One summer at the beach, we read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night together as a family.
From the early scene in which Toby Belch extols Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s attractions as a suitor for a young lady, insisting that Sir Andrew
“’s as tall a man as any’s in Illyria…
…he plays o’ the
viol-de-gamboys, and speaks three or four languages
word for word without book, and hath all the good
gifts of nature”
my brother and I could not stop laughing. Sir Toby had us at ‘viol-de-gamboys.’
Ever since that summer, I have thought of Twelfth Night as primarily hilarious and only secondarily wistful. The downstairs comedy steals the show from the implausible romances that unfold upstairs. Aguecheek possesses as much vivid buffoonery as any character in the Bard’s oeuvre. Eg:
SIR TOBY BELCH
O knight thou lackest a cup of canary: when did I
see thee so put down?
Never in your life, I think; unless you see canary
put me down. Methinks sometimes I have no more wit
than a Christian or an ordinary man has: but I am a
great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit.
SIR TOBY BELCH
An I thought that, I’ld forswear it. I’ll ride home
to-morrow, Sir Toby.
SIR TOBY BELCH
Pourquoi, my dear knight?
What is ‘Pourquoi’? do or not do? I would I had
bestowed that time in the tongues that I have in
fencing, dancing and bear-baiting: O, had I but
followed the arts!
Now, the play sounds the wistful note, to be sure. And the Clown (called Feste) sings anthems of heartache with good reason. A thoroughly sympathetic young woman, disguised as a man, falls hopelessly in love with a man who pines after a woman who has foolishly fallen for the woman disguised as a man. Plenty of ‘matter for a May morning,’ as one of the downstairs crowd puts it—if the matter you seek is nonsensical lovesickness.
Feste smiles through it all, amused by the lovers’ foibles. Eg:
Yet you will be hanged for being so long absent; or,
to be turned away, is not that as good as a hanging to you?
Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage; and,
for turning away, let summer bear it out.
To the man in the middle of the bizarre love triangle, who is given to whining, Feste says:
Now, the melancholy god protect thee; and the
tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for
thy mind is a very opal. I would have men of such
constancy put to sea, that their business might be
every thing and their intent every where; for that’s
it that always makes a good voyage of nothing. Farewell.
And this conversation:
Thy reason, man?
Troth, sir, I can yield you none without words; and
words are grown so false, I am loath to prove
reason with them.
I warrant thou art a merry fellow and carest for nothing.
Not so, sir, I do care for something; but in my
conscience, sir, I do not care for you: if that be
to care for nothing, sir, I would it would make you invisible.
Art not thou the Lady Olivia’s fool?
No, indeed, sir; the Lady Olivia has no folly: she
will keep no fool, sir, till she be married; and
fools are as like husbands as pilchards are to
herrings; the husband’s the bigger: I am indeed not
her fool, but her corrupter of words.
I never thought Feste a matchmaker. Much less a kind of priest who somehow rises to a spiritual plane from which he can turn the conclusion of the play into a meditation on time flowing into eternity—after all the slapstick has played itself out.
But: It can happen. I know I bring up a lot of oldish movies. But that’s what they have at the public library. In 1996, the lovely Helena Bonham Carter starred in a movie version of Twelfth Night, and Ben Kingsley played the Fool. By which I mean, he did not play the fool. He enacted Feste with an F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque melancholy.
I read a review of the movie that praised Kingsley’s singing. I can’t go that far. But what he undertook to do—namely, to make the clown something other than a clown, something more like a quasi-omniscient shepherd of souls—he pulled off in spades.
Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, plotting to challenge Cesario (the disguised Viola) to a duel, and then unknowingly stumbling into real fisticuffs with the twin brother—for my money, the comedy makes Twelfth Night.
But after seeing doe-eyed Ben Kingsley walk off alone up a hillside, his guitar slung over his back, while, behind him, the wedding dances begin in the manor house… Somehow the picture strikes us as utterly complete: the newlyweds happy, the priest striding in his solitude towards the dark cloud of death, like an elf-king… After seeing this movie version of Twelfth Night, I will from now on laugh at Aguecheek with a deeper appreciation of just how autumnal the loveliness of this play really is.