I recently re-read Twelfth Night, after a twenty-year hiatus. And I have to say: that play is kray-kray. Oh, it’s fun and light-hearted, and it has some important things to say about gender and identity. It’s just not the most realistic depiction of life you’ll ever seen.
For the uninitiated, here’s the basic plot: Viola is caught up in a storm at sea and washes up on the shores of a strange land called Illyria. For reasons that defy logic, she decides to disguise herself as a man in order to work as a servant for the duke, the lovesick Orsino. Donning a new name (Cesario) and an apparently extremely convincing costume, Viola becomes fast-friends with Duke Orsino, who asks her (him) to speak on his behalf to the lovely Olivia, who has sworn off men for seven years. As it turns out, though, Olivia’s man-fast lasts considerably shorter; she immediately falls in love with Cesario/ Viola—who, conveniently enough, has a secret crush on Orsino.
Things get even nuttier later when Viola’s twin brother Sebastian, presumed dead, also washes up in Illyria, totally unaware that his sister is not only alive and living in this same city (what are the odds, right?), but has been basically masquerading around as him for three months. So Sebastian is confused why all these strangers seem to know him… but not so confused that he declines the marriage proposal of Olivia (whom Sebastian has just met). Despite these complications, all’s well that ends well: Viola and Sebastian reunite, and Viola and Orsino get married (even though, just moments before, Orsino considered her to be his male servant).
Yeah, so… a little light on the realism, that Twelfth Night. I’m not saying that’s not a bad thing. It’s just a fact. Even Shakespeare himself recognized this: in Act III, the character Fabian says, in a moment of inspired self-reflexivity, “If this were play’d upon a stage right now, I’d condemn it as an improbable fiction.”
Improbable or not, though, it’s a great play, one worthy of analysis and discussion. I have twelve observations/ discoveries about Twelfth Night. Here are the first six:
(1) As far as Shakespearean titles go, the name Twelfth Night is pretty nonsensical. It refers to the Feast of the Epiphany, the last night of the Christmas season—but that never comes up in the play. Instead, scholars have surmised that the play was first performed on the “twelfth night”—hence, the name. I wonder why more current-day screenwriters don’t try something similar. It would clear up a few things….
“Hey, you want to see that new movie February 18th?”
“Sure. When’s it coming out?”
(2) Speaking of titles, Twelfth Night is the only Shakespeare play with a subtitle (What You Will), which could refer to three things:
(a) The audience (as if Shakespeare, acknowledging the role the theater-goers have in the creative process, is conceding, “You folks will do with this play what you will.” Or maybe he’s saying, “I know I’m taking a walk on the wacky side with this one, but hey, I think it’s cool. So, say whatever you want. I gotta be me.”);
(b) The playwright’s own name (Has there ever been a writer more infatuated with his own name than Master Shakespeare?); and
(c) Ahem… a certain part of the male anatomy. (I’m serious: “will” is bawdy Elizabethan slang—and Shakespeare sure does enjoy some bawdy slang! Of course, since this play involves a woman dressing as a man, maybe the punning especially works here.)
(3) Twelfth Night is one of four—count ‘em: four—Shakespearean plays involving shipwrecks, the other three being Comedy of Errors, The Tempest, and Pericles. And who can blame Will for going to the shipwreck well so often? After all, a shipwreck is dramatic, visually compelling. Thus, when The Tempest opens with a storm at sea, we are immediately thrown into a tense and chaotic scene.
Similarly, in Twelfth Night—actually, it’s not similar at all; the storm happens off-stage, in-between the first two scenes of Act I. Missed opportunity, I think—as do others; from what I’ve read, some Twelfth Night directors have flip-flopped scenes 1 and 2, which means the play begins with Viola, the main protagonist. (Of course, that means Orsino’s famous line “If music be the food of love, play on” no longer opens the play, which causes some purists to cry foul. Eh, can’t win ‘em all…)
(4) For my money, a whole play based on cross-dressing smacks of genius on Shakespeare’s part. Remember: back in the day, male actors played the female parts. So, in the case of Twelfth Night, you have a male actor playing the part of a woman playing the part of a man. How convolutedly cool is that?
(5) And yet, despite its coolness… the whole reason behind the cross-dressing is a little contrived. So, let me get this straight: disguising herself as a boy is the ONLY way Viola can get a job in Illyria? Yeah, yeah, I get that she knows absolutely nobody, and she needs food and shelter and all that. And yeah, yeah, she first thought of going to Olivia’s first, only to be told that she wasn’t seeing anyone (due to that whole “mourning-for-seven-years” thing). But you’re telling me there is not a single other person living in Illyria who could lend her a hand? Or that she’s so desperate that cross-dressing is her only option? And where did Viola get all these men’s clothes, anyway?
I’m reminded of Bosom Buddies, that early-80’s sitcom starring Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari as two wicked cheap guys who dressed in drag so they could live in an inexpensive apartment for women. So the two can’t afford to pay rent but they can buy an entire new wardrobe of women’s clothing? (Incidentally, you know the whole double-meaning of the title Bosom Buddies? That they’re best friends but they’re also dressing up as women, which means they have fake bosoms? I literally JUST figured that out last year, a whole thirty years after the fact. Man, either the pun is that subtle or I’m that slow.)
(6) Speaking of sitcoms… Twelfth Night showcases Shakespeare’s susceptibility to Chuck Cunningham Syndrome (CCS). And who is Chuck Cunningham, you ask? Why, he’s an original character of Happy Days, of course—the college-aged, basketball-playing older brother of Richie and Joanie Cunningham, the eldest child of Howard and Marion Cunningham. Chuck appeared sporadically on Happy Days during Seasons 1 and 2, then in Season 3, he went upstairs… and never emerged again. The writers just dropped him.
Well, three-hundred-and-fifty years before Joanie loved Chachi, some Shakespearean characters experienced the same disappearing act. And some pretty major characters at that. Where did Benvolio go after Act III of Romeo and Juliet? What about the Fool in King Lear? What happened to him? In Macbeth, Fleance fled and never came back. Same with Donalbain.
Twelfth Night may be one of the most egregious examples of Shakespeare’s CCS. In Scene 2, Viola is talking to a character known only as Captain, presumably the captain of the ship that just sank. The Captain not only tells Viola about Orsino and Olivia (he’s either known them or had heard about them previously), but he’s the one Viola enlists in her scheme to disguise herself as a man. “Conceal me what I am,” she says to the Captain, “and be my aid” (I.ii.54).
In fact, the Captain is the only person Viola knows on Illyria and the only person who knows her secret. So that seems pretty important, no? Apparently not. After Act I, he disappears from world literature forever. Seems like an oversight– which I have to admit, I enjoy. Sort of refreshing when the greatest playwright of all time screws up, isn’t it?
Part II of Twelfth Night Observations… coming soon (providing, of course, I don’t come down with Chuck Cunningham Syndrome…)
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