“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Twelfth Night

Act Two

By Dennis Abrams


Act Two:  Sebastian has survived (surprise!) – rescued by Antonio – although he, too, thinks his twin is dead and resolves to head for the court of Orsino.  Meanwhile…Viola/Cesario has fallen in love with Orsino.  And Olivia’s house…Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are carousing with Feste, despite a warning from Maria, Olivia’s maid.  The Advert for an amateur performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Nightrevelry comes to a crashing halt, however, when Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, storms in, complaining about the noise and threatening to throw them out.  As soon as he leaves, the revelers plan to take revenge:  Maria comes up with a scheme whereby, with the help of forged love letters, Malvolio will think that Olivia is madly in love with him. The plan works:  Malvolio discovers the anonymous letters and, assuming they are addressed to him, begins to dream of a life as Olivia’s husband.


Anne Barton, “As You Like It and Twelfth Night:  Shakespeare’s sense of an ending”:  “An improbable world of hair’s-breadth rescues at sea, romantic disguises, idealistic friendships and sudden, irrational loves. This is not quite the country behind the North Wind, but it approaches those latitudes.”


So while it appears that Orsino is in love with love and Olivia rejects the whole idea, before long, both of them find themselves in love, but the consequences are unexpected.  Both fall for Viola – someone who is, in the strange logic of the play and Shakespearean comedy both “maid and man.”  But before Twelfth Night actually gets there, other craziness has to ensue.  Because also bent on maximizing their own experience – though on a much “lower” level than Orsino – are the ever so aptly named Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s drunken cousin, and his companion Sir Andrew Aguecheek.  Perpetually low on funds because of his riotous lifestyle (not unlike Falstaff), Sir Toby cultivates the rich Sir Andrew for the very reason that he is embarrassingly dim:  persuading him to make a doomed attempt to win Olivia’s love, Toby hopes to sponge of poor hapless Sir Andrew for as long as possible.  After all, as he patiently explains, there is a great deal of revelry to do:

Sir Toby:  Not to be abed before midnight is to be up betimes, and diliculo surgere, thou knowest.

Sir Andrew:  Nay, by my troth, I know not; but I know to be up late is to be up late.

Sir Toby:  A false conclusion. I hate it as an unfilled can. To be up after midnight and to go to be then is early; so that to go to bed after midnight is to go to bed betimes.

“Let us therefore,” Toby robustly concludes, “eat and drink.”  In doing so he draws attention to the spirit caught in the play’s title: “Twelfth Night” was the closing feast of the Christmas season and its crazed climax.  Historically, it was a medieval celebration that survived until the eighteenth century, an occasion upon which “misrule” (the inversion of social hierarchies) and carnivalesque license were allowed full voice.  Turning night into day with drinking and dancing, Sir Toby does his best to help Twelfth Night the play into Twelfth Night the festival.

Not everyone, though, is willing to let that happen.  When Sir Toby’s midnight revelry threatens to spin out of control, Olivia’s puritanical retainer Malvolio bursts in and furiously demands that they bring the proceedings to a halt.  Sir Toby is appalled that a jumped-up “steward” should have the nerve to say anything of the kind, but it is Malvolio’s fellow servant Maria – urged on by Sir Toby (of course) – who hatches a satisfying (albeit cruel) revenge: she will write a letter to Malvolio, supposedly from Olivia, hinting that she wishes to become more intimate with him. The plot takes off immediately, and the letter itself is a true comic masterstroke. Casually coming across it while out taking the air, Malvolio is convinced that his chance for glory has finally come. “By my life, this is my lady’s hand,” he exclaims – then begins to puzzle away at the cryptic message it expresses:

‘I may command where I adore.’ Why, she may command me. I serve her, she is my lady. Why, this is evident to any formal capacity. There is no obstruction in this. And the end – what should that alphabetical position portend? If I could make that resemble something in me. Softly – ‘M.O.A.I’

Malvolio has come across the central riddle of the letter: the mysterious phrase “M.O.A.I.”:

‘M.O.A.I.’ This stimulation is not of the former, and yet to crush this a little, it would bow to me, for every one of these letters are in my name…I do not now fool myself, to let imagination jade me; for every reason excites to this, my lady loves me.

twelfth night photo act twoMalvolio does not ‘fool’ himself, at least not entirely, but he does make a fool of himself by being so easily – and on such implausible grounds – that Olivia loves him. Like Orsino, he too has fallen in love with a reflection of his own figure: as Olivia astutely realized, he is “sick of self-love” (1.5.86).”


From Bloom:

“The largest puzzle of the charming Viola is her extraordinary passivity, which doubtless helps explain her falling in love with Orsino.  Anne Barton usefully comments that Viola’s ‘boy’s disguise operates not as a liberation but merely as a way of going underground in a difficult situation.’  There is an air of improvisation throughout Twelfth Night, and Viola’s disguise is part of that atmosphere, though I rather doubt that even Shakespeare could have improvised this complex and beautiful play; his careful art works to give us the aesthetic effect of improvisation. Viola’s personality is both receptive and defensive: she offers ‘the shield of a greeting’ (John Ashbery’s phrase). Her diction has the widest range in the play, since she varies her language according to the vagaries of others’ speech. Though she is as interesting in her own subtle was as are the unfortunate Malvolio and the reluctant fool, Feste, Shakespeare seems to enjoy keeping her as an enigma, with much held always in reserve. The ‘high fantastical’ Orsino perhaps attracts her as an opposite; his hyperboles complement her retincences. If there is any true voice of feeling in this play, then it ought to be hers, yet we rarely hear that voice. When it does emerge, its pathos is overwhelming:

Make me a widow cabin at your gate,

And call upon my soul within the house;

Write loyal cantons of contemned love,

And sing them loud even in the dead of night;

Halloo your name to the reverberate hills,

And make the babbling gossip of the air

Cry out ‘Olivia!’; O, You should not rest

Between the elements of air and earth,

But you should pity me.


The speech’s effect is ironic, since it prompts Olivia’s falling in love with the supposed hathaway twelfth nightCesario. For Viola, this lament proceeds from a different irony: her absurd dilemma in urging Orsino’s love upon Olivia, when her own desires are exactly contrary to such a match. What breaks through these ironies is the deepest, most plangent element in Viola, but also perhaps an intense suffering, ancient or recent, in Shakespeare himself. Call Viola a repressed vitalist, alive with Rosalind’s intensity, but constrained from expressing her strength, perhaps because she mingles her identity with that of her twin brother, Sebastian. The ‘willow cabin’ threnody beats with this innate strength, singing its rejected love songs ‘loud even in the dead of night.’ By this point in the play, we are accustomed to Viola’s charm, but her personality, subdued on the surface, now intimates its resilience and its remarkable and persistent liveliness. ‘You might do much,’ Olivia responds to her chant, and speaks for the audience. In this cunning echo chamber of a play, Viola prophesies her imaginary sister in her own later dialogue with Orsino:

Viola:  My father had a daughter loved a man,

       As it might be perhaps, were I a woman,

       I should your lordship.

Duke:            And what’s her history?

Viola:  A blank, my lord: she never told her love,

But let concealment like a worm i’ the bud

Feed on her damask check: she pin’d in thought,

And with a green and yellow melancholy

She sat like Patience on a monument,

Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?

‘Blank’ is a Shakespearean metaphor that haunts poetry in English from Milton through Coleridge and Wordsworth on through Emily Dickinson to Wallace Stevens.  Here it means primarily an unwritten page, a history never recorded; elsewhere in Shakespeare ‘blank’ refers to the white mark at the center of a target.  Since this pined-away sister is a surrogate invention of Viola’s, there may be a hint also of an unhit target, an aim gone astray.  The speech has in it the seeds of some of William Blake’s most piercing lyrics, including ‘The Sick Rose’ and “Never Seek to Tell Thy Love,’ dark visions of repression and its erotic consequences. Both elegiac utterances, made by Viola to Olivia and to Orsino, are powerfully apotropaic: they are meant to ward off a fate that she courts by her passivity, from which she seems not able to rally herself.”


And to continue from Tanner, and his look at Viola as bisexual/epicene…

“’Epicene’ comes from epi – (close up) koinos (common). Epicene nouns, in Greek and Latin, are words which have only one form for both the masculine and feminine case – for example, poeta is morphologically feminine and grammatically masculine, and refers to a poet of either sex. We can say, then, that it elides marks of sexual difference, and brings two into one. This is what Viola, for her own reasons, set out to do. ‘Hermaphrodite’ is, of course, Hermes plus Aphrodite, and refers to a being who has all the sexual characteristics (and equipment) of both sexes, and thus transforms one into two. Such a natural anomaly would be something of a monster. Yet it is just such a being that Viola finds herself, impossibly, turning into. As she recognizes, when she refers to herself as a ‘poor monster’:

What will become of this? As I am man,

My state is desperate for my master’s love.

As I am woman (now alas the day!),

What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe?

At the start, we saw Viola wavering between the Countess and the Duke – this way or that way? At the end she tells her brother what has happened since their separation:

All the occurrence of my fortune since

Hath been between this lady and this lord.

–which we might also hear as saying, I have spent my time being something between a lady and a lord. When Viola-Cesario first makes her way to Olivia’s house, Olivia asks Malvolio ‘Of what personage and years is he?’ Malvolio has a rather elaborate answer:

Not yet old enough for a man nor young enough for a boy; as a squash is before ‘tis a peascod, or a codling when ‘tis almost an apple. ‘Tis with him in standing water, between boy and man. (1,v,155-8)

This reminds me of the image Antony uses for Octavia:

     The swan’s-down feather

That stands upon the swell at the full of tide,

And neither way inclines.

Twelfth Night is one of the most watery of Shakespeare’s plays, so Malvolio’s image is Malvolioparticularly appropriate.  We may feel that young Viola, fresh from the sea, is sexually still labile, not yet fully differentiated; that, for the moment, she ‘neither way inclines’ (I need hardly point out, by now, how having a boy actor play the girl would add to this effect).  But Malvolio’s description also points, however unawarely, to another figure who is of central importance in this play – Narcissus.  Once again, we are back with Ovid.  Here is how he describes Narcissus:

Narcissus had reached his sixteenth year

And seemed both man and boy; and many a youth

And many a girl desired him…

Drinking from a pool, he sees:

A form, a face, and loved with leaping heart

A hope unreal and thought the shape was real.

Spellbound he saw himself…

He falls in love with his own ‘fleeting image’ and Ovid comments:

You see a phantom of a mirrored shape;

Nothing itself…

In Ovid’s account, he simply pines away on the bank, and after his death it turns into a white and yellow flower. But there also grew up a version of the myth which had Narcissus drowning trying to kiss and embrace his own reflection. It is this version which Shakespeare draws on in both his major poems:

Narcissus so himself himself forsook,

And died to kiss his shadow in the brooke.

(Venus and Adonis)

That, had Narcissus seen her as she stood,

Self-love had never drowned him in the flood.

(The Rape of Lucrece)

‘O, you are sick of self-love,’ Malvolio’ – these are the first words Olivia speaks to her steward, and we learn from Maria that he likes ‘practicing behavior to his own shadow.’ He is, indeed, a very obvious study in narcissism in a comically exaggerated form (even his grotesque crossgarters are the Narcissus colour – yellow, as pointed out by Jonathan Bate). But there is subtler and more serious narcissism in the leading figures in Illyria – Olivia and Orsino, both in danger of drowning in various forms of self-love. the indeterminate, could-seemingly-go-either-way, Viola-Cesario will change all that.  Prior to her arrival, we feel that a curious stasis, or even stagnation, prevailed in Illyria – the sterile repetitious self-direct, self-obsessed emotions of the Duke and Countess going, growing, nowhere. Viola proves to the crucial catalyst for change, emergence, grown. She herself, despite her ‘standing-water’ status and appearance, is decidedly not a Narcissus. She is more reminiscent of the other key figure in the myth – Echo. Echo was a nymph who used to distract Juno’s attention by her talking, while Jove had his way with other nymphs. As a punishment, Juno reduced her powers of speech to the ability to repeat the last words of any voice she hears. Echo falls in love with Narcissus, who rejects her in disgust. Echo takes her shame to the woods, ‘yet still her love endures and grows on grief.’ She wastes away and is finally just a discarnate voice, left to echo the wailing of the water dryads, mourning the death of Narcissus. There is something of all this in two of Viola’s key speeches, when she is, as it were, talking indirectly about her love, since her disguise has reduced her to something of an echo (repeating Orsino’s overtures to Olivia, and Olivia’s rejections to Orsino). Unlike Echo, she can release herself, anonymously, in lyric flights of poetry. What would she do if she loved Olivia?

Make me a widow cabin at your gate,

And call upon my soul within the house;

Write loyal cantons of contemned love,

And sing them loud even in the dead of night;

Halloo your name to the reverberate hills,

And make the babbling gossip of the air

Cry out ‘Olivia!’

As Jonathan Bate says, ‘babbling gossip of the air’ is effectively an explicit reference to Viola and the Duke in William Shakespeare's play, 'Twelfth Night'Echo, but the beauty of the poetry is all her own. No wonder Olivia reacts with ‘You might do much.’ After all her proud, house-bound, self-bound, posturing mourning for her brother, this is, perhaps, her first encounter with a genuinely felt and powerfully expressed emotion of love, and, her narcissism cracked open, she finds it irresistible.

Similarly, there is something of the faithful though fading Echo in her account of the hopeless love suffered by her imaginary sister, indirectly, of course, describing her own. ‘And what’s her history?’ asks the Duke, confident that no woman’s love could match his own.

A blank, my lord: she never told her love,

But let concealment like a worm i’ the bud

Feed on her damask check: she pin’d in thought,

And with a green and yellow melancholy

She sat like Patience on a monument,

Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?

Her answer has some general force.  The history of women is all too often ‘a blank’; theirs tend to be the unwritten lives – ‘hidden from history,’ as they say. And Viola also feels blanked out, having made herself invisible as a woman in front of the man she now loves. But from the deep feeling in her words, we surely agree that this is ‘love indeed.’ Characteristically, the Duke’s only response is to ask if the sister died or not.  He cannot hear the cadences of true feeling, preferring his own music-fed moods of languorous sentimentality and affected infatuation.  Viola remains something of a hapless Echo to Orsino to the end.  His emergence from narcissism is extremely peremptory, if indeed it happens.”


Our next reading:  Twelfth Night, Act Two

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning

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2 Responses to “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

  1. Mahood says:

    “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

    …’Cakes and Ale’…that was the name of a Somerset Maugham book, wasn’t it? A writer I always had mixed feelings about…

  2. artmama says:

    _Cakes and Ale_ is a novel written in 1930 by British author William Somerset Maugham. He drew his title from the remark by Sir Toby Belch to Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

    Cakes and ale are also used to represent the good life referenced at the end of Aesop’s fable _The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse_.

    “Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear”.

    Edward Spencer Mott also wrote a book called _Cakes and Ale_. It was a collection of food essays published in 1913.

    You are ahead of me on this Mahood. I have never read Maugham.

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