Twelfth Night, and the Renaissance Idea of Man

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010
18 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents


Renaissance key concepts
Humanism: The nature of the Renaissance figure
Elizabethan Madness and Melancholia - contemporary understanding
The Renaissance concept of love

Acting by emotions - madness, melancholia and lovesickness
Twelfth Night
Duke Orsino and Olivia
Viola and Malvolio


Primary literature
Secondary literature


“In nature there’s no blemish but the mind: None can be call’d deform’d but the unkind”.[1]

Shakespeare was one of the most famous renaissance writers. His play Twelfth Night was written during the English renaissance and maybe overlapped with the creation of the great tragedy Hamlet. The aim of this paper is to analyse in what way Shakespeare presented the characters of the play. Central to this discussion are the contemporary understandings of the human nature as well as the psychological assumptions concerning the mental distraction of people. It is undisputable that Cicero and his work De officiis had a great impact on the English renaissance humanists.[2] The term “humanism” is a translation of the Italian word ‘umanista’ which denotes someone who teaches humanae literae. Wells rightly claims that “the ruling ambition of the humanists was to recover the values of classical civilisation”.[3] Their ideal form of government was “a just society, ruled by a wise and responsible oligarchy”.[4] And “a humanist was someone who made it his business to understand humankind”.[5]

So now the audience of Twelfth Night is confronted with an unordered society that consists of characters that absolutely lack the renaissance ideal of how humans should be. It is proposed to show how Shakespeare manages to reorder the mad state Illyria - the setting of the play. Moreover the process of metamorphosing into ideal humans in the sense of the Renaissance understanding will be traced.

Since there are reams of publications on Shakespeare’s works a choice of some of them had to be carried out. Robin Wells’ monograph Shakespeare’s Humanism served as a basis for this paper. Wells portrays a very detailed image of what concerned the English renaissance humanists. Moreover he classifies Shakespeare and his plays in the contemporary world-view.

In order to reconstruct the nature of melancholy and madness Robert Burton’s monograph The Anatomy of Melancholy was consulted. In this way it was possible to develop an understanding of the renaissance notion on mental derangement. Burton’s examinations of this topic will be checked against Shakespeare’s way of presenting mental illnesses. In a final step the question will be answered in how far Shakespeare must have been acquainted with the disease pattern of distracted subjects.

Renaissance key concepts

Humanism: The nature of the Renaissance figure

As already described in the introduction to this paper, Renaissance humanists derived their understanding of the human nature from Cicero’s understanding of the anatomy of human nature. Cicero claims that human nature is composed of four different cardinal virtues that every human being possesses:

illustration not visible in this excerpt[6]

These universals include the power of speech and reason, as well as the ability to distinguish between cause and effect, sociability, a concern with family ties and the need for security, a desire for truth and the hatred of unjust authority and an aesthetic sense.[7]

In combination these four universals constitute the moral sense of every human being. Furthermore, Cicero states that there is something like a dual nature of man consisting of a generic nature and the particular characteristics as an individual. While the generic nature is an essential core of universal humanity that cannot be changed by any human being, the individual strengths and weaknesses form the particular nature of each person. It is the understanding of our human limitations that help to control the baser part of our nature as well as to live virtuously while contributing to the public good. Cicero calls this understanding self-knowledge. By knowing how and what the human passions are the individual gains the “chief part of wisdom”.[8]

Now what liberal arts manage to bring forward concerning humanity is “to inspire virtuous action”.[9] This virtuous action helps to restore and save social order - a motif that had top priority in Elizabethan England. The reason why order was so important is that Renaissance humanist anthropologists believed that humankind is a “model of the world”, a microcosm in a macrocosm.[10] This microcosmic analogy was the fundamental principle on which the human body was framed. It was assumed that the same rules hold true for the natural world as for the human world, that “the same principles of order, degree, balance and equilibrium were repeated on every plane of existence”.[11] In order to guarantee that the microcosm and the macrocosm are ordered it is indispensable that the four humours of mankind - namely sanguine, choler, phlegm and melancholy - are balanced. The underlying assumption is that “the balance of humours in a well tempered mind reflected the balance of elements in nature”.[12] Consequently, the imbalance of the four humours leads to the tragedy of a fallen man.

Elizabethan Madness and Melancholia - contemporary understanding

In contrast to today’s methods of diagnosing diseases by defining the normal by reference to the abnormal, Renaissance metaphysical anthropologists “defined the proportions of the human body by reference to an abstract metaphysical ideal”, and so did psychologists.[13]

Until the beginning of the 16th century mental illnesses were always associated with the demonic as well as with witchcraft. It was assumed that a person suffering from disorders must be bewitched.[14] In the 17th century cultural debates led to a rethinking of explanations concerning mental illnesses. From then on madness and melancholy, like other mental distractions, were no longer exclusively interpreted as caused by supernatural forces, but “as a state of dislocation”.[15] In 1621 Robert Burton - an English writer and scholar - published a scientific paper on “The Anatomy of Melancholy”. In his work he describes the symptoms of melancholy in reference to his own observations and the findings of other scholastics. Burton is an excellent example of the fact that alternative diagnoses were welcome at the beginning of the 17th century. He no longer interprets melancholy and other mental distresses by witchcraft or other supernatural forces exclusively but aims to detect all kinds of reasons for mental distraction. Although he partly sticks to long-established explanations like melancholy caused by magicians or witches he nevertheless takes natural causes as a reference, too. All in all his work is tripartite: the first part deals with the causes, symptoms and prognostics of melancholy, the second with the healing of mental distractions, and the last part with love melancholy in detail. By doing so he distinguishes between three major forms of melancholy: head melancholy, windy melancholy also called hypochondriacal melancholy and love melancholy.[16] Of special interest will be his remarks on love melancholy.

Generally speaking Renaissance psychologists thought madness to be a result of an inordinate passion, the overthrow of reason by passion. In the process of running mad the passion increases till it culminates in distraction.


[1] TN, 3.4 351-352.

[2] Wells, Robin.2005. Shakespeare’s Humanism. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 9. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as: Wells 2005, <page number>.

[3] Ibid., p. 7.

[4] Ibid., p. 8.

[5] Ibid., p. 9.

[6] Figure developed on the basis of Wells remarks on the nature of the Renaissance man.

[7] Wells 2005, p. 9f

[8] Ibid., p.10.

[9] Wells 2005, p 38.

[10] Ibid., p. 29.

[11] Ibid., p. 29.

[12] Ibid., p. 29.

[13] Wells 2005, p. 37.

[14] Neely, Carol. 2004. Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture. Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, p. 47. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as: Neely 2004, <page number>.

[15] Ibid., p. 47.

[16] Burton, Robert. 1621. The Anatomy of Melancholy. p, § - §3.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Twelfth Night, and the Renaissance Idea of Man
RWTH Aachen University  (Institut für Anglistik)
Shakespeare’s Comedies
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Shakepeare, Twelfth Night, Renaissance, Humanism, Cicero, Robert Burton, Madness, Melancholy, Petrarchism, Anti-Petrarchism, lovesickness, mental distraction
Quote paper
Toni Rudat (Author), 2010, Twelfth Night, and the Renaissance Idea of Man, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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