Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies
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