Twelfth Night


hello my name is swati pal and i am from janki
devi memorial college today i have been asked to speak about a very famous play by william
shakespeare called twelfth night or what you will before i actually start talking about
the play i must confess to a certain fascination that i have with this play entirely for personal
reasons the first reason is of course is that i studied this play as an undergrad student
myself in calcutta and we had the opportunity to perform this play for a public audience
but importantly the reason why i have a fascination with this play is because i have always felt
a certain familiarity a certain sense of kinship with the plot and its many ramifications why
do i feel this have a look at some of the ingredients of this plot siblings getting
lost or separated love at first sight love and its many trials unrequited love disguise
revenge siblings finding each other love being restored i don’t know about anybody else but
i have always felt that these ingredients are exactly what one finds in a typical mirch
masala [FL] bollywood film hence i suppose this sense of kinship now that i have talked
about the ingredients of plot let us perhaps have a quick look with at the plot and here
is a short summary twins viola and sebastian are separated due
to a shipwreck viola finds herself on the coast of illyria she presumes her brother
is dead and decides to disguise herself and seek employment as a page in the court of
the duke orsino the duke is apparently in love with lady olivia who is a gentle woman
but who spurns his advances she has declared that she is going to be in mourn for her brother
for seven years viola meantime falls in love with orsino he chooses her to be his emissary
to olivia not realizing of course that she is a lady in disguise
when viola dressed as cesario represents orsinos love to olivia she becomes in turn the object
of olivia’s love interest confusion reigns till the end of the play when sebastian the
hapless brother appears thinking he is cesario olivia whisks him off and persuades him to
marry her this completely infuriates orsino till viola appears on the scene recognizes
sebastian and of course unravels the complications of this mystery at the same time there is
a subplot in the play in which we have olivia’s cousin a sir toby belch who is leading a very
merry life a very boisterous life with his friends andrew aguecheek and the lady the
maid of the house maria the trio are the object of much disapproval by the steward of the
household who is a man called malvolio a man known for his pomposity he expresses his disapproval
in the harshest of terms and this spurs the trio to take revenge on him maria now plans
the gulling of malvolio she leaves a letter ostensibly from olivia proclaiming olivia’s
love for malvolio as suggested in the fake letter malvolio goes out of the way to make
a complete ass of himself in order to please olivia but instead of the rewards he thinks
he is going to get he finds that he is declared a madman and shut up in a dark room finally
when the plot is revealed he swears to take revenge so at the end all the confusion comes
to an end sebastian and viola are united duke orsino marries viola lady olivia marries sebastian
and sir toby belch marries maria the only person who is embittered is malvolio and of
course sir andrew aguecheek who has nothing to show off for himself so as we can see play
ends on an all is well kind of note as this mapping of the plot makes it amply clear and
it is labeled a comedy as we all know however i will come back to this aspect of the plot
later and discuss whether this play is really as comic as it is made out to be
i would like to move on to the next aspect of the play which is the title of the play
the full title of the play is twelfth night or what you will now it is a fact that a lot
of titles of shakespeare’s plays do not really reveal what the play is actually about in
this play twelfth night is a reference to the night before the last twelve days of christmas
which in shakespeare’s time began on twenty fifth december namely january fifth also called
epiphany eve which was followed by the feast of the epiphany on january sixth this was
the eve of the last day of the christmas celebrations before life became routine and especially
before the long english winter with its very dark nights and its very cold days with ultimately
paved the way for the beautiful english spring in a lot of country places this was the time
when the decorations that hung in the hall were taken down and burnt and the yule log
which was kept burning all through christmas celebrations was extinguished completely so
that it can be used as kindling later on now christmas was a time as it is even now for
partying and gifting in general a time of complete misrule celebrated by often breaking
societal codes and how were the codes broken the codes were broken by role reversals where
masters served servants and vice versa and people were allowed to play whatever roles
they so wished it is this aspect of christmas that perhaps the subtitle what you will could
be a reference to i find a close link between this subtitle what you will and the subtitle
of another of shakespeare’s plays called as you like it by the way what you will was also
the title of a play by marston of the same period anyhow to get back to the celebrations
during christmas in england various accounts make it clear that the festivities that often
took place in england during christmas were really riotous sometimes a lord of the revels
was chosen to conduct the ceremonies and to ensure that certain amount of calm and peace
was kept now why is this information relevant to our
understanding of twelfth night the reason is that from the accounts that we have by
a writer called hotson who says that the play was performed first on january sixth sixteen
o one when don virginio orsino the duke of bracciano was the guest at the court lord
hunsford that is the lord chamberlain at that time writes of selecting and preparing a play
for the occasion this has a similarity those of you who are familiar with midsummer night’s
dream will recall the very hilarious play put up by the mechanicals for on the for the
wedding ceremony of theseus with hippolyta anyway in this case when don orsino had to
be entertained on epiphany eve it was only natural that the lord chamberlain that is
the lord hunsford would turn to his own company known as the chamberlain’s men now apart from
the day when the play was first performed which may have well given it a name twelfth
night there is a reference to twelfth night embedded in the play in sir toby’s drunken
song o the twelfth day of christmas however to get back to the subtitle what you will
which to me actually is a better description of the play i feel that the subtitle is perhaps
an invitation to the audience to either invent a title of their own liking or it is a reminder
to the audience that happiness is what you make of it that happiness is a perception
that happiness is your own choice so what you will what you wish it to be
so much for the title let me now get back to as i had said to the plot in sixteen o
two a john manningham noted that he saw a play called twelfth night performed in february
that year at middle temple which he compared to a comedy of errors and likened to plautus’s
menaechmi and niccolo secchi gl’inganni another possible source for this play could be the
book written by barnaby riche riche his farewell to military profession in fifteen eighteen
fifty one this contains a story called apolonius and silla which has a plot very similar to
twelfth night and in fact most people believe that this is perhaps the closest source of
twelfth night i have already mentioned what you will by marston written in this period
whatever be the source of the plot one very striking feature that is evident in this play
is that it is neatly organized into a series of situations many of the elements that we
encounter in this play are present in other plays by shakespeare and i would like to give
you a few examples for example the female lead viola is very
strong and is comparable to the kind of lead that we have in characters like rosalind and
portia then there is a deployment of male disguise by the female lead there are twins
and there is mistaken identity very similar to what we see in a comedy of errors there
is a falstaff like figure in sir toby belch falstaff is a character we meet in the henry
the fourth plays the clown feste seems a lot like touchstone in as you like it there is
travel to foreign shores and ship wreck again very similar two comedy of errors the plays
midsummer night’s dream and as you like it have plenty of songs and so does this play
just as the princess mourns a year for her father in love’s labour lost olivia too is
in mourning but in this instance the father figure is replaced by the brother and the
one year is replaced by seven years i have at the outset sketched the plot and
i would now like to revert to some aspects of it we see that the play ends on a very
happy note and there is a movement all through the play towards a restoration of an acceptable
order the kind of social order which it was felt would definitely yield in happiness just
to remind you we find a similar kind of thing happening even in jane austen’s pride and
prejudice and sense and sensibility where following social norms was considered to be
a sureshot mode of getting happiness in life anyway to get back to the elizabethan world
order to repeat restoring an acceptable order was the convention that was bound to result
in happiness and all through there appears to be a festive spirit in the play as also
a lot of laughter and this is very true of a lot of shakespearean comedies many of which
were actually written for festivals and laughter on stage is again a very prominent a feature
in shakespearean comedy and is very essential to plays like twelfth night that are labeled
comedies however there are some aspects that perhaps problematize the notion of comedy
in the play now though the play ends with many weddings
it begins with death it begins with the death of olivia’s brother and it begins with olivia
mourning his loss it also begins with separation and of course though viola is told by the
captain of the ship that her brother is alive but she does not know this for sure and she
does feel a tremendous sense of loss at this separation so this deep sense of loss felt
by the two women and their mourning is important to the action of the play but what is unusual
is the ultimate fate of malvolio what is unusual for this comedy is the ultimate fate of malvolio
and the nature of the laughter that is evoked when he is exposed to public humiliation in
keeping with the principles of humanist education we see maria and the others believe that the
gulling of malvolio would be comical it would enable pleasure and ridicule but not only
that it would also serve as an instrument to cure him to cure him of his pomposity and
his self love in other words malvolio was seen as this sick man a man sick with self
love who needed to be cured of this terrible disease fabian in fact makes a representation
about the value of punitive comedy when he tries to convince olivia about why it was
not only just that malvolio be laughed at but that she too should be able to see the
justification for the gulling of malvolio the humanist audience in fact was akin to
a judge a judge that decided what was fair and was not fair in terms of public humiliation
in terms of ridicule of a particular character however we see that the vocabulary used by
maria to refer to her joke i would like to recall she says she refers to it as my physic
and this often appears in the comedies of johnson where immoral characters are sick
of such diseases as self love and laughter is seen as the laughter as well as public
humiliation are seen to be the physic the cure and the restorative that can purge the
individual of such diseases however just as there is a certain sympathy with shylock at
the end of the play the merchant of venice twelfth night too ends with a certain sympathy
for the gulled malvolio a sympathy that is reflected not just in accounts by audience
not just by you and me but also by certain characters in the main plot like olivia who
really fails to see anything comical at all about the comedy that has been enacted upon
malvolio in fact when fabian says in act two scene
five what dish o’ poison has she dressed him his sentence in fact reveals the very thin
line between physic and poison and indicates the rather bitter sweet taste of this comedy
in fact at one point fabian finds it almost unbelievable to see malvolio so completely
invested in maria’s letter that he exclaims and i quote if this were played upon a stage
now i would condemn it as an improbable fiction he says this in act three scene four i see
this as a comment not just on the metatheatricality of this moment but also of a foregrounding
of the artificiality of the joke’s success so to sum it up i would say that this uncomfortable
laughter really problematizes the notion of twelfth night as a pure comedy
now apart from the fact that malvolio needed to be taught a lesson he was sick with self
love he was extremely pompous he was extremely harsh in his speech and he needed to be brought
down a peg or two from his high horse but the gulling of malvolio is also linked to
another aspect malvolio’s tyranny has been linked in this play to puritanism and his
gulling reflects the hatred for puritanism maria in act two scene three calls him first
a kind of puritan and shortly after she says the devil a puritan that he is in shakespeare’s
time england’s puritans were members of the english national church who emphasized the
authority of the bible they hoped to abolish or purify the catholic episcopal hierarchy
which focused on certain things like church tradition liturgy and the sacraments
the puritans were primarily bible readers and they tried to apply the guidelines of
the scripture to both their private as well as their public lives so how did they articulate
their public understanding of the scriptures they would burn colorful church furnishings
and smash stained glass windows and in private life a puritan would probably wear drab clothing
stay cold sober making holidays as solemn and killjoy as possible and they refused to
do anything that was fun even on a sunday but more importantly and this is a fact recorded
in theatrical history they were dead against anyone who went to the theater and when the
puritans finally took over the government they actually shut theaters for close to two
decades obviously many people disliked the puritans
for their holier than thou mentality and their agenda to force their conservative lifestyle
on everyone one can almost hear the hostility for puritanism in toby belch when he says
dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale in act
two scene three to malvolio it is this hatred for puritanism that leads to the gulling of
malvolio who ends up embittered and dying to take revenge there are critics who have
commented upon the national character of the british in the laughter generated at the humiliation
of two characters in two of shakespeare’s plays one of course being malvolio and they
have commented on the puritanism which the british were against and there is of course
the more dislikable the more villianish character of shylock in shakespeare’s mechant of venice
shylock is disliked because he is a jew this says something about the british national
character i will now move on to talk about gender and
sexuality which is sheerly very central to this play and i will do so by looking at two
major aspects one is the issue of disguise and cross dressing and the other is the homo
eroticism that is definitely an issue in this play in discussing the use of disguise in
the play i would like to recall stephen greenblatt who happens to be one of the most famous of
the new historicist critics in his article fiction and friction from shakespearean negotiations
greenblatt talks about how one disguise that is the disguise of viola as cesario makes
impossible two sets of couplings what are these two sets of couplings one is the coupling
of orsino and cesario and the other is the coupling of olivia and cesario greenblatt
says and i quote viola’s disguise has not only created social confusion but elizabethan
conservatism is challenged as well what does he mean by this we see in the play that olivia
is attracted to viola but only when viola is disguised as a male as long as viola wears
the male disguise olivia will continue to be attracted to her
the audience too is perfectly willing to allow this to happen as long as olivia is not aware
that cesario is truly a woman given a time period a homosexual relationship would not
be societally acceptable hence the elizabethan audience would not have given much thought
to the homo erotic nature of the play why because they would realize that cesario was
a woman in disguise and at the removal of disguise would solve the problem in the play
they knew that the relationship between olivia and cesario was set to fail
but why did viola need to disguise herself as a male in the first place it is important
to realize that if she had not done so and she had sought to serve olivia or she had
sought to serve duke orsino as a as a woman the play would not have had the effective
comedy of a woman in a male disguise in a man’s disguise also viola would not have had
the opportunity to view life from a male perspective dressing as a man would ensure her safety
especially against sexual dangers and viola would have access to certain parts of the
city that might be closed for females besides the disguise would safeguard her virtue being
new to illyria her feminity could pose a problem a man would be safer because of his gender
viola needs this safety and also sexual acceptance because her goal her mission is to find her
brother and in order to fulfill that mission she feels that perhaps donning a male disguise
would serve her purpose best viola’s donning of disguise has been both
adored as well as critiqued or seen as a critique of society for example l g salinger in the
design of twelfth night while agreeing that disguise helps to create barriers from dangers
especially male sexual dangers it is says it is also a mask for self preservation in
a brutal society viola is a virgin shipwrecked in a strange land this was truly dangerous
and thus her need to mask herself now while olivia is attracted to viola in her guise
as the youthful cesario it is also true that orsino has a deep physical connect with cesario
he is able to disclose intimate information to cesario only because he shares an intense
connection with cesario and in fact he admits it in act one scene four that he has bared
his soul to cesario had viola kept her feminine costume she would not have been privy to orsino’s
intimate feelings but as cesario and as a male she has a seemingly
physical connection with orsino orsino recognizes the the connection and is willing to share
his affections with cesario two questions now must be asked one by donning a male disguise
viola has the chance to see the world from the male perspective as i have said before
the question is does she really free herself from her feminine from the feminine lens the
answer could be that perhaps viola learns more about herself by seeing the world through
male eyes through another set of eyes the second question is though heterosexual views
prevailing in elizabethan england would not allow love to blossom between orsino and cesario
is it true that shakespeare might have been offering a commentary on the relationship
between love and disguise perhaps it can be speculated that romance could have sparked
off between orsino and cesario had the times permitted it
we notice too the fact that viola is quite comfortable with her disguise as well it is
her comfortableness on her part that enables her in turn to share her feelings for orsino
to him of course she does so obliquely she refers to a story in which she talks about
her father having a daughter in actuality she is talking about herself viola could never
had such an intimate session with orsino had he known that she was a woman the disguise
thus fosters a friendship that allows both to confide in each other without the trivialities
or the pressures of courtship in a courtship very often people try to impress one another
but here in this friendship this is not required again it is possible to see that though olivia
falls in love with viola in her garb as a man she found a kinship in viola perhaps the
kinship is due to the fact that they are both women they connect on an intimate level because
they understand the romantic anguish that each is experiencing to sum up this aspect
of disguise and sexuality i would like to simply say that in shakespeare’s times boys
played the role of female characters in the staging of plays hence sexuality was not an
issue with elizabethan audience but today such thinking would be almost impossible with
a contemporary audience because today we are fueled by the sexual agendas that are put
forward by the media to us another homo erotic relationship in the play
is the one between antonio and sebastian antonio is the young man whom sebastian meets by chance
in illyria he questions him about the city of illyria and requests him to show him around
antonio responds him by saying and i quote 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 act three scene two it is evident that antonio has formed an attraction
for sebastian his desire as he says is sharper than steel and it is love that draws him to
sebastian the connotation of sharper than steel couldn’t be more evident however his
passionate speeches as we see do not culminate with sebastian returning his affections once
olivia engages a priest to marry her off to sebastian who she of course has mistaken for
cesario the relationship between antonio and sebastian comes to an end as i said elizabethan
world order is restored the homo eroticism in the play is thus done
away with by a the stripping of of the disguise donned by viola made possible only of course
at the appearance of sebastian she now dons the women’s wigs that orsino wishes to see
her in and why does orsino wish to see her in women’s wigs because he wants to ensure
that he loves a woman he reciprocates the love of a woman and secondly the homo eroticism
in the play is done away with by marriage it is marriage that leads to a blending of
eroticism with the public institution it is the final resolution to the unstable lives
that are being led by the characters as i said somewhere earlier in the discussion that
that the elizabethan world order would need to be restored for balance and harmony and
a happy ending and such an ending had no space no place for the homo erotic
there are a number of other important aspects in this play a famous line often quoted in
this play is in the letter read by malvolio in his gulling in act two scene five which
says be not afraid of greatness some are born great some achieve greatness and some have
greatness thrust upon them ambition the desire for power and greatness which we see in many
of shakespeare’s plays such as julius ceaser is also present in twelfth night in malvolio’s
desire for olivia’s love so that he could become rich and powerful and great he is also
obnoxious in the way in which he imagines that he is a superior being in the way in
which he imagines that olivia must love him because there is nobody else like him it is
this superiority of his that leaves everyone to be so annoyed with him
then of course there is this entire aspect of love in the play and it is mostly unrequited
love which forms a major dramatic concern in the play this is the love which causes
a lot of play pain orsino loves olivia also he believes that she is viola loves orsino
but cannot divulge that since she appears before orsino in the garb of cesario olivia
loves cesario but her love is not returned by cesario who is actually viola of course
as i have said since this is a comedy everybody gets more or less what they want at the end
but there are various other perspectives of love as we can see feste’s song says that
love is not something to be said for tomorrow what is love ’tis not hereafter present mirth
hath present laughter is what he says viola believes that falling in love is not something
one can control and that women actually love more deeply and more genuinely than men orsino
right at the start of the play says that love is like an appetite and he wishes that he
could be overloaded with love he also sees music as being absolutely the
right kind of instrument to fuel love in a person olivia believes that though love may
lead to disaster it was better to love as grandly as one could and malvolio as we have
discussed was sick with self love so we see that there are many perspectives there are
many views regarding love there is also of course a love of a sister for her brother
we also talked about homo erotic love earlier the question of identity too is central to
the play where mistaken identities can cause both painful circumstances such as when antonio
is arrested for mistaking viola to be sebastian or it can also lead to very bizarre circumstances
such as when sebastian finds himself whisked off by olivia the important question that
i would like to put forward in the light of mistaken identities is this will olivia be
content with sebastian when it was with cesario that is viola that she fell in love
in other words is identity only a superficial construct aided by what we wear that is something
that we really need to think about in the light of this and other plays again in terms
of identity one of the things that lends a certain identity to people to some of the
characters in twelfth night at least is the name that they have for example lot of names
have double meanings malvolio means bad will or humour a toby jug was a pottery beer mug
made in a form of a seated person and belch is a synonym for burp as a man who likes his
beer sir toby belch was certainly very well named feste has the same note as festival
though of course in this particular play the fool is not a very festive kind of person
he is quite a melancholic person as we discussed later sir andrew augecheek auge means fever
or fit so sir andrew augecheek means andrew fever face olivia could refer either to the
olive branch which is a symbol of peace or shakespeare might have been playing with voli
which means will or wish viola and this is almost like an anagram of olivia is a small
flower or a musical instrument but is also another take on voli
before i proceed to the last section of my lecture i must not forget to mention the fool
feste the fool in shakespeare’s comedies is the laughing stock of all the characters in
the play yet he comments about them and about other matters and his comments prove that
he is far wiser than the rest the sallies that are uttered by the fool create social
satire the fool with his motley mindedness has the ability to illuminate the entire world
in a flash in twelfth night feste is not a stock character he is not the regular clown
or jester that is often depicted in lot of shakespeare’s plays and lot of other literature
but he is a wise character about whom viola indicates in act three scene one this fellow
is wise enough to play the fool feste is witty and intelligent which helps him to carry out
his duty as a licensed clown as well as function as a commentator in the play
as i have said earlier he is a rather melancholic clown a fact indicated by his songs which
deal with the passage of time and carpe diem motif he is probably a middle aged man who
has been working in olivia’s household for a very long time a fact that is indicated
by curio to viola at some point his concern with enjoying every moment of life arises
from his realization that time and tide wait for no one he is quite philosophical in a
lot of the things that he says he appears also to be an omniscient presence who can
see what is going on everywhere this might have something to do with the fact that the
fool has access to both the households the fool in all shakespeare’s plays have access
the fools have access to every place so feste has access to both the households but because
he is not attached to any action or any person in fact the sense of detachment is really
very important he can therefore be a fair critic of what’s going on
so now going to go move on to the last section of my discussion which is a look at some of
the adaptations of shakespeare’s twelfth night in film and on stage and this actually yields
very rich results i am just going to be looking at a few of them some important films based
on twelfth night are the two thousand four movie wicker park in which rose byrne the
character alex plays viola in an amateur production of twelfth night the two thousand six film
she is the man the film shakespeare in love contains several references to twelfth night
and oh yes in two thousand and one disney channel’s original movie motocrossed set the
story in the world of motocross racing on stage the number of musicals have reworked
the play such as your own thing nineteen sixty eight music is nineteen seventy seven all
shook up two thousand five and play on nineteen seventy seven it is interesting that the last
two versions actually featured elvis presley himself an icon but one of the interesting
adaptations of twelfth night is actually a desi one in twenty twelve the globe theater
commissioned mumbai’s the company theatre to work on an indian adaptation of a shakespearean
play led by actor director atul kumar the play chosen by company theatre was twelfth
night set in colonial times in a fictitious indian town piya behurupia [FL] as the play
is called in hindi has been a runaway success and has performed over a thousand i beg your
pardon but one of the interesting adaptations of twelfth night is actually a desi one in
twenty twelve the globe theatre commissioned mumbai’s the company theatre to work on an
indian adaptation of a shakespearean play led by actor director atul kumar the company
chose twelfth night set in colonial times in a fictitious indian town piya behurupia
[FL] as the play is called in hindi has been a runaway success and has performed over a
hundred shows the hundredth being in chile the times of india reviewed it as a two hour
roller coaster ride as one who has seen the play i couldn’t agree more and i would definitely
urge you to go and have a look at this play if you can incidentally there is now a desi
version of a rock and roll version of twelfth night that is going to be produced again by
the theater company located in mumbai again commissioned by the globe theatre so as we
can see at the end of the long discussion i began by saying that i have a certain affinity
with this play i have a certain affinity because all the ingredients within it are so uncannily
familiar and i would like to just take you back for a brief recap what is it that we
talked about we talked about how disguise plays such an important role in terms of problematising
notions of gender and sexuality we looked at how there is a certain homo-erotic element
in the play which of course was not acceptable in the elizabethan world order but which today
we are able to see very clearly indicated by shakespeare in this play as a commentary
on nature of love between people we see certain characters like malvolio being gulled to such
an extent that it actually draws our sympathy it actually makes us feel sorry for him the
way in which he is ridiculed and we can compare his public humiliation to the kind of humiliation
felt by shylock in the merchant of venice we see love unrequited we see various aspects
of love that are put forward by various characters in the play we see power and ambition we see
what this leads to in the case of malvolio we see feste the fool who doesn’t just play
the fool but actually is like a commentator on the going on on the goings on in the play
and of course we now end with the adaptations of this play making it absolutely clear that
the play is timeless and has universal appeal across cultures across nations
thank you

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