Sunday, January 9, 2011

Discussion: Twelfth Night

The play: Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will

The plot tweet:
Viola/Cesario loves Orsino but courts Olivia for him; social-climber Malvolio is mercilessly mocked; all ends well with reunion/marriage.

My favorite line:
"If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."


After four centuries of Shakespearean scholarship, you'd think we could come to agreement on a few things -- for example, whether a play is any good. We have clear concensus about, for example, Hamlet (very good) and Merry Wives of Windsor (should have been eaten by Shakespeare's dog, if he had one). Not so with Twelfth Night:
"This is justly considered as one of the most delightful of Shakespeare's comedies. It is full of sweetness and pleasantry ... it has little satire, and no spleen." (William Hazlitt, 1817)

"Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's unpleasant plays. It is not a comedy for schoolchildren." (W.H. Auden, 1946)

"Twelfth Night is surely the greatest of all Shakespeare's pure comedies ... (Malvolio) is wickedly funny and is a sublime satire upon the moralizing Ben Jonson." (Harold Bloom, 1998)
So, maybe the play is terrible, and maybe it's one of Shakespeare's greatest. Maybe it's all sweetness and light, and maybe it's a harsh satire of one of Shakespeare's greatest rivals.

One thing is certain: The play is a mash-up of the Bard's previous comedies. We have the vibrant wordplay of Love's Labour's Lost. We have a set of twins separated by shipwreck who turn up in the same town and cause confusion (Comedy of Errors). We have a cross-dressed heroine who educates/influences her beloved (As You Like It). We have a homoerotic character named Antonio who aids a friend at his own peril (Merchant of Venice). Malvolio inhabits the same "outsider" space as Jaques and Shylock. I could go on, but you get the point. There's hardly a character or plot point in this play that Shakespeare hadn't already used somewhere else.

I usually find Marjorie Garber's All of Shakespeare a bit of a slog, but she makes a point about Twelfth Night that is worth repeating. Consider first this stanza of Feste's song, which serves as the epilogue:
A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.
Now consider the song sung by Lear's fool in a tragedy written a few years later:
He that has and a tiny little wit,
With heigh-ho, the wind and the rain,
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
Though the rain it raineth every day.
Garber's commentary on this comparison:
... the growth of exclusion in these plays, the strength of the excluded characters, the disappearance of those marriage dances in which Renaissance poets imitated the harmony of the spheres, indeed, the remanding of the contracted marriages to a time and space outside or after the play, the emergence of the clear, plaintive voice of the fool -- all of these point toward a new phase in Shakespeare's dramatic development, a broader, more painful, but often a staggeringly beautiful and profound vision of humankind in the tragic universe.

The Shakespeare who wrote Twelfth Night was just months away from writing his darkest and most unsettling comedies, All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure. Then came Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. The central question, then, is not whether this play is good or bad, but what it tells us about Shakespeare's growing interest in the darker aspects of his art.


  1. Your last paragraph remarks are very important towards understanding "Twelfth Night" fully as a play from Shakespeare's middle period, in which he produced "Hamlet" and "Troilus and Cressida." Unfortunately, most directors stage it as an early Shakespeare such as "The COmedy of Errors" and "The Two Gentlemen of Verona." Yes, the early plot elements are in play in "Twelfth Night," but they are used in the play to produce a dark and luxuriant work. This is why I call "Twelfth Night" the last of Shakespeare's "happy" (if any Shakespeare comedy can truly be called that) comedies and the first of his dark. The uncertain future the couples face at the end of "Twelfth Night" is very consistent with the endings of "All's Well That Ends Well" and "Measure for Measure." "Love's Labour's Lost" was the first of the four unsentimental but compassionate endings. I don't include the "Merchant of Venice" ending because, in my opinion, Portia made a poor choice of a husband and the last scene, in some productions, reflects that. It just seems to be cosmic payback for the whip-smart but unwise-in-love Portia (who I think in her "riddle" tips off Bassiano to what casket holds her picture). It's pure physical attraction and she's going to pay--literally and figuratively--for it heavily. The other play endings of compromise are more ambiguous--will it work out for the couples involved?

    Also, I liked Auden's remark. Despite what many seem to think, "Twelfth Night" is not for children--adult themes and sexual content!

    Finally, you might enjoy reading Shakespeare Geek's review of my book, "The Book of Twelfth Night, or What You Will":

    I've also posted your blog post on my book's facebook fan page.


    Wayne Myers

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  3. This week the students of Katy High School present Twelfth Night. It has been a lot of fun to work on! The students in Katy,TX have worked very hard and are dedicating 1000% to giving the best performance they can! We even managed to find a balance of the dark and the light. The setting of Illyria is unique, the comedy and love shines everywhere and the songs pack a punch too!