What's So Funny? Letters As Comedic Devices In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night And Love's Labor's Lost




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While letters and writing appear in many of Shakespeare's plays, his comedies Twelfth Night and Love's Labor's Lost use letter-writing uniquely, as a medium of linguistic-stylistic humor to attack Elizabethan anxieties and procure laughter from his audience. Maria's forged letter to Malvolio is commonly regarded as the humorous center of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, as the cleverly penned epistle leads its recipient to act in a ridiculous manner; in Love's Labor's Lost letters often lead to comic results, especially as the king and his men, who have taken a vow to avoid women, unwittingly reveal to each other that they have all broken this promise. In both plays, the reading of letters creates comedic situations for the characters involved (i.e. Malvolio's behavior after reading Maria's letter in Twelfth Night or for the audience's appreciation (i.e. the dramatic irony of observing the king and his men reading their secret love letters in Love's Labor's Lost. This paper discusses Shakespeare's use of the medieval art of the ars dictaminis for humorous purposes as he plays upon Elizabethan anxieties about writing, particularly those related to fluctuations in social order and issues with the delivery and reception of letters.