“If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.”

Twelfth Night

Act Five


By Dennis Abrams


Boy oh boy, do I love this play.  After doing the reading for my posts, I sat down and reread the whole thing – just for the sheer enjoyment of it.  Fresh, funny, beautifully written…what more could anyone want?

A couple of observations:

Loved Fabian’s line in Act Three, “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.”

I was amazed to read (I can’t find the source right now) that Shakespeare coined the word “comedian.”


From Tanner:

“So what then, finally, of Shakespeare’s Illyria?  It is not Verona, or Messina, or Arden – not Windsor either, though one can imagine Sir Toby drinking with Falstaff at the Garter Inn. In Ovid, it is where shipwrecked Cadmus lands, not knowing that his daughter, Io, has been both saved and transformed. Bullough suggests that this vague place on a twelfth_night_1204928clittle-known coast allowed Shakespeare to mix Mediterranean romance plausibly with Northern realism (not that many Elizabethans would have known or cared, Illyria was on the coast of Yugoslavia – at this time of writing, unhappily more renowned for atrocity than romance).  There is no alternative realm in this play – no forest, no Belmont; but there is a running contrast between the elegant, rather melancholy-mannered court of Orsino, where people speak verse (there is much rather Italianate talk of manners and courtesy); and the much more easy-going, belching, swigging, knock-about household of Olivia, where prose predominates (except when infatuation drives Olivia into poetry). The atmosphere at court seems dominated by music and melancholy, while over at Olivia’s house there seems to be a permanent nocturnal drinking party. Maria is, certainly, ‘as witty a piece of Eve’s flesh as any in Illyria” and the joke she plays on Malvolio is perhaps the funniest thing in Shakespeare, no matter how often seen or read (at least, that is my experience). But there is a feeling that the revels have gone on for too long. There is no more revealing moment than when, having had ‘sport royal’ with Malvolio and fooled him ‘black and blue,’ Sir Toby suddenly says to Maria, ‘I would we were well rid of this knavery.’ To use a chilling line of Emily Dickinson’s, ‘the jest has crawled too far.’ Laroque is perhaps too grim when he detects ‘the boredom of a world grown old’ and says that, here, ‘festivity seems doomed to sterile, boring repetition. The veteran champions of festivity have become the pensioners of pleasure. The Puritans may be odious and malicious, but the old merrymakers are plain ridiculous.’ This is, arguably, too censorious a view.  But you see his point. There is something pathetic about poor, exploited Sir Andrew (‘for many do call me fool’), and I have a good deal of sympathy with Dr. Johnson’s view that it is unfair to mock his ‘natural fatuity.’ Sir Toby, seen rather generously by Barber as ‘gentlemanly liberty incarnate,’ is agreeable inasmuch as he is festivally anti-Malvolio and pro-cakes and ale; but his unscrupulous abuse of Sir Andrew’s mindlessly trusting gullibility is unattractive, and he reveals a brutally unpleasant side in his final exchange with him. They have both been wounded by Sebastian, and Sir Andrew, rather sweetly, says – ‘I’ll help you, Sir Toby, because we’ll be dressed together.’ Sir Toby’s very unsweet response is:

Will you help – an ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull?

These are his last words to Sir Andrew, who is not heard from again. Not nice.

Assorted Illyrians, then, repeating fixed routines until they are disrupted into new life  by the arrival of Viola and Sebastian from the sea. But Feste the clown seems to come from somewhere else again. Barber says ‘the fool has been over the garden wall into some such world as the Vienna of Measure for Measure,’ and that feels right. He is not as bitter or cynical as Touchstone. He sings, he fools, he begs; he talks nonsense for tips. But you feel that he has seen a wider, darker world than the predominantly sunny Illyria. ‘Anything that’s mended is but patched; virtue that transgresses is but patched with sin, and sin that amends is but patched with virtue.’ You don’t acquire that kind of shrewd, worldly knowingness by tippling with Sir Toby. When Olivia starts by saying ‘Take the fool away,’ he nimbly turns the tables on her saying ‘Misprision in the highest degree. Lady, cucullus non facit monarchum. That’s as much to say as, I wear not motley in my brain. There is no taking away of this fool; he will be there to the very end, when, quite decisively, he has the last words. ‘Misprision’ is a good defining word for what is going on around him, as people are constantly mis-taking themselves or others. The cowl does not make the monk in his Latin tag; and he is anything but a fool in his brain. The male outfit does not make the man, either, as Viola will both learn and demonstrate. Just what people do wear in their brains is, of course, a matter of continuously increasing interest for Shakespeare. There is another glance at Viola-Cesario when Feste is persuaded to put on a gown and beard to play the curate, Sir Topas, and further madden Malvolio. ‘Well, I’ll put it on, and I will dissemble myself in’t, and I would I were the first that ever dissembled in such a gown.’ Orsino, more correctly than he knows, says approvingly to his new page, Cesario – ‘all is semblative a woman’s part.’ Viola later admits to Olivia that she is ‘out of my part.’ What is or should be, her ‘part’ – is she most herself when she is ‘sembling,’ or when she is ‘dissembling?’ People are often not what they seem, and seldom just what they wear. Among other things, Feste serves to open up doors onto problems of identity.

He opens up words, too; or rather, he shows that they are infinitely malleable, and can be made to do anything.  Anyone who can say, as he does to Malvolio concerning the dark room in which he is imprisoned – ‘it hath bay windows transparent as barricadoes, and the clerestories toward the south north are as lustrous as ebony’ – clearly has language completely at his disposal. He calls himself Olivia’s ‘corrupter of words’, and inasmuch  as he can seduce words into doing anything, break them up this way and that, it is an apt enough self-designation. It is Feste who provides one of the key images of the play when he remarks to Viola: ‘To see this age! A sentence is but a chev’ril glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward!’ Quite a lot of things get turned inside out, or are reversed, in this play; just as there is ‘midsummer madness’ in the depths of winter. Wandering between court and house, fooling and singing for a living but profoundly unattached, Feste can truly say – in this most liquid of plays – ‘I am for all waters.’

There is bad blood between him and Malvolio from the beginning, as you would expect between the humourless and vain would-be social climber and the professional anarch.  Malvolio starts by sneering at Feste – ‘Unless you laugh and minister occasion to him, he is gagged.’ Malvolio sounds an uncomfortably discordant tone in Ilyria, rather as Shylock does in Venice. There are, indeed, similarities between these two figures (I have seen it suggested that, in his depiction of the sober but unpleasantly grasping Jew, Shakespeare was actually aiming at the figure of the contemporary Puritan businessman).  Whether or not Malvolio is a Puritan is hardly relevant. As Barber says of him, he is more of a businessman who ‘would like to be a rising man, and to rise he uses sobriety and morality.’ It is curious that Shakespeare allows the releasing of ‘THE MADLY USED MALVOLIOto occupy the last part of the play, while Viola stands silently by. Malvolio, of course, fills the traditional role of the kill-joy spoilsport who is scapegoated out of the final happy ensemble. Though it has to be said that, compared with the flood of marriages which concludes As You Like It, this is a rather reduced and muted ending – with half the characters absent and the main hero and heroine completely silent. Feste gets his dig into the infuriated Malvolio – ‘And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.’ Whether we think he has been ‘most notoriously abused,’ or whether, with Fabian, we think his punishment – for his ‘stubborn and uncourteous parts’ – ‘may rather pluck on laughter than revenge,’ will depend on individual weighings. He is certainly not the broken man that Shylock is, as he storms out crying ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!’ Indeed, we may take Barber’s neat point: ‘One could moralize the spectacle by observing that, in the long run, in 135580_1the 1640s, Malvolio was revenged on the whole pack of them’ (he is referring to the closure of the theaters by the Puritans.)

For all the spreading wonderment in the last Act, we have a sense that this is comedy on the turn. There is that shockingly violent outburst from Orsino, when he thinks his Cesario has secretly married Olivia:

But this your minion, whom I know you love,

And whom, by heaven I swear, I tender dearly,

How will I tear out of that cruel eye

Where he sits crowned in his master’s spite.

Come, boy, with me. My thoughts are ripe in mischief.

I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love

To spite a raven’s heart within a dove.

There is an ugly side to the man, for all the elegance of his court, and the refinement of his manners. A comparably ugly side is revealed to Sir Toby, when he turns so unpleasantly on Sir Andrew. There is the strange silencing of Viola, as well as the unappeased fury of Malvolio. There is even that surgeon, who, when he is needed, it turns out has been drunk since eight in the morning – which sounds something more than festive. The Duke speaks of ‘golden time’ at the end, but the glow is fading. Feste, clearly aware of life’s rougher weather, ends the play with his song about the wind and the rain, with its reiterated reminder that ‘the rain it raineth every day.’ As a matter of fact, he leaves one verse out,

He that has and a little tiny wit,

With heigh-ho, the wind and the rain,

Must make content with his fortunes fit,

Though the rain it raineth every day.

But he, or someone very like him, will sing it to the truly mad King Lear, during conditions which are unimaginable in Illyria. (King Lear, III, ii, 74-7)


And finally, from the book Shakespeare on Stage, the great actor Derek Jacobi (great despite his views that Shakespeare didn’t really write his own plays) is interviewed about playing the role of Malvolio.  Some highlights:

It’s quite fashionable to call Malvolio a tragic part. Do you think there’s anything to that?

I do think he makes an extraordinary journey, and is punished beyond his due. He puts himself in the firing line, but what they dish out to him is way over the top. They try to send him made, it gets out of control. In that sense he’s a tragic figure. And by the end when he talks of revenging himself, I think he really means it. His life has taken a very, very different course to what it would have done. And I think he’ll be dedicated to ruining the marriages.

Malvolio is much described. All sorts of epithets are attached to him, from a ‘rascally sheep-biter’ to being ‘sad and civil.’ Did they help you as you were approaching the part?

And a Puritan. Yes, I think they did. We experimented at first with having him a class lower than anybody else, and an ex-military man. There are remnants of it still – my haircut is one of them. And we thought that he was newish to the household, he’d not been there for long, which made him even more of an outsider. We tried the military thing that when to people he tended to bark at them. I came on like a barking sergeant major, with ‘Let’s be ‘aving yer’ and son. Well, that and being lower class didn’t work. It lasted about three days until Michael Grandage and I both decided at the same time that it wasn’t working. So the upright-rod-down-the-back, rather remote, rather cut-off persona is the one we went for.

How much were you able to imagine Malvolio’s life outside the play, or what he might have been before?

Well, we stayed with the idea that he had been an army man. He’d been used to giving orders rather than receiving them. So it was an odd situation for him. It made him a bit introverted, and a little bit harsher than he would have been with those under him, because he had to take orders from Olivia. And Sir Toby, of course. So anybody like Maria or Feste would get it in the neck from him, as compensation.

He’s an odd mix, isn’t he, because he’s got the efficiency of a military man, but his head’s full of strange fantasies.

Yes. That moment when Maria says he’s practicing behaviour to his own shadow.  [MY NOTE:  I LOVE that line.] That’s very odd. He has fantasies of being Count Malvolio, of being above his station. So he’s very class-conscious.

Very. Did you model your performance on anyone, or take it direct from the text?

Oh, from the text. I did have somebody in mind when we were rehearsing it, only because he sat like an elephant on my shoulder, and that was Donald Sinden. He was a famous Malvolio, especially for one particular bit of business, which we obviously couldn’t do.

What was that?

It had to do with the set. You know the moment when he’s fantasizing about sending his men off to bring Sir Toby to him, and he says ‘I frown the while, and perchance wind up nla.pic-vn3805629-vmy watch…’ Sinden brought out his watch and started to wind it, then looked at the time. There was a sundial on the set. He looked at it and back at his watch, then went and altered the sundial. Huge laugh. That was the big moment, it made his Malvolio famous….

How does a person become so deluded?

The word ‘mad’ occurs a great deal in the play, and I don’t think it’s accidental. There’s a degree of…not mental aberration exactly, but certainly a mental twist in Malvolio. At times he seems hardly human. There’s a strange mentality to the man that keeps him apart from other people, and shackles him into his own head.  I don’t think he’s made, ever, but he is highly eccentric.

So you get to the smile.

He has several attempts at smiling. When he eventually achieves a smile it’s as if he’s wrenched it up from his guts. It’s come from somewhere deep inside him, and ended up in his mouth. And it sticks there. He’s very proud of it and carries it off into the wings.

On to the prison.  A very dark scene, isn’t it.

Yes, very dark.

What started as a merry jape gets out of hand. Was it ever funny, that scene?


The Elizabethans enjoyed bear-baiting. Maybe cruelty was funnier to them than it is to us today?

Well, yes, and they used to go and see people in Bedlam. I think for the plotters it’s fun, up to a point. But then Sir Toby says ‘My stock with Olivia now is so low that we’d better stop all this.’ At which point Feste agrees to Malvolio’s plea to let Olivia know what happened to him, by giving him ink, pen and paper.

Your last scene could be subtitled ‘Hell hath no fury like a Malvolio scorned!’ But is it is more in sorrow or in anger?

He comes on in a bad state. He cannot believe Olivia would be responsible for this, but she is the one he comes on to blame. He assumes it’s all her fault for having written that letter. He cannot understand why she did so. He obeyed every part of it. And as a result she threw him into prison, into this dark room, and tried to drive hi mad. Why?  He’s in a very bad state at that moment. He’s tearful. He’s outraged. He’s incredibly hurt. Then Olivia says ‘It wasn’t me, it was Maria.’ And Maria (in our version) confesses that it was her and Sir Toby. Then Feste joins in, sending him up and saying ‘Remember what you said about me a while back?’ During that time I think he travels from this deep hurt, this deep embarrassment, this deep shame, to boiling fury. And when he says ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,’ he means it.

This last scene is the only time Malvolio speaks in blank verse. Is that helpful? Shakespeare often goes into verse when he wants to heighten the emotional temperature, doesn’t he?

Yes. But when you actually speak it, it doesn’t sound like verse, it sounds like prose. And one of my theories about Shakespeare )because I’m so anti Peter Hall’s ‘dah-de-dah-de-dah’ stuff) is to treat the prose as poetry and the poetry as prose. At least it works for me.

Most of Shakespeare’s leading characters achieve some kind of resolution at the end of his plays, but I’m not sure Malvolio does.

No, I don’t think he does. You’re left wondering. If he means his last line – ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’ – which presumably includes Olivia, then they’d better watch their backs, all of them.

Have you any idea what happens to him next? Does he stay there?

I don’t think he can stay there. Olivia says ‘He hath been most notoriously abused.’ And Orsino says ‘Someone go after him and call him down,’ but I don’t believe he’s in the market for calming down. I think he will start playing his own game. Doing his own gulling. He will make those marriages hell if he can. He may even do something at the weddings. I don’t know. He will plan something. I think there is life after, for Malvolio. I hope there is. I want him to be revenged, because what they did to him, although it came out of his own character faults, went too far. Punishment should be meted out to them.


And with that, we come to the end of Shakespeare’s final true comedy, Twelfth Night.  What did you all think?  Did you enjoy it?  Did it make you laugh?  Do you think Malvolio will really seek his revenge?  Can Viola and Orsino possibly be happy?  Share your thoughts!

Our next play – Troilus and Cressida

My next post – Sunday evening/Monday morning – Sonnet #132

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4 Responses to “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.”

  1. artmama says:

    I think the couples can be happy…if they live on separate coasts and only see one another at infrequent reunions! Thanks again, Dennis.

  2. Mahood says:

    ‘I was amazed to read (I can’t find the source right now) that Shakespeare coined the word “comedian.” ‘

    Is this true?? Tried to follow this up but couldn’t find a reference to it anywhere…it would seem incredible, if true…?

    • I saw it in a footnote somewhere…and now can’t find it. That was my thought as well…incredible. But given the number of words that Shakespeare did coin, “puking” for one…

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