David Sarkies's Reviews > Twelfth Night: or, What You Will

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
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it was amazing
bookshelves: comedy
Recommended to David by: University English
Recommended for: Anybody
Read 3 times. Last read January 15, 2013 to January 17, 2013.

The Original Rom-Com
17 January 2013

There are two reasons why I gave this play such a high rating and one of them is Sir Toby Belch. As a character, this guy, who is pretty much a rude, crude, and perpetual drunked, is simply a classic. He is not an admirable character, and along with the maid Maria, his comrade in arms Sir Andrew, Fabian, and not to forget the clown Feste (who, by the way is played brilliantly by Ben Kingsley in the Trevor Nunn movie, if only because I kept on mistaking him for Patrick Stewart) pretty much form a rather major plot in this particular play, a plot that pretty much wants to make me shake my head at the whole sordid episode.

Initially I was rather sympathetic towards poor Malvolio. He was only doing the job that a faithful servant would be expected to do, and in a way, when people are making such a racket in the middle of the night, it is the faithful servant that comes to put of stop to it. Basically what we have are a bunch of children that simply want to get back at the parent who seems to spoil their fun. However, when you consider that Malvolio is so dull that he actually believes that a random letter that he finds on the ground was written by his mistress was actually legit, you do have to wonder at the poor guy's sense of reality. In a way, he gets so caught up in this falsified sense of love that he ends up losing all sense of reality. So, when people begin to accuse him of being mad, maybe it is that case that he really is mad.

Now, before I get into the whole cross gender/androginous aspect, I do want to make a comment about one of the sayings that does come out of the play, and in fact first appears in the letter to Malvolio. Some are born great; some achieve greatness; and some have greatness thrust upon them. This line comes up a number of times, which is rather odd in a play that Samual Pepys pretty much describes as a 'silly play' and others have indicated was written during the period when Shakespeare was pretty much so up himself that he believed that anything that he wrote would be successful (sounds like a few Hollywood directors that are running around now, isn't that right Spielburg?).

When I think about this line, I cannot help applying in to some rather famous Christian characters, though funnily enough, I cannot seem to find a biblical character who actually achieved greatness. In the Bible they were either born great (such as Jesus Christ) or had greatness thrust upon them (such as Moses and King David). If there is one who did achieve greatness, maybe it was Solomon because of his wisdom, but the whole idea of achieving greatness seems to come down to the idea that one can achieve greatness through their own power, while those that are born great tend to have had this stated beforehand, and those who have had greatness thrust upon them (that is such a cool concept, having greatness thrust upon oneself) are those (such as Moses) who have been told by God to go and do something and have had some doubt about whether they could actually do it. However, I suspect that you could put Joseph and Daniel into the category of achieving greatness, even if it only has to do with the fact that they trusted God implicity and as such were elevated to some of the highest positions in their respective lands.

Now, some of the commentaries on the whole cross dressing aspect of the play seems to reek too much of our modern understanding of society, Okay, the whole idea that love can pretty much transcend the boundaries of gender does has a point, but this type of love is not necessarily the romantic love that we understand (though we must remember that the love that we see in this play is very much romantic love). Shakespeare is not supporting homosexual love, in a sense, because it does come out that the main characters who marry end up being heterosexual, and while Trevor Nunn does suspect some illicit homosexual attraction between Viola and Duke Orsino, this has more to do with the comic aspect of the play, in that the attraction between the two is really heterosexual, but because Orsino does not realise that Viola is in fact a woman, he does not understand the nature of the attraction. However, also remember that Viola is constantly rebuking Olivia's advances, despite the fact that Olivia does not realise that Viola is in fact a woman.

Remember, in Shakespearian plays, the cross dressing is always, without fail, one way. It is always the woman who is disguising themselves as a man, never the other way around. This is something that is of particular importance in Elizabethan England where we have a woman on the throne who is taking the role of a man. This is all about empowerment for the woman (an in some cases protection because the woman was a lot more vulnerable than a man). Also note that when Viola does get into a fight she simply does not know how to handle herself, and it is only the timely intervention of Antonio that ends up saving her.

Now, I will not comment on As You Like It here, the second of the three Shakespearian plays that involves cross dressing, namely because I am not as familiar with it as the other play, Merchant of Venice. Once again, the cross dressing has nothing to do with gender, or androginy, but rather it has to do with the woman taking the role of the man so that she may be able to use her superior intellect to save the one she loves. As a woman, she would never have been able to preside over the hearing, but by disguising herself as a man, she was able to do so. This is not a question of destroying the so called gender cage, but rather exposing the inequality that existed at the time. Queen Elizabeth was as effective a monarch as many of the monarchs that came before her, and the fact that she was a woman, only went to prove how the issue of sex had nothing to do with one's ability to perform the job.

For those who are interested, I have written a blog post on the play as well, though it has more to do with a recent performance that I saw. However, I do take an opposite view to what I wrote here, considering it to be little more than a soppy romance.
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Reading Progress

September 5, 1998 – Started Reading
September 6, 1998 – Finished Reading
June 10, 2007 – Started Reading
June 12, 2007 – Finished Reading
January 15, 2013 – Started Reading
January 15, 2013 – Shelved
January 17, 2013 – Shelved as: comedy
January 17, 2013 – Finished Reading

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