Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

SHAKESPEARE: Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night has a simple plot in a very complex sort of way. A pair of twins (one brother, one sister) get shipwrecked off the coast of Illyrium. (Pop quiz: where is Illyrium? Pop answer: Illyrium is the name of the coastal area of what is now called Croatia.) Both tiwns believe the other one has drowned but in reality they both survived. To protect herself from marauding sailors and soldiers the twin sister (Viola) disguises herself as a young soldier. Strange as it may seem she looks exactly like her twin brother (Sebastian) when she dresses up like a man. Meanwhile Illyrium’s ruler, Duke Orsino, has been trying to woo a local Duchess named Olivia. Olivia doesn’t want anything to do with Orsino and insults him almost daily. So Orsino gets a young soldier named Cesario (who is actually Viola dressed up in men’s clothes) to go woo Olivia for him. Strange as it may seem Olivia falls in love with Cesario/Viola. Are you following this so far? There’s a subplot where a prudish butler named Malvolio is undone by Olivia’s maid named Maria, and Maria’s lover named Sir Toby Belch. Long story short: by the end of the play Olivia hooks up with Sebastian, Viola hooks up with Duke Orsino, Malvolio is made out to be a fool and Maria runs off with Sir Toby. End of play. Neat plot, huh?

What are we supposed to make of all this? Easy analysis: this was just a weird case of mistaken identity. Shakespeare gave a subtitle to this play called “Or, What you will.” That doesn’t help much. This is a play that appeals to modern audiences for a number of reasons. There’s a certain amount of gender-bending going on throughout the play. Olivia has fallen in love with another woman (Viola) but thinks she’s fallen in love with a man (Cesario). Duke Orsino thinks he’s just being good buddies with a young soldier (Cesario) but really it’s a romantic relationship with a woman. Viola doesn’t want to be Duke Orsino’s good buddy; she wants to be his wife. By the end of the play everything works out. Olivia marries Sebastian and Viola marries Duke Orsino. But here’s a question: does Olivia really love Sebastian, or does she love “Cesario”? Is the Duke really in love with Viola, or was he happy just being good buddies with “Cesario”?

Another theme that appeals to modern viewers is the undoing of Malvolio. Malvolio is the prude in this play and modern folks love to expose “hypocrisy”. Malvolio’s constantly trying to get Sir Toby to straighten up and fly right. To be fair, Sir Toby could use some straightening up. He’s a loud, obnoxious drunkard. Even Maria tells him …you must confine yourself within the modest limits of order. But Sir Toby likes to get drunk and act like a teenager. And he likes to get his buddies Sir Andrew and Fabian and the Clown to go along with his juvenile antics: Thou art a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink. Malvolio tries to get Sir Toby to act more like a gentleman but Sir Toby is having none of that and replies to Malvolio: Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale? To be fair, Malvolio is an unbearable snob himself. He tells Sir Toby and his bunch: Go hang yourselves all! You are idle shallow things: I am not of your element. If pride goeth before the fall, then here’s a man who is ripe for a fall. So Maria uses a trick love letter to make Malvolio out to be a fool. And it works. Malvolio falsely believes Olivia loves him and so makes a fool of himself. Socrates defined justice as every man getting what he deserves. Is justice served in this play? Do people get what they deserve? Olivia taunts Duke Orsino but ends up with Sebastian anyway. Viola tricks Duke Orsino but ends up marrying him anyway. Maria tricks Malvolio with a fake love letter and Sir Toby sticks to his alcoholic ways; they end up running off together anyway. Is this what Socrates meant by justice? What would he have to say about these characters? Ironically, only the foolish Malvolio would give two hoots what Socrates thinks. The others could care less.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, I believe Socrates was quoting Simonides who made the argument that justice is the paying of one's debts.

8/11/2010 6:26 AM  

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