Book #31: Twelfth Night or What You Will

twelfth-night-book-cover

Title: Twelfth Night
Author: William Shakespeare
Publication Date (First Published): 1601
Publisher: Signet Classics
Page Count: 220
Genre: Comedy (play)
Quotes: All in the review!
Friend(s) who would enjoy this book: Tyra, Claire, Alisha, Katie, Rohini, Mom
Song(s) in the soundtrack of this book:
1) Wavey, Broderick Batts
2) Faded, SoulDecision
3) The Antidote, St. Vincent
4) Polish Girl, Neon Indian
5) Supermassive Black Hole, Muse
6) Kingston Town, UB40
7) Song of Sorrow, Elle King
8) Island in the Sun, Weezer
9) Hippy Hill, Grouplove

My Thoughts

The world created in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is evocative of an “anything goes” mindset and is a world in which anarchy reigns; there is no worse (or better-depending on how you look at it) post-election read.

When two twins, Viola and Sebastian, are and separated after a terrible storm at sea, each believes the other to be dead. Viola ends up in the chaotic kingdom of Illyria and she dresses as a man in order to become a servant of the Duke of Illyria, also known as Duke Orsino. Now known as a young man named Cesario, Viola falls madly (pun not intended) in love with Duke Orsino. The fact that Viola is now a man in the eyes of Orsino puts a wrench in her plan to make him fall in love with her, however that is not the only obstacle. Orsino has been pining after the lovely Lady Olivia, a noblewomen in Illyria, who (believe it or not) has fallen for the new kid on the block, the effeminate Cesario (Viola). If the plot is not already too twisted for you, add in the rambunctious Sir Toby (Olivia’s uncle) and Maria (Olivia’s lady’s maid), the moronic Sir Andrew Aguecheek (friend of Sir Toby and a suitor of Olivia), the dour Malvolio (Olivia’s steward), and the Feste (the clown- don’t be deceived he is the most intelligent character in the play), and Twelfth Night becomes a play in which absolute disorder is celebrated and discipline is rejected. A comedy at heart, Twelfth Night offers genuine insight into the nature of love and the ambiguity of gender while remaining lighthearted.

twelfth_night
Helena Bonham Carter? Yes, Yes, Yes

Shakespeare places the reader into a topsy-turvy universe of lawlessness. A world in which cruelty goes unpunished and playing with other’s lives is fun. When Malvolio becomes angry at Sir Toby and Sir Andrew for having “no wit, manners, nor honesty” and “gabbl[ing] like tinkers” late at night after too many drinks, and threatens Toby’s expulsion from Olivia’s house if he cannot “separate [him]self and [his] misdemeanors”, Malvolio is the one who ends up punished after a scheme devised by Maria and Sir Toby goes too far. The reader has fun at the expense of these characters, but ultimately it is nice to return to our world of justice and order.

Though it is 2016 and Twelfth Night was first published in 1601, the humor carries through. Filled with a perfect mix of the witty, crude, and completely absurd, Twelfth Night is guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. For example, the quote below was said by Feste to Viola, mocking her smooth chin, as she is not a man:

“Now Jove, in his next commodity of hair, send thee a beard!”

Characters are not only incredibly funny and foolish (making dialogue ridiculous and whimsical at different times), but the situations they are put in create the absurd, irrational vibe readers get from the book. The quote below is so ironic in expressing exactly what the reader is thinking at exactly the right time. It was extremely well placed, and definitely made me smile.

“If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.”

And the insults from character to character are absolutely artful. Subtle (sometimes) and witty, they have a flair that 21st century insults seem to lack.

“Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere.”

My favorite thing about this play was the ambiguity regarding gender and sexuality. Viola dressing as a man is not treated as odd by any of the characters at any point in the play. The captain who helps Viola with her transformation is only too happy to comply, and at the end of the story, all characters easily accept the fact that Viola is a woman. There are plenty of hints of homosexuality throughout the book, all though it is recognized that these hints will never come to fruition due to the fact that “journeys end in lovers meeting”; relationships will end in marriage. Nonetheless, language is definitely evocative of feelings that are greater than friendship throughout the play. For example, dialogue from Antonio (the Captain who saves Sebastian) to Sebastian himself:

“I could not stay behind you; my desire,
More sharp than filed steel, did spur me forth;
And not all love to see you, though so much
As might have drawn one to a longer voyage,
But jealousy what might befall your travel…”

Even toward the end of the play, when it is revealed that Cesario is in fact a woman (Viola), the Duke continues to refer to Viola with masculine pronouns:

“Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times
Thou never should’st love woman like to me.”

Although love is not bound to anything, much like everything else in this play, leading to a lack of real romance, it is interesting for the reader to literally see love in the air. There are flirtations at every corner, and it seems like the play is more concerned with the idea of being in love, than the actual relationships itself. Orsino pines after Olivia only to marry Viola, and Olivia falls for Viola, but is ultimately happy with Sebastian. The fact that romantic relationships are superficial and transitive adds to the whimsical tone of the play and to the general feeling of disorder.

Though are main characters are superficial in action, there is a definite depth of character, more so in characters that experience loss throughout the play. The prime example of this is Malvolio, who is presented as a serious and austere Steward whose only duty is to serve Lady Olivia, but later is discovered to have just as much ambition and insensibility as the rest of the gang. Feste is another character who only “plays the fool” in name. The reader quickly realizes Feste is the most aware of all the characters, and he lends a lot of general insight to the play. For the most part, characters like Olivia, Orsino, and Sebastian are fairly stagnant, however Malvolio, Feste, Viola, and Maria all have unexpected quirks that are displayed uniquely throughout the play.

Feste’s words of insight are sincere and create serious (sometimes sad) moments in Twelfth Night. His intelligence and wordplay are appreciated by all characters at different points of the play. Viola sums up Feste’s role best in this passage, as a wise man who must be constantly aware of his surroundings:

“This fellow’s wise enough to play the fool,
And to do that well craves a kind of wit;
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
Not, like the haggards, check at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practice
As full of labour as a wise man’s art,
For folly that he wisely shows is fit;
But wise men, folly-fall’n, quite taint their wit.”

While Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night remains lighthearted, these moments of melancholy and sincerity remind the reader that a world of anarchy and complete happiness cannot exist without sacrifice. Both Malvolio and Antonio’s interests are sacrificed for the happiness and marriage of other characters.

Twelfth Night was a wonderful taste of “midsummer madness” and I enjoyed being sucked into the absurd while reading. I can only imagine how much more I would enjoy the live production.

Best,

-NS

 

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