By Dennis Abrams
Act Three: Olivia confesses her love to Cesario/Viola but Viola lets her know that it cannot be returned. Noting Cesario’s apparent success with Olivia, the frustrated Sir Andrew is persuaded by Toby to challenge him to a duel. But Olivia now has another suitor: Malvolio, who hopes to win her by following the bizarre instructions supplied in the letters. Olivia, perhaps not surprisingly, believes him to be mad and asks Sir Toby to keep an eye on him. The duelists are about to begin their fight when they are interrupted by Antonio, who has arranged to meet Sebastian. Mistaking Cesario/Viola for Sebastian (!), Antonio cannot understand when his friend fails to recognize him.
“Olivia, properly played, can dazzle us with her authority, and with her erotic arbitrariness, but no audience conceives for the affection it accords to Viola, disconcerting as Viola turns out to be. The two heroines are oddly assorted, and Shakespeare must have delighted in the imaginative labor he gives us when we attempt to understand why Olivia falls in love with the supposed Cesario. There is little congruence between Viola’s love for the egregious Orsino and Olivia’s love for Orsino’s witty but reserved go-between. Olivia’s passion is more a farcical exposure of the arbitrariness of sexual identity than it is a revelation that mature female passion essentially is lesbian. I have been told of one production in which Sebastian pairs off with Orsino, while Olivia and Viola take each other. I do not want to see it, and Shakespeare did not write it. But here, as elsewhere, earlier and later, Shakespeare complexly qualifies our easier certainties as to sexual identity. In the dance of mating that concludes the play, Malvolio is not the only unfulfilled aspirant. Antonio does not speak again in the play after he cries out, ‘Which is Sebastian?’ Like the Antonio of The Merchant of Venice, this second Antonio loves in vain.
Olivia, when we first encounter her, elaborately mourns a dead brother; doubtless this is authentic, but it serves also as a defense against Orsino’s turbulence. Her mournfulness disappears when she meets Cesario and loves at first sight. Since Olivia is just as crazy as Orsino, perhaps any handsome young man without aggressive affect might have done as well as Cesario. Shakespeare’s acute sense that all sexual love is arbitrary in its origins but overdetermined in its teleology is at the center of Twelfth Night. Freud thought that all object-choice (falling-in-love) was either narcissistic or a propping-against; Shakespeare’s understanding is closer to a black-box theory, except that after erotic crashes, rather than airplane crashes, the box cannot be recovered. ‘Even so quickly may one catch the plague?’ is Olivia’s rhetorical question after Cesario’s first exit, and she answer’s herself with: ‘Fate, show thy force; ourselves we do not owe,’ where ‘owe’ means ‘control.’ Her second interview with the supposed Cesario gives us our largest sense of a nature that only heightens our interest and attraction as its self-indulgence touches sublimity. To possess Olivia’s authority, and yet indulge in such a vulnerable self-surrender, is to excite the audience’s sympathy, even its momentary love.
I prithee tell me what thou think’st of me.
Viola: That you do think you are not what you are.
Olivia: If I think so, I think the same of you.
Viola: Then think you right; I am not what I am.
Olivia: I would you were as I would have you be.
Viola: Would it be better, madam, than I am?
I wish it might, for now I am your fool.
Olivia: [Aside] O what a deal of scorn looks beautiful
In the contempt and anger of his lip!
A murd’rous guilt shows not itself more soon
Than love that would seem hid. Love’s night is noon. –
Cesario, by the roses of the spring,
By maidhood, honour, truth, and everything,
I love thee so, that maugre all thy pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.
Do not extort thy reasons from this clause,
For that I woo, thou thereafter hast no cause;
But rather reason thus with reason fetter:
Love sought is good, but given unsought better.
Viola: By innocence I swear, and by my youth,
I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth,
And that no woman has; nor never none
Shall mistress be of it, save I alone
And so adieu, good madam, never more
Will I my master’s tears to you deplore.
Olivia: Yet come again: for thou perhaps mayst move
That heart which now abhors, to like his love.
It is a set piece that demands two great actress skilled at romantic comedy, particularly in the exchange of the four monosyllabic lines (141-44), which admit of several meanings. The audience is likely to esteem both roles equally here: Viola’s for its deftness is deliciously absurd situation, Olivia’s for its boldness. Shakespeare himself is highly outrageous, here as elsewhere in Twelfth Night. The proleptic self-parody is particularly jarring in Viola’s ‘I am not what I am,’ to be appropriated from her by the least Viola-like of all characters, Iago. Both Viola and Iago travesty St. Paul’s ‘By the grace of God, I am what I am.’ In Shakespeare’s madly shrewd plot, Olivia is on the right course, since Viola’s twin brother will yield to the countess with a readiness startling even in this play. The monosyllabic exchange turns upon issues of rank and of concealment. Viola reminds Olivia of her high status, and Olivia insinuates that Viola conceals her own noble birth. ‘I am not what I am’ both concludes this and also alludes to Viola’s sexual identity, which renders heavily ironic Olivia’s ‘I would you were as I would have you be.’ That makes utterly ambiguous Viola’s replay, an exasperation of spirit at the exhaustion of maintaining a drama-long lie. This superb dialogue is summed up by the climax of Olivia’s aside: “Love’s night is noon,’ which she intends to mean that love cannot be concealed, yet this line makes us wonder what, then, is ‘love’s day?’
The revelers and practical jokers – Maria, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek – are the least sympathetic players in Twelfth Night, since their gulling of Malvolio passes into the domain of sadism. Maria, the only mind among the three, is a high-spirited social climber, Olivia’s woman-in-waiting. S he is tough, a little shrill, fiercely resourceful, and immensely energetic. Sir Toby is Belch, just that; only an idiot (there have been many such) would compare this fifth-rate rascal to Shakespeare’s great genius, Sir John Falstaff. the yet more dubious Sir Andrew is lifted bodily out of The Merry Wives of Windsor where he is Slender. Both Belch and Aguecheek are caricatures, yet Maria, a natural comic, has a dangerous inwardness, the only truly malicious character in Twelfth Night. She coolly considers whether her stratagems will drive Malvolio mad and concludes: ‘The house will be the quieter.’
Malvolio is, with Feste, Shakespeare’s great creation in Twelfth Night; it has become Malvolio’s play, rather like Shylock’s gradual usurpation of The Merchant of Venice. Charles Lamb shrewdly considered Malvolio a tragicomic figure, a Don Quixote of erotomania. That suggests a great truth about Malvolio; he suffers by being in the wrong play for him. In Ben Jonson’s Volpone or The Alchemist, Malvolio would have been at home, except that he would have been another Jonsonian ideogram, caricature and not character. Shakespeare’s Malvolio is more the victim of his own psychic propensities than he is Maria’s gull. His dream of socio-erotic greatness – ‘To be Count Malvolio’ – is one of Shakespeare’s supreme inventions, permanently disturbing as a study in self-deception, and in the spirit’s sickness. As a satire upon Ben Jonson himself, Malvolio derives from the great comic playwright and satiric poet only a moral pugnacity. The depravity of the will in Malvolio is a flaw of the imagination, or what you will. Marxist criticism interprets Malvolio as a study in class ideology, but that reduces both the figure and the play. What matters most about Malvolio is not that he is Olivia’s household steward but that he so dreams that he malforms his sense of reality, and so falls victim to Maria’s shrewd insights into his nature.
The censorious Malvolio, or sham Puritan, is only a screen image that masks his desire to have greatness thrust upon him. Essentially, Malvolio is cursed by the dangerous prevalence of his imagination, and not by the rigid class structures of Shakespeare’s world. He and Maria loathe each other, but actually would be a proper match of negative energies. Instead, Maria will achieve the brutally drunk Sir Toby, and Malvolio will find only alienation and bitterness. It is difficult to overestimate Malvolio’s originality as a comic character; who else in Shakespeare, or elsewhere, resembles him? There are other grotesques in Shakespeare, but they do not begin as normative worthies and then undergo radical transformations.
Malvolio’s downfall is prophesied when we first see him, in a grim exchange with his adversary, the wise fool Feste:
Olivia: What think you of this fool, Malvolio, doth he not mend?
Malvolio: Yes, and shall do, till the pangs of death shake him. Infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the better fool.
Feste: God send you, sir, a speedy infirmity, for the better increasing your folly!
The infirmity is there already, as Maria surmises:
The devil a Puritan that he is, or anything constantly, but a time-pleaser, an affectioned ass, that cons state without book, and utters it by great swarths: the best persuaded of himself, so crammed (as he thinks) with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him: and on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work.
That accurate portrait of an affected time server is one of the most savage in Shakespeare. What happens to Malvolio is, however, so harshly out of proportion to his merits, such as they are, that the ordeal of humiliation has to be regarded as one of the prime Shakespearean enigmas. Even if a poet’s war with Ben Jonson was the occasion for creating Malvolio, the social crucifixion of the virtuous steward passes the possible bounds of playful literary rancor. Several other roles in Twelfth Night are technically larger than Malvolio, he speaks only about a tenth of the play’s lines. Like shylock, Malvolio captures his drama by his ferocious comic intensity, and by the darkness of his fate. Yet Malvolio cannot be termed a comic villain, as Shakespeare evidently intended Shylock to be. Twelfth Night is not primarily a satiric attack upon Jonson, and it seems clear that Malvolio, again like Shylock wonderfully got away from Shakespeare. The play does not need Malvolio, but he has no choice: Shakespeare has inserted him into a context where he must suffer.
Since Malvolio’s very name indicates that he wishes no one well but himself, our sympathy is bound to be limited, particularly because of the high hilarity his discomfiture provokes in us. To see the self-destruction of a personage who cannot laugh, and who hates laughter in others, becomes an experience of joyous exuberance for an audience that is scarcely allowed time to reflect upon its own aroused sadism. Harry Levin, dissenting from Charles Lamb, thought it was weakness to feel sorry for Malvolio:
‘As a sycophant, a social climber, and an officious snob, he well deserves to be put back in his place – or, as Jonson would have it, in his humor, for Malvolio seems to have a Jonsonian rather than a Shakespearean temperament.’
That is unassailable, and there Malvolio is, in Shakespeare’s superb comedy. Baiting Malvolio, Levin argued, was not sadistic but cathartic: it enacted again the ritual expulsion of a scapegoat. Well, yes and no: the comic spirit perhaps requires sacrifices, but need they be so prolonged?
Malvolio matters partly because he is so sublimely funny, in fearsome contrast to his total lack of what we, not being Jonsonians, call humor. But there is an excess in his role, which greatly challenges actors, who rarely can handle his enigmatic aspects, at their most complex after he reads Maria’s forged note. Transported by the supposedly amorous hints of Olivia, he bursts into a rhapsody that is one of Shakespeare’s finest outrages:
Daylight and champaign discovers not more! This is open. I will be proud, I will read politic authors, I will baffle Sir Toby, I will wash off gross acquaintance, I will be point-device the very man. I do not now fool myself, to let imagination jade me; for every reason excites to this, that my lady loves me. She did commend my yellow stockings of late, she did praise my leg being cross-gartered, and in this she manifests herself to my love, and with a kind of injunction drives me to these habits of her liking. I think my stars, I am happy. I will be strange, stout, in yellow stockings, and cross-gartered, even with the swiftness of putting on. Jove and my stars be praised! – Here is yet a postscript. [Reads] Thou can’t not choose but know who I am. I thou entertain’st my love, let it appear in thy smiling, thy smiles become thee well. Therefore in my presence still smile,d ear my sweet, I prithee. Jove, I thank thee, I will smile, I will do every thing that thou wilt have me.
Do we shudder a touch even as we laugh? The erotic imagination is our largest universal, and our most shameful, in that it must turn upon our overvaluation of the self as object. Shakespeare’s uncanniest power is to press perpetually upon the nerve of the erotic universal. Can we hear this, or read this, without to some degree becoming Malvolio? Surely we are not as ridiculous, we should insist, but we are in danger of becoming so (or something worse) if we believe our own erotic fantasies, as Malvolio has been tricked into doing. His grand disaster comes in Act III, Scene iv, when he arrives in the presence of Olivia:
Olivia: How, now, Malvolio!
Malvolio: Sweet lady, ho, ho!
Olivia: Smil’st thou? I sent for thee upon a sad occasion.
Malvolio: Sad, lady? I could be sad: this does make some obstruction in the blood, this cross-gartering, but what of that? If it please the eye of one, it is with me as the very sonnet is: ‘Please one, and please all.’
Olivia: Why, how dost thou, man? What is the matter with thee?
Malvolio: Not black in my mind, though yellow in my legs. It did come to his hands, and commands shall be executed. I think we do know the sweet Roman hand.
Olivia: Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?
Malvolio: To bed? Ay, sweetheart, and I’ll come to thee.
Olivia: God comfort thee! Why dost thou smile so, and kiss thy hand so oft?
Maria: How do you, Malvolio?
Malvolio: At your request? Yes, nightingales answer daws!
Maria: Why appear you with this ridiculous boldness before my lady?
Malvolio: ‘Be not afraid of greatness’: ‘twas well writ.
Olivia: What mean’st thou by that, Malvolio?
Malvolio: ‘Some are born great’ –
Malvolio: ‘Some achieve greatness’ –
Olivia: What say’st thou?
Malvolio: ‘And some have greatness thrust upon them.’
Olivia: Heaven restore thee!
Malvolio: ‘Remember who commended thy yellow stockings’ –
Olivia: Thy yellow stockings?
Malvolio: ‘And wished to see thee cross-gartered.’
Malvolio: ‘Go to, thou art made, if thou desir’st to be so’ –
Olivia: Am I made?
Malvolio: ‘If not, let me see thee a servant still.’
Olivia: Why, this is a very midsummer madness.
It is a duet for two great comedians, with Malvolio obsessed and Olivia incredulous. After Olivia departs, asking that Malvolio ‘be looked to,’ we hear in him the triumph of the depraved will:
Why, everything adheres together, that no dram of a scruple, no scruple of a scruple, no obstacle, no incredulous or unsafe circumstance – what can be said? – nothing that can be can come between me and the full prospect of my hopes. Well, Jove, not I, is the doer of this, and he is to be thanked.
Shakespeare carefully keeps Malvolio a politic pagan here, as well as a dazed egomanic, unable to distinguish ‘the full prospect of his hopes’ from reality.”
And finally, a bit from Tanner:
“I have not mentioned Sebastian, but he of course is Viola’s other half; Shakespeare here, once again, having recourse to the ‘divisible indivisibility’ of identical twins, though this time of opposite sexes. This multiplies and deepens the thematic possibilities of identity and gender confusion when one twin decides to go same-sex. This move in turn allows Viola an experience, a perception, not vouchsafed to the other cross-dressing heroines – the possible dangers of this device.
Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
With identical twins, Shakespeare can put on stage the apparently bewildering phenomenon whereby one is two, and two are one. It is a visible rendering of the more ineffable two-into-one mystery of marriage. In one case literally, in the other metaphorically, therein is number slain (The Phoenix and the Turtle).
How have you made division of yourself?
An apple cleft in two is not more twin
Than these two creatures. Which is Sebastian?
says Sebastian’s loyal lover, Antonio (and that incidentally, is the last we hear from him. Like that other spokesman for homosexual devotion, also names Antonio – in The Merchant of Venice – he is just vaguely left out of things at the end as others pair up, or leave.) The Duke’s response to the seemingly impossible phenomenon is famous:
One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons –
A natural perspective that is and is not.
Just before Sebastian enters, poor Andrew comes rushing in with his broken head, claiming that seemingly cowardly Cesario has turns out to be ‘the very devil incardinate’ (V,i,k182-3). He surely means ‘incarnate’ but ‘incardinate’ is happier than he knows, since it would mean ‘without number’ (a point made by William Carroll), which fits someone who is apparently both one and two, and, as a ‘eunuch,’ nought – hence, no ‘cardinal’ number will serve. With reference to ‘incarnate’ commentators sometimes make the point that the Twelfth Night marked the Eve of Epiphany, which saw the announcement of another yet more mysterious incarnation. This might seem a little far-fetched, were it not for Sebastian’s strange response when Viola accuses him of being the spirit of her dead brother.
A spirit I am indeed,
But am in that dimension grossly clad
Which from the womb I did participate.
It is a strange way of saying, I am still a body; but the somewhat hieratic turn of phrase does indeed invoke a reminder of God putting on flesh – which is, I suppose, the ultimate two-in-one miracle. Certainly, the last scene of the play, while not in any way explicitly religious, should gradually be bathed in a sense of expanding wonder.
This wonder is connected with the sea – as it will increasingly be in Shakespeare’s last plays. The sea is the most unstable element of mutability and transformation; people crossing the sea often undergo strange sea-changes. On land, it can surge into people’s metaphors. The play starts with Orsino asking for ‘excess’ of music, so that ‘surfeiting,/The appetite may sicken and so die.’ Shakespeare is to refer to ‘the never-surfeited sea’ (The Tempest III, iii, 55), and it not surprising that Orsino’s melancholy insatiability turns his thoughts seawards.
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity,
Receiveth as the sea. Nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute.
He is both right, and very wrong. The sea drowns, but it can also save and renew. As the very next scene reveals, Viola ‘entered’ the sea, was wrecked, but has been ‘saved’; and, so far from falling into ‘abatement and low price,’ will bring some much-needed quickness and freshness to stagnating Illyria. She thinks her brother drowned, though the Captain last saw him holding ‘acquaintance with the waves,’ riding them ‘like Arion on the dolphin’s back.’ The dolphin, famously, shows his back above the element he lives in (see Antony and Cleopatra V, ii, 89-90). Feste making a contemporary joke of it, says to Viola-Cesario ‘Who you are and what you would are out of my welkin; I might say ‘element,’ but the word is overworn’ But he is right; fresh-from-the-sea Viola effectively comes from another element (as does her brother, Sebastian, who, we will learn, was ‘redeemed’ from the ‘rude sea’s enraged and foamy mouth.’ The sister ‘saved,’ the brother ‘redeemed,’—the words are, surely, not idly chosen.) (‘I am not of your element’ says Malvolio to, really, everyone, III, iv, 130, and that’s true, too – he is in a bleak, unpeopled, self-incarcerating element of his own making – imaged by the darkened room in which he is imprisoned to cure his ‘madness.’) Sea-going touches everyone’s speech: ‘she is the list of my voyage,’ ‘you are now sailed into the North of my lady’s opinion,’ ‘board her, woo her, assail her,’ ‘Will you hoist sail, sir?…No…I am to hull here a little longer.’ There are also Olivia’s copious tears, which we hear about before we see her – ‘she will veiled walk,/And water once a day her chamber round/With eye-offending brine,’ ‘brine’ serving to bring the sea into the house. Sebastian also weeps for a lost sibling – ‘She is drowned already, sir, with salt water, though I seem to drown her remembrance again with more.’ Even landlocked Sir Toby is like a ‘drowned’ man when he is ‘in the third degree of drink.’ The play is, as it were, awash with liquidity. Viola, we recall, started out as ‘standing water.’ And it is her words on learning of the possible salvation of her brother which, above all, determine the atmosphere at the end of the play.
O, if it prove,
Tempests are kind, and salt waves fresh in love!
This is probably the most defining sentence in Shakespearian comedy: salt becomes fresh; wreckage generates love; the world turns kind. Briney blessings.”
Your thoughts on Twelfth Night?
Our next reading: Twelfth Night, Act Four
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