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In keeping with the motif of revelry and the festivities of the last night of Christmastime, Sir Toby and Maria engage in light banter with one another. Rather frivolously, too, Sir Toby considers his friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, as a better mate to his niece Olivia than the Duke Orsino. That he thinks in such a manner is an indication of his sense of "all's fair in love." This attitude underscores Shakespeare's theme of the "universality of love," also, as Sir Toby considers Sir Andrew the equal of any man, even Duke Orsino.
In their verbal exchange, then, Sir Toby suggests Sir Andrew as a suitor for his niece Olivia, declaring that he can speak three or four languages and "hath all the good gifts of nature"(1.3.25). To this Maria retorts,
He hath indeed, almost natural-: for besides that he's
a fool, he's a great quarreler; and but that he hath the gift
of a coward to allay the gust he hath in quarrelling, 'tis
thought among the prudent he would quickly have the gift
of a grave.(1.3.26-30)
Here Maria makes a pun on the word natural that Sir Toby has employed. In Shakespeare's time natural also meant idiot in the vernacular. In addition, this use of a word twice with a new meaning in the second instance is a figurative device called ploce. With these playful uses of words, Sir Toby and Maria continue their banter.
In this passage, Shakespeare puns, one of his characteristic ploys: did Shakespeare ever meet a pun he could resist?
Here, we are learning about the wealthy Sir Andrew Aguecheek, whose merits Sir Toby is pushing. Sir Toby describes Sir Andrew as a cultured man who plays a musical instrument (the "viol-de-gamboys"), speaks three or four languages and "hath all the good gifts of nature."
Maria, Olivia's maid, will have none of that. She knows Sir Andrew is a fool and says so bluntly, punning on Sir Toby's use of the word "nature." Nature could mean natural, as in inborn, as it does today, and Toby clearly means to imply that Andrew is naturally talented at those things—music, languages—likely to appeal in romance to a young woman like Oliva.
But in Shakespeare's time the word natural could also mean, according to the Bevington edition of Shakespeare, a "born idiot." What Maria means when she uses the word is that rather than being born with natural talents, Sir Andrew was born a "fool." Further, "natural" at that time could mean someone was illegitimate or, in the vernacular, a "bastard" (and, of course, a bastard is a word for an unpleasant, back-stabbing person). Maria's list of Andrew's attributes coincide with those of a bastard or unpleasant person: he is a "great quarreller" and a "coward," she says, not to mention a drunkard. One could be forgiven for not loving Andrew after that relentless assessment!
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