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.
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