“This is Illyria, lady”


This is Illyria, lady.


And what should I do in Illyria?

From Twelfth Night, I.ii


Malvolio is usually played by an actor in late middle age: indeed, the mental picture most of us have of Malvolio is that of a man perhaps in his 50s, declining if not already declined into the vale of years. And yet, Malvolio’s age is not, as far as I remember, ever mentioned in the play, and I can’t help wondering what sort of impression would be made if he were to be played by a younger actor – maybe in his late 20s or early 30s. Or, further, if he were to be played by a handsome and virile young actor – an actor who, in a different play, would have made a credible romantic lead opposite the glamorous actress playing Olivia.

I have never seen Malvolio played by such an actor, nor yet heard of a production where this is allowed to happen, but it would make for an interesting evening’s theatre, I think. For then, Malvolio’s fantasies would seem less fantastical; for, when the only real barrier between Malvolio and Olivia is that of social class, the thought of them in bed together would not strike the audience as so outlandish and absurd. And, most importantly, it would make Malvolio’s discomfiture less obviously comic, and more obviously cruel. For cruel it is: the joke played on Malvolio, funny though it undoubtedly is, has about it a gratuitous cruelty that is very far from the relatively good-natured japes played on Falstaff in the first part of Henry IV, or in The Merry Wives of Windsor. In those plays, Falstaff, when made aware that he had been fooled, is happy to join ranks again with those who had fooled him: he sees the joke for the harmless fun it is. But for Malvolio, that is out of the question. His humiliation is complete, absolute: it is a very public sexual humiliation. His private fantasies, quite harmless while they remain private, are exposed to public scorn and ridicule. And perhaps the worst is that no-one seems to think his humiliation to be of any consequence. After his final departure, Olivia blithely asks for him to be called back, seemingly unaware, as is everyone else, that after such a humiliation, it cannot be possible for anyone to rejoin the circle. We may think of Shylock as a tragic figure: indeed, he is. Jaques is one who, of his own volition, refuses to be anything other than an outsider. But with Malvolio, it is different. He is not, like Jaques, an outsider by choice: in his fantasy, he saw himself as Olivia’s husband, a man very much in the “inside” of society; and, unlike Shylock, he cannot be taken for a figure of tragic stature, either by anyone on stage, or, indeed, by anyone in the audience. It is, indeed, part of his tragedy that even the stature of the tragic is denied him.

And let there be no illusion concerning the magnitude of his injury. This is not Falstaff pinched by children in Great WindsorPark– this is not a man who, once he has seen through the joke, is happy to laugh at it himself, and join the general celebrations. At the start of the play, Orsino had compared himself to Actaeon, torn apart by hounds of his own desire:

That instant was I turn’d into a hart;
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E’er since pursue me.

The image is taken from one of the cruellest and most disturbing of tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and forms the basis of one of Titian’s most profoundly tragic works. But Orsino was merely self-dramatising: Malvolio’s hurt, on the other hand, is all too real. In his very last line in the play, Malvolio, whether wittingly or unwittingly, refers to the same story as Orsino had done, but with greater reason:

 I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.

(My emphasis.)

No self-dramatisation here, I think. Actaeon had been torn apart by his pack of hounds because he had accidentally seen Diana bathing; Malvolio is here torn apart by another pack of hounds because he had but privately imagined Olivia as his wife. The justice meted out by the goddess in Ovid, or by humanity is Shakespeare, seems to exceed by far the triviality of the transgression.

I find it hard to accept that Malvolio had deserved this. He is, admittedly, a flawed character – who isn’t? – but his flaws can, and indeed have, been overstated: at best, they are pretty harmless and trivial, especially compared to the far greater flaws of many around him who, far from being punished, are actually rewarded. For what exactly are Malvolio’s flaws? Yes, he is self-absorbed – “sick of self-love”, as Olivia says of him. But that’s a private fault: it hurts no-one but himself. Likewise, his fantasies of marrying Olivia are private fantasies, and, until he is spurred on by the joke played on him, there is no hint of these fantasies spilling out of the private sphere. He is pompous, yes, but that is hardly a hanging offence. And pomposity is but a crucial hair-breadth distance from dignity: Malvolio’s letter from his cell, and also, his responses to Feste’s taunting of him in the form of Sir Topaz, are surprisingly dignified. What else beyond that? That he is a killjoy? Well, given that, as a steward in a house that is officially in mourning, it is his duty to maintain a gravitas and a decorum, how can one expect him to be otherwise? Is it really so reprehensible of him, under the circumstances, to reprimand those who disrupt the solemnity of mourning with riotous misrule?

Of course, it cannot be denied, he is pompous, and he is humourless. But these do not frankly seem the most heinous character flaws on display inIllyria. Illyria is very different place from the magicalForest of Arden: it is ruled by a self-obsessed and narcissistic Duke who is in love with – or who imagines he is in love with – a self-deluding lady desperate to break out of the prison she has created for herself. And then, there is this lady’s hard-drinking uncle, whose Falstaffian geniality barely conceals the equally Falstaffian qualities of venality and cruelty; and he does not even have the mitigating factors of Falstaffian intelligence and wit. Not, frankly, a very likable lot here in Illyria. What, indeed, should Viola be doing here?

If Illyria is no Forest of Arden, it is also true that Viola is no Rosalind. Rosalind, in As You Like It, was in complete control, stage managing everything right up to the triumphant and joyous weddings at the end. Viola, right from the start, is out of her depth – “out of her part”, as Olivia puts it at their first meeting, without realising how close she is to the truth. Viola, however, is aware of this: “’Tis too hard a knot for me t’untie”, she concedes as early as the start of the second act; and, by the end of the play, far from stage-managing affairs, it is only the fortuitous appearance of her brother that saves her from death. For, as we shall see presently, the threat of death hanging over her we must take seriously: this, indeed, is Illyria, lady.

And as if all this weren’t enough, almost immediately after her arrival in Illyria, she falls in love with a man utterly vain and narcissistic. When Viola guesses that Olivia has fallen in love with her, she pities Olivia: “poor lady,” she says, “she were better love a dream.” But Viola herself loves a dream. Many have had a problem with the ending in which Orsino, realising that Olivia is now beyond dispute beyond his reach, turns instead without the slightest hesitation, almost without pausing for breath, to Viola, whom, only a few lines earlier, he had cursed and had threatened to kill. Sure, convention requires that they be paired off at the end, but how could we believe this to be a happy marriage? We can’t. And if we can’t, then we may be sure that it is because Shakespeare did not intend us to. How easy it would have been for Shakespeare – at the very peak of his considerable powers – to show Orsino’s affections turning away from Olivia and towards Viola/Cesario; how easy it would have been for him to show Viola curing Orsino of his narcissism. Of course, Orsino believes Viola to be a man, but that is hardly an insuperable problem for the dramatist who in his previous comedy had shown us Orlando falling in love with Rosalind/Ganymede while thinking her to be a man. But Shakespeare, very pointedly, does not repeat that trick here. Orsino favours Cesario because Cesario serves him well, but there is no indication of anything approaching love. This may perhaps best be seen in comparing two passages – two of the most glorious flights of lyricism in all literature. The first is given to Viola on her first meeting with Olivia, in I,v:


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!


You might do much.
What is your parentage?

Olivia here is clearly enchanted by Viola’s lyric outburst. “You might do much,” she says, before going on instantly to enquire further about him (”What is your parentage?”), her former topic of conversation apparently forgotten. Now, let us compare this to another of Shakespeare’s miraculous flights of lyricism, given again to Viola, but, this time, addressed to Orsino:


…..make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.


Ay, but I know–


What dost thou know?


Too well what love women to men may owe:
In faith, they are as true of heart as we.
My father had a daughter loved a man,
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.


And what’s her history?


A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
We men may say more, swear more: but indeed
Our shows are more than will; for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love.


But died thy sister of her love, my boy?


I am all the daughters of my father’s house,
And all the brothers too: and yet I know not.
Sir, shall I to this lady?


Ay, that’s the theme.
To her in haste; give her this jewel; say,
My love can give no place, bide no denay.

What an opportunity such a scene offers to depict Orsino’s growing love for Viola/Cesario! But Shakespeare does not take this opportunity. Unlike Olivia, who really has fallen for Cesario, Orsino is not deflected from his previous conversation: “Ay, that’s the theme,” he says, as if Viola’s speech were merely a distraction from what is really important, “to her in haste”. It is still his own feelings that concern him: Viola’s exquisite lyricism appears not to have touched him in any way – that, most certainly, is not “the theme”. He even fails to rise to the bait that Viola lays for him – “…and yet I know not.” Anyone who has been following Viola’s speech with any interest at all would pick up on this enigmatic half-line, but Orsino doesn’t: one can only infer that he is not interested. As ever, it’s his own feelings, and only his own feelings, “that’s the theme”. Under the circumstances, the two interjections he makes to Viola’s story (“And what’s her history?” and “But died thy sister of her love, my boy?”) seem to me better delivered in a tone of boredom or impatience rather than of sympathy: this would be more consistent with the return to his idée fixe at the end of this passage, undeflected as it is by anything Viola has said

And, of course, there’s the final scene, where, shortly before Orsino turns to Viola to make the best of a bad job, he threatens  actually to kill her. We must, I think, take this threat seriously: narcissism and cruelty do, after all, go together.

Can we really believe in Orsino and Viola ending the play as a happily married – or, at least, happily engaged – couple? I really don’t think so. I think we pick up instead on the carefully placed word “alas” in Feste’s concluding song:

 But when that I came, alas, to wive…

Or, indeed, alas, to husband.

And long before Feste stays on the now empty stage to sing his sad song, Viola is silenced. Ever since Orsino tells Viola that he will marry her, for well over a hundred lines till the final drop of the curtain, Viola is silent: a far a cry as may be imagined from Rosalind’s triumphant and joyous loquacity in anticipation of her nuptuals. Why is Viola silent? Traditionally, towards the end of a romantic comedy, the lovers are rewarded by being united with their loves. But is Viola being rewarded here, or punished? Perhaps she is not sure herself: that could certainly explain the silence. “Even so quickly may one catch the plague?” Olivia had asked herself. Indeed. And it is not merely Olivia who is capable of catching the plague, or suffering as a consequence.

And what of the other couple, Olivia and Sebastian? Olivia, who, like so many other characters in Shakespeare had ever but slenderly known herself, and desperate to be free of her self-created prison, here marries a man she does not know; and this man, going, it seems with the flow, mad though it appears, agrees to marry a woman he does not know. None of this bodes well. Even in a world of magic, this would stretch our credulity somewhat; and Illyria, it should be quite clear by now, is no land of magic. Feste’s song at the end is not really about the transience of joy: “But that’s all one, our play is done…” And, whether we see the play literally as the entertainment that we have just witnessed, or metaphorically as an image of life, there’s no joy: every verse of Feste’s song speaks of sorrow and of misfortune.

Things aren’t really that much better below stairs either inIllyria. (Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are, of course, knights, but, like Falstaff, it’s the below-stairs company they prefer.) Sir Andrew is, of course, the butt of all jokes, although many, including Samuel Johnson, have questioned the morality of laughing at someone who is so obviously, as one may say, “intellectually challenged”. But Shakespeare, even while laughing at him and encouraging us to do likewise, is aware of his humanity, and he leaves us in no doubt by the end that the treatment of Sir Andrew is gratuitously, grotesquely cruel.

(The late Harold Pinter used to consider Sir Andrew’s line “I was adored once too” the greatest in all literature: this simple line, in its context, is both side-splittingly funny and unbearably sad; and the impact it makes is beyond the analysis of even the most perceptive and articulate of commentators.)

The relationship between Sir Toby and Sir Andrew is more or less the same as that between Iago and Roderigo in Othello. Sir Toby pretends to woo on Sir Andrew’s behalf a lady who is obviously beyond his reach, and, in the process, takes and pockets for himself rich gifts from Sir Andrew intended for the lady. Othello may be a tragedy and Twelfth Night a comedy, but this dishonesty is no funnier here than it is there. In that later play, Roderigo ends up being murdered by Iago; the fate of Sir Andrew is about as close as comedy can come to murder:


I’ll help you, Sir Toby, because well be dressed together.


Will you help? an ass-head and a coxcomb and a
knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull!

Sir Andrew may be all of these things and more, but he didn’t deserve this. No-one deserves this.


By the time Shakespeare was writing Twelfth Night, he had had probably already written at least the first version of Hamlet, and would shortly go on to write Othello, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth. These are all works of a dark and troubled vision.  And, the more I read Twelfth Night, the more I wonder whether this play doesn’t belong with the tragedies than with the comedies – whether Illyria is not, indeed, closer to Elsinore than to the Forest of Arden. Illyria is a land of narcissism and cruelty, of self-absorption, self-delusion, and venality; a land where even the traditional ending packed with traditional romantic marriages brings little joy. If Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy written by a great writer of comedies (in his Prefaces to Shakespeare, Tony Tanner rather mischievously classed Romeo and Juliet as a comedy) then Twelfth Night may be seen as a comedy written by a great tragedian. For, despite everything, it is a comedy: it is funny, and, as in all good comedies, the journey ends in lovers’ meetings. But never before or since have lovers’ meetings been quite so joyless. It has been described as Shakespeare’s “last happy comedy”, but, for me, it is As You Like It rather than this play deserves that title. This play, comedy though it still is, seems to me rather to lead toward works such as King Lear, in which, at the height of tragic passion, a fool sings an extra verse from the song that ends this play.

3 responses to this post.

  1. An alas probably apocryphal story of a British theatre company touring Ireland by train, probably in the late 19th or early 20th century, and when the train stopped at an isolated rural halt the actor-manager leaned out of a carriage window and said to a railway porter on the halt platform “What country, friends, is this?”, to be met with the reply “This is Illyria, lady.” – Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 2.


  2. Also, I agree with your suggestions about Malvolio’s age, an example of a “tradition” being a misreading – or at any rate not the only interpretation – of the text, and becoming ossified. Consider Falstaff: how fat should he be? I think “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is a play that was very much improved by Verdi & Boito, but I get irritated when Falstaff is played by a bass-baritone in a fat-suit: Sir John Falstaff may be “a fat knight”, but is he also an obese one? I suspect the very same thing with portrayals of Sancho Panza.

    On whether “Twelfth Night” is a comedy, years ago a letter to a newspaper reported its writer as having a tutorial at a university (probably Oxford or Cambridge) and his tutor saying to him “So you’ve finally realised that Shakespeare’s comedies are more serious than his tragedies”, which is one reason that my favourite Shakespeare play is “As You Like It” and my favourite Shakespeare character is Rosalind.


    • I get that feeling with Juliet’s nurse. We are told she had a daughter (now dead) who was born at the same time as Juliet, and Juliet is only 13; and yet, the nurse is always depicted as an old woman. Why?

      I agree too that Shakespeare’s mature comedies are every bit as serious as his mature tragedies. Perhaps I went a bit overboard in this particular post, and underplayed the humour of this play, but I do find myself objecting to those productions who reduce this work merely to an unthinking knockabout farce.


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