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].

Like all Romantic protagonists, 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 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 like any post-victim of catfishing, 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

 

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Keats and the Power of the Negative: Part One: “La Belle Dame sans Merci”: A commentary

 

Keats and the Power of the Negative: Part One

An analysis of “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Dedicated to C.S.

Composed on April 21, 1819, in a single afternoon or early evening, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” has haunted the minds of readers for almost two centuries now. In twelve stanzas, Keats says more than whole worships of writers say in their entire existence. The poem is so sleekly, treacily, and elegantly composed, without a single false word, that it is imperishable. Indeed, it is one of the few perfect English poems.

I will analyze the ballad stanza by stanza.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

The question is the narrator’s—whoever the narrator might be—to the honey-starved knight. For the published edition, Keats foolishly substituted the words “wretched wight” for “knight-at-arms.” “Wight” recalls the Isle of Wight, where Keats would write lust letters to Fanny Brawne, the lust of his brief consumptive life, which makes the published text of the poem faintly ludicrous. “Knight-at-arms” is a much better choice of words, since it invokes strength, which contrasts nicely with the knight’s ailment, which is clearly love-psychosis. It also sounds and reads better, infinitely better, than “wretched wight.”

The narrator is asking an epidemiological question (when one compares the first stanza with the twelfth): What is the source of your illness? Even though the autumnal landscape is withered and songless, the knight is loitering around like a beggar.  The flora are desiccated, much like the knight; there are no fauna, it seems, in the expanse.  Nature has dried and shriveled up.  The birds that are not there are perhaps nightingales.  If this is the case, then the supernatural has withdrawn from the deathscape.

A nice instance of parechesis appears in the first stanza—a repetition of the grapheme LON in the words “alone” and “loitering.”

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

The granaries and the harvest have yielded a superabundance of food — food that is suitable for human consumption — but the knight will never eat it. He will never eat the food because he cannot eat the food. The knight is famished, starving for food that no human mouth can eat: It is the food that only his beloved faery princess can feed him.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

The syntax here is confusing: The lily that is embroidered on the knight’s brow is moist with anguish and moist with fever-dew.  The anguish-moist lily and the fading rose embroidered on the knight’s face-flesh: These are symptoms of his love-starvation.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

This is where the knight’s answer begins—an answer to the question, “What ails thee?” Already, the reader is getting subliminal cues from the poem that the knight should run like hell away from the faery princess. For one, she is the daughter of a faery and therefore any romance between the knight and the princess would be an interspecies romance. Secondly, the wildness of her eyes might very well be the wildness of craziness.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

The number three is important in the poem: The faery princess’s physical attributes come in threes (her long hair, her light foot, her wild eyes), the food that she feeds to the knight comes in threes (relish root, wild honey, manna-dew), and here we have a triumvirate of decorations for the Beautiful Lady to wear (garland, bracelets, perfumed belt). We might know three of her physical attributes and three things that she is wearing, but who is she, really, on the inside?

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

What kind of a knight is he, to let a woman he does not know ride his pacing steed? And how can someone set someone else on a steed that is pacing? Her sidelong look lets us know that she is unconcerned with him and that his love will be unreturned; sharp readers should question the integrity of her intentions. That he can see nothing else besides her radiance suggests that the knight has already plunged into total lunacy.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

How, precisely, does the knight know that the faery princess has declared her love for him? The answer is: He does not. Her words are inaudible to him. She speaks in a language that he cannot understand, and the suggestion is that the knight has projected his desire-to-be-loved upon her incomprehensible dark words.

The fact that communication between the knight and the faery princess is impossible intimates that contact between the knight and the faery princess is impossible.

“Honey” is sensuous, but the manna-dew is ethereal, heavenly: bread that rains from heaven. “Manna” is customarily a noun, but here, it is used as an adjective and evokes, of course, The Book of Exodus.

“Manna-dew” was not in Keats’ original draft. The lines read, in the original version: “She found me roots of relish sweet / And honey wild and honey dew.” Keats was very wise to modify the wording. The manna-dew that she feeds the knight reminds us that the faery princess is not a child of nature, but rather an otherworldly entity, one who comes from a transcendental province, much like the Grecian urn and the nightingale. She exists outside of time and is not bound by the laws of nature.

The food that she feeds the knight is supernatural nutriment, and he will never be able to eat anything else. All other food has become inesculent to him, even though the granaries are full and the harvest is done.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

She dwells in an elfin grotto, then. If there is still any question on the subject, at this point, the argument over whether she is human has been settled: She is a chthonic being. The fact that she dwells in an elfin grotto might imply that she is the Queen of Elphame, the elf queen who transported Thomas the Rhymer into the otherworld.

Why is the elf-girl weeping and sighing?  Is it because she knows that contact between her and her human lover is impossible?  If she is weeping and sighing over the impossibility of interspecies romance, does this not militate against the interpretation that she is wicked?

“Wild wild”: the use of anaphora (repetition) underlines her chaos, her untrammeled nature. In Stanza Four, her eyes were described as “wild.” Her eyes appear even wilder now.

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

The faery princess anesthetizes the knight, drugging him with Ketamine.  “The latest dream I ever dreamt”: The knight will never dream again.  Will he ever sleep again?

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

Listen to the chorus of love-hungry kings, love-hospitalized princes, and love-hurt warriors. They tell you who they think the girl really is: The Beautiful Lady without Pity! They are the ones who call her “The Beautiful Lady without Pity.” She never identifies herself, nor does the narrator, nor does the love-slaughtered knight at arms. Why, precisely, should you believe them? Why should you believe the chorus of pallid loverboys?

The word “thrall” connotes enslavement. To be in thralldom is to be in bondage to a master or a mistress. In this case, the chorus of once-powerful men, of which the knight is now a member, is enslaved, enthralled, to the Beautiful Lady without Pity.

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

After the love-drug wears off, the knight awakens and finds himself in desolation and a place of natural destitution. The only things in the dream-men’s mouths are warnings. Much like the knight, only the food of the faery girl can nourish them; no other food can sate them.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

The faery-intoxicated knight is doomed to walk along the withered shore of the lake in a perpetual autumn, sapped of his vitality and potency. He has been enervated by the psychosis-inflicting Beautiful Lady without Pity. The poem suggests that she is a witch, but she might as well be a lamia or a succubus. The women in the Keatsean poetic universe are all Belles Dames sans Merci. “Misogyny” is a label too easily applied these days, but how can we avoid calling this a misogynistic poem?

Dr. Joseph Suglia

Postscript

There is yet another alternative interpretation that is possible: The figure of the woman would be the vessel into which the misogynistic delusions of the knight are projected, into the vacuum which stands for that which cannot be symbolized.  This evacuates the pallid, forlorn night.  The figure of the female has now become an agglomeration of split-off parts that represents him.  The figure is then a void to which the male is inexorably drawn and from which he is driven in horror.  Keats’s pallid, forlorn knight has an experience of horror vacui.

The knight-at-arms would then have projected all of his disjecta membra into the figure of the female, thus rendering himself as servile and exhausted.

In other words, the Beautiful Lady without Pity is a construction.  What we are left with is only the imaginary.  This is, sadly, psychosis.  It is all too common.  The poem might then be a descriptive instantiation of delusional misogyny.

My only reservation with this alternative interpretation is that it is ahistorical.