Sunday, April 19, 2015

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Performed April 19, 2015, The Empty Space, Bakersfield, CA

As a lawyer and a reader, I am always fascinated by the connections between law and literature. Whether it is Anthony Trollope’s fascination with legal cases (his father was a failed solicitor) or the numerous writers (from poet Wallace Stevens to James Weldon Johnson to Sir Walter Scott) who started off in law.

Shakespeare is no exception. When most people think of Shakespeare and lawyers, they tend to quote is famous line from Henry VI Part 2, “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers,” believing that the Bard thought the world would be better off if that were done. As is often the case, this constitutes a gross misunderstanding of what the line actually means in context.

In that particular scene, the rebel, John Cade, plots to overthrow the monarchy, and in the chaos, appoint himself as king, despite his lack of qualifications. His co-conspirator, the amoral and violent Dick the Butcher, utters this line as his advice as to the first step in creating this anarchy.

In other words, eliminate lawyers, and you eliminate the rule of law, create anarchy, and allow worthless demagogues like Cade to rise to power. (In actual history, Cade’s Rebellion met with an ignominious end: after he marched on London, his followers proceeded to loot and carouse, causing the citizenry to take arms against the rebels.)

All this, as an introduction to one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, Twelfth Night.

The title itself refers to the evening of the twelfth night of Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany. (See, that carol wasn’t just invented for the fun of counting.) By Shakespeare’s time, this night had become associated with the Roman Saturnalia and its drunken revelry. And, another interesting custom: during the revels, masters and servants would dress in each other’s garments - and men would dress as women and vice versa.

The play was intended to be an entertainment at such a party - and Shakespeare’s plot would reflect the peculiar custom.

Despite the intention, the first (known) performance of the play did not occur at Epiphany, but instead was given on February 2, 1602, which was Candlemas.

The audience was not a large public one at the Globe, but rather, a private association of lawyers, the Middle Temple Hall. One might view it, perhaps, as a local bar association. Our knowledge of the performance comes from the diary of barrister John Manningham, who left quite a portrait of Elizabethan society in his journal. So there is the lawyer connection.

The plot of Twelfth Night, like many of Shakespeare’s early comedies, turns on disguise and mistaken identity. Viola, the daughter of a nobleman, is shipwrecked on a foreign shore, and believes her twin brother, Sebastian, to have drowned. Fearing for her fate, she disguises herself as a young man, and enters the service of Duke Orsino. Seeing the young “lad” as a useful messenger, Orsino sends Viola (who is now “Cesario”) to bring a message of love and wooing to the Countess Olivia, who does not return his affection. Olivia, in turn, is infatuated with “Cesario,” and attempts to woo “him.” Viola/Cesario, in the mean time, has fallen hard for Orsino. Things quickly become a mess.

But, this is a comedy, so we need some humorous characters. This play has enough to populate several. First, there is Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s dissolute uncle, who is mooching off of her and...Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a very stupid and naive young man, who finds Toby to be the soul of wit - and a good source of booze. Then, there is Feste, the jester, who was popular with Olivia’s late father, but seems to be on the way out of the household. He has a good wit, and a delightfully sharp tongue. Infatuated with Toby, and protective of Feste, is Maria, Olivia’s servant, who has a bit of wit of her own...but who cannot stand her nemesis, Olivia’s steward Malvolio.

This Malvolio is a staunch Puritan of sorts, despising games, songs, drink, and fun. He wishes to evict Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and perhaps marry Olivia himself.

And then, when Sebastian turns up looking exactly like “Cesario,” things get crazy pretty fast.

The connection to the Twelfth Night Revels is pretty clear then, with cross dressing, and a servant that wishes to become the master. In Shakespeare’s time, this would have been even more gender bending, as all the parts, male and female alike, were performed by males. Thus, Viola/Cesario would have been a young man pretending to be a young woman pretending to be a young man; and Olivia would have been a man pretending to be a woman wooing a young man pretending to be a young woman pretending to be a young man. And Orsino would be a man sending a young man pretending to be a young woman pretending to be a young man who is in love with him to woo a man pretending to be a woman in love with a young man pretending to be a young woman pretending to be a young man. Try saying that really fast.

This being a comedy, the play ends with marriages, and a well-deserved comeuppance for Malvolio. But, the fun is in the journey anyway.

Some of Shakespeare’s most memorable quips can be found in this play.

Sir Toby, unimpressed by Malvolio’s condemnation of his fun, replies, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Malvolio, despite his austerity, lets his pride get the better of him when Maria and Sir Toby conspire to forge a letter to make him think that Olivia is in love with him. His inflated sense of his importance leads directly to his downfall. (Shakespeare goes so far as to make the unfortunate man wear yellow stockings - cross gartered - as part of his humiliation.) But this itself, while funny, isn’t the best part. That comes when Malvolio, completely unaware of what he is doing, spells out a really naughty word. (In Shakespeare’s time, Malvolio would have been the only person who didn’t get the joke. Nowadays, it is shocking how few people appear to notice his inspired naughtiness.)

And, who can forget the line in the forged letter: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em!”

Twelfth Night has some more serious moments too. Orsino is so besotted by the uninterested Olivia - and deceived by Viola’s disguise - that he fails to notice that she has fallen for him. Orsino cannot understand why such an overpowering, noble love such as his can be cruelly ignored by Olivia. Viola/Cesario presses an alternative concept, in an exchange which is rendered doubly delicious by the fact that Orsino has no idea he is speaking to a woman.

VIOLA: Say that some lady - as perhap there is -
Hath for your love as great a pang of heart
As you have for Olivia: you cannot love her;
You tell her so; must she not, then be answer’d?

ORSINO: There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much; they lack retention.
...make no compare
Between the love a woman can bear me
And that I love Olivia.

Viola, clearly, doesn’t agree with this, and gives an example: that of her “sister.”

ORSINO: What dost thou know?

VIOLA: Too well what love women to men may owe:
In faith, they are as true of heart as we.
My father had a daughter loved a man
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.

ORSINO: And what’s her history?

VIOLA: A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i’th’bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought;
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
We men may say more, swear more: but, indeed,
Our shows are more than will, for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love.

It is easy to forget in these post-feminist times, but when Shakespeare wrote those lines (and dating at least back to Aristotle), it was believed that women were merely defective, imperfectly developed men, incapable of the higher virtues. Through the voice of Viola, the Bard may have been chipping away just a bit at this belief. And, as Orsino discovers, it isn’t the men, but the women, who ultimately prove to be unshakeable in their passion and firm in their purpose.

And thus, all ends well for all - except for Malvolio, who exits bellowing, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”

Note on this production:

I’m a big fan of local theater, and The Empty Space will always hold good memories as the site of my first date with my lovely wife. In this case, I was accompanied by my three older children, who loved this play. This is a small theater, holding fewer than 100 people, and having a minimal amount of space for sets. Thus, it is always an intriguing question as to exactly how much they can do with next to nothing.

The setting was more or less modern times, rather than ye olden days. With the exception of the songs Shakespeare himself included, the rest were all modern pop hits. Whenever Toby and Andrew got in their cups and broke into song, they belted out (rather drunkenly) stuff ranging from the Isley Brothers to Meatloaf. The choices were hilariously apropos to the scene, and quite as irreverent as Toby himself. Likewise, the canned music clips between scenes served as a bit of a chorus to the action. The Empty Space generally has a good ear for this sort of stuff

While the performances were generally good, some were particular standouts. First, Feste was played by a young woman in dreadlocks with a lovely and powerful voice. Her scenes were a delight.

Second was Sir Toby - and the interesting chemistry between him and Sir Andrew. I have attended a couple of other productions throughout the years of Twelfth Night, but I cannot ever recall an instance in which the age difference was really played up. Sir Andrew is supposed to be a young man, not very bright, who is smitten with the worldly “wisdom” of Sir Toby. I have seen Andrew played up as a ludicrous half-wit and bumbling fool, but never quite like this. The actor was the youngest in the cast, and played the character as a straight naif. Sure, his elevator didn’t reach the top floor, but he didn’t know it. One could genuinely believe that Sir Andrew was completely unaware of his deficiencies. I’m not saying that one approach was better than another, but that it was a fresh and unexpected take on the character. Sir Toby was played as usual, rather broadly, and full of plenty of slapstick humor. Which meant my children thought he was hilarious.

The show, though, was completely stolen by Malvolio. His is, of course, the most popular character in the play. While a myriad of actors have played the role, I am particularly intrigued by Alec Guinness, Nigel Hawthorne, and Stephen Fry. In past productions, I recall seeing the character portrayed by a rather old actor (I felt terribly sorry for Malvolio in that one, because he seemed pitiable rather than loathsome); and by a young and lugubrious actor (he was spun as a lecherous hypocrite, and his fate was well deserved.) However, I have never seen a performance of the character as good as this. There is no doubt that the actor was the best in the production, by a substantial margin. Every gesture was perfect, and perfectly in control. The diction matched the character at all times, and it was hard to believe that the actor wasn’t really Malvolio in real life. Even the scene where he is locked up as a madman was amazing. All one could see was his hand and forearm. And yet, it was so expressive when combined with the voice, that one could truly see the anguish and mental breakdown. I was transfixed. Just a marvelous job.

(Unfortunately, they were out of programs, and I wasn’t personally familiar with the actor, or I would give his name some recognition.) UPDATE June 2016: After seeing him again in You Can't Take It With You, I can confirm that Malvolio was played by Kevin McDonald. If he is in a local production here, go see him. Just do it.

One of the joys of Shakespeare is that the transcendent language and timeless portrayal of human psychology works even when the context of the play is removed. Thus, there is so much that can be done to transport the play in time and place while losing none of the power. Indeed, sometimes a new context can add a layer of meaning and draw out hidden potential. (I am particularly reminded of the Western version of Comedy of Errors we saw last year.)  In this particular production, because the context was essentially invisible, the words and meaning themselves were made immediate. Viola’s dilemma wasn’t of some time past, but of our time. And how, after all, shall unrequited love be answered?


  1. The name Malvolio is quite interesting. A combination of mal, the root word for evil or bad, and vol, which is will.

    1. Indeed. And don't forget his counterpart, Benvolio, from Romeo and Juliet.