Friday, July 16, 2010

"Why, this is the best fooling when all is done"— Shakespeare's supreme comedy, Twelfth Night

Before reading this play,  Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, with Anne Barton's introductory essay (so much better than anything I could have written), listen to Feste's beautiful song, which like fooling (of which Feste is also a master) sets the tone of this play:

O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear, your true-love's coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man's son doth know.

What is love? 'Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me sweet and twenty;
Youth's a stuff will not endure. (II.3.39-53)

"Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, is the only play for which Shakespeare provided an alternative title. As with Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and All's Well That Ends Well, his other late Elizabethan comedies, the title as a whole is more serious than it offhand and casual manner would suggest. The world 'will' possessed for  Elizabethans its modern sense of "wish" or "inclination," and is its primary significance here: and airy invitation to reader and audience to rechristen the comedy according to individual taste and reaction. . . Elizabethans, however, also used the noun 'will' for irrational  desire, passion (often physical) uncontrolled by judgment. . . in this sense the comedy is about what people —Olivia,  Orsino, Antonio, Malvolio, and even Viola—"will,"  the frightening suddenness  with which the "pales and forts of reason" as Hamlet termed them, may be swept away by a kind of emotional thunderstorm. . . . .

"Even if the comedy received its first performance on Twelfth Night, Shakespeare is most unlikely to have given it this name purely for so accidental and ephemeral a reason. Within the play itself there are no specific references to the Feast of the Epiphany, the twelfth and culminating day of the Christmas season . . . . Epiphany was originally a major Christian feast, even more important thanThe  Christmas. It commemorated not only the coming of the Magi with gifts to Bethlehem, but later events in the life of Jesus: his baptism, and the miracle at Cana. Human nature being what it is, it was perhaps inevitable that a  celebration which initially was wholly pious should, with time, alter its complexion, attracting to itself in the process a good deal of the license and even the specific customs of the pagan Saturnalia. Before long, the Church found itself struggling to suppress what had gradually become a kind of annual orgy within sacred precincts: the celebration of a world turned ritually upside down. The effort was in part successful. By the end of the fifteenth century the riotous Feast of Fools, now associated with Epiphany, had at last been driven out of the Church itself and forced to adopt less overtly blasphemous forms. In secular society, however, especially at the Inns of Court and in the universities and in princely gatherings, it continued to flourish in Shakespeare's lifetime.  If he christened a comedy Twelfth Night, it seems reasonable to assume that he intended that title to summon up images of Epiphany as it was celebrated in his own time: a period of holiday abandon in which the normal rules and order of life were suspended or else deliberately inverted, in which serious issues and events mingled perplexingly with revelry and apparent madness. This, in effect, is the atmosphere in Illyria: a country where everyone (except, perhaps, Feste) is very much in earnest, but also a little insane. . . .

"The words "Twelfth Night" not only suggest a carnival world; they warn an audience that it is not to ask too many awkward questions about the miraculous resemblance of boy and girl twins who, on the stage, will almost invariably look less than identical. Nor are we to question love at first sight, a duke who accepts as his wife a servant he thought only five minutes before, was a boy, or feasibility of persuading a man that he can make his fortune forever by way yellow stockings and crossed garters. In a world that is ritually upside down, almost anything can happen. There is a sense in which Sir Toby Belch is the master of these disorderly revels, a man literally intoxicated throughout most of the play, for whom time in its logical, workaday aspect has simply ceased to exist: "To be up after midnight and to go to bed then, is early; so that to go to bed after midnight is to go to bed betimes." (II.3.7-9) As a kind of carnival, or temporary, king, Sir Toby rules his sector of Olivia's household according to the rules of holiday inconsequence. His chief enemy, of course, is Malvolio. Olivia's steward is not only dedicated to work, sobriety, and regular hours: he insists that all the world should follow his example, that there should be no cakes and ale, no tang of ginger on the tongue, and no relaxation of discipline in man's progress from cradle to grave. He has no use for folly, whether it is that of Feste the professional, or Fabian's low taste for the sport of bear-baiting, or the nightly songs and carousals of Sir Toby and his companion Aguecheek.

"Toby himself is a parasite sponging off a young and beautiful niece. He uses this position to deceive and profit from the ridiculous ambitions of a hanger-on of his own, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. In the final scene he will turn viciously on this supposed friend: "Will you help? —an ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull!" (V.1.206-7) There is nothing lovely, or even honest, about Sir Toby's riotous little court. Yet a theater audience will always, at least up the point of  Malvolio's incarceration in the dark house of Act IV, support Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria, Feste, and Fabian in their plot against the steward. In the study it is possible to be more soft-hearted. To watch Twelfth Night on the stage, however, is to participate and delight in a heightened world temporarily free from time and normal responsibility. At a party where everyone is gloriously drunk, Malvolio is the guest who insists on remaining cold sober, who reads long lectures on temperance to everyone else, and threatens to summon the police. As such, he is our enemy as well as Sir Toby's, not only because he tries to suppress music and revelry which we find entertaining, but because we recognize that,  in his view, we ought not be indulging ourselves by going to the theater at all. This is why his downfall, in its early stages is so delicious. Yellow-stockinged and cross-gartered, trying to learn how to smile, Malvolio has become the unconscious victim of precisely that irrational spirit of holiday which he so despises. He has harbored a private folly all along—his conceit, born of self-love and isolation, that Olivia adores him—and when his enemies employ it against him, his behavior becomes at least as mad as theirs.

"Madness in Illyria is by no means confined to Sir Toby, his entourage, and the deceived Malvolio. The very first scene of the comedy introduces Orsino, a nobleman committed to a course of wild extravagancy, in the Elizabethan sense of that word. He is bound up within a fiction, a dream of romantic passion, in which the voyage itself is really more important than its specific goal. . . Whatever some critics may say, the lovelorn Orsino is not a figure of fun. Indeed, the verse he speaks at the beginning of the play is seductively beautiful: intense, metaphoric, and imaginative. Only by the slightest touches—the way his hunting image,  for instane, threatens to overbalance into an Actaeon/cuckold joke which the speaker certainly does not intend—does Shakespeare hint at something that Feste, later, will make explicit: the fact that Orsino's love melancholy is essentially sterile and self-induced,  a state of mind dependent  upon that very absence and lack of response from Olivia which it affects to lament.

"On the whole, Olivia will suffer greater humiliation than Orsino in the course of the comedy, although her lack of self-knowledge is no more acute than his. She is described from the beginning in words that evoke a complex response.

The element itself, till seven years'  heat,
Shall not behold her face at ample view;
But like a cloistress she will veiled walk,
And water once a day her chamber round
With eye-offending brine; all this to season
A brother's dead love, which she would keep fresh
And lasting in her sad remembrance.  (I.1.25-31)

"The underlying image here is homely, even a little grotesque. Like a housewife who carefully turns a piece of pickled meat once a day in its brine bath, Olivia intends through salt tears to preserve the memory of her dead brother beyond the normal span of grief. There is something forced and abnormal about such mourning, but there is also—as Orsino's reaction makes clear—something noble. . . Olivia is engaged in a war against time and human forgetfulness . . . the attempt fails . . . At the first sight of Cesario she abandons her veil and, in rapid succession after that, her tears, her rites of memory, her pride, and even her modesty. It is right and proper, in accord with all the laws of comedy, that this should happen,  that Sebastian ultimately should fill up the place of the dead brother in Olivia's heart. Seven years is a long time and youth is very short . . . Yet Olivia's ignominious collapse, while necessary, is also sad. Man has his glimpses of the ideal, whether of love or of fidelity to the dead. Not  even in Illyria, however, an such ideals be sustained.

"In the comedies that he wrote before Twelfth Night, Shakespeare had created a number of fantasy worlds, places that never were on sea or land, where life has some of the qualities of a dream. He invented Portia's house over the sea at Belmont, with its riddle-game, its music, and its limitless wealth; the forests of As You Like It, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night's Dream; the withdrawn, artificially  enclosed park of Love's Labor's Lost. Even in The Come,dy of Errors, The Taming of The Shrew, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Much Ado About Nothing there are shadowy traces of this pattern of movement from an ordinary world to a second, somehow magical, environment in which characters are transformed, but which they must leave at the end of the comedy to take up the burden of the everyday. The people who set out from Arden, Navarre, Oberon's wood, Windsor great park, or the nightmare house of Petruchio are not quite the same as those who have sojourned there. Their experiences in this second, heightened world have altered them, usually for the better. It is clear, however, that their future lies  in a harsher, more realistic society, subject to imperfection, death, human limitation, and Time, which we accept as an image of our own.

"In the final romances [a term that has been invented by modern editors; in the First Folio, all the plays that were neither history plays nor tragedies, were comedies] Shakespeare abandoned this comic pattern. The Tempest is the only play which even approximates to it, and it does so in a very peculiar sense indeed.   [If it weren't for Caliban, in my opinion, that play would be dead, dead, dead.] The characters of the last plays are constantly travelling, but the places from which they set out, to which they journey, and to which they return are all equally marvellous. There is no distinction in this particular sense between Tharsus, Tyre, and Mytilene in Pericles, between Sicily and Bohemia in The Winter's Tale, between Cymbeline's court and the forest to which Imogen flees. People may be transformed within it, but their transformation no longer depends upon their experience of an extraordinary place where the demands of life as they know it are, for a time, suspended and which they must leave at the end.

"In ways that go beyond the implications of its title, Twelfth Night is a kind of Janus-faced play, mediating between the early comedies and the last romances. Viola's disguise as Cesario recalls the masculine disguise of Julia [in Two Gents] and Rosalind. Yet in her strange passivity, her insistance on enduring events rater than creating them, she is like Perdita and Miranda, Marina and Imogen. The theme of mistaken identity, that confusion between twins which finally gives Sebastian to Olivia, Viola to Orsino, Shakespeare had exploited years before in The Comedy of Errors. Its emotional quality in Twelfth Night, however,  prefigures the highly charged reunions of Pericles and The Winter's Tale. With respect to the idea of two comic worlds, one of them heightened, the other an analogue to our own reality, Twelfth Night seems to strike a balance between the practice of early and late Shakespearean comedy. Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked into Illyria, even as (metaphorically at least) Hermia, Helena, Demetrius and Lysander are 'shipwrecked' into the forest by the harsh laws of Athenian society, or as Bassanio flees the poverty of his condition in Venice in search of the golden fleece in Belmont. But the Twelfth Night  characters remain in Illyria; they do not return. Nor do we get any sense of what Messaline, the place from which they say they have come, is like. Any contrasts between the heightened and the ordinary must be found within Illyria itself.

"Both Viola and Sebastian, the two intruders from the sea, accept Illyria as they find it. They may be momentarily baffled by the topsy-turvy world of the revels: both yield themselves to the current without trying, as Malvolio tries, to alter its course. Sebasian cheerfully marries a woman he doesn't know, and who may well be mad, simply because she is lovely and lays passionate claim to him. Viola, once committed to her role as Orsino's page, conscientiously does whatever she is told, however painful, without trying to impose her own will upon events. She is careful to keep at arm's length from the love-crazed Olivia, but essentially she plays a waiting game, believing that Time 'must untangle this, not I.' (II.2.40) When circumstances provide her with virtual proof that her twin brother is not only alive but the source of considerable confusion and misunderstanding in Illyria, she not only makes no attempt to explain, let alone find him: she sits almost unnaturally still, leaving the wretched Antonio to flounder in an agony of mind, and her own love Orsino to entertain the most murderous suspicions and intents. Hopelessly entangled herself in the rough-and-tumble world of the underplot, deceived by the false challenge of Sir Toby, terrified by the bare prospect of combat with Sir Andrew, her efforts are all to evade action rather than, like Rosalind, to initiate it. Even her boy's disguise operates not as a liberation but merely as a way of going underground in a difficult situation, of waiting to see what Time will bring. This attitude, it turns out, is the best she could have adopted. By surrendering herself unquestioningly to the madness of Illyria, by remaining aware but passive, she contrives to win Olivia for her brother, redeem Antonio's life, and marry Orsino herself.

"Time, however, is a two-fold entity in Twelfth Night. Even Viola, for all her faith in Time as a redemptive and beneficent force, can see that it has another face. When she tells Orsino about that supposed sister who never told her love but sat 'like Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief" (II.4.114-15), until it was too late, or agrees with him sadly that women are like summer roses which 'die, even when they to perfection grow' (II.4.41), her words are filled with a bitter consciousness that for her too the months are passing and slowly diminishing her beauty and her youth, hidden in a boy's disguise. The chief spokesman for this second, realistic kind of Time is not, however, Viola but Feste. Feste is not only a wise fool, a man in complete intellectual and emotional control of himself, who has chosen the part of professional jester: he operates throughout the comedy as a truth-teller who reminds the other characters that holiday, by its very nature is not eternal. It is Feste who points out to the revellers that the future is uncertain, laughter momentary, and youth 'a stuff will not endure' (II.3.52). He tells Olivia sometehing she does not want to hear, that 'beauty's a flower' (I.5.52), and suggests ominously beneath his seeming lightness that 'pleasure will be paid, one time or another' (II.4.70-1). An isolated figure, with no discernible loyalties, involvements, or private life [but where has he been when he gets scolded for being absent so long?], he seem to be as much (or as little) at home in Orsino's house as in Oilivia's. In both he remains watchful, observant, and essentially detached.

"Elizabethans would naturally have expected Feste to be heavily involved in the plot against Malvolio, not only because he has a personal grudge against the steward, but because such behavior was appropriate to a Fool. Real-life fools, if they had sufficient wit, were much given to the perpetration of practical jokes, as witness some of the stories told in a A Nest of Ninnies (1605), that scarifying anthology compiled by Robert Armin, the actor who originally played Feste. Shakespeare, however, keeps Feste apart from the gulling of Malvolio until the Sir Topas scene just before the end. This is the scene in which it is first intimated that the spirit of carnival [and license] is about to break. Even Sir Toby can scent the morning air. He begins to worry that they've gone too far . . . and wishes that they 'were well rid of all this knavery' (IV.2.67-8). In Act V, images of death and violence proliferate. Antonio appears bound, anguished, and facing the prospect of execution. His presence summons up the memory of war and destruction, that sea-fight in which Orsino's nephew had been maimed for life. Maddened by jealousy, Orsino threatens to kill Cesario. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, having narrowly escaped serious injury at the hands of Sebastian, arrive on the scene covered with blood and calling for a surgeon. The party it seems is over. Suddenly sober and disillusioned, Sir Andrew wishes pathetically that he were at home. Two broken revellers, even their friendship [such as it was] destroyed, they vanish from the stage, not to reappear. Maria does not appear either, to give us any indication about how she feels about her marriage bargain with Sir Toby. As for Malvolio, he intrudes briefly on the scene of joy at the end, without understanding any of it, and departs as a figure of violence, threatening revenge on this society in which he is an alien.

"At the end of Twelfth Night, the two kinds of time that have coexisted throughout the comedy suddenly diverge. They are used to distinguish a world of fiction from one of fact. For Viola and Orsino, Olivia and Sebastian, there will be no awakening from the dream, no need to leave a heightened  realm. The clock by which they live is that of fairy-tale: beneficent, unhurried, and admittedly unreal. Shakespeare goes out of his way to stress the formal, distanced quality of their story at its conclusion. This is why Sebastian and Viola, twins parted for only three months, put one another through a question-and-answer test of the most artificial kind, why Viola (unlike Rosalind) does not return to her girl's clothes. Orsino simply accepts a woman he has never, in fact, seen. Olivia accepts as husband a stranger she has mistaken for someone else. The resolutions and accords are powerful and emotionally charged, but they are also deliberately play-like and literary, not to be confused with the way of the world as we know it to be. Olivia and Sebastian, Viola and Orsino confront us at the end less as representatives of a new society but as people who, by the special dispensation of Comedy, have been allowed to escape from death and time.

"There is a disturbingly large number of important absentees in the ending of Twelfth Night, more than in any other Shakespearean comedy. Sir Andrew, Sir Toby, Maria, and Malvolio do not participate in this happy ending. Antonio is present but seems to have no part to play. Feste is absent too during the revelations and explanations, but he seems (characteristically) to understand and accept what has happened when he appears to end the comedy . . . Our revels, too, have ended. It is the task of Feste in his final song to tell us this, and to build a bridge from that remote enchanted place where the two romantic couples remain forever, to the very different world outside the theater which is our own. Like Jacques' summary of the seven ages of life from the cradle to the grave, Feste's account [in his final song, which will be alluded to by the Fool in King Lear] of man's inexorable progress from a child's holiday realm of irresponsibility and joy into age, vice, disillusionment, and death draws from an old didactic tradition. Its basic pessimism is informed and sweetened, however, not only by the music to which it is set,  but by the tolerance and acceptance of Feste himself. Precisely because of his anonymity and aloofness in the play now ended, he can be trusted to speak for all mankind, and not simply for himself. There is nothing that can be done about those harsh facts of existence to which Feste points, any more than about the wind and the rain. They must simply be endured. Like childhood happiness, all comedies come to an end. The great and consoling difference lies in the fact that one can, after all, as Feste points out, return to the theater: and there 'we'll strive to please you every day.'"

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