Friday, July 6, 2012

Love Will Find a Way

Twelfth Night is one of my favorite Shakespearean comedies. It features the four major types of comedy, the classic types of love explained in preceding posts, and develops a treasured romantic theme: love will find a way.

In order to demonstrate all that Twelfth Night offers, I will summarize the story, but I recommend that you read the entire play yourself. An online copy can be read at

Orsino is the Duke of a prosperous, peaceful country, Illyria. Without economic woes or the need to budget for war, Orsino enjoys days filled with music, cards, and thoughts of the Lady Olivia.

Countess Olivia is the great beauty in Illyria. So accustomed is she to men falling in love with her appearance that she takes it for granted and holds such shallow men in contempt. She also has sworn never to marry above her station. In other words, she would marry a count, but not a duke so Orsino is out of the running before the play’s engine has begun to surge.

Olivia also has a tragic burden. She is alone in the world after her father and brother’s deaths. Overwhelmed, she vows never to leave her estate, to wear a veil when in the presence of others, and to weep at least once daily for her brother in the privacy of her suite. Her mourning rituals will continue for seven years so in effect, Olivia has imposed a duty upon herself to become a recluse to honor her lost family.

Under these conditions, no one would blame Orsino for abandoning his pursuit of Olivia and moving on to other, more suitable prospects in love. He does not, however. He imagines that Olivia’s love will be greater and more passionate when she shifts her familial love to romantic love with Orsino as her object. He plans to wait seven long years.

According to the standards of the day, Olivia needs an older male relative to chaperone and protect her. Unfortunately, Olivia’s closest relative is Sir Toby Belch (yes, you should interpret his name as being descriptive of his character.)

Toby lives to drink, party, boast, and use others, foremost among them, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a foolish man, most dull of wit. Toby persuades Andrew to believe he is a viable suitor for Olivia’s hand. With such faint encouragement, Andrew draws upon his meager annual income to stay in Illyria, but Toby uses Andrew's money to gamble and party.

The antics of Toby and Andrew, joined occasionally by Maria, Olivia’s chamber maid, and Feste, Olivia’s hired jester, shape the sub-plot and most of the low humor in the play. Falling down, exaggerated sword play, bodily noises such as belching, and inappropriate actions combine to deliver belly laughs in the play. Their foil in all this clowning is Malvolio, Olivia’s head servant. He is part of a Comedy of Manners thread that satirizes the classes. Malvolio, “full of self-love” (narcissism) believes he is superior to the other servants. In fact, he believes himself so fine that Olivia could and would fall in love with him, lifting him from the serving class to the ruling class. The clowns, led by Toby and Maria, conspire to humiliate Malvolio for being so bold and arrogant.

The inciting complication in the play centers upon Viola, a resourceful, spunky young woman who survived a shipwreck in which her twin brother Sebastian drowned. Rescued by a seaman and delivered to Illyria, she must make her way without relatives, money, or contacts. As a woman, her ability to make her own way in society is impossible, but disguised as a man, Viola can hide in plain sight while she seeks a way to ameliorate her grief and any danger in which she finds herself.

Thus, Viola exists as a foil to Olivia. Both women have lost brothers recently. Both mourn their losses, and both are in need of male protection. Olivia has Toby, but Viola has only herself masquerading as a man who can move about in society without a chaperone. Finally, both women have imposed duties upon themselves: Olivia intends to mourn her brother for seven years; Viola intends to serve as a man without revealing her true identity. And these self-imposed duties jeopardize the life-long happiness for both women.

As a man, Viola introduces the comedic element known as farce, characterized by mistaken identity. She goes to work for Orsino’s court as the young man called Cesario. She chooses to dress exactly as her lost brother did so she could easily be mistaken for her brother if he survives and lands in Illyria himself. Viola also introduces herself as a eunuch so no one, especially her employer, will wonder why she never needs to shave a face on which little grows.

Orsino and Cesario (Viola in disguise) become confidantes quickly. In fact, Orsino trusts Cesario so much that he sends “her” to win Olivia’s heart for Orsino, a task that Cesario is loathe to do because she has fallen in love at first sight (see last week’s post). Worse, Olivia falls for Cesario almost as quickly as Viola falls for Orsino, completing another element in farce, the love triangle (Orsino loves Olivia who loves Cesario who loves Orsino):

  • Orsino loves Olivia for her beauty and the promise of a deep love. 
  • Cesario loves Orsino for reasons hard to fathom, especially because he seems shallow while advising Cesario to fall in love with a younger woman because women lose their looks quickly causing a man’s devotion to wane. He also lets others try to win Olivia’s heart for him rather than engaging in her pursuit himself. Still, when he realizes he’s been duped, that Cesario is actually the woman Viola, he proposes to her without ever having seen her dressed as a woman. He has fallen in love with her character, her heart, and her spirit. In short, he has overcome his immature, shallow manner in favor of abiding love that approaches selflessness.
  • Viola certainly proves her love is as selfless as it is romantic. Even though she would prefer to win Orsino for herself, she suppresses those desires in favor of her duty. She honors Orsino and his choice in love by trying to win Olivia’s heart for Orsino.
For her selfless, resourceful, honorable acts, Viola wins everything she lacks. She gains a husband to protect her, a love to enrich her, and a family, her own brother saved from drowning and a sister, Olivia, who marries Sebastian.

Olivia falls deeply in love with Cesario, in part because her beauty does not transform Cesario into a fawning fool. More important, Olivia falls in love with Cesario’s character. Still in disguise as a man, Cesario can empathize with Olivia’s plight, both in grief and love. Cesario also forces Olivia to surrender her vanity and arrogance. She literally begs Cesario to love her, but Cesario proves honorable and loyal to Orsino's service.

When Sebastian arrives in Illyria, complications arise because everyone believes Cesario and Sebastian to be the same person. When
Olivia throws herself at the man of her dreams and proposes marriage, she is in the presence of an actual man, Sebastian. He quickly agrees because a gorgeous woman wants him. She doesn’t seem afflicted or mad, he reasons, because she manages an estate reasonably well. Thus, love clears the way for both Sebastian, who believes he’s lost his sister, and for Olivia, who knows she’s lost her brother, to find each other. Their loneliness has been erased in favor of love.

The sub-plot characters do not enjoy the same joy. Malvolio, exposed for his ambition, a character defect condemned during the English Renaissance, vows revenge and departs. Andrew learns that Toby is not his friend, that Toby actually holds Andrew in contempt so he leaves with little funds left and his heart crushed. Toby, who has conspired with Maria to humiliate Malvolio, rewards her mischief by marrying her. They depart for their lives together. Antonio, the sailor devoted to Sebastian after rescuing him, also thrives in spite of sword fights undertaken in order to protect Sebastian and a warrant for his arrest. His extraordinary brotherly or  familial love save him from harm.

And Feste, like most of Shakespeare’s jesters, is smarter than everyone else. He observes, comments, and reflects. He will continue to serve Olivia’s estate and skewer foolishness and pomposity wherever he encounters them.

Such a complex story delivers several important themes, and these big ideas shape Twelfth Night as a Comedy of Ideas.

•    Love may conquer all.
•    Love restores us to a state of well-being.
•    Our choices, especially those made in haste, may thwart our happiness.
•    Ambition and pride precede humiliating falls from favor.
•    Duty and love may be difficult to reconcile.
•    The richest, most satisfying love has little to do with appearance alone.

Reading Challenge:

Read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, paying particular attention to the transformations that love delivers. Also, I recommend that you “read” HBO’s film version of Twelfth Night. I defy anyone not to enjoy it.

Writing Challenge:

Read a second Shakespearean comedy. Much Ado about Nothing is a good choice. Kenneth Branaugh also directed and starred in a faithful film version of Much Ado that I urge you to enjoy. As you do, whether reading the text of the play or watching the film, note the similarities between Twelfth Night and Much Ado about Nothing.

•    Each makes use of low comedy through buffoons and flawed characters. Identify them and explain them.
•    Each play is a farce and makes use of mistaken identity. Identity its use in Much Ado and explain its contribution to the overall story and meanings.
•    In each play, one woman is haughty and ill-advised. Who is this character in Much Ado? Write a character sketch explaining what she thinks about herself, what others think of her, and what she contributes to the play.
•    Each play features a man who experiences love intellectually at first, but when love conquers him, he grows. Identify the character in Much Ado and contrast the man he is at the beginning of the play to the man he is at the end.
•    Ambition transforms one Much Ado character into something wicked. Who is this character?
•    Each of the four classic types of love is present: familial, romantic, selfless (divine), and narcissistic. Identify and explain the characters who best represent each.
•    Each of the four types of comedy is present: low, farce, comedy of manners, comedy of ideas. Briefly explain each by identifying the characters that develop those comic threads and how they represent each type.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

I use many bulleted lists in weekly posts (I confess that bullets are one of the few tools that I thoroughly understand when posting online). Correct use of bulleted lists requires that each item be parallel to the others; i. e.:

Be consistent: if using complete sentences, each item should be a complete sentence; if using phrases or clauses alone, then each item should be the same.