–William Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night,” Act V, Scene 1, line 415.
Now, before you accuse me of being random in this blog, consider this:
The Bard himself wrote a play named after January 6th, and there is not a single reference to Epiphany or Christmas in the entire play. Not one! Talk about random.
“Twelfth Night” is an upstairs, downstairs play.
Upstairs, there is a bizarre love triangle. The Duke of Illyria, Count Orsino, longs to court the Lady Olivia. But she mourns for her dead brother, refusing all suitors.
The shipwrecked Viola puts on men’s clothing and masquerades as Cesario to work as Count Orsino’s messenger. Viola promptly falls in love with the lovelorn Duke.
When Orsino sends Cesario to beg Lady Olivia to consider his suit, Olivia falls in love with Cesario!
Meanwhile, downstairs (where we witness the drinking of much wine): Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch has recruited Sir Andrew Aguecheek to woo niece Olivia. But Sir Andrew cannot manage a coherent sentence even with the lady’s maid, Maria.
Aguecheek is so exquisitely funny that he makes Sir John Falstaff look like cookie-cutter, central-casting comic relief by comparison.
Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria conspire to make a fool of the pompous steward, Malvolio. The joke goes too far…
Through the noble generosity of a friend, I was able to attend the Shakespeare Theater Company‘s performance of Twelfth Night last week. The production is, in the words of Peter Marks of the Washington Post, “gimmick-saturated.”
The Bard never relied on physical comedy. He never made his audiences laugh by having his courtiers compete with each other over how low they can bow, or by making eavesdroppers scurry around behind 1-800-FLOWERS placards to overhear conversations.
Shakespeare’s comedies are not slapstick. They are funny because of the words.
For instance, when Sir Andrew Aguecheek overhears Lady Olivia declare her love for Cesario, he resolves to give up his suit and depart from Illyria.
Sir Toby and his henchman Fabian, however, insist that Olivia was merely trying to make Aguecheek jealous.
“She did show favor to the youth in your sight only to exasperate you, to awake your dormouse valor, to put fire in your heart and brimstone in your liver. You should then have accosted her, and with some excellent jests, fire-new from the mint, you should have banged the youth into dumbness…[You must redeem yourself in her eyes] by some laudable attempt either of valor or policy.”
Sir Andrew replies, “An ‘t be any way, it must be with valor, for policy I hate. I had as lief be a Brownist as a politician.” (Act III, Scene 2, line 17ff.) (Robert Browne was one of the fathers of the myth of the separation of Church and state.)
My friend accused me of being a “Shakespeare fundamentalist,” because I “memorize” the scripts and then get annoyed by any deviation from them.
I think it is cheap to turn “Twelfth Night” into a farce, to make the audience laugh at sight-gags, and to coax oohs and aahs with costumes that look like 7/7/07-wedding-gown rejects. “Visually stunning” sets do nothing for me.
And there is more to complain about…
The Shakespeare Theater Company production of “Twelfth Night” indulged in plenty of lurid homosexual innuendo. They could hardly help themselves. After all, Olivia is in love with a woman masquerading as a man, and Orsino winds up marrying the woman he thought was his trusty messenger Cesario.
I think it is probably fair to assume that most—if not all—of the members of the Washington Shakespeare Theater Company are card-carrying members of Repeal Proposition 8 and Revoke Mormon Tax-Exemption Now!
But Shakespeare no more thought that a man could marry a man or a woman a woman than that a squirrel could be the King of England. It simply is not one of the options.
That is what makes the situation in “Twelfth Night” funny. If there were some real possibility that Olivia could marry Viola, or that the Duke could fall in love with Cesario while he thought she was a man, then the situation would NOT be funny.
It is funny BECAUSE it is absurd. “Same-sex marriage” is absurd. A laugher. Not a real possibility.