#Shakespeare400: “Twelfth Night” revisited

I had hoped, as I had mentioned in my last post, to put up five brief pieces revisiting some of my favourite Shakespeare plays to commemorate the 400th anniversary celebrations, but I got a bit snowed under at work and came back home each evening too tired to focus my mind on anything. And now, April 23rd has gone. But no matter. There’s no reason why these posts should not follow the anniversary day rather than lead up to them.

I thought I’d start with Twelfth Night, as not only is it a very favourite play, but also because the last time I wrote about it, I gave a rather jaundiced view of the work. I had described it as a very dark play, closer in spirit to Elsinore than to the Forest of Arden. That was, I accept, an extreme view, too extreme, perhaps, to be tenable, but the very fact that I can, admittedly in my more depressed moods, even think about the play in such terms does indicate that, at the very least, there is more to this work than merely the comic. Of course, it is a comedy: despite any impression I may have given to the contrary, there’s no disputing that. But to see it only as a comedy – as some productions I have seen do – and, worse, to present the comedy in broad terms, as if it were a pantomime, is to do violence to the delicate and subtle balance between those seemingly contradictory elements that Shakespeare has so miraculously forced together. It may not be quite the dark play that I had described, but there is a darkness there: this could be presented as lyrical melancholy, or one may even find in it hints – hints, no more – of the tragic: but what is inexcusable is to play it as a pantomime or as a broad farce.

Towards the end, Shakespeare presents us with a scene that anticipates the wondrous finale of The Winter’s Tale, in which the dead is brought back to life; Viola, still disguised as a man, meets her “double”, the twin brother she had thought dead. And, for a few miraculous moments, time itself seems to stand still in the wonder of it all. Olivia is drawn into this time-suspended sense of wonder: “Most wonderful!” she says. In productions, almost invariably, Olivia speaks her two words with a lascivious intonation, as if in anticipation of raunchy bedroom frolics with not one man whom she fancies, but two. Is it really worth throwing away so magical a moment of wonder just for a cheap laugh? Well, many directors and actors seem to think so.

And yet, comedy it is. The gulling of Malvolio should get laughs; the scene where Malvolio appears in his yellow stockings should also get laughs. Yet the actor playing Malvolio must invest the character with a gravitas. Not the gravitas of his pomposity, but the gravitas of his dramatic stature – a stature that, while not, perhaps, crossing the line into tragedy, certainly borders on it. A good Malvolio – or a good Andrew Aguecheek too, for that matter – should make the audience laugh at him, and, by the end of the play, make that same audience feel ashamed for having done so.

In this play, Shakespeare brings together all those elements that he had used previously in his romantic comedies: cross-dressing, gender confusion, mistaken identity, misdirected love – all these elements are correct and present. But something is not the same. In his earlier comedies, all these elements had resolved themselves into a harmony: the comedies had ended in celebration – except, perhaps, for Love’s Labour’s Lost, in which the celebration is deferred. But here, the resolution seems distinctly odd. Can we really believe that Olivia will be happily married to a man she had never met before, and whom she weds because she has mistaken him for someone else? Can we believe that Sebastian, though he accepts the marriage gladly, could remain happily married to someone who had married him thinking him to be someone else? As for Viola and Orsino, it is even less believable that their marriage could end happily. Shakespeare could easily have smoothed the path towards this ending, but he doesn’t: if anything, he goes out of his way to make the happy marriage even more unbelievable, as Orsino, minutes before declaring his intention to marry Viola (one can hardly call it a proposal), threatens quite seriously to have her killed. And, where Rosalind had led the final joyous celebrations in As You Like It with a sort of triumph, Viola, ostensibly the central character of the play, speaks not a single word after agreeing to marry Orsino: for well over a hundred lines between Orsino’s proposal (such as it is) and the end of the play, she is silent. If this is a romantic comedy, it’s a damn strange one.

And then, there’s the issue of the outsider. What can a comedy, which ends, or should end, with joyous restoration of harmony, do with the character that won’t fit in? This is a problem Shakespeare had returned to frequently. Wagner has incurred much censure in banishing Beckmesser from the joyous throng at the end of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: some productions have tried to “correct” Wagner by bringing a chastened Beckmesser back on again at the very end, and indicating by some stage business that all was forgiven. But with Malvolio this is not possible – any more than it had been possible with Shylock, Don John, or Jaques. Shylock had assumed by the end of the fourth act the stature of a tragic figure, and this tragic stature almost invariably overshadows the comic celebrations; Don John is away from the action by the end of Much Ado About Nothing, and so, although “brave punishments” are promised, the audience needn’t worry too much about him; and Jaques banishes himself voluntarily, as, unlike the exiled Duke and his other followers, when he says that he prefers the forest to the court, he actually means it. But with Malvolio, Shakespeare faces the problem head-on: here is a man who will not, can not be reconciled. He has been sexually humiliated in public, and, however pompous and officious he may have been, he has not deserved this. That the others cannot even see why he shouldn’t just let bygones be bygones and join in with the celebrations is an indication of how little they think of him as a person, as a human being with feelings. His exit may sour the final scene for the audience, but not for the characters on stage: they seem barely to notice.

And at the end, of course, when everyone else leaves, the fool stays behind to sing a sad song: life passes quickly, we all play our parts, and the rain it raineth every day. But that’s all one: what we’ve been watching was a play – that’s all; the characters we have been seeing were not really Viola and Orsio, Oilvia and Sebastian, Malvolio, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew – they were but actors, and they’ll strive to please us every day. What a strange song to finish with! Only a few years later, a missing verse from this song appears – in, of all places, the storm scene of King Lear, the most intensely tragic of all scenes in drama.

The more one thinks about Twelfth Night, the odder and more elusive it seems. The most diverse of elements seem forced together, and somehow, by some sorcery, it forms a most satisfying dramatic whole; and yet, although it is not the unremittingly bleak work I had previously made it out to be, its oddness remains. The best productions of this play are those that don’t shirk this oddness – where we come out of the theatre feeling the impact of all those strange and contradictory elements that Shakespeare had forced together. But one thing is certain: after this, Shakespeare wrote no more comedies. With Twelfth Night, he seemed to have exhausted the genre by pushing it out to its very limits.

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