“Are all the people mad?”

Twelfth Night

Act Four

By Dennis Abrams


Act Four:  Sebastian is talking with Feste, who believes him to be Cesario, when he is attacked by Sir Andrew – who ALSO thinks that he is Cesario.  Sebastian retaliates and Sir Toby joins in, before Olivia arrives and puts a stop to the fighting. Making the same mistake, and by now head over heels in love, Olivia proposes to Sebastian; although bewildered, Sebastian immediately falls in love and accepts. Things then go from bad to worse for Malvolio, who by now is locked up for his own “safety” – when Feste is persuaded by Maria and Sir Toby to imitate a priest and exorcise Malvolio’s “demons.”


Instructed by the letter to don ridiculous yellow stockings in order to signal to Olivia that he has understood her message, Malvolio does so – and of course is promptly locked up because everyone “took him to be mad.”  The incarcerated Malvolio attempts to remedy the situation by insisting on his sanity (does that ever go well?) but the always present Feste quickly and neatly turns it back on him:

MalvolioMalvolio: Fool, there was never man so notoriously abused. I am as well in my wits, fool, as thou art.

Feste:  But as well? Then you are mad indeed, if you be no better in your wits than a fool.

Malvolio passionately retorts that “I am well as in my wits as any man in Illyria.” Of course, that’s not really saying much, given that he is not the only character (by a long shot) who is exhibiting signs of insanity.  Having turned down Orsino, Olivia finds that she has become attracted to Cesario, his page (or, the disguised Viola), while Viola herself – firmly resisting Olivia’s impassioned advances – is all but sick for the sight of Orsino. “How will this fadge [turn out]? Viola wonders at one point,

My master loves her dearly,

And I, poor monster, fond as much on him,

And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.

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!

O time, thou must untangle this, not I.

Indeed, time will unscramble things, although Malvolio’s treatment (or mistreatment) is hard for many to forgive (he leaves the play vowing to be “revenged on the whole pack of you,” and, in the shorter term, it will make Viola’s life considerably more complicated.  By this stage of Twelfth Night we know full well that her grief at the beginning of the play was not necessary – Sebastian has survived and is wandering through Illyria.  And of course, in a throwback to one of our first plays, The Comedy of Errors, it is inevitable that confusion between them results – first when Sebastian’s “companion” (or lover?) Antonio mistakes Viola for her twin, and again, when Sir Andrew, emboldened by his love for Olivia, attacks Sebastian in the belief that he is Cesario/Viola.  But in what is perhaps the play’s most startling moment, it is Olivia’s inability to tell the twins apart that has the most far-reaching consequences.  Protecting Sebastian from his attackers, she begs, “Go with me to my house”:

Do not deny. Beshrew his soul for me,

He started one poor heart of mine in thee.

Sebastian:  What relish is in this? How runs the stream?

Or I am mad, or else this is a dream…

Neither, it seems, is quite true, although madness is certainly in the air when the love-struck Sebastian agrees to be “ruled by” (and very rapidly married to) Olivia.  Despite her best efforts – and the convolutions of Shakespeare’s gender-bending plot – she has succeeded in getting married to a man.  (A man identical to the woman she was in love with in the guise of a man, but still…)


From Tony Tanner, continuing from his discussion about the sea and liquidity:

“Something of this prevailing liquidity reflects a certain incipient uncertainty and instability in the identities and emotions of some of the characters. The Duke is, by all accounts including his own, very labile. Feste, with the clown’s license, tells him as much to his face. He minces his words, ironically, with what sounds like elaborate nonsense, but the truth is all there.

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 everything, and their intent everywhere, for that’s it that always makes a good voyage of nothing.

Shot-silk and the opal both change color endlessly according to light and movement – the Duke is, to all intents and purposes, permanently tossing about on the waves, or, as Shakespeare will later, breathtakingly put it, ‘lackeying the varying tide’ (Antony and Cleopatra, I, iv, 46). Feste has his man. Up to a point, the Duke concedes as much.  He generalizes to Cesario:

Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,

More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,

Than women’s are.

(II, iv, 33-5)

Of himself he claims,

For such as I am all true lovers are,

Unstaid and skittish in all motions else

Save in the constant image of the creature

That is beloved.

To define true constancy turns out to be one of the concerns of the play. Claiming that his passion is greater than any woman could feel – because their hearts ‘lack retention’ – he again, revealingly and inappropriately, invokes the sea:

But mine is all as hungry as the sea

And can digest as much. Make no compare

Between that love a woman can bear me

And that I owe Olivia.

(II, iv, 101-4)

The sea is his image for unsatisfiability; it is also the world’s image for inconstancy. As is now familiar from Shakespeare’s comedies, it is the woman who will show ‘retention.’

Ironically, Orsino exhorts Cesario to an immovable constancy – on his behalf:

Be not denied access, stand at her doors,

And tell them there thy fixed foot shall grow

Till thou have audience.

(I, iv, 16-18)

Viola obeys him – pretty literally, according to Malvolio:

he says he’ll stand at your door like a sheriff’s post, and be the supporter to a bench, but he’ll speak with you.

(I, v, 146-8)

To be as fixed as a post and as stiff as a bench-leg is, certainly, one kind of constancy, and we may say of Viola that she holds her ground (except when it comes to dueling). But, clearly, there is constancy and constancy. There is this little exchange in the last Act before things have started to sort themselves out.

Duke:  Still so cruel?

Olivia: Still so constant, lord.

Duke: What, to perverseness?

There is such a thing as bad constancy – as, for instance, in the extreme case of Malvolio. Now there’s someone who really is as stiff as a post. He manifests just that inflexibility and intractability, that refusal to change, which always shows itself as a negative feature in wheatley_TNShakespeare’s comedies. But then, opal-headed fickleness and shot-silk variability are not exactly, in and of themselves, positive virtues. Here again, we see Shakespeare interested in trying to identify the best combination of openness to change and aptness for commitment, adaption and ‘retention,’ yielding and holding fast, flexibility and stability. Orsino and Olivia, initially at least, certainly don’t have it; they are both constant to their chosen ‘perverseness.’ It is Viola who best shows it – the nimblest of shape-shifters, not to say gender-crossers, who yet remains absolutely steadfast and loyal.

In this connection, another piece of advice, or rather another order, which Orsino gives his nuncio, Cesario, points to larger issues – ‘Be clamorous and leap all civil bounds’ (I, iv, 21). In the immediate preceding scene, we have just heard Maria advise Sir Toby ‘Ay, but you must confine yourself within the modest limits of order’ (I, iii, 8-9), and we have seen Sir Andrew literally dancing and leaping his way out at the end of the scene, at Sir Toby’s incitement: ‘Let me see thee caper. Ha, higher; ha, ha, excellent!’ (I, iii, 137-8). As often happens in Shakespearian comedy, the characters messing around below stairs, offer, unintentionally of course, a crude and literal parody of things going on metaphorically at the higher, courtly level. Viola has already made a great leap across the gender gap; she thereby certainly does not keep ‘within the modest limits of order’ as far as the prescribed behaviour for women was concerned; and, speaking as a humble, abject messenger to a great lady, her sometimes tart and independent (though always courteous) remarks to Olivia could sometimes be said to ‘leap all civil bounds,’ at least to the eye of convention.

In this connection, it is worth considering something said by Sebastian in his first scene on the sea-coast. Whither are you ‘bound,’ asks the lifesaving and already devoted Antonio? Sebastian has no plans, directions, or aims. ‘My determinate voyage is mere extravagancy’ (II, I, 11-12). ‘Extravagancy’ means ‘wandering,’ but there is more in the word than that. As, much later, the American writer Thoreau realized: ‘I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extra-vagant enough – may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced. Extra vagnace! it depends on how you are yarded. The migrating buffalo, which seeks new pastures in another latitude, is not extravagant like the cow which kicks over the pail, leaps the cow-yard fence, and runs after her calf, in milking time. I desire to speak somewhere without bounds…’(Walden– Conclusion). Characters in Illyria strike one as being very ‘yarded’ indeed – house-bound in innutrient, self-devouring emotional states. The place is certainly in need of some extravagance. And Viola starts the play by, if I may so put it without offence, leaping over ‘the cow-yard fence.’ With the advent of the shipwrecked twins, ‘extravagancy’ has entered the country. Pails are duly kicked over, ‘civil bounds’ will be broken and transgressed. In her very first audience with Olivia, Viola-Cesario soon departs from the ‘poetical’ encomium which she has prepared. Instinctively, she starts speaking frankly to Olivia, then realizes ‘But this is from my commission’ (I, v, 187). When, perhaps on a woman’s impulse, Viola asks to see her face, Olivia gently chides ‘You are now out of your text’ but complied anyway. Viola’s refreshing sincerity is irresistible in the elegant but self-stultifying airlessness of Illyria. Viola must depart from her commission to bring about some requisite reinvigoration. She is certainly ‘out of her text’ in Illyria – indeed, she is out of her sex. She must, indeed, ‘leap all civil bounds’ – and textual ones. She will break free from conventional prescriptions. ‘Yarding’ fences need to be jumped in Illyria: Sir Toby’s and Sir Andrew’s drunken caperings are amusing, but no good for the purpose. Viola will find the way. Sebastian has the way made for him.

When Olivia first sees Sebastian and, of course, thinks he is Cesario, she begs him into her house with endearing familiarity.  Though quite uncomprehending, Sebastian – it is a point in his favour – accepts the invitation. We may say that he trustingly embraces his good fortune.

What relish is in this? How runs the stream?

Or am I mad, or else this is a dream.

Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep;

If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep!

‘Relish’ is nice; this, whatever it is, tastes good to Sebastian, and he is man enough to trust his senses. The ‘stream’ quickly turns into a ‘flood’ as Olivia showers gifts on him and hastens to hustle him to the altar. Given the prevailing watery imagery, we can justifiably say that Sebastian goes with the flow.

And though ‘tis wonder that enwraps me thus,

Yet ‘tis not madness.

For though my soul disputes well with my sense

That this may be some error, but no madness,

Yet doth this accident and flood of fortune

So far exceed all instance, all discourse,

That I am ready to distrust mine eyes

And wrangle with my reason that persuades me

To any other trust but that I am mad,

Or else the lady’s mad. Yet, if ‘twere so,

She could not sway her house, command her followers,

Take and give back affairs and their dispatch

With such a smooth, discreet, and stable bearing

As I perceive she does. There’s something in’t

That is deceivable. But here the lady comes.

So she does; and with neither the chance nor the inclination to resist, he is off to church to be married.

There are observations to be made concerning this episode which have relevance for the whole play. In the comparable incident in a work which Shakespeare certainly drew on for some plot details (Riche his Farewell to Militarie Profession, 1581), the lady Julina, persuades the mistaken man, Silvio, not to church but to bed. He, knowing perfectly well that he is the sexual beneficiary of a case of mistaken identity, ungallantly skips town next morning, leaving the lady (a widow) embarrassingly pregnant. This apparently minor change in the direction of decorum makes one realize anew how very little actual sexual reference there is in a lay which, when you think about it, offers virtually unlimited opportunity for almost every kind of heterosexual and homosexual allusion or innuendo CCTN_3-11880Is(for instance, in most of the source narratives, using the girl-dressed-as-page theme, the infatuated great lady invariably falls on him-her physically). Call it taste, call it what you like, but Shakespeare leave the overt sex out – or, rather, he leaves it to take care of itself. The only bawdy, and it is very explicit, occurs in Olivia’s putative letter to Malvolio – ‘These be her very C’s, her U’s, and her T’s, and thus makes she her great P’s.’ Like our not dissimilar word, “cut’ was familiar slang for the female genitals, and P’s speaks for itself. The manifest obscenity is there for a purpose. It is a measure of Sir Andrew’s simplicity that he doesn’t understand (‘her Cs, her U’s, and her T’s? Why that?’ You may be sure the audience laughed at that!); just as it is a measure of Malvolio’s blind self-infatuation that he does not notice. He is too busy ‘crushing’ the more enigmatic ‘M.O.A.I.’ to form his own name. (Incidentally, O.A.I. occur in both Olivia and Viola which are, of course, effectively anagrams of each other; in which connection I like Leonard Barkan’s comment that it is as if there’s ‘a kind of enigma of coalescing identity that hangs over the apparent friviolities of the play.’) No one is more interested in the whole man-woman business, and any ancillary swerving affective intensities, than Shakespeare, and he perfectly well appreciated the comedy (as well as the pathos) latent in misdirected sexual desires. But he eschewed the naming and showing of parts. Besides, he has a lot invested in the sanctity of marriage. (See the priest’s speech starting ‘A contract of eternal bond of love,’ V, i, 156-61).

Sebastian mistaken by Olivia is a replay of Antipholus of Syracuse mistaken by Adriana, and anyone who has a memory of The Comedy of Errors will recognize how much Twelfth Night reworks situations and themes from that earlier, Plautine play. Like Antipholus, Sebastian doesn’t know whether he is awake or dreaming, sane or mad, and, like him, he goes along with his unforeseen and inexplicable good fortune. Here a word might be said about ‘madness’ (and ‘witchcraft,’ mentioned in both plays.) the word ‘mad’ occurs more in this play than in any other of Shakespeare’s (twenty times). Just about everybody in Illyria is called ‘mad’ by one character or another, on one occasion or another. ‘Are all the people mad?’ cries an exasperated and non-comprehending Sebastian at one point, and this is the tone of the times. But most (not all) of the supposed ‘madness’ is simply the confusion caused by the ‘extravagant’ and unco-ordinated arrival in Illyria of identical twins unaware of each other’s presence (it had the same effect in Ephesus in the earlier play, where the word ‘mad’ occurs seventeen times – second highest rate). True, Olivia says of her uncle Toby, ‘He speaks nothing but madman,’ but that refers to his drunken burblings: Malvolio is conspiratorially locked up to ‘cure’ his stage-managed madness; but as he, rightly claims – ‘I am as well in my wits as any man in Illyria.’ How well that is, individual spectators may decide; but this play is decidedly not a study in lunacy and mental derangement.  What Shakespeare is interested in here is the dramatic possibilities latent in the obvious comedy of mistaken identity. Profounder themes are touched on. Can we trust what we see, what we hear? Do we know who we are? Come to that, as we watch Viola-Cesario moving between lord and lady, do we know what we are? Questions of identity and self-knowledge are often rather tortuously engaged, as in the quotation set at the start of this introduction.  When Feste engages with Sebastian, thinking of course that he is Cesario, he is brusquely rebuffed. Feste defends himself with heavy irony: ‘No, I do not know you…nor your name is not Master Cesario; nor this is not my nose either. Nothing that is so is so’ (IV, I, 5-9). This is still comedy; but take a turn into seriousness, and you could soon arrive at Macbeth’s incipient mental malfunctioning in which ‘nothing is/But what is not’ (I, iii, 141-2). Frank Kermode calls Twelfth Night ‘a comedy of identity, set on the borders of wonder and madness.’ As he invariably does, he has caught the mood of the play. But we might remember Sebastian’s judgment – ‘though ‘tis wonder that enwraps me thus/Yet ‘tis not madness.’ As I said, this is still comedy, and wonder prevails. Real madness must wait for the tragedies…

Prior to the arrival of Viola and Sebastian, life in Illyria seems to adhere to a very fixed, repetitious text – Orsino swoons, Olivia weeps, Sir Toby drinks. Nothing changes. So it UIG526416goes. The twins bring with them, though they cannot know it, the germ of a new life – the galvanizing disease of love. Not for the first time in Shakespeare’s comedies, this is exactly the image used. Thus Olivia’s reaction after her first encounter with Viola-Cesario:

     How now?

Even so quickly may one catch the plague?

Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections

With an invisible and subtle stealth

To creep in at mine eyes. Well, let it be.

Among other things, this gives a premonitory edge to the first words spoken by Sir Toby, two scenes previously:

What a plague means my niece to take the death of her brother thus? I am sure care’s an enemy to life.

So it is: though to be completely care-less or care-free will not do either. Care, as we say, must be responsibly taken. Narcissists, too easily caring only for their own images, do not manage this. Which is why, paradoxically, the Illyrians need the disease of love – to get them out of their mirrors and into true relationships. This is the force behind Sebastian’s reassuring words to Olivia who, after all, has impulsively married herself to a completely strange male.

So come it, lady, you have been mistook.

But nature to her bias drew in that.

You would have been contracted to a maid…

This is a central Shakespearian belief: left to itself, nature goes this way rather than that way. It is biased – toward dutiful daughters, faithful wives, heterosexual marriages. But, of course, humans do not lead nature to itself; they buck the bias, and bring into play every kind of perverse swerving – which is why we have Shakespearian drama, because you cannot have five Acts of Desdemona and Cordelia rehearsing the predictable texts of their fidelity. Well, you could; but it wouldn’t be drama. Surprised by love, Olivia makes another striking comment:

Fate, show they force; ourselves we do not owe [ = own].

What is decreed must be – and be this so!

(I, v, 311-12)

Ourselves we do not know; ourselves we do not own – these could be said to be two of Shakespeare’s central concerns as his comedies deepen towards tragedy. It is difficult enough to know yourself – myriad-minded Hamlet doesn’t know what a self might be; Othello? Lear? they fight self-knowledge until almost the end. Macbeth knows himself all right; but what about ‘owning’ yourself – knowing what you are going to do, and why you are going to do it; being completely responsible for your deeds? Even Macbeth falls down there, as probably we all do. Self-possession is a crucially difficult matter. It is perhaps no wonder that Olivia, thus early, relinquishes matters to the ‘force’ of ‘Fate,’ just as, two scenes later, Viola hands things over to Time:

O Time, thou must untangle this, not I;

It is too hard a knot for me t’untie.

(II, ii, 40-41)

This spirit of resignation to the solving or resolving forces of larger powers is more familiar from the tragedies. ‘Well, let it be’ says ‘plague’-struck Olivia when Viola-Cesario leaves after their first conversation: ‘Let be’ says Hamlet, as he is about to submit to the final, poisoned duel. ‘The readiness is all’ – certainly; what both plays discover is that some people are readier than others. Comedy does not usually put down such deep feelers; and, indeed, Shakespeare is about to abandon the genre – even in this play, he is stretching it towards something else.”

Our next reading:  Twelfth Night, Act Five

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning


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1 Response to “Are all the people mad?”

  1. artmama says:

    Twelfth Night is a highlight for me during this long adventure through Shakespeare. It is also a warm spot in a long cold winter. The full moon is a fine accompaniment to the madness theme. Looking forward to more.

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