Words don’t even begin to describe how excited I am to be touching on this Shakespeare play as part of my Shakespeare Series. You know how we all have those one or two special things that make you laugh every single time? This is mine. If you’re a beginner to Shakespeare, this should be an easy one to start you off. If you’re a long time veteran, this should bring back good memories. (NB: the photo above is from Anne Hathaway’s broadway debut as Viola)
I’ll start by saying I know Twelfth Night does quite reach the great popularity of some of the bard’s other comedies, namely A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing or the Merchant of Venice. In some ways, this is quite understandable. One of the heroes, Duke Orsino, is fairly mopey throughout the play whilst the other, Sebastian, is fairly absent. Most of the comic scenes involve Malvolio, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and to a lesser extent, Maria. This doesn’t diminish the laughs, however.
‘I will be strange, stout, in yellow stockings, and cross-gartered, even with the swiftness of putting on.’
It’s quite a legendary image. But what I love most about Twelfth Night is the fluidity with which the characters adapt and change to their roles, and how much of this involves women making decisions for themselves. No woman does more of this than Viola, who cross dresses as a man ‘Cesario’ in order to survive. Here, Shakespeare presents a new twist on the love triangle. Viola (in her masculine state), falls in love with Orsino who she works for. Orsino in turn in love with Countess Olivia, whilst Olivia haplessly falls in love with Cesario (whom she doesn’t know is actually a woman). It’s a hilarious predicament, but one that sees Viola the final hero of all the proceedings. Throughout the course of the play, not only does she keep herself alive, she manages the folly and scheming of the upper classes, improvises whilst being challenged to a duel, and deals with being fallen in love with by the same gender. Given that in Shakespeare’s time, many of the female parts would still have been played by boys, it’s a fun and inventive twist on Shakespeare’s part.
Furthermore, it’s fun to see the older men in the play so hapless and ridiculous. Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek have ridiculous names which reflect their ridiculous characters. Toby, Olivia’s uncle, tries to get his friend, Andrew, to successfully vie for Olivia’s hand in marriage. Present plot B: get Malvolio well out of the way. Enter the most hilarious of pranks.
It’s possible, when reading Shakespeare, to be tired or afraid of the noble youngsters who prance about the stage. Villains are appreciated for the complexity that such ‘good’ characters often don’t exhibit. Even with the happy ending in Twelfth Night, one of the best parts is that Shakespeare doesn’t do this. Olivia might not be a Portia or Beatrice, but Viola most certainly deserves to join the ranks of Shakespeare’s greatest heroines. So before I go, let me persuade you once more to read Twelfth Night via one of its most famous quotes:
‘In my stars I am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em. Thy Fates open their hands; let thy blood and spirit embrace them’