witchweek asked: So I read Twelfth Night for the first time last night and if you are ever willing to talk about anything about it I would love to hear your thoughts! I can be more specific in queries if you would like but you are my favorite person to listen to about Shakespeare. Please answer at your willingness, leisure and convenience! (if you are not inclined, feel free to ignore this!!)
DUDE DUDE DUUUUUUUUUDE
This is the best ask. I am totally gonna rub it in cinque’s face that I got this ask. BEST. ASK.
So a little background info: I accidentally started an inner city, all teen Shakespeare theater troupe back in high school. I say “accidentally” because basically I fell in love with Viola and couldn’t let it go until I had played her.
But my experience as a director—and, by extension, a scholar—has been that you can’t have one of those unidirectional love affairs when you’re studying/directing a play as a whole, you have to find something to fall in love with in each character. So directing this play—and then the decade plus in between then and now of thinking about it—completely changed how I read this play.
At first, I loved Viola because she seems to be able to hear and see the things the rest of the Shakespeare canon cannot. “Oh, you just called me by my twin brother’s name, even though I am calling myself a different name,” she says. “Maybe my brother’s in town?” Boom. Connection made, deduction complete. If any one character could do that in Comedy of Errors, that play would be 1/4 the length.
And then there’s the fact that Feste is a fool the kind of which only Lear’s fool can relate. He’s the kind of fool who can make the kindest joke into a weapon and the most viciously savage mockery into a gentle joshin’ ya. If you haven’t seen the version where Ben Kinglsey plays Feste, go rectify immediately. He plays the scene with Olivia—played by Helena Bonham Carter at the absolute peak of her awesome—heartbreaking. “He is but mad yet,” becomes the kindest lie, couched in a joke. It’s a clever witticism—and he’s a clever fool—but then he sees that it’s tagged her heart and he amends it for mercy’s sake: “your uncle isn’t irrevocably drowned in alcoholism,” he amends, “he’s swimming.”
And then the thing that clinches it is when Feste and Viola meet. Viola *isn’t* a fool. She shouldn’t—by so many counts—be able to hold her own with Feste. He’s literally been trained his whole life to out-witticism nobility, and he can’t quite get her. She’s got a mind that envy could not but call fair; she’s beautiful, yes, but the key about Viola is how her brain works. Twist her a little to the left and you could get an Iago, she’s that clever. But she chooses to look forward, not back, and even losing everyone she’s ever loved—as she begins the play—does not make her wicked.
But she’s also hilarious—if the duelling scene with Aguecheek is performed in such a way that you don’t cry laughing, that production is wrong.
BUT. Like I said, my opinion completely changed on this play. That was all me falling in love with Viola. Read the play again without those rosy-tinted glasses, and you find Malvolio front and center.
I find that part of the play nearly impossible to stage effectively. I’ve seen dozens of productions and not a single one managed it. It’s like Taming with qualifications: Taming can (and SHOULD) be played to highlight how sadistic the play is and how bleak it ends. But if you do that with Twelfth Night, you lose an incredibly rich and textured other side of the narrative. You can’t play Viola’s half of the narrative effectively if you’ve charred the landscape by going wholeheartedly into how dark Malvolio’s plot is. And you can’t do justice to Malvolio if you’re dabbling in the rosy hues of the Viola half of the narrative.
So why would Shakey do that? Why make a play where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t?
My answer (and it changes all the time with new reflections so don’t hold me to this) is that it’s a consciously broken play. It’s a play in the problem play era that comes closest to one of those neat wrap-ups at the end—but Shakey had evolved beyond such neat endings by this point. This play makes you see that the charred landscape and the subtler tones of Viola’s story have to co-exist, that it’s a fault in us, the viewers, not in the play if we can’t understand a world that would abuse a working class man with dreams of grandeur and then turn around and be so gentle with Viola. They’re both servants in love with their employers—but one has the touch of “nobility” in her lineage (“my father was a gentleman”) and the other doesn’t. That’s the only difference and it infects everything. Shakespeare invites us to mock Malvolio’s fantasy with the characters on stage—we *have* to laugh at him for his dreams in the letter scene. But then he makes us look at that impulse and cringe at ourselves a few scenes later in the “dark room and bound.” Viola gets to live in the sun, Malvolio is chained in darkness.
But I also deeply (DEEPLY) love Sebastian’s story (and his own dark parallel in Antonio, another man who is chained and beaten for following the same path as one of the twins). It is so refreshing in every single production I’ve seen to hear a man answer Olivia, “Madam, I will.” She didn’t ask whether he’d love her or marry her or become her lord. No, she said, “Wil’t thou be ruled by me?” This man says yes. This man looks at his options—she might be mad, he might be mad, he might be dreaming—and decides to let her take charge of him for the rest of his life. He literally ends the play by promising to be the damsel in their relationship. “Sure,” he says, “You be the one in charge, I’m happy to be your angel of the house.” HOW RARE IS THAT??? I just the other day saw an article floating around tumblr about how most men see any success on their wives’ part as a threat to his masculinity. Not even *more* success than him (which would be douchey already), but *any* success. And here’s Sebastian happily signing on to being the trophy husband in the seventeenth century. Four for you, Sebastian.