“One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons!/A natural perspective, that is, and is not!”

Twelfth Night

Act Five, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


Act Five:  Confusion mounts when discussion between Cesario/Viola and Orsino is interrupted by Olivia. As the Duke attempts to win his lady one last time, she triumphantly announces (is there any other way to describe it?) that she’s already married to Cesario, who, naturally, denies it. Olivia then summons the priest, who seems to confirm the news, when Sir Andrew and Sir Toby limp in followed by Sebastian, who admits to having fought them both. After a few moments of confusion and astonishment, the twins joyfully recognize each other. Sebastian is reunited with Olivia (and Antonio), and Orsino proposed to Viola. All that remains is for the release of Malvolio who, when told of the trick that had been played on him, angrily stomps off —  vowing revenge on the lot of them.

Although it frequently seems that everybody in Twelfth Night has fallen in love with everyone else (even Sir Toby ends up marrying Maria, albeit as a reward for her scheme against Malvolio), the play allows all the tangles to be untied, as we’ve seen before, in the last climatic scene. It begins darkly though – captured by Orsino’s men, Antonio is stunned that the “ingrateful boy” Cesario (whom he thinks is Sebastian) should now pretend not to know him. “His life I gave him,” he bitterly reflects,

and did thereto add

My love without retention or restraint,

All his in dedication.

Again we see how the languages of service and love entwine – so closely that modern directors have sometimes, and I think accurately, played the relationship between as a gay one. Shakespeare plays it ambiguously and subtly; Antonio has given his all for Sebastian, and it is a love that is among the plays truest. It is also the kind of devoted service expected by Orsino, the reason he is so appalled when Olivia arrives and announces that she has married Cesario (a marriage that, in a teasing Shakespearian joke, has seemingly twelfth_night_a5s1not involved any exchange of names!).  Despite Viola’s genuine protestations of innocence, for a few tense moments it looks as though her duplicity throughout risks turning into something more serious. But then Sebastian arrives, and the play’s most complicated moment – the presence on stage of identical twins of different sexes – dazzling resolves into its simplest.  The recognition between the twins is winningly easy, not so much a genuine surprise as a rehearsal of facts that the audience already knows is true:

Viola:  My father had a mole upon his brow.

Sebastian: And so had mine.

Viola: And died that day when Viola from her birth

Had numbered thirteen years.

Sebastian: O, that record is lively in my soul.

From death Shakespeare magically conjures “lively” life: Sebastian’s “sister…whom the blind waves and surges have devoured” is standing here in front of him. Though the pair have, as Orsino murmurs, “one face, one voice, one habit,” they are also “two persons,/A natural perspective, that is and is not.”  In this way Shakespeare adds a new dimension to his assertion in the Sonnets – many of which were probably written by the time Twelfth Night debuted – that “love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds.” (116, 2-3). What the play’s characters discover is that love can “alter” and yet find truth: that Olivia can fall in love with a girl and yet marry a boy; that Orsino, deceived can find himself “betrothed to both a maid and man”; and that twins can be the same as well as different, and different as well as the same.


To continue with Bloom:

“Carried off by the plotters to be bound in a dark room, therapy for his madness, Malvolio is visited by Feste in the disguise of a Chaucerian curate, the good Sir Topas.  The dialogue between the two constitutes an uncanny cognitive music:


Malvolio (within) Who calls there?

Clown: Sir Topas the curate, who comes to visit Malvolio the lunatic.

Malvolio: Sir Topas, Sir Topas, good Sir Topas, go to my lady.

Clown: Out, hyperbolic fiend! how vexest thou this man! talkest thou nothing but of ladies?

Sir Toby: Well said, Master Parson.

Malvolio: Sir Topas, never was man thus wronged. Good Sir Topas, do no think I am mad. They have laid me here in hideous darkness.

Clown: Fie, thou dishonest Satan! (I call thee by the most modest terms, for I am one of those gentle ones that will use the devil himself with courtesy.) Say’st thou that house is dark?

Malvolio: As hell, Sir Topas.

Clown: Madman, thou errest. I say there is no darkness but ignorance, in which thou art more puzzled than the Egyptians in their fog.

Malvolio: I say this house is as dark as ignorance, though ignorance were as dark as hell; and I say there never was man this abused. I am no more mad than you are: make the trial of it in any constant question.

Clown: What is the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wildfowl?

Malvolio: That the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit a bird.

Clown: What think’st thou of his opinion?

Malvolio: I think nobly of the soul, and no way approve his opinion.

Clown: Fare thee well: remain thou still in darkness. Thou shalt hold th’ opinion of Pythagoras ere I will allow of thy wits, and fear to kill a woodcock, lest thou dispossess the soul of thy grandam. Fare thee well.

Malvolio: Sir Topas, Sir Topas!

At once the funniest and the most unnerving passage in Twelfth Night, this hardly shows us a defeated Malvolio. He retains dignity under great duress and proudly states his stoic refusal to surrender the soul to Pythagorean metempsychosis. Still, Feste bears off wit’s honors, sagely warning Malvolio against the ignorance of his Jonsonian moral pugnacity. There is a presage in this weird exchange of Lear’s wild dialogues with the Fool and with Gloucester. Feste’s wisdom, which Malvolio will not learn, is that identity is hopelessly unstable, as it is throughout Twelfth Night. Poor Malvolio, a great comic butt, has little of Jonson’s wit but all of Ben’s surliness and vulnerability to lampooning. That was Jonson not yet turned thirty, and the superb poet-playwright got beyond his own Malvolio phase. Shakespeare’s Malvolio is perpetually trapped in the dark house of his obsessive self-regard and moral censoriousness, from which Shakespeare grants him no release. This is dreadfully unfair, but in the madness of Twelfth Night, does that matter? There can be no answer when Malvolio complains to Olivia that he has been ‘made the most notorious geck [butt] and gull/That e’er invention play’d on,’ and asks, ‘Tell me why?’

The genius of Twelfth Night is Feste, the most charming of all Shakespeare’s fools, and the only sane character in a wild play. Olivia has inherited this court jester from her father, and we sense throughout that Feste, an accomplished professional, has grown weary of his role. He carries his exhaustion with verve and wit, and always with the air of knowing all there is to know, not in a superior way but with a sweet melancholy. His truancy is forgiven by Olivia, and in recompense he attempts to charm her out of her prolonged mourning for her brother. Feste is benign throughout the play, and does not participate in the gulling of Malvolio until he enters the dark house as Sir Topas. Even there, he is instrumental in bringing about the steward’s release. A superb singer (his part was written for Robert Armin, who had an excellent voice), Feste keeps to a minor key: ‘Present mirth hath present laughter:/What’s to come is still unsure.’ Though of Olivia’s household, he is welcome at the music-loving Orsino’s court, and gets Orsino right at one stroke:

Now the melancholy god protect thee, and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is 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. Farewell.

TN_2005_Still6sThe fool’s most revealing scene begins Act III, and is shared with the equally charming Viola, who gently provokes him to meditate upon his craft: ‘A sentence is but a chev’ril glove to a good wit – how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward!’ That may be Shakespeare’s playful admonition to himself, since the amiable Feste is one of his rare surrogates, and Feste is warning us to seek no moral coherence in Twelfth Night. Orsino, baffled by the sight of Viola and Sebastian together, utters a famous bewilderment:

One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons!

A natural perspective, that is, and is not!

In a useful gloss, Anne Barton calls this an optical illusion naturally produced, rather than presented by a disturbing glass. The play’s central toy is Feste’s, when he sums up Malvolio’s ordeal: ‘And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.’ Dr. Johnson said of a ‘natural perspective’ that nature so puts on ‘a show, where shadows seem realities, where that which “is not” appears like that which “is.”’ That would seem contradictory in itself, unless time and nature merge into a Shakespearean identity, so that time’s whirligig then would become the same toy as the distorting glass. Imagine a distorting mirror whirling in circles like a top, and you would have the compound toy that Shakespeare created in Twelfth Night. All of the play’s characters, except the victimized Malvolio and Feste, are representations in that rotating glass.

At the play’s end, Malvolio runs off stage shouting, ‘I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you!’ Everyone else exits to get married, except for Feste, who remains alone to sing Shakespeare’s most wistful song:

When that I was and a little tiny boy

   With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

A foolish thing was but a toy.

   For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,

   With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,

   For the rain it raineth every day.


But when I came, alas, to wive,

   With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

By swaggering could I never thrive,

   For the rain it raineth every day.


But when I came unto my beds,

   With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

With toss-pots still ‘had drunken heads,

   For the rain it raineth every day.


A great while ago the world begun,

   With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

But that’s all one, our play is done,

   And we’ll strive to please you every day.

Whether or not Shakespeare was revising a folk song, this is clearly Feste’s lyric farewell, and an epilogue to a wild performance, returning us to the wind and the rain of every day. We hear Feste’s life story (and Shakespeare’s?) told in erotic and household terms. ‘A foolish thing’ probably is the male member, ironically still ‘but a toy’ in the ‘man’s estate’ of knavery, marriage, ineffectual swaggering, drunken decline, and old age. ‘But that’s all one’ is Feste’s beautiful sadness of acceptance, and the next afternoon’s performance will go on.”


I’ll finish my posting on Twelfth Night on Thursday night.

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