Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens in the play
- Orsino, Duke of Illyria, expresses his love for the mourning Lady Olivia, who is not admitting the Duke’s men sent to woo for him.
- Viola arrives in Illyria after a shipwreck, which seems to have killed her twin brother. She decides to disguise herself as a man and serve the Duke.
- Olivia’s gentlewoman, Maria, chides Olivia’s kinsman, Sir Toby Belch, for staying out too late, drinking too much, and bringing in a foolish knight, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, to woo Olivia.
- The Duke sends his new servant, Cesario (the disguised Viola), to woo Olivia for him. Cesario/Viola confesses “whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.”
- Olivia, Maria, and Malvolio all chide the Clown for being absent from Olivia’s household. The Clown quickly regains Olivia’s favor while earning the scorn of Malvolio.
- Cesario arrives to woo Olivia for the Duke; Olivia says she cannot love the Duke; when Cesario leaves, Olivia confesses affection for Cesario. Olivia then pretends that Cesario gave her a ring from the Duke and sends Malvolio to run after Cesario and return the ring.
- Malvolio “returns” the ring and Cesario/Viola realizes Olivia is in love with him/her.
- Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, is still alive and tells the man who saved him, Antonio, that his sister is drowned and that he must leave Antonio to go to Orsino’s court. After Sebastian departs, Antonio confesses he has enemies in Orsino’s court, but he will follow Sebastian anyway.
- Toby, Sir Andrew, and the Clown stay up late singing and drinking. Maria advises them to be quieter; Malvolio then breaks up the party and threatens to report them all to Olivia.
- Maria devises a plan to put Malvolio in his place.
- Cesario/Viola falls more in love with the Duke.
- Olivia falls more in love with Cesario/Viola.
- Sebastian arrives in Illyria.
- Yellow stockings, dark rooms, challenges, and marriage proposals ensue.
Notes from the Director
Melancholy and Delight
Twelfth Night begins in deepest mourning. After the death of her father and brother, Olivia has called a halt to the forward motion of life. Even though she’s beautiful and unmarried, and even though she now controls her family’s estate, Olivia will admit no suitors – none – for seven years. Until then, even the sun will not behold her face,
But like a cloistress she will veiled walk,
And water once a day her chamber round
With eye-offending brine.
Olivia’s decision to “persever in obstinate condolement” has caused an unnatural hiatus in the natural progress of life. Lovesick Orsino is suspended in a kind of “deadly life,” ready to woo like a Renaissance courtier, but with no access to his beloved. Sir Toby is trying to keep things lively, but it’s not easy to be a reveler in a house of mourning. Even the Fool has not been seen since the death of Olivia’s father. Like a broken record, life in Illyria is absolutely stuck. There’s nothing left to do but wait it out, and suffer the while.
And this is one of the most delightful comedies ever written?
Well, yes. Twelfth Night’s almost Chekhovian balance of melancholy and delight, of pathos and humor, makes it unique among Shakespeare’s comedies. As we approach the first day of rehearsal for the 2004/05 S2 productions, I think our challenge is not only to strike an appropriate balance between these contrasting tones, but to find a way to allow these opposites to feed each other. It’s not about juxtaposition. It’s about simultaneity. The Elizabethans had a famous catch phrase, coincidentia oppositorum, which described the aesthetic phenomenon of having your cake and eating it, too. It doesn’t just mean a balance between contrasting elements; it means both elements present in the same moment. When Sir Andrew pipes up with “I was adored once, too,” it breaks your heart, and you want to bust out laughing. Twelfth Night is a song meant to be sun “both high and low.” It’s forlorn and upbeat, both at one, like a New Orleans funeral march.
The gender issues in the play are also in a delightful state of both-at-once. To my mind, Viola’s male drag is different than Rosalind’s in As You Like It – more than a mere disguise, it’s a way of coping with her twin’s drowning by assuming his exterior form. “I my brother know / Yet living in my glass.” It’s telling that Shakespeare doesn’t reveal the central character’s given name until the last scene of the play. We know her only as “Cesario,” a construction of identity in which Viola and Sebastian are both contained: “I am all the daughters of my father’s house. And all the brothers too. And yet I know not.” She’s man. She’s woman. She’s what you will.
The play insistently suggests that love exists in a sphere beyond the control of will. It’s something that’s caught like a disease, something that creeps in at one’s eyes, and once caught, pursues you like fell and cruel hounds. When we heed love’s call, as we surely must, we open ourselves up to despair and pain, not to mention loneliness, cruelty, confusion, and humiliation. And yet, what choice do we have? When Olivia gives in to her desire for Cesario, she elects to rejoin the world of the living:
Fate, show thy force, ourselves we do not owe.
What is decreed must be, and be this so.
To surrender to love, to give oneself over to loving another person – man or woman or man-playing-woman-playing-man – cannot be wrong. It’s an essential part of the experience of being alive, as natural as laughter and death and the passage of time.
As in a piece of music, these themes – the universality and unpredictability of love, the inevitability of death, the inexorable movement of time – are restated in another key in the comic subplot with Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria, and Malvolio. They continually remind us that, for all the lofty suffering of the lovers, life consists mostly of eating and drinking. Sir Toby’s confrontation of Malvolio is a concise repudiation of those who would try to restrict a full experience of life’s pleasures: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
Sir Toby’s aging bachelorhood is sufficient evidence that – as Feste puts it in his song – “youth’s a stuff ’twill not endure.” Nevertheless, we can take comfort in the fact that, in Illyria at least, there will always be more cakes and ale.