as the mediums of satisfying aesthetic desires. Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night is concerned with the satiation of desire. What is different here is that certain characters are allowed to actualize their fantastic desires and others are forbidden by forces within the play. Of course, the Duke does not win the first object of his affection, but winds up married to Viola, who ultimately, through assuming a subservient role, fulfills her desire to be paired with the Duke Orsino. This excess of indulgence is most explicitly represented in Sir Toby, and it is he who, with his first appearance of the play, calls into question the implications of adopting a guiding principle of egocentric indulgence: “I am sure care’s an enemy to life” (I.ii.2). Sir Toby, who is constantly concerned with “cakes and ale” (II.iii.109), asks what the point of care is, for if one is only concerned with the fulfillment of his or her own desires, then there is no need to be attached to others in any manner other than as objects with which one can satisfy one’s “appetite.” While this is problematic in itself, egocentric indulgence becomes even more conducive to the breakdown of community when an explicitly defined class structure – one containing knights, Dukes, clowns and stewards – is superimposed on top of it.

This is evident in the play’s treatment of Malvolio’s desire for wish-fulfillment, for indulgence in an inflated sense of self. Although Malvolio already appears to enjoy a place as a trusted steward within Olivia’s household, he desires more, perhaps, some may argue, even excess – just like the rest of the characters participating in this holiday. However, “the excessive behavior that is moral when enacted by Orsino, Olivia, and Sir Toby is ‘perverted’ when enacted by Malvolio” (Krieger 99). Some argue that Malvolio’s desire for indulgence is immoral, and therefore punished, because of his narcissism, but Malvolio in fact shares the same narcissistic fantasy as Orsino, who of course is not punished. “Ultimately, there is no fundamental difference between Malvolio’s fantasy of narcissistic withdrawal into a world in which he can be Count Malvolio. . . and Orsino’s narcissistic withdrawal into the Petrarchan conventions and the beds of flowers” (122). The presence of holiday creates the false sense that anyone can participate in the inherent indulgence, but because the rules of class are still present this is nothing but artifice. In fact, the Christian sense of community itself can be seen as artifice, if one remembers the attitude expressed by Sir Toby upon his entrance and observes Maria’s efforts to maintain an “illusion of decorum” (119).

Some critics may take issue with the assertion that “the rules of class are still present” in Illyria during this holiday, and it would seem that they need not look further than Viola for evidence. She seems to be the personification of social mobility and sexual androgyny, transcending explicit lines of defined roles in society. But in fact, her ease of mobility is predicated on her higher social status with which she begins the play. Viola starts out like Orsino, able to use her environment and the people therein for her own ends. She says to the Captain, “I’ll serve this Duke;/Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to him” (Twelfth I.ii.55-6). In these lines, “she denies, in a subtle way, the captain’s autonomy, the possibility of an opposition of wills, the possibility that the captain may be unwilling or unable to help her” (Krieger 106). Thus, her social mobility is a direct privilege of her membership in a superior class. In fact, as Viola spends more time as Cesario, trapped in the subservient role of servant for the Duke Orsino, her own language reflects her social descent (107). She moves from imperatives in Act I (“Conceal me what I am, and be my aid/For such disguise as haply shall become/The form of my intent/. . ./ to time I will commit,/Only shape thou thy silence to my wit” [Twelfth I.ii.53-4, 60-1]), to “apostrophes she can utter only in soliloquy by Act II” (Krieger 107) (“Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness/Wherein the pregnant enemy does much/. . ./ O time, thou must untangle this, not I,/It is too hard a knot for me t’untie” [II.ii.27-8, 40-1]), and finally to prayer addressed in an aside in Act III (“Pray God defend me! A little thing would make me tell them/how much I lack of a man” [III.iv.302-3]).

Fortunately for Viola, however, once her social status is revealed at the end of the play, Orsino sees her as a social equal, declaring her to be her “master’s mistress” (V.i.326). After spending the entire play playing the role of the servant, Viola is instantaneously restored to her aristocratic position and is immediately granted the respect intrinsic with this status. This is not the case for another character in the play who wishes to cross social boundaries; Malvolio’s aspirations to change his social status are interrupted by forces within the play because of his direction. Viola wanted to move down, but Malvolio wanted to move up, “To be Count Malvolio” (II.V.35). By nature of his desire to ascend, however, Malvolio has internalized the system which keeps him socially paralyzed. Thus, he wishes to be Count so that he may have power to control Sir Toby’s drinking and Feste’s rude mouth, both of which he reprimands at different points in the play. This is a reflection that while although in deeds Malvolio acts as a loyal steward and fulfills his duties to Olivia, in his words he aspires to be greater in comparison to those around him. Knowing this, and in the spirit of holiday, Maria proposes to play a joke on Malvolio with Sir Toby, Fabian, and Feste. So she gives form to Malvolio’s fantasy, though still independent of social reality; her letter is artifice. Since it is this false letter which Malvolio bases his social ascent on, his mobility can be nothing but illusory. Ironically, it is made possible by the atmosphere of holiday, despite it ending up with him in darkness. Holiday does not mean the same thing for all social classes, then.

While artifice is an implicit attribute of Illyria in Twelfth Night, in Measure for Measure it is an explicit tool of the characters roaming Venice. It is used by the Duke in his surveillance of his State. It is used by Isabella and Mariana in their effort to fool Angelo. And it is used by Angelo and the Duke as they carry the motif of falsity and repeatedly lie throughout the play.

In Act I, scene iii of Measure for Measure, the Duke of Vienna relates how during his rule, “Sith ‘twas my fault to give the people scope,/’Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them/For what I bid them do: for we bid this be done,/When evil deeds have their permissive pass,/And not the punishment” (Measure I.iii.36-40). Since he has let his people slip and yet does not wish to bear scrutiny for becoming more stringent he leaves Illyria and places Lord Angelo in his position, granting him “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna” (I.i.47). It would appear that the Duke is relinquishing his power within society, but he is merely exchanging it, for after giving up the role of Duke he assumes the role of a Friar. He exchanges political authority for religious authority; he exchanges power over people’s public actions for power over their private actions. He uses this power for its own sake to reinforce himself, much like the corrupt Party of George Orwell’s 1984, most obviously in the convoluted method of revealing the true story of Angelo and Isabella to the public. The Duke conjures a plan with Isabella to trick Angelo by feigning to agree to his advance in exchange for her brother’s life, but tells her to switch places with Mariana, the woman to whom Angelo was previously betrothed, thus freeing her brother and forcing Angelo to marry the woman he had left. While planning this, he also plans to trick Angelo into believing that Claudio had been executed by sending him a head of a dead prisoner with a similar appearance. But instead of informing Isabella of this, he allows her, too, to believe that her brother was killed and implores her to wait and argue her case to the Duke when he returns.

Then, when the time comes and he reappears assuming his outward identity as the Duke, Isabella pleads her case only to be called a “poor soul,” a “wretched woman” (Measure V.i.46, 132), and ultimately to be carried off and silenced while the Duke – all the time knowing very well the truth – entertains evidence brought forth by Friar Peter in the form of Mariana’s testimony. The Duke possessed knowledge of the truth and could have ended the artificial trial he created far quicker had he acted upon what he unequivocally knew. But instead he plays the part of the ignorant judge, questioning Isabella’s reliability and even settling her dispute without her voice. Thus it is he who, to the outside observer without knowledge of the story, appears as the force of justice, the individual possessing the power to affect change, and not Isabella – just as he wishes. The Duke executes his power for no reason other than to reaffirm his authority. In fact, his power rests on his orchestration of artificial demonstrations such as this. “Control of the threat becomes the rationale of authoritarian reaction in a time of apparent crisis” (Dollimore 73). The stage is set, then, for the Duke to consolidate power: his city is in a time of crisis as crime is rampant and so if he allows transgression to occur only to reappear and punish it, he is necessitating his people’s trust and submission to him.

The obvious falsity of his religious power calls into question, however, his political power. If his religious power is a function of artifice, what makes his political power legitimate? The falsity of the Duke’s outward personality at least calls into question the nature of authority and whether it ever rests in any true substance. In fact, readers of Measure for Measure are apt to question the nature of authority when they observe the falsity and self-serving nature of the Duke next to the corruption of Angelo. Angelo, who bears an “unsoil’d name” and an “austereness of life” (Measure II.iv.155), who is ready to sentence to death a man who had sex outside of marriage, puts forth to Isabella that should she “lay down the treasure of [her] body” (II.iv.96) he would rescind his sentence bestowed on her brother, Claudio. This blackmail is only too well representative of the corruption of authority figures by the power that they hold. The paradox, though, is contained within the question, does power itself come from anything but artifice?

A second theme exposing the injustice of social structures in Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure is the presence of ideology. This represents itself both supernaturally or religiously and politically in each play.

“All is fortune,” declares Malvolio (Twelfth II.v.23). This is the supernatural ideology working to keep the characters of lower status in their places in Twelfth Night. Numerous times, Malvolio praises “Jove” and “the stars” for his “good fortune,” placing the source of success not in his own hands or his own effort, but in external forces outside of his control. Fortune in Twelfth Night is working to help certain characters, most notably Viola and Sebastian who are saved from the shipwreck, but not others. In fact, it could be argued that not fortune, but old sea captains – human effort – saved both Viola and Sebastian. Either way, the fact remains that Malvolio, the one character of a lower class who actively aspires to be greater than he is, devoutly believes in the rule of fortune. “By attributing degree and custom, the determinants of class status, to fortune rather than to action, the ideology fixes the social structure: it encourages a passive acceptance of one’s social station and attributes the possibility for a rise in station to a force beyond human motive and control” (Krieger 127). But of course, this is an illusion. It is not fortune that bestows the letter on Malvolio, it is not fortune that shapes his fate in the play, but Maria, Sir Toby, and Feste. Malvolio’s fate is shaped by other human beings, one of which is his distinct and unquestionable superior by virtue of social rank. Yet he falsely, but fervently, believes it is fortune. His ideology, then, is an illusion meant to keep him in his place and prevent awareness of his ability to change it; it is an opiate. Ideology, then, is simply another artifice at the disposal of those who wish to maintain the status quo.

As aforementioned, religious authority is integral to the ruling peoples of Venice in Measure for Measure, and this is the supernatural ideology which attempts to govern the people of the city. This can be seen in how Isabella follows the plan of the Duke after being blackmailed by Angelo. Instead of taking her story to the masses, Isabella submits to the will of a religious authority – a friar – and blindly follows the plan he sets out for her, taking all of his advice without question. This is only natural for a woman already committed to a covenant as strict as the votarists of Saint Clare. However, religion’s authority is not effective on all the citizens of Venice. When the Duke tries to counsel Barnardine and persuade him to accept his death, Barnardine unequivocally refutes the Duke’s pleading: “I will not consent to/die this day, that’s certain” (Twelfth IV.iii.51-52). Perhaps the authority commanded by religious ideology is not absolute. So long as one’s self resides in one’s body and not some supernatural space, one’s self cannot be restricted by supernatural chains.

Both Illyria and Venice contain certain political ideologies which are strikingly similar in their assessments and treatments of people in lower social classes. The assertion that “All is fortune” holds power beyond the realm of superstition. It implies that it is simply a matter of chance that society is set up in the social structure that it is and one’s place within said structure is a function of fate and not effort, of blood and not merit. In this way, one identifies oneself with one’s vocation, since one’s vocation is a function of one’s status, which is an unchangeable, and therefore reliably solid, core of identity. However, Malvolio does not identify himself with his vocation (Krieger 121-22). When Sir Toby asks, “Art any more than a steward?” (Twelfth II.iii.114), one could easily imagine Malvolio answering, “Yes; I am Malvolio” (Krieger 121). Although Malvolio does not essentialize his vocation, he does accept the overall hierarchical ideology which governs Illyria. “The aspiring servant. . . is vulnerable because he adopts aristocratic methods, the aristocratic attitude toward the material world, without the implicit protection from the hardships of the world guaranteed by aristocratic status” (122).

This essentialization of one’s status is taken to wider, sweepingly disturbing conclusions in Measure for Measure. Jonathan Dollimore points out that “the Duke, speaking to the Friar, acknowledges that this crisis stems from a failure on the part of the rulers yet at the same time displaces responsibility onto the ruled” (77). This is a manifestation of an ideology which continuously places blame on peoples in lower social positions, essentially attaching sin to the ruled and righteousness, or perhaps divinity, since that is more closely an opposite of sin, to the rulers. Thus, “because Angelo’s transgression is represented as growing from his desire rather than his authority, his is a crime which can be construed as a lapse into the corruption of a lower humanity, a descent into the sins of the ruled” (74). Conversely, the Duke can be read as a benevolent bearer of justice and righteousness. He offers Isabella redemption for her trickery, but only at the cost of allowing him to bolster himself. Thus redemption itself becomes a social transaction. The appearance of righteousness is artifice. The ideology of associating sin with lower forms of humanity is, as evidenced by Angelo himself, blatant and yet ever so subtle artifice.

The conclusions of both plays ultimately support these readings of stringent class structures being supported by the powers that be in each play. Twelfth Night ends in pairs and restores the social order disrupted by the mobility of Viola. She and her brother are both restored to their rightful identities and married to characters of equally high social status to them. Maria marries Sir Toby, and so it can be assumed that she rises in social class, but only so far as a woman can, for she must be subservient to her husband. While one could argue this is advancement by human effort, she can only marry a man who asks her to marry, thus she is dependent upon one of higher social status to advance, even by marriage. Malvolio is released and sent to complete an order for his master Olivia to release Antonio; he is again the steward performing his duty, despite his verbal commitment to revenge. The holiday is over, the social order is preserved. Similarly in Measure for Measure, “the corrupt deputy is unmasked but no law is repealed and the mercy exercised remains the prerogative of the same ruler who initiated reaction” (Dollimore 83). There is the illusion of justice as presented by the Duke, but the ideology governing Vienna does not change. These two plays, then, present criticisms of social class structure in the form of comedy so as to reveal the absurdities of power and authority when it rests on the foundation of artifice and false ideology.


Dollimore, Jonathan. “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure.” Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialsm. Manchester: Cornell University Press 1985. 72-87. Online.

Krieger, Elliot. “Twelfth Night.” A Marxist Study of Shakespeare’s Comedies. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. 97-130. Text.

Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. From The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1936. 699-729. Text.

---. Twelfth Night. From The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1936. 901-934. Text.

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