King Lear

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Shakespeare, William. King Lear. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 739-823).

Act 1, Scene 1. (739-46, Lear’s plan, daughters’ contest, Kent’s exile) 

Kent and Gloucester agree that it seemed most likely the King would favor Albany over Cornwall. But now they aren’t so certain, so the play opens with a note of uncertainty that becomes ominous later when we realize how much better a person (739, 1.1.1-2, 740, 1.1.18-23) Albany is compared to Cornwall. This is a new, strange state of affairs, in which merit must demonstrate itself by means of rhetorical skill. Gloucester says his legal son is no dearer to him than the illegitimate Edmund. Lear enters, saying that he has decided to divide his kingdom into thirds, and “shake all cares and business” for the remainder of his life. His declared intention is to “prevent future strife” and to confer royal authority on “younger strengths” (740, 1.1.34-43). He means to assist the process of generational renewal, passing on matters of state to younger and more energetic kin while “preventing future strife” and leaving himself the private space necessary to practice the art of dying well, ars moriendi. Each daughter will receive a third; the only question is how opulent that portion will be.

The question of authority is a main item in King Lear. Kent may be responding in part to the King’s unwise disparagement of Cordelia on the spot, but his line “Reverse thy doom / . . . check / This hideous rashness” (742, 1.1.149-51) may owe something to his shock at the notion of an absolute king’s decision to divest himself of his unitary power, keeping only the name and perks of authority. I don’t know that there’s a coherent political theory during Shakespeare’s time; I would only suggest that Lear is confused because he goes off on a private mission while at the same time trying to retain symbols that he confuses with power itself. This is not to say that Shakespeare is criticizing monarchy per se, but I believe he’s always aware that no human system is perfect (not even one that claims divine sanction). The questions are, what are the consequences when things go wrong with social and political systems, and what happens when they go right?

It’s true that the King’s “natural body” is wearing down, and one can feel only empathy for him on that account, but what about the King’s political body, the one that isn’t capable of death? Can he actually abandon his responsibilities the way he does, without causing a disaster? What has he given up? He has given up the “power, / Pre-eminence, and all the large effects / That troop with majesty” (742, 1.1.130-32). Another way of stating this is that he has ceded the “sway, revenue, execution of the rest” (742, 1.1.137) aside from what he retains, which he specifies as “The name, and all the additions to a king” (742, 1.1.136), which additions are to be embodied in the person of the stipulated “hundred knights” (742, 1.1.133). Lear makes a distinction between the name and pomp of kingship and the executive, effectual power of a king. So we might ask, how does he expect to give away all his power and yet hold on to the “addition” of a king? Do the symbols, privileges and name mean anything, apart from the power wielded by those who claim them?

With respect to Cordelia, Regan and Goneril, what does Lear want? He wants a public declaration of their affection for him as a loving father. The public and private in Renaissance kingship were of course inextricable; royal absolutism of King James’ sort always made hay of the idea that the King was “the father of his people,” and James’ model was the scriptural patriarchs. He believed that his subjects owed him the reverence due to such a father. In practice, as I’m sure Shakespeare understood, the intertwining of public and private in powerful families makes for a great deal of coldness, sterility, and alienation, even in settings beyond the monarchy: read biographies of some of our presidents and the modern royal family of Great Britain, and you’ll hear a tale that is at times painful to read: mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters for the most part looking on at the spectacle of one another’s lives, never knowing what to consider acting and what to accept as real, and finding it difficult to sort out personal loyalties from official duties and the demands of power.

Well, Lear has no trouble demanding in the form of public spectacle what would for most families be a purely private display of affection. Perhaps this isn’t entirely unreasonable on his part. Neither are Goneril and Regan necessarily to be blamed for giving the old man what he wants; they know his nature, and this is the sort of thing they have come to expect from him. The point is that he’s the king, and he finds this public display of affection necessary. Why can’t Cordelia do something even better than did Regan and Goneril, bearing with her father and making a generous allowance for his weaknesses? Isn’t it sometimes acceptable to be a little insincere when regard for another person’s feelings requires it? But she won’t work at it, and even if there’s an austere beauty in the figure of Cordelia speaking truth to power, it’s fair to suggest that she is in her way as brittle and abrupt or absolute in her temperament as her frail old father: “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth” (741, 1.1.90-91). She can’t verbally express the genuine affection she feels for Lear. Cordelia isn’t capable of flattery; she lacks Prince Hal’s ability to say to a joker like Falstaff, “if a lie may do thee grace, / I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have” (5.4 I Henry IV), at least for a while. Learning to be a good ruler involves a some play-acting and feigning to be what one is not. Cordelia sees both monarchy and marriage as consisting of specifiable bonds or reciprocal obligations. So when Lear demands that she declare her “love,” she understands the term in something like the sense of “obligation, duty, attention.” Obviously, a woman who marries must balance her duties as a wife with her duties as a loyal daughter; she cannot love her father altogether and spend all her time with him.

But it may be that Lear’s demand isn’t as all-encompassing as she supposes, and it’s fair to ask how someone like Cordelia could rule a kingdom if she is incapable of getting beyond the king’s simple request for affectionate flattery. As Regan later says, “‘Tis the infirmity of his age, yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (746, 1.1.291-92), and Goneril chimes in with “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash” (746, 1.1.293); both daughters see that Lear is being somewhat absurd, but they aren’t surprised and are willing to gratify him, especially given the great reward he is offering for so little. But so as not to make them seem generous, which we know they aren’t, Goneril admits to knowing the King’s casting off of Cordelia is unfair; it shows, in her words, “poor judgment” (746, 1.1.289). Rashness is a charge commonly made against Lear, one made by Kent and two of his daughters. And those two daughters correctly recognize, I think, that the King’s unkindness towards Cordelia represents a threat to them as well: “if our father carry authority with such dis- / position as he bears, this last surrender of his will but / offend us” (746, 1.1.301-03). The King’s surrender, they understand, is not really a surrender but a shifting of responsibility, and he will continue to play the tyrant, taking his stand upon the privilege of majesty and great age.

As for the question of whether power can be divested and divided, well, I suppose a monarch can do these things, and there are historical precedents for it from ancient Rome onwards, but it seldom seems to work. Almost nothing goes the way Lear thinks it’s going to go, once he gives away what was formerly his power to wield alone: in the first place, he had thought Albany and Cornwall would be in charge of their respective thirds, but as it turns out, neither man can stand up to those two strong-willed daughters. It is Regan and Goneril who immediately take charge of state affairs. Moreover, Lear’s conduct after giving away power is anything but responsible: he charges about with his hundred knights behaving more or less like a “lord of misrule.” His presence with either daughter, it seems, would inevitably create a public perception that they are not in charge. Lear wants to retain far more authority than he has any business keeping, now that he has stepped aside to let those “younger strengths” do the hard work of governing and maintaining order.

Lear is partly a tragedy about the terrors of growing old, of feeling slighted, neglected, weak, and useless as you make way for the young. Knowing that you must do so doesn’t necessarily make doing it any easier. In this way, it’s true that in King Lear as in other of Shakespeare’s plays that involve monarchy, “a king is but a man.” This somewhat broader frame probably accounts for the fairy-tale quality of the play. We see the disintegration of a “foolish, fond old man” (802, 4.7.61) who evidently doesn’t understand the nature of genuine affection or the nature of the power he has been wielding for many of his eighty or so years. Cordelia, too, may appear as something like a Cinderella figure: surrounded by a pair of evil sisters, she cannot make her inner virtue known to the powerful, shallow authorities who determine her fate. Well, at least the King of France is able to discern the purity of Cordelia’s virtue, discounting her lack of Machiavellian wiles (745, 1.1.251-54).

Banished Kent will pursue his “old course in a country new” (743, 1.1.188). As it turns out, the “country new” is Britain. Lear’s refusal of responsibility has created a new dispensation of power, radically transforming the nation into a cauldron of anarchy and selfish desire for satisfaction and advancement.

Act 1, Scene 2. (746-50, Edmund: “Thou, Nature, art my goddess”; dupes father, brother) 

This scene begins with Edmund’s soliloquy (746-47, 1.2.1-22), the upshot of which is that Edmund believes he has all the right qualities to rule his own house, and lacks only “legitimacy”; by contrast, the King has given all his power away and expects to hang on to his legitimacy. He stands upon rank as if it in itself constituted inner virtue or fitness to rule, whereas Edmund sees this legitimacy as a function of mere custom, of “the curiosity of nations” (746-47, 1.2.4). Yet as this same soliloquy reveals, Edmund is nearly obsessed with what others think of him; he repeats the word “legitimate” several times, and can’t seem to let it go. We will see that later on, his undoing will stem from this concern for that which he seems most to despise. A most unhealthy selfishness—”I grow; I prosper” (747, 1.2.21)—also drives him on first to victory and then to destruction. Edmund demands that the gods ally themselves not with custom but rather with natural qualities and ripeness for rule. Old Gloucester his been taken aback by the King’s strange behavior, which to him seems unnatural—this view makes him susceptible to the scheming of his illegitimate son. In a world turned upside down, what could make more sense than that a man’s legitimate son and heir should betray him without compunction, all appearances of goodness and history of virtue between the two notwithstanding? Edmund declares his father’s belief in astrology “the excellent foppery of the world” (748, 1.2.109) and insists, “All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit” (750, 1.2.168). He will trust in his dark vision of nature as a place that rewards the most savage and cunning predator. Tennyson (who before composing In Memoriam had become acquainted with the work of Sir Charles Lyell and other pre-Darwinian natural scientists) described this kind of nature as “red in tooth and claw.” Edmund is a human predator, and thanks to Lear, he now has an opportunity to use his predatory skill to remake a formerly stable, human order into one that suits him best. Lear hasn’t made him what he is, but he has given him an opening to thrive. If legitimate authority doesn’t know itself, this is what happens. Perhaps, in terms of political theory, Lear early in the play assumes too easily that there is an automatic connection or concordance between the two “bodies” of a king—the perishing and erring mortal one and the immortal and immaterial political or corporate one: he follows his desires, makes unwise decisions, and then is surprised to find that his decisions as an erring human being have deranged his kingdom. Others in this play see more clearly the Machiavellian point that the exercise of power generates an authority all its own.

Act 1, Scene 3. (750-750, Goneril grows impatient, sets Oswald to call Lear’s bluff) 

Goneril is alarmed at the King’s disorderly conduct. At line six, she complains that “his knights grow riotous” (750, 1.3.6), and devises a stratagem whereby Oswald will make the King feel the weakness of his position by slighting him. Goneril gets to the heart of Lear’s error when she calls him an “Idle old man, / That still would manage those authorities / That he hath given away! (750, 1.3.16-18)

Act 1, Scene 4. (750-57, Kent; Fool judges Lear; Lear’s anger at Goneril, self-questioning) 

Kent begins to serve the King, professing to the old man that he really is what he seems to be—a trusty middle-aged servant who knows authority when he sees it, which quality he says he “would fain call master” (751, 1.4.27). Evidently he sees this quality in the visage of Lear, even if Lear has lost command of himself. The Fool, we are soon told, has “much pined away” (752, 1.4.63-54) since Cordelia went to France. He is Cordelia’s ally. Kent earns his keep by giving Oswald a rough education in rank, or “differences” (752, 1.4.76). Lear’s own words begin to speak against him: he had said to Cordelia, “nothing will come of nothing,” and now the Fool responds to a similar utterance (“nothing can be made of nothing”), “so much the rent / of his land comes to” (753, 1.4.115-16). Lear has given away not only the executive function of his office, but even the title, according to the Fool, and now retains only the title of “fool” that he was born with. The Fool says the King split his crown in two and gave it to his daughters (754, 1.4.163-64); the implication of this remark is that power is indivisible and cannot be handled in this way. “[T]hou gavest them the rod and put’st / down thine own breeches” (754, 1.4.150-51), says the Fool, drawing a clear picture of Lear’s childishness. He applies the word “nothing” to the King (754, 1.4.169), and this application may remind us of Hamlet’s similar mockery—”the king is a thing,” says Hamlet, “of nothing” (394, 4.1.25-27). Like Lear, too, Hamlet is confronted with the inevitable downward slide of even the greatest to what is most common: “Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay, / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away,” as the Prince says (Norton Tragedies 412, 5.1.196-97).

Lear soon begins to ask key questions about identity. ”Are you our daughter?” he asks Goneril (755, 1.4.193), and she tells him to “put away / These dispositions which of late transport you / From what you rightly are” (755, 1.4.196-98). Finally, the exasperated Lear asks, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (755, 1.4.205) and is answered by the Fool with “Lear’s shadow” (755, 1.4.205). When Goneril tells him he ought to be surrounded by men who sort well with his age-weakened condition, Lear swears her off altogether, and suggests that Cordelia’s brittle response to his demand for love has deprived him of his proper judgment (756, 1.4.243-446). His judgment of Goneril that she should, as he does now, “feel / How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child” (756, 1.4.265-66) identifies what he believes to be the source of his troubles. But the question of proportion now comes into play because what Goneril has done far outstrips anything Cordelia may have done to offend the King.

The first mention of “plucking out eyes” occurs when Lear addresses Goneril as follows: “Old fond eyes, / Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck ye out, / And cast you, with the waters that you lose, / To temper clay. Yea, is it come to this?” (756, 1.4.278-81) Lear now transfers his stock to Regan, and threatens to reassume the majesty he has cast off. At 341, Goneril refers to her husband Albany’s “milky gentleness” (757, 1.4.320) as ill-suited to the times; his sententiae, such as “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well” (757, 1.4.325), don’t bode well for his ability to manage power, as far as she is concerned. They seem more like passive judgments than active principles by which a kingdom could be governed.

Act 1, Scene 5. (758-59, Lear begins to see his error, rages against Goneril, fears madness) 

Lear sends Kent to Gloucester with letters. He begins to see that he has done Cordelia wrong (758, 1.4.20), and his anger shifts to Goneril and her “Monster ingratitude” (758, 1.5.33). The Fool points out something Goneril had said earlier: “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise” (758, 1.5.37). Lear is out of joint with the seven ages of man—he has never really attained to years of wise discretion and so is unprepared to practice the art of dying as he proclaimed at the play’s beginning, and now he fears madness (758, 1.4.38). His kingdom is paying the price.

Act 2, Scene 1. (759-61, Edgar driven out, Edmund in with Gloucester, Cornwall) 

Edmund completes his villainy against Edgar, driving him away (759, 2.1.20-32), and by the end of the scene, Gloucester has made Edmund his heir (760, 85-86). Regan insinuates that Edgar was associated with the “riotous knights” in Lear’s service, a claim that Edmund seconds. Cornwall takes a liking to Edmund for his “virtuous obedience” (761, 2.1.111-17). The affinities of the wicked in this play are beginning to make themselves known, as if the bad characters come together by nature.

Act 2, Scene 2. (762-65, Kent abuses Oswald, gets stocked; Cordelia knows king’s distress) 

This is a counterpoint-style scene in which Kent recognizes Oswald for the knave he is, unlike Gloucester with his evil son Edmund. Kent’s putdown “Nature disclaims in thee: / a tailor made thee” (762, 2.2.48) is a classic—Oswald is, after all, a man of artifice who gilds the ugly, base version of nature upheld by Edmund, Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall. But Kent as “Caius” gets himself into a bad fix in this scene when he finds it impossible to explain his hatred for Oswald to Cornwall (763, 2.2.64ff), who takes him for an arrogant and affected inferior, a man who has learned to get praise for his “saucy roughness” (765, 2.2.89). Cornwall for once takes the lead, ordering that the stocks be brought (764, 2.2.117). Gloucester can’t help (765). While in the stocks, Kent mentions that he has a letter from Cordelia—she is aware of the King’s distress (765, 2.2.156-58).

Act 2, Scene 3. (766-766, Exiled Edgar takes on “Poor Tom” disguise) 

Here Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom the Bedlam Beggar, who will “with presented nakedness outface / The winds and persecutions of the sky” (766, 2.3.11-12). For this role, he says, “The country gives me proof and precedent” (766, 2.3.13). His model of the natural man comes from neglected humanity in the English countryside; it is hardly a mere invention on his part. Poor Tom is not a mere negation when he says, “Edgar I nothing am” (766, 2.3.21), which means “I am no longer Edgar.” Poor Tom will be the “something” that rescues Edgar from the “nothing” forced upon him, and that serves as “precedent” to Lear in the storm.

Act 2, Scene 4. (766-73, Ineffectual Lear stripped of knights, shut out) 

Lear is outraged when he sees Kent in the stocks, and becomes increasingly obsessed with this slight as the scene continues. He is sensitive to the shift in tone of his keepers—Gloucester’s ill-chosen remark that Cornwall has been “inform’d” of his demands drives him to an incredulous, “Dost thou understand me, man?” (768, 2.4.93) But his summons to Regan and Cornwall sounds pathetic by this point: “Bid them come forth and hear me, / Or at their chamber-door I’ll beat the drum / Till it cry sleep to death” (769, 2.4.111-13). This intemperance earns him only the Fool’s mocking tale about the cockney woman’s attempt to quiet live eels as she made them into pie (769, 2.4.116-19). Lear is at the mercy of his passions, which have no outlet in action. Suffering is inevitable, suggests the Fool’s wisdom.

Turning to Regan for comfort, Lear gets only the following counsel: O sir, you are old, / Nature in you stands on the very verge / Of his confine. You should be rul’d and led / By some discretion that discerns your state / Better than you yourself. Therefore I pray you / That to our sister you do make return” (769, 2.4.139-44). It would be difficult to strip an elderly man of his dignity any more cruelly than this, and already we may begin to sense the change in attitude that marks a leap beyond ordinary meanness to the “hard hearts” beyond anything we had thought possible in nature—the transition Lear asks about later (see 783, 3.6.70-72). For now, Lear still believes there is a world of difference between Regan and Goneril: “Thou better know’st / The offices of nature, bond of childhood, / Effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude: / Thy half o’ th’ kingdom hast thou not forgot, / Wherein I thee endow’d” (770, 2.4.171-75). The phrase “offices of nature” indicates that to Lear, nature is something civil and beneficent—it is to be identified with the properly functioning family unit.

But Regan’s request is along the same lines as her previous remark: “I pray you, father, being weak, seem so” (771, 2.4.196). Then comes the reverse bidding war between Regan and Goneril over the number of knights Lear is to be allowed, ending with Regan’s question, “What need one?” (772, 2.4.258) Lear offers them a remarkable comeback: “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life is cheap as beast’s” (772, 2.4.259-62). Humanity must not, he insists, be reduced to natural necessity; we are creatures of excess, artifice, and, symbol. Nature as a concept enfolds all of these qualities. It is not to be sundered from decorum, either. Then Lear offers a contradictory prayer to the gods, asking for both patience and anger. He is soon to rage in the storm (mentioned in the stage directions as “storm and tempest” after 772, 2.4.281), but for the moment he denounces his two present daughters as “unnatural hags” and declares almost comically, “I will do such things— / What they are yet I know not; but they shall be / The terrors of the earth!” (772, 2.4.273-78) Regan’s cruel sententia to worried Gloucester is her justification for exiling Lear into the storm: “O sir, to wilful men / The injuries that they themselves procure / Must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors” (773, 2.4.297-99).

It’s true enough that the unwise learn, if at all, only by sad experience—perhaps that is a fundamental point in Christian-based tragedy—but mere decency should have been enough to instruct Regan that this is not the time for such sententiousness. Her cruel excess (along with that of Edmund, Goneril, and Cornwall) is the demonic inverse of the generous excess Lear had invoked in exclaiming, “O, reason not the need!” The play affords scant opportunity for finding any middle ground between these two extremes—between that which is almost infinitely above nature and that which is a great deal more savage than nature. The patience and acceptance that Edgar will counsel Gloucester and that loyal Kent has been practicing goes some way towards building a bridge, but the outcome of their efforts is not heartening.

In Act 2, families are sundered, and like affines itself with like, both indoors and out of doors. Lear has brought up the issue of the heavens—which side will the gods take in this great confrontation between house and house, between one group of sinners (himself included) and another, far worse, group? (770, 2.4.184-87)

Diagram that may be useful for exploring the source of the tragedy that occurs in King Lear: 

Lear’s “O, reason not the need!” outburst in Act 2, Scene 4 offers us an excellent opportunity to understand what goes wrong and why; the king may be telling us something that’s more important than he fully recognizes.  Shakespeare seldom, if ever, sanctions reducing humanity to “need” (i.e. mere necessity) or some bedrock version of “human nature.” Humans are the artificial animals: there’s always excess to deal with, and that can be either a good thing or a bad thing.  The decisions we make are mostly responsible for which path of excess we take.  Here are the two tracks human nature can follow, as I draw them from general reading of Shakespeare:

Basic Tendency (familial ties, sympathy, acceptance) + generous excess >>  sustainable society

excess = accommodation of others’ frailties & eccentricities & modes of insight, linguistic sophistication & play, fancifulness, adornment within reason, regard for decorum and civility, etc. 

Basic Tendency (self-regard, dissatisfaction) + cruel excess >>  unsustainable anarchy 

excess = predation: taking advantage of the gentle or weak, intolerance, insistence on maintaining authority, linguistic impoverishment and literalism of imagination, disregard for decorum and civility of any kind, etc.

In King Lear, the initial mistake the king makes is to abandon the work of accommodation or mediation that makes it possible to keep the balance towards generous excess.  Lear and Cordelia together generate the play’s tragic descent: Cordelia is fundamentally kind, but she is too brittle and earnest to flatter her father, and he in turn is too vain and shallow to understand why she cannot give him the public performance he requires; there’s nothing left in between, and we head straight down to anarchy, a cauldron of primal lust for sex, attention, and power in which only characters like Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Cornwall thrive while others are crushed.  We could say that Cordelia’s basic failure to accommodate her father’s frailty and desire, her lack of linguistic playfulness, drives Lear to a response that borders on the cruel excess we find in the play’s much worse characters: disappointed to the point of mortification, he lashes out against Cordelia and disinherits her on the spot.  His conduct is only excusable to the extent that it stems not from deep depravity or hatred but rather from ignorance of himself and those closest to him: Cordelia’s incapacity mirrors his own, but he can’t make the connection and, in his enfeebled, confused state, Lear’s most beloved daughter’s behavior frightens and enrages him.

Act 3, Scene 1. (773-74, Who’s tending Lear? Albany/Cornwall fall out) 

Kent’s question when Lear is abandoned to the “fretful elements” (773, 3.1.4) isn’t about grand political theory or power, it is simply about who is attending the frail old man: he should not, thinks Kent, be left alone and at the mercy of the weather. The Gentleman informs him that only the Fool is with Lear, “labour[ing] to outjest / His heart-struck injuries” (773, 3.1.116-17). That is a generous way of describing the Fool’s job in this play—we know him to be a teller of discomfiting truths, sometimes in a bitter way. But then, it isn’t comfort that brings characters insight in this play—that would not suit its tragic mode. Albany and Cornwall have fallen out by this time (773-74, 3.1.19-25), and both are following events in France. Kent excuses the King’s fall into madness unnatural, attributing it to the “bemadding sorrow” (774, 3.1.38) caused by Lear’s two evil daughters.

Act 3, Scenes 2, 4, 6. (774-84, Lear in Storm, Edgar “Thing Itself”; Mock Trial; Fool goes) 

In 3.2 and 3.4, the storm is clearly a metaphor for Lear’s internal discord, for the howling madness in the king himself. As the Fool has told him, he has turned his daughters into domineering mothers, and in a sense he has done the opposite of what he declared he wanted to do—recall that he said he was dividing the kingdom in part so he could go off and practice the art of dying well. His daughters were to exercise power while Lear would be free to “crawl towards death.” But instead the old man clings to life, trying desperately to maintain control and clinging to his dearest daughter Cordelia. Even after he has cast them all off, he remains obsessed with them. What we have in King Lear is in part the “tragedy” of growing old and being unable to deal with the changes and the loss that must come since, as Claudius in Hamlet says, reason’s constant law is “death of fathers” (343, 1.2.104) James Calderwood of UC Irvine, applying a philosophical thesis of Ernest Becker, wrote a book called Shakespeare and the Denial of Death. Lear is a death-denier in spite of his claims of willingness to accept his demise, and his daughters represent perpetuity to him. This denial may be in part what’s behind Lear’s raging in the storm, and even at the storm in a confused way, as he does in the utterance that begins, “I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness, / I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children …” (775, 3.2.15-23). 

As his rage rolls onward and takes aim at the “great gods, / That keep this dreadful potherer o’er our heads” (775, 3.2.47-48), his insight is summed up in the sentence, “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning” (776, 3.2.57-58). This broad realization seems to go beyond a specific grievance involving his treatment by Regan and Goneril; it sounds more like an indictment of the universe than anything else. With these words, Lear claims that he feels his “wits begin to turn” (776, 3.2.65), and shows compassion enough for Poor Tom to accept the offer of shelter, though he won’t go in for some time.

But as Lear’s angry conversation with the elements (as quoted above) suggests, the storm is also a natural phenomenon not entirely reducible to the King’s inner disharmony. In this capacity, it is beyond his control, just as the decay of his body is. He calls the storm the “physic” of pomp (778, 3.4.34), the only event and setting that allows him, as a half-naked octogenarian, to make contact with what is common to all human beings. He has learned something in this storm that exceeds his inward tempest: as is said in other Shakespeare plays, “the king is but a man” (Henry 5, 4.1) no matter what the courtiers or the lore of kings or the theory of kingship may say. But Lear isn’t alone for long in the tempest—the Fool is with him for a time (776, 3.2.78-93), as is Kent, and it’s the place where he meets Poor Tom. Such weather isn’t to be endured long. Nature is outdoing itself for ferocity.

In 3.4, Poor Tom plays a significant role with respect to Lear, who says to him, “Thou are the thing itself: unac- / commodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked / animal as thou art” (779, 3.4.98-100), the very lowest level to which a man may sink. Poor Tom attests to the rightness of Lear’s baring himself to the effects of the storm, but it isn’t good for a human being to be “out in the storm” permanently—shelter must be sought, we must return to a more “accommodated” model of humanity where we can abide. Poor Tom has already learned this himself (780, 3.4.135), and Lear, when he calls Edgar “the thing itself,” is in fact looking at a man’s artistic construction, a willed madness that he has probably begun to cast off even by that point, as indeed we see him declare forcefully at the end of 3.6: “Tom, away!” (784, 3.6.103) Lear doesn’t seem to understand Tom’s situation fully, but he learns from this supposed madman nonetheless.

In 3.6 (782-84) comes the great “trial scene,” with Lear, the Fool, and Poor Tom serving as judge and jury against some hapless joint stools enlisted to substitute for Regan and Goneril. The causes Lear derives for his misery, his lines are confused but also genuinely moving. He had been told he was no less than a god, and in the storm he has found that he’s just a miserable old man. He abandoned his only true identity when he cast off Cordelia. He keeps coming back to Regan and Goneril, those willful daughters who, he thinks, have done nothing but indulge their shameful lusts and follow their primal hunger for power. What sort of justice now prevails but a system of spiraling oppression and hypocrisy, one that he has loosed upon himself and others? Virtue at present is nothing more than a device to facilitate the evil now afoot. Lear’s horror at a degree of cruelty beyond what he had thought possible shows in the question that wells up from the bottom of his being towards the end of the mock trial: “Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about / her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard / hearts?” (783, 3.6.70-72) When we have renounced our limits, what, if anything, can reestablish them again, aside from exhaustion unto death?

Act 3, Scenes 3, 5. (777, 781, Edmund betrays Gloucester, becomes earl) 

Edmund had said earlier, “Now Gods, stand up for bastards” (747, 1.2.22) He’s obsessed, understandably enough, with the distinction between baseness and legitimacy, between nature and convention. Now he seizes the opportunity Gloucester has given him for further betrayal—Edmund will tell Cornwall that Gloucester is going to help the king (777, 3.3.18-19; 781, 3.5.8-9). Lear unleashed Edmund upon the kingdom by his unwise actions and irrationality—indeed, Edmund is inevitable since, thanks to Lear, there seems to be nothing between anarchy and the generosity and tact that maintain human dignity and shore up the frailty of our nature. Shakespeare is apparently aware that human nature is not a given—it is something we must work at and maintain, and if we sink beneath it, we are worse than any violent predator in the animal kingdom since such predators don’t add superfluous cruelty to their bloody actions. Edmund is in full evildoer mode at present, but later he will find that he can’t permanently jettison the trappings of convention: security requires order, it requires something like a social contract.

Act 3, Scene 7. (784-87, Gloucester blinded and cast out, Cornwall wounded) 

In this scene, Gloucester is interrogated and then blinded. Gloucester’s bold justification of his secret trip to Dover in aid of the king is, “Because I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out his poor old eyes” (785, 3.7.57-58). To Gloucester, the phrase represents the worst thing he can imagine, and is purely metaphorical. Gloucester can hardly imagine their disrespect: “You are my guests. Do me no foul play, friends” (785, 3.7.31). Not so for Regan, who has been interrogating him, or for Goneril, who, in the presence of Regan, had already uttered her preference even before the current exchange: “Pluck out his eyes” (784, 3.7.5). For them, the literal punishment seems entirely appropriate. Sophocles didn’t want his audience to see Oedipus blind himself with those pins from the dress of his wife Jocasta—it was reported to the audience, but not shown. Shakespeare, however, serves up the sickening spectacle along with the unforgettable lines, “Out, vile jelly! / Where is thy lustre now?” (786, 3.7.85-86) This is the lowest point in the play, the nadir of cruelty into which Lear’s initial mistake made it possible for others to descend.

Act 4, Scene 1. (787-88, Suicidal Gloucester asks Poor Tom the way to Dover cliffs) 

Blinded Gloucester has abandoned any notion of a just moral order rooted in nature; he has understandably lost patience, and declares, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport” (787, 4.1.37-38). Edgar, who believes that the gods are just, must bring his father round to patience again, to acceptance of the predicament that his own foolishness has at least in part created (788, 4.1.57-63). But at this point, Gloucester seeks only death (788, 4.1.73-78).

Act 4, Scene 2. (788-91, Albany asserts himself, vows to avenge Gloucester) 

At last Albany asserts his own virtuous will against Goneril and her evil compatriots, telling her that she isn’t worth “the dust which the rude wind / Blows in your face” (789, 4.2.31-32). But Goneril doesn’t care what he thinks—she is too busy thinking passionate thoughts about her lover Edmund, the newly created Gloucester: : “O, the difference of man and man!” (789, 4.2.26). Albany is not to be gainsaid, however, and calls Goneril what she is: a “tiger” and a “fiend” (789, 4.2.41); he realizes that the anarchic violence she and her sister are participating must either be stopped or destroy the kingdom altogether: “Humanity must perforce prey on itself, / Like monsters of the deep” (790, 4.2.50-51).

Act 4, Scenes 3-4. (791-93, Kent muses, gathers info; Cordelia’s ready for battle) 

Kent hears news from a Gentleman about Cordelia’s actions and frame of mind, and Kent asserts the traditional view that “The stars above us, govern our conditions” (792, 4.3.32). Else how could such differences be between three sisters of the same king? Cordelia, meantime, is ready to take on the British whom she knows to be marching against her (793, 4.4.23-30). Kent is moving towards casting off his “Caius” disguise (792, 4.3.52-53).

Act 4, Scene 5. (793-94, Regan enlists Oswald in pursuit of Edmund’s affection) 

Regan shows her jealousy over Goneril’s desire for Edmund, and tries to enlist the fop Oswald on her side: “My lord is dead; Edmund and I have talk’d, / And more convenient is he for my hand / Than for your lady’s” (794, 4.5.31-33). Oswald is also told that he should, if possible, put the old “traitor” Gloucester out of his misery, lest he incite the people to compassion against her and her allies (794, 4.5.38-39).

Act 4, Scene 6. (794-800, Gloucester’s Fall; Lear’s insight: justice, authority, kill 6x! Gloucester affirms patience; Edgar kills Oswald) 

Gloucester had abandoned his virtuous son Edgar at the bidding of a knave. He was too willing to suppose that the world had been turned upside down, and his fear of betrayal made him most susceptible to it. Now Gloucester’s attitude verges on unacceptable despair as he implores Edgar to lead him to a Dover cliff where he may end his life. Edgar, dressed as a rustic but still Tom, does for him what Cordelia would not do for her father: he graces Gloucester’s way forwards with a lie, telling him, “You are now within a foot / Of th’ extreme verge” (794, 4.6.25-26). Some may take Edgar’s long maintenance of his rustic disguise as somewhat excessive, but in this play, extreme actions are sometimes required as homeopathic remedy for states of extreme error. That’s the kind of remedy the king’s rash behavior has helped to make necessary, although we shouldn’t blame him too harshly for others’ downward spiral into utter depravity. Regan, Goneril, Cornwall, and their ilk are responsible for their own misdeeds. There is some comedy in this scene since, of course, Gloucester’s fall is only onto the bare planks of the stage (795, 4.6.34-41). The old man’s fake descent turns out to be a fortunate fall since it persuades him to have patience even in his almost unbearable condition (796, 4.6.75-77).

In this newfound patience, Gloucester is confronted with a flower-decked Lear, who apparently hasn’t recovered his wits as well as he had thought. Edgar calls him “a side-piercing sight” (796, 4.6.85), adding a Christ-like aura to our vision of Lear as a suffering, dying, universal man. Lear asks if Gloucester is “Goneril with a white beard” (796, 4.6.95), and reproves his former ministers for their flattery: “they told me I was every thing. ‘Tis a lie, I am not ague-proof” (796, 4.6.102-03). Everywhere he looks, Lear sees demonic sexuality as the base of things: “Let copulation thrive” (796, 4.6.112), he bellows, and declares of women, “Down from the waist they are Centaurs” (797, 4.6.121). This rant culminates in a dark vision of systemic injustice and hypocrisy, beginning “[A] dog’s obeyed in office…” (797, 4.6.153, see 153-59). 

This is as strong a view as we find in William Blake’s “London”: “the chimney-sweeper’s cry / Every blackening church appals, / And the hapless soldier’s sigh / Runs in blood down palace-walls.” He has finally accepted the Fool’s old offer of the title “fool,” and his eloquence peters out in an exhausted, enraged repetition of the word “kill”: “And when I have stol’n upon these son-in-laws, / Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!” (798, 4.6.180-81)

Gloucester has gained patience (799, 4.6.211-13). The sixth scene ends with Edgar putting an end to the rascal Oswald, who has stumbled upon Gloucester alone and tried to kill him for the prize Regan has offered (799, 4.6.241-45). In Oswald’s purse he discovers Goneril’s treasonous letter to Edmund, imploring him to kill her virtuous husband Albany (800, 4.6.257-58).

Act 4, Scene 7. (800-02, Lear’s recognition, subdued i.d.-recovery, Cordelia’s generosity) 

Lear recovers his wits, and says to Cordelia, “Pray do not mock me. / I am a very foolish fond old man. . . . Methinks I should know you” (802, 4.7.61, 65). He fully understands the wrong he has done her—something he had begun to sense earlier, even as far back as (758, 1.5.20). Lear expects only hatred, but Cordelia mildly tells him there is “no cause” (802, 4.7.77) why she should hate him. Lear had to seek into the cause of his other daughters’ “hard hearts,” but for Cordelia’s loyalty, she is suggesting, he need not trouble himself to find the reason why. As Portia says in The Merchant of Venice Act 4, “The quality of mercy is not strained”— it is not to be sifted or parsed, or forced.

Act 5, Scene 1. (803-04, Ed/R/G struggle intensifies; Edmund using Albany; Edgar’s letter) 

Edmund, Goneril, and Regan are locked in a struggle for erotic supremacy as they prepare to fight Cordelia’s French; Regan admits, “I had rather lose the battle than …” lose Edmund (803, 5.1.18-19). Edmund plays both women against each other (804, 5.1.55-58), and plans to use Albany while the fighting is on, and then dispose of him afterwards as a bar to his advancement (804, 5.1.62-69). Edgar in disguise delivers a letter to Albany—a challenge to be taken up if victory smiles (804, 5.1.40-46).

Act 5, Scene 2. (804-05, Gloucester again depressed, Edgar counsels endurance) 

Edgar is disappointed to find his father abjectly depressed during the confusion of battle, and tells him, “Men must endure / Their going hence even as their coming hither, / Ripeness is all” (805, 5.2.9-11).

Act 5, Scene 3. (805-13, Lear/Cordelia prisoners, Edmund loses challenge, Lear dies lamenting Cordelia, Edgar inherits kingdom) 

The worst of the worst win the day, and Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner. Lear’s reconciliation with Cordelia is brief but supremely fine: “Come let’s away to prison: We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage …” (805, 5.3.8-19). The old king predicts that he and Cordelia will participate in God’s mysterious knowledge of all things, knowing the ins and outs of his secret dispensation of affairs and men. But all this eloquence is too much for Edmund, who ends Lear’s words with a harsh command: “Take them away” (805, 5.3.19) Political and military events have outstripped the process whereby Lear has discovered his mistakes and recovered his identity and his affiliation with Cordelia. It is simply too late for a reconciliation of more than a few minutes’ time, and in the worst of circumstances. Edmund’s blunt order completes the triumph of literalism and matter-of-fact depravity over legitimate power, virtue, and (here) prophetic rhetoric. Lear is rehumanized and endowed with new insight into what is right and wrong, what is human and what is not. But he and Cordelia are crushed because they are a threat to Edmund, and he determines that they must go.

Things aren’t simple for Edmund, either. Albany has nothing but contempt for him, which bodes ill for his hopes to wield tremendous power in the new order of things. His presence in the army camp provokes a life-and-death struggle between Goneril and Regan for his hand (806-07, 5.3.62-82), and after he refuses to turn over the prisoners Lear and Cordelia (806, 5.3.42-45), Albany arrests him and Goneril for “capital treason” (807, 5.3.83). No sooner is this declared than Albany challenges him (807, 5.3.91-96) and Edgar shows up to fight him in single combat. Edmund, worshiper of animalistic nature and the Regan Revolution though he may be, is now trapped into securing his ill-gotten gains, his newfound legitimacy as bestowed upon him first by Gloucester and then by Cornwall after Gloucester’s blinding and exile. He must accept Edgar’s challenge, and ends up hearing the legitimate son’s pious declaration that “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us: / The dark and vicious place where thee he got / Cost him his eyes” (809, 5.3.169-72). Regan, meanwhile, has been poisoned by Goneril, who then takes her own life when she sees Edmund gravely wounded (810, 5.3.225-26).

Edmund shows some insight: “All three / Now marry in an instant” (810, 5.3.227-28), and tries to redeem himself by revealing his condemnation of Lear and Cordelia (811, 5.3.242-45). Edgar has found time to reclaim the honor of his title and to avenge Edmund’s betrayal of their father, and to some extent he has reasserted the principle of a divine moral order. But the Gloucester and Lear plots do not come together: Lear and Cordelia have run out of time, and not even Edmund’s last-minute repentance can save Cordelia from being hanged or Lear from dying of grief over her lifeless body: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?” (812, 5.3.305-07)

In later-C17-18 versions such as that of Nahum Tate’s 1681 revival of the play (http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/tatelear.html), Cordelia actually thrives as Queen, married by a beaming Lear to Edgar. Neoclassical critics and audiences found the actual Shakespearean ending an intolerable violation of representational ethics: the good must be rewarded, and the wicked must be punished. Here is Dr. Johnson’s pronouncement on the matter in Rambler #4:

In narratives where historical veracity has no place, I cannot discover why there should not be exhibited the most perfect idea of virtue; of virtue not angelical, nor above probability, for what we cannot credit, we shall never imitate, but the highest and purest that humanity can reach, which, exercised in such trials as the various revolutions of things shall bring upon it, may, by conquering some calamities, and enduring others, teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform. Vice, for vice is necessary to be shewn, should always disgust; nor should the graces of gaiety, or the dignity of courage, be so united with it, as to reconcile it to the mind. Wherever it appears, it should raise hatred by the malignity of its practices, and contempt by the meanness of its stratagems: for while it is supported by either parts or spirit, it will be seldom heartily abhorred.  (http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/rambler4.html).

In Cordelia’s death, the justice of the heavens is not at all apparent. It is true that vice is thoroughly disgusting in King Lear, but virtue is by no means shown triumphant. We must endure the old king’s “going hence” in unbearable agony and near incoherence, as he bewails Cordelia’s death and laments, “my poor fool is hang’d” (812, 5.3.304), which may also refer to the Fool, who disappeared with the line, “And I’ll go to bed at noon” (783, 3.6.78). Nobody wants to rule this blighted kingdom anymore: neither Albany nor Kent will take the reigns of power, and all is left to Edgar. His concluding lines are oddly unsatisfying: “ The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say: The oldest hath borne most; we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long” (813, 5.3.822-25).

If the play has been a quest for the restoration of authority, Edgar is hardly the quester who heals the Fisher King and makes the waters flow. But this play is, of course, a tragedy and not a romance. What it may have taught us, in the end, is that the deepest kind of insight into humanity does not accompany the workings of earthly power: as so often in tragedy, the cost of such insight is an untimely death. Edgar can’t do much more than repeat the stale “truism” of his father Gloucester: better days have been. There’s no easy accommodation, or magical reconciliation, no middle ground to occupy—just a pair of departed royal visionaries and a remnant of confused and disillusioned people repeating unconvincing truisms. Much of the play has been about trying different strategies of accommodation, recognizing the constrictions of nature, mortality, political power, and language, but no satisfying arrangements have emerged. No one has come to terms with what it means to be mortal and yet not identical with the workings of raw physical nature.

Finally, even though King Lear has pagan trappings, I treat it as tinged with Christian principles, and it seems that within this framework, tragedy is constituted by the enormous gap between wisdom and felicity. Much human suffering is preventable, but at the deepest level, sorrow and loss are the only true teachers. And at this level, even a great man like Lear is the “natural fool of fortune” (798, 4.6.185). All along, the Fool had helped prevent Lear from falling into a hopeless state of self-pity, and had helped the audience from over-pitying the king. The Fool had stood for the possibility of artistic redemption, with his playful songs and insouciance. He knew that Lear was willing to listen to him speak the truth in an eccentric form, unlike Regan and Goneril, whose stern authority he feared and whose disregard for his rhymes stemmed from their obscene literalism and savagery. But comfort is cold in this play—at a certain point, the Fool simply had to disappear, leaving Lear to face the impossibility of setting things right, even after his self-recovery and acknowledgment of error to his kind daughter Cordelia.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Twelfth Night

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 689-750).

Act 1, Scene 1 (697-98, Orsino’s idealistic love, report of Olivia’s stylized mourning; my general comments on comic spirit)

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. Olivia, says Valentine in reporting back from her to Orsino, is determined in all she does for seven years “to season / A brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh / And lasting in her sad remembrance” (698, 1.1.29-31). Orsino seems to understand that he and Olivia are kindred spirits. He 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: “If music be the food of love, play on, / Give me excess of it that, surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken and so die” (697, 1.1.1-3). But that 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 attitude entails risk in that if persisted in too long, it will become a trap. Those who stylize and extend natural human passions certainly run this risk, and there’s no shortage of warnings to heed: the advice given by Claudius and Gertrude to the brooding prince in Act 1, Scene 2 of Hamlet may come from compromised sources, but it is reasonable counsel: mourning has its temporal and emotional limits, and when those aren’t respected, sorrow goes from being duly “obsequious” to transgressive.

But then, Illyria is the rarefied realm in which the lover Orsino and the mourner Olivia aim to live, so as Anne Barton (an editor of the Riverside Shakespeare) says, there’s no need for the characters in Twelfth Night to remove themselves to a Green World or any other magical space. They are in one already, and the ordinary laws of life don’t fully apply: Illyria seems to run strangely parallel with the order of human desire. Still, the harmony isn’t complete: Feste almost continually reminds us that this order is not the only one with which we must reckon: he neither 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. Later, Malvolio will remind us of this problem in a much less tolerant manner, and even that lord of misrule Sir Toby will show some wisdom about the dangers of pursuing one’s pleasure without check.

Act 1, Scene 2 (698-99, Captain and Viola reflect on hopes that Sebastian survived shipwreck; Viola’s decision to serve Orsino, commit to time)

Viola and the Sea Captain converse after her shipwreck, and he gives her hope that her brother Sebastian may have made it to shore: “I saw your brother, / Most provident in peril, bind himself—/ … / To a strong mast that lived upon the sea …” (698, 1.2.10-13). Viola admires what the Captain says about Olivia’s constancy to a lost brother (699, 1.2.32-37) and would serve her, but instead 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 that she “… might not be delivered to the world, / Till I had made mine own occasion mellow, / What my estate is” (699, 1.2.38-40). Others may be after a more permanent refuge, but Viola plans to use her musical abilities to recommend her service to the Duke as a page, and for the rest, she commits her cause to the fullness of time: “What else may hap, to time I will commit” (699, 1.2.56). That willingness to commit one’s hopes to the fullness of time and the buffetings of chance, it seems, is a key attitude for Shakespeare’s comic heroes and heroines: it requires wisdom and generosity of spirit, openness to what life brings. Selfish characters lack these qualities and spend most of their time trying to control everything and everyone around them, a strategy that seldom yields happy results, even in a comic play.

Act 1, Scene 3 (700-02, Sir Toby’s liberated views, grooming of Sir Andrew as suitor to Olivia)

Sir Toby Belch operates on a different principle, one that becomes evident when he expresses his impatience with his niece Olivia: “What a plague means my niece to take the death of / her brother thus? I am sure care’s an enemy to life” (700, 1.3.1-2). When Maria tells him, “confine yourself within the modest / limits of order” (700, 1.3.6-7) in Olivia’s household, Sir Toby scoffs: “Confine? I’ll confine myself no finer than I am. These / clothes are good enough to drink in, and so be these boots too …” (700, 1.3.8-9).

We should consider Sir Toby’s function in the play in a broad context: the “Twelfth Night” referenced in the play’s title is January 5th, the last day of Christmas celebrations that begin on December 25th. This day is followed by the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th, which commemorates the visit of the Magi or three wise men to see the infant Jesus. (See Matthew 2:1-12). During the Middle Ages, at least, one of the feasts that occurred during this twelve-day period was the Feast of Fools, which is associated with a feast in celebration of the Circumcision of the Lord, Jan. 1st. I believe both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I banned this Feast of Fools out of Protestant disdain for the licentiousness with which it had come to be associated (it drew a lot of criticism on the Continent during the medieval period, too; indeed, the title and tradition go back to pre-Christian times: a lord of misrule presided over a weeklong December Roman holiday called Saturnalia, instituted as early as the third century BCE). In any case, for the Feast of Fools, a lord of misrule would be chosen to preside over this time of merrymaking and reversal.

Sir Toby Belch functions much like a lord of misrule in Shakespeare’ play, keeping alive for contemporary Christmas festivities the memory of this ancient pagan and early Christian tradition. Critics like Mikhail Bakhtin have studied such goings-on under the heading of the carnivalesque, in which the otherwise binding social structures of everyday life are comically mocked and satirized for a limited time, and then things go back to normal. Sir Toby’s role is apparent from the earlier lines I quoted, and it becomes still clearer when we see him engaging in jesting conversation with Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Toby wants to send the dupe Andrew in pursuit of Olivia for his own fun and profit. He doesn’t have much respect for Andrew, and he doesn’t take the other characters too 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. Sir Toby sets Andrew after Maria as practice for his future pursuit of Olivia, eliciting only Sir Andrew’s foolish mistake in thinking that the word “accost” is the lady’s name (701, 1.3.44). 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, and he insists that Sir Andrew ought not hide his talents as a dancer but should instead use them to the fullest extent: “Wherefore are these things hid?… / Is it a world to hide virtues in?” (702, 1.3.105-10)

Act 1, Scene 4 (702-03, Orsino commissions Viola/Cesario to woo Olivia for him: a trap for Viola)

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: “It shall become thee well to act my woes – / She will attend it better in thy youth” (703, 1.4.25-26). Comically, Orsino adds a comment about Viola/Cesario’s feminine appearance: “Diana’s lip/Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe/Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound,/And all is semblative a woman’s part” (703 1.4.30-33). Viola realizes immediately what a trap her gender disguise has become: “I’ll do my best/To woo your lady – [aside] yet a barful strife –/Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife” (703, 1.4.39-41).

Act 1, Scene 5 (703-10, Feste proves Olivia a fool; Malvolio insults Feste; Olivia falls for proxy suitor Viola/Cesario)

We are introduced to the rest of the main characters: Olivia, Maria her maid, and Feste. Feste’s initial words are important because they show 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” (704, 1.5.13-14), he says to Maria, implying that a fool should strive to become even more foolish. But Feste’s foolery turns out be a species of wisdom, and wisdom sets a person apart, though not in hostility. We will find that other characters are more immediately subject to the vicissitudes of that biblical dynamic duo “time and chance” than is Feste, and they must shift as they can, while Feste himself remains a constant in the play. His wisdom consists partly in being able to formulate claims such as the one he offers Olivia in an attempt to prove she deserves his title: “Anything/ that’s mended is but patched. Virtue that transgresses is but/patched with sin, and sin that amends is but patched with vir-/tue. If that this simple syllogism will serve, so; if it will not, what/remedy? As there is no true cuckold but calamity, so beauty’s a/flower” (704, 1.5.40-45). Feste considers Olivia a fellow fool because of her over-grieving for the loss of her brother. In her quest for a perfectly stylized kind of mourning, this lovely absolutist risks the passage of her beauty, in itself a remarkable if transient thing of perfection. Feste seems to understand that in this saucy world there is no permanent strategy to be found; there is only mending of virtues with vices and vice versa; there is accommodation and negotiation between one person and another, and (to use a modern term from economics) always one must consider the “opportunity cost” of one’s choices, one’s actions.

Malvolio soon comes on the scene as a Puritan killjoy: “I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren / rascal. I saw him put down the other day with an ordinary fool/that has no more brain than a stone” (705, 1.5.71-73), is his pronouncement to Olivia regarding Feste. Olivia shows that she understands Malvolio’s excessive reliance on rigid virtue: he is filled with self-love, she says, and his earnestness is a bore: “There is no slander in an allowed fool, though he do nothing but rail; nor no railing in a known discreet man, though he do nothing but reprove” (705, 1.5.80-82).

Olivia also seems to be leading Orsino on: she’s curious to see what his next move as an importunate, fantastical suitor will be: “We’ll once more hear Orsino’s embassy” (707, 1.5.148). His new intermediary, Viola/Cesario, wins Olivia’s interest immediately and her love almost at first sight; she is struck with the youth’s 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” (706, 1.5.141-42). This liminality is probably in part what makes Viola/Cesario attractive to Olivia, as I suggested above. The outcome of the Duke’s comic miscalculation is predictable: Olivia goes for the “eye candy” Orsino has proffered and not for him. Orsino has given Viola/Cesario license to establish a sense of intimacy with Olivia, and it is just this intimacy that bonds people together and makes them apt to fall in love. What initially 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. The Countess is open to something new, and the bond of intimacy is made very quickly, probably when Viola/Cesario says at the beginning of their conversation, “Good beauties, let me sustain no scorn; I am very / ‘countable, even to the least sinister usage” (707, 1.5.155-56).

The passage in which Olivia unveils her face at the request of Viola/Cesario is worth notice: “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” (708, 1.5.204-05, 208). This is true enough, 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” (750, 5.1.377) are always at work, breaking down what seemed timeless, and we are put in mind of Feste’s earlier conversation with Olivia, in which he had said beauty is a perishing flower (704, 1.5.45).

As the conversation continues, Viola/Cesario’s rhetorical boldness shows Olivia the way to give in to her own 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” (708, 1.5.233-36). 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 (709, 1.5.270-76) to ensure the future presence of this new object of her desire. Her sudden change of heart shows 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” (710, 1.5.280-81).

What keeps Olivia from loving the Duke anyway, aside from the rather flimsy one of dedication to her brother (which lasts about three minutes 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. All she says is that Duke Orsino is “A gracious person; but yet I cannot love him./He might have took his answer long ago” (708, 1.5.231-32). 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 favored object of desire, and I think we are given to understand that Olivia considers herself and Orsino too alike in their tendencies towards idealistic extremes to make a good match.

Act 2, Scene 1 (710-10, Antonio forges bond with Sebastian, will follow him to Orsino’s court)

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: “But come what may, I do adore thee so / That danger shall seem sport, and I will go” (710, 2.1.41-42).

Act 2, Scene 2 (711-11, Olivia’s ring sets Viola/Cesario thinking about gender, frailty, frustration)

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. I don’t know that Viola has any more control over the course of events than others in this play, but some advantage, it’s reasonable to suggest, stems from 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. First, Viola sees that her adoption of a gender disguise is a trap that’s leading her towards frustration: “Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness / Wherein the pregnant enemy does much” (711, 2.2.25-26). Secondly, 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” (711, 2.2.27-30). The “we” here is “women,” but it isn’t hard to extend the point to capture a sense of the fragility and changeableness of general humanity.

This ability does not, however, make it possible for Viola 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)

*Footnote: the theory of the humors traces back to the Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BCE): the four humors or bodily fluids are black bile (associated with the element earth), yellow bile (fire), phlegm (water), and blood (air). A balanced amount of these fluids in the body maintained health and good temperament, while an excess of the first-mentioned (black bile) could make a person depressed or irritable; excess of the second (yellow bile) angry, ill-tempered; excess of the third (phlegm) taciturn, unemotional; excess of the fourth (blood) amorous or bold to the point of lechery or foolhardiness.

Act 2, Scene 3 (711-15, Malvolio interrupts Toby & Co.’s reveling, Maria hatches letter-plot)

This is another comic scene between Toby, Andrew, and Feste. Toby has been drinking and jesting as usual. First comes a delightful parody of philosophical discourse: Toby: “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. Does not our lives / consist of the four elements?” (712, 2.3.5-8) To which Andrew replies, “Faith, so they say, but I think it rather consists of / eating and drinking” (712, 2.3.9-10). Next comes a call for some music. Feste’s song suggests that love sees only the joy of the present, 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” (713, 2.3. to gain insight into the fragility of common humanity to gain insight into the fragility of common humanity 46-48). Feste sanctions neither prudence nor pastoral idylls such as Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.”

Sir Toby, Maria, and Andrew are offended at Malvolio’s killjoy demands that they stop making so much merriment in Olivia’s home: “Do ye make an alehouse of my lady’s/house, that ye squeak out your coziers’ catches without any/mitigation or remorse of voice? Is there no respect of place,/persons, nor time in you?” (713, 2.3.78-83). Toby’s put-down of Malvolio is a classic: “Art anymore/than a steward? Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous there / shall be no more cakes and ale?” (713, 2.3.102-04) Sic Semper to all prigs! Maria’s letter scheme to get revenge against Malvolio wins the admiration of Toby and Andrew. 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: he is in deadly and permanent earnest about the Twelfth Night license to change one’s rank. Maria says she will succeed because this puritan hypocrite is “so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his/grounds of faith that all that look on him love him; and on/that device in him will my revenge find notable cause to work” (714-15 2.3.134-36). Her plan is as follows: “I will drop in his way some obscure epistles of love,/wherein by the colour of his beard, the shape of his leg, the/manner of his gait, the expressure of his eye, forehead, and/complexion, he shall find himself most feelingly personated. I/can write very like my lady your niece …” (715, 2.3.138-42).

Andrew, however, is most concerned with his suit to Olivia failing and leaving him out of funds: “If I cannot recover your niece, I am a foul way/out” (715, 2.3.163-64). This makes Andrew easy prey for Sir Toby.

Act 2, Scene 4 (715-18, Orsino and Viola/Cesario debate male/female love; Feste sings of love/death)

Viola/Cesario and the Duke discuss love matters, and he opens up to her while Feste plays some music for them: Orsino admits that men’s love is less constant than women’s love: “Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,/More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,/Than women’s are” (716, 2.4.32-34). But the Duke is playing the importunate suitor, and his subsequent remarks are contradictory. He insists that no woman could possibly love as strongly as he loves Olivia: “There is no woman’s sides/Can bide the beating of so strong a passion” (717, 2.4.91-92). To this, Viola/Cesario alludes cryptically to her own love for Orsino, and insists that “We men may say more, swear more, but indeed/Our shows are more than will; for still we prove/Much in our vows, but little in our love” (718, 2.4.115-17).

In between this argument’s halves, Feste’s song connects love with death, the ultimate in consequences: “Come away, come away death,/And in sad cypress let me be laid./Fie away, fie away breath,/I am slain by a fair cruel maid” (716, 2.4.50-53), and he warns the Duke afterwards, “pleasure will be paid, one time or / another” (717, 2.4.69).

Act 2, Scene 5 (718-22, Malvolio finds Maria’s letter and takes the bait: his selfish delusions peak)

The conspirators turn Malvolio into a fool in a reverie. Maria is certain that the puritan will become “a contemplative idiot” once he gets wind of the letter (718, 2.5.16-17), and she isn’t disappointed. Even before he spies out the letter, Malvolio is waxing hopeful: “To be Count Malvolio!” (719, 2.5.30) and “to have the humour of state and …/telling them I know my place, as I/would they should do theirs …” (719, 2.5.47-49). Things go from absurd to more absurd once the letter comes into reading range: Malvolio muses on the inscription, “I may command where I adore,/But silence like a Lucrece knife/With bloodless stroke my heart doth gore./M.O.A.I. doth sway my life’ (720, 2.5.94-97) and goes on to ponder the significance of “Some are born great, some achieve / greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon’em” (721, 2.5.126-27). To succeed, Malvolio need only don yellow stockings and smile like a fool (721, 2.5.132-34, 152-53).

Sir Toby predicts that Malvolio, when finally disabused of his delusions of grandeur, will run mad (722, 2.5.168-69). This hyper-critical moralist has become just another foolish lover. He’s a minor comic version of Euripides’ Pentheus in The Bacchantes, to 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.) Indeed, a hint of violence had entered the picture early with the mention of Lucretia: Malvolio recognized the letter as Olivia’s because the seal bore an impression of Lucrece, the famous Roman wife who killed herself after being raped by Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the last Etruscan king Tarquinius Superbus: “By your leave, / wax—soft, and the impressure her Lucrece, with which she / uses to seal—tis my lady” (720, 2.5.83-85). Malvolio is no Tarquin, but he is prideful, and he intends to move beyond his proper station in life (that of a steward) by means of a most improper and self-aggrandizing suit to his employer.

Malvolio has been convinced by Maria’s bogus letter that “greatness” has simply been “thrust upon him,” if only he will make the proper gestures and dress right. A darker impression might be that like so many deniers of life, Malvolio means to set up a rival order of perfection against the imperfect world around us all; what else is that but pride, a self-deluded desire for autonomy to cover one’s fear and emptiness?

Act 3, Scene 1 (722-26, Viola/Cesario assesses Feste’s wit, Olivia confesses her love to Viola/Cesario, who answers her with a gender-riddle)

In conversation with Viola/Cesario, Feste declares himself not the Countess Olivia’s fool but her “corrupter of words” (723, 3.1.31), and when he’s through making his jests, Viola points out that playing the role of fool requires much perceptiveness: “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, / And to do that well craves a kind of wit. / He must observe their mood on whom he jests, / The quality of persons, and the time …” (723, 3.1.53-56). In Feste, “folly” is appropriate: it’s his way of maintaining perspective in a strange and contradictory world and it allows him to do something like what a courtier must do: engage with various people at a level and in a manner that suits them and him. But in those who are wise in the usual way, folly and word-hashing may bring them into discredit.

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 the youth: “I did send, / After the last enchantment you did here, / A ring in chase of you” (724, 3.1.103-05), and asks, “Have you not set mine honour at the stake / …?” (725, 3.1.110) To Olivia’s confession that “Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide” (725, 3.1.143), Viola/Cesario can only speak in riddles thanks to the bind into which her gender-disguising has put her, giving only this frustrating response to 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” (726, 3.1.149-51). Riverside editor 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. It buys her some time and affords her some perspective, but it isn’t exactly freedom to experiment at will that Viola gains in her disguise as “Cesario.”

Act 3, Scene 2 (726-27, Sir Toby eggs on Sir Andrew: reflections on male valor)

Fabian stirs up Sir Andrew (726, 3.2.15-16, 22-24), and Sir Toby shows his contempt for Sir Andrew’s lack of valor here, admitting that he’s taken him for a considerable sum already: to Fabian he says, “I have been dear to him, lad, some two thousand / strong or so” (727, 3.2.46-47). Andrew is more his quarry than his protégé. The following advice Toby gives Andrew 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 … / set ’em down. Go about it” (727, 3.2.37-40). We can find genuine exemplars of male heroism in Shakespeare (Prince Hal and Hotpur in I Henry IV, for instance, or Macduff in Macbeth), 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. Shakespeare’s is a world amply populated with what Rosalind in As You Like It calls “mannish cowards” who stare down the world until it blinks: they “outface it with their semblances” (642 Norton Comedies, 1.3.115-16).

Act 3, Scene 3 (727-28, Antonio in town to help Sebastian, gives him purse to guard)

Antonio remains a faithful friend to Sebastian, and has followed him to town save him from danger in spite of the peril to himself since, as he explains, “Once in a sea-fight ’gainst the Count his galleys / I did some service” (728, 3.3.26-27). Antonio gives his new friend his purse to guard (728, 3.3.38): another act indicative of a strong bond between the two.

Act 3, Scene 4 (729-736, Malvolio makes his pitch to Olivia; Sir Andrew spurred to duel with Viola/Cesario; Olivia confesses her love still more intensely to Viola/Cesario, Antonio assists Viola/Cesario and is arrested, betrayed; Viola takes heart at Antonio’s confused mention of Sebastian)

Malvolio, now drawn entirely beyond himself and vulnerable, makes his unintentionally comic pitch to Countess Olivia, which consists mainly of smiling bizarrely and mentioning with pride his yellow stockings (729-30), and will be carted off to a dark cell as a madman. Olivia professes the greatest concern for the poor lunatic’s welfare: “Good Maria, let this fellow be looked to…. / …. I would not have him miscarry for the half of my dowry” (730, 3.4.57-59). Oddly, though, she will forget about him until nearly the end of the play. Malvolio has no idea how much trouble he’s in, and believes his suit has been a fantastic success, thanks to Jove’s good will: “nothing that can be can come between me / and the full prospect of my hopes (730, 3.4.74-75).

At this point, Sir Toby thinks he can play out the jest at his own pace: “Come, we’ll have him in a dark room and bound. My / niece is already in the belief that he’s mad. We may carry it / thus for our pleasure and his penance till our very pastime, / tired out of breath, / prompt us to have mercy on him …” (731, 3.4.121-24).

Sir Andrew is now 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, but at least the latter knows better than to suppose otherwise. Words take the place of violence. Sir Toby advises Andrew, “draw, as thou drawest, swear horrible; for it comes to pass / oft that a terrible oath, / with a swaggering accent sharply / twanged off, gives manhood more approbation than ever / proof itself would have earned him” (732, 3.4.158-61). 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 ridiculous duel. Sir Toby is enjoying himself, and devises to deliver Sir Andrew’s challenge in person (ignoring the letter) and thereby “drive the gentleman [Cesario] … / into a most hideous opinion of his rage, skill, fury, and / impetuosity. This will so fright them both that they will kill one / another by the look , like cockatrices” (732, 3.4.170-73). After practically begging Fabian and Sir Toby to mollify the fearsome Sir Andrew, Viola puns to herself, “Pray God defend me. A little thing would make / me tell them how much I lack of a man” (734, 3.4.268-69). Viola recognizes that her disguise is more than ever a trap: this situation can’t go on much longer.

While all this planning is going on, Olivia admits her fear to Viola/Cesario that she has “said too much unto a heart of stone, / And laid mine honour too unchary out” (732, 3.4.178-79). She has risked her honor, but perhaps more importantly, to speak this way is to risk being confronted with the reverberation of one’s own unrestrained passion as a kind of madness.

Antonio soon arrives and takes it upon himself to maintain Viola/Cesario’s part in the quarrel: “I for him defy you” (735, 3.4.279), whereupon he is challenged by an incredulous Sir Toby and then arrested for piracy by the Duke’s officers (735, 3.4.283-84, 291-92). Drawn into the craziness that is Illyria, Antonio believes Sebastian is betraying him because Viola/Cesario won’t hand over the purse Antonio had given Sebastian a while back, now that he needs the money in it for bail (735, 3.4.312). “Thou hast, Sebastian, done good feature shame” is the only utterance Antonio can summon in his amazement (736, 3.4.330). Even so, the mention of Sebastian is useful to Viola, who now gains some hope that her lost brother has survived: “Prove true, imagination, O prove true, / That I, dear brother, be now ta’en for you!” (736, 3.4.339-40)

Act 4, Scene 1 (736-38, Sebastian is drawn into Illyrian topsy-turvy: Olivia invites him home)

Sebastian enters and Feste is surprised to hear him deny his identity as Cesario (736-37, 4.1.4-7). Sir Toby nearly comes to blows with Sebastian after Sir Andrew has struck the fellow, and is only stopped by Olivia, who dismisses Toby from the field (737, 4.1.39, 41). Olivia invites Sebastian to her house (738, 4.1.50), and with that invitation he is formally drawn into Illyria’s topsy-turvyness, just as Antonio was in the previous scene. His wonderment will only increase at the end of the third scene.

Act 4, Scene 2 (738-40, Feste sports as Sir Topas with confined Malvolio: Pythagoras and post-mortems; Sir Toby is worried about carrying the jest too far, risking Olivia’s anger)

Maria and Feste make more sport of the confine Malvolio. Feste joins the fun as an examiner of Malvolio, Sir Topas (a name probably borrowed from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). 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: when Malvolio refuses to believe that “the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit a / bird” (739, 4.2.45-46), Feste imperiously tells him, “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 gran- / dam” (739, 4.2.50-53). 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 time and reaps a reward, but Malvolio’s ill-intentioned leap nets him only isolation and mockery. Finally, Feste taunts Malvolio with the view 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 (740, 4.2.107-08). It was a letter that got Malvolio in trouble in the first place, and Feste now honors an anguished call for “a candle, and pen, ink, and paper” (740, 4.2.75) that the prisoner may make his plight known to Olivia. Feste leaves Malvolio with a mocking song, “Adieu, goodman devil” (740, 4.2.122).

Sir Toby, however, 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 delivered, I would he were, / for I am now so far in offence with my niece that I cannot / pursue with any safety this sport to the upshot” (739, 4.2.60-63). 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.

Act 4, Scene 3 (741-41, Olivia abruptly proposes and Sebastian abruptly accepts)

In the third scene, Sebastian abruptly agrees to marry Olivia after she abruptly and secretly proposes to him. He can hardly believe his good fortune, but accepts: “I am ready to distrust mine eyes / And wrangle with my reason that persuades me / To any other trust but that I am mad, / Or else the lady’s mad. Yet if ’twere so / She could not sway her house, command her followers …” (741, 4.3.13-17).

Act 5, Scene 1 (741-50, Viola/Sebastian reunite; Orsino/Viola, Sebastian/Olivia together; Toby/Maria; Malvolio rails, is upbraided, exits; Feste’s last song: wind and rain, fool’s perspective)

Antonio is trotted out before Duke Orsino as a prisoner, and this prisoner reproaches Viola/Cesario, whom of course he takes for Sebastian, over the bail money he supposedly withheld (743, 5.1.71-73). Orsino tells Antonio he must be insane since Viola/Cesario has been his page for three months (743, 5.1.94). Next, Olivia reproaches Viola/Cesario for her alleged failure to “keep promise” with the agreement she has come to with Sebastian (743, 5.1.98). The Duke is still upset with the obdurate Olivia: “Why should I not, had I the heart to do it, / Like to th’ Egyptian thief, at point of death / Kill what I love …” (744, 5.1.113-15) and even more upset with Viola/Cesario, whom he suspects has stolen Olivia from him altogether since she calls the youth “husband” (744, 5.1.138).

As if things couldn’t get any more confusing, in rushes Sir Andrew calling for a surgeon to treat Sir Toby, who has been slightly injured by Sebastian (745, 5.1.168ff). Now the play’s misrecognition dilemmas begin to resolve since Viola/Cesario is sincerely confused at the accusations Sir Andrew levels: “Why do you speak to me? I never hurt you” (745, 5.1.181). Sir Toby rails at Sir Andrew, calling him “an ass-head, and a coxcomb, and a / knave; a thin-faced knave, a gull” (746, 5.1.198-99), and then in comes Sebastian himself, solicitous of Olivia for his lateness considering their vows (746, 5.1.206-07). Orsino 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” (746, 5.1.208-09). These two proceed to recognize each other for certain by means of recollections about their father from Messaline (746-47, 5.1.219-41). The reconciliation leaves Duke Orsino and Viola, and Olivia and Sebastian, free to marry.

But there’s one final matter to take care of: Malvolio. Feste and Fabian enter with the letter that Malvolio has penned and Feste reads it in the assembled company’s presence: “By the Lord, madam, you wrong me, and the / world shall know it…” (748, 5.1.292-99). At last, the man himself enters on a sour note, demanding to know why he has been so abused: “Why have you suffered me to be imprisoned, / Kept in a dark house, visited by the priest, / And made the most notorious geck and gull / That e’er invention played on? Tell me why?” (749, 5.1.330-33) The conspirators confess, with Feste invoking “the whirligig of time” that “brings in his revenges” (749, 5.1.364), and reminding Malvolio how he had slandered him to Olivia as “a barren rascal” (749, 5.1.363) even before the insults that sparked Maria’s letter-plot in Act 2, Scene 3. What he’s really invoking is something like what we today would generally call “bad karma,” or in a Christian context, the thriftiness of the economy of sin: ill thoughts and deeds, as Saint Augustine taught, establishes its own patterns; we end up with a bitter harvest from the bad seed we have sown. The conspirators are forgiven by everyone but Malvolio, who swears to be revenged on them all (749, 5.1.365), prompting Olivia to send after him to “entreat him to a peace” (749, 5.1.365). 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. In sum, I don’t believe Twelfth Night is a problem comedy just because of Malvolio’s sour exit: 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 Polonius is killed by mishap, poor Ophelia runs mad and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “go to it” in England. We find out that Sir Toby has married Maria (749, 5.1.350). Viola agrees to wed the Duke, and Olivia has already made her vows with Sebastian.

Feste’s song ends the play (750, 5.1.376-95), and it would be worthwhile to consider the role his songs play in advancing or reflecting upon the action and characters in Twelfth Night. For now, I’ll just consider the way the final song sums up the play. “The rain it raineth every day,” sings Feste, and his lyrics invoke 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; oftentimes, 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 play’s world end up worse off by the same trial.) Feste, however, 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” (750, 5.1.395), 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. Perhaps, then, theater is among the “patches” Feste had mentioned back in the first act (704, 1.5.40-45): what it offers by way of insight and refuge may be temporary and partial rather than permanent and absolute, but that doesn’t mean it’s of no value or not worth pursuing. 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.

The key concern of this play set during a time of merrymaking and reversal may be how we “fools of time” may gain perspective. (The phrase is from Sonnet 124: “To this I witness call the fools of time, / Which die for goodness, who have lived for crime”) There is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance,” as the preacher tells us in Ecclesiastes 3:4. Everything has its allotted time and purpose under heaven. We have encountered a number of forms of stylized or excessive passion in Twelfth Night: Sir Toby’s irresponsible mirth, Duke Orsino’s romantic grandiosity, Countess Olivia’s projected long period of mourning, Malvolio’s narrow-souled, extreme ambition and self-regard. Perhaps most or all of these approaches are attempts to deny or even annul time and consequentiality. Feste’s music and witty observations both invoke the inevitability of time and the sway of our foolish passions, and they’re probably as close to “another way” as we are going to find in Shakespeare: I mean they offer us a way to gain something like permanent right-side-up perspective outside the realms of time and passion. Theater, as noted in Feste’s epilogue, may be another way of attaining such perspective, and just as Feste reminds us of the coming and going of nature’s vast seasonal cycles (the wind and the rain keep up their activity through the ages, though men shut their doors against it), we are told that while we must pass from the theater, we can always return so long as we live. Theater has that regenerative power, though of course whether or not the result of our many returns is wisdom is another question. The play leaves the characters in the fantasy-bubble Illyria, a political order that has largely made good on our opening suspicion that it exists to serve its citizens’ fondest desires, and there’s no talk of their leaving.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

King Lear

Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. King Lear. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 739-823).

GENERAL QUESTIONS

1. How many different meanings for the term “nature” are developed in this play? Who articulates the various meanings? Are these significations kept distinct? Do they remain stable throughout, or are certain characters disabused of what they had formerly thought? Discuss your findings.

2. The various characters try to assert control over the play’s events by using a number of different linguistic strategies: rash invective, Machiavellian analysis, extreme bluntness, flowery evasion (Oswald), the language and song of madness and foolery, and visionary or prophetic poetry. Discuss a few of them by way of response.

ACT 1

3. In Act 1, Scene 1, does Lear’s division of his kingdom in 1.1 remind you of a fairy tale? If so, in what way, and of what specific fairy tale does it remind you? Describe your expectations about how the story might end based on Lear’s opening division of the kingdom in the particular manner Shakespeare has contrived.

4. In Act 1, Scene 1, what, if anything, is the problem with Lear’s decision to step aside (if not quite abdicate) and to divide his kingdom into thirds? Moreover, is there a problem with his demand for a public display of affection from his three daughters? Why does he appear to need such a display?

5. In Act 1, Scene 1, what reasons does Cordelia offer herself and the King for not going along with his request for a public display of affection? Are her speech and bearing appropriate, or inappropriate? Explain your reasoning.

6. In Act 1, Scene 1, Kent speaks truth to Lear’s raging power, and gets himself banished. How good is his attempt as a piece of rhetorical persuasion? If you find it flawed, do you think any other strategy might have worked where his failed? Why or why not?

7. In Act 1, Scene 1, what comments do Regan and Goneril offer at 1.1.286-307 regarding their father’s past character and his present conduct? In what sense might their views be considered reasonable? Nonetheless, what do they reveal about themselves in this conversation, especially in their upbraiding of Cordelia right before this conversation?

8. In Act 1, Scenes 1-2, the Edmund/Gloucester sub-plot (or co-plot) also gets under way. At this early stage, what relation subsists between it and the main Lear/Daughters plot? What common theme or themes do you see in them both? (The same question might be asked subsequently, as the two plots unfold, and would make a good paper topic at this more detailed level.)

9. In Act 1, Scene 2, Edmund and Gloucester give us their respective understandings of “nature.” How does each talk about this concept? What advantage does Edmund have over Gloucester partly because of their differences regarding this matter, and why?

10. In Act 1, Scene 4, consider the Fool’s interaction with the King. What does the Fool do for Lear — how helpful are his insights to Lear (and to us as viewers)? Discuss also the manner (songs, riddles, etc.) he employs to convey his meaning. Which do you find most effective, and why? (This question might be asked of any segments in which the Fool appears, and could be developed into a good paper topic.)

11. In Act 1, Scene 4, observe how the servant Oswald behaves towards Lear after the latter has given away his kingdom. What manner does he use towards Lear from lines 44-85, and why? (Refer to Scene 3 for the latter issue.) What opportunity does Oswald’s behavior provide the newly disguised Kent?

12. In Act 1, Scene 4, Goneril enters around line 190 and makes herself odious to Lear. What in particular does he find so offensive in Goneril’s manner and in the things she says to him? By Scene 5, what insight does he begin to gain about his treatment of Cordelia? How would you characterize his state of mind by the end of Scene 5?

ACT 2

13. In Act 2, Scene 1, by what specific means (words and actions) does Edmund not only manage to drive Edgar out of doors but also to win himself still more credit with his father Gloucester and ingratiate himself with Cornwall?

14. In Act 2, Scene 2, Kent comes across Oswald and insults this servant in a very precise manner. Observe Kent’s tortured attempt afterwards to explain to Regan and Cornwall why he has been thrashing their sister’s messenger. What limitations does Kent show as a speaker in this episode?

15. In Act 2, Scene 3, Edgar takes on the identity of a mad beggar, calling himself “poor Tom.” Why might this be an appropriate identity for him now, aside from the obvious motive of avoiding detection? How do Edgar’s words in adopting this identity connect with the play’s central themes so far? (Possible paper topic: trace this question forwards: how does Edgar’s sojourn as “Poor Tom” through Act 4, and then his reassumption of his proper self in Act 5, help us understand the errors, sufferings, and human potential of other characters in the play?)

16. In Act 2, Scene 4, Lear is furious when he learns of Kent’s punishment. He blames Goneril but quickly learns that Regan, too, is against him. Explore what leads up to Lear’s frustrated exclamation, “O, reason not the need!” and his subsequent tirade (2.4.264-86). Why is it so important to Lear that he retain his hundred knights? What seems to be his state of mind towards the end of this scene?

ACT 3

17. Act 3, Scenes 2, 4, and 6 are concerned with the actions of King Lear and others during a raging storm. In what sense is the storm metaphoric of Lear’s inner disturbance? In what sense is it significant as a natural phenomenon not reducible to Lear’s inner state and, therefore, perhaps relevant to broader issues of heavenly or natural justice in the play?

18. In Act 3, Scene 2, what does the storm apparently mean to Lear himself? How does he address the storm — to what extent does he connect its operation with what Regan and Goneril have done to him?

19. In Act 3, Scene 2, what service do the Fool’s songs and other utterances provide the King as both men suffer in the storm? How do you understand the Fool’s “prophecy” from lines 80-96? What is he suggesting?

20. In Act 3, Scene 4, what significance does King Lear find in “Poor Tom’s” sufferings and in his crazed utterances? What connections does he make between himself and this supposed beggar? What does he learn from him?

21. In Act 3, Scene 5, King Lear stages a mock trial for Regan and Goneril, with Poor Tom (soon to cast off his disguise) and the Fool (who exits the play at the end of this scene) as judges. What accusations does Lear level against Regan and Goneril? What might he be trying to accomplish by putting them on trial — what kind of “justice” is he looking for, and how does he assess the quality of the ad hoc court he has established?

22. In Act 3, Scene 7 (one of the most distressing scenes in any play I can recall), Gloucester, having been taken prisoner in his own home, is blinded. Why is it appropriate to Goneril’s nature (and to that of her sister as well) that she should choose this specific punishment for Gloucester, and how do the prisoner’s words only reinforce the desire of Regan and Cornwall to inflict that very punishment on him?

ACT 4

23. In Act 4, Scenes 1 and 6, the wretched Gloucester conceives of and then tries to make his final exit, but as it turns out, he is — or rather isn’t — in for a real letdown. What is Edgar trying to accomplish with his artistic, but misleading, treatment of Gloucester? Also, to what extent does Edgar’s interaction with his father Gloucester parallel or differ from his interaction (as Poor Tom) with the mad King Lear in Act 3, Scene 4?

24. In Act 4, Scenes 2 and then 5, Goneril first plots with Edmund to have him replace her husband Albany, and then Regan attempts to gain Oswald’s help as a courier in winning Edmund’s affections. How does this sexual competition symbolize the new dispensation to which Lear’s mistakes have led his kingdom? How does Albany’s assessment of Goneril (and Regan) in Act 4, Scene 2 help characterize this kingdom-wide degeneration?

25. In Act 4, Scene 6 (line 80ff) Lear engages in mad a ramble about the nature of kingship and authority, womankind, and the institution of justice. What obsessions grip him, and what insights does he offer regarding some of these subjects?

26. In Act 4, Scene 6 (lines 227-70), Edgar catches Oswald in the act of attempting to kill old Gloucester and dispatches him, reading afterwards Goneril’s treasonous letter to Edmund. Why does Edgar confront Oswald in rustic dialect? What role in the unfolding tragedy has Oswald played up to his ignominious end?

ACT 5

27. In Act 5, Scene 3, Lear, on his way to an army-camp holding cell with Cordelia, lays out his vision of the future the two will share. How does he assess the pair’s present circumstances, and what predictions does he make for their future? To what extent do the King’s lyrical words at this point, and in the aftermath when he confronts Cordelia’s lifeless body, amount to tragic insight? What has he learned from the terrible events that he has partly set in motion?

28. In Act 5, Scene 3, Regan and Goneril argue over Edmund. Where do they do so? Is this setting important? As asked in a previous question, how does this sexual competition symbolize the new dispensation to which Lear’s mistakes have led his kingdom? If you already deal with that question, consider Goneril’s answer to Albany when he confronts her with the letter she wrote to Edmund: how does she construe the nature of the political power she has been given?

29. In Act 5, Scene 1, Edgar (as an anonymous knight) gives Albany the letter he had found on Oswald’s body, and issues a challenge against Edmund as a traitor to his brother, father, and Albany. In Scene 3, Edmund must defend himself against the accusation of treason that Albany has seconded against him. In what sense is it poetic justice that the fight with Edgar should prove to be Edmund’s undoing? (Edmund had earlier declared “nature” his ruling spirit or concept; in the name and service of what outlook does he in fact die?)

30. In Act 5, Scene 3, by the play’s end, everyone who had stood to inherit the kingdom has died or been slain. Someone has to accept the responsibility of governing. What attitudes do Albany, Kent, and Edgar adopt towards this responsibility? Do Edgar’s last four lines (5.3.324-27) adequately sum up the play? Why or why not?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Twelfth Night

Questions on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 689-750).

1. Romantic-era critic William Hazlitt’s 1817 essay on Twelfth Night suggests that Shakespeare writes a “comedy of nature” in which “the foibles and follies of individuals are of nature’s planting, not the growth of art or study.” In Act 1, Scene 1, to what extent might Hazlitt’s statement be taken as a key to understanding Duke Orsino? To what excess or “foible” is he prone, and why, judging from what we learn of Countess Olivia in this scene, might she be an appropriate focus for Orsino’s affections?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, what is the situation on the Illyrian coast? That is, what has happened to Viola and her brother? What plan does Viola announce to the Captain when he mentions Countess Olivia, and in what sense does the principle underlying this plan distinguish her as this comic play’s central character?

3. In Act 1, Scene 3, what is Sir Toby Belch’s attitude towards his niece Countess Olivia’s insistence on mourning for her departed brother? What seems to be his philosophy of life generally? What accounts for his interest in Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and by means of what advice does Toby urge Andrew to pursue his courtship of Olivia?

4. In Act 1, Scene 4, what is the basis of the intimacy that forms so quickly between Duke Orsino and Viola (disguised as “Cesario”; from now on I’ll write “Viola/Cesario” since the disguise won’t be lifted until Act 5)? Why does the Duke think his suit to Olivia will succeed better if he employs “Cesario” as his intermediary?

5. In Act 1, Scene 5, we meet Countess Olivia. Why does Olivia disdain Duke Orsino’s affection for her, if we might conjecture a reason besides the stated one of loyalty to her departed brother? Why does she grant a hearing to the Duke’s current attempt? How does this scene represent Olivia’s falling in love with Viola/Cesario, and how much control does she have over her situation once she falls in love?

6. In Act 1, Scene 5, how does Viola/Cesario manage the task of wooing by proxy for Duke Orsino, and how does she/he respond to Countess Olivia’s defensive witticisms and other comments meant to deflect Orsino’s persistent attentions? In sum, how does Viola/Cesario conceptualize courtships between men and women?

7. In Act 1, Scene 5, we also meet Olivia’s maid Maria, her steward Malvolio, and the Clown Feste. Discuss Olivia’s bantering with the latter — how does each assess Malvolio? What argument does Feste advance to prove Olivia a fool, and more broadly, when he says to Olivia, “Any thing 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” (47-49), how might we take his observation as a means by which to judge the errors and excesses of the play’s characters, Olivia included?

ACT 2

8. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 2, first Antonio and Sebastian converse after the latter has been rescued from the shipwreck that he believes drowned his sister Viola. Characterize the affinity that seems to be struck up suddenly between Antonio and Sebastian. Moreover, in Scene 2, how does Viola/Cesario process the complication that has arisen since her proxy wooing of Olivia in the service of Duke Orsino?

9. In Act 2, Scenes 3 and 5, Sir Toby and Maria plot against Malvolio — what has he done to earn their scorn, and what exactly do they plan to do to him? What makes their plan appropriate to Malvolio’s character, and what’s the connection between this deception-plot and the larger action of the play (i.e. the love-pursuits of Viola, Olivia, and Orsino)?

10. In Act 2, Scene 4, Viola/Cesario is by now in as strong a state of passion for the Duke as the Duke is for Olivia. What advantages does Viola’s gender-disguise afford her in getting some perspective on the situation into which her own strong feelings have cast her? How much control does she have over her actions and her fate does she have at this point in the play (or elsewhere, if you want to refer to additional scenes)?

11. In Act 2, Scene 5, Malvolio falls head-first into the trap that Maria and Sir Toby have set for him. How does he interpret the alleged signs of Olivia’s affection, and in the process of doing that, how does he size up his own worth and his prospects going forward as well as reveal himself to be a hypocrite based upon the puritanism we have seen from him in earlier appearances?

ACT 3

12. In Act 3, Scene 1, how does Feste sum up for Viola/Cesario his role as a Fool? What is Viola/Cesario’s estimation of Feste’s qualities and speech?

13. In Act 3, Scene 1, characterize the impasse between Viola/Cesario and Olivia with regard to the latter’s passion for this servant of Duke Orsino. How might Olivia’s passion for Viola/Cesario be differentiated from that or Orsino for Olivia?

14. In Act 3, Scene 2, what advice does Sir Toby give Sir Andrew about his role as lover? What opinion of Sir Andrew does he hold by this point in the play, and why?

15. In Act 3, Scene 4, Malvolio is carted off to a “dark room” as a madman after his bizarre attempt to woo Olivia. By what words and gestures does he advance his suit, and how does Olivia take his ridiculous attempt at courtship? What does he think he has accomplished?

16. In Act 3, Scene 4, Sir Andrew is led to make his challenge against Viola/Cesario as a fellow suitor to Olivia. What limitations of her gender-based disguise does Viola run up against in this scene? As for Sir Toby, what evaluation does he offer regarding male rhetoric about honor and violence (see 3.4.176-96)?

ACT 4

17. In Act 4, Scenes 1 and 3, Sebastian is at first surprised to find Olivia enamored of him and then agrees to a very sudden proposal of marriage by Olivia since, of course, she mistakes him for Viola/Cesario. Why does he agree? What meditation does he offer regarding the affinity between love and madness, and how might his observations on this point be connected to the larger action of the play, which has been much concerned with this affinity and with the extent to which we can control or influence what happens to us?

18. In Act 4, Scene 2, Sir Toby and the Clown Feste have some more fun at the expense of the imprisoned Malvolio. What reservations is Sir Toby starting to have about the plot against Malvolio, and why? What observations does the “Fool” Feste (first as Sir Topas and then in his own person) make about insanity in the course of his chat with Malvolio? In particular, what seems to be the significance of Topas’s reference to Pythagoras and the doctrine of the reincarnation or the transmigration of souls?

ACT 5

19. In Act 5, Scene 1, how (by what device) does Shakespeare untie the comic “knots” tied in the first four acts — namely the confusion, frustration, and trouble caused by Viola’s gender disguising as well as the disillusionment and injury created by Sir Toby and Maria’s schemes against Malvolio and Sir Andrew? What insight/s about desire, courtship, and self-control might we gain from watching all this confusion and passion unfold and then be resolved before our eyes?

20. With regard to Act 5, Scene 1, some critics have taken Malvolio’s claims to victim-status rather seriously. It’s fair to say that Malvolio’s unhappy situation and parting threats inject a sour note into what is otherwise a symphony of happy marriages. But how might his punishment be interpreted as essentially just? How does Malvolio violate the comic spirit or impulse that otherwise reigns in this play–what quality does he lack that has helped the other characters get through their difficulties and arrive at happy endings?

21. The Clown Feste is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most interesting “fools,” and he’s quite a musical fool, too, with songs gracing Acts 2.3, 2.4, 4.2, and at the very end of 5.1. What significance do these songs (address at least the final song and any one other) hold for the play’s broader concerns? How, that is, do they relate to such broader topics as love, sanity and insanity, the inevitability of change, death, and any other issues you find relevant? What meanings do the characters for whom Feste sings seem to derive from his songs?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake