Twelfth Night

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve done this.  I took a bit off from this Act-of-Shakespeare-a-Day Project to focus on Blunt Objects Theatre’s Halloween production, Joan the Witch, and now there’s only a few weeks left in the year.  Oh well.  Might as well jump right back into things: the play is basically a strange romance between two older nobles, Orsino and Olivia – and a pair of shipwrecked twins named Viola and Sebastian.

Also, the shipwreck presumably takes place in winter.

The title, Twelfth Night, refers to the final night of the Christmas season (the one with the Twelve drummers drumming).  It’s an older and mostly forgotten way of celebrating the holiday, with wonderfully anarchic sentiments and involving the democratically elected Lord of Misrule who leads the silliness through the town.  The text itself, however, does not bear any real mention of snow or Christmas.  The title itself doesn’t even appear in the text.  Subtitled What You Will, the Twelfth Night seems to just be a thematic reference to the ridiculousness of the play.

Although, I like the idea that Orsino tries to woo Olivia with the "12 Days of Christmas"

The events of the play are as strange as the title then suggests: Orsino is madly in love with Olivia, though she adamently protests because she is in mourning for her father and “her brother, Who shortly also died: for whose dear love, They say, she hath abjured the company And sight of men.”  Orsino is not the only one seeking her hand in marriage, though.  There is also the cowardly Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who has been living in her house for some time under the advisement of Olivia’s fantastically drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch. 

What a fantastic name that is, eh?

While all of this is happening, the twins are seperated in that shipwreck I mentioned.  Rescued by the Captain, Viola assumes her brother is dead and decides her best chance to survive in this new land is to dress as a boy.  Under the alias of “Master Cesario,” she gets a job delivering love letters for Orsino.  Olivia, still unaffected by the Duke’s affections, falls in love with Cesario.  Viola, meanwhile, falls in love with her master Orsino.  This goes on for some time before we realize that Sebastian is not dead at all, but is alive and well down the beach because he was rescued by a pirate named Angelo.

This play has everything!

The confusion expands delightfully and it all works out in the end, and it’s one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies for good reason.  I just find it strange that, with the obvious Christmastime title, that this isn’t done as a Christmas play more often.  If Olivia has to trudge back and forth through the snow on her pointless missions for Orsino, it is inherently more funny.  The opportunity for physical comedy is amplified so much if you force these clownish characters in and out of snow gear.  And, speaking of hysterical outfits and physical comedy, let’s talk about Olivia’s servant, Malvolio.  Through a tangental prank, he decides it would be a good idea to “be strange, stout, in yellow stockings, and cross-gartered, even with the swiftness of putting on.”  The ridiculous image in my head does not exist readily in a google image search, sadly.  But I will say that Malvolio is a difficult character to stage.  By the end of the play, “He hath been most notoriously abused,” and it is a strange note to end the play on.  Much like Shylock, I find it difficult to really care about anybody else when this man is an injured outcast, feebly spitting out “I’ll be revenged on the pack of you,” as he exits.  One way is to make Malvolio so delightfully unlikable that his torture is a catharsis for the audience, which is something that only a handful of actors can pull off.

Imagine this, but with yellow stockings.

The other choice seems to be darkening the entire play, though I think you can do both.  It’s a suprisingly realistic play, for all of its absurdities.  The emotions are real and weighted, not just poetic charicatures.  When Angelo is arrested, for example, his heartbreak can be truly poignent.  In that scene, he requests Sebastian’s money for bail, not realizing that he is addressing Sebastian’s twin in disguise.  In anger, he derides the person he thinks has betrayed him: “But O how vile an idol proves this god Thou hast, Sebastian, done good feature shame. In nature there’s no blemish but the mind; None can be call’d deform’d but the unkind: Virtue is beauty, but the beauteous evil Are empty trunks o’erflourish’d by the devil.”  The scenario may be comic, but the scene itself is beautifully tragic.  Similarly, the death of loved ones is a somber theme presented early in the play, and so the tragedy in Malvolio does not seem entirely out of place.  It’s a fantastic balance of grief and joy: the true meaning of Christmas.  So a more winterized version of the play is something I’d like to see more of.

Also, I'm mildly obsessed with the dark history of Christmas celebrations.

On a related note: I recently saw the movie Anonymous, dramatization of the Oxfordian Theory directed by the guy who also did Independance Day.  Considering I’ve dedicated so much of my time to reading Shakespeare, I feel compelled to talk about it.  First off: it’s a cool story.  I enjoyed it, it’s fun and pretty, and the beautiful emotions that grace the screen make the sometimes slow pacing worth the time.  Second off: haters gonna hate.  Most criticism of the film has been idiotic.   These people just scoff at the conspiracy at the center of the plot, call it’s adherants “illiterate,” and then proceed to nitpick the historical innaccuracies of the movie.  My counter-argument is this: Shakespeare’s Macbeth is one of the most slanderous  misrepresentations of a historical figure ever produced; Shakespeare’s history plays routinely rewrite timelines, invent characters like Falstaff in the heart of historical drama, and at one point Joan of Arc even summons demons.  So don’t defend Shakespeare by invoking history, it makes you seem illiterate.  The only real criticism of the movie I can muster is that it can be slow at times, and Ben Johnson sounds like Batman.  Otherwise, it’s a great drama on Shakespearean scale, no matter who you think wrote the plays.

My personal opinion?  I don’t know, however I believe they are consistently the work of one author, who may have collaborated with other playwrights at times.  Oxfordian Theory is interesting, but I haven’t read enough about it one way or the other.  That’s all I’m going to say on the matter for now, because I have to get running to a friend’s birthday shindig.  But remember, kids: “be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em. Thy Fates open their hands; let thy blood and spirit embrace them.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

2 Responses to “Twelfth Night”
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] begs the question: if we are doing this fun 12 Days of Christmas thing, will we, in fact, be doing Twelfth Night?  No, it’s not Twelfth Night, or What You Will.  If we did that play, this promotion would […]

  2. […] them, especially penis jokes.  So the more successful comedies in Shakespeare’s canon, like Twelfth Night for example, succeed because the basic situation of the comedy is inherently […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: