I had forgotten some of the plot twists, so I really enjoyed reading Twelfth Night, second in my Shakespeare reading project.
The theme of "I am not what I am" -- Viola's statement of her position (III, ii, 158) -- impressed me the most. While in every scene, the misunderstandings are comic, they always border on someone getting hurt. I felt as if at every turn of the plot, we were close to going over the line, but we were in good hands: Shakespeare's!
Some of the characters even call attention to the exaggeration of others: "Most excellent accomplished lady, the heavens rain odors on you!" says disguised Viola to Olivia, trying to impress her on behalf of Orsino. "That youth's a rare courtier: 'Rain odors,' well," comments Andrew. "My master hath no voice, lady, but to your own most pregnant and vouchsaved ear," she continues, and he: "'Odors,' 'pregnant,' and 'vouchsaved.' I'll get 'em all three ready." (III, i) The fool also does some of this snide commentary.
Olivia and Orsino, the nobles, are immersed in a self-imposed, perhaps indulgent, melancholy. He because she won't love him, she because she is in mourning for her brother. The more she rejects him, the more he tries to reach her. Though her sorrow is real, her self-imposed isolation and emotiveness seems exaggerated. Their language seems to reflect this.
Viola's disguise as a man is the simplest not-as-I-am, and the most understandable. Marooned in a strange city, she fears to be a young and helpless woman alone, and thus makes herself the servant of Orsino. But as she tries to explain the virtures of Orsino, Olivia falls in love with her. Thus occur the famous variety of misunderstandings and absurdities of dialog between them. Further, Viola's brother -- not lost at sea but roaming the same streets -- is mistaken for her in disguise. As a result, the sea captain who saved the brother's life is sent to jail, feeling betrayed, because the wrong twin (Viola in disguise) failed to acknowledge him. And, taken for disguised Viola, he marries Olivia. So several misunderstandings arise from her seemingly harmless deception.
The fool and his friends play all sorts of false roles and conscious tricks. At the same time, the beautiful songs that the fool sings heighten the deep emotions really being felt. There's a tension between the reality of the emotions and the sometimes exaggerated way the characters express themselves and overstate their case.
Toby, Maria, and their pals are all constantly deceiving one or another of their group. They especially mislead gullible Malvolio, and then lock him up for mad. Misled Malvolio puts on yellow stockings and "cross garters" (which cut off his circulation) because he wants to attract Olivia. This skirts on the cruel, but I think it goes over.
And tomorrow IS Twelfth Night. Good time to enjoy this play.