Twelfth Night Double Dating in Twelfth Night
by William Shakespeare

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Double Dating in Twelfth Night

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Laurie Osborne, Oakland University/Colby College

Simultaneity and coincidence are the essential features which connect Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night. Twins, after all, are born at the same time and coincide in one womb. Indeed, Sebastian identifies himself as Viola's twin, rather than merely her brother: "He [Sebastian of Messaline] left behind him myself and a sister, both born in an hour: if the heavens had been pleased, would we had so ended!"1 Though Viola never reveals that her brother is her twin until she is mistaken for him, Sebastian begins his existence in the play as a twin and, just as importantly, as a displaced twin. His lament for lost simultaneity is followed in the next scene by Viola's response to her own emotional quandary: "O time, thou must untangle this, not I, / It is too hard a knot for me t'untie" (2.2.39-40). For both twins, time is the deciding factor: Sebastian regrets the failure of simultaneity in his experience while Viola commits herself to time, both when she adopts her male disguise and when she discovers the situation which that disguise has provoked.2 By rescuing Sebastian, Antonio has, from Sebastian's perspective, disrupted the simultaneity of the twins' experience, which arose from their birth at the same time and was reflected in their crucial similarity of feature. What was once a twinned existence in brother and sister becomes a string of coincidences in Illyria. Whereas before they experienced life at the same time (and would have died at the same time), when the play begins their lives are only coincidentally the same. Both are rescued and befriended by a ship's captain; both set down in Illyria; both decide to serve Duke Orsino; and both are caught in the interplay between Olivia's household and the Duke's. The events which occur to them are similar but no longer identical.

In consequence, a minor but fascinating textual problem develops in Twelfth Night. As Dennis Huston succinctly puts it, "Sebastian and Viola collide spatially when they are temporally almost three months apart."3 The doubled time experienced by the twins arises from two unnecessarily specific temporal references, one which precedes the sequence of scenes which causes the problem and one which follows those scenes. Before Viola leaves the Duke to woo Olivia on his behalf, Valentine, noting how fond the Duke has become of his new page, draws her attention to the fact that "he [the Duke] hath known you but three days" (1.4.2-3). In the middle of the conversation between Viola and Olivia which immediately follows, after she parts company with Olivia in act 1, scene 5 and before she receives from Malvolio the ring Olivia has sent after her in act 2, scene 2, Sebastian lands in Illyria with Antonio. His first appearance in act 2, scene 1 would cause no controversy except that in act 5 Antonio insists that Sebastian has just arrived that day and has been with Antonio "for three months before" (5.1.92). During the three days in which Orsino has come to trust Cesario, Sebastian has passed three months with Antonio. Sebastian's lament for lost simultaneity is made literal in the context of the major differences between the twins' experiences: Viola becomes enamored of Orsino in three days, and Sebastian becomes the beloved of Antonio in three months.

This temporal disjunction provokes interesting responses from both critics and producers of the play. The standard critical explanation is that the incongruity is not noticeable to a spectator watching the action. As John Dover Wilson puts it, "It is only evident to the careful reader, the spectator would notice nothing wrong."4 When Twelfth Night becomes a text to be read rather than a performance which has a promptbook, the discrepancy becomes noticeable; the reader facing the text recognizes the references to time. Perhaps because Twelfth Night is so thoroughly a text as well as a play by the early 1700s, a number of productions, as presented in both promptbooks and performance editions,...

(The entire section is 6,724 words.)