Things to consider while reading Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will
Twelfth Night is a very strange play. From the title on, people have wondered what it’s about. Some productions are almost farcical; others are reflective and tormented. The play has had an almost unbroken tradition of successful production since its first release in 1602, and yet there are those who to this day claim never to have seen a good production of it. Nobody seems to know what the title refers to — and yet there have been a thousand explanations.
It seems a fitting close for the course.
A narrative retelling of Twelfth Night from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb is linked here at the Eldritch Press Site.
Twelfth Night and what has come before
- Maurice Charney notes that certain characters in most of the classic Shakespearean comedies (not the problem comedies like All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure) stand, so to speak, at the edge of comedy, and do not really participate in it. You will surely recall the detached and critical figure of Jaques in As You Like It; in some ways Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, John in Much Ado About Nothing, and even Caliban in The Tempest will fulfill a similar role. Here the character is Malvolio. How is he different from the others? How is he similar?
- There is no point here at which anyone retreats to a distant place like the forest or the heath — a metaphor of an inward journey as in Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, or King Lear — and yet the shipwreck and arrival in a new country fulfills some of the same function. The new land seems to operate on strange, almost surreal principles. How do these things compare? Nobody returns from this strange land at the end, though — is that significant?
- As the Fool tends to be in every other play that has one, Feste is usually right as a predictor of events. At the same time, he seems at least somewhat manipulative and even cruel — especially with respect to Malvolio. What do you make of this?
- Malvolio is subjected to progressively greater humiliations precisely because he has not known himself clearly — and in this way reflects the fall of such tragic figures as Lear and Richard II.
- The character of Viola (who remains in disguise for the bulk of the play) is very reminiscent of the similar character of Rosalind in As You Like It. In the same manner, she exploits her disguise as a way of getting closer to the man she falls in love with.
- The recent film Shakespeare in Love rather whimsically links this play with Romeo and Juliet. But are there similarities between Viola and Juliet? What are they?
Duality and ambiguity in Shakespeare’s drama: language and enactment
One of the hardest things to be sure of, when you are reading a Shakespeare play, is not that you are getting some meaning from it, but that you are not missing an entire level of meaning. But this is hardly unusual in Shakespeare. Shakespeare often has his characters say one thing and mean another — often expressing what they want to say on one level, while reveals what they would rather not reveal on the other.
How does this happen in the plays we’ve read?
- The interchangeable twins theme is present here — when all the facts are in, Olivia is willing to accept Sebastian, almost sight unseen (and character certainly unknown), in place of Viola (Cesario). Does this reflect back on larger issues?
- Disguise has a double function in Shakespeare (as in most other literature where it appears). It serves to conceal, of course — but it also serves to reveal. Rosalind’s disguise reveals at least as much as it conceals. The transformation of Bottom shows us something of his character. In disguise, Kent and Edgar reveal their constancy and faithfulness to Lear much more clearly than they could have done in their original guises. It may seem curious that precisely the change in external identity so strongly affirms the continuity of the inner identity, but this is most likely to be true. Certainly this is carried forward in this play as well. Viola’s disguises are remarkably like those of Rosalind; the recostuming of Malvolio reveals his secret vanity and arrogance even as he tries to put on a new face and a new appearance.
- The language of concealment — misleading speech of one sort or another — is itself inclined to reveal in its verbal ambiguities. Those who have done English Literature with me have run into my explanation of some of the verbal curiosities of Macbeth, especially the line in the middle of the ghost-scene.
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- Seeming vs. reality, our old friend, once again. In this play it is represented in dozens of different ways. We have the beguiling of Malvolio, and his subsequent scenes of humiliation. Like Lear, he has “ever but slenderly known himself” and it costs him dearly, though chiefly in dignity, before the play is over. Similarly Viola’s disguise leads to the delusion of Olivia and Duke Orsino, in different ways.
- Moral rectitude and justice. Malvolio is characterized as a Puritan, and the play ends with the eerily prophetic threat that he will be avenged on them all — which was to come true in another forty years or so in the English revolution under Oliver Cromwell.
- Self-understanding. The clown (Feste, or Fool, in some editions) is (as ever) the voice of self-understanding in this play. In some regards he prefigures the tragic fool of Lear. Like Lear’s fool, he is always giving good advice under the guise of folly. Malvolio’s lack of self-knowledge is of course critical to his outcome, but perhaps the only character who really does know himself is the clown. All the remaining principal characters seems to have some rather complex twists of character founded in self-deception.
- The question of inner vs. outer character emerges in almost every play — here one can find it mentioned earliest at 1.2.50ff. — in Viola’s speech to the Captain.
- Note also the Fool’s speech at 3.1.11ff.: “A sentence is but a chev’ril glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward!”
Symmetries in the play
- The brother and sister (Viola and Sebastian) break and parallel the impossible union of Olivia and Orsino.
- Viola assumes her brother Sebastian to be dead; this parallels in some obvious ways the relationship of Olivia to her (actually) dead brother.
- One could argue that the captain who comes to serve Viola is very similar in position to Malvolio in his relation to Olivia; the same relationship is echoed in between Antonio and Sebastian. The servant-master relationship of Viola to Orsino is similar, though obviously less stable, and founded upon a misunderstanding.
- Is it coincidental that Olivia and Viola are made up out of the same letters? (This might not be worth noting, but for the fact that Shakespeare plays with letters as a kind of code in the letter that Malvolio finds and attributes to Olivia.)
- It’s useful to note that while the Fool appears in remarkably sober guise most of the time, the transformation of Malvolio is arguably a kind of “clownification”: he’s instructed to do two things in particular — smile outrageously at everything, and wear absurd clothes. He recognizes at the end that he has been made a clown (5.1.345-6).
Problems in the play
- What does the title mean?
- Well, okay, what does the subtitle mean?
- Is Malvolio made to suffer justly, or is he “infamously abused”, as he claims? In either case, how does that affect the thrust of the drama as a whole?
- Is there any point to this play?
- Do you find the separate characterizations convincing?
- Why are Aguecheek and Toby Belch even included in the play? What do they accomplish?
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