Let me mention some of the various forces that come down upon Twelfth Night, one of the two singularly brilliant plays that come at the center of Shakespeare’s career.
1. Christmas revels in contemporary England lasted until 12th Night (or Epiphany), January 6th. To various degrees and in various places, the twelve days of Christmas was a time for merrymaking, self-indulgence, and making fun of authority. In some communities and countries it contained a kind of topsy-turvy festival in which government (in medieval times, the Church) was made fun of by setting up a "Lord of Misrule" (complete with "court" and attendants" who governed for a day of festivities. This was the sort of figure Wayne Burns would refer to a "panzaic," a kind of drunken, disorderly-but-appealing Pan-like figure. Falstaff (once described as a mini suckling pig (i.e. Christmastime food) was Shakespeare’s first essay into this popular type. Sir Toby Belch is clearly another.
2. Twelfth Night, which may or may not have been written after Hamlet, is, as much as any other, Shakespeare’s "Humors" play, reflecting the Chapman/Jonson/Marston vogue for such plays. Humors plays—mostly comedies—as I have said before—use a number of relatively flat types of characters, who, in the course of the play, are gotten "out of their Humors" and (hopefully) reintegrated into their societies. Although Shakespeare’s characters are nearly always dealt with more richly than the more singularly focused characters created by the playwrights mentioned above, the characters in Twelfth Night are certainly types. Orsino—the melancholic lover; Olivia—the over-the-top melodramatic mourner; Sir Andrew Aguecheek—the stupid would-be courtier; Sir Toby—the drunken, out-of-money knight (archetypically, the "lord of misrule"); Malvolio—the pompously officious servant/climber (there existed novels about good and faithful stewards who end up marrying the "lady" they work for—not the case here). All these characters are got "out of their prevailing "humors" by the play’s end.
(As a footnote, I might remark that Hamlet itself is a kind of "humors" tragedy—in that the characters surrounding Hamlet are also relatively flat—in that their essential natures can be described in a word or two—all of which focuses us on Hamlet’s character, which is essentially ours as well.)
3. Shakespeare’s company was also keenly aware of the inroads the boy actors in the private theaters were making into their public-theater audiences. The courtiers and would-be courtiers went to the private theaters, which were lighted and somewhat more comfortable than the public theaters, to see contemporary vogues (and, often, people) satirized or made fun of by what Hamlet refers to as the "little Eyasses." Shakespeare’s challenge in both plays was to overpower his contemporaries’ appeal.
4. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were also aware of the increasing threat of Puritanism, and they made fun of puritanical zealots often. (We have seen Shakespeare’s own detestation for shallow, officious types in a number of plays so far. Hamlet’s "Young Osrick" is a fine example of this.) Malvolio, then, is an attack at both Puritanism and shallow, self-serving officiousness.
While all this was going on (I won’t even mention anxiety about crop failures and the consequences of Elizabeth’s coming death), a group of Cambridge students was writing a set of three plays lamenting the poor job outlook for literary graduates and commenting on contemporary literary activities in general. The pays are called the "Parnassus Plays" because, in Greek myth, Mount Parnassus is the place that great artists end up going to. Needless to say, the clever artists and writers in the Parnassus plays fare very badly in a "real world" that doesn’t appreciate them.
The plays do, however, give extensive commentary on the London dramatic scene, praising Shakespeare as being the best of the playwrights of their time. They also make a curious comment on how Shakespeare "put Jonson down," a comment no one that I know has ever explained. Shakespeare was not a playwright to put others down—although there was a vicious "War of the Theaters" going on at the time involving Marston, Jonson and Dekker (who often wrote and play-doctored for Shakespeare’s company), who attacked one another flamboyantly on both the public and private stages drawing large audiences).
I have sometimes wondered whether or not the Cambridge students did not see Malvolio as a put-down of Jonson, who frequently dressed in black, tended to have a certain pompousness and, it is said, wandered about the galleries where one of his plays was being put on, muttering about his actors’ goof-ups—not to mention the fact that "element," which word Malvolio uses several times, was on of Jonson’s favorites.
5. I have not spoken at all here about the psychological aspects of the charcters’ interactions with one another—a subject worth pursuing: How do Viola’s words help develop Olivia’s thinking? How does she interact with Orsino? How do Maria and Sir Toby affect one another? How do Feste and Malvolio affect one another? Etc.
Nor have I gone into Feste’s place in the larger picture of Twelfth Night: What is his function? Is his Shakespeare’s voice? What is his equivalent in earlier plays? How does he compare with Touchstone? Etc. I will remind you that Feste was originally written for the comedian Robert Armin, Shakespeare’s company’s new "comedian," a singer with a good voice. (Armin is also said to have played Touchstone, although one wonders why he doesn’t sing in that play. Why not? I can only think that it was written with the previous "comedian," Will Kemp, in mind. I keep the two straight in my mind by remembering the Will Kemp reminds one of "hempen homespun" types, which Kemp frequently played. Silly me.)
Finally, I will note that Gil’s and my former teacher Bill Matchett, used to suggest that Malvolio will not end up cast of the play-ending reintegration of things, but will be invited back later. I don’t go with this opinion. I think a reminder that there are some people who can never be re-integrated into society is too powerful a truth for Shakespeare to pass up.
Speaking of destructive self-importance, I note a letter to today’s New York Times, which describes the Republican notion of democracy as being "One dollar = one vote."
Enough, or too much.
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