TWELFTH NIGHT (or WHAT YOU WILL)
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die. [Orsino- Act 1, Scene 1]
How many of us are in love with the idea of being in love? Does this make us deluded and pitiful, or focused and passionate? When faced with the one who really does need and want us, how long would it take before we realise this fact? Some of these questions are raised within the first few moments of Twelfth Night, as Orsino pines for a love that is self-induced, with a woman he had yet to meet. Yet a real love comes into his life in the most unexpected (and frankly ludicrous) way. But, then again, it often does.
This is a timeless tale of siblings shipwrecked on an exotic coast, that examines love in all its wonder, beauty, confusion, pain, madness and passion, and features one of the most famous love triangles in literature. A totally bewitching story of love and laughter, madness and mayhem, cross-dressing and cross-garters, Twelfth Night is also a role call of the most memorable characters in English drama – Malvolio, Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek, Feste and Viola. There is a delicate balance between romance and realism, and a fascinating exploration of sexuality and gender roles. You think Shakespeare has nothing to offer the modern world? Oh, think again! The version I saw was performed at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, and although it was not a modern dress version, was evidentally as accessible as any modern play.
One of Shakespeare’s finest comedies, Twelfth Night was written at the same time as Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida. It deals with similar themes as sex, death and confused identities (one of Shakespeare’s favourite devices), but this is a barmier comedy with lots of inspired dialogue that lifts it into a league of its own. Viola and her twin brother Sebastian are separated in a storm that washes them both up at different points on the shores of Illyria (a country of Shakespeare’s devising). Believing each other to be dead, and in a strange land they have been at war with, they have to rely on their cunning to see them through. For protection Viola cross-dresses and enters the service of the lovesick Orsino, who is in love with Olivia, an heiress in mourning for the loss of her brother. Orsino’s bold young page Cesario (Viola) soon falls in love with “his” master, who then tells “him”. If that wasn’t confusing enough, Viola falls in love with Orsino, Olivia falls in love with her alter ego, Cesario, while also being pursued at the same time by her pompous servant Malvolio. Olivia’s house is also the setting for the drunken antics of her uncle, Sir Toby Belch. By the time Sebastian appears back on the scene the whole farce has reached hilarious proportions of deception and misunderstanding.
Twelfth night has been refered to as the most ‘autumnal’ of Shakespeare’s plays, and I can see what is meant by that. Just as the leaves curl and yellow, and fall, so do some of our our hopes and dreams. But this is no tragedy, for the spring always comes, and new dreams often bloom; more realistic and practical maybe, but perhaps we are all the better when we can see the truth of our lives. Deception and pretence are a cruel thing, especially when emotions are involved and desire is based upon a false façade.
It also addresses the cruelty of one to another. As much as the pompous manservant Molvolio perhaps deserved taking down a peg or two, his fall, orchestrated by Maria, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, sees the man seriously made a fool of. Also, by her very disguise as a man, Viola inadvertently causes Olivia to fall in love with her. When her twin brother Sebastian comes on the scene, and Olivia thinks this to be the same person, Sebastian takes passionate advantage of the situation. Ultimately Sebastian is spurned by Olivia in the last act, as she walks off without him, no doubt insulted by his treatment of her. It is actually only Orsino and Viola who find true love and happiness. Once revealed as a woman, the bond between the two characters has already been formed in the relationship’s previous incarnation, and Orsino knows that he could find no one with such devotion and commitment to him as Viola. As in life, some surprising revalations can change things for the better!
I found Twelfth night a bittersweet experience, and was touched by my own feelings of regret and confusion over changing circumstances. Far from being a weakness, this is what makes us better people. Regret should be dealt with; it should be allowed to linger and teach its lessons, but it should never stay. But whatever the matter, to be touched by Shakespeare is to be touched by the beautiful expression of genius, and for that humble priveledge I couldn’t have any regret.