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PlayShakespeare.com: The Ultimate Free Shakespeare Resource

The Book of Twelfth Night: A Work of Unfinished Potential Hot

J. A. Macfarlane
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Written by J. A. Macfarlane     January 17, 2012    
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  • The Book of "Twelfth Night, or What You Will": Musings on Shakespeare's Most Wonderful (and Erotic) Play
  • by Wayne Myers
  • Publisher: Wheatmark
  • Published in 2010
  • 3

Wayne Myers’s The Book of “Twelfth Night, or What You Will”: Musings on Shakespeare’s Most Wonderful (and Erotic) Play is a prime example of a book saved by its subtitle. The word "Musings" defends it against all attacks: whenever one is tempted to complain of a stylistic feature or of a lack of depth, one has to remember that these are, after all, only musings – and a book so described, not presenting itself as anything more, cannot be judged on the basis of what it might have been, had these contemplations been developed.

But the reader is left wishing that they had been. Myers is clearly an intelligent and sensitive respondent to Twelfth Night, but that intelligence and sensitivity dart over the subject like a butterfly, never resting long enough on any one aspect to give it full due. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is never entirely certain what the purpose of the book might be. It is neither an in-depth theatrical history, nor a full investigation into the characters, nor a compendium of criticism of particular productions, though it at times appears to be all these things; nor does it offer any resolution to the various conundrums of the play, though it brings most of them up; and though the author describes the book as being "really a production of the play" (p. 9), the reader comes away with no true sense of what this production might be like. All of these aspects are present, but they do not coalesce; they remain only musings, which are all well and good but leave the reader waiting for their development. Perhaps the idea is that thought will be sparked in the reader’s mind, but it is not clear whether that is indeed the intent, and the reader is not sufficiently engaged for it to happen.

The strength of The Book of “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” lies in its range of reference and how it considers the play in the light of many less-noted productions seen by the author but less likely to be known of by a wider audience. Particularly fascinating is the wealth of evidence that Twelfth Night has been done in myriad ways, including some remarkably clever and abstract productions that have not (as yet) impinged on the consciousness of critics or of editors of the plays. The very existence of a steampunk Twelfth Night, of a "Summer of Love" one, and of a silent-film-styled production reminds us that the play is much more flexible than it can seem, particularly in traditional stage histories that tend to focus on its past history as farce, and its rediscovery as "autumnal" and "Chekovian", interpretations that still appear to be the most common directorial approaches. This is the most valuable aspect of Myers’s book, illuminating what directors’ theatre can bring to an understanding of a play and allowing the reader’s imagination to conceive of unexpected possibilities remaining latent in the play text.

Myers organizes his work by considering each character in turn, giving them a chapter each. The clarity of this structure is offset by how little sometimes seems to be said. Myers does bring up a number of interesting considerations – his questioning Fabian’s very existence, and pointing out how easily he can be cut, for instance – and is particularly strong at looking at the extent of the homoerotic implications of the text and their possibilities, as well as looking at the most common ways of playing the characters. But these explorations of the characters never reach anything that can be described as depth: much is mentioned, but little is sounded. Perhaps this is a feature of the book’s dimensions, but the paucity of commentary – Sebastian is given barely two pages – does not seem warranted by a need to keep the volume slim.

This slenderness is also stylistic. Perhaps it is a fond and foolish dream, in this day and age, to hope for sustained and cogent prose, but the plethora of paragraphs consisting of single sentences, simple and comprising mostly monosyllabic words, grows wearisome in this case. One ends up longing for a sentence to be developed, for something more to be given us. But this something more is lacking; opinions, both the author’s and those of others, are given but not considered. Again the word ‘musings’ comes to the rescue, but by this stage the subtitle has so often offered itself as defense that it is growing lamentably injured.

The Book of “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” is a brief, fairly enjoyable light read, but it remains a light one, giving the distinct impression of a series of sketches for what Myers could produce once he ceases merely to muse and instead sets out to develop those sketches into a full, coherent picture – which will be a work well-worth reading.

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