An Analysis of TWELFTH NIGHT, OR, WHAT YOU WILL (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia / TWELFTH NIGHT, OR, WHAT YOU WILL by Shakespeare: An Interpretation / Summary / Analysis

An Analysis of TWELFTH NIGHT, OR, WHAT YOU WILL (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

Bedre godt haengt end slet gift.

Better well-hanged than ill-wed.

—Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Crumbs

Better well-hanged than ill-read.

—Joseph Suglia

The wildness of this frantically antic and antically frantic play extends to its title: Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will.  The Twelfth Night is the Feast of the Epiphany, which, in various forms of Christianity, commemorates the visitation of the Magi to the Baby Jesus.  It commonly takes place on the sixth of January, twelve nights after Christmas.  The Feast of the Epiphany has its roots in the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, the Feast of Saturn, which celebrated the Winter Solstice.  Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will is a yuletide play, but it is also a saturnalian play.  In Roman Antiquity, on Saturnalia, hierarchy was inverted.  The King was deposed, and the mob took over the city.  And yet this rising ochlocracy was purely theatrical; it was nothing more than a sham, nothing more than a show.  The inversion of ordinary relations was temporary and staged.

Disorder is likewise invoked in the subtitle of the comedy: What You Will.  The subtitle is evoked in the text, twice.  “[T]ake it how you will” is said by Andrew Aguecheek in the third scene of the second act.  “Take it how you will”: Interpret my words in any sense you please, for words very quickly become “rascals” and easily grow “wanton,” as the Clown puts it later in the text [III:i].  The intended meaning of a word speedily slips into its opposite or into a meaning other than what the speaker or writer intended.  Take my words how you will, Augecheek seems to be implying, for it won’t matter, one way or the other.  Language slides; it flows where it pleases.  In the first scene of the third act, the Clown compares a sentence to a chev’ril glove that may be turned inside out—the wrong side is easily turned outward, and the intended wittiness of a sentence easily devolves into witlessness.  Witticisms swiftly become witlessisms.  Though he is praised by Uncle Toby for his linguistic skills, Augecheek is hardly a wordsmith.  He lacks facility in basic English (he doesn’t know the word accost), in basic French (he doesn’t know the word pourquoi), and in Latin (he is ignorant of the phrase diluculo surgere).

“What you will” is spoken by Olivia in the fifth scene of the first act.  “What you will” could be translated as: “Anything you say.”  Or: “Anything you want.”  Or even: “Who cares?”  Or (and this is not too much of a stretch): “Whatever.”  Quodlibet.  All hail disorder!  Let chaos reign!

And chaos does indeed reign.  The customary order of things is turned upside down—hence, the chaos of the play.  It might be worth pausing over a few of the characters and their lunacy, their fettered reason.  As Olivia says to Cesario-Viola, “[R]eason thus with reason fetter” [III:i].

Count Orsino is a proto-Romantic personage and anticipates the Knight-in-arms of Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” as well as Goethe’s Werther.  A dandified dreamer, he is neither young nor old, both unyoung and unold.  As Malvolio phrases it, he is

[n]ot yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for
a boy; as a squash is before ’tis a peascod, or a
cooling when ’tis almost an apple: ’tis with him
in standing water, between boy and man [I:v].

As Romantic protagonists will do, Orsino is forever sighing over a love that he doesn’t even want reciprocated—the love of Olivia, which, if we take his advice to Cesario-Viola seriously, he appears to think will be short-lived:

[B]oy, however we do praise ourselves,
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,
Than women’s are [II:iv].

Orsino’s mind displays various colors; it is “a very opal,” as the Clown poeticizes it [II:iv].  He changes his mind in the first lines of the play—first, he wants music to play; then, suddenly, he wants it to stop.  It is not merely Orsino’s mind that is Protean—the entire play is a play of shifting surfaces.

The crepuscular Uncle Toby seems to do most of his socializing after sundown.  He is a fanatical nyctophiliac: Instead of preferring to be active during the day, he prefers to be active at night—and justifies his noctambulations by saying that by staying up late, he goes to bed early: “To be up after midnight and to go to bed then, is early: so that to go to bed after midnight is to go to bed betimes” [II:iii].  The customary order of things is again reversed.

Sebastian and Viola, twin brother and sister, board a ship together, and both end up separately in Illyria.  For reasons that escape me, Sebastian disguises himself as a character named Roderigo; he befriends a fellow traveler named Antonio during the voyage.  The ship capsizes and wrecks.  Sebastian loses his twin sister in the storm.  The homoerotic passion that Antonio has for Sebastian is plangent: Antonio declares himself servant to Sebastian after Antonio saves Sebastian’s life.  In the fourth scene of the third act, Antonio mistakes Cesario-Viola for her twin brother and is baffled when s/he does not recognize him.  It is as if we were reading or watching an immeasurably more sophisticated version of The Comedy of Errors.

Viola’s gender is shifted: She becomes Cesario, the myrmidon of Orsino; Olivia falls in love with Viola while the latter is dressed as Cesario.  The play does not hint at lesbianism as much as it hints at andromimetophilia, and andromimetophilia—the fetishization of women who dress as men—is one of Shakespeare’s most insistent fetishes.  Viola becomes other-than-what-she-is, and Olivia wishes that Cesario were the same as what he appears to be:

OLIVIA:  Stay.  I prithee tell me what thou think’st of me.

VIOLA:  That you do think you are not what you are.

OLIVIA:  If I think so, I think the same of you.

VIOLA:  Then think you right.  I am not what I am.

OLIVIA:  I would you were as I would have you be [III:i].

Viola transmutes herself into Cesario and is then beloved by Olivia.  Sebastian transmutes himself into Cesario and is then beloved by Olivia.  The Clown transmutes himself into Sir Topas and torments Malvolio.  One character after the other metamorphoses into another.

Amid the maelstrom of all of these transformations and inversions, there is one Aspergeroid character who is boringly moralistic and selfsame, until he, too, is drawn into the maelstrom: Malvolio.

Malvolio is a natural-born killjoy.  Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to name him the one anti-saturnalian character of the play.  He refuses to let anyone have any fun.  He is an enemy of drunkenness, and drunkenness, as everyone over the age of twelve knows, is transformative.  He looks down upon the poor, even though he is poor himself.  Rightly is he called a “Puritan” [II:iii] by Maria—to paraphrase something that Mencken once wrote, a Puritan is someone who suspects that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.  The imaginary betrothal of Olivia and Malvolio will result in an interdiction against Uncle Toby’s dipsomania.

Maria writes a counterfeit love letter in handwriting that resembles that of her mistress, Olivia.  Malvolio, who is such a narcissist that he believes that every word of praise must be directed at him and that every word of praise that is said about him must be genuine, is taken in by the forged letter.  Malvolio must be the scapegoat of the play, since he is the only character who is anti-fun and anti-revelry.  He is the sacrificial victim, for he refuses to dance to its swinging and swaying motions, all of its manic undulations.  He is catfished, and as any conscious victim of catfishing would do, swears his revenge and does so in the unforgettable line “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” [V:i], thus opening the portal for a sequel to the play that might be entitled Thirteenth Night, Or, The Revenge of Malvolio.

Even more humiliatingly, he is gulled into wearing ridiculous yellow stockings—yellow is a color that Olivia detests, since it reminds her of melancholy, something from which she has been suffering since the death of her brother—and smiling inanely in Olivia’s presence.  His smiling will be seen as inappropriate by Olivia, who, again, is still undergoing the work of mourning.

Though this might be a superficial remark about a play that is only superficially superficial, let me set down that Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will has the virtue of being the most theatrical of Shakespeare’s comedies and problematical plays.  Most of the utterances are short; one character speaks after the other in machine-gun succession.  There are few lengthy and lapidary soliloquies.  This kind of staginess is unusual for Shakespeare.  The fact that Shakespeare was ever a dramatist is one of life’s greatest mysteries.

The value of this insane play resides in its bouleversement of all relations.  Bouleversement: This was one of Georges Bataille’s favorite words and indicates the woozy overthrow of propriety, decency, and stability.  The world is turned on its head.  Never has topsy-turviness been presented with such elegance.

Dr. Joseph Suglia




CHRONIC CITY by Jonathan Lethem

A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia — CHRONIC CITY by Jonathan Lethem

Creativity is a gift that Athena denied to Jonathan Lethem.  She instead bestowed upon him the ability to absorb isolated media images, though the power to meaningfully synthesize these images is another arrow missing from Lethem’s quiver.

Lethem’s latest is Chronic City (2009), and it is the worst novel that I have ever read.  Considering the fact that I have wasted much of my life reading bad novels, this is really saying something.

Our narrator is Chase, a nondescript, vacant out-of-work actor whose wife died in outer space.  Chase, it seems, has died in inner space.  He is dead inside and made of plastic.  We know nothing more about our “protagonist”–he is a cipher–and therefore it is difficult to care about what happens to him.  Chase meets Perkus Tooth, an “eccentric popular-cultural critic,” in the offices of the Criterion Collection in Manhattan, and a vaguely homoerotic friendship develops between the two characters.

Perkus Tooth, Chase discovers, is a neighbor.  Tooth burrows himself in his warren, searches for “chaldrons” on eBay, and glides through Wikipedia.  Both friends drink Coke and eat cheeseburgers.  They make rather obvious cultural references–Marlon Brando and Mick Jagger are the two names that surface most frequently in their speech.  Not much else happens–which would be fine, if this “not much else” were engagingly written.

Perkus introduces Chase to a lost, early, and completely fictitious Werner Herzog film called Echolalia, which “documents Herzog’s attempts to interview Marlon Brando…  Brando doesn’t want to give the interview, and whenever Herzog corners him Brando just parrots whatever Herzog’s said” [5].  Having seen much of Herzog’s work and having taught his cinema at a university for five years, I was very puzzled by this unrecognizable pastiche.  Herzog has ignored Hollywood and its unionized actors until just very recently, when he migrated to Los Angeles.  The idea of interviewing Marlon Brando would have repelled him.

At this point, on Page Five, it dawned on me what I was reading: Chronic City is a hipster Bildungsroman, a document of hipsterism in early twenty-first-century America that future historians will use in an attempt to understand how this malady could have infected and corrupted our already vitiated and hollow culture.

Let me explain what I mean by the word “hipster.”  A hipster is an illiterate nerd.  Neither Perkus nor Chase read very much in the book, and their references are almost exclusively cinematic or musical.  Not to mention, mostly exoteric.  The closest they come to approaching literature is by way of Kafka: Perkus recites a passage from Kafka’s “Forschungen eines Hundes” at one point (in bad English translation).  He neither discusses the story’s form nor its meaning.  This is very telling.  Both hipsters do what all hipsters do: They merely stockpile and warehouse cultural detritus without thinking about what any of it might signify or how it is constructed.  And so both characters mindlessly compile references to cultural trash, without any purpose or sense of an overarching project.  They might as well have an encyclopedic knowledge of vegetables: “Have you ever eaten a carrot?”  “Did you know that there exists an orange cauliflower? I read about it on Wikipedia.”  And so forth and so on.

The point to be made is the following: Lethem’s hipsters are not readers.  They are not thinkers.  They are not artists.  They are not creators.  They are not even scholars of cultural trash.

They are repositories of media junk.

The same could be said of our esteemed writer.  His mind has not been formed by the study of great authors, his writing is unsupported by broad learning, and he seems to suffer from analphabetism.  He produces sentences in a rattling, mechanistic, depressingly vapid style.  He lacks verbal power.  Here is Lethem’s description of a vase: “It had a translucence, perhaps opalescence would be the word, like something hewn from marble the color of a Creamsicle” [90].  Would it be too much to ask Lethem, a writer who was nominated by the Kirkus Review as one of this country’s finest, to look up the words “translucence” and “opalescence” in a dictionary before using them?  And when the nodal point of his fictional universe is Manhattan, when entry into The New Yorker is seen as a kind of transcendence, that one essential spiritual quality that all fictionists must possess is lacking: empathy.

To return to my thesis: that Chronic City is a hipster Bildungsroman, a novel of self-formation which charts the progressive hipification of its main character until he becomes thoroughly hip.  “Being hip” means being seen by the right people with the right books, the right CDs, and the right DVDs.  At the end of the text, Chase reads “Ralph Warden Meeker’s” Obstinate Dust, a faux novel inspired by that unread magnum opus of hipsterism, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.  He meets the glance of a stranger: “Once in a while on the underground trains I look up and see another rider with a copy of Meeker’s bulky masterpiece in their [sic] hands, and we share a sly collegial smile, like fellow members of some terrorist cell” [465].

Upon reading this passage, I experienced something like a vomitous epiphany, a negative revelation that powers me to refine my earlier definition of “hipster”: A hipster is a consumerist who affects a superior consciousness, who pretends to be superior to the consumerist culture that has swallowed him.  Yes, he drinks Coke and eats cheeseburgers just like the rest of mainstream America.  But he listens to Neutral Milk Hotel and buys Jonathan Lethem books, and that makes it all OK.

Dr. Joseph Suglia