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twelfth night

17 october 2015

Twelfth Night is just about a perfect play, the best of Shakespeare's comedies and thus one of the best plays ever written. It achieves its effects without many great flights of poetry (though it has great songs) – a wacky, farcical plot and sharp characters are its preferred methods, along with a hipness of language that recalls The Merry Wives of Windsor. Above all the play has great sympathy for the variety of ways in which people enjoy life. It famously harasses and expels one of its central characters, Malvolio: because, as his name implies, he's ill-willed. He gets his kicks by preventing other people from enjoying life, so the play gives him a dose of his own medicine.

Twelfth Night is a gender-bending farce full of idiots and fools. Its characters disguise themselves and mistake one another. In other words it's a more concentrated version of life itself. Everything eventually gets sorted out, and we know there will be more cakes and ale.

I've been noting Shakespeare's conservatism in other brief pieces here at lection. To continue to use "presentist" terms advisedly, we might say that Shakespeare is a political and class conservative while being a social liberal. Contemporaries like Christopher Marlowe and Michael Drayton were uneasy about sex, particularly at its kinkier junctures. A later writer like John Milton, though a great social and political liberal in many ways, sidesteps kinkiness by having only two humans appear in his greatest poem, Paradise Lost, necessarily of different (and decidedly cis-) genders. But Shakespeare was the author of a great and very bi collection of sonnets. And in his plays he surveys attitudes toward sex that range from the negativity of Measure for Measure to the restraint and balance of Love's Labour's Lost to the hetero horniness of Romeo and Juliet. He gives us many a determined, appetite-filled woman along the way (even when, as in All's Well That Ends Well, she has an appetite for Mr. Wrong).

And in Twelfth Night, he comes out exuberantly and polymorphously in favor of love. Viola, dressed as the boy Cesario, loves Orsino, who supposedly loves Olivia, but also becomes very fond of the boy/girl Cesario/Viola. Olivia meanwhile falls in love with Cesario. Antonio loves the boy Sebastian, who in fact is Viola's twin, identical in all but sex. Without missing a beat, Olivia falls in love with Sebastian, and when everybody's genders and identities are revealed, Orsino seems happy with a girl he'd always thought was a boy, and Olivia seems happy with a perfect stranger she just married on impulse.

In other words, there's no accounting for desire. While the high characters are being semi-sorted out, the low (Feste, Toby, Andrew, Maria, and Fabian) torment Malvolio and spend much of the play drunk off their asses. It is impossible to dislike them. Every character, high or low, has a motivation, a through-line, a dramatic goal, and a "humour" to use Shakespeare's own language, and they mesh in ways that have delighted directors and audiences for centuries.

And for once, a kingdom is not at stake, which means there's not much politics in Twelfth Night. Orsino is a duke, but unexiled and undispossessed, and though he's melancholy, not give to hiding in dark corners. "Degree" is neither threatened nor reimposed. At the end Jack hath his Jill, and if she's a little like Jack and he's a little like Jill, so much the better.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. 1623. Edited by Keir Elam. London: Arden Shakespeare [Cengage], 2008.