The Bardathon: 19 – Twelfth Night

Reading through these plays, I get the impression that, in the comedies at least, Shakespeare sought for a harmony that balances all the elements that are constituent parts of life. In tragedy, harmony is not possible: it’s not merely that Iago cannot be reconciled with those he has harmed – Othello cannot be reconciled even with himself. But in comedy, there has to be a balance, a harmony. But how can this be possible? What happens to those who cannot be reconciled? How can the writer of comedy include all those things that we know exist in life – suffering, sorrow, delusion, nastiness, cruelty, evil – and still achieve a sense of balance, of harmony?

I think Shakespeare often attempted to fuse everything together – to force together all those elements that are irreconcilable. In The Merchant of Venice, he created, within the context of a comedy, a figure of the stature of Shylock. Shylock was meant to be the villain, but Shakespeare, with his insatiable curiosity into the nature of human different types, had to look closely at the nature of his villainy, and in doing so, created a figure of magnificent tragic power who transcends simplistic categories such as “villain” or “hero”. The artistry of this creation is in no doubt, but it unbalanced the play: the comedy, such as it is, barely registers.

Then, in Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare tried again, and this time, to make sure that the villain did not overwhelm the play, Shakespeare kept him well in the background. He did not offer a motive for the villainy, in case, as with Shylock, the motive raised the villain’s stature above that of the heroes; and he made sure that the villain was not on stage in the final scene. Don John may well have “brave punishments” coming his way, but that’s outside the scope of the play: within the play itself, he is safely out of sight, and so does not disturb the harmony achieved at the end.

Of course, even without the presence of Don John, there are tragic elements in Much Ado About Nothing that create dissonances, and these dissonances had to be resolved into some sort of harmony. But this resolution is possible because the reconciliation in the final scene is not between good and evil, but between the innocent victim and the deluded victimisers: once the latter have recognised the nature of their delusions, and have repented, there is no bar to including them in the final harmony. Claudio is deluded, but he is not evil. It is only in the later play The Winter’s Tale that Shakespeare gives us, in Leontes, a figure who is both a Don John and a Claudio, and there, the issues of repentance and of the painful journey towards reconciliation are far more complex.

Shakespeare had achieved in Much Ado About Nothing a sense of harmony that had eluded him in The Merchant of Venice, but he had to employ a devious sleight of hand to achieve this: he had focussed on those deluded by evil, while keeping the source of the evil itself well in the background. The problem of fusing together irreconcilable elements remained unsolved.

Then came As You Like It , the warmest and the most idyllic of his comedies. Of course, there’s sleight of hand here as well – we hear of hardships, of masters with “churlish disposition”, of rough winds and brambles, wild animals and serpents – but we don’t actually see any of this, and each crisis is over almost before we are aware of its existence. But yes, I can understand why one might picture heaven in the image of the Forest of Arden. There is an enchantment about this forest, and, in these enchanted environs, evil does not need to be reconciled because it simply melts away. It is an enchantment that is potent in the theatre, but whether such a vision holds up to close scrutiny in the cold light of the study is another matter: perhaps it should not be subject to such scrutiny in the first place. If we are to value the products of our imaginations, why shouldn’t we value that imaginative world of wish-fulfilment that fulfils our deepest desires?

For me, it is in Twelfth Night that Shakespeare achieved the most miraculous of harmonies. Here, everything is synthesised into a perfect balance – love, grief, sorrow, joy, high spirits, knockabout comedy, melancholy, lyricism, cruelty, venality, delusion, suffering, and the sad awareness of the transience of it all. I can’t help thinking that, in many ways, it is possibly the most miraculous work that even Shakespeare ever wrote.


There are all types of comedy here – the lyrical, gentle comedy of romantic love; sparkling wit and wordplay; and more knockabout stuff. There is tremendous sadness as well – the sadness of unrequited passion, the grief of loss, the awareness of the passing of time, and of the transince of it all. There is self-delusion: Orsino, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Olivia, Malvolio – they all delude themselves some way or other. There is also cruelty and suffering: Sir Toby’s gulling of Sir Andrew is exactly what Iago does to Roderigo in Othello: the later play is a tragedy, and that particular strand ends in Iago murdering Roderigo; but as this is a comedy, Sir Andrew is merely rejected, and the moment of his rejection is heartbreaking: Sir Andrew is, we all know, a fool, but no-one deserves this.

(The late Harold Pinter used to say that the greatest line in all literature is Sir Andrew’s “I was adored once too”. It’s a good choice. That one line, in that particular dramatic context, is funny, and, at the same time, infinitely sad.)

And Malvolio too: yes, he is pompous and self-regarding, but no-one deserves what he goes through. He is publicly humiliated – and it is a sexual humiliation. And when he is urged to join in the general merrymaking at the end, we can only wonder how anyone can think that so deep a humiliation can merely be forgotten about. Like Shylock, Malvolio cannot be accommodated into any harmony.

And yet, somehow, miraculously, the play does have a harmony. I still don’t know how Shakespeare managed it, but he did. Shylock unbalances The Merchant of Venice: here, everything is held in the most delicate equilibrium.

The melancholy lyricism of Twelfth Night is like nothing else in Shakespeare, or, indeed, by anyone else:

If I did love you in my master’s flame,
With such a suffering, such a deadly life,
In your denial I would find no sense;
I would not understand it.

Why, what would you?

Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, You should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me!

I really know of nothing more sheerly beautiful than these lines.

And towards the end, at that moment when Viola and Sebastian, who had thought each other dead, recognise each other, time seems to stand still: we step outside time, and seem to have a vision of the Resurrection itself. “Most wonderful!” says Olivia, and that line shouldn’t be played for laughs: the whole scene should be suffused with a sense of wonder. As Viola says earlier in the play,

Tempests are kind and salt waves fresh in love.

And when we think it’s all over, Feste the clown stays behind on his own to sing about the brevity of life, of the passing of time.

Shakespeare never wrote another romantic comedy after this. After all, how can one improve on perfection?

“What is your favourite Shakespeare play?” is virtually an impossible question to answer – partly because one’s always changing one’s mind about it. But, for now at least, I’d nominate this as my personal favourite.

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