05 November 2013
Twelfth Night; or, What You Will
I think my extreme fondness for Twelfth Night was strongly influenced by the film version starring Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham Carter. It's a great production. It rearranges a few things and cuts down some of the speeches, but it's fantastic. I've also seen it staged by Portland's Shakespeare in the Park company. Live outdoor theatre...and my favourite show. I was so into Twelfth Night that my fifteenth birthday party was themed around the play (and yes, yes, I am a geek). To be honest, it isn't as thought-provoking as some of the comedies, but I find the characters interesting and the plot more cohesive than the other comedies which use similar plot devices.
Twelfth Night uses the plot devices of the separated twins (which we saw in Comedy of Errors) and the shipwreck (Comedy of Errors again, and Tempest), but isn't like either of those plays. In this case, the twins are a brother and sister. Each believes the other dead, and the sister, Viola, finding herself without family on a foreign shore, goes for that other classic Shakespearean plot device, cross-dressing. She dresses up as a man. Then she heads over to the local Duke's residence and gets a job working with him. The Duke, Orsino, grows quite attached to his new attendant, and sends her to convince the nearby Countess Olivia to marry him. Olivia's not interested, and has told Orsino so repeatedly, but he is persistent. Viola's pleas on behalf of her master attract Olivia's attention, but sadly, her attention is grabbed, not by Orsino's love, but by Viola's words and appearance. Caught between Olivia's demands and her own love for Orsino, Viola's about ready to pull her hair out when it all comes to a head. Her brother Sebastian, who survived the shipwreck, arrives in town and is mistaken for her by Olivia. He is happily swayed by Olivia's invitations (she's beautiful, she's rich, she wants him) and the two secretly marry. Orsino and his retinue arrive at Olivia's for a visit, Viola and Sebastian come face to face and Viola's gender is revealed. The siblings are reunited, Olivia accepts Viola as a sister, and Orsino proposes to Viola.
The secondary plot involves a number of Olivia's servants and one of her relatives. It involves the overly pompous steward, the drunkard relative, the local fool, the housekeeper, and a few others. The steward, Malvolio, is in need of a comeuppance, and the others decide to give it to him. I love this part of the story, and I think it's a better-structured one than many of the subplots in the other comedies (the ones in Measure for Measure and Two Gentlemen of Verona were so simple as to be nearly non-existent). The practical joke angle keeps it fairly light-hearted when the main plot is dealing with Viola's frustration at loving a man who is eager to confide in her but doesn't know she's a woman, her grief for her brother, and her trying to convince Olivia to stop loving her. As both plots end with at least one wedding, the story's a happy one, though there is some angst in the middle.
And that's Twelfth Night. If you can, get to a production near you, or watch the film. We'll wind up our journey through Shakespeare's comedies with A Winter's Tale and All's Well That Ends Well before we proceed into the histories.
"O, had I but followed the arts!" Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Twelfth Night, I.3.202-203
"Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we!
For such as we are made of, such we be" Viola, Twelfth Night, II.2.688-689
"A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit: how quickly the
wrong side may be turned outward!" Feste, Twelfth Night, III.1.1246-1248
"And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges." Feste, Twelfth Night, V.1.2589