Twelfth Night Twelfth Night Literary Criticism (Vol. 26)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)


The earliest account of Twelfth Night on the stage comes from the diary of the barrister John Manningham who witnessed a performance of a play entitled "Twelve night or what you will" at the Middle Temple on 2 February 1602. Scholars assume that the play was enacted by Shakespeare's company, the LORD CHAMBERLAIN'S MEN. Manningham singled out for particular praise the character of Malvolio, whose deception he described as "a good device," thereby prefiguring the most dominant trend in the staging of Twelfth Night for the next four centuries. In the reign of King James I there were two further presentations of the play, both of them at court. The first was performed by the KING'S MEN on 6 April 1618; when the play was next performed, in 1623, it was known simply by the name of its most popular character, Malvolio. With the reopening of the theaters after the Restoration (1660), an adaptation of Twelfth Night was performed several times by Sir William D'Avenant's company, the Duke of York's Men. The celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys witnessed three different performances of the play between 1661 and 1669, none of which he praised. Scholars suggest that the romantic nature of the comedy failed to suit the tastes of the late seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, however, Twelfth Night became established as a popular favorite on the London stage. David Garrick presented the play at DRURY LANE in January 1741. The cast included Kitty Clive as Olivia, Hannah Pritchard as Viola, and Charles Macklin as Malvolio, a role which he enacted with acclaim for many years after. Throughout the rest of the century Twelfth Night was performed on a yearly basis at Drury Lane and COVENT GARDEN, where the principal actor invariably took the part of Malvolio.

The early nineteenth century witnessed profound changes in the interpretation of Shakespearean drama by prominent actor-managers. In particular, emphasis was placed on the playwright's fusion of festive, musical, and spectacular elements. This trend was inaugurated by Frederick Reynolds, who in 1820 presented an operatic adaptation of Twelfth Night at Covent Garden. The text was heavily interpolated and embellished with musical interludes derived from The Sonnets, The Tempest, and Venus and Adonis, among other Shakespearean works. The emphasis on pageantry and music in Twelfth Night persisted in the nineteenth century, but was subjected to noteworthy refinements by successive actor-managers. Samuel Phelps, the actor-manager of SADLER'S WELLS, staged noteworthy productions in 1847 and 1858. Presenting Malvolio as a Spanish Golden Age hidalgo, Phelps transformed the steward into what a reviewer in the Weekly Dispatch described as a figure of "frozen calm" and "solidified presumption." In September 1850 Charles Kean presented a scenically lavish revival of the play at the NEW PRINCESS THEATRE, with his wife, Ellen Tree, winning acclaim in the role of Viola. Far more visually stunning, however, was Henry Irving's 1884 production at the LYCEUM THEATRE. Irving cut the music and songs of the play, employing instead spectacular scenery comprised of sixteen different set designs. Irving himself took the role of Malvolio, portraying the character as a Spanish Golden Age figure reminiscent of Don Quixote. He eschewed a comic interpretation of the role, highlighting rather what he perceived to be the character's tragic nuances. Thus, Malvolio's scene in the "dark house" (Act IV), was played, according to William Archer, in a "nerveless state of prostrate dejection." Frank Benson commented that Irving's conception of the role compromised the casting of the other performances: "the ladies were too mature and, what was almost equally disastrous, the comedians were not funny; the sprightly Feste was played as a decrepit old man and Fabian was the brightest spark of the plotters." During the first performance of this production the audience responded with apathy until the finale, when Irving was interrupted by booing...

(The entire section is 185,417 words.)