Week One: Twelfth Night (1602)

On Twelfth Night 2021 during the lockdown COVID pandemic I finished re-reading Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It’s the first play in my attempt to read everything by Shakespeare by the end of the year. I studied Twelfth Night at A-level and taught it once for the old Key Stage Three SATs just before the Millennium. Despite the years, it’s a play I remember fondly and still vividly recall attending a small performance with other sixth formers in a church in Chatham when I was 18. I watched the first half of Trevor Nunn’s 1996 movie again last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. Twelfth Night still strikes me as a very personal, intimate play.

So, what do I think of it now?

Something’s delirious about the play: almost as if it’s a fever-dream. Shakespeare seems to deliberately want an appearance of chaos and uncertainty: a grieving sister shipwrecked, Orsino’s futile for Olivia, the revenge of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew on Malvolio, Sebastian reunited with Viola. In fact, there’s so much happening in the play that it’s hard to provide a brief, straightforward summary. The various plots are incredibly convoluted and entangled.

There’s also elements about the play that are just Weird. Twins. What seems to the androgynous nature of love (or at least desire). Viola’s disguise as Caesario. Sir Toby’s and Sir Andrew’s antics, Malviolio’s yellow cross-gartered stockings and his imprisonment for madness. The comedy of the final act. You begin to wonder if there’s something deeply psychological expressing itself here.

Then there’s the strange role played by the Fool. While everything else seems madness, what the Fool says seems to be the most rational and make sense. I understand why Ben Kingsley plays a melancholic fool in the 1996 film who seems to be the only one who realises that, behind the music and spectacle, everything’s actually quite grim. And it never stops. For the rain it raineth every day.

I’m also aware that there’s a great deal going on about language and symbolism in the play. Semiologists must have a field day when they examine Twelfth Night. Little is what it declares itself to be. There’s a great deal of effort – especially concerning love – to describe things or express feelings. At the centre is the forged letter with its cryptic message for Malvolio. It’s almost as if Shakespeare is warning about trying to think too rationally. Language deceives. The Fool is, after all, a “corruptor of words”. It’s interesting that he dislikes Caesario so much who, perhaps, is the other corruptor of language/meaning in the play.

What about the characters of Sir Andrew, Malvolio and Sebastian? They aren’t villains (unless you consider that stupidity, arrogance or affection are sins). Yet they all seem to be abused. None seem to have a happy ending. Maybe they all share in the loss of an object of love?

So much going on in this play!

What You Will. I could get caught up thinking about Twelfth Night for a long time but have to press on to my second play. It’s one I’ve not read before: Henry VI Part I.