And so my long and arduous stream of Shakespeare reviews begins (as spurred by required readings in my current English course). I’d apologize, but we all need a little Will in our lives every now and again, huh? And with that quick wit of his, I was quite excited to read Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night. But let me tell you, I have never before been more frustrated with a play in my entire life.
No no no, not in a, “oh, sweet young thing doesn’t understand Shakespeare,” kind of way. In a, “wow, these characters are really grinding my gears” kind of way. And more than anything else, I was frustrated by the fact that this comedy of errors is not funny. Don’t get me wrong, it does follow the typical “comic” path of the plot being driven by mistaken identities and people playing tricks on others for sport with unforeseeable consequence until the ultimate, tidy end, with many a loving union. But you don’t read Shakespeare for a unique story (in fact, they are often considered quite simple and generic): you read his works for the language, and I just found Twelfth Night to be far less clever and exploratory in regards to the possibilities of language than I was expecting. In fact, most of the puns are ridiculously self-explanatory and straightforward, which quickly becomes tiring.
As to what actually happens in the play, if your memory of the Amanda Bynes “at least one movie every year featuring a montage where she dresses in silly things and usually dances while doing so” era still serves you well, then you probably have at least a vague idea of the plotline. If not, then here’s a lengthy rundown:
Twelfth Night is a play starts out with a young Countess, Olivia, who has just lost her brother, refusing to take any suitors until she has grieved him for seven years. That would be all well and good, were it not for the fact that a young Duke, Orsino, is pining for her hand in marriage, all while selfishly wallowing in his dejected state of unrequited love. At the same time, Olivia also has two other suitors, in the form of an eager young man who wants nothing more than to be a Count, Malvolio, and her uncle’s foolish drinking-friend, Sir Andrew.
Meanwhile, on the island of Illyria in which this story is taking place, a young woman named Viola washes ashore after she and her brother, Sebastian, are shipwrecked. She believes her brother to be dead at sea, but rather than forcing herself to needlessly grieve like Olivia, she decides to disguise herself as a male eunuch named Cesario, and work for the Duke. Upon hearing of this Duke, she quickly asks if he is a bachelor, and as such, it seems like her intentions are likely in finding love for herself. But things don’t work so easily for poor Viola, as she is put to the task of wooing Olivia for her master, Orsino, and then the crazy ties of love get all crossed and mangled. Some serious spontaneous trait inference goes on here, as Olivia takes Cesario’s intent of love on behalf of Orsino as his own feelings, and as such, Olivia is quickly taken with Cesario, not knowing that Cesario is in fact a woman. Orisno, likewise, starts to form a close bond to Cesario, also developing feelings with the disguised woman of a loving sort. And of course, Viola herself is falling harder every day for Orsino, given that he is confiding in her his deepest self, just like he would to his closest male friend.
The layers of complication just get worse and worse when a worker for the house of the Countess, Maria, as well as Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch, decide to play Malvolio for a fool, and make him believe that Olivia has feelings for him when he really does not. Malvolio is soon enraged when he sees that he has been duped, and also sees Olivia’s love for Cesario, and chooses to fight Viola to the death for Olivia. Poor girl couldn’t have seen that coming! Fortunately, the close friend of her brother, Antonio, saves her from fighting in this instance. As it turns out, Sebastian and his friend did not die on the ocean, yet for some reason, Viola just can’t believe this (even when they meet face to face later on). Upon Sebastian arriving in Illyria to the house of the Countess, she immediately believes him to be Cesario, and they quickly marry, which causes only more anger with the other suitors, including Orsino, who then wishes to kill Viola, as he believes Cesario betrayed him into stealing his intended bride for himself.
Boy oh boy, what a tangled web we have weaved! But of course, this is a Shakespearean comedy, and everything is well in the end, when the two siblings are reunited and Viola’s guise revealed. Orsino is then free to take Viola as his bride, as they have formed such a bond while she was in his service as Cesario. Likewise, Viola’s disguise and interaction with Olivia has taken her out of her grief for her brother, and opened Olivia up to the love of Sebastian. Tada! And did I mention that there is a clever fool, Feste, running around, making snide and profound remarks all the time? In a sense, he really gets the last laugh.
Now, the plot itself is interesting and has many little ties of complication, but my biggest frustrations stemmed (as I mentioned earlier) from the simplistic humor and wordplay used throughout the play. There were so many opportunities that I just saw as being wasted, given all the tricks at play throughout the whole thing. Not to mention some bristling imagery that was unappealingly out of place (in my opinion), such as the idea of pickling and preserving the love of Olivia's brother like a mummy... Or something.
In addition, the characters really started to get on my nerves by the end of the play. For example, Olivia: Olivia is like the girl in high school that every guy has a crush on, and none of the other girls have any idea why. Sure, she is beautiful, but she has a bland personality and just wants to mope about her brother for years, swearing off men as she does so, yet still falling in love in an instant (oh hey, Taylor Swift!). You’d just like to think that maybe there was some other facet to her, like most of the women in Shakespeare’s other comedies (I’m thinking, the intelligence of Portia in The Merchant of Venice, you know?), and not just her beauty which draws men to her hand.
Furthermore, Maria (Olivia’s serving-woman) was just a little gnat in my head throughout the entire course of action. Like, what is your problem, Maria? All she does is cause trouble and want to rise to a higher-status position. Do you really think that messing with the suitors of your employer and making a fool of nobility is a good way to make a positive mark, Maria? I know, psychological realism wasn’t really a big deal back during the time that this play was written, so we are to take Maria as an intrinsically duplicitous troublemaker in character and have that be enough. But I want to know more about why she does these things, lest I feel a need to say, “Gettin’ real tired of your shit, Maria,” every time she opens her wily mouth.
Oh, and how everyone just seemed really cool with the fact that Orsino’s eunuch had been a female in a male’s position all along (just because things worked out so nicely) also kind of irked me. Mostly because it made me wonder how that could be when you always hear about how big of a deal and how taboo it was for women to pretend to be men “back in the day”. I mean, of course it was a big deal, but I’m just saying that that it makes tales like Shakespeare in Love ever-more exhausting.
I know, I’m being such a grumpy-Gus about Twelfth Night, but that’s not to say that there aren’t some redeeming qualities to it. As I mentioned before, despite the fact that Shakespearean comedies often follow predictable, simple plots, this one had some different levels of conflict to it which created interest and depth. Also, it’s always good to see examples of stories that show that homosexuality was present before the 20th century (like many uninformed young writers seem to believe nowadays, at least on the most sparkly parts of the Internet, that is). When I say that, I’m not talking about the fact that various people fell in love with Viola in her disguise, but Sebastian’s friend, Antonio, shows ridiculous devotion to Sebastian, which verges on a state of unrequited love; Antonio’s feelings for Sebastian basically jump right out of the realm of subtext and into your face, so no, I don’t think I’m reading too much into it.
In the end, I can appreciate what Shakespeare was doing with this story, especially for the time in which it was written. However, given that I am reading it now, I think that maybe my needs as an audience are a bit different, and I am looking for different things. Also, I’ve always been more of a Shakespearean tragedy kind of girl, even though the comedies are typically beyond clever. I don’t really know why, all I know is that I had high expectations for this play that didn’t get met, leading me to label Twelfth Night as a two star read.