Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Week 10, Twelfth Night

Notes on Twelfth Night

Act 1, Scene 1


The Duke and Olivia are both creatures of idealistic excess, determined to pursue their passions—he to love her, and she to mourn for her departed brother. Orsino seems to understand that they are kindred spirits. Orsino claims at the beginning that he would surfeit himself with love to be rid of it, in the same way that overindulgence in food generates disgust with eating. But this hardly seems to be the effect of his attitude—rather, he seems to be “in love with love,” and his desire is to live perpetually in a realm removed from time, chance, and change. This sort of attitude obviously entails risk in that if persisted in too long, it will become a trap. But Illyria is the rarefied realm in which Orsino aims to live—as Riverside editor Anne Barton says, there’s no need for the characters in Twelfth Night to remove themselves to a Green World or any other magical space; they’re in one already, and the ordinary laws that govern life don’t fully apply. Illyria parallels “the order of desire.” It’s worth mentioning, too, as many good commentators have done, no doubt, that Feste is always there reminding us that this order is not the only one with which we must reckon. Malvolio reminds us of this problem in a much less tolerant manner. Feste neither simply affirms that desire can run parallel with the world nor denies it altogether. Viola’s strategy rivals his in its wisdom in that she commits her cause to time, neither affirming nor denying any possibility at the outset of the play.

Act 1, Scene 2


Viola and the Sea Captain converse after her shipwreck, and he gives her hope that her brother Sebastian may have made it to shore. Viola admires what the Captain says about Olivia’s constancy to a lost brother and would serve her, so she decides to disguise herself and serve Duke Orsino. Perhaps Viola takes Olivia’s grief as a model for her own, should her brother turn out not to have survived. But the more compelling reason she gives for deciding to disguise herself is “O that I serv’d that lady, / And might not be delivered to the world, / Till I had made mine own occasion mellow, / What my estate is!” (42-44). Others may be after a more permanent refuge, but Viola commits her cause to time, as we can see in her line, “What else may hap, to time I will commit” (60).

Act 1, Scene 3


Sir Toby, one of Shakespeare’s Saturnalian lords of misrule, operates on a different principle. He considers care “an enemy to life,” and won’t accept confinement of any sort. His attitude towards Olivia reminds me of Gertrude’s question to the grieving Hamlet: “why seems it [your father’s death] so particular with thee”? The scene consists mostly of jesting conversation between Sir Toby and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Toby wants to send Andrew in pursuit of Olivia, “for fun and profit.” He doesn’t have much respect for Andrew, and doesn’t take the other characters seriously, either. But a further point is that as far as Toby is concerned, one love object is as good as another; he doesn’t share the exclusivity we find in Orsino or, later, in Viola. True, Sir Andrew goes out of his way to prove Toby wrong, repeatedly making a fool of himself when his benefactor would like to turn him into a rake, and make a decent profit from gulling him over his hopes for Olivia as well. Nonetheless, Toby stands for a generalized pursuit of happiness, for a rounding off and leveling of discrimination and judgment in choosing the object of one’s desires. Desire, for him, is the key component in a pleasure-yielding system—the point is simply to be part of the system. I think the Riverside editor is right to say that Sir Toby exists on his own time and that he has banished ordinary time from his life. But he’s also quite accepting of his own and others’ imperfections.

Music is a big part of this play, as we would expect, given the Epiphany theme and its attendant carnival associations. It has long been understood, whether theorized or not, that dance serves to lend structure to erotic pursuit, encouraging revelation, containment, and deferral at the same time. So Toby becomes almost indignant with Sir Andrew for “hiding his talents” as a dancer.

Act 1, Scene 4


Intimacy strikes up immediately between Duke Orsino and Viola (disguised as “Cesario”). He believes his suit will prosper if he carries it forwards with Viola/Cesario as his intermediary. The youth’s fresh appearance, he supposes, will redound to his credit, and of course the outcome of this comic miscalculation is predictable: Olivia goes for the “eye candy” he has proffered and not for him. Orsino gives Viola/Cesario license to establish a sense of intimacy with Olivia, and any good psychologist will probably tell us that it is just this sort of intimacy that bonds people together and makes them apt to fall in love. What also appeals to Olivia, I believe, is the freshness or the “newness” of Viola/Cesario—the fact that “he” still seems to be all potential, a being still to be determined.

Act 1, Scene 5


We are introduced to the rest of the main characters—Olivia, Maria her maid, and Feste. His speech from 43-53 is important because it shows us yet another perspective on the sway of the passions and the imperfections to which human beings are liable: “God give them wisdom that have it; and those that are fools, let them use their talents” (47-50), he says to Maria. Wisdom sets a person apart, though not in hostility; others are more immediately subject to the vicissitudes of “time and chance,” that biblical dynamic duo, and must shift as they can. Wisdom consists, of course, partly in understanding claims such as “Anything that’s mended is but patch’d; virtue that transgresses is but patch’d with sin, and sin that amends is but patch’d with virtue. If that this simple syllogism will serve, so; if it will not, what remedy?” Feste considers Olivia a fellow fool because of her over-grieving for the loss of her brother.

Malvolio soon comes on the scene as a Puritan killjoy: “I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal” (83-84), is his pronouncement to Olivia on Feste. And even Olivia the dedicated shows, around line 90, that she understands Malvolio’s excessive reliance on rigid virtue: he is filled with self-love, she says, and his earnestness is a bore.

Olivia also seems to be leading Orsino on (around line 254ff); she’s curious to see what his next move as an importunate, fantastical suitor will be. His new intermediary, Viola/Cesario, wins Olivia’s interest immediately and her love almost at first sight; she is struck with “his” beauty and graceful ways, in the classical manner of attraction: what happens to her is sudden and she has no control over it. As Malvolio says, Viola/Cesario is “in standing water, between boy and man” (158-59). This liminality is probably in part what makes Viola/Cesario attractive to Olivia, as I suggested above. The Countess is open to something new, and the bond of intimacy is made very quickly, probably when Viola/Cesario says at 175-76, “Good beauties, let me sustain no scorn; I am very comptible, even to the least sinister usage.” Then, too, the youth’s rhetorical boldness shows Olivia the way to give in to her passions: “If I did love you in my master’s flame, / With such a suff’ring, such a deadly life, / In your denial I would find no sense; / I would not understand it” (266-67). By the end of the scene, Olivia will be madly in love, and unable to comprehend Viola/Cesario’s reluctance, so she will have to turn to the stratagem of the ring to ensure the future presence of this new object of her desire. Her radical change of heart shows through in her final lines of the scene: “Fate, show thy force: ourselves we do not owe; / What is decreed must be; and be this so!”

The passage in which Olivia unveils at the request of Viola/Cesario is worth mentioning: “we will draw the curtain / and show you the picture,” says the Countess, and she goes on to describe her face as a portrait that will “endure wind and weather” (237-38). This is true enough, I suppose, although it makes sense to hear Feste’s song at the play’s end as a comment on the limitations of such endurance: “the wind and the rain” are always at work, breaking down what seemed timeless.

What keeps Olivia from loving the Duke anyway, aside from the rather flimsy one of dedication to her brother (which lasts about ten seconds once she meets Viola/Cesario)? I don’t know that the play really explains her rejection of him, except perhaps that he’s too available and too obviously “after” her. One theme of interest in Twelfth Night is its exploration of how we choose our erotic objects, or how they choose us. Discrimination and rejection are two main ways of eventually finding one’s object of desire.

Act 2, Scene 1


Antonio, who had rescued Sebastian from the ocean earlier, instantly forms an unbreakable bond with him. Antonio insists he will follow Sebastian to the Duke’s Court, no matter what the danger to himself.

Act 2, Scene 2


By this time, Viola is in a state almost as extreme as that of Olivia and Duke Orsino since she loves the latter and is loved by the former in the guise of Cesario. Unlike them, however, she has somewhat more control over the course of events, thanks to her disguise and the perspective it lends. This is by no means a comedy of the humors, but it is a comedy of our inevitable frailty in the presence of strong passions: Viola’s declaration shows that she is able to generalize from her own experience:

How easy is it for the proper-false
In women’s waxen hearts to set their forms!
Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we!
For such as we are made of, such we be.
How will this fadge? My master loves her dearly,
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him;
And she (mistaken) seems to dote on me. (35)

This ability does not, however, make it possible for her to extricate herself from the difficult situation she is in: “O Time, thou must untangle this, not I; / It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie!” (40-41)

Act 2, Scene 3


This is another comic scene between Toby, Andrew, and Feste. Toby has been drinking and jesting as usual. Around line 48, Feste’s song suggests that love sees only the joy of the present. The song suggests that deferral and indeed any attempt to banish time are of no account: “In delay there lies no plenty, Then come kiss me sweet and twenty; / Youth’s a stuff will not endure” (51-52). Feste sanctions neither prudence nor pastoral idylls such as Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.”

Olivia has been putting off consideration of Orsino, who, as the Riverside editors suggest, seems also to depend on her unavailability to prop up his excessive affections for her. Sir Toby, Maria, and Andrew are offended at Malvolio’s killjoy demands. Andrew, however, is most concerned to challenge Viola/Cesario as a rival suitor to Olivia, while Maria wants to have her revenge on Malvolio. Her letter scheme wins Toby’s admiration and, eventually, his mischievous hand in marriage. This is where a parallel “disguise” plot enters the play, something to rival the ruse that Viola is practicing. Malvolio is easy prey because he is vain about his looks and seems to think he deserves a quick promotion to a higher social rank. Toby’s put-down of Malvolio is a classic: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall / be no more cakes and ale?” (114-16) Sic Semper to all prigs, we say!

Act 2, Scene 4


Viola/Cesario and the Duke discuss love matters, and he opens up to her—he admits that men’s love is less constant than women’s love. Feste’s song seems to connect love with death, and he warns the Duke at line 70, “pleasure will be paid, one time or another.” The Duke is playing the importunate suitor, and his remarks are contradictory; around 93 and following he insists that no woman could possibly love as strongly as he loves Olivia.

Act 2, Scene 5


The conspirators turn Malvolio into a fool in a reverie. Around line 194, Sir Toby predicts that Malvolio, when he is finally disabused of his delusions of grandeur, will run mad. Even this Puritan has become just another foolish lover. He’s a minor comic version of Euripides’ Pentheus in The Bacchantes—he will be destroyed by the Dionysian revelers whose fun he tried to tamp down. Except that Pentheus didn’t get to wear cross-garters and yellow stockings. Around line 92 and then again at 103 and following, a hint of violence enters the text with the mention of Lucretia: Malvolio recognizes the letter as Olivia’s because the seal bears an impression of Lucrece, the famous Roman wife who killed herself after being raped by the son of the last Tarquin king. Well, Malvolio is no Tarquin, but he is prideful, and he means to move beyond his proper station in life (that of a steward) by means of a most improper and very self-aggrandizing suit to his employer. Malvolio is convinced by Maria’s bogus letter that “greatness” has simply been “thrust upon him,” if only he will smile like a fool and dress right. A darker impression might be that like so many “deniers of life,” Malvolio would set up a rival order of perfection against the imperfect world around us; what else is that but pride, a self-deluded desire for autonomy covering fear and emptiness?

Act 3, Scene 1


Viola points out that playing the role of fool requires a certain kind of wisdom. Olivia continues to wear her passion on her skirt-sleeve. She admits to Viola/Cesario that the ring business was a device meant to augment a sense of intimacy between herself and “him.” To Olivia’s confession that “Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide,” Viola/Cesario can only speak in riddles thanks to the bind into which her gender-disguising has put her. I think Anne Barton is right to suggest that Viola’s disguise doesn’t exactly liberate her in the same way that, say, Rosalind’s disguise does in As You Like It. Viola/Cesario must give this frustrating response to the love-stricken Olivia: “I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth, / And that no woman has; nor never none / Shall mistress be of it, save I alone” (158-60).

Act 3, Scene 2


Sir Toby shows his contempt for Sir Andrew’s lack of valor here, and admits that he’s taken him for a considerable sum already. Andrew is more his quarry than his protégé. The following advice is worth quoting: “Taunt him with the license of / ink. If thou thou’st him some thrice, it shall not be / amiss; and as many lies as will lie in thy sheet of paper, / although the sheet were big enough for the bed of / Ware in England , set ‘em down. Go about it” (44-48). We can find some genuine exemplars of male heroism in Shakespeare (Henry V, for instance), but here, as elsewhere, there’s strong awareness that male posturing is an ancient profession: the semblance of valor often substitutes successfully for the thing itself.

Act 3, Scene 3



Antonio remains a faithful friend to Sebastian, and wants to follow along with him to save him from danger. Antonio gives his new friend his purse—another act indicative of a strong bond between the two.

Act 3, Scene 4


The completely vulnerable Malvolio, now drawn entirely beyond himself, makes his unintentionally comic pitch to Countess Olivia, and is carted off to a dark cell as a madman. Olivia professes the greatest concern for the poor lunatic’s welfare, but will forget about him until nearly the end of the play. At this point, Sir Toby thinks that he can play the jest at his own pace: “We may carry it thus, for our pleasure and his / penance, till our very pastime, tir’d out of breath, / prompt us to have mercy on him…” (137-39).

Sir Andrew is spurred on to challenge Viola/Cesario as a rival suitor. As so often, Shakespeare makes fun of masculine pretensions to high honor and mastery of violence: neither Sir Andrew nor Viola/Cesario is any kind of fighter, and at least the latter knows better than to suppose otherwise. Words take the place of violence. Sir Toby advises Andrew, “swear / horrible; for it comes to pass oft that a terrible oath, / with a swaggering accent sharply twang’d off, gives / manhood more approbation than ever proof itself / would have earn’d him” (178-82). Part of Sir Toby’s fun will be to “cure” the malady described by means of a homeopathic remedy: putting two pretenders together in a duel. At this point, Viola must recognize that her disguise is more than ever a trap—this situation can’t go on much longer.

Antonio soon arrives and takes it upon himself to maintain Viola/Cesario’s part in the quarrel, whereupon he is promptly arrested for piracy by the Duke’s officers. Antonio, drawn into the craziness that is Illyria , believes Sebastian is betraying him because Viola/Cesario won’t hand over the purse Antonio had given Sebastian a while back.

Olivia fears that she has “said too much unto a heart of stone…” (201). She has risked her honor, but perhaps more importantly, to speak this way is to risk being confronted with the reverberance of one’s own unrestrained passion as a kind of madness.

Act 4, Scenes 1-3


In the first scene, Sir Toby nearly comes to blows with Sebastian after Sir Andrew has struck Sebastian, and is only stopped by Olivia. Now Sebastian has been drawn into Illyria ’s topsy-turvyness, just as Antonio was in the previous scene, and his wonderment will only increase at the end of the third scene.

In the second scene, Maria and Feste make more sport of the imprisoned Malvolio, but Toby is starting to worry about his niece’s good opinion. He says to Feste and Maria, “I would we were well rid / of this knavery. If he may be conveniently deliver’d, / I would he were; for I am now so far in offence with my niece that I cannot pursue with any safety this / sport [t’] the upshot” (67-71). Toby realizes that his term of office as “Lord of Misrule” has a limit, and he doesn’t want to lose his place with the Countess. A jest too long continued becomes cruelty, not sport or sanctioned payback.

Feste joins the fun as an examiner of Malvolio, Sir Topas (a name borrowed from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), and says around line 116 that he won’t believe anyone is or isn’t mad until he’s seen their exposed brains after death—for him, the jury is always out on a person’s sanity until that person dies. Of course, Feste is a “fool” by trade, so we are treated to a dialogue between a supposed madman and a fool, with the latter easily gaining the upper hand. Feste’s use of belief in Pythagorean transmigration as a touchstone for sanity is priceless: “Remain thou still in darkness. / Thou shalt hold th’ opinion of Pythagoras ere I will / allow of thy wits, and fear to kill a woodcock lest thou / dispossess the soul of thy grandam. Fare thee well” (57-60).

This makes sense because after all, Malvolio’s pride caused him to denigrate those below him in rank, and Pythagoras’ doctrine implies respect for all creatures great and small. We may add hypocrisy to Malvolio’s petty crimes since, as a denier of life and upholder of rigid notions about rank and propriety, he’s quick to jump at the chance to improve his own condition. Viola commits her cause to fluidity and time and reaps a reward, but Malvolio’s ill-intentioned leap nets him only isolation and mockery. Well, it was a letter that got Malvolio in trouble in the first place, and now he begs “a candle, and pen, ink, and paper” that he may make his plight known to Olivia.

In the third scene, Sebastian abruptly agrees to marry Olivia after she abruptly and secretly proposes to him. He can hardly believe his eyes or his good fortune, but accepts.

Act 5, Scene 1


When Sir Andrew comes on the scene calling for a surgeon to treat Sir Toby, who has been slightly injured by Sebastian, the play’s misrecognition dilemmas begin to resolve since Viola/Cesario is sincerely confused at the accusations Sir Andrew levels. The Duke, still upset with the obdurate Olivia and even more upset with Viola/Cesario, whom he suspects has stolen Olivia from him altogether (she calls the youth “husband”), is astonished at the likeness between Viola/Cesario and Sebastian: “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons, / A natural perspective, that is and is not” (216-17). These two recognize each other for certain by means of recollections about their father.

After Malvolio’s letter has been read in the Duke’s presence, the man himself enters on a sour note, demanding to know why he has been so abused. The conspirators confess (including Feste, who invokes “the whirligig of time”) and are forgiven by everyone but Malvolio, who swears to be revenged on them all. It’s not unusual in Shakespearian comedy to leave some character as the “odd man out” at play’s end—for example, “the melancholy Monsieur Jacques” in As You Like It can hardly be expected to transform into a carefree, upbeat character just because almost everyone else is happy at the play’s conclusion. But there’s no question of punishing Jacques, of course. I don’t believe Twelfth Night is a “problem comedy” at all—the Providence that seems to guide this play is hardly as “rough hewn” as the one that we may see at work in Hamlet, where poor Ophelia runs mad and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “go to it” in England. We find out that Sir Toby has married Maria. Viola agrees to wed the Duke, and Olivia has already married Sebastian.

Feste’s song ends the play, and it would be worthwhile to consider the role his songs play in advancing or reflecting upon the action and characters in Twelfth Night. “The rain it raineth every day,” sings Feste, and his story invokes the increasing consequentiality even of “trifles” as a person grows to maturity. The “knaves and thieves” will find themselves left out in the wind and the rain, when men “shut their gate.” Feste’s role, that of a “fool,” is perhaps the only stable one in a world turned upside down; often-times, the fool alone is able to maintain and offer perspective. Others in this play risk more, and gain more (especially Olivia and Viola, most likely because they have sufficient inward value to begin with, and trial by experience proves and augments that value; the shallow “Sir Andrews” of the world end up worse off by the same trial), but Feste remains the observant, wise man he already was: he is inside the play looking around, but also inside the play looking outward at us, the audience, and he seems almost to be one of us at times. The conclusion of Feste’s song brings in a note of metadrama: “we’ll strive to please you every day,” he says. We can always come back to the theater, where, of course, the play-realm will mediate between its own freedom and the world of time and consequence, but Feste will remind us yet again that soon we must leave. The foolery in Shakespeare is seldom, to borrow a line from King Lear, “altogether fool.” Feste and his kind are excellent embodiments of the suppleness and playfulness that constitute a big part of the value in dramatic exploration.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home