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TOPIC: first notes second reading twelfth night

first notes second reading twelfth night 1 year 2 weeks ago #7353

  • Steve Minkin
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Sounds like the beginning of a math problem.

We are still scheduled for the first Wednesday in December, the seventh, for our second go at Twelfth Night.

Our first reading fell on Twelfth Night itself, but it doesn't fall again on Wednesday (my one night off) for many years to come. January 6, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the Feast of The Epiphany, celebrates the arrival of the Three Wise Men at the manger.


Auden notes that all the women in the play get what they want: Maria rises above her station and marries Sir Toby, Viola gets the man she has designs on from the beginning, and Olivia gets her male Caesario.

Scrabble players will appreciate the economy of tiles in Viola, Olivia, and Malvolio.

Twelfth Night is the fourth and last of the cross-dressing comedies (Two Gents, Merchant, As You Like It), and the last of Shakespeare's sunny comedies. (His "farewell to comedy" – Quiller-Couch.)

The Arden edition notes that the audience's sympathies begin to shift toward Malvolio at the cross-gartering scene and deepen when the dark room punishment seems excessive. "Modern audiences have bestowed more sympathy upon Malvolio than Shakespeare perhaps intended . . . " (van Doren)

The audience knows more than the characters – it knows about the twins, the cross-dressing, and the plots against Malvolio.

In that brilliant exchange with Olivia in III, i, Viola says: "I am not what I am." Five years later, Will puts those words into the mouth of Iago!

Ralph Berry's essay on the play's audience concludes that "the ultimate effect of Twelfth Night is to make the audience ashamed of itself." (One marriage between two characters who just met, another between a man and a woman he thought was a man until late in Act V and whom he never does see dressed as a woman, the humiliation of Malvolio, the shunting aside of Antonio, etc.)

Garber calls Sebastian the "husband ex machina."

As in virtually all the comedies, there are disgruntled characters who leave the final triumphant scene unhappy – Malvolio promises "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you!" and Antonio (Shakespeare's most unequivocally gay character, although The Merchant's Antonio is also a strong candidate), who is in love with Sebastian, realizes that there is no place for him in Ilyria if Sebastian marries Viola.

Many of the comedies open with dark scenes: As You Like It, The Dream . . . This one opens with three scenes dealing with the death of passion or life – In I, i, Orsino calls for sad music to provide the sound track for his unrequited love of Olivia, who is mourning the death of her brother; in I, ii, Viola and the captain talk of the likely death of her brother; and in I, iii, Sir Toby complains of Olivia's excessive grieving for her "brother's dead love."

Is there an element of Olivia's grief which is a strategy to avoid Orsino's advances? It does seem to evaporate immediately once she meets Caesario.

The famous lines that help snare Malvolio – "Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them." -- echo a passage in the Bible regarding eunuchs! "For there are some Eunnuches, which were so borne from their mothers wombe: and there are some Eunnuches, which were made Eunnuches of men: and there are Eunnuches which haue made themselues Eunnuches for the Kingdom of heaven's sake." (Matthew 19.12)

Malvolio = ill-wisher
Benvolio (Romeo's friend) = well-wisher

Although the characters are quite different, Malvolio and Shylock share the quality of evoking both the audiences' scornful laughter and sympathetic shame at their treatment.

Garber points out that the play's ranking aristocrats (Olivia and Orsino) lack vitality and purpose, while the servants (Viola, Maria, Malvolio, and Feste) display agency and energy. Olivia's response to her brother's death is retreat from life, Viola's response to her belief that her brother is dead is energy and motivation. Bloom goes further, arguing that nobody in the play has agency, "nearly everyone behaves involuntarily . . . forces beyond the characters seem to be living their lives for them."

Feste delivering Platonic contradictions:
Feste as Feste: "Nothing that is so is so." (IV, i)
next scene, Feste as Sir Topas: "That that is is." (IV, ii)

In its mysteries of identity and relationships, Twelfth Night looks past the late histories, and tragedies to the Romances, the final plays. When Sebastian sees 'himself' standing before him in his own clothes, he asks Viola who she is, what country she is from, who her parents were . . . the kind of questions of identity and recognition we find later in Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest.

Can we find an echo of Twelfth Night in Lear, in the exchanges between Feste (as Sir Topas) and Malvolio and an unhinged Lear in the storm and his fool? There is certainly an echo of Feste's play-concluding song by Lear's fool on the storm-swept heath:

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day . . .
A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.
TN – V, i

He that has and a little tiny wit-
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain-
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
For the rain it raineth every day.
KL – III, ii
Last Edit: 1 year 2 weeks ago by Steve Minkin.
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first notes second reading twelfth night 11 months 4 weeks ago #7360

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"Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?"

"And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges."

Our second reading of Twelfth Night is coming up in less than two weeks.

I hope you all had a good Thanksgiving. Please let me know if you plan to attend the reading . . . We are off to a running start on this one, and we have eight going into our Call for Readers:

Viola(Caesario)'s early argument for Olivia to give up her grieving and accept Orsino as a suitor echoes the early sonnets – you are so beautiful it would be a sin not to have children and leave copies of your beauty. Olivia has a charming reply:
Viola: . . . Lady, you are the cruell'st she alive,
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy.
Olivia: O, sir, I will not be so hard-hearted; I will give
out divers schedules of my beauty: it shall be
inventoried, and every particle and utensil
labelled to my will: as, item, two lips,
indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to
them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth.
I, v

By II, ii, Viola – and she alone – has figured out the complexities of the romantic daisy chain. When Malvolio gives her the ring he was told she left with Olivia, Viola pretends that she actually did give Olivia the ring; and then realizes that it is likely that Olivia gave her the ring because she had fallen in love with her, Viola, dressed as Caesario, who is in love with Orsino who is in love with Olivia. She concludes, "Oh time, thou must untangle this, not I./ It is too hard a knot for me t'untie."

TOBY: . . . Does not our lives consist of the four elements?
ANDREW: Faith, so they say, but I think it rather consists of eating and drinking.
TOBY: Th’ art a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink. Marian, I say, a stoup of wine!
. . .

FESTE: Would you have a love-song, or a song of good life?
TOBY: A love-song, a love-song.
ANDREW: Ay, ay. I care not for good life.
II, iii

I like the Trevor Nunn film a good deal. Ben Kingsley as Feste and Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio are both outstanding, and Imogene Stubbs and Helena Bonham Carter kept the romantic plots cooking. A couple of nice cinematic touches that stood out – an opening act featuring the gender-bending similarities between the twins followed by a powerful storm scene, and some finely done intercutting back and forth between Feste's song to Toby, Andrew and Maria (in The Kitchen Scene, II, iii), "Then come kiss me sweet and twenty./ Youth's a stuff will not endure," and the following scene's deliciously devious dialogue about love between Orsino and Viola/ Caesario. (I can see you're in love, what does she look like? Oh, your complexion. How old? About your age.)

Twelfth Night (along with Hamlet) leads the plays in number of letters read aloud with three – Maria's letter that traps Malvalio, Sir Andrew's semi-incoherent challenge of Caesario, and Malvolio's letter of protest to Olivia (which Feste begins to read in the manner of a raving lunatic, until Olivia asks Fabian to read it plainly).

The play is one of two with a subtitle – What You Will (spoken by Olivia in I, v). The other is Henry VIII, or All Is True.

I should have added Sir Andrew to the list of disgruntled characters leaving Illyria at the end. Sir Toby, having extracted all the money he can from Andrew, blisters him in the closing scene: " . . . an ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull!"

Strangest loose end – it is revealed late in the play that the captain who rescued Viola is in jail because of action taken against him by Malvolio(!), and Orsino orders the captain to be found and freed before the wedding takes place.
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