Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on July 28, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 967

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, considered by many scholars to be one of the finest Elizabethan romantic comedies, offers a penetrating examination of gender roles, sexual attraction, and the nature of love. The play relates the adventures of the shipwrecked Viola, who disguises herself as a male and takes a position in the court of Orsino. The disguised Viola, who calls herself Cesario, falls in love with Orsino. Orsino, however, is in love with Olivia, and sends Viola/Cesario to woo Olivia on his behalf. The situation spins further out of control when Olivia falls in love with the disguised Viola. The play's subplot centers on the puritanical Malvolio and the punishment he endures at the hands of his fellow servants. Modern critics, as well as directors of the stage and screen, are interested in the complexities of the plot and subplot, and the relation between the two, as well as the play's interpretation of gender roles, sexuality, and love. Other areas of critical concern include the play's relationship to Elizabethan culture and issues pertaining to its genre and structure.

Examining Twelfth Night as an example of festive comedy, Elias Schwartz (1967) contends that the play's merriment and celebratory atmosphere reveal a vision of life as good and joyful, despite its admitted limitations. Schwartz also contrasts the play with satiric comedy—in which characters are often disliked and become objects of derision—and emphasizes that the play should not be viewed as satire. In his study of Twelfth Night's structure, Porter Williams, Jr. (see Further Reading) identifies a connection between plot and theme. The mistakes the protagonists make, Williams argues, not only generate the action of the plot, but also reveal aspects of the play's underlying themes, which include deception and the nature of love. As critics attempt to unlock the relationship between the play's plot and subplot, they often focus on Malvolio, who is the center of the play's subplot. In their introduction to Twelfth Night, Roger Warren and Stanley Wells (1994) find that Malvolio serves as a means of binding the plot and subplot, and that his “gulling” provides additional insights into the play's treatment of love and the behavior of the lovers. Similarly, David Willbern (1978) identifies Malvolio with integration. In exploring Malvolio's relationship to the play's festive aspects, Willbern demonstrates that Malvolio's puritanical attempts to deny carnal passion in many ways reflects the illusion of romanticism explored in the main plot. According to the critic “both represent denials and sublimations.”

The play's highly charged sexual atmosphere makes Twelfth Night a popular choice for film and stage adaptation. In 1996, Trevor Nunn directed a film version of Twelfth Night in which he offered his interpretation of the play's sexual and gender issues. Donald Lyons (1997) regards the film as a success, praises the accomplishments of the principal actors, and observes that the film teases the boundaries of “heterosexual decorum” but never oversteps them. Like Lyons, Marla F. Magro and Mark Douglas (2001) find that Nunn's film maintains a heterosexual stance, and note that the film attempts to erase the play's homosexual undertones. Laurie Osborne (2002) also assesses Nunn's Twelfth Night, focusing on the director's reliance on film editing to provide a sense of character continuity. Robert Brustein (1998) reviews Nicholas Hytner's stage adaptation of Twelfth Night, performed at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. The critic contends that despite its Hollywood casting, including Helen Hunt as Viola and Kyra Sedgewick as Olivia, the production failed to explore the play's deeper issues and complexities. Brustein also states that Hunt's performance was “clean” and “clear,” whereas Sedgewick's Olivia was overly energetic. Similarly, David...

(This entire section contains 967 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Patrick Stearns (1998) describes Hunt's efforts as solid and sincere, but notes that Hunt overlooked the subtextual potential of Viola's character. Like Brustein, Stearns finds that Sedgewick went to comic extremes in her portrayal of Olivia. According to Ted Merwin (1999), the production lacked a sense of eroticism on several levels; for example, the stage design conveyed only languor, and the romance between Paul Rudd's Orsino and Hunt's Viola was never ignited. Merwin applauds the performances of supporting cast members, particularly Philip Bosco's Malvolio, but contends that the production as a whole failed to conveyTwelfth Night's emotional disorder and eventual resolution.

Approaching the play's gender issues through an analysis of Viola's disguise, Keir Elam (1996) observes that Viola intends to disguise herself not as a boy, but as a eunuch. Elam explores the cultural history of castration as it relates to drama in general and Viola's role in Twelfth Night in particular. Elam demonstrates that Viola's disguise conveys her desire to hide her own biological sexuality, as well as her apparent masculinity, in order to shield herself entirely from all manner of sexual threats. Elam further describes Viola's eunuch disguise as a gesture of self-effacement with historical and theatrical significance. Critics are also interested in the ways Twelfth Night reflects Renaissance England's society and culture. John Kerrigan (1997) studies the play within the context of the Renaissance conventions regarding secrecy and gossip, finding that gossip is a means—both in early modern society and in the play—of maintaining social bonds. Kerrigan also discusses the affinity between Cesario and Malvolio, noting that as servants both characters are expected to be discreet. Angela Hurworth (1999) explores the representation of deception, or gulling, in Twelfth Night. Hurworth highlights the links between criminal deception as it is described in Elizabethan narratives of the “underworld” and the deception found in the play. Twelfth Night also reflects religious ideas prevalent in Renaissance England. Paul Dean (2001) finds that the play fuses Renaissance Platonic tradition and the theology of St. Augustine relating to the doctrine of the Trinity. Using the device of twins, Dean argues, Shakespeare explored the notion that two individuals are united as one through love, a concept that was understood by Neoplatonists to be analogous to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Donald Lyons (review date February 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755

SOURCE: Lyons, Donald. Review of Twelfth Night.Commentary 103 (February 1997): 59-60.

[In the following review of Trevor Nunn's 1996 film version of Twelfth Night, Lyons describes the effort as undeniably successful, and finds that although the film teases the boundaries of “heterosexual decorum,” it never oversteps them. Additionally, Lyons praises the film's principal actors: Imogen Stubbs as Viola/Cesario, Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia, and Toby Stephens as Orsino.]

It is sometimes foolishly asserted—recently, for example, by the critic Anthony Lane in the New Yorker—that Shakespeare “works” better on the screen than in the theater. Those knotty iambic pentameters can be spoken softly, and hence understood; soliloquies can be rendered as voice-overs, and hence made dramatically plausible. But if theater conventions are artificial and limiting, the same is true of film, which is hardly the transparent or naturalistic medium it may appear to be. And quite apart from the issue of technique, there is the issue of interpretation: fashions in filming Shakespeare reflect the day as dimly or as brightly as does the mirror of the stage.

We are now in the midst of a mild movie renaissance for the Bard, with four new movies of different plays having been released in the last months alone. …

In addition to these two failures [Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet and Al Pacino's Looking for Richard], however, the current season has also given us large, bright, intelligent, and relatively straightforward versions of Hamlet and Twelfth Night.

But that brings us to Trevor Nunn's lovely Twelfth Night, a much more unqualified success. It too is a movie that flirts in passing with contemporary preoccupations, but in the end is content to know, love, and serve the Bard.

Nunn, the longtime head of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and recently appointed director of the Royal National Theater, has previously made two undistinguished films (Hedda and Lady Jane). This time he gets it right. He has set his tale in the same era as Branagh's Hamlet—a generic late-19th century—but his place, the mythical kingdom of Illyria, is much greener and more summery than Branagh's chilly Denmark. Nunn and his cinematographer Clive Tickner have cast a pre-Raphaelite glow over the film, which was shot along the wild coast and in the formal gardens of Cornwall. These settings work beautifully to complement the glow of the central story: a young woman impersonates a man and has to contend with both the attraction of another woman to her male persona and her own attraction to a man who treats her as a guy. Although the film exploits its erotic situations with a knowingness very much of the 1990's, Nunn resists every opportunity to turn sly flirtatiousness into campy gender-bending. Heterosexual decorum is teased but never “subverted.”.

The principals are also right on pitch. Imogen Stubbs, as the disguise-wearing Viola/Cesario, devotes less energy to parodying masculinity than to showing the awkwardness of loving and being beloved in the wrong places. Helena Bonham Carter, a pillar of British costume dramas who herself played Ophelia in the not-bad 1990 Franco Zeffirelli/Mel Gibson Hamlet, makes a surprisingly animated, sexy, and likably foolish Olivia, smitten with Viola/Cesario. Toby Stephens as Orsino, who is besotted with the unreceptive Olivia and shares his fond confidences with an in-turn-besotted Viola/Cesario, engagingly presents the figure of a man who can combine authority and modesty. The final resolution of all these confusions is an immensely pleasing and deft piece of romantic cinema.

This is a Twelfth Night that deserves to be seen and savored. And so, for all its missteps, does Branagh's Hamlet. The two plays had, in the trajectory of Shakespeare's career, some interesting connections. Twelfth Night was the last play of its kind, the last “festive comedy” he wrote; and it came right before Hamlet, which has been seen by scholars as a deliberate abandonment of comedy. As the critic C. L. Barber has noted, in Twelfth Night “the unnatural can appear only in outsiders, intruders who are mocked and expelled,” whereas in Hamlet “it is insiders who are unnatural.”

A mark of the playwright's genius was the ability to hold such antithetical ideas in so close and creative a tension. Likewise, a mark of good Shakespeare productions is to let his stories, ideas, and language breathe. By doing so, Kenneth Branagh and, especially, Trevor Nunn go some way toward redeeming the damage caused by the interposition of cute ideas—whether toxic, like Grunge Shakespeare, or relatively benign, like Method Shakespeare—between ourselves and the plays.

Elias Schwartz (essay date April 1967)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4895

SOURCE: Schwartz, Elias. “Twelfth Night and the Meaning of Shakespearean Comedy.” College English 28, no. 7 (April 1967): 508-19.

[In the following essay, Schwartz presents Twelfth Night as an example of “festive” comedy, in which the atmosphere of merriment expresses a vision of human life that focuses on life's joy, not its limitations. Schwartz additionally contrasts festive comedy with satiric comedy, emphasizing that the play should not be viewed as satire.]

Although Aristotle does not take up the nature of comedy in the Poetics, he does throw out a few remarks which are as intelligent and useful as anything that has been said on the subject. Comedy, he says, differs from tragedy in imitating men worse, rather than better, than we are. And he defines the laughable as a species of ugliness: “a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others.” We may derive from these remarks a fairly clear account of one kind of comedy—what might be called the satiric type. In satiric comedy, the characters are worse than we are, so that we do not identify ourselves with them. Even when painful things happen to these characters, we remain detached enough for these events to be painless for us. The activities of these characters, furthermore, never eventuates in pain for those with whom we do sympathize. Should this occur, the comic mood of the play would evaporate.

To such an esthetic disaster Ben Jonson comes perilously close in Volpone. I refer to the moment when it appears that nothing can prevent Volpone from ravishing Celia, one of the two decent people in the play. While Volpone is gulling the avaricious birds, we identify ourselves in some degree with Volpone. But here our concern for Celia, her helplessness, and the apparent certainty of her fate, make the scene painful rather than funny.

The sort of comedy Aristotle has in mind when he makes his few remarks is the kind where—as in Jonson and Molière—the satirized characters depart more or less from what author and audience assume to be proper behavior. This departure constitutes a kind of deformity which is not painful, and it makes us laugh. The norm from which such characters depart is usually the social code of a dominant class; the laughter is socially binding, promoting a sense of solidarity among the laughers and reinforcing the code by ridiculing any departure from it.

In Shakespeare's gay comedies, this Aristotelian formula does not work. His characters—the important ones, at any rate—are not worse than we are; on the contrary, they are better than we are or on the same level. They may be foolish, but only in the way that the best of men are foolish. The laughter they evoke is not satiric laughter, but indulgent laughter. We laugh, in a way, at ourselves, because we do not stand apart from, or look down on, these characters, but identify ourselves with them.

What keeps such a comedy from being painful? Chiefly plotting and tone. In Shakespeare's gay comedies, the plot and tone are so finely controlled that we never anticipate a serious outcome; we know that everything will turn out well in the end, no matter how foolishly these people behave. Their foolishness, moreover, is not a falling away from some implicit social code; it involves, rather, the inherent foolishness of human nature, the inborn limitations of human existence. And this foolishness is not ridiculed, but accepted, celebrated. The concerns of this life are viewed as ultimately trivial and foolish in the light of the next one; yet the joys of this life are acknowledged as real. Indeed, it is not only foolish but prideful to reject these transient delights, because this means rejecting one's humanity, setting oneself up as more than human.

This is the sort of comedy of which Shakespeare is the greatest master. He could write the satiric type too, but he was most at home in what C. L. Barber has called “festive” comedy.1 It was probably this type that Dr. Johnson had in mind when he remarked that Shakespeare was by nature a comic, rather than a tragic, writer. In any case, it is important to understand the distinctions I have made in order to interpret properly such a play as Twelfth Night, the most nearly perfect festive comedy that has come down to us.

For Twelfth Night is not a satiric comedy; nor is it a patchwork of inane revelry. Its meaning is commensurate with, and depends upon, its festive form and feeling. Its very merriment and festive ambience convey a profound and genial vision of human life. It is a vision of the goodness and joy in life despite its limitations—almost because of them; a vision of the foolishness of men and a full acceptance of folly, because such acceptance establishes man's proper place in the world, pulls down his vanity, makes the fullest enjoyment of life possible. The play is also touched with a curious, elusive sadness, deriving from the implicit recognition of the shortness of human life, an awareness that the best of worldly goods will soon be gone forever.

This complex attitude is eminently fitting in a play given the name of, and probably performed on, Twelfth Night, the last of the great Christmas holidays. It was a day climaxing the joy and license traditional on these days, a final moment of merriment before the days of order and sobriety to follow. “Holiday, for the Elizabethan sensibility,” writes C. L. Barber,

implied a contrast with “everyday,” when brightness falls from the air. Occasions like May-day and the Winter Revels, with their cult of natural vitality, were maintained within a civilization whose sad-brow view of life focused on the mortality implicit in vitality. The tolerant disillusion of Anglican or Catholic culture allowed nature to have its day, all the more headlong because it was only one day. But the release of that one day was understood to be a temporary license, a “misrule” which implied rule, so that the acceptance of nature was qualified. Holiday affirmations in praise of folly were limited by the underlying assumption that the natural in man is only one part of him, the part that will fade.

(Barber p. 601)

Orsino, Olivia, and Sir Toby are each foolish in their own way. Yet they are all lovable because they never take themselves too seriously; they are redeemed by an awareness of their own affectation. It is this elusive quality—shared by all the chief characters except Sir Andrew and Malvolio—which at once sets them apart as deserving their good fortune and guarantees that nothing really bad will happen to them. What makes Malvolio the “enemy” is not only his pharisaical egoism, but his lack of self-awareness, what we call today a sense of humor. In the festive world of Twelfth Night, this is the greatest, almost the only, sin.

The most prominent “device” of the play is a form of dramatic irony. Usually we associate dramatic irony with tragedy, especially Greek tragedy, where it serves to elicit a sense of bitter mockery at man's aspirations. When Oedipus says to his suppliant Thebans: “You have your several griefs, each for himself; / But my heart bears the weight of my own, and yours / And all my people's sorrows,” we discern a truth that he does not intend. We respond with mingled fascination and horror, for we know that this truth will be his undoing. In the Agamemnon, the irony is usually intended but the fictive hearer is unaware of it—as in Clytemnestra's double-edged assurance to Agamemnon: “Of pleasure found with other men, or any breath / Of scandal, I know no more than how to dip hot steel.”

Both these modes are used in Twelfth Night, but the effect is quite different. Instead of bitter mockery, we get a genial acceptance of the way things are. Instead of reluctantly acquiescing in the apparently inevitable but inscrutable order that directs an Oedipus or an Agamemnon to his doom, we whole-heartedly accept the order which brings the foolish to their senses.

This peculiar use of dramatic irony is closely related to the play's thematic heart. Everyone in the play is to some degree foolish, and everyone is to some degree fooled. Orsino is fooled by Viola, Olivia by Viola and Sebastian. Sir Toby and Fabian fool Viola and Sir Andrew, and the three men are fooled by her. Malvolio, of course, is fooled to the top of his bent, and, since he is the greatest fool of all, this is as it should be. Much of our pleasure in the play comes from our godlike knowledge of the truth of things as contrasted with the ignorance of those in the play. Such a double vision reinforces our sense of the generic folly of men, for those in the play are, after all, like us.

The most charming moments of the play involve this sort of light-hearted irony. In the fourth scene, the Duke (whom we suspect from the start to be falling in love with Cesario-Viola) sends Viola to Olivia for the first time. When Viola protests that she is not suitable for such a commission, the Duke replies:

… they shall yet belie thy happy years
That say thou art a man. Diana's lip
Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe
Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman's part.
                                                            … Prosper well in this,
And thou shalt live as freely as thy lord
To call his fortunes thine.

We know, of course, that Cesario is Viola (being played by a boy). So we take the Duke's first words in a sense that he does not intend—as, in this case, Viola herself must take them. There is a two-fold irony in his describing her as “semblative a woman's part,” because she is playing a role, just as the boy actor is playing her. The Duke's reference to Viola's voice—“as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound”—involves a whimsical double entendre: she is a maiden in the technical sense, and “organ” refers not only to her voice. There is, finally, some beforehand ironic pointing in the Duke's last lines: Viola will, as we know she longs to do, eventually call the Duke's fortunes hers.

An even more brilliant instance of the method occurs at II.iv.15ff. Here the Duke's tenderness, his ease in opening his heart to Cesario-Viola hints at submerged love, as though the loveliness of Viola has affected him in spite of her disguise, as though he responds unwittingly to Viola's love for him. Our full awareness of the situation lends the whole passage a kind of solemn whimsicality, the mood which the Duke has up to now merely affected. “If ever thou shalt love,” Orsino tells her, “In the sweet pangs of it remember me.” Viola does love and she has no need of reminders from her beloved. When the Duke almost guesses her secret:

My life upon 't, young though thou art, thine eye
Hath stay'd upon some favour that it loves,
Hath it not, boy?

the “boy” replies: “A little, by your favour.” (“Favour” is a three-way pun.)

What kind of woman is 't?
Of your complexion.
She is not worth thee then.

The charm of this is dramatic, not merely verbal. The “boy” tells the Duke that she loves him, and the Duke comes close to revealing his love for her in his estimate of the “boy's” worth. A woman of Orsino's temperament is not good enough for Cesario—so highly does Orsino regard his “boy.” But we know that a man of his temperament is good enough for Viola, because she already loves him, and, besides, his own humility makes him worthy.

When the Duke hears that Cesario's beloved is “About your years,” he objects: “Too old, by heaven!” But his judgment is affirmative as well as negative, for, if a woman of the Duke's age is too old for Cesario, a man of his age is just right for Viola. Viola listens with pounding heart as Orsino goes on to confirm her belief that he is for her:

                                                  Let still the woman take
An elder than herself: so wears she to him,
So sways she level in her husband's heart;
For, boy, however we do praise ourselves,
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and won,
Than women's are.

His acknowledgement of the fickleness of men's love is encouraging. But at the end of the passage we are brought back to the sweet melancholy of Viola's present predicament: she must, the Duke with unwitting cruelty reminds her, gather her rose buds while she may, women being

                                        as roses, whose fair flow'r,
Being once display'd doth fall that very hour.

At which, Viola, with the charming candor about sexual fulfillment that appears in Shakespeare's most maidenly maidens, laments:

And so they are; alas, that they are so!
To die, even when they to perfection grow!

Which conveys, not only her love-longing for Orsino, but her awareness that her time is flying.

On a more general level, the passage expresses a sense of the ultimate sadness of human life: that it is folly not to make the most of life's joys, folly not to seize the day which will endure but the twinkling of an eye. In the emotional logic of the play, this is the feeling that underlies the more explicit one that life is to be rejoiced in. This, indeed, is the burden of Feste's song in the previous scene:

What is love? 'Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty!
Youth's a stuff will not endure.

All the “wise” people in the play have this attitude; if they depart from it, their lapse is temporary. In Viola the attitude is manifest in the quality of the verse she speaks, as well as in her actions. And Orsino ought not to deceive us. His pangs of unrequited love are qualified by his affectation, by his parodying of Petrarchan attitudes and rhetoric:

O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence;
That instant was I turned into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me.

We are aware, therefore, that he does not take his own postures seriously, that he secretly smiles at his own affectation. He knows and accepts and so redeems his folly.

This ought to be made clear in the performance. Even while he protests his pain and eternal love for Olivia, it ought to be apparent that he is falling in love with Cesario-Viola. This will give the proper ironic touch when he protests (to Viola, who truly loves him) that

                                                            There is no woman's sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart …
                                                                      … Make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.

Viola replies with delicate pathos and irony that she knows

Too well what love women to men may owe.
In faith, they are as true of heart as we.
My father had a daughter lov'd a man
As it might be perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.

And she goes on to tell the sad tale of her own situation, in the course of which she glances at the true nature of Orsino's present passion:

We men may say more, swear more; but indeed
Our shows are more than will; for still we prove
Much in our vows but little in our love.

Orsino, in effect, is being upbraided for his departure from the norm of wisdom, for affecting a love he does not feel. Yet he never departs so far that he needs more than gentle correction by the whirligig of time. When the time comes, he will make an easy transition from Olivia to Viola.

Olivia, too, is gently chastised. She is more errant than Orsino, but she, too, is fundamentally wise. This is certified for us by her defense of Feste and the Fool's function and by her outspoken censure of Malvolio. Her fault, like Orsino's, consists in a kind of pride or egoism. It is exemplified early in the play by her attitude toward her brother's death. Viola, who serves throughout the play as a kind of norm of human wisdom, has also lost a brother—or so she believes. Her attitude is the proper one: saddened by his loss, she tempers her grief with the knowledge that he is in Elysium. And she sets out to make the most of life in spite of death by searching for love and marriage. She thus stands in emphatic contrast to Olivia, who, because death has taken a brother and a father, rejects not merely Orsino's suit, but life itself. “I see you what you are,” Viola tells her, “you are too proud.” And this, of course, is the point of Feste's witty proof that Olivia is a fool to mourn for a brother she believes is in Heaven.

Olivia will learn to accept and rejoice in life, and Viola in the garb of Cesario will be her teacher. It is right that she should learn of her limitations as a human being through a love which she cannot control. And it is right, too, that the one she loves should be a woman in disguise: this suggests the narcissistic streak in her nature which, ironically, assists in its own destruction. Olivia falls at first sight, overpowered by love and suddenly aware that she is no longer a master of her fate. “Ourselves we do not owe,” she says at the end of Act I. “What is decreed must be—and be this so!” In a way she is rationalizing her passion, but she is also speaking truer than she knows: she is becoming acquainted with the inherent irrationality of human nature, and when she accepts it in herself, she will be a fully human person, possessed of the wisdom appropriate to one. At first, as Viola discerns, she thinks she is not what she is. But we will see her happy yet, for her sin is venial, and, having atoned for it, she will receive her reward in Sebastian, a male Viola.

Though Sir Toby carries to an extreme the attitude of wanton revelry, he is never, in the world of the play, felt to be culpable. One reason for this is that he is intelligent and, even when far from sober, fully aware of what he is doing. Another is that he is deliberately opposing his niece's foolish attitude toward life and death. “What a plague means my niece to take the death of her brother thus? I am sure care's an enemy to life!” These are the first words we have from Sir Toby, and the play as a whole demonstrates that he is right. He is furthermore, Malvolio's natural and symbolic antagonist: his inebriate irresponsibility “becomes” in the dramatic context something positive; he is the leader of the forces opposing proud sobriety and pompous, priggish “virtue.” It is Sir Toby who speaks the famous sentence that might serve as epigraph for the play: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Sir Andrew Aguecheek is in one sense separate from the group I have just discussed; in another sense he is part of it. Utterly lacking in intelligence and self-awareness, Sir Andrew is yet never the object of satirical laughter—only Malvolio is. The laughter he evokes is indulgent, almost grateful; it is very close to the sort of laughter evoked by the blunders of children. Such laughter cannot be satirical, because the blunderer is not culpable. Sir Andrew's stupidity is natural: he was born that way and therein he is not guilty. He is a pure embodiment of that irrationality and blindness which, in the others, is but one of many traits.

He is, moreover, without guile or malice. One feels, indeed, that he would be incapable of performing a malicious act, even should he so desire. Our attitude toward him therefore approximates that of Sir Toby and his friends: they do not make fun of him, but have fun with him, all the while rather liking than despising him. It is his stupidity and cowardice and ineptitude, joined to his naive belief that he excels in all noble accomplishments, that provokes laughter, especially when he is expertly managed by Sir Toby. Is Sir Andrew a good dancer? “Wherefore,” exclaims Sir Toby, “are these gifts hid? … Why dost thou not go to church in a galliard and come home in a coranto? My very walk should be a jig. I would not so much as make water but in a sinka-pace.” Picture the hopelessly clumsy Sir Andrew affecting courtly grace, dancing a lively cinquepace while making water, as Sir Toby fancies him—such comic incongruity needs no analysis.

Perhaps the best instance of the peculiar comic effect Sir Andrew provides is the challenge he composes for Cesario-Viola. It is not merely the absurd nonsequiturs that are funny, but the fact that they have a kind of rationale in the character of Sir Andrew: they are at once stupid and pretending to wit, at once a revelation of cowardice and an attempt at courtly bravado. “Thou com'st to the Lady Olivia, and in my sight she uses thee kindly. But thou liest in thy throat; that is not the matter I challenge thee for. … I will waylay thee going home; where if it be thy chance to kill me—thou kill'st me like a rogue and a villain.” This has the form of a challenge, but it is really a plea that the recipient spare the life of the challenger. The absurdity is compounded in the wonderful Chaplinesque scene where the coward and the terrified Cesario-Viola perform their duel-dance of terror, neither one capable of hurting a fly.

Aguecheek's character, as Dr. Johnson puts it, is “that of natural fatuity, and is therefore not the proper prey of a satirist.” Malvolio, on the other hand, is the satirist's proper prey; he is the only one satirized in the play. Those who would sympathize with him, who would regard him as shabbily treated, ought to re-read Olivia's retort to Malvolio's attack on Feste. It is perhaps the only time that Olivia really bristles. “O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distemper'd appetite. To be generous, guiltless, and of free disposition, is to take those things for birdbolts that you deem cannon bullets.” But that is just what Malvolio will never learn. It is what Orsino and Olivia know both by social inheritance and natural endowment. It is a kind of natural nobility of soul, and its possession justifies the socially advantageous marriages of Viola, Sebastian and Maria. Aguecheek, who is too stupid to know about such matters, and who aspires to Olivia's hand, has, quite rightly, no chance at all.

But Malvolio is not stupid and he also aspires. This is why he is culpable: he ought to know better. But he is sick of self-love and tastes with a distempered appetite. He is further away than anyone in the play from that generous, guiltless, free disposition which constitutes the ideal of the play. If Olivia and Orsino are touched with egoism, Malvolio is sick of it. The trick that is played upon him is eminently appropriate, for he is, quite literally, mad. To take things for cannon bullets that are really birdbolts is to be out of touch with reality—and so to be mad. To regard folly and festivity as improper to this life is to be out of touch with truth—and so to be mad. To regard oneself as without defect is to think of oneself as more than human—and so to be mad.

Maria's trick is not, as is often assumed, the beginning of Malvolio's belief that he is loved by Olivia and that he eminently deserves her love. He believes this beforehand. As Samuel Johnson perceived, Malvolio “is betrayed to ridicule merely by his pride.” In II.iii Maria characterizes him as “so cramm'd, as he thinks, with excellencies that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him.” Just before she plants her letter, she tells us that he has been “yonder i' the sun practising behaviour to his own shadow this half hour.” And he has been obsessed by the idea of his elevation to the nobility through marriage. “'Tis but fortune; all is fortune. Maria once told me she did affect me; and I have heard herself come thus near, that, should she fancy, it should be one of my complexion.”

The truth is that Malvolio is mad: he is a classic instance of what the psychoanalyst calls erotomania.2 His treatment for madness is therefore well deserved, though apparently it is unsuccessful and the prognosis is bad. His attitude toward life—his self-love, his “seriousness”—are inexcusable in the world of the play, and we should never pity him. He profits not at all from his experience. When Feste twits him good-humoredly about his gulling, Malvolio is as straight-laced, as mean-minded, as ever: “I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” he growls.

But the others have learned enough about their own foolishness to accept it wisely, and their reward, as it should be, is marriage. Viola has Orsino, Olivia has Sebastian, Maria has Sir Toby. Aguecheek has but a cracked pate and an empty purse, but everyone, we feel, has what he deserves. Feste has his revenge—and a song to sing, one that sums up with charming inanity that genial acceptance of human joy and sorrow which is the pervading motive and feeling of the play.

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came to man's estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
'Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With tosspots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.
A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.

Satiric comedy, as we have noted, involves our dislike of those who are the objects of our laughter. Now such antipathy severely limits the possibilities of the form both as to thought and feeling. The characters in satiric comedy tend to be types, embodiments of particular vices or social aberrations, rather than “real” human beings. Festive comedy, on the other hand, deals with fully human creatures, with whom we sympathize and in whom we see ourselves—see, not just particular vices, but our complex humanity in all its richness and mortal foolishness. And we accept this with mind and heart. Shakespeare's comedy, Enid Welsford remarks, “is not a judgment but an embrace.”3 It presents a vision, not of types which depart from some social code or rationalized moral system, but of the ultimate absurdity of human life. It sees human beings, even at their best, as limited mortal creatures, and rather than lamenting this truth, celebrates it, rejoices in it.

It is often said that satiric comedy is a highly intellectual form. What this means, no doubt, is that the response of the audience to such a play is mainly cerebral. Aware of the code implicit in the play, the audience perceives the precise nature of departures from it and sits in judgment on the sinners. This is, of course, an intellectual response. Yet it is a very limited one. Compared to the profound—one might say, metaphysical—vision at the heart of Shakespeare's comedy, and to the whole-souled response elicited by it, satiric comedy seems not merely limited, but superficial.


  1. C. L. Barber in “The Saturnalian Pattern in Shakespeare's Comedy,” Sewanee Review, LIX (Oct. 1951), 593-611, has convincingly argued for the formal dependence of Shakespeare's comedies upon the kind of feeling and attitude embodied in the traditional festivals of the Christian year.

  2. Theodor Reik (The Need to be Loved, New York, 1963, pp. 53-54) observes that the trick played on Malvolio may be considered a device for projecting “mental processes cast on the external world. … If we think of the statements in the forged letter as externalizations of Malvolio's thoughts and emotions, we have a remarkably clear picture of erotomania with all its symptoms. … When … the inevitable disappointment occurs and Malvolio lands in prison, he is full of accusations against his mistress who has given him so many unmistakable signs of her love.”

  3. The Court Masque (New York, 1962), p. 290.

David Patrick Stearns (review date 17 July 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592

SOURCE: Stearns, David Patrick. “Twelfth Night: Helen Hunt Isn't Its Only Star.” USA Today (17 July 1998): 11E.

[In the following review, Stearns assesses the production of Twelfth Night directed by Nicholas Hytner, which featured Helen Hunt as Viola. Stearns describes the production as a whole as lavish but not overdone, and comments that Hunt's performance was sincere and strong but failed to fully reveal the subtextual potential of the role.]

In Broadway shorthand, the summer's hot ticket is “the Helen Hunt Twelfth Night.

That's how much theatergoers are anticipating the Oscar-winning actress' rare stage appearance. But truth be told, Lincoln Center's production (* * * out of four) of Shakespeare's misbegotten-love comedy is so sumptuously produced and provocatively cast that she could phone in her performance and no one would be terribly upset.

After so much Shakespeare that's been either low-budget or high-concept (a nice word for gimmicky), it's refreshing that this staging by Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George, Broadway's Carousel) treats Shakespeare's comedy with the kind of lavish but well-considered theatricality he delivered in Miss Saigon. Of course, that approach means a bit of vulgarity and some uneven casting—but love it or hate it, this is a major revival that simply must be seen.

Taking a cue from Shakespeare's freewheeling mixture of time, place and style, the production, which opened Thursday and runs through Aug. 30, conjures the imaginary kingdom of Illyria with a mixture of period flavors: Renaissance Italy dominates, though there are hints of the Middle East in the luxurious rugs and lily-strewn pools.

There are encroachments from the 20th century, too, but somehow they never seem jarringly postmodern. These touches mostly arise from interpretation rather than theatrical conceit: If a character walks on in a bow tie, it's a comment on his personality, not just a visual joke.

Water is a major metaphor in Bob Crowley's picturesque set, which is sort of a wading pool with platforms. Much like the forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the water cleanses, refreshes and transforms characters while driving the plot. After Viola survives the shipwreck that separates her from her brother, she emerges from a dream-like haze of ocean spray: It's a breathtaking effect, and it underscores that the event was a life-changing one—the kind of experience that might prompt bold decisions. Like, say, a woman's disguising herself as a man.

If it's all marvelously cinematic, too many performances have a kind of cinematic restraint. Much of the Act I setup is handled dryly. Even the great character actor Philip Bosco is uncharacteristically buttoned up, playing Malvolio's romantic disappointment more for tragedy than comedy. But most of the cast members blossom at some point, particularly Brian Murray as the sodden Toby Belch and David Patrick Kelly as an unusually scruffy, outspoken court jester.

Hunt (Viola) stays surprisingly earthbound. Though her interpretive choices are solid and sincerely executed, she doesn't dig deeply enough into the subtextual possibilities of a character who passes herself off as a man throughout much of the play. As the countess who mistakenly loves her, Kyra Sedgwick (Olivia) goes to such comic extremes that you'd never know she's an aristocrat. With his pantherlike moves, Paul Rudd makes his imposing Duke a man of unstoppable sexual desires, which lets him dominate a play that keeps him offstage for long periods.

In fact, the production seems so dedicated to his physical enshrinement (was there an executive order that his chest never be covered?) that he's a likely candidate for People magazine's “Sexiest Man Alive” moniker. Thank goodness he can also act.

Keir Elam (essay date spring 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19375

SOURCE: Elam, Keir. “The Fertile Eunuch: Twelfth Night, Early Modern Intercourse, and the Fruits of Castration.” Shakespeare Quarterly 47, no. 1 (spring 1996): 1-36.

[In the following essay, Elam uses Viola's reference to her cross-dressing, in which she states she will play the role of a eunuch, as an entry point for discussing the cultural history of castration as it appears in literature and the theater.]


This essay is like Hamlet's crab: it goes forward only by going backward. Or, to put it another way, it is a work in progress that has turned irresistibly into a work in regress. A work in progress because the historical and textual ground I cover here is too vast to allow anything resembling definitive results. And a work in regress because, while my original aim was to investigate the representation of social intercourse in Twelfth Night within the context of early modern codes of behavior, the further I proceed with the project, the more I find myself having to work my way back through the play's long theatrical ancestry. The difficulty—appropriately enough for this comedy—lies in the mediation between its twin modes of historicity: one social and synchronic (its place within the early modern context), the other dramatic and diachronic (its theatrical ancestry). The problem of reconciling these not altogether compatible twins is especially acute in the case of Twelfth Night but is certainly not limited to this play and indeed raises certain issues regarding the historical reading of Renaissance drama in general. What follows is therefore offered, inter alia, as a contribution to the debate concerning the historical contextualization of Renaissance dramatic texts.

The particular site of this meeting or clash between different kinds of historicity is Viola's enigmatic reference to her transvestism on her first appearance in the comedy. Viola, in planning to take on a new identity, refers to her disguise not as a form of crossdressing or a change of gender roles but as an actual canceling of biological sexuality. She is to play the part not of a boy but of a castrate:

                                                                                                    I'll serve this duke;
Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to him.
It may be worth thy pains; for I can sing,
And speak to him in many sorts of music,
That will allow me very worth his service.
What else may hap, to time I will commit;
Only shape thou thy silence to my wit.
Be you his eunuch, and your mute I'll be:
When my tongue blabs, then let mine eyes not see.


Twelfth Night is a play full of enigmas. Some of these, such as Feste's riddles, take the form of local verbal games. Others, beginning with the play's title, are of a broader interpretative kind, posing questions about meaning or reference which the events of the comedy do little to resolve. Viola's “as an eunuch” statement belongs to this second category in that its referential force apparently fails to correspond to later developments within the plot: “No further reference,” we are told, “is made to this part of [Viola's] plan,” since “in fact, Viola disguises herself as a page.”2 And if Viola explains her choice of role with “for I can sing,” the explanation itself has been considered problematical, as it makes “a proposal which is never realized in the play”3 given that Viola does not sing. What, then, is she referring to, or indeed talking about, in the earlier scene?

There are two broad ways of looking at Viola's statement, one literal and the other figurative. Both imply some kind of loss. If the statement is literal, paraphrasable as “in the guise of a eunuch,” then there seems to be something missing or “castrated” in the play itself. It has often been suggested that Viola's proposed mimesis of a castrate is merely the result of a Shakespearean change of plot or even simple absentmindedness, because no further mention is made—or so it is said—of her putative eunuchhood or of her musical ability: “Since this first idea is not picked up, some argue for a revision of the text.”4 But, as we will see, this may well not be the play's only allusion to the image of Viola as castrated male, and perhaps we should not be overhasty in assuming that Viola, or Shakespeare, merely abandons the announced role.

If we read the statement figuratively, as a species of simile—“as if I were a eunuch”—then we hypothesize not a missing plot but rather a notionally missing or castrated part, a part that Viola does not literally possess to begin with. But then why should she posit disfigurement and loss, in the form of castration, as a mode of gain, something to her advantage? From either point of view, the literal or the figurative, it remains one of the more intriguingly cryptic moments in the comedy. A moment that leads, I would argue, in the two quite different historical directions I mentioned: out to early modern society and back to the dramatic and theatrical past.


Let us begin with early modern society. Recent criticism of Shakespeare's comedies has made considerable advances in recovering their historical sitedness. One of the more promising and still open areas of exploration is what we might term the plays' microhistorical matrix, that is to say, the modes and codes of early modern social intercourse insofar as they constrain interpersonal “behavior” in the plays.5 What seems to lend itself especially well to the investigation of social intercourse in the drama, and in Twelfth Night in particular, is the abundant body of recent enquiry into the forms and norms of conduct in Renaissance Europe, especially the (predominantly French) brand of microhistoriography dealing with what is variously known as the vie privée or the vie quotidienne,6 and focusing on the development of privacy, of intimacy, and of minimal or minimalist modes of behavior within the boudoir, the walled garden, and the studiolo.

A pertinent case in point is the third volume of the Philippe Ariès-Georges Duby History of Private Life,7 dedicated to the spaces, signs, and conventions of the early modern “civility” that found its chief expression precisely in new forms of exchange: the exchange of gifts, of letters, of love tokens but also of conversational formulae, courtesy rituals, and codified gestures. The development of such intimacy rites in the Renaissance is part of what Norbert Elias terms the Prozes der Zivilisation, the “civilizing process,”8 and of what Ariès calls “privatisation,” the privatizing process, which he defines as the “transition … from a form of sociability in which private and public are confounded to one in which they are distinct, and in which the private may even subsume or curtail the public.”9 The primary sign of this new civilized privacy is the formation of a mode of one-to-one symbolic exchange that encompasses both the verbal and the corporeal.

Twelfth Night, with its twin Renaissance domestic settings, its intricate plot of “private” passions, and its correspondingly intimate discursive mode, seems a particularly suitable case for microhistorical treatment in Ariès's terms for early modern civility—the more so as it is a comedy intensely and constantly preoccupied with the very business of one-to-one symbolic exchange. The giving and interpreting of letters (Sir Andrew's challenge to Viola, “Olivia's” cryptic billet doux to Malvolio);10 of money (Sir Andrew's financing of Sir Toby, Viola's reward to the Captain, Antonio's entrusting of his purse to Sebastian); and of gifts, the traditional exchange-objects of Twelfth Night celebrations (Olivia's ring to Viola, Orsino's jewels to Olivia, Olivia's pearl to Sebastian), constitute the main stuff of the dramatic action.

The first of the comedy's exemplary exchanges of civility in Ariès's terms for Renaissance minimalism occurs in the second scene, in which the shipwrecked Viola, having just escaped death by drowning, is comforted by the ship's gentlemanly Captain and, in exchange for his kindly and encouraging discourse, gives him money (“For saying so, there's gold” [1.2.18]). The courteous Captain proceeds to praise first Orsino's perfect nobility, then Olivia's perfect virtue; he, in turn, is complimented by Viola for his “fair behavior” (l. 47), his linguistic and gestural signs of gentility. This ultrapolite dialogue is as close as one can get, given the dramatic circumstances, to Ariès's “literature of civility [which] reveals how the chivalric customs of the Middle Ages were transformed into rules of conduct and etiquette.”11

It is in this context of conversational etiquette or “fair behavior” that Viola announces her intention to assume a disguise, one that has itself been seen as an expression of early modern civility. “What enables Viola to bring off her role in disguise,” writes C. L. Barber, “is her perfect courtesy, in the large humanistic meaning of that term as the Renaissance used it, the corteziania of Castiglione. … [G]entility shows through her disguise as does the fact that she is a woman.”12

This brings us to the first possible interpretation of Viola's enigmatic reference. It is quite plausible to see Viola's “as an eunuch” allusion, in its figurative guise, as a manifestation of the corporeal decorum or inhibition that constituted an essential ingredient of early modern codes of civility: in Ariès's words, “A new modesty emerged, a new concern with hiding certain parts of the body and certain acts.”13 Viola intends to hide (“conceal me what I am” [1.2.53]) not only her innate sexuality but also her assumed masculinity, thereby ensuring a double barrier of chastity against potential sexual dangers in the world of Orsino's court and a doubled privatisation (through the self-privation of her “private” parts) in her personal dealings with the courtiers. “What I am, and what I would,” she tells Olivia, “are as secret as maidenhead” (1.5.218-19).

Barber's reference to Castiglione's corteziania is appropriate in this respect, since it is in the first great Renaissance courtesy book, The Courtier (1528), within the context of conversational exchange at the idealized court of Urbino, that both the rules of the new civility and the modes of female decorum are codified. As Michael Curtin suggests, “What was essential to courtesy-book conduct was the emergence of a pacified and orderly civil society out of the relatively violent and chaotic Middle Ages.”14 This pacified and orderly civil society in a sense “feminized” medieval militarism. It is fitting, therefore, that at the center of the courteous exchanges in The Courtier is a woman, the Countess Elisabetta Gonzaga, who exemplifies the virtues of wit and modesty, honesty (in the sense of chastity) and self-restraint. Cesare Gonzaga praises Elisabetta's selfless acceptance of the sexual importance of her husband, Duke Guidobaldo: the duchess “has lived with her husband for fifteen years like a widow, and … has not only steadfastly refused ever to tell this to anyone in the world but, after being urged by her own people to escape from this widowhood, chose rather to suffer exile, poverty and all kinds of hardship.”15 Elisabetta's heroic sexual self-denial is held up as a model of feminine honesty: if not “as an eunuch,” at least “like a widow.”

Other episodes in The Courtier confirm the virtues of female sexual abnegation. Cesare Gonzaga tells the “true” story of tragic self-sacrifice by a young girl who, being in love with a lord forced to marry another, pines from her unexpressed and unrealized desire,

“though the girl wisely concealed it and sought in every way possible to rid herself of desires which were now hopeless. All the while, she never faltered in her determination to remain chaste; and seeing that there was no honourable way in which she could have the one whom alone she adored, she chose not to wish for him in any way. … And with that firm resolve, the wretched girl, overcome by the most bitter anguish and wasted by her lingering passion, died after three years, preferring to renounce the joys and satisfaction for which she pined, and finally life itself, rather than her honour.”16

Gonzaga's story of death as erotic self-sacrifice is particularly pertinent to Viola's “as an eunuch” repression of her own sexuality, since it bears more than a generic resemblance to the story Viola later tells Orsino of her “sister”-self, who similarly wastes away from unexpressed desire:

My father had a daughter lov'd a man,
As it might be perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.
And what's her history?
A blank, my lord: she never told her love,
But let concealment like a worm i' th' bud
Feed on her damask cheek: she pin'd in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed? …
But died thy sister of her love, my boy?
I am all the daughters of my father's house,
And all the brothers too: and yet I know not.


Viola's celebrated “blank” suggests her emptied or castrated subjectivity through the cutting asunder of her desire for Orsino; it also suggests the virtual nature of her history, which remains to be written or performed, and in which her “concealment” might or might not end tragically, like Gonzaga's narrative. Moreover, the context of Viola's tale of female self-“castration” is analogous to that of Cesare Gonzaga's narrative: both stories are told in response to misogynistic affirmations of women's biological inferiority and incapacity for self-restraint. Gonzaga responds to Gaspare Pallavicino's argument that women are mistakes of nature, mere males manqués: “Nature … would, if possible, constantly bring forth men; and when a woman is born this is a mistake or defect, and contrary to Nature's wishes.” Such biological imperfection can be remedied, claims Pallavicino, only through sexual intercourse, whereby the woman receives what, thanks to nature's bungling, she lacks (the phallus): “because in the sexual act the woman is perfected by the man, whereas the man is made imperfect.” At the same time, the desperate search for the perfection that only intercourse can provide leads women to destructive promiscuity: “don't believe that men are more incontinent than women … countless evils arise from the incontinence of women which do not so from the incontinence of men.”17

Viola similarly responds to Orsino's contention that women are biologically and morally inferior because “they lack retention”—in the two senses that they lack the capacity for real love and that they lack self-restraint (with a possible third allusion to women's incontinence or uncontrollable menstrual flows18)—and are at the same time dominated by mere animal “appetite” (2.4.97, 98). The irony in Viola's situation, of course, is that in order to exercise the very capacity for love and restraint she attributes to women, she must dress as a man, albeit an imperfect or “castrated” man; her male disguise itself represents the self-punishing bridling of her sexuality. She is in danger of unwittingly confirming Pallavicino's contention that women aspire to be males in order to attain the perfection (or phallus) denied to them at birth: “every woman wants to be a man, by reason of a certain instinct that teaches her to desire her own perfection.”19 Viola's disguised entry into Orsino's court and her behavior once there seem, then, to embody, or perhaps disembody, the Renaissance codification of the feminine in her renunciation of exterior sexuality, or in her renunciation of self in favor of her lost male alter ego, her “dead” twin, Sebastian.

But the Freudian implications of the Courtier connection suggest that one can take the figurative reading of Viola's self-“castration” a good deal further. In her “as an eunuch” speech Viola prefigures her castrato performance as a musical mode of verbal persuasion: “I can … speak to him in many sorts of music.” On one level this is a precocious dramatic insight on Viola's part, predicting how her civilized discourse will prove fatally attractive first to Olivia and then to Orsino. But on a broader cultural level it can be seen as a precocious psychoanalytical insight, bearing in mind that, for post-Freudian psychoanalysis, the castration complex is, in the words of Laplanche and Pontalis, “the a priori condition that governs interhuman exchange as the exchange of sexual objects.”20

In Freudian theory “castration” is an indispensable, if potentially snare-ridden, rite of passage towards adulthood: “The castration complex … is of the profoundest importance in the formation alike of character and of neuroses.”21 And it is a rite common to both sexes. In a 1920 footnote added to his 1905 essay on infantile sexuality, Freud affirms, “We are justified in speaking of a castration complex in women as well. Both male and female children form a theory that women no less than men originally had a penis, but that they have lost it by castration.”22 Freud's notion of castration anxiety as the founding moment of adult subjectivity and sociality becomes for Lacan the causative principle not only for gender differentiation but for the very possibility of intersubjective desire and interpersonal exchange.23

Given that for Lacan “the phallus is a signifier,” indeed the signifier, it is only the symbolic interchange of the phallus that permits both signification and love; here lies the role of the woman in assuming or “becoming” the phallus, signifier of the Other's desire, through the castration of her femininity: “paradoxical as this formulation might seem, I would say that it is in order to be the phallus, that is to say, the signifier of the desire of the Other, that the woman will reject an essential part of her femininity, notably all its attributes through masquerade. It is for what she is not that she expects to be desired as well as loved.”24 This is as close a description as one can find of Viola's eunuch role with regard to its effects on Olivia and Orsino: rejecting “an essential part of her femininity” through “masquerade,” Viola achieves precisely the paradoxical result of becoming the signifier of the Other's desire. She is loved for—or through—what she is not, as she hints in her teasing revelation / hiding of her “real” gender both to Olivia (“I swear I am not that I play” [1.5.185]; “I am not what I am” [3.1.143]) and to Orsino (“My father had a daughter loved a man. … I am all the daughters of my father's house, / And all the brothers too”).

At the same time, Lacan makes castration responsible for the institution of the Symbolic order, of the Law, of the Name of the Father, and thus of signification itself. “It is in the name of the father that we must recognize the support of the symbolic function which, from the dawn of history, has identified his person with the figure of the law.”25 The castration threat, effecting the incest taboo, is anthropologically and historically responsible not only for the maturation of the child but for the acculturation of human society, replacing “natural” sexual exchange with symbolic exchange: “The primordial Law is therefore that which … superimposes the kingdom of culture on that of a nature abandoned to the law of mating.”26

The castration complex is thus synonymous with the process of discursivization, which in turn constitutes the process of civilization. The “natural” law of coupling gives over to the law of symbolic interchange. Sexual relationships, says Lacan, do not exist, there being no real complementarity between the sexes. They are substituted for by discursive relationships. Love is exclusively an effect of language, a cultural event. This process involves a loss both physical—that is, the necessary diminution of natural libido—and personal—the loss of what Lacan terms “an essential part of [the woman's] femininity.”27 Loss is the price paid for cultural gain, namely for language itself.

Here, then, is where Viola's own pre-announced loss becomes her potential gain: her participation in the intimate rituals of speech-, letter-, and gift-exchange—in a word, in the new amorous and “civil” symbolic order—is made possible only by her temporary assumption of a castrated or “blank” role. As Laurie E. Osborne writes, with reference to the deferrals and deviations of desire in the comedy, “The love tokens, letter or jewel, addressed to the beloved throughout this comedy establish the symbolic order linking the lover to the beloved creating two blanks or positions to be filled.”28

In its figurative force, therefore, Viola's “eunuch” lends itself to both a historical and a psychoanalytical reading in terms of the privatizing and discursivizing of intercourse, within the bounds of Elias's “civilization” and Lacan's “kingdom of culture.” Given the close correspondence between behavior in Twelfth Night and the private-life codes of courtesy and intimacy, there is a strong temptation to make an unmediated leap from the civilized tête-à-têtes of the historians' Renaissance domestic interiors to the textualized interchanges of the comedy and back. There may, however, be hidden dangers in this direct move from the boudoir to the Globe (or Middle Temple). The first danger is what we might term the privacy fallacy, taking Shakespeare's representation of vie-privée intimacy for the real thing, as if the two spheres of exchange belonged to a single cultural common market with all customs barriers removed. This entails ignoring the mediation of that other set of early modern conventions which governed not domestic but theatrical interaction. The process of privatisation identified by Ariès, in which “the private may even subsume or curtail the public,” is in certain respects the opposite of what took place on the Elizabethan stage, which, in representing scenes of intimacy, enacted a publicization of the private sphere, taking it into a public arena where the collective subsumed the individual rather than the reverse. We should not be seduced into forgetting that the close encounters conducted within the courts of Orsino and Olivia are at the same time open displays obeying quite different rules of communicative transaction.

A second and related peril in passing from the whispered sweet nothings of the historians' Renaissance walled garden to the discursive delicacies of Olivia's hortus conclusus is the risk (run by some recent historical criticism) of naïve mimeticism. This annihilates another potent source of mediation, namely the conventions of comic drama, with their own vitality, their own longue durée that does not necessarily bend to every change in what Ariès and his colleagues term cultural mentalité. If Viola's ways of using, disguising, and describing her body are closely related to Renaissance conventions of corporeal and behavioral exchange, it is equally true that such verbal and bodily intercourse is a primary constituent of the dramatic and theatrical conventions the play inherits. The problem—a theoretical but also an eminently interpretative problem—is, therefore, how to place the comedy within the network of early modern social constraints without doing violence to its powerful theatrical and dramatic mediacy.

There is more to Viola's “eunuch” conceit, both historically and theatrically, than a civilized gesture of self-effacement or self-disembodiment. Her apparent private inhibition is also, in more ways than one, a public exhibition. And in order to understand both the full contemporary historicity and the full theatricality of her reference—in its literal as well as its figurative force—it is necessary to look at the comedy's use of dramatic history and, in particular, at its reworking of the castration topos that Viola brings into play.


In order to go ahead in this discussion, therefore, we need to go back in time some 1,762 years from the first performance of Twelfth Night. Viola's plan to become an unmanned man signaled to its more learned spectators the play's debt to the New Comedy prototype of all crossdressing drama, Terence's Eunuchus, revered by Shakespeare's contemporaries as a classical model and imitated in many Tudor and Jacobean plays, from Udall's Ralph Roister Doister to Jonson's Epicoene. Together with Plautus's plays of twins and doubles, it is also the primary model for the original version of the Viola story, the Sienese Ingannati, as well as many another sixteenth-century Italian comedy. Eunuchus has never been considered one of Shakespeare's sources, and it is not the primary purpose of this essay to demonstrate a direct derivation, although I believe that traces of such a derivation are present in Twelfth Night. What is at stake, rather, is the theatrical and cultural history of the eunuch trope itself and the ways in which Shakespeare reworks this history.

Viola's “present me as an eunuch” request finds two different kinds of parallel in Terence's comedy: the literal and the fictitious. The play offers a “real” castrate in the guise of Horus, a slave presented as a gift to the courtesan Thais. The main plot, however, hinges on the ploy of a young lover, Chaerea, who, in order to gain access to his beloved, the slave-girl Pamphila—likewise owned by Thais—takes Horus's place as castrate servant in the courtesan's household. Chaerea thus presents himself at Thais's court “as an eunuch” and so as his own negative image, a minus sign standing for what is in fact an emphatic plus, as he goes on to demonstrate when he finally gains access to Pamphila's bed and thus to her sleeping body.

Why this doubling of eunuchs, this redundancy of castration in Terence's play? Eunuchus, as Terence admits in the prologue, is itself a “double,” being largely derived from a lost play of the same title by Menander, who in turn inherited the castration topos from the Old Comedy. Indeed, castration might be said to be a founding trope of comedy as dramatic genre. This is probably due historically and anthropologically to the derivation of comic drama from the phallophoria, the fertility-invoking phallic procession,29 for which castration represented a negative, fertility-threatening force.30 Terence's Eunuchus revives this tradition, rendering the topic fully explicit and doubly central, and greatly elaborating its social and theatrical implications.

The immediate reason for the play's redundant emphasis on castration lies in the occasion of its first performance. As with symbolic castration rites in the Old Comedy, the performative context for Terence's “eunuch” was one of religious festivity. The comedy was first staged in 161 bc during the Megalensian games in honor of the Great Mother Cybele.31 The cult of the Asiatic goddess Cybele had been introduced into Rome by Elagabalus in 204 bc and was inextricably connected with castration rituals. Attis, the vegetarian god associated with the cult, died and was resurrected after castrating himself; Cybele's priests were traditionally eunuchs, while Elagabalus himself was notorious for having his friends' bodies symbolically shaved and his own testicles tied up when celebrating the rites of Cybele and Attis. In this ritualistic and surgical context, focusing on the literal or symbolic removal of the testicles rather than on the phantasmic missing phallus, the fruits of castration are direct: unmanning is synonymous with self-transcendence and with “rebirth” in the guise of regression to a pure infantile state.32 In offering the spectacle of an oxymoronically potent castrate, Terence seems to be dramatizing, and perhaps burlesquing, the Roman cult of self-mutilation as the supreme or “divine” form of sexual self-realization. “Self-denial,” as Carlin A. Barton observes with reference to Roman culture, “becomes the culmination of the spiral of desire. … As a result, self-castration, what we would think of as an extreme act of asceticism or self-sacrifice, is often categorized as a form of self-indulgence by the Romans, and the castrated as extreme libertines.”33

Terence's eunuch play is thus an ambiguous homage to Cybele, and the kinds of transcendence celebrated in the comedy have less to do with religious rebirth than with the more worldly representation or realization of (masculine) desire. The extraordinary influence of Terence's play seems to lie largely in the vertiginous reversal at the center of the main plot, whereby what looks like the neutralizing of male sexuality turns out instead to be a triumphant assertion of virility. It is only by transcending his male identity through self-“castration” that Chaerea is able to realize his desire for the slave-girl. In narrating his offstage triumph, Chaerea relishes the ironic contrast between his assumed role and his actual performance:

… I boult the dore.
What then? …
Should I let goe such opportunitie & occasion offered mee, hauing so short time to doe it in, so greatly desired, so sudden, and nothing looked for? then was I hee indeede, whom I did counterfait.(34)

Admitted into Pamphila's bedroom as eunuch-guard, Chaerea “boult[s] the dore” (“pessulum ostium obdo”), a metonymy for the act that he is employed not to (be able to) perform.

Here lies the central dramaturgic tension within Eunuchus and an important legacy for later crossdressing comedies such as Twelfth Night. What Chaerea's account enthusiastically underlines is the irresistible theatrical competence of his performance, transforming his secret transgression into public display. Eunuchus sets up two antithetical performative modes in presenting the same scene: one enacted but hidden in the offstage bed chamber, the other narrated and publicized in Chaerea's onstage account. Chaerea's fictitious sexlessness thereby becomes not only a means to the fulfillment of personal desire but also an allegory for the boastful professional self-transcendence of the actor in playing his part, his capacity to become at will a man without qualities, able to conquer helpless and perhaps—like Pamphila—sleepy audiences by sacrificing his personal and physical attributes. It is in part this histrionic force of the eunuch device—neutered sign of an “empty” signifier (compare Viola's “blank”), namely the actor and his body—that contributed to its longevity as theatrical topos.

As he carries out his plan, Chaerea's performance takes on further theatrical implications, involving the role of the audience as witness. His main activity as eunuch, namely that of guarding or ogling his beloved in her toilette, becomes an unflattering icon of the male gaze35 and thus of the (masculine) spectator as pornophilic voyeur:

I looke a squint thus privily with the fanne, and I prie about to see to other things also, whether they were sure or no: I seeing them to be so, I boult the dore.(36)

As Paul Veyne notes in the first volume of A History of Private Life, voyeurism is the social condition not only of the eunuch-slave but of the slave tout court in ancient Rome: “With nothing else to guide them, slaves shared the values of their master, admired him, and served him jealously. Like voyeurs they watched him live his life with a mixture of admiration and scorn.”37 There is more than a suggestion in the play that Terence's own audience is complicit in a scopophilic “enslavement” to vicarious sexual pleasure, ogling in turn the antics of Chaerea.

Eunuchus enacts, therefore, a movement from the bed chamber to the platea and simultaneously from individual sexuality to collective sociality. In addition to the doubling or splitting of the eunuch figure into the “real” castrate and his “fictional” other, nearly all the play's characters participate in the “as an eunuch” condition in its figurative sense: the miles gloriosus Thraso, presented as the reverse of Chaerea, a braggart about sex but lacking in actual sexuality; the somewhat androgynous parasite Gnatho; the raped Pamphila, “castrated” of her freedom, her subjectivity, and her virginity, not to mention her social status; even the prostitute Thais, deprived of citizenship and of political rights. Eunuchhood constitutes the play's “controlling metaphor,”38 whereby the condition of sexual mutilation comes to stand for quite different forms of social and psychological dispossession. Castration thus becomes a kind of internal epidemic or contaminatio, spreading out from the play's neutered center. As the Pseudo-Servius observed in the ninth century, “This one as a eunuch who deflowered that virgin is the principal subject-matter in this comedy. If other persons are brought in, they are subordinated to the eunuch, and all parts of the fable in some way have reference to the eunuch.”39 This contagion principle constitutes, as we will see, an important model for later “castration” plays.

Thus Terence's ambiguous eunuch is a figure for social as well as sexual and theatrical intercourse, the more so since Chaerea knowingly exploits a particular form of symbolic interchange (particularly prominent, as we have seen, in Twelfth Night), namely the giving of presents. In offering himself as a devirilized body, Chaerea becomes a literal exchange-object within the master-slave economy that governed second-century Republican Rome and that regulates the somewhat sordid world of the play. In an act of precipitous social self-relegation or -castration, Chaerea, at the suggestion of his own servant Parmeno, doubly depersonalizes himself as eunuch and slave, offering himself as one in a whole series of presents—jewels, money, as well as other servants such as Pamphila herself—that the bona meretrix Thais receives in exchange for her desired favors.

Gift-exchange becomes the play's central economic and semiotic paradigm. The governing social framework here would seem to be the one outlined in Marcel Mauss's classic 1925 essay on the gift, in which the French anthropologist states “that the spirit of gift-exchange is characteristic of societies which have passed the [archaic] phase of ‘total prestation’ … but have not yet reached the stage of pure individual contract, the money market.” In such postarchaic societies the gift is the primary symbolic token of a reciprocal system that includes the exchange of “courtesies, entertainments, ritual military assistance, women, children, dances, and feasts; and [participation] in fairs, in which the market is but one element.”40

Here lies the dazzling success of Chaerea's self-election to the status of gift. In a “natural” exchange economy suspended between archaic rites and modern market negotiation (an economy that levels the distinction between subjects, physical objects, and symbolic objects), Chaerea-the-gift-item is able to exploit his zero subjectivity, his invisibility as persona, in order to fool the courtesan and her court. Terence figures the brutality of this economy in the violence of Chaerea's return to malehood, as he possesses the sleeping Pamphila, herself deprived of rights, personality, and volition:

O what stirre hath the Eunuch made which thou gauest us! he hath deflowered the damsell which the Captaine bestowed on my mistres.
Thou art out of thy witts. How could an Eunuch doe this thing?
I know not who he was, this which he hath done, the thing it selfe will shewe.(41)

Chaerea, in turn, is rewarded for his pains by a social as well as sexual gift, since he nobly agrees to take Pamphila's hand, but only once her “good” blood has been proven.

Terence's “eunuch” is in all senses at the middle, albeit a surgically mutilated middle, of a paradoxical system of signification through opposition—minus for plus, loss for gain, private for public—and establishes himself as a successful dramatic topos precisely because he is already a disfigured figure for social and theatrical exchange as such, a metasemiotic vehicle that can be resemanticized and rehistoricized in later contexts. All of the personal, erotic, social, and theatrical implications of castration become part of the history of comedy. And the transmission of the topos from Roman New Comedy to Elizabethan comedy, via—as we will see—the Italian commedia, is itself a passing on of a model of mediation and exchange that is progressively modified within the different historical and theatrical conditions to which it is subjected. Each recontextualization of the topos in its various sexual, social, and theatrical aspects will bear the indelible traces of the eunuch's own stage history.


As a result of his versatility and indeterminacy, Terence's castrate turns out to be not only unexpectedly virile but also hyperbolically fertile, disseminating an almost interminable series of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century progeny. … Indeed, it is fair to say that comedy as dramatic genre is “reborn” in early modern Europe through the good offices of the castrate. When reworked within the Italian Renaissance commedia, however, the eunuch topos is drastically modified—or, in Freudian terms, further castrated—in that Terence's disguised male is more often than not transformed into a crossdressed female, the mimesis of the unmanned into the imitation of a (non)man. This change is in part due to altered theatrical circumstances, since in certain performances of erudite comedy in the Italian courts and academies, female roles were performed by actresses rather than boy-actors. But it is also a measure of a radically changed social context: just as the performative situation of Italian disguise plays is no longer that of religious ritual, so the exchange system within which the disguise operates is no longer the master-slave economy of Republican Rome but the mercantile economy of early modern Italy, with its burgeoning individualism, its power struggles between rival city-states, and its new codification of civility and courtesy, including, as we have seen, the rules of female decorum.

The Renaissance legacy of Terence's Eunuchus is twofold. It serves as a model for any number of disguise plots from which the real and/or feigned eunuch as such has disappeared. At the same time, the eunuchus survives as a powerful verbal and stage trope, or “theatergram,” within disguise comedy itself. This double legacy corresponds to Louise George Clubb's definition of Renaissance dramatic contaminatio as a mixture of borrowed plots and figures or topoi.42 As Clubb notes, the first Italian dramatist to make use of this mixed contaminatio is Ariosto, who proudly declares in the prologue to I suppositi (1509) his debt to Eunuchus, although it is mainly the secondary Thraso plot that Ariosto borrows and adapts. The castration topos is itself disguised and displaced to other parts of the play, notably Filogono's story of being robbed during his sea voyage from Catania to Ferrara. Here is George Gascoigne's 1566 version of Filogono's maritime mishap: “Jesus! How often they untrussed my male, and ransacked a little capcase that I had, tossed and turned all that was within it, searched my bosom, yea, my breeches, that I assure you I thought they would have flayed me to search between the fell and the flesh for farthings.”43 Filogono's untrussed male and little ransacked capcase figure the robbery as a mode of rape (“searched … my breeches”) but also as a form of physical disfigurement (“flayed me alive”), which suggests the main metaphorical force that castration will assume in the Italian commedia, namely material deprivation. These details also suggest a significant shift in the primary icon of castration itself in Renaissance comedy: no longer the surgically removed testicles of the ancient eunuch-slave but the absent or truncated phallus of modern psychosexual fantasy. Perhaps for this reason Ariosto's emasculating sea voyage becomes a recurrent subtopos in comedy.

A key text in the transmission of the castration topic in its phallic guise—and indeed in the development of Renaissance comedy in general—is the first modern crossdressing play, La calandria. First performed at Urbino in February 1513 during a municipal festival, the comedy stands in a dialectical relationship with the development of the humanistic ideology of corteziania. Indeed its author, Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena, is one of the main speakers in Castiglione's The Courtier, set in the Urbino ducal palace where La calandria probably had its first performance. Castiglione is also credited with writing the prologue to the comedy.44

The Urbino connection between the new Renaissance civiltà and the new Renaissance commedia is quite explicit. In the second book of The Courtier, Bibbiena offers a long defense of laughter as the distinctive feature of human nature and identifies theatrical performance as a legitimate source of mirth.45 Bibbiena's speech makes explicit what Wayne A. Rebhorn describes as “the theatre metaphors structuring Castiglione's view of the world and of his ideal courtier,” who “produces an endless series of brilliant performances, pausing only long enough to exchange one mask for another.”46 The relationship between court and theater is thus bilateral: if the ideal courtier is a performer, the performance of comedy becomes the court's public double.

In reality La calandria is far removed dramaturgically and discursively from Urbino's courtly civility. Derived from a contaminatio of Terence, Plautus, and Boccaccio, the comedy's plot centers on different-sex twins and two-way transvestism. The twins, Lidio and Santilla, separated at birth, grow up apart; and while Lidio spends his time searching for his sister, the latter, by way of self-defense, disguises herself as her brother, whom she believes dead. Crossdressing here combines with cross-desire: Lidio falls in love with Fulvia, wife of the foolish Calandro, and in order to gain entry into Fulvia('s house) dresses as a woman. This constitutes Bibbiena's most immediate debt to Eunuchus. Calandro, meanwhile, falls in love with the crossdressed Lidio. Fulvia likewise crossdresses in order to go to Lidio. Inevitably, Santilla is mistaken for her transvestite twin and is taken to the appointment with Fulvia. Thus a transvestite woman has an amorous encounter with another woman whom she takes to be the crossdressed man who at the same time is the object of her husband's desire.

It is Fulvia's erotic (dis)appointment with Santilla that brings the castration theme to the surface. Stunned at her discovery of Lidio's missing link, Fulvia blames the go-between necromancer, Ruffo: “Alas! you have transformed my Lidio from male to female. I've handled and touched everything; but cannot find any of the usual things except his external appearance [presentia] … restore to him the knife of my sheath, you understand?”47

Fulvia registers the shock of the absent phallus, perceiving female sexuality, in classic Freudian terms, as a lack (her being dressed as a boy underlines the point).48 Here lies the comedy's main ideological link with The Courtier. The play dramatizes relations not only between the sexes but between genders, defining the female primarily in terms of missing or lost masculinity. It also offers opposing models of female behavior in relation to this lack. The crossdressed Fulvia's frenetic search for the phallus is a perfect anticipation of Pallavicino's thesis regarding women's erotic overcompensation for their “imperfection.” Santilla, on the contrary, expresses her femininity through the self-abnegation that will be championed by Castiglione's Gonzaga, using her masculine disguise as a mode of self-protection and as a reinvocation of her lost brother.

Between the opposed extremes of gender lies an indeterminate middle ground, that of the eunuch (Santilla as unmanned Lidio) or, alternatively, of the hermaphrodite. Santilla's servant Fannio leads the necromancer Ruffo to believe his mistress is double-sexed, able to adopt whichever organ proves appropriate to the occasion:

You should know that my master Lidio is a hermaphrodite [hermafrodite].
And what does this flowering shit [merdafiorito] mean?
Hermaphrodite, I say. … Hermaphrodites are those that have both sexes … with Fulvia he will use only the female sex for that which, she having requested in form of a woman, and finding him a woman, will give such faith to the spirit that she will adore you.(49)

So, in a sense, it turns out: the revirilized Lidio takes the place of Santilla in Fulvia's bed; but when they are caught in flagrante by Calandro, Santilla saves her brother by re-substituting for (re-castrating) him. Like Aristophanes's hermaphroditic halves, the twins finally come together and recognize each other.

The threat or promise of castration is disseminated throughout the play. The gulling of Calandro is figured in the vivid “theatergram” of a trunk in which he is to hide in order, so he believes, to be conducted to his beloved Lidio-Santilla. In a surreal apocalyptic fantasy Calandro's servant Fessenio warns him that to fit a man into a trunk, certain bodily parts must be amputated.50 Fessenio's sadistic surgical delirium imagines cuckoldry as eviration: Calandro's amputated organ will be replaced by “a member which is bigger than his own.” The servant underlines the point later when he takes his master to an appointment with a prostitute: “I'll go and unite the castrated sheep [castron = fool] with the sow [troia = whore].” And the gull himself is later forced to admit, “Oh what a simpleton/castrated sheep [castron] am I!”51

La calandria is at all its levels a comedy of the disappearing member. The question naturally arises as to why a cardinal and leading courtier should engage with such dubious material. One answer might be that it is precisely through the Terentian castration topic that Bibbiena attempts to mediate between the enclosed world of the court and the wider world of public intercourse, especially theatrical intercourse. The play's vigorous variations on the missing phallus stage a ritual subtraction of sexuality that enables the frank public representation of eros without, at least in theory, betraying the strict codes of the new civility. It also enables the new comic drama to negotiate its own representational rights within that new civility. But in (theatrical) practice the erotic verve of the play far exceeds any notional decorum or courtesy. In fact the comedy, in dramatizing and publicizing private sexual congress, takes on its own joyfully generative and liberatory life, independent of, and perhaps even in opposition to, courtly decorousness. Its life empowers later plays, such as Twelfth Night, to reap the fruits of castration.

It is evident that the Calandria story, with its separated twins (and the presumed death of the male twin), crossdressed heroines, and erotic confusions, contains the Twelfth Night story. It also contains the plots of the majority of Renaissance disguise comedies, such as Machiavelli's Clizia (1525), with its substitution of a crossdressed servant for the heroine in the bed of the lecherous old Nicomaco, and Pietro Aretino's transvestite plays, including what at first sight appears to be an “anti-Bibbienian” burlesque, La cortigiana (also 1525), in which the ingenuous Venetian Maco arrives in a corrupt and whore-ridden Rome, determined to become a courtier and cardinal (à la Bibbiena), and ends up being punished by symbolic castration and sodomization.52

In Aretino's later Il marescalco (The Stablemaster [1533]), set at the ducal court of Mantua, the duke himself puts in motion a plot—contaminated from Eunuchus, Plautus's Casina, and Machiavelli's Clizia—in which his misogynistic, misogamistic (and probably pederastic) stablemaster is punished by being “married” to a crossdressed boy. The play is thus on one level an aristocratic entertainment at the expense of a lower-class figure and an assertion of the duke's absolute power as both director and principal spectator of the practical joke, forcing the stablemaster to make a public spectacle of his “deviant” private life. At the same time, the beffa against the stablemaster expresses anxieties concerning female sexuality and the assimilation of women within what is presented as a primarily homosocial community. The stablemaster's sense of relief and release at discovering he is a castrone and not a husband underlines the fact that, unlike Eunuchus, the play's dominant force is not desire but its specular image, namely revulsion. In this homosocial context women are perceived as a repugnant Other, heterosexual relations as perilous, and marriage as a perverse mode of self-punishment.53 The stablemaster, the most virile character in the play because uneffeminized by contact with the opposite sex, represents matrimony as a form of financial as well as sexual loss and women as repulsive, leaky vessels (their sexual organs good only for devouring and urinating).

Il marescalco offers two further social variations on the castration topos: heterosexual bonding is represented as material deprivation and as political and military rape. While the stablemaster fears the complete erosion of his money, identified with his phallus, Ambrogio's comparison of marriage with “the devastation of Rome and Florence” reminds the audience of the most violent events in recent Italian political history: the Sack of Rome (1527) and the siege of Florence (1530), both perpetrated by the penetrative troops of Emperor Charles V.54

Aretino's violent publicization of private sexuality, taking the castration topos into the contemporary political and economic sphere, can be understood only in terms of two crucial structural characteristics of early Renaissance Italy: the dominance of a monetary economy and the prevalence of rival city-states. Renaissance Italy was a society of mercatores55 in which the circulation and accumulation of money created the first approximation of a modern consumer culture. What distinguished Italy from the rest of early modern Europe was, as Richard A. Goldthwaite has shown, the precocious rise of conspicuous consumption.56 The distinctive objects of this newly fashioned consumption were luxury items, especially works of art and forms of entertainment, such as theater itself. The development of Italian Renaissance art, literature, and drama was directly related to the development of conspicuous consumption, which produced new sources of patronage. This was especially true in those city-states in which the mercantile economy and the circulation of money were most dynamic—Milan, Venice, Florence, and Genoa57—and in the great centers of banking, above all Siena. Associated with this twin cultural flowering—the monetary and the artistic—was the rise of the academies which, in a sense, mediated between the two.

Siena, the birthplace of modern banking and thus one of the first great junctions of the circulation of capital, rivaled Florence as a venue for artistic endeavor, including drama, and as home to the new cultural academies, notably the Accademia degli Intronati, created around 1525. Among the Academy's activities, in addition to the cultivation of humanistic arts and civil conversation, was the writing and performing of plays.58 The first of these was the unfortunate allegory Il sacrificio, performed as a dubious Twelfth Night offering to the ladies in 1531 and consisting in the male performers' ritual burning onstage of the Epiphany gifts received from their female audience. Such was the outrage among the spurned ladies that the academicians were obliged to present, two years later, a reparative offering, Gl'ingannati, a comedy with a winning female protagonist.

The Intronati's Gl'ingannati, prototype of the Viola story and source of Twelfth Night, is thus the product of the cultural mediation between money and art, between the warring sexes, and likewise between rival city-states. Set in Rome immediately after the Sack of 1527, Gl'ingannati probably marks the decisive shift in Renaissance comedy towards female transvestism as the dominant mode of dramatic crossdressing. The reasons for this shift, apart from the reparative circumstances of the original performance and the play's consequent dramatization of a putative female revenge on men, may also have to do with the make-up of the company itself. A retrospective 1572 account of the Academy's recruitment of actors suggests that female roles were assigned to women.59 If this is the case, then the appearance of actresses in place of the more familiar boy-actors employed in the performance of early erudite comedy may have created the irresistible temptation to center a comedy on the plight of a crossdressed girl.

Gl'ingannati is a contamination of Terence's Eunuchus, Plautus's Menaechmi and Casina, and Bibbiena's Calandria, with a little help from Boccaccio. While borrowing the female-to-male-disguise device from Calandria, the play, unlike Bibbiena's comedy, places it at the center of the main plot, which is closer to Eunuchus. Indeed, Lelia, the Viola figure, might be said to merge the roles of Terence's lover, Chaerea, and his slave-girl, Pamphila, becoming simultaneously principal subject and principal object of desire and thus of the play's intricate series of physical and symbolic exchanges. Lelia, separated from her twin brother, Fabrizio—“lost” in the Sack of Rome—is desired by the old merchant Gherardo, to whom her merchant father, Virginio, has promised her in marriage. Lelia in turn loves young Flaminio, who, however, is enamored of Gherardo's daughter, Isabella. Lelia crossdresses—from her first appearance in the comedy—in order to enter Flaminio's service. Here lies the new protagonism of the transvestite woman, who pursues her desires while she is herself the target of aggressive heterosexual and homoerotic attention: the amorous quadrangle is completed when Isabella (the Olivia figure) falls in love with the crossdressed Lelia.

As in La calandria, the emphasis of Gl'ingannati remains on the phallus, here as instrument of financial as well as erotic transactions, which become more or less synonymous. The sexual potency of Lelia's twin is represented by his hyperbolic member: “he's male enough to make two men” says Isabella's envious and voyeuristic merchant father (and indeed in a sense it must make two men, Fabrizio himself and his transvestite twin sister). This potency translates directly into the financial reward of Isabella's conquered dowry. Fabrizio, substituting for his “eunuch” sister, reaps Chaerea's sexual and social (which here means pecuniary) reward. In this hyperphallic and monetary context, the eunuchus topos marks a castration anxiety that is above all an economic-dispossession anxiety.

The society represented in the post-Sack Rome of Gl'ingannati is a fierce merchandise system, populated by avid old mercatores who dispose of their children as goods, and in which intercourse of all kinds has a primarily financial goal. The castrato is no longer a gift but a deprivation, no longer the signifier of its opposite but a direct omen of material loss: loss of the kind that the merchant Virginio has suffered in the play's opening and that the merchant Gherardo, Isabella's pantaloon father, finally suffers at the hands (or other bodily parts) of the well-endowed Fabrizio. It is the same kind of loss that Rome suffers in the play's contemporary historical setting at the hands of the all-penetrating Emperor Charles V. Siena smirks while Rome loses its manhood.60

The model of exchange embodied in Gl'ingannati is one of sexual, financial, and military assault disguised as conversational courtesy and gentility. This, perhaps, is the real inganno or deceit of Gl'ingannati: namely the (successful) attempt by the Intronati academicians to pass it off as an exercise in Sienese cultural refinement, offered, so they claim in the prologue, as a gift to the ladies in the audience, as if the exchanges it dramatizes were all part of that humanistic civile conversazione to which the academy was officially dedicated. But its tribute to feminine protagonism and subjectivity turns out to be questionable at best. Lelia's one “private” soliloquy, in which she confesses unease at playing her male role, seems to be an early instance of feminine interiority in the Italian drama.

Oh, how I would deserve it [come mi starebbe bene] if one of these young rakes took me by force and, dragging me into some house, tried to find out whether I am male or female! That would teach me to go outdoors at this hour. … Oh what a cruel destiny is mine!61

On closer inspection, Lelia's fantasy of having her gender verified through rape proves to be the projected desire of the salacious voyeurs in the play and the audience. In her one moment of apparent subjectivity, Lelia can define herself only as object of potential sexual violence.

Lelia's fantasy revisits from a supposedly female perspective Terence's dramatization of the pornographic gaze. The comedy likewise takes up the Terentian legacy of the slave as voyeur, although the servant role has been split from that of the lover and moved definitively to the margins, no longer central counter but envious spectator of these blatantly corporeal exchanges. The key episode—equivalent both to Chaerea's rape of Pamphila (with Lelia in the “passive” position) and to Viola's encounter with Olivia—is the frankly physical seduction scene between the passionate Isabella and the reluctant Lelia, which climaxes in a prolonged, passionate kiss between the two girls. The whole scene is framed by a grotesque mise-en-scène of the male gaze, as the couple is watched by two gaping servants who provide a running commentary on their own uncontrollable sexual response to the spectacle:

[Referring to Lelia] Kiss her, or may you get a cancer! …
[Seeing the girls kiss] Oh, oh, damn it, do the same to me. …
God's body, my leg is so swollen [m'è infiata una gamba = I have such an erection], I'm about to throw up [che par lavoglia recere = I'm about to come].(62)

The servants' pornographic pleasure reworks Chaerea's slavish ogling of Pamphila's toilette and represents in turn a metonymy for the impossible phallic role Lelia has to perform: Scatizza's swollen “leg” acts out what Isabella supposedly desires but what Lelia cannot deliver until replaced by her twin brother. The dominant theatrical activity in Gl'ingannati is not performing but watching: it is male spectatorship as vicarious pleasure that determines the apparent freedom of the new female-to-male role-playing.

In later Italian versions of the story, the mercantile and mercenary nature of social conversazione is further accentuated by the restoration of Terence's courtesan figure and the consequent upscale bordello setting. The agents of exchange are no longer the lovers themselves but bawds and pimps, who manage a flourishing economy of present-giving and favor-selling in an open (street) market which travesties private amorous transactions. As Paul Larivaille has shown, the bawd was an indispensable figure of mediation, especially in Rome with its sixty-percent male population and its correspondingly vast numbers of prostitutes.63 In the commedia the bawd's mediation becomes a degraded version of courtly politeness, allowing the lovers and clients to reach their sexual goals without having to discuss the subject directly.

Thus Niccolò Secchi's Gl'inganni (1547), first performed in Milan before the duke but set in a colorfully vice-ridden Naples, adopts “conversation” as a euphemism for bartered sex, as in the plea of young Gostanzo, in love with the upper-class whore Dorotea: “I'll do my best to find you sixty scudi, but on express condition that no one else be allowed to converse with Dorotea.” The obliging bawd responds: “And if that isn't enough, I'll have your rival castrated [io farò castrone] so you can be doubly sure.”64 The bawd's threat to castrate Gostanzo's rival, a rich old dottore, is a reminder of the extreme penalties for unpaid conversazione in a world where verbal intercourse is a simulacrum of real sex and its dangers. For the play's libidinous signori there is really no way out of their dire destiny, given that the longed-for and bartered-for sexual engagement turns out to be nothing other than a means of removing male possessions. Despite her promise to Gonzago, the bawd encourages Dorotea to milk the rich dottore both sexually and financially, freeing him of all his worldly attributes:

Well castrated [ben si castra], well milked,
Old man, mad man, who pricks [pugne] for love,
It's time for the nails to strike
And cut off his lard [tagliarli giu le sugne].(65)

Here the connotations of castration change again: it is no longer an omen of financial loss but, on the contrary, a metonymy (effect for cause) for sex itself as a mode of scrotum(= pocket)-emptying and perhaps also for syphilis, one effect of which is the erosion of the genitals.66

Similarly, in Gl'inganni (1592), the version by the Mantuan Curzio Gonzaga, the courtesan Doralice, referring to the old merchant who brings her gifts, brags of her castrating ability as a professional skill: “The castrated beef [il buò castronaccio] drinks it all.”67 In Gonzaga's comedy castration is a risk that males run from birth. He doubles the story's doubles by having two sets of twins and by having one of each couple—one male and one female—crossdressed. The male twin's transvestism has been enforced since birth because of a bet between his father and a friend: whichever of them fathered a male child was to pay two thousand florins to the other if he in turn fathered a female. One of the friends fathered a boy, Leandro, while the other fathered different-sex twins, Scipione and Lucrezia; in order to win the bet, the twins' father cheated by disguising the male twin as a girl. Here the monetary implications of eviration are explicit: girls—luxury commodities—mean money, while boys risk surgery in the name of the father's wallet. The “losing” male child, Leandro, failing to distinguish between the real and the false Lucrezia, eventually falls in love with them both. The female twin in turn falls in love with Cesare, a refugee from Siena who is himself a crossdressed girl, Ginevra (the Viola figure).

The father figures in the comedy are also multiplied, there being three vecchi, all rich merchants, to be overcome by the young lovers. As a result, in Gonzaga's Rome there is among the younger males an understandable epidemic of castration anxiety, which begins to take on some Lacanian implications. The danger faced by Leandro is the knife-wielding wrath of Lucrezia's vengeful papà when he finds the young man “coupled” (a coppiati) with the biologically female twin: “Oh, poor Leandro,” exclaims Lucrezia's maid Filippa, “I think that old traitor, arriving at the wrong moment, will make a capon of him.”68

Within this disconcertingly misandristic patriarchy, in which fathers mutilate boys and valorize girls, but only in terms of their cash value, it is not surprising that the crossdressed Viola figure has some difficulty in acting the part of either sex. Ginevra makes a hash of playing Cesare because she is constantly fearful of getting caught out on one side or the other, her choice of destinies being either unappealing prostitution or a biologically redundant emasculation. Finally she is caught in the middle, perceived by the go-between maid as either hermaphroditic or already castrated:

Maybe you thought I was a woman?
Look, Cesare, if I didn't believe you to be a girl, I judged at least from your behavior that you were double-sexed [facesti del doppio], or that you were a eunuch [megnuco].
A eunuch? Ha, ha, you were really crazy, don't you think so now?
I don't know what to think; if you let me touch it with my hand [seme'l farai toccar con mano], I'll know I'm not talking nonsense.(69)

In a sense this is Ginevra's salvation, since as a megnuco she avoids the dangers that await each sex. At the same time, however, the castrato topos, in contrast to its function in Terence, becomes a sign of the actor's failure, her inability to embody her chosen (phallic) role in a phallus-threatening community.

Ginevra's difficulties create the occasion, at least, for a more persuasive interiorization of the castration theme than Lelia's rape fantasy and thus for a more convincing mimesis of private passion. In the play's one ironically subjective moment Ginevra laments to herself that her financially ruined father, having forced her to play a masculine role, failed to provide her with the sexuality that would allow her to reciprocate Lucrezia's (homoerotic) desire: “[your father] made you dress as a man, without inducing you also to ardently love a female [una femina] such as this Lucrezia, victim of this wretched disguise [questo maledetto habito], while she, taking me to be a male, seems to pine for love of me.”70 Ginevra defines both her gender and her sexuality in terms of the lack of masculinity and thus herself as ineluctably Other in the brutally penetrative world into which she has intruded.

For all its subterranean violence, Gonzaga's play does display psychological insight and a dialogic agility that bring it close to Bibbiena's Calandria and also to Twelfth Night: among all the Italian analogues it is the play that most resembles Shakespeare's comedy in its discursive verve. If Bibbiena's play, and indeed Shakespeare's play, are dialectically related to The Courtier, Gonzaga's has genetic links both with Castiglione (who was himself related to the Gonzaga family and three of whose speakers, Cesare, Elisabetta, and Margherita, are Gonzagas) and with the later classic of Renaissance courtesy literature, Stefano Guazzo's La civile conversatione, published in 1574 and dedicated to Guazzo's patrons, the Gonzagas.71

Like Castiglione, Guazzo posits as his discursive ideal the combination of courtesy and witty affability: “curteous language multiplieth friendes, and mitigateth enemies. … And as that is a signe of curtesie, so this is a token of wit”;72 and like Castiglione, he represents courtly conversazione in terms of the performance of comedy and, vice versa, defends comedy as one of the possible manifestations of “civility.”73 Thus La civile conversatione seems to take up all the courtly behavioral ideals of The Courtier, cast once more in a dialectical relationship with comedy as their cultural double. Gonzaga's play, both culturally and geographically, seems to be the closest theatrical alter ego of Guazzo's Mantuan conversazione.

In reality, Guazzo's late-sixteenth-century Mantua was quite different from Castiglione's nostalgically reconstructed Urbino. Guazzo had to mediate between the court and the powerful mercantile middle classes, and his behavioral rules were directed less towards the cortegiano than towards the gentiluomo.74 Gonzaga's play similarly mediated between the aristocracy—written for a courtly elite and dedicated to the Mantuan Donna Marfisa da Este—and the wider society of mercatores represented in the comedy itself. Gonzaga's “conversational” reworking of the eunuchus topos seems to have allowed this social mediation to take place. But as in the case of La calandria and—as we will see—Twelfth Night, the play took on a frank erotic vitality of its own that far exceeded any merely decorous or conciliatory “diplomatic” function.


The intimate, if conflictual, Italian dialogue between courtesy books and comedy about the representation of a new “civilized” culture was transmitted to Renaissance England, and the link between the two discursive genres remained the eunuch. The first and most important English courtesy book, Thomas Elyot's The Boke named the Gouernour (1531), in keeping with its recommendations of sexual abstinence and constancy, cites Terence's Eunuchus as a prime example of the educative and civilizing value of comedy:

First, comedies, which they suppose to be a doctrinal of ribaldry, they be undoubtedly a picture or as it were a mirror of man's life, wherein evil is not taught but discovered; to the intent that men beholding the promptness of youth unto vice, the snares of harlots & bawds laid for young minds, the deceit of servants. … And that by comedies good counsel is ministered, it appeareth by the sentence of Parmeno, in the second comedy of Terence. …75

Between Elyot and Castiglione lie the effects of the Reformation. Elyot here follows Melanchthon's moralistic defense of Terence's comedy, whereby the vicious behavior represented in the play becomes an antidote to similar temptations in life.76 This homeopathic theory of comedy in a sense restores Terence's system of signification by opposition but reverses its terms: not eviration for lust but lust for the repudiation of desire. It also reverses responsibilities for the events: it is not Chaerea's rapist libido that is to blame but the snares of harlots and bawds.

This moral rehabilitation of the play as neutered source of the dulce et utile prepared the way for imitations in the vernacular. It may not be an exaggeration to claim that whenever comedy emerges as a genre within a given Western culture, it does so courtesy of castration. Not incidentally, the first “regular” comedies in English are all directly or indirectly derived from Terence's play: Nicholas Udall's Ralph Roister Doister (c. 1553) is based on Terence's secondary plot (Thraso's wooing of Thais);77 John Jeffere's The Bugbears (c. 1566) derives partly from Gl'ingannati and thus indirectly from Terence; and George Gascoigne's Supposes (1566) adapts Ariosto's Terentian commedia.

But where Italian comedy fully exploits, albeit with sprezzatura, the sexual energy of the Terentian model, post-Reformation English comedy allegorizes and domesticates it. Udall's prologue promises “under merry comedies secrets” the disclosure of “very virtuous lore” of a kind that “neither Plautus nor Terence did spare.”78 Symptomatically, the object of Ralph Roister Doister's desires is not Thais or her Italian cortigiane equivalents but the English morality-play widow Dame Christian Custance. The traces of Eunuchus, apart from the braggart wooer himself, are the rituals of present-giving (Doister's rejected ring), the activities of go-between servants, a possible isolated and futile threat of rape, and the mild questioning of Roister Doister's capacity to “play the man's part.”79 Playing the man's part is what Roister Doister is constitutionally unable to do. “I lack yet an headpiece,” he confesses prior to the “women's war” in which he is definitively routed.80

Ralph Roister Doister rewrites Eunuchus as a moral allegory on the vanity of male desire and the Elyotian value of female “custance,” or chastity. But not all sixteenth-century English readings of Terence's play were so benevolent. The Oxford moralist and antitheatrical polemicist John Rainolds, in one of the most incisive critical commentaries ever written on the play, takes the opposite view, namely that The Eunuch represents the dangerous sexual potency or potentiality of transvestism; and that, far from encouraging private virtue, it is an exhibition of, and incitement to, public vice:

If you can; then ought you beware of beautifull boyes transformed into womẽ by putting on their raiment, their feature, lookes and facions. For men may be ravished with the loue of stones, of dead stuffe, framed by cunning grauers to beautifull womens likenes; as … Chaerea, araied like an Eunuch onley, did moove the beastlie lust of him who was lasciviouslie giuen in the Comedie.81

Rainolds, writing in 1599 with the professional all-male theater companies in mind, makes the valid point that it is Chaerea's very disguise that releases his “beastlie lust,” a metatheatrical interpretation Rainolds develops in his acute analysis of the rape scene:

For let malefactours bee never so ready to practise any wickednes of their owne corrupt and lewde inclination: the circumstances of maner, season, place, and so foorth, commodious to performe it doe more entise them therevnto. Weapons them selves (saith Homer) doe draw men to fight: and opportunitie maketh theeves. … as Chaerea could not haue defiled Pamphila, no not in Thais house, without his Eunuches raiment.82

Chaerea's supposed lack of “weapon” becomes his tool: the actor's crossdressed performance creates the occasion for the representation and transmission of desire, the moving of beastly lust in performer and spectator alike.

Here, then, are two opposing views of the Terentian castration legacy: as private moral purification or as public erotic provocation. However unpleasant Rainolds's conclusion to avoid the theater, there is little doubt that he has understood better than Renaissance apologists for Terence the potentially transgressive force of the castrate ploy, which he rightly identifies as a trope for performance in general. Rainolds's Th'overthrow of stageplays appeared the year after Bernard's English translation of Eunuchus and two years or so before the first performance of Twelfth Night, a comedy that did not, perhaps, altogether assuage his qualms regarding the perilous ambiguities of the “Eunuches raiment.”


Viola's fleeting “as an eunuch” allusion thus bears the unsuspected weight of a cultural history in which, according to the social context and ideological values of the drama, castration comes to figure by turns the threat or exorcism of infertility; the crossing of gender boundaries; the transcendence or realization of sexual desire; the condition of slavery; the “archaic” economy of total prestation; the modern economy of symbolic exchange; financial, political, or military dispossession; the practices of sodomy or prostitution; the effects of venereal disease; the perils of matrimony and the humiliation of cuckoldry; the virtues of female chastity; the sociosexual development of the adolescent; and the hierarchical separation or vertical mobility between the social classes. At the same time, the stage castrate takes on more strictly theatrical or performative values within the history of comedy itself: the performance of a fictional role; the professional skills of the actor; the voyeuristic gaze of the audience; and the seductive eroticism of histrionic crossdressing. Above all, the eunuchus is a point of tension or mediation between these two competing and sometimes conflicting histories, the social and the dramatic.

The final mediation of the castration topos on its journey towards Twelfth Night comes about through the narrative versions of the Viola story, particularly Barnaby Riche's romance “Of Apolonius and Silla” in Riche His Farewell to Militarie Profession (1581), perhaps the play's most immediate source. Riche, via Bandello and Belleforest, provides two variations on the castration topos. The first revisits the Ariostan scenario of dismemberment during a maritime voyage by narrating the failed rape of Silla by the Sea Captain. The Captain's unfulfilled infatuation with Silla is first figured in the familiar trope of disarmament: “My captaine … was like to bee taken prisoner aboard his owne shippe, and forced to yeeld hymself a captive without any cannon shot.”83 The planned rape is then thwarted through the deus ex machina intervention of a storm, in which Silla is saved from drowning by a floating “cheste that was the captaines.”84 The “dismembering” of the captain saves both Silla's honor and her life.

Riche's second, more explicit re-elaboration of the eviration topos takes the opposite form—the attribution of improbable powers of penetration and impregnation to Silla herself. Charged with impregnating Julina (the act of her twin brother, Silvio), Silla reflects bitterly on the “impediment” that disables her from doing so in fact: “was not this a foule oversight of Julina, that would so precisely sweare so greate an othe that she was gotten with childe by one that was altogether unfurnishte with implements for suche a tourne?”85 Silla, accused of being a fertile eunuch, seems to regret being “unfurnishte with implements” as much as she does Julina's accusation.86 Ironically, by way of revenge against her accuser, it is she—or rather “he,” the false “Silvio”—who delivers the narrative's equivalent of the misogynistic Pallavicino-Orsino speech on female sexual incontinence: “… halfe in a chafe he [sic] saied. What lawe is able to restraine the foolishe indiscretion of a woman that yeeldeth herself to her owne desires? … with what snaffell is it possible to holde her backe from the execution of her filthinesse?”87 The narrator himself subscribes to the same view, recounting how Julina receives from the real and suitably “furnishte” Silvio “a surfet whereof she could not bee cured in fourtie weekes after, a naturall inclination in all women whiche are subjecte to longyng, and want the reason to use a moderation in their diet”; Silla herself, a model of self-control, is praised by the duke as “the braunche of all vertue and the flowre of curtesie it self.”88

Revelation of the phallus's absence is comically explicit in Riche, whose Silla-Silvio performs a striptease for Julina to show her what he both possesses (“his breastes”) and lacks (the guilty “partie”): “And here with all loosing his garmentes doune to the stomacke, and shewed Julina his breastes and pretie teates … saiyng: Loe, Madame! behold here the partie whom you have chalenged to bee the father of your childe.”89 For Julina this display is disconcerting; if Silla perceives herself/himself as merely “unfurnishte,” or furnished only with pretty teats, Julina, who has already verified Silvio's virility, finds herself in the embarrassing position of Bibbiena's Fulvia, convinced that her lover is a hermaphrodite: “Julina did now thinke her self to be in a worse case then ever she was before.”90

In Twelfth Night, by contrast, there is no striptease, since Viola remains dressed as a “boy” until the play's end; no dismembered predatory sea captain (transformed into the chivalric Captain of the “as an eunuch” exchange); no Ariostan trunk;91 and no imprisoning of the fertile eunuch (this fate is reserved for Malvolio). Twelfth Night similarly does away with sodomitic fireworks, vengeful voyeuristic merchant fathers, erectile scopophilic servants, devouring whores, busybody bawds, and the whole commedia apparatus of more or less brutal physical engagement and crude sexual bartering.

So what remains of this cultural history beyond Viola's single cryptic allusion? What appears to remain is discourse. Twelfth Night seems to enact a discursivizing—one is tempted to say a “civilizing”—of the often violent sexual and social intercourse of its antecedents. Indeed, from this point of view, Twelfth Night might be said to be more Italian than its Italian models, closer to the ideal of “civil conversation” as the interplay of ironical and persuasive wit. The relation of the play's discourse to the conversational and ideological texture of The Courtier is in many ways more direct than that of La calandria or its commedia offspring.

As a result the comedy's mimesis of intimacy is more persuasive than that of its Italian analogues, especially because it greatly extends the interiorization or privatisation of desire sketched out in Gl'ingannati and developed in Gl'inganni. Viola's dismay at the erotic effects of her disguise in 2.2 echoes the moments of confessional solitude in which her predecessors reveal their unease at playing their disguise role (Lelia's rape fantasy and, more closely, Ginevra's complaint at her maledetto habito):

I am the man: if it be so, as 'tis,
Poor lady, she were better love a dream.
Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness,
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.


But in fact her reflection on the incongruity of her role goes much further than Lelia's ambivalent wish to be found out or Ginevra's lamented deficiency of male desire. As her “male” performance begins to vacillate—appropriately enough, when she is faced with the phallic task of fighting a duel (albeit with the scarcely macho Sir Andrew)—Viola wittily signals her inadequacy in terms of the absent phallus: “Pray god defend me! A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man” (3.4.307-9). Viola's gentle allusion (“little thing”) suggests the sophisticated self-awareness of her discourse compared to the heavy sexual allusions of the play's forebears, just as her symbolic substitution by her twin (who takes her place as sword-wielding duellist92) is far subtler than the appearance, say, of the literally hyperphallic Fabrizio in Gl'ingannati.

Twelfth Night may therefore be said to effect the definitive Lacanian passage from the “natural” law of coupling to the law of symbolic interchange. And yet this may not be the whole story of Viola and her eunuch, whose impressively Castiglionian credentials may themselves disguise more public, less polite aspects of her role and its cultural history. First, the social and ideological implications of Viola's performance extend far beyond the restricted confines of courtly civility. Indeed, the very closeness of the play's relations with The Courtier and later courtesy books such as La civile conversatione has a negative social fallout regarding Viola's own social position. Castiglione's concept of feminine corteziania is strictly limited to the class of people present at the Urbino conversations, namely the aristocracy or, at the least, the highest of the landed or clerical classes, just as Guazzo's “civility” is restricted to the gentry. Viola, instead, enters Orsino's court not as his social peer—not as an Elisabetta Gonzaga or indeed as an Olivia—but as a servant (“I'll serve this duke”). Although her own social origins are somewhat fuzzy, there are clear indications that she and Sebastian, as Olivia suspects, are of “gentle” blood, and that her disguise is thus a dressingdown rather than a dressing-up, a form of cross-class as well as cross-gender transvestism; as Barber puts it, “gentility shows through her disguise.”

In a play dominated by the compulsive drive towards upward social mobility (the efforts of Malvolio, Sir Andrew, Maria), Viola knowingly, if necessarily, steps down on the social scale at the very moment in which she approaches its apex, the court of Illyria. It is this act of social self-disguising that most immediately realizes her “as an eunuch” plan, the eunuch being by tradition a (usually low) servant within a (usually high) household. It is also Viola's closest “political” link with Terence's Chaerea, who makes the same temporary move down the social scale.

The implications of Viola's downward mobility are accentuated by the dramatic history of her inherited story. For all its “Italian” discursive wit, the play, unlike many other Shakespearean comedies, is not set in Italy. As has often been noted, and frequently translated into stage practice, the mythical Illyria unmistakably resembles the rural England of landed gentry and country mansions far more than it does any Mediterranean court society. We are even further removed from the mercantile society of the city-states that in the Italian analogues gives the castrato trope its energy and its peculiar monetary coloring. Shakespeare eliminates the commedia merchants and their frenetic sexual-financial transactions: in Cristina Malcolmson's words, “the play relentlessly excludes the figure of the merchant, although in the sources, the father of Viola and Sebastian is almost always a merchant, and frequently the father of Olivia is so as well. … The play cannot afford the figure of the merchant because such a social role does not fit clearly enough into the traditional hierarchical order of servant and master.”93

The world of Twelfth Night is a society not of Italian mercatores but of thinly disguised English possessores,94 a rigidly hierarchical order dominated by landowners (specifically, Orsino and Olivia) that reflects the far more static socioeconomic reality of early modern England compared with that of early modern Italy. As Richard A. Goldthwaite comments, “Italian society was subject to a dynamic of change unlike that of any other in Europe. Elsewhere, wealth was predominantly in land and therefore less subject to instability; it was largely in the hands of a closed caste that experienced less mobility.”95 “Elsewhere” means England above all. Thus Viola's self-enrollment in the ranks of the “English” servant classes is more restricting and more dangerous—because potentially more permanent—than the interclass comings and goings of Lelia and Ginevra within their more mobile social contexts. If the stakes of the disguise game are higher, so are the rewards: as in Eunuchus, self-relegation translates, finally, into self-promotion, since Viola is presumably destined to become “duchess” or “countess” of Orsino's Illyria.

Within this relatively static hierarchy of actual and would-be possessores, however, Viola is not alone in her dispossession. In addition to the focusing of the eunuch topos on Viola, there is in Twelfth Night, as in Eunuchus, a dissemination or contaminatio of the castration topic outward from the center, involving particularly the comedy's gulls. Thus the financial milking and fall from illusory social grace of Sir Andrew Aguecheek—a specular image of Viola's movement from self-relegation to social promotion—is figured in a series of insinuations regarding his impotence and effeminization, from Maria's “dry jest” and “now I let go your hand, I am barren” (1.3.75, 78) to Sir Toby's ambiguous description of Sir Andrew's lank hair (1.3.99-101), which seems to evoke an erotic encounter but in fact equates the flaccid Aguecheek with the distaff, symbol of the female. Sir Andrew confirms these innuendoes in his “thrasonical” reluctance to use his masculine weapon in the duel with Viola-Sebastian.

As for Malvolio, the clues to his “castrate” status are more cryptic, like the letter in which they are hidden. As John Astington has recently pointed out, the “some are born great” passage in the false billet doux from Olivia (2.5.145-46) seems to be modeled on Christ's speech to his disciples on marriage, with its distinction between three kinds of “eunuch,” that is, three kinds of impotence or celibacy.96 The implicit suggestion is that Malvolio himself—who, like Sir Andrew, will fail to marry Olivia and thus to achieve social promotion—belongs to this category, and indeed his public humiliation can be read, in Astington's words, as “a displaced gelding.”97

Castration therefore takes on in Twelfth Night some of the broader significance that marks its dramatic career and that establishes it as a point of contact and attrition between opposing social forces. But the comedy also bears traces of that other, more strictly theatrical or metatheatrical history of the eunuchus as triumphant self-transcending performer, as shameless seducer of audiences, as ambiguous object of the desiring gaze. And these traces are present from Viola's first appearance in her male disguise. Viola's second scene, 1.4, in which she has already successfully established her place in Orsino's court and Orsino's affections, is usually taken to indicate her immediate abandonment of her “eunuch” role, since Orsino addresses her as “good youth” (l. 15) and “dear lad” (l. 29), just as he later calls her “boy” (2.4.14 and passim) and treats her as a young male servant: “The Duke's attitude to Cesario … shows that Viola has not entered his service in this [eunuch] character but as a page.”98 This raises the question, however, as to how Orsino, or for that matter the audience, is to distinguish between a young woman dressed as a young boy (or, on the Elizabethan stage, a boy dressed as a woman dressed as a boy) and a young woman dressed as a young castrated boy. What signs might mark out one from the other? And why, in any case, should Orsino not treat Cesario as a male servant, which—whether as page or as eunuch—is what he is? Should he address Viola as “good castrate” or “dear eunuch”?

But Orsino's, and our own, perception of Cesario as fully “male” is open to question on more than negative grounds (lack of contrary evidence); in fact Orsino does refer quite overtly to Cesario's dubious manhood, calling our attention to the very ambivalence of the “good youth's” appearance:

For they shall yet belie thy happy years,
That say thou art a man; Diana's lip
Is not more smooth and rubious: thy small pipe
Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman's part.


Orsino's description of Viola's corporeal and vocal ambiguity is itself strikingly ambiguous. His questioning of her manhood is stated initially in terms not of gender but of age (“belie thy happy years”): it is Cesario's transitional adolescent state that belies his manhood: “Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy,” as Malvolio puts it in the following scene (1.5.158-59). A great deal of recent critical commentary, however, has stressed Orsino's barely disguised interest in the androgyny of Viola-Cesario's body as object of his charmed gaze.99 And yet what is most prominent in Orsino's depiction of his servant is not so much the object of his fascinated gaze, Cesario's body, as the object of his enchanted audition, Cesario's voice: “Thy small pipe … shrill and sound.” This brings us back once more to Viola's earlier speech.

Although, as we are constantly being told, it is never put literally to the test, Viola's claim “for I can sing” associates her eunuch role with a specific early modern performative (not to mention surgical) practice. Viola's musical concept of her disguise suggests that what she has in mind is not, as is sometimes supposed, an eastern slave but rather a contemporary Western evirato, a category of soprano singer much in vogue in turn-of-the-century Europe,100 as, for example, in the Sistine Chapel, where the castrati singers had by 1600 virtually replaced all the old falsettisti or male sopranos. The “sacred capons” had arrived in church choirs in Spain, Portugal, Germany (at the Munich chapel), and possibly in England, although officially banned.101

Castrato singers were operated on before puberty, thereby preventing both the thickening of the vocal cords and the development of the primary sexual organ. This cultural and medical phenomenon was due originally to the fact that women—following a restrictive interpretation of St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians enjoining women to be “silent” in church—were prohibited from singing in places of worship and later, by extension, on the early operatic stage. It then rapidly became a fashion, thanks in part to the castrato's unique combination of wide vocal range with greater volume and agility than women or boy sopranos could rival; and thanks especially to the undoubted fascination that the androgynous singer, endowed with male/female body and voice, exercised over auditors of both sexes. Given the spectacular success of the castrati, it is fair to suppose that Viola's goal of self-elected unsexed “singer” is not a form of impotence but a mode of power, an irresistible appeal for her dramatic and theatrical audiences.

It is at this point that Viola's disguise as a metaphor for the privé becomes, on the contrary, a mode of public exhibition. As well as focusing attention on her voice and offering a plausible explanation for its unmasculine highness,102 Viola's self-unfashioning as castrato foregrounds her role as a particular and novel form of theatrical performance. The evirato was practically synonymous with operatic theater, which arose partly in order to put the new professional castrato singers on public display. Iacopo Peri's Euridice, for example—first performed at the Pitti Palace in Florence on 6 October 1600 to celebrate the marriage of Maria de' Medici to Henri IV of France—was composed for and around two castrati, pupils of the opera's music director, Emilio del Cavalieri: one (probably “Fabio”) in the roles of Venus and Persephone, the other (“Giovannino”) in the role of Tragedy.103 What Viola seems to be laying claim to, in any case, is a similarly important role in what is, in effect, an intensely musical piece of entertainment.104

Orsino, duly captivated by Viola's discursive music, comments on her body and voice in appropriately musical terms, playing, in a series of stunning multilayered puns, on Viola/Cesario's state of suspension between the conditions of prepubescent male (as actor), fully grown female (as dramatis persona), and castrato singer (her disguise role): Cesario's “small pipe” is at once the treble voice and undeveloped member of the boy actor, which is simultaneously “as a maiden's organ,” female vocality and genitality together; and the overall effect (“all”) is that of a woman's “part,” that is, sex, voice, and dramatic role. But at the same time, the peculiar combination of small pipe (Viola's “little thing” revisited from an anatomical rather than psychological viewpoint105), shrill voice, and “semblative” a woman's part or maiden's organ—an absence of other visible male appendages—is precisely the somatic and professional privilege of the evirato singer.

Orsino's punning infatuation with Viola's small pipe recalls, or perhaps anticipates, the many sexual legends that grew up around the castrati as much sought-after heterosexual and, still more, homosexual fetish objects.106 The fact that Olivia is equally captivated by Cesario's corporeal and vocal charms (“Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs …” [1.5.296]) doubles the stakes of the game and confirms the spectacular triumph of Viola's “musical” seduction. The very scenes in which Viola puts into effect her abnegation and self-mortification—concealing her desire for Orsino or acting as go-between for Orsino's desire towards Olivia—are the scenes in which she achieves erotic dominion over both as captivating castrato. Her eviration is simultaneously an act of sexual self-denial and an exercise in irresistible sexual allure.

The evirato allusion not only rehistoricizes the emasculation topos in terms of early modern performance but restores something of its Terentian force, shifting our perspective from the figurative to the literal, from the imaginary missing phallus of the castration complex to the surgically removed testicles of the unmanned servant. Moreover, it recuperates the full theatricality and centrality of the eunuch role itself with all its paradoxical erotic force. Viola, like Chaerea, becomes an exchange or gift-object, expression of another's desire—Chaerea's eunuch-gift is the expression of Thraso's supposed desire for Thais—but she is able to use her “sexless” servant role to realize her own desire towards her master. Not by chance, Twelfth Night is the first comedy after Eunuchus whose protagonist declares explicitly and voluntarily at the outset her intention to adopt this challenging and dangerous “part.”

Thus Shakespeare presents two apparently opposed behavioral and performative models in Twelfth Night—one private, polite, disembodied, the other public, theatrical, and erotically corporeal—which come together, courtesy of Viola's castrate, to form a single, extraordinarily dense piece of role-playing. The two kinds of historicity mediated by Viola's “eunuch,” the social-synchronic and the dramatic-diachronic, prove to be reciprocally enriching dimensions of symbolic exchange. To collapse one into the other, and thereby reduce the problematic complexity of the comedy's intercourse, would surely be an act of critical castration.


  1. Quotations of Twelfth Night follow the Arden edition (ed. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik [London: Methuen, 1975]).

  2. Lothian and Craik, eds., 1.2.56n; Twelfth Night, ed. Elizabeth Story Donno (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985), 1.2.56n.

  3. Lothian and Craik, eds., xxiii.

  4. Donno, ed., 1.2.56n.

  5. On the relationship between interchange in the comedies and early modern social exchange, see Lars Engle, “‘Thrift is Blessing’: Exchange and Explanation in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 20-37; Karen Newman, “Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice,SQ 38 (1987): 19-33; Ronald A. Sharp, “Gift Exchange and the Economies of Spirit in The Merchant of Venice,Modern Philology 83 (1986): 250-65; Katharine Eisaman Maus, “Transfer of Title in Love's Labor's Lost: Language, Individualism, Gender” in Shakespeare Left and Right, Ivo Kamps, ed. (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), 205-23; and Mark Thornton Burnett, “Giving and Receiving: Love's Labour's Lost and the Politics of Exchange,” English Literary Renaissance 23 (1993): 287-313.

  6. The most authoritative history of everyday life in early modern Europe is Fernand Braudel's The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, trans. Siân Reynolds (New York: Harper and Row, 1981).

  7. Passions of the Renaissance, Roger Chartier, ed., Vol. 3 of A History of Private Life, Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby, gen. eds., trans. Arthur Goldhammer, 5 vols. (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard UP, 1987-91).

  8. Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, trans. Edmund Jephcott, 2 vols. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978-82), esp. 1:53-59 and 70-84.

  9. Philippe Ariès, Introduction in Ariès and Duby, gen. eds., 3:1-11, esp. 9.

  10. Orest Ranum's comments on the exchange of coded love letters have some bearing on Malvolio's attempts to decipher “Olivia's” epistle: “Such letters might be written in secret ciphers or in readily comprehensible signs such as ‘S,’ an enigmatic symbol of fidelity and love known since the fourteenth century but increasingly common after 1550” (“The Refuges of Intimacy” in Ariès and Duby, gen. eds., 3:207-63, esp. 246).

  11. Ariès in Ariès and Duby, gen. eds., 3:4.

  12. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Customs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1959), 248.

  13. Ariès in Ariès and Duby, gen. eds., 3:5.

  14. Michael Curtin, “A Question of Manners: Status and Gender in Etiquette and Courtesy,” Journal of Modern History 57 (1985): 395-423, esp. 398.

  15. Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (1528), trans. George Bull (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1967), 253.

  16. Castiglione, 246-47.

  17. Castiglione, 217, 220-21, and 241.

  18. See Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1993), 23-112.

  19. Castiglione, 221.

  20. Jean Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967), 78, my translation.

  21. On the castration complex, see in particular Freud's Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy and Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, both in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), 10:5-147 and 20:87-175. The quotation here comes from Freud's An Autobiographical Study in Strachey, ed., 20:7-74, esp. 37.

  22. Freud, Three Essays on Sexuality: II. Infantile Sexuality in Strachey, ed., 7:195.

  23. Jacques Lacan considers “the moment of castration … the moment … [of] the very instigation of the subject in the confrontation with the real of sexual difference” (“The Phallic Phase and the Subjective Import of the Castration Complex” in Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, trans. Jacqueline Rose [London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1982], 99-122, esp. 110).

  24. Lacan, “The Meaning of the Phallus” in Mitchell and Rose, eds., 74-85, esp. 79 and 84. On the “prevalence of castration,” see also “The phallus and the meteor” in Lacan, The psychoses: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book III, 1955-1956, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Russell Grigg (London: Routledge, 1993), 310-23.

  25. Lacan, “The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis,” Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), 30-114, esp. 67.

  26. Lacan, “The function and field of speech and language,” 66.

  27. As Barbara Freedman says, “What Lacan refers to as ‘castration’ is the loss in sexuality resulting from the inevitable mediation of desire by signification” (“Frame-Up: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Theatre,” Theatre Journal 40 [1988]: 375-97, esp. 377).

  28. Laurie E. Osborne, “Letters, Lovers, Lacan: Or Malvolio's Not-So-Purloined Letter,” Assays 5 (1989): 63-89, esp. 79.

  29. See Kenneth J. Reckford, “Dionysus and the Phallus” in his Six Essays in Perspective, Vol. 1 of Aristophanes' Old-and-New Comedy (Chapel Hill and London: U of North Carolina P, 1987), 457-60.

  30. See, for example, Aristophanes's literary burlesque Thesmophoriazousae (411 bc), which includes what is in effect a farcical symbolic castration rite: the protagonist Euripides has his own kinsman Mnesilochus ritualistically depilated so that he may impersonate a woman at the thesmophoria (festival of women) and thus rescue the playwright from a death sentence imposed for his misogynistic treatment of women in his tragedies. The Thesmophoriazousae sets up a conflict between the phallophoria, dedicated to Dionysus, and the thesmophoria, dedicated to Demeter and Persephone, who preside over a “carnival” parenthesis of female power. And indeed the women gathered for the religious festival take up the castration theme in a mocking assertion of their superiority: while they have kept their distaff (kanõn), the men have lost their spear shaft (kanõn) and shield (skiadeion). Here the “castrate” becomes an object of political mediation and of cultural exchange. What the comedy, and in particular its unmanning trope, seems to enact is a mode of social transformation that foreshadows the early modern process of Zivilisation or privatisation. At the same time, the castration topos takes on clear theatrical implications, representing the actor's surrender of his subjectivity in taking on a role, especially a female role in an all-male mode of performance such as that of the Greek stage: “The play with castration,” as Froma I. Zeitlin puts it, “is appropriate enough to the inversion of roles, but the ambiguities of role-playing involve both this and that, even for Mnesilochus, who plays so ill and, by his misplaying, exposes, when the women expose him, the limits of mimesis” (“Travesties of gender and genre in Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazousae” in Reflections of Women in Antiquity, Helene P. Foley, ed. [New York and London: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1981], 169-217, esp. 179).

  31. See The Eunuch, trans. Douglass Parker, in The Complete Comedies of Terence, ed. Palmer Bovie (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1974), 147-225, esp. 153.

  32. See Aline Rousselle, Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984), 122.

  33. Carlin A. Barton, The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993), 72-73. Compare Quintilian's proverb “Libidinosior es quam ullus spado”: “You are more libidinous than any eunuch” (quoted in Barton, 72). Basil of Ancyra in the fourth-century De virginitate warns virgins not to trust eunuchs, saying that those castrated in adulthood “burn with greater and less restrained desire for sexual union, and … not only do they feel this ardour, but they think they can defile any woman they meet without risk” (quoted in Rousselle, 123).

  34. Quotations of Terence follow Richard Bernard, Terence in English. Fabvlae comici facetissimi et elegantissimi poetae Terentii (Cambridge, 1607), 152, hereafter cited as “Bernard.”

  35. On the male gaze, see Laura Mulvey's classic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16 (1975): 6-18; and for an excellent discussion of the Lacanian gaze in relation to theater and feminism, see Freedman, passim.

  36. Bernard, 152.

  37. Paul Veyne, “Slavery” in From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, Paul Veyne, ed., Vol. 1 of A History of Private Life, Ariès and Duby, gen. eds., 51-69, esp. 63.

  38. Cynthia Dessen, “The Figure of the Eunuch in Terence's Eunuchus,” forthcoming in Helios. I am very grateful to Professor Dessen for the opportunity to read her important article in manuscript and to exchange ideas with her about the play and its heritage.

  39. Quoted in T. W. Baldwin, Shakspere's Five-Act Structure: Shakspere's Early Plays on the Background of Renaissance Theories of Five-Act Structure from 1470 (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1947), 80.

  40. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. Ian Cunnison (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1967), 45 and 3. For discussions of Mauss's prestation theory, see Burnett, esp. n. 4; and Patricia Fumerton, “Exchanging Gifts: The Elizabethan Currency of Children and Poetry,” ELH 53 (1986): 241-78, esp. 246.

  41. Bernard, 156.

  42. Louise George Clubb, Italian Drama in Shakespeare's Time (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale UP, 1989), 6. The term theatergram is Clubb's.

  43. George Gascoigne, Supposes (1566) in Five Pre-Shakespearean Comedies, ed. Frederick S. Boas (London: Oxford UP, 1934), 272-341, esp. 313. On the theme of castration in Gascoigne's own poetry, with reference to his career as courtier poet, see Richard McCoy, “Gascoigne's ‘Poëmata castrata’: The Wages of Courtly Success,” Criticism 27 (1985): 29-55. Ariosto's I suppositi, together with the same author's La cassaria (1508), is the first example of “regular” vernacular comedy.

  44. Giorgio Padoan has suggested that “Castiglione's” prologue is really by Bibbiena himself; see Clubb, “Castiglione's Humanistic Art and Renaissance Drama” in Castiglione: The Ideal and the Real in Renaissance Culture, Robert W. Hanning and David Rosand, eds. (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale UP, 1983), 191-208.

  45. Castiglione, 154ff.

  46. Wayne A. Rebhorn, Courtly Performances: Masking and Festivity in Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 1978), 23-51, esp. 25. On drama and performance in The Courtier, see also Clubb in Hanning and Rosand, eds. On courtesy as a behavioral role that can be learned and performed, see Frank Whigham, Ambition and Privilege: The Social Tropes of Elizabethan Courtesy Theory (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: U of California P, 1984).

  47. Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena, La calandr[i]a (Venice, 1526), 12v, my translation.

  48. See Freud's account of the little boy who discovers his mother's or sister's lack of a phallus: “It is self-evident to a male child that a genital like his own is to be attributed to everyone he knows, and he cannot make its absence tally with his picture of other people” (Three Essays on Sexuality: II. Infantile Sexuality, trans. and ed. James Strachey [New York: Basic Books, 1979], 60).

  49. Bibbiena, k1v-k2r.

  50. “Fessenio: … they don't fit if you don't cut off their hands, arms, and legs according to need. … Then once you get into the port, anyone who wants to takes back his member and screws it back on. It often happens that, inadvertently or maliciously, someone takes another's member and puts it where he likes best; and sometimes it doesn't work out because he takes a member which is bigger than his own” (Bibbiena, e4r).

  51. Bibbiena, g2v and k4v.

  52. “Maco: I'm dead. Escape, escape, the Spaniards have made a hole in my behind with their sword: where shall I go? where shall I flee? where shall I hide? … The Spaniards have cut me to pieces” (La cortigiana in Tutte le commedie, ed. G. B. De Sanctis [Milan: Mursia, 1968], 113-223, esp. 207 and 219, my translation). Aretino's closest adaptation of Eunuchus is La Talanta (1537), in which the courtesan Talanta—directly modeled on Terence's Thais—is courted by three innamorati: the earnest young Orfinio (the Phaedria role), the miles gloriosus Captain Tinca (Thraso), and the old Venetian miser Vergolo (Aretino's addition), receiving gifts from each suitor. The play's derivation and departures from Terence are raised explicitly by Orfinio's disclaimer to Talanta: “I who am not Thais's Phaedria …” (La Talanta in De Sanctis, ed., 335-462, esp. 365, my translation).

  53. Ben Jonson's Epicoene (1609) revisits Eunuchus via The Stablemaster, reworking the duke of Mantua's prank against his stablemaster in the form of the marrying-a-boy trick played by Dauphine on his uncle, Morose. From Terence, via Aretino, Jonson inherits the trope of castration as social epidemic: not the political corruption of Rome or the universal sodomy of Mantua but the generalized gender reversal that afflicts contemporary London. The play's transvestite plot, presided over by the omniously named Cutbeard, who finds Morose a silent “wife,” enacts such reversals through the exchange of the play's floating signifier, the phallus. Like the stablemaster, Morose is obliged, in order to be free of his wife, to make a public confession before the “Ladies” of his congenital (or perhaps nongenital) lack of attributes (Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, 11 vols. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-52], 5:141-271, esp. 264-65). Jonson might be said to extend the castration trope to the audience, keeping his spectators in the dark regarding Dauphine's trick until the very end and thereby leaving them as disarmed as Morose himself; see Laura Levine, Men in women's clothing: Anti-theatricality and effeminization, 1579-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), 76-77.

  54. The Sack of Rome, in which German soldiers besieged the Papal stronghold of Castel Sant'Angelo before being forced to withdraw due to the plague, was perhaps the most traumatic event in early modern Italian history and is described by Aretino himself in the Sei giornate (1534) precisely as the mass rape of nuns by invading soldiers, caused by the pope's sodomistic predilections. As James Grantham Turner has commented with reference to the Sei giornate, “The ‘public’ realm of the Sack and the ‘private’ realm of sexuality encode one another. The violated woman became a figure for the devastation of the city, while the Sack itself was conceived in sexual terms; before and after the event, Rome was represented as a new Sodom destroyed on account of the pope's affairs with men” (“Introduction: A history of sexuality” in Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe: Institutions, texts, images, James Grantham Turner, ed. [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993], 1-9, esp. 2).

  55. See Philip Jones, “Economia e società nell'Italia medievale: la leggenda della borghesia” in Dal feudalesimo al capitalismo, Vol. 1 of Storia d'Italia, Ruggiero Romano and Corrado Vivanti, eds., 10 vols. (Turin: Einaudi, 1978-86), 187-364, esp. 200-229.

  56. See Richard A. Goldthwaite, “The Renaissance economy: the preconditions for luxury consumption” in Aspetti della vita economica medievale (Florence: Università di Firenze, Istituto di Storia Economica, 1985), 659-75, esp. 659-60. See also Peter Burke, The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1986), 228.

  57. See C. H. Wilson, “Trade, Society and the State” in The Economy of Expanding Europe in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Vol. 4 of The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, E. E. Rich and C. H. Wilson, gen. eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1967), 487-575, esp. 492.

  58. The Academy was devoted to “exercises in vulgar as well as Greek and Latin letters, reading, disputing, composing, interpreting, writing, and doing everything one usually does in order to learn. … And with the firm resolution to pretend not to understand or care about anything else in the world, they were pleased to take the name Intronati” (Prologue to the constitution of the Academy, quoted in Teatro del Cinquecento, Vol. 2 of Il teatro italiano, Guido Davico Bonino, ed., 19 vols. [Turin: Einaudi, 1977-91], 444, my translation).

  59. “[The academicians] said that this woman would have imitated well the part of a servant, this other a matron, that young man a parasite, that other a lover, and so went around distributing all the parts that are required in a comedy” (G. Bargagli, Dialogo dei Giuochi che nelle vegghie senesi si usano di fare [Siena, 1572], 84-85, quoted in Bonino, ed., 445).

  60. It might be noted that the Intronati performed Piccolomini's comedy L'amor costante for the “invader” Charles V on his visit to Siena in 1536.

  61. Gl'ingannati in Bonino, ed., 87-183, esp. 104, my translation.

  62. Gl'ingannati in Bonino, ed., 131.

  63. See Paul Larivaille, La vie quotidienne des courtisanes en Italie au temps de la Renaissance: Rome et Venise, XVe et XVIe siècles (Paris: Hachette, 1975), 27-32. On courtesans in Renaissance Rome, see also E. Rodocanachi, Cortigiane e buffoni di Roma: Studio dei costumi del XVI secolo (1927), trans. Nino della Casa (Milan: Edizioni Pervinca, 1983).

  64. Niccolò Secchi, Gl'inganni (Florence, 1562), 10, my translation. The play on the two senses of “conversation”—the verbal and the sexual—anticipates Stefano Guazzo's courtesy book La civile conversatione, in which “Guazzo” (Cavaliere in the original Italian version) misunderstands the term used by his interlocutor, Anniball: “Pardon mee I pray you, I mistooke you then, for so soone as you began to speake of the Conversation of women: I thought you had ment of those with whom men trie their manhood withall in amorous incounters” (The Civile Conversation of M. Steeven Guazzo (1581), trans. George Pettie, ed. Edward Sullivan, 2 vols. [London: Constable; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1925], 1:234).

  65. Secchi, 29.

  66. On the syphilis epidemic and its effects, see Larivaille, 149-58; and Anna Foa, “The New and the Old: The Spread of Syphilis (1494-1530)” in Sex and Gender in Historical Perspective, Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero, eds. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990), 26-45.

  67. Curtio Gonzaga, Gli inganni (Venice, 1592), 36v, my translation.

  68. Gonzaga, 56r.

  69. Gonzaga, 20v.

  70. Gonzaga, 21r.

  71. Guazzo was “secretary” to Ludovico Gonzaga; see John Leon Lievsay, Stefano Guazzo and the English Renaissance (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1961).

  72. Guazzo, 1:158.

  73. “Another used likewyse to say, that this world was a stage, wee the players whiche present the Comedie, and the gods, the lookers on. … I will propose unto you a kinde of conversation, not to stande us chiefly in steede in markets, Comedies, and other outwarde things subject to fortune, but to the ende wee may thereby learne good manners and conditions, by meanes whereof, the giftes of fortune are distributed and conserved, and the favour and good will of others obtained” (Guazzo, 1:118-19). On this passage and the “performance” of civility, see Maureen Quilligan, “Staging gender: William Shakespeare and Elizabeth Cary” in Turner, ed., 208-32, esp. 210.

  74. On Guazzo and the discourse of the gentleman, see Emilio Speciale, “Il discorso del gentiluomo” in Stefano Guazzo e la Civil Conversazione, Giorgio Patrizi, ed. (Rome: Bulzoni, 1990), 25-45; Amedeo Quondam, “La ‘forma del vivere’: Schede per l'analisi del discorso cortigiano” in La corte e il ‘cortegiano’, Adriano Prosperi, ed., 2 vols. (Rome: Bulzoni, 1980), 2:15-68; and Daniel Javitch, “Rival Arts of Conduct in Elizabethan England: Guazzo's Civile Conversation and Castiglione's Courtier,Yearbook of Italian Studies 1 (1971): 178-98.

  75. Thomas Elyot, The Book named The Governor (1531), ed. S. E. Lehmberg (London: Dent, 1962), 47-48. For Elyot's remarks on sexual abstinence and constancy, see pages 200-203 and 205-8.

  76. See Baldwin, 386-93.

  77. On Udall's use of Terence, see Baldwin, 380-401.

  78. Nicholas Udall, Ralph Roister Doister in Boas, ed., 113-206.

  79. Udall in Boas, ed., 4.3.83; 3.3.46-48; and 3.4.16 and 87-90.

  80. Udall in Boas, ed., 4.7.60 and 4.3.41-43.

  81. John Rainolds, Th'overthrow of stage-playes (Middleburg, 1599), 34. Compare William Camden: “An Eunuch, for whom wee haue no name, but from the Greekes, they could aptly name Vnstana, that is, without stones” (Remaines concerning Britaine [1605; London, 1614], 27). Rainolds may deliberately pun on stones in the Elizabethan meaning of testicles.

  82. Rainolds, 87.

  83. Barnaby Riche, “Of Apolonius and Silla” in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, 8 vols. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957-75), 2:344-62, esp. 348-49.

  84. Riche in Bullough, ed., 350.

  85. Riche in Bullough, ed., 359.

  86. Compare Rosalind's equivocation in her/his epilogue: “I am not furnished like a beggar” (As You Like It, ed. Agnes Latham [London: Methuen, 1975], 5.4.206-7).

  87. Riche in Bullough, ed., 359.

  88. Riche in Bullough, ed., 354 and 362.

  89. Riche in Bullough, ed., 361.

  90. Riche in Bullough, ed., 362. There is a probable pun here on case in the Elizabethan slang sense of female sex organ. Compare Mistress Quickly's “Vengeance of Ginny's case” in The Merry Wives of Windsor (ed. H. J. Oliver [London: Methuen, 1971], 4.1.53) and Rosalind's “What a case am I in … ?” in As You Like It (5.4.204); see Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy: A Literary & Psychological Essay and a Comprehensive Glossary (London: Routledge, 1947).

  91. The trunk is discursivized in Viola's implicit reference at the end of the play: “The captain that did bring me first on shore / Hath my maid's garments” (5.1.272-73). Kemble introduced the trunk as stage property, adding the lines “That trunk, the reliques of my sea-drown'd brother, / Will furnish man's apparel to my need” to Viola's “as an eunuch”—which Kemble changed to “as a page”—speech (John Philip Kemble Promptbooks, ed. Charles H. Shattuck, 11 vols. [Charlottesville: UP of Virginia for the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1974], 9:6).

  92. According to Barbara Freedman, Sebastian “replaces her as the ultimate possessor of the maternal object” (“Separation and Fusion in Twelfth Night” in Psychoanalytic Approaches to Literature and Film, Maurice Charney and Joseph Reppen, eds. [Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1987], 96-119, esp. 115).

  93. Cristina Malcolmson, “‘What You Will’: Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night” in The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, Valerie Wayne, ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1991), 29-57, esp. 50.

  94. See Jones in Romano and Vivanti, eds., 200-229.

  95. Goldthwaite, 671.

  96. “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake” (The Holy Bible [Oxford: University Press, 1970], Matthew 19:12). See John Astington, “Malvolio and the Eunuchs: Texts and Revels in Twelfth Night,Shakespeare Survey 46 (1994): 23-34.

  97. Astington, 26. Compare Laurie E. Osborne's Lacanian reading of the letter, which arrives at a similar conclusion from a quite different perspective: “In possessing the letter, Malvolio is feminized, losing his masculine attributes without knowing it while taking on himself the mystery of the signifier” (74).

  98. Lothian and Craik, eds., 1.2.56n.

  99. Stephen Greenblatt interprets Orsino's description in terms of “hermaphroditism” (“Fiction and Friction” in Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England [Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1988], 66-93, esp. 91). See also Phyllis Rackin, “Androgyny, Mimesis and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage,” PMLA 102 (1987): 29-41; and Lisa Jardine, “Twins and travesties: Gender, dependency and sexual availability in Twelfth Night” in Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance stage, Susan Zimmerman, ed. (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 27-38, esp. 33. On homosexual desire in Twelfth Night, see also Janet Adelman, “Male Bonding in Shakespeare's Comedies” in Shakespeare's “Rough Magic”: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn, eds. (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1985), 73-103; Stephen Orgel, “Nobody's Perfect: Or Why did the English Take Boys for Women?” South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989): 7-29; Joseph Pequigney, “The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice,ELR 22 (1992): 201-21. Jean E. Howard contests both the “androgynous” and the “homosexual” readings, arguing that the play figure of the crossdressed Viola is “used to enforce a gender system that is challenged in other contexts by that figure,” while Orsino “shows no overt sexual interest in the crossdressed Viola until her biological identity is revealed, though his language often betrays an unacknowledged desire for the Diana within the male disguise” (“Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England,” SQ 39 [1988]: 418-40, esp. 432).

  100. Among other explicit Shakespearean references to eunuchs, there are two allusions to the castrated singer, one in A Midsummer Night's Dream (ed. Harold F. Brooks [London: Methuen, 1979], 5.1.44-46): “Theseus: [Reads.] ‘The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung / By an Athenian eunuch to the harp’? / We'll none of that”; and the other in Cymbeline (ed. J. M. Nosworthy [London: Methuen, 1955], 2.3.27-31): “Cloten: So get you gone: if this penetrate, I will consider your music the better: if it do not, it is a vice in her ears, which horse-hairs, and calves'-guts, nor the voice of unpaved eunuch to boot, can never amend.” Note, in this context, the probable pun on penetrate.

  101. On the evirati singers, see in particular Angus Heriot, The Castrati in Opera (London: Secker and Warburg, 1956), and Patrick Barbier, Histoire des castrats (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, 1989); other relevant studies include E. Celani, I cantori della Cappella Pontificia nei secoli XVI-XVIII (Turin: Bocca, 1909); G. Monaldi, Cantanti evirati celebri del teatro italiano, secoli XVII-XVIII (Rome: Ausonia, 1920); Fedele D'Amico, “Evirato (o castrato)” in Enciclopedia dello spettacolo, 9 vols. (Rome: Casa Editrice Le Maschere, 1957), 4:1719-23; A. G. Bragaglia, Degli ‘evirati cantori’ (Florence: Sansoni, 1959); Rodolfo Celletti, “Sopranisti e contraltisti,” Musica d'Oggi 2 (1959): 245-50; A. Milner, “The sacred capons,” The Musical Times 14 (1973): 250; Thomas Walker, “Castrato” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie, ed., 20 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1980), 3:875-76.

  102. As Roger Warren and Stanley Wells observe in their recent Oxford edition of the play, “Viola chooses this disguise partly to account for her high-pitched voice” (Twelfth Night [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994], 1.2.53n).

  103. Claude V. Palisca, “The first performance of ‘Euridice’” in Twenty-fifth Anniversary Festschrift (1937-1962), Albert Mell, ed. (New York: Queens College of the City University of New York, 1964), 1-24. On the first performance of the opera, see also Howard Mayer Brown's preface to his edition, Euridice: An Opera in One Act, Five Scenes (Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 1981), vii. On Peri and the castrati singers, see Barbier, 61; Walker, 875; and Angelo Sollerti, Le origini del melodramma (Turin: Fratelli Bocca, 1903).

  104. It may be merely historical coincidence that among the aristocratic auditors present at this performance was Orsino, Duke of Bracciano, who shortly thereafter set out for the court of Elizabeth I, and whose relationship to the Orsino of Twelfth Night has long been the subject of controversy; see Leslie Hotson, The First Night of Twelfth Night (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954), 47-49. Hotson's suggestion that Twelfth Night was performed on the occasion of Orsino's visit to Elizabeth has not been widely accepted.

  105. Compare Sonnet 20, in which the poet blazons the fair youth as a woman—“And for a woman wert thou first created”—to whom Nature has added “one thing to my purpose nothing.” Stephen Booth glosses “thing” as “(2) generative organ” and “nothing” as “vulva” (Shakespeare's Sonnets [New Haven, CT, and London: Yale UP, 1977], 21 and 164). There may also be a pun on “Gilding/gelding” (l. 6). The poet, as it were, mentally “castrates” the youth, whose situation—as simultaneous object of the desiring male gaze and of female passion (“Which steales mens eyes and womens soules amazeth”)—recalls Viola's two-way “seduction.”

  106. See Barbier, 125-44. The (continuing) sexual as well as musical fascination exercised by the evirati is attested to by Gerard Corbiau's recent film Farinelli (1995).

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 17693

SOURCE: Warren, Roger and Stanley Wells. Introduction to Twelfth Night, or What You Will, by William Shakespeare, edited by Roger Warren and Stanley Wells, pp. 1-76. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Warren and Wells survey Twelfth Night's setting, sources, themes, and major characters. The critics' discussion is often informed by insights gleaned from twentieth-century stagings of the play.]

Twelfth Night is one of the most popular of Shakespeare's plays in the modern theatre, and its success seems to have begun early; the sole surviving reference to it during Shakespeare's lifetime is to a performance. On 2 February 1602, John Manningham, then a law student of the Middle Temple in London, wrote in his diary:

At our feast we had a play called Twelfth Night, or What You Will, much like The Comedy of Errors or Menaechmi in Plautus, but most like and near to that in Italian called Inganni. A good practice in it to make the steward believe his lady widow was in love with him, by counterfeiting a letter as from his lady, in general terms telling him what she liked best in him, and prescribing his gesture in smiling, his apparel, etc., and then when he came to practise, making him believe they took him to be mad.1

This must have been an early performance. The play was probably written in 1601, either immediately before or straight after Hamlet.2 Both plays were therefore written at the midpoint of Shakespeare's career, when he was at the height of his powers, so their theatrical success is not surprising.

The play has not, however, always been as popular in the theatre as it is today. Although it was among the earliest of Shakespeare's plays to be revived when the London theatres reopened after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, only three performances in the later part of the seventeenth century are known, and Samuel Pepys attended each of them. On 11 September 1661 he entered the theatre simply because the King was going to be there. ‘So I, against my own mind and resolution, could not forbear to go in, which did make the play seem a burden to me, and I took no pleasure at all in it.’ Nevertheless he saw it again on Twelfth Night 1663, when he found it ‘but a silly play, and not relating at all to the name or day’, and yet again, though with no more enthusiasm, on 20 January 1669, ‘as it is now revived’ (which may imply adaptation, though no alteration survives from his period), this time calling it ‘one of the weakest plays that ever I saw on the stage’.3

Pepys seems to have reflected the taste of his age: the play then left the repertory for over eighty years. William Burnaby drew on it for his Love Betray'd of 1703, a very free adaptation, mostly in prose, which retains fewer than sixty of Shakespeare's lines. Only two performances are known, one in February 1703 and the other in March 1705.4Twelfth Night shared in the general neglect of Shakespeare's comedies during the early part of the eighteenth century but returned to the English stage in January 1741, with Charles Macklin as Malvolio. After this, while not receiving as many performances as The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, or The Merry Wives of Windsor, it remained in the repertory of either Covent Garden or Drury Lane for the rest of the century.5 The acting version printed in Bell's edition in 1774 is substantially Shakespeare's text with a few cuts, including two of Feste's songs; J. P. Kemble's acting edition of 1811 also makes only comparatively minor changes, including the transposition of the first and second scenes, a practice which still occasionally happens at the present time.6

In 1820 Frederic Reynolds, along with the composer Henry Bishop, put on at Covent Garden a heavily adapted version introducing ‘Songs, Glees, and Choruses, the Poetry selected entirely from the Plays, Poems, and Sonnets of Shakespeare' and adding also the masque from The Tempest. This adaptation, which was indulgently reviewed by Leigh Hunt,7 continued in performance at intervals over several years; the text has not survived.

Shakespeare's play had been introduced to New York in 1804, and it was the American actresses Charlotte and Susan Cushman, appearing as Viola and Olivia, who brought it back to the London stage in 1846, at the Haymarket Theatre. Other notable nineteenth-century productions included those of Samuel Phelps at Sadler's Wells in 1848, Charles Kean at the Princess's Theatre in 1850, and one at the Olympic Theatre in 1865, in which the text was altered so that Kate Terry could play both Viola and Sebastian.8 Henry Irving's production at the Lyceum Theatre in 1884, in which he played Malvolio with Ellen Terry as Viola, was not a great success, and Augustin Daly's took remarkable liberties with the text.9

These were all performances in the nineteenth-century pictorial tradition, but in 1895 William Poel's semi-professional Elizabethan Stage Society acted the play ‘after the manner of the sixteenth century’ (though not without abbreviation), impressing Bernard Shaw with ‘the immense advantage of the platform stage to the actor’.10 The winds of change were blowing, even though Beerbohm Tree's version at His Majesty's Theatre in 1901, in which he played Malvolio, reverted to traditional methods. It had what George Odell described as ‘the most extraordinary single setting I have ever beheld. It was the garden of Olivia, extending terrace by terrace to the extreme back of the stage, with very real grass, real fountains, paths and descending steps. I never saw anything approaching it for beauty and vraisemblance'—but the disadvantage was that it had to be used ‘for many of the Shakespearian episodes for which it was absurdly inappropriate’.11 This was the last major production of Twelfth Night in the high Victorian style. In 1912 Harley Granville Barker directed it at the Savoy Theatre, London, in a production which, influenced partly by Poel, laid the foundations for the many twentieth-century stagings of this play, some of whose insights have made an important contribution to the rest of this introduction.12


It is interesting that the earliest recorded performance should have been at a celebratory feast: John Manningham saw it on 2 February, which was Candlemas, the festival of the blessing of candles to celebrate the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Catholic feast which, like others, survived into post-Reformation England. Both the other early performances we know about were also given privately to celebrate festive occasions: by the King's Men at court on Easter Monday, 6 April 1618, and again at Candlemas, 2 February 1623, before Charles I at Whitehall. This inevitably prompts us to ask whether Twelfth Night was conceived and performed as a play especially suited to private performances on festive occasions. It seems unlikely that such a successful stage play would have been reserved for private performance; but on Twelfth Night 1601 Shakespeare's company performed an unspecified play before Queen Elizabeth I and her chief guest, Don Virginio Orsino, at Whitehall, and Leslie Hotson has argued in The First Night of ‘Twelfth Night’ (1954) that the play was rapidly put together for this occasion. Although his book sheds much valuable light on details of the text, from which the commentary in this edition has benefited, his main argument has not won general acceptance; it is likelier that the ducal visitor and the festive occasion suggested the name of Shakespeare's duke and the title of his play, which was probably written later that year.

Opinion varies about how far the title provides a clue for interpretation. In spite of Pepys's view that the play was irrelevant to the day, it was often performed on or around 6 January in the later eighteenth century. Like the feast of Candlemas, the elaborate festivities associated with Twelfth Night were a survival of medieval customs into post-Reformation England. L. G. Salingar conveniently summarizes those features of the play which relate to the period of licensed ‘misrule’, revelry, and topsy-turveydom traditionally associated with the Twelve Days of Christmas, of which Twelfth Night was the conclusion and the climax:

The sub-plot shows a prolonged season of misrule, or ‘uncivil rule’, in Olivia's household, with Sir Toby turning night into day; there are drinking, dancing, and singing, scenes of mock wooing, a mock sword fight, and the gulling of an unpopular member of the household, with Feste mumming it as a priest and attempting a mock exorcism in the manner of the Feast of Fools.13

Both the principal actions of the play present reversals of established norms such as the period of misrule encouraged: in the main plot, the Duke Orsino is educated out of his aberrant state of love-melancholy by his servant, who then becomes her ‘master's mistress’ (5.1.317); in the sub-plot, Olivia's steward aspires to become his mistress's master. And during the drinking scene, Sir Toby's quotation of an unidentified song, ‘O' the twelfth day of December’ (2.3.79), may be his drunken version of the carol ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, perhaps identifying the party as his own version of a Twelfth Night revel.14

Modern directors have taken diametrically opposed views of the usefulness of the associations of Twelfth Night to performance, as Michael Billington's conversations with some of them in Directors' Shakespeare (1990), a valuable account of the theatrical issues, makes clear. For Terry Hands, ‘Twelfth Night meant just that—the sixth of January, the moment when you take down the decorations and Christmas is over. The festive moment has passed, and this is now the cruellest point of the year’, and the drinking scene is an attempt ‘to put their Christmas tree back up’ (pp. 2, 8).15 On the other hand, John Barton, who directed a long-running and almost universally admired production for the Royal Shakespeare Company (1969-71), finds the play less wintry than ‘autumnal in mood’ (p. 7). In this respect, Barton agrees with Peter Hall, who directed another much admired autumnal staging (Stratford-upon-Avon, 1958-60, and again at the Playhouse, London, in 1991); while for Bill Alexander, director of the RSC's 1987-8 production, ‘the title was a kind of distraction’ (p. 3).

That title, however, is not simply Twelfth Night. Both the earliest sources, John Manningham's diary and the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays (1623), the sole authority for the text of the play, call it Twelfth Night, or What You Will; perhaps the permissive What You Will is intended to qualify too rigorous an insistence upon Twelfth Night and its associations of misrule.16 Such openness would be entirely characteristic of a play which establishes so subtle a balance between contrasting elements that it has often been characterized as ‘elusive’ in mood and overall effect. John Gielgud, who directed what seems to have been a rather unsuccessful production at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955, comments: ‘It is so difficult to combine the romance of the play with the cruelty of the jokes against Malvolio, jokes which are in any case archaic and difficult. The different elements in the play are hard to balance properly.’17 For this reason, as Michael Billington points out in his introduction to Directors' Shakespeare, ‘different characters become, at different times, the pivot of the play [but] the quartet of RSC directors suggests that Sir Toby is the motor that drives the plot and Feste the character who determines the mood’ (p. ix).

It may be that one reason why John Barton's and Peter Hall's autumnal versions were so successful in achieving just that elusive balance between contrasting elements that Gielgud mentions, between sweet and sour, laughter and tears, was that autumn itself is a season of contrasts: serene, warm days edged by chilly nights, mist, and lengthening shadows. Keats catches precisely this quality in his ode ‘To Autumn’ where he defines the perfection of the autumn day by reminding the reader of those things that threaten it—the hint of transience in the ‘soft-dying day’ and in the ‘gathering swallows’, about to depart to escape the approach of winter. And he might be describing the quality of Twelfth Night itself when he writes in his ‘Ode on Melancholy’ that ‘in the very temple of delight ❙ Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine’. This combination of happiness and sadness, to the point where an awareness of the one is essential to the full experience and appreciation of the other, is characteristic of the mood of Twelfth Night, epitomized in the lines in which Orsino and Viola discuss female perfection,

For women are as roses, whose fair flower
Being once displayed, doth fall that very hour.
And so they are. Alas that they are so:
To die even when they to perfection grow


or in Viola's phrase about her imaginary sister ‘Smiling at grief’ (2.4.115), or in Feste's comparison of Orsino's mind to an opal, an iridescent jewel that changes its appearance in the varying light (2.4.74).

An autumnal mood also suits the revels of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, which carry a sense of the best days being past, of having to make the most of every moment while it lasts. Feste perfectly catches this mood in the song he sings to them in the drinking scene: ‘Present mirth hath present laughter. … ❙ Youth's a stuff will not endure’ (2.3.46, 50). Perhaps the need to indulge in ‘present laughter’ explains the rather desperate tone of the revelry in most performances, and more particularly how the joke against Malvolio comes to be pushed to the extreme of attempting to drive him mad. Making the most of passing moments is as much a part of Twelfth Night, the end of a period of mid-winter revels, as it is of autumn; and references to other seasons in the text—‘More matter for a May morning’ (3.4.137) and ‘this is very midsummer madness’ (3.4.53)—allude to other periods of Elizabethan revelry, May Day and Midsummer Eve, not necessarily to a particular season in which the action takes place—although Bill Alexander, the director who felt that ‘the title was a kind of distraction’, departed as far from mid-winter as possible and set his 1987 RSC version in the brightly-lit summer sunshine of a fishing village on the Illyrian coast. This leads naturally to the ways in which various stagings have presented Illyria, and to the more general question ‘Where—or what—is Illyria?’


Illyria was the ancient name of an area of the Adriatic coast roughly corresponding to what was for long known as Yugoslavia. In the classical world, Illyria had a reputation for piracy: the Illyrians' attacks on Adriatic shipping led to Roman intervention, and the area became the Roman province of Illyricum. Shakespeare was clearly aware of its reputation since his only other reference to it, in the phrase ‘Bargulus, the strong Illyrian pirate’ (Contention 4.1.108), is a translation of ‘Bardulis Illyrius latro’, from Cicero's De Officiis 2.11, a work used as a textbook in Elizabethan schools. This association of Illyria with piracy may have contributed to the vivid evocation of a ferocious sea-battle between Antonio and Orsino at 5.1.45-70, and to the ambiguous presentation of Antonio in general, discussed in a later section of this introduction.

In Shakespeare's day Illyria was a series of city-states controlled by the Venetian republic. Possibly Shakespeare conceives of Orsino and Olivia as neighbouring rulers of these city-states, for whom a marriage alliance might appear natural; yet Orsino and Olivia seem just as much to be neighbouring Elizabethan aristocrats; Olivia's household is presented in precise detail, complete with steward, waiting-gentlewoman, fool, and sponging elderly relative. The coexistence of the remote and the familiar in Shakespeare's Illyria—nicely characterized in a review by Hugh Leonard as ‘a fairyland with back-streets’ (Plays and Players, August 1966, p. 16)—suggests to some interpreters that it should be ‘magical, romantic, Illyrian in that sense’ (John Barton), or even a country of the mind: ‘The place is defined by the characters and the journey they undertake … which is an emotional journey’ (Terry Hands, in Directors' Shakespeare, pp. 8, 9). Each of these aspects of Illyria—the geographical or Mediterranean, the specifically English, the magical, and the sense of a country of the mind—can be illustrated by the prominence each has been given in notable stagings, though of course to emphasize one aspect need not exclude the others, and in the most balanced productions does not do so.

For Shakespeare's company, working on an unlocalized stage and wearing what was for them modern dress, the question of design choices presumably did not arise; and the staging of the play is exceptionally undemanding of theatrical resources.18 Later actors and directors, since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, have sought to provide a visual equivalent for the play's poetic and dramatic qualities. In the nineteenth century there was a fashion for elaborately realistic and sometimes would-be ‘historical’ settings. Since Illyria in Shakespeare's time ‘was under the rule of the Venetian republic’, a note in H. H. Furness's 1901 New Variorum edition explains, ‘the custom has long prevailed of treating the piece as a romantic and poetic picture of Venetian manners in the seventeenth century. Some stage managers have used Greek dresses. For the purposes of the stage, there must be a “local habitation”’ (p. 4). In a New York production of 1904, for instance, a kind of ‘Illyrian’ national dress was evolved, using elements of Greek, Balkan, even Turkish costumes. The twins each wore a skirted robe with a sleeveless jacket trimmed with braid, a fez, and a sash around the waist with a scimitar.19 Harley Granville Barker's Savoy production in 1912 reacted against such ‘realistic’ designs by setting a stylized garden with brightly coloured, cone-shaped formal trees against a yellow and black abstract drop-cloth for Orsino's court; but even he made a concession to prevailing ‘Illyrian’ styles by dressing Orsino in oriental robes, complete with turban.20

Although Bill Alexander at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1987 attempted to evoke the actual Illyria of Shakespeare's time, his aim was not the historical but the timeless. ‘Those white-washed buildings were the same, arguably, in the sixteenth century as they are in the twentieth century.’ The costuming was ‘Elizabethan Illyrian’, that is, ‘Greek-Yugoslav dress of that period’—and in fact it was not far removed from the nineteenth century's attempts to create an ‘Illyrian’ style. But Alexander also addressed the important question why, since so much of the society in the play seems so English, Shakespeare bothered to set it in Illyria at all: ‘I think he does it for its compression value: … when people are displaced, their characteristics become heightened’ so that there is ‘an intensification of human behaviour’ (Directors' Shakespeare, pp. 12, 32). His evocation of the historical Illyria, then, was ultimately directed at sharpening the audience's sense of the psychology of the play.

And so, in a completely contrasting style, was Peter Hall's very English view at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1958. Derek Granger in his review pointed out that the play ‘marvellously lends itself to a close pictorial re-working’ and that Lila de Nobili's designs were ‘permissibly explicit; we are in fact in a Caroline park on a sunny late afternoon at the very end of September; the light is gold and gauzy, the shadows are umber, the sunflowers glow against the garden wall and there is just the hint of a nip in the air’ (Financial Times, 23 April 1958). The use of painted gauzes allowed the perspectives of a seventeenth-century long gallery for Orsino's court … to blend swiftly into Olivia's walled garden. The advantage of these designs, as A. Alvarez put it when the production was revived in 1960, was that they provided ‘a kind of visual parallel for the play's complexities’ (New Statesman, 28 May 1960), and in particular reflected its changing moods; as one vista melted into another, the production precisely caught that shifting, ‘elusive’ quality often mentioned in connection with the play, its balancing of happiness and melancholy. That balance was further enchanced by Hall's decision to set the play some thirty years after its probable date of composition, in a Caroline world of lace collars, silks, and plumed hats which recalled Van Dyck's images of Charles I's court, in which autumnal colours often temper court splendour with a hint that the golden moment cannot last. Roy Walker summarized some advantages of presenting Illyria like this: the ‘choice of Cavalier costume gave the maximum thematic contrast with Malvolio's Puritan habit, served the opposition of amours and austerity, and … eased the problem of the identical twins with a hair-style equally suitable to boy and girl’.21

The Illyria of John Barton's RSC production (1969-71) was in some respects a visual distillation of Hall's. Christopher Morley's design was a receding, slatted gauze box which proved very flexible. Set with candelabra and dimly lit, it resembled Hall's in suggesting Orsino's enclosed ducal hall; but when the gauze box was back-lit, it evoked a mysterious world beyond. This was crucial to Barton's view of the ‘magical, romantic’ nature of Illyria, and it was especially effective at the first appearance of Viola: the doors at the back of the gauze box flew open and she suddenly materialized amid swirling spray, rising like Venus from the sea; her long flowing hair also carried a suggestion of Alice in Wonderland. But the magical was balanced with the wittily human as Viola gradually recovered her bearings and resolved on positive action, especially once she assumed her page's disguise. Barton back-lit the gauze not only to suggest ‘magic and the sea and the world outside that they'd come from’ (Directors' Shakespeare, p. 10), but also to intensify moments that were at once mysterious and intensely human, above all for the reunion of the twins …, and he underscored such moments with the recurrent sound of the sea, a device adopted by several directors since. Barton's production was first given in a season that concentrated on Shakespeare's late romances; and one consequence was to make the audience especially aware of the ways in which Twelfth Night anticipates those plays: in the use of the sea as both destroyer and renewer; in the sense of characters undertaking emotional journeys; and in the final renewal of a family relationship which is as important as (or more important than) the coming together of lovers upon which comedy usually concentrates.22

An Illyria very far removed from all these was Peter Gill's at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1974. Here, more than in any other production, Illyria was a country of the mind. The key to this interpretation was a huge, dominating mural of Narcissus gazing infatuatedly at his reflection in the water, suggesting the extent to which the characters are prisoners of their own obsessions. As Irving Wardle put it, Orsino, Olivia, and Malvolio, ‘in his own way the greatest narcissist of the lot (and the only one who finally resists cure)’, are all ‘intoxicated with their own reflections, and the function of Viola and Sebastian is to put them through an Ovidian obstacle course from which they learn to turn away from the mirror and form real attachments’ (The Times, 24 August 1974). But the production was concerned with body as well as with mind: Peter Ansorge focused something essential about the play as well as the staging when he defined this Illyria as ‘a highly refined, erotic trap … in which the characters must learn to read the subtext of their desires’ (Plays and Players, October 1974, p. 31). So as well as presenting various visual images of Illyria, these stagings used design to focus important aspects of the play to which subsequent sections of this introduction must return.


In the diary entry describing the Twelfth Night performance he saw in 1602, John Manningham called the play ‘much like The Comedy of Errors or Menaechmi in Plautus' (the principal source of The Comedy of Errors), but added that it was ‘most like and near to that in Italian called Inganni’. He shrewdly identified the main influences on both the twins story and the love story. There were at least two Italian comedies called Gl'Inganni (‘The Mistakes’), one by Nicolò Secchi (performed in 1547, first published in Florence in 1562 and frequently reprinted) and one by Curzio Gonzaga (published in Venice in 1592). Both appear to derive from an anonymous play, Gl'Ingannati (‘The Deceived’), first performed at Siena in 1531 by a literary society called the ‘Intronati’ (‘Thunderstruck by Love’) and published in Venice in 1537. All these dramatize the central situation of Twelfth Night: a girl disguised as a page woos another lady on behalf of the master whom she loves; the lady then falls in love with the ‘page’, but subsequently marries ‘his’ twin brother. The story recurs in two English prose narratives: Barnaby Riche reworks it in Riche his Farewell to Military Profession (1581); and there is a variant in an episode in Emanuel Forde's romance The Famous History of Parismus (1598).23 It was, in other words, a story that was ‘in the air’ at the time; and it is worth considering some points of comparison (and contrast) between these works and Twelfth Night, not to ‘prove’ debts which are unprovable, but to indicate the kind of story that Shakespeare is using, and modifying, for his main plot.

After a prologue and two introductory scenes which contain two references to Twelfth Night (la notte di beffana—the Epiphany), the disguised heroine of Gl'Ingannati makes her first appearance and instantly establishes the tone of the play:

It is indeed very rash of me, when I think of it, to come out in the streets so early, considering the wild practices of these licentious youths of Modena. Oh, how awful it would be if one … seized me by force, and, dragging me into a house, wanted to make sure whether I am a man or a woman!

(Bullough's translation, cited throughout, p. 292)

Here there is a titillating, salacious flirting with the sexual ambiguities of the disguised heroine. To some extent, this is inherent in the situation, however and by whoever it is dramatized; but this bald statement announces the main source of interest in Gl'Ingannati; and a similarly blunt statement occurs later when the heroine describes her master whom she loves: ‘He looked me up and down from head to foot so closely that I feared he would recognize me’ (p. 296). Unlike Viola, this disguised heroine has followed and is now serving a man who deserted her, so there is a double risk of recognition, both of sex and of identity; but even allowing for this, Gl'Ingannati expresses the potential of the situation in a blunter way than Orsino does:

                                                                      Diana's lip
Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe
Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman's part.


All these Italian versions have the heroine hint at her love for her master, as Viola does in her allegory of a sister who died of love (2.4.88-115), but once more this is inherent in the situation: a disguised heroine needs some statement of her feelings, however reticent. The heroine's assumed name in Gl'Ingannati, Fabio, may have suggested Fabian's name to Shakespeare, though another possibility is suggested in the Commentary to 2.5.1. In Curzio Gonzaga's Gl'Inganni, the heroine assumes the name ‘Cesare’: this looks like the origin of Viola's choice of ‘Cesario’ for her male disguise. It is interesting that Viola, like the Italian heroines, does not use her brother's name, whereas the heroine in Barnaby Riche's version does, thus making the confusion of the twins much more complete, more ‘plausible’, and, for the brother, even more bewildering.

Shakespeare may have read these Italian plays, or possibly come across the stories through performances by the commedia dell'arte, which often drew upon published Italian plays and which was especially fond of plots involving twins (was that where John Manningham too came across Gl'Inganni?);24 but the immediate stimulus was almost certainly provided by Barnaby Riche's story of Apollonius and Silla in Riche his Farewell to Military Profession, perhaps by way of Matteo Bandello's version of the story in his Novelle (1554) or François de Belleforest's French translation of it (1570).

Riche's narrative sets out to show how lovers drink from ‘the cup of error’:

for to love them that hate us, to follow them that fly from us, to fawn on them that frown on us, to curry favour with them that disdain us, … who will not confess this to be an erroneous love, neither grounded upon wit nor reason?

(Bullough, p. 345)

This sentence might even have been the spark that set off Shakespeare's choice of main plot; he echoes its phrasing at Olivia's declaration of her love for ‘Cesario’: ‘Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide’ (3.1.150). When Riche's Duke Apollonius courts Lady Julina ‘according to the manner of wooers: besides fair words, sorrowful sighs, and piteous countenances, there must be sending of loving letters [to] become a scholar in love's school’ (p. 351), he anticipates not only Orsino's formal wooing of Olivia, but still more the lesson in courtship given by Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona:

Say that upon the altar of her beauty
You sacrifice your tears, your sighs, your heart.
Write till your ink be dry, and with your tears
Moist it again …


And when Duke Apollonius (Orsino) sends Silla (Viola) to woo Lady Julina (Olivia), and Julina falls ‘into as great a liking with the man as the master was with herself’ (pp. 351-2), the phrasing is close to Olivia's ‘Unless the master were the man’ (1.5.284) and to Viola's soliloquy on the complicated situation (2.2.33-9). Closer still is the similarity between Julina's ‘it is enough that you have said for your master; from henceforth, either speak for yourself or say nothing at all’ (p. 352) and Olivia's

I bade you never speak again of him;
But would you undertake another suit,
I had rather hear you to solicit that
Than music from the spheres.


Riche's handling of the crisis of the story is closer than the Italian plays to Twelfth Night. Julina protests to Duke Apollonius that she is married to Silvio/Silla, ‘whose personage I regard more than mine own life’ (p. 356), a phrase that Shakespeare transfers to Viola/Cesario, who protests that she loves Orsino ‘more than my life’ (5.1.131); Julia urges Silla ‘Fear not then … to keep your faith and promise which you have made unto me’ (p. 358), as Olivia urges Viola: ‘Hold little faith, though thou hast too much fear’ (5.1.167). But Shakespeare's revelation of the heroine's sex is necessarily very different from Riche's, since he was using a boy actor. Riche says: ‘And here withal loosing his garments down to his stomach’, the ‘page’ ‘shewed Julina his breasts and pretty teats, surmounting far the whiteness of snow itself’ (p. 361). Riche's handling of this revelation, with its somewhat titillating lingering over the heroine's breasts, is a measure of the important difference between Riche's tone and Shakespeare's, despite the similarities of plot and the verbal echoes;25 and still more is Riche's suggestive address to the ‘gentlewomen’ readers to avoid Julina's example: ‘For God's love take heed, and let this be an example to you, when you be with child, how you swear who is the father’ (p. 359). Although in some ways Riche is more romantic than the Italians, his tone here is much closer to theirs than to Shakespeare's—as it is also in the treatment of the relationship between the equivalents of Sebastian and Olivia: whereas Olivia's predecessors take the heroine's twin to bed, and in Secchi's and Riche's versions become pregnant and so precipitate the crisis of the story, Olivia marries Sebastian.

In some respects, Shakespeare's tone is closer to the other work that may have provided him with his immediate stimulus, Emanuel Forde's Parismus of 1598. This narrative seems to have given him the names of his two heroines. Prince Parismus, about to be married to the daughter of Queen Olivia, sleeps with Violetta, who under cover of darkness mistakes him for ‘her accustomed friend’; she subsequently follows Parismus disguised as the page Adonius and, while staying at a hermit's cell, has to share a bed with Parismus and his friend Pollipus:

Poor Adonius with blushing cheeks put off his apparel, and seemed to be abashed when he was in his shirt, and tenderly leapt into the bed …, where the poor soul lay close at Parismus' back, the very sweet touch of whose body seemed to ravish her with joy: and on the other side not acquainted with such bedfellows, she seemed as it were metamorphosed with a kind of delightful fear.

(Bullough, p. 367)

Forde's alternation between ‘he’ and ‘she’ when describing Violetta/Adonius underlines the ambiguity of the disguised heroine. Her ‘delightful fear’ is again something that is inherent in the relationship of the heroine and the master she loves, as most performances of the Viola/Orsino scenes bring out. For example, Hilary Spurling, reviewing the RSC's 1966 production, noted how ‘an aura of desire, narrowly and deliciously averted, hangs over all the scenes between Orsino and his “dear lad”, Viola/Cesario. At one point, as his page, she undresses him, draws off his gloves, half-caressing, half-shrinking from the touch’ (Spectator, 24 June 1966).

But then Parismus takes a surprising turn. Parismus himself is reunited with the daughter of Queen Olivia, and Violetta sympathetically looks after Pollipus, who is in love with her but does not recognize her in her page's disguise, and she gradually comes to love him:

Often time he would spend many hours in secret complaints and protestations of his loyal love. … [She] beheld the … constancy of his resolution, for that he determined to spend his life in her service, and also the pleasure she took in his company, being never from him in the day time, and his bedfellow in the night, that she was privy to all his actions, using many kindnesses, which he full little thought proceeded from such affection.

(Bullough, pp. 368-9)

While the situation is not exactly the same as in Twelfth Night, since Pollipus' constant resolution is to Violetta herself rather than to another woman, and Violetta, unlike Viola, only gradually falls in love, the image of a disguised heroine attending and ultimately curing her beloved's love-sickness, while their relationship matures without the man being aware of it, is very likely to have had its effect on the genesis of Twelfth Night. And both Forde and Shakespeare share a quality notably absent from Riche and the Italian plays: tenderness.


If Forde, Riche, and the Italians provided Shakespeare with different elements of his main plot, those features were modified through the experience of writing his own earlier plays. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for instance, Julia follows her lover Proteus in boy's disguise, only to find that he has transferred his attentions to Silvia, and she becomes an agent in his wooing. There is a bittersweet exchange between Proteus and Julia which anticipates both Viola's expressing her love obliquely and her ‘ring’ soliloquy (2.2.17-41). Disguised as the page Sebastian, Julia refers to herself as a woman:

She dreams on him that has forgot her love;
You dote on her that cares not for your love.
'Tis pity love should be so contrary.


But in this version, as Harold Jenkins points out, ‘the lady fails to fall in love with the page at all, which is really a little surprising of her, since she had done so in Shakespeare's source [Montemayor's Diana]. It is almost as though Shakespeare were reserving this crowning situation, in which the mistress loves the woman-page, for treatment in some later play’.26

John Manningham recognized that Twelfth Night was also ‘much like The Comedy of Errors or Menaechmi in Plautus’. Although Shakespeare derived the central scenes of confusion over the twins from Plautus' Menaechmi (and from another Plautus play, Amphitruo), he also placed these within a framework story of a family separated by shipwreck and ultimately reunited after much wandering, which was drawn chiefly from the story of Apollonius of Tyre that he used again much later in his career for the main plot of Pericles. He introduced other material into The Comedy of Errors which is relevant to Twelfth Night. He moved the setting from Epidamnus in Plautus to Ephesus, partly because, as the centre of the cult of Diana, Ephesus had a reputation for witchcraft and the occult in the ancient world (and in the Bible), and would therefore provide an apt context for scenes of apparent madness and exorcism; this is much developed in Twelfth Night both in the way in which Orsino, Olivia, and Malvolio seem to be suffering from various kinds of madness, and in the mock-exorcism of Malvolio by Feste as Sir Topaz. By setting the action of the two plays in Ephesus and Illyria, Shakespeare located them, however approximately, on Mediterranean sea-coasts. The Comedy of Errors opens under the shadow of bloody inter-city trade war, and this reappears in Twelfth Night to sharpen the acrimonious confrontation between Antonio and Orsino at the start of the final scene.

But of course the most important connection between The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night is in the handling of the twins. In Plautus, as in Errors, they are the same sex. The Italian plays, and commedia dell'arte scenarios based on them, established a new tradition by making them a boy and a girl, and Shakespeare may have been attracted to this variant for personal reasons: he was the father of boy and girl twins, Hamnet and Judith.27 However that may be, the twins introduce a vein of particularly intense emotion into Twelfth Night. Shakespeare's son Hamnet died in 1596 at the age of eleven, and Shakespeare may have known what modern research into bereaved twins has demonstrated: that the death of a twin seems to cause a sense of desolation different in kind from other bereavements, and the surviving twin often tries to ‘compensate’ for the loss by attempting to assume the other's identity.28 Shakespeare had already touched on a twin's sense of lost identity when separated from a brother in The Comedy of Errors:

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop …
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.


Such perceptions may have helped to sharpen the poignancy of Viola's initial reaction to her brother's loss—

And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium


and to her decision to assume her brother's persona for her disguise:

                                                  Even such and so
In favour was my brother, and he went
Still in this fashion, colour, ornament,
For him I imitate.


This speech has another, more down-to-earth function: Shakespeare takes care to make the twins' identical clothing seem plausible here, while in Errors two pairs of twins separated since infancy wear identical clothes on one particular day.

In fact, the treatment of the twins is one measure of the difference between the two plays. The Comedy of Errors is basically a comedy of situation with psychological touches, Twelfth Night a comedy of character built upon a comedy of situation. In The Comedy of Errors, despite the fact that Antipholus of Syracuse has come to Ephesus specifically looking for his brother, he still fails to make the obvious deduction when everybody appears to recognize him and calls him by his name—although it is true that Shakespeare has to some extent prepared for this by making Antipholus aware of Ephesus' evil reputation as a centre of

                    nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body


so that he half-expects strange things to happen to him. By contrast, when Antonio mistakes Viola for Sebastian, she immediately deduces the facts: ‘He named Sebastian. I my brother know ❙ Yet living in my glass’ (3.4.370-1). Yet she conceals this information from others, pretending at the start of the final scene that Antonio's words to her seem merely ‘distraction’ (5.1.62), until the truth is confirmed by Sebastian's appearance. This holding-back greatly intensifies both the pathos and the ecstasy of their climactic reunion.

There are also important resemblances, not so much in story-line as in mood and technique, between Twelfth Night and another of Shakespeare's earlier comedies, Love's Labour's Lost. Like Orsino and Olivia, the young lords in this play are idealists, swearing to renounce the world (and specifically the company of women) for three years' secluded study. The play is about their growing up. The ladies of the French court lure them from their idealism to an acceptance of a more down-to-earth reality, as Viola lures Orsino and Olivia from theirs. Although this involves the lords in breaking their oaths to study, and Olivia breaks her promise to retire for seven years in mourning for her brother, at least these forswearings are on the side of life. The lords, like Orsino and Olivia, begin an emotional journey to maturity, but this is not necessarily a solemn thing: in Love's Labour's Lost, its first stage culminates in the brilliant tour de force of a multiple eavesdropping scene, in which the lords overhear one another admit their love for the ladies—a scene which in its technical bravura anticipates Malvolio's letter scene in Twelfth Night.

The climax of the lords' journey to maturity in Love's Labour's Lost is much more sombre, as a black-clad messenger interrupts the festivities at the end of the play with news of the death of the Princess's father. Faced with such a harsh intrusion of reality, and with parting from the ladies, the lords are compelled to drop the conventional forms of wooing they have used so far and say just what they feel. But the shadow of death has been cast across the brilliant surface of the play on several earlier occasions, from the King's urge in his opening speech to evade mortality by seeking an immortality guaranteed through the achievements of learning, to Catherine's poignantly simple statement about her sister who died of love: Cupid ‘made her melancholy, sad, and heavy, ❙ And so she died’ (5.2.14-15); this anticipates Viola's expression of her own love through an allegory of a sister who died of love:

                                                  She pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.


In some respects the treatment of death in Love's Labour's Lost is tougher than in Twelfth Night: Catherine's sister actually died, whereas Viola leaves the issue of death ambiguous, for obvious metaphorical reasons. But Love's Labour's Lost anticipates in important ways the persistent vein of melancholy and awareness of mortality that shadows the revels in Twelfth Night and deepens the happiness achieved. It is as if Shakespeare feels that the resolutions of comedy must be put to the test of being set against harsher experience if they are to be convincing.

In its emphasis upon the emotional journeys of the characters; in making the reunion of the members of a family as important as the love story; in the use of storm and of sexual disguise; and in setting ultimate happiness against harsher experiences, Twelfth Night looks forward to the late romances as well as back to the earlier comedies. At the climax of Pericles, Shakespeare even reworks Viola's image of her sister sitting ‘like patience on a monument’ in order to express the way in which Marina lures Pericles from the ‘extremity’ of his violent despair by her smiling patience:

                                                                                thou dost look
Like patience gazing on kings' graves, and smiling
Extremity out of act.

(Scene 21. 126-8)

In Cymbeline, Shakespeare creates a heroine, Imogen, who closely resembles Viola in her candid integrity but who is put through much harsher, more extreme experiences, and who expresses her sense of utter desolation at the apparent death of her husband with a spare simplicity which is a further paring-down of Viola's direct style: ‘I am nothing; or if not, ❙ Nothing to be were better’ (4.2.369-70). And when at the end of Twelfth Night Orsino shows to Viola ‘a savage jealousy ❙ That sometime savours nobly’ (5.1.115-16), he anticipates the far more explosive sexual violence of Posthumus in Cymbeline and Leontes in The Winter's Tale. Leontes in particular goes on an emotional journey from a jealousy which borders on sadism to a spiritual ‘re-creation’ performed in a ‘wide gap of time’ (5.3.155), that time in which Viola also puts her trust (2.2.40-1). The sea which separates but also reunites the twins in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night is an instrument both of destruction and restoration in The Tempest too: ‘Though the seas threaten, they are merciful. ❙ I have cursed them without cause’ (5.1.181-2). Twelfth Night is a central comedy in more than just its chronological position half-way through Shakespeare's working life.


In reviewing Peter Hall's 1991 production of Twelfth Night, John Gross began by glancing briefly at academic criticism of the play:

Twelfth Night is about deception, about the difference between true love and its egocentric counterfeits. Orsino is in love with love, Olivia is in love with grief, Malvolio is in love with himself. So say the textbooks, and up to a point they are obviously right.

But when you put it that way, half the magic evaporates. The play's moods are much too various to be summed up in a formula, its colours much too delicate; the lessons it teaches are less important than the world it creates, and its language races ahead—magnificently—of anything that the plot requires.

(Sunday Telegraph, 3 March 1991)

The tension which Gross focuses here between what the ‘textbooks’ say and the rich experience that the play offers in performance may be demonstrated by considering Orsino's opening scene.

Gareth Lloyd Evans conveniently reflects a common critical view of Orsino. His ‘first speech has all the languid self-indulgence of a man [who lives] in an illusion of love’.29 But when Alan Howard actually played the part like that at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1966, Lloyd Evans complained, because Howard gave the impression ‘of high-class petulance, inbred stupidity and self-indulgence’.30 It is interesting, however, that even a performance of Orsino which, reflecting critical fashion, verged on caricature, nevertheless suggested more than caricature, at least to Hilary Spurling in her review: this Orsino stands

listening in an attitude of conscious ecstasy, a rose in one outstretched hand, [and his] delivery of the famous first speech … shows a Renaissance delight in luxury and artifice. Also more than a hint, in his glistening eyes and sensuous lips, of Renaissance barbarity—‘my desires, like fell and cruel hounds, ❙ E'er since pursue me.’

(Spectator, 24 June 1966)

What she focuses here is the sheer range of Orsino's language. In speaking of its ‘Renaissance delight in luxury and artifice’, she points out that Orsino's opening speech starts off from an artificial Renaissance code of behaviour like that followed by Riche's Duke Apollonius or recommended by Shakespeare's Proteus in the passages quoted on p. 17 above: to that extent, he exemplifies the traditional melancholy lover; but as John Gross puts it, the language ‘races ahead’ of this basic situation, and complicates it:

If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.


Orsino's desire to be fed by the music to the point where he becomes sick of it can be interpreted as an expression merely of self-indulgence; but the additional implication that the music acts as a stimulus for, as much as a satiation of, the appetite is clarified by an illuminating parallel usage in Sonnet 56, where Shakespeare uses the same metaphor of feeding, not to express delusion, but to suggest that love needs to be constantly stimulated in order to avoid killing ‘The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness’ (7-8):

Sweet love, renew thy force. Be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but today by feeding is allayed,
Tomorrow sharpened in his former might.


It is this stimulus that Orsino seeks in his opening speech; and if his lines suggest excess, they also suggest an emotional responsiveness, a potential for feeling, which is developed in the sensuous beauty of the following lines about the music:

O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour.


It is true that he quickly tires of the music—‘Enough, no more, ❙ 'Tis not so sweet now as it was before’—but at least his changeableness ensures that he will not ‘kill ❙ The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness’, as the Sonnet puts it. His language does not only indicate limitation or absurdity.

Nor is his ensuing comparison of the ‘spirit of love’ to the sea simply extravagant. As Harold Jenkins says, ‘if the spirit of love is … as unstable as the sea, it is also as living and capacious’:31

O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, naught enters there,
Of what validity and pitch so e'er,
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute!


The image has a vigorous life as well as extravagance. So, to an even greater extent, has Orsino's subsequent comparison of himself to the huntsman Actaeon, torn in pieces by his own hounds (see fig. 3), to which Hilary Spurling alludes in her account of Alan Howard's performance:

O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first
Methought she purged the air of pestilence;
That instant was I turned into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me.


This speech, even more than Orsino's first one, demonstrates the double effect of the language. On the one hand, Orsino's image of Olivia as a purifying goddess and his comparison of himself to a classical huntsman might be thought simply examples of what Hilary Spurling calls ‘Renaissance artifice’; but the use to which they are put is not artificial at all. The ‘pestilence’, plague, was an everpresent threat to the audience listening to Orsino; and the ferocity of the ‘fell and cruel hounds’ makes real and immediate the pangs of frustrated desire—and this ferocity lurking beneath the artifice prepares, incidentally, for Orsino's homicidal outburst when he thinks himself betrayed in the final scene. So from the start of the play, the language is two-edged: if it is artificial and even satirical in that it draws upon fashion and convention, that fashion is tempered by an immediacy and vigour which suggest that Orsino is at least capable of powerful feeling and, most important, of development under Viola's influence.

A further dimension is given to the scene by the music. It is almost as if the printed text is a blueprint for the total experience of words and music together—which of course is how Shakespeare has conceived it, ‘hearing’ the musical phrases, played and repeated, blending with the spoken text.32 The music can take many forms. In the first performances it may have been a single instrument or a consort, but the plangent sound of the lute blends particularly well with the language, especially in expressing the ‘dying fall’ of line 4. In any case, the combination of musical beauty and sensuous language is a crucial part of an audience's experience of the scene, and further complicates any view that Orsino is being satirized or caricatured.

There is, however, a further suggestion of artifice and the following of convention in Valentine's account of Olivia's mourning for her dead brother:

The element itself till seven years' heat
Shall not behold her face at ample view,
But like a cloistress she will veilèd walk
And water once a day her chamber round
With eye-offending brine—all this to season
A brother's dead love …


The word ‘element’ seems to have been a fashionable affectation; it is used by Malvolio to express superiority (3.4.119) and mocked by Feste as ‘over-worn’ (3.1.58): whether the affectation here is Olivia's own or Valentine's veiled criticism of her is not clear, but such subsequent phrases as ‘like a cloistress’, ‘water … her chamber’, ‘eye-offending brine’, and ‘season’ also suggest affectation. It is good to mourn the dead, but not to carry mourning to extremes; and there could be no greater contrast than with Viola's style as she arrives on stage a mere ten lines later, shipwrecked and mourning the brother she has lost:

And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium.


Elysium is the heaven of classical mythology, but there is nothing artificial or ‘literary’ about the lines: Viola expresses her sense of bereavement with a direct simplicity which is characteristic of much of her language, except when she is being consciously ‘poetical’ (discussed in the next section), and which differs sharply both from Orsino's elaborate style and from the language used by Valentine to describe Olivia. That contrast swiftly and economically sets up the main line of the romantic plot: as Orsino and Olivia come into contact with Viola, her unaffected directness draws them from their affectations, and reveals the positive qualities that those mannerisms partly conceal.

The process has begun in Viola's very next scene, now in her disguise as the page Cesario. Orsino's first words to her are:

Thou know'st no less but all: I have unclasped
To thee the book even of my secret soul.


In noticeable contrast to the language he used to describe his love for Olivia, he now comes quickly to the point. He has met somebody whom he trusts, and has simply opened his heart to his page without fuss. Their relationship, and the foundation of their ultimate marriage, based not on wooing from afar but on getting to know one another, is established in a mere two lines.

Shakespeare also does a great deal of work in a short space of time in the scene where Olivia first appears (1.5). Here he introduces no fewer than three major characters—Olivia herself, Malvolio, and Feste—so that the audience can compare Olivia's and Malvolio's reactions to Feste. When Feste proves Olivia a fool ‘to mourn for [her] brother's soul being in heaven’ (1.5.65-6), she is able to accept the ‘proof’ and to laugh at herself. Shakespeare specifically invites the audience to compare Olivia's reaction with Malvolio's by having her ask Malvolio for his opinion, and he is not amused: ‘I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal’ (1.5.78-9)—words that Feste does not forget, and turns back upon Malvolio in the final scene. Olivia shrewdly characterizes Malvolio: ‘O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio … There is no slander in an allowed fool, though he do nothing but rail; nor no railing in a known discreet man, though he do nothing but reprove’ (1.5.85-91). By equating Malvolio's faults with Feste's, Olivia delicately but firmly puts Malvolio in his place; and by allying herself with the wise fool rather than with the repressive steward, she emerges as a much more complex and interesting character than the first scene has led us to expect. Far from being either the purifying goddess described by Orsino, or the cloistered idealist shutting herself away for seven years described by Valentine, she is a great lady in charge of her household whom grief has not deprived either of a sense of humour or of a capacity to size up other people. Both stand her in good stead in her first encounter with Viola.


The Viola/Olivia scene opens with an exchange about the most appropriate expression for a declaration of love, and so recalls the complexities of Orsino's language in the first scene, appropriately enough since Viola is his ambassador. Unable to recognize Olivia, or pretending not to recognize her, Viola launches into Orsino's prepared speech, ‘Most radiant, exquisite, and unmatchable beauty’, only to break off and ask anticlimactically ‘if this be the lady of the house, for I never saw her’ (1.5.162-4), thus drawing attention to the risk of inappropriateness in conventional compliments. Far from being in any way thrown by Viola's irony, Olivia is quick to catch her tone and to match her in distrusting cliché:

… I will on with my speech in your praise, and then show you the heart of my message.
Come to what is important in't, I forgive you the praise.
Alas, I took great pains to study it, and 'tis poetical.
It is the more like to be feigned, I pray you keep it in.


Viola and Olivia are equals in poise and wit, and as so often Shakespeare uses wit to suggest relationship, or potential relationship. The two characters strike up an immediate rapport, which during the course of the scene develops on Olivia's side into interest and finally love; as with the Viola/Orsino relationship, Olivia's love has its origins in their compatible personalities.

Once Olivia has got rid of her attendants, what she calls a ‘skipping … dialogue’ (l. 193) begins to intensify. First, when she unveils at Viola's request and asks ‘Is't not well done?’, Viola's witty quip ‘Excellently done, if God did all’ is countered by Olivia's unperturbed, equally quick-witted reply: ‘'Tis in grain sir, 'twill endure wind and weather’ (224-7). And when Viola goes on to suggest that Olivia must not die without leaving a ‘copy’ of her beauty, a child, Olivia wittily plays upon the word ‘copy’, taking the scene back into prose as she does so. Now it is she, not Viola, who deflates poetic compliments, mockingly reducing the various aspects of her beauty to a list of items on a ‘schedule’ or inventory, ‘as, item, two lips, indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth’ (ll. 235-7). The two of them are more clearly matched than ever in witty presence of mind.

The major transition in the scene comes when Viola, ironically in view of what is to happen, raises the idea of herself, as Cesario, loving Olivia, and demonstrates how she would go about her wooing in her famous ‘willow cabin’ speech (ll. 257-65). This is the perfect example of a passage which starts off from a basis of fashion and convention but goes far beyond the merely extravagant. As Harold Jenkins points out, ‘the willow is the emblem of forsaken love and those songs that issue from it in the dead of night … are easily recognizable as the traditional love-laments’. But as he also says, the parody ‘is of the kind that does not belittle but transfigures its original’ and Olivia ‘starts to listen’.33 The situation is again two-edged. Part of the reason that Olivia starts to listen is that she is susceptible to this kind of language when delivered with this power, and an atmosphere of erotic ambiguity is established which dominates the Viola/Olivia scenes as it does the Viola/Orsino ones. The dramatist Simon Gray writes illuminatingly about this ambiguity: the speech ‘is not a classic of romantic persuasiveness for nothing. If it is ironic in its exaggerations, it is also insidiously enticing in its rhythms … and consequently the comedy in [Viola's] relationship with Olivia is both intensely erotic and dangerous’ (New Statesman, 28 August 1969).

Olivia registers the power of the willow cabin speech with the simple phrase ‘You might do much.’ She then takes the scene on to its next stage by asking ‘What is your parentage?’, the significance of which is that she is attempting to find out if ‘Cesario’ is of the rank that would qualify ‘him’ as a potential husband. Her defences are down, her interest clear. In the soliloquy at the end of the scene, Shakespeare has given her a valuable sense of self-mockery: she herself is surprised at the speed and suddenness with which she has fallen in love: ‘How now? ❙ Even so quickly may one catch the plague?’ (ll. 284-5). At the same time the comparison of love to the ever-threatening plague, echoing the first scene, gives a touch of sombre reality to her situation, and this duality is further developed in her second scene with Viola. There is certainly comedy of situation in Olivia's declaration of love to the ‘page’, but it is balanced by the lyrical freshness and beauty of her imagery, and then by her increasing desperation:

Cesario, by the roses of the spring,
By maidhood, honour, truth, and everything,
I love thee so that maugre all thy pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.


As so often in Shakespearian comedy, an event is seen from more than one perspective: what may appear humorously incongruous to an onlooker is no joke to the person experiencing it. The language takes the character well beyond mere confusion of situation. Olivia's emotions have been roused and fired, and moreover she is aware both of the pain and the irony of her situation as an oncoming wooer.

But the moment needs careful handling, and the age of the character (and of the actress) is an important consideration. In an account which emphasizes the openness of the text to a variety of interpretations, particularly in the matter of the characters' ages, John Russell Brown points out that Olivia can be of ‘mature years’, a gracious lady of the manor, or ‘a very young girl’ who forgets ‘her “discreet” bearing in breathless eagerness’ as she falls in love with Cesario.34 But the limitations of this openness have often been rather sharply demonstrated in performance. At the 1980 Canadian Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, for instance, a mature Olivia threw herself at a young Viola only to be greeted by a strident comment from a woman in the audience, ‘That's really quite embarrassing’—perhaps because Olivia appeared to be cradle-snatching, perhaps because one woman was making love to another. Olivia, of course, falls in love with the ‘boy’; but it is part of the sexually ambiguous potential of the scene, as Trevor Nunn privately suggests, that Olivia unconsciously senses and responds to the feminine qualities of the ‘boy’. Nunn argues particularly from the impression given by the matching youth, compatible personalities, and sympathy beneath the wit-combats, of Dorothy Tutin and Geraldine McEwan at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1958; but extreme youth can also bring its problems, as Robert Speaight explains: ‘Olivia must, at least, be the competent mistress of a great household; a serious young woman capable of sudden silliness, or—if you prefer—a silly young woman capable of sudden seriousness. To make her incapable of any seriousness whatsoever blunt[s] the impact of Viola on her fantasy.’35 A careful balance needs to be struck between youth and maturity, between innocence and experience.


The long scene between Viola, Orsino, and Feste (2.4) is the emotional heart of the play. It is also the scene which best exemplifies the play's ‘elusive’ quality, its shifting, bittersweet mood; and as in the first scene the music makes a powerful contribution. The scene falls into three clearly defined sections: Feste sings ‘Come away death’ in the middle of the scene, with intimate conversations between Viola and Orsino on either side. But the song permeates the first section of the scene as well, since Orsino asks the musician or musicians to play the tune before Feste arrives, and the characters' reactions to it focus the changing moods of the scene—by turns melancholy, heartfelt, humorous, ironic—and especially the steadily developing relationship of Orsino and Viola. For example, Viola's ‘masterly’ description of the music—‘It gives a very echo to the seat ❙ Where love is throned’ (2.4.20-1)—leads Orsino to ask questions about Viola herself and with whom she is in love. Her oblique replies, and witty puns like ‘by your favour’, implying both ‘by your leave’ and ‘someone who resembles you’, establish the only way in which her disguise allows her to speak of her love—through hints and half-truths; and Orsino's reactions, like ‘She is not worth thee then’ and ‘Too old, by heaven’, show a valuable capacity to laugh at himself, a significant development from his first scene (ll. 22-8).

The second phase of the scene begins with Feste's arrival and the discussion of the song. There is a slight problem here. Orsino calls it ‘old and plain’, a folk-song such as people sing when sitting at work in the sun, about ‘the innocence of love’. But the text is actually quite elaborate. The point is probably that the sentiment of the song, concerning a lover who is about to die of unrequited love and who asks to be buried uncommemorated and forgotten, is about primal emotions. It is certainly perfectly suited to its hearers, as Feste's songs always are: it fuels Orsino's love-melancholy, but it is also very relevant to Viola, who no doubt thinks that she may well go to her grave without being able to declare her love. So for all its elaboration, the song celebrates unspoken emotion and is thus absolutely relevant to the content of the scene. It is easy when reading to forget the reactions of characters who are not speaking, which of course staging brings out: Ronald Bryden, for instance, wrote of the ‘glimpses of unspoken tenderness’ in John Barton's production, such as Judi Dench's Viola ‘biting her lip as she watches the effect of Feste's hymn to death on Orsino’ (Observer, 24 August 1969). But the song is relevant to Feste too: since he is almost certainly of an older generation—‘a fool that the lady Olivia's father took much delight in’ (2.4.11-12)—a song that is ‘old and plain’ suits this singer as it does his audience, for different reasons, and its melancholy fits the wry manner he displays elsewhere.

The impression that the song is suited to the singer also derives from the enjoyment Feste gets out of it—‘I take pleasure in singing, sir’—and it is his involvement in his art which motivates his barbed reaction when Orsino offers to pay him: ‘pleasure will be paid, one time or another’. Feste is not slow to accept—or to ask for—money elsewhere (2.3.25, 30-4; 3.1.42-53; 4.1.20-2; 5.1.22-43), but here he seems to bridle at Orsino's assumption that art is simply something to be used and that it can be switched off and on to order. And when Orsino dismisses him, Feste delivers one of the most remarkable speeches in the play:

Now the melancholy god protect thee, and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is a very opal. I would have men of such constancy put to sea, that their business might be everything, and their intent everywhere, for that's it that always makes a good voyage of nothing.

(ll. 72-7)

Here Feste openly criticizes Orsino's moody changeableness: ‘changeable taffeta’ was a standard Elizabethan term for shot silk, which keeps changing colour with the light, as the opal also does (see the notes to 2.4.73-4). He then accuses Orsino of lacking constancy—something that Orsino specifically prided himself upon at l. 18. Not surprisingly, Orsino is stung by this and dismisses everyone except Viola. While Feste's ‘opal’ and ‘changeable taffeta’ are apt descriptions for at least a part of Orsino's personality, they might also serve as apt images for the shifting moods of both the scene and the play as a whole.

Partly, no doubt, because he is smarting at Feste's criticism of his inconstancy, Orsino is at his most self-centred when he proclaims that no woman's love is like his (ll. 92-102). Such male chauvinism is too much for Viola, the living denial of it, and she bursts out ‘Ay, but I know—’. This was a particularly memorable moment in Dorothy Tutin's performance in Peter Hall's 1958-60 production, well caught by Michael Billington as ‘a soaring cry from the heart halted just in time and brought down in the vocal scale to a more moderate “Too well what love women to men may owe”’ (Directors' Shakespeare, p. xviii).36 This impassioned broken line is very characteristic of Viola. In her candour, she cannot bear to hear Orsino going on about what is not true, and has to stop him even at the risk of almost revealing her identity. And the half-line emphasizes that in her page's disguise she is frustrated from making the declaration of love she longs to make. But her impassioned outburst also reawakens Orsino's interest in Viola herself and her feelings expressed at the start of the scene, and this leads to the emotional climax, Viola's oblique statement of her love in the allegory of an imaginary sister.

Once more, as in her ‘willow cabin’ speech, Viola starts off from convention but transforms it: the traditional Elizabethan comparison of ladies' skin to damask roses, and the proverb, which Shakespeare also uses in Sonnet 35, that the ‘canker’ (worm) ‘lives in sweetest bud’ (l. 4), perfectly express the hidden grief eating away at her heart:

                                                            She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i'th' bud,
Feed on her damask cheek.

(ll. 110-12)

Viola then proceeds to transform the traditional image of the pining, melancholy lover into something more complex:

                                                                      She pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.

(ll. 112-15)

That final phrase, with smiles and tears inseparable, is very characteristic both of the play and of Viola herself: she can see the humorous as well as the sad side of situations. In her earlier soliloquy when Malvolio gave her Olivia's ring, for instance, she was able to combine sympathy for Olivia with a witty appreciation of the irony of her situation:

Poor lady, she were better love a dream!
… As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master's love.
As I am woman, now alas the day,
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!


Viola's speech draws Orsino from his self-absorption to an interest in her and her story: ‘But died thy sister of her love, my boy?’ Her reply is packed with a variety of emotional implications:

I am all the daughters of my father's house,
And all the brothers too; and yet I know not.

(ll. 119-21)

G. K. Hunter brings out some of these implications:

the doubleness of expression involves more than a pattern of wit; it evokes Viola's complex relationship of frustration and fulfilment, which is what the page role allows to her, at the same time as it reminds us of her brother, and her aloneness in the world. … Viola says, ‘a woman may die of love’, ‘I may die of love for you’, ‘I am alone in the world—but I am not even sure of that’, … and no doubt other things as well.37

Performers naturally seize upon this potential. Judi Dench, for instance, has a vocal characteristic, a little break or catch in the voice, which she can exploit to great expressive effect; she used it here on ‘brothers’, with a slight hesitation before the word: she was clearly thinking of Sebastian.

But Viola does not simply sit and pine: in the scene's final change of mood, she snaps out of her sorrow and has to remind Orsino, who is now absorbed in her and her story, of Olivia: ‘Sir, shall I to this lady?’ This moment, with Orsino more interested in Viola than Olivia, makes it clear that the basis of their relationship and ultimate marriage is fully established. One reason why Orsino has no more scenes until the finale is that no more are needed: Shakespeare's economical craftsmanship has done the work. As Gareth Lloyd Evans wrote of Orsino in John Barton's production, he ‘has mewled about ideal love and compromises with a sweet actuality which, unknown to him, is as near to the ideal as he will ever achieve’.38 He and Viola are friends first, lovers subsequently; at the end of the play, he marries someone he has come to know.

The final moments of this scene are usually highly charged in performance, as Orsino becomes more engrossed in Viola, and this interest is often expressed in physical ways which arise naturally out of the intensity of the scene. At Salzburg in 1972, for instance, Klaus Maria Brandauer actually kissed ‘Cesario’; and in Peter Gill's 1974 RSC production, John Price's Orsino clasped Jane Lapotaire's androgynous Viola sympathetically to his bare chest, thus making the moment even more difficult for her; behind them, on the walls of William Dudley's set, was scrawled a line from Sonnet 23: ‘O learn to read what silent love hath writ’ (l. 13). This Viola was the perfect image of ‘silent love’. Since she was also very convincing in her boy's disguise, and since Orsino responded so physically to ‘Cesario’, this staging focused attention on the sexually ambiguous potential of the relationships in this play, not only those between Orsino and Viola, and Viola and Olivia, but more particularly that between Antonio and Sebastian, which was also very physically expressed, with passionate embraces between them at parting and at reunion.


The relationship between Antonio and Sebastian is another of the differing ‘kinds of love’ depicted in the play; but Shakespeare has dramatized it in a way that makes it hard to focus precisely. The difficulties begin in their first scene (2.1). It is surprising that this is in prose; even if the scene is regarded as a simple narrative link, the usual medium for that in a Shakespeare play is blank verse, as in the next scene for these two characters (3.3). Moreover, it is very unlike the vigorous, energetic prose so far spoken, being formal, even mannered, with its abstractions and balanced cadences, as in Sebastian's ‘The malignancy of my fate might perhaps distemper yours’ (ll. 4-5). It is possible that this style is meant to suggest a sense of strain in the relationship, Antonio loving Sebastian but being uncertain how best to express it, Sebastian half-aware of this, perhaps partly reciprocating it, while also preoccupied with his grieving for Viola. The verse lines embedded in the prose, for instance ‘though it was said she much resembled me’ (ll. 22-3), may suggest intense emotion reined in by the controlled, contained style, and Sebastian is close to tears at ll. 37-8. Strong feeling beneath the formal surface is also implied in Antonio's phrase ‘If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant’ (ll. 31-2), which employs the Petrarchan conceit of the cruel mistress murdering her loving servant; and once Sebastian has left, the constraint of prose gives way to the liberation of verse as Antonio expresses his love directly: ‘I do adore thee so ❙ That danger shall seem sport, and I will go’ (ll. 42-3).

Some of the tensions beneath the prose in this scene may linger beneath the verse of their next conversation. In Sebastian's

                                                  My kind Antonio,
I can no other answer make but thanks,
And thanks; and ever oft good turns …


the third line is two syllables short, which may suggest an embarrassed pause after ‘And thanks’, Sebastian appreciating Antonio's generosity but implying that he is trying to find the right way of telling Antonio that he cannot fully reciprocate his love—before the conversation turns to the less emotionally fraught topic of seeing the sights of the town. Antonio's generosity emerges again when he gives Sebastian his purse; and this motivates his outraged sense of betrayal when ‘Cesario’ subsequently denies him the purse in the scene of his arrest. This moment is typical of the technique of the play: the comedy of situation created by the mock duel draws from Antonio an outburst of intense suffering, and a public declaration of his love for Sebastian, whom he relieved with ‘sanctity of love’ and to whose ‘venerable’ ‘image’ he offered ‘devotion’. His passion is summed up in the intense phrase ‘O, how vile an idol proves this god!’ (3.4.352-6). Here Antonio uses not so much the language of Petrarchan conceit as the expression of intense love in terms of religious devotion such as Shakespeare uses in some of his most powerful Sonnets:

How many a holy and obsequious tear
Hath dear religious love stol'n from mine eye



Let not my love be called idolatry,
Nor my belovèd as an idol show …


And although Viola has caused his statement of anguished disappointment through her apparent ingratitude, it is a nice irony that in fact she agrees with Antonio in being generous and hating ingratitude (3.4.344-7). This obliquely makes the point that, like Viola, Antonio provides a kind of emotional ground bass for the declarations of love in the play—often wrung from him by the twists of the plot, both here and in the final scene, which will be considered later.

At the same time, the play does not sentimentalize Antonio. The suspicion of piracy, for instance, which hangs about him is never conclusively dispelled. The evidence centres on two accounts of the sea-battle between Antonio and Orsino at 3.3.26-37 and 5.1.45-70. While not denying that he is Orsino's enemy, Antonio does deny that he is ‘thief or pirate’ (5.1.68-70); yet earlier he admits to Sebastian that the quarrel

          might have since been answered in repaying
What we took from them, which for traffic's sake
Most of our city did. Only myself stood out …


This is presumably intended to communicate Antonio's stubborn integrity; but if he alone did not return the spoils, was he not technically guilty of piracy? Moreover, there is a noticeable discrepancy between Antonio's claim that his participation in the sea-fight was not of ‘a bloody nature’ (3.3.30), and the Officer's accusation that in the battle Orsino's ‘young nephew Titus lost his leg’ (5.1.57), implying that this was Antonio's fault. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, Antonio attempting to play down his ferocity and perhaps piracy to Sebastian, his enemies exaggerating both. Even so, the discrepancy suggests that Antonio is not being wholly candid with Sebastian, though his basic integrity is not in doubt.

There is a discrepancy of a different kind, a double time scheme, involving Sebastian's and Viola's rescue and arrival in Orsino's city. At 1.4.3, it is stated that ‘three days’ have elapsed since Viola arrived at court, but in the final scene both Antonio and Orsino refer to ‘three months’ elapsing since the shipwreck (5.1.89, 94). This seems to be Shakespearian sleight of hand, in order to underline the maturing affection of Orsino for Viola and Antonio for Sebastian, but Joseph Pequigney uses this ambiguity as part of his attempt to ‘secure the homoerotic character of the friendship’:

for months [Sebastian] has continuously remained with an adoring older man who is frankly desirous of him, who showered him with ‘kindnesses’ [3.4.341] and who, moreover, saved him from death at sea and nursed him back to health. It is the classic homoerotic relationship, wherein the mature lover serves as guide and mentor to the young beloved.39

He further suggests that Sebastian's use of the alias Roderigo (2.1.15) is ‘unexplained’ but that it can be ‘seen as a means to hide his identity, his true name and family connections, during a drawn-out sexual liaison with a stranger in strange lands’. The alias can equally be explained as Sebastian's circumspection while unsure how far he could trust Antonio (perhaps because of the suspicion of piracy), or simply as a common motif in myth or folk-tale that to reveal your identity places you in other people's power. This is, for example, one of the reasons why Marina is so reluctant to reveal her identity in Pericles (Scene 21, 90-130, 175-7). But even if the arguments put forward by Pequigney and others40 do not ‘secure’ the Antonio/Sebastian relationship as homoerotic, it is certainly true that the text permits, even if it does not demand, a homoerotic interpretation.41


Yet another aspect of love and lovers' behaviour is dramatized in the Malvolio story. By presenting Malvolio as an extravagant wooer of Olivia, the play provides a perspective on the Orsino/Olivia/Viola story and binds the main plot and the sub-plot tightly together, with Olivia at the centre of both, wooed by Orsino, Viola/Cesario, Sir Andrew, and Malvolio.

Malvolio has made a big impact from the beginning. In his account of the earliest recorded performance, John Manningham thought it ‘a good practice’—a good practical joke—‘to make the steward believe his lady widow was in love with him’ (Olivia's mourning black must have misled Manningham into forgetting that she was mourning a brother, not a husband).42 He also seems to have found the later stages of the gulling—‘making him believe they took him to be mad’—all part of the fun: Shakespeare's contemporaries were notoriously cruel in their attitude to madmen. Manningham's account does not necessarily imply that Malvolio was played exclusively for broadly humorous effect; but when, in a commendatory poem to Shakespeare's Poems written before 1636 and published in 1640, Leonard Digges says that

The Cockpit galleries, boxes, all are full
To hear Malvolio, that cross-gartered gull

(ll. 59-60),

the word ‘gull’ (fool) does not suggest that much sympathy was wasted on Malvolio. But after the only major gap in the play's post-Restoration performing history, Charles Macklin revived the play in 1741 and played Malvolio himself; he was also a famous Shylock, but none of the reviews suggests that he emphasized the strong vein of humour in Shylock's part, so it is possible that the tendency of leading actors (and commentators) to look for pathos, sympathy, or quasi-tragedy in Malvolio began with Macklin.

The first firm evidence for such an interpretation, however, comes in Charles Lamb's description of Robert Bensley as Malvolio in his essay ‘On Some of the Old Actors’. Lamb argues that ‘Malvolio is not essentially ludicrous’ but the ‘master of the household to a great Princess’ and that the humour derives from the incongruity between his puritanical rectitude and the context in which he finds himself: ‘his morality and his manners are misplaced in Illyria.’ When Robert Bensley's Malvolio was lost in his fantasies of greatness, Lamb ‘rather admired than pitied the lunacy’, and he ‘never saw the catastrophe of this character, while Bensley played it, without a kind of tragic interest’.43

Lamb's essay was published in 1823, but Bensley's last performances as Malvolio were in 1792, when Lamb was only seventeen, so it is possible that the ‘tragic interest’ was Lamb's rather than Bensley's, especially since Sylvan Barnet provides evidence that Bensley's performance contained grotesque elements too;44 but it represents a reading of the character that has been attempted by many actors since. Henry Irving, for instance, seems to have drawn upon Lamb's essay for his quasi-tragic Malvolio in 1884, a performance widely regarded as a failure.45 Even so, while most actors have seized upon the opportunities for broadly comic effect in the part, they have also striven for something ‘human’ and complex.

A notable example of this approach was Laurence Olivier's Malvolio at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955. In a lecture given in Stratford at the time, Olivier said that since the part must be funny and yet ‘tragic, too’, he had chosen to play Malvolio as a social ‘upstart’ so that the notion of Olivia being in love with him would be absurd yet also pathetic (quoted in The Times, 27 August 1955). Ivor Brown described the result: ‘a diligent, self-made domestic official, over-eager to keep order, a common, uneasy [social] climber with a tortured lisp. … The actor, not so much over-weening as under-weening, provided a plausible and untheatrical Malvolio, brilliant in many details.’46 Some of those details, however, seemed to offer moments of farce that were at odds with the search for a plausibly human characterization, as when Olivier fell backwards off a bench in his ecstasies during the letter scene, or when his trousers fell down from under his nightshirt in the drinking scene. The relative disappointment with which this performance was received may have derived from the uneasy alternation between farcical gags and a striving for sympathy. It is worth trying to assess how far the text itself strikes a balance between these two extremes.

The first point to make is that Malvolio's name is against him. ‘Malvolio’ means ‘ill-will’, formed from Italian mal (bad) and voglia (desire) on analogy with, and in contrast to, ‘Benvolio’ in Romeo and Juliet who is Romeo's good friend and a would-be peacemaker. The name Shakespeare has created for him carries a suggestion of adverse criticism and even of caricature. Leonard Digges's allusion to ‘Malvolio, that cross-gartered gull’ quoted above is given in the modernized spelling of the Oxford Complete Works of Shakespeare. But the original spells the name ‘Malvoglio’, so if this is the author's spelling rather than the compositor's, Digges had clearly grasped the significance of the name; this may imply that the part was performed as a caricature in the first half of the seventeenth century, and support John Manningham's relish of the ‘practice’ against Malvolio. However that may be, Shakespeare reinforces the negative implications of the name when he introduces Olivia and Malvolio together and contrasts her generous reaction to Feste with Malvolio's dismissive one (1.5.68-93). Yet it is interesting that what were by general consent the two outstanding Malvolios of recent years, Donald Sinden (in John Barton's production) and Eric Porter (in Peter Hall's), both got a big laugh on their very first word in answer to Olivia's ‘What think you of this fool, Malvolio? Doth he not mend?’, which is ‘Yes’ (1.5.68-70).47 This is not something which anyone is likely to pick up from reading alone; it marks the distance between text and performance. Nor did either actor impose anything upon the line; each simply packed into that monosyllable the censorious sourness of the whole sentence—‘Yes, and shall do, till the pangs of death shake him’—and of Malvolio's attitudes in general. Charles Lamb was right to say that Malvolio is ‘cold, austere, repelling’—but he is also very funny. In this part, as often elsewhere, Shakespeare makes his points through laughter.

Lamb was also, however, right to stress that Shakespeare establishes Malvolio as a reliable, even essential, steward in a great household: his repressiveness and lack of generosity need not interfere with his efficient discharge of his duties, and may even help them. He is obviously useful, for instance, in dealing with unwelcome embassies from Orsino, as Olivia's casual instructions imply: ‘Go you, Malvolio. If it be a suit from the Count, I am sick, or not at home—what you will to dismiss it’ (1.5.103-4). Malvolio will cope. If he fails to do so in this case, that is because he comes up against someone more able than himself, whose positiveness and efficiency make her a more valuable servant for her master than Malvolio is for his. Malvolio is contrasted with Viola as well as Olivia, especially in his encounter with her over the ring (2.2). With the ring, Olivia has sent an invitation: ‘If that the youth will come this way tomorrow, ❙ I'll give him reasons for't’ (1.5.295-6). But Malvolio's version of this characteristically turns a positive suggestion into a negative one, ‘that you be never so hardy to come again in his affairs, unless it be to report your lord's taking of this’ (2.2.9-11). For all his efficiency, or officiousness, on Olivia's behalf, he actually does her a disservice here because he is not sensitive to what Olivia means, as Viola is: quickly sizing up the situation, with characteristic generosity she conceals Olivia's rash indiscretion from her steward: ‘She took the ring of me, I'll none of it’ (2.2.12). This tiny exchange points the difference between an ungenerous nature and a generous one with brilliant economy.

When Malvolio breaks up the drinking party (2.3), he is again legitimately exercising his stewardship. Maria makes the point just before his entry: ‘If my lady have not called up her steward Malvolio and bid him turn you out of doors, never trust me’ (2.3.68-70); and sure enough Malvolio says ‘My lady bade me tell you …’ when he does appear (ll. 89-90). But other evidence suggests that his representing Olivia will not be among the audience's main impressions of the scene. First, there is the nature of Malvolio's entry. The Folio text's direction is merely a terse ‘Enter Malvolio’, but that gives no idea of the size and impact of the theatrical moment. The drunken singing has been escalating; Maria's attempt to check it only intensifies it; and then Malvolio appears, the man who runs the household dragged out of bed in the middle of the night. In Granville Barker's 1912 production, Malvolio appeared in his normal severe garb with its white puritan collar …, but most productions dress him in a nightshirt, usually with his steward's chain over it, and sometimes with a dressing-gown and a nightcap, or his steward's hat, as well; at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1966, Ian Holm had his hair in curlers beneath the nightcap. … The audience's chief impression is of an incongruity, more or less riotous depending on the staging, between Malvolio and the others, in which they are unlikely to think of him primarily as Olivia's representative.

What is more, Malvolio does not mention Olivia at first. He accuses the others of madness and calls them ‘tinkers’, an extremely abusive term. He only mentions Olivia in order to threaten Toby with dismissal: ‘she is very willing to bid you farewell’ (2.3.94). This is the cue for Sir Toby and Feste to adapt a lover's song of farewell in order to raise the question of Malvolio himself, rather than Sir Toby, being dismissed (ll. 95-105). Then the scene turns ugly as Sir Toby rises to Malvolio's challenge—spurred into doing so, it is interesting to note, by Feste's jibe ‘you dare not’—and pulls rank on Malvolio: ‘Art any more than a steward?’ (ll. 106-7). The crucial point about Malvolio's stewardship here is that it is used to emphasize the personal conflict between Malvolio and Toby, which leads directly into the next major development of this area of the play—the plot against him. As she conceives this, Maria makes the point that he is only ‘a kind of puritan’, implying that his puritanism is a façade: ‘The dev'l a puritan that he is, or anything constantly but a time-pleaser, an affectioned ass …’ (ll. 130, 136-7). What lies behind the efficient steward and repressive puritan emerges in Malvolio's most extended scene, his discovery of the letter.

Before Malvolio enters, Maria tells the others that he ‘has been yonder i'the sun practising behaviour to his own shadow’ (2.5.14-15), and it is important that Malvolio should be entertaining fantasies of greatness, and specifically about being married to Olivia, before he even reads the letter: he is thus the more susceptible to its contents. Fantasizing about being ‘Count Malvolio’, he cites an instance where the barriers of class were crossed—‘the Lady of the Strachey married the yeoman of the wardrobe’ (ll. 32-7)—in the process revealing his interest in salacious gossip beneath his puritan exterior. The letter itself begins with a short poem and an ‘alphabetical position’ which draws upon the Elizabethan love of verbal games and acrostics:

‘I may command where I adore,
          But silence like a Lucrece knife
With bloodless stroke my heart doth gore.
          M.O.A.I. doth sway my life.’

(ll. 100-3)

The quatrain is a parody of those Elizabethan love poems which are more intent on displaying ingenuity than on expressing feeling. Both the yellow stockings and the cross-gartering are also associated with traditional lovers' behaviour (see the Commentary to 2.5.144-5), and in his enthusiasm to wear them ‘even with the swiftness of putting on’ (l. 162), Malvolio allows his hitherto concealed fantasies of being a courtly lover to take over from the severe fronts of steward and puritan that have so far concealed them. The crowning touch in this transformation comes with his sudden address to Jove (ll. 162-8), and his assumption that the ruler of the classical gods, famed for his amorous exploits, is the perfect patron deity for him in his moment of triumph. That it should be a ‘kind of puritan’ who talks like this only emphasizes the incongruity between Malvolio the puritan steward and Malvolio the courtly lover.

This incongruity is much developed when he amazes Olivia by appearing before her wearing the yellow stockings and cross-garters, and quoting phrases that mean nothing to her (3.4.14-61); in the process, his place in the total scheme of the play becomes clear. As Irving Wardle wrote of Eric Porter's performance, Malvolio becomes the play's ‘supreme victim of erotic delusion’ (Independent on Sunday, 3 March 1991); so his love-delusions, as Harold Jenkins points out, ‘fall into perspective as a parody of the more delicate aberrations of his mistress and her suitor. Like them Malvolio aspires towards an illusory ideal of love, but his mistake is a grosser one than theirs, his posturings more extravagant and grotesque’.48 Olivia herself makes the point just as he appears: ‘I am as mad as he, ❙ If sad and merry madness equal be’ (3.4.14-15). The strong element of sheer fantasy he expresses in the letter scene and repeats in his soliloquy after Olivia has left in this one, when he once more attributes his success to Jove (3.4.72-80), makes the crucial point that as a lover he is so much more extreme in his behaviour than Olivia and Orsino that by comparison with him their ‘delicate aberrations’ seem modest and susceptible of cure. We have already seen the start of Orsino's cure in his involvement with ‘Cesario’; Malvolio's seems much less likely in view of the element of sheer fantasy involved in his love delusions. In this soliloquy, these fantasies are expressed with stewardly logic, working out how everything fits: ‘Why, everything adheres together that no dram of a scruple, no scruple of a scruple, no obstacle, no incredulous or unsafe circumstance—what can be said?—nothing that can be can come between me and the full prospect of my hopes' (3.4.75-9). This is where the real importance of Malvolio's stewardship emerges: the more the actor makes Malvolio a steward of genuine capacity and substance in the early scenes, as Eric Porter for instance did, the greater the incongruity here; the more seriously Malvolio takes himself, the funnier he is—a basic principle of Shakespearian comedy, or any comedy.

There is no hint so far of potential heartbreak or quasi-tragedy in the presentation of Malvolio. But just after his exit in 3.4, the gulling plot takes another and more sinister turn. Maria's ‘device’ has completely succeeded, but when she proposes to pursue it still further, Fabian says ‘Why, we shall make him mad indeed’, and Sir Toby seizes upon the idea: ‘Come, we'll have him in a dark room and bound’ (3.4.126-30). Before we see that (4.2), however, the attention shifts to the other major intrigue of this section of the play, the mock duel between Viola and Sir Andrew; and these scenes of intrigue raise some problems which have not affected the course of the play so far. …


  1. The document is reproduced in S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (Oxford, 1975), p. 156. Presumably the actors were Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men; they were unlikely to relinquish a new play to anyone else, and in any case the text was not generally available, since it was not published before the First Folio of 1623, and was only then entered in the Stationers' Register, on 8 November 1623. See Wells and Taylor, Textual Companion, p. 32.

  2. Other pointers to this date are: (i) references to ‘the Sophy’—the Shah of Persia (2.5.170; 3.4.269)—probably postdate Sir Robert Shirley's return from Persia, in a ship named The Sophy, in 1599; (ii) an apparent allusion to the Arctic voyage of William Barentz in 1596-7 (3.2.24-6); an English account was entered in the Stationers' Register in 1598, the earliest surviving edition dated 1609; (iii) ‘the new map with the augmentation of the Indies’ (3.2.74) appears to be one published in Hakluyt's Voyages in 1599 and reissued in 1600; (iv) some of the snatches of song in 2.3 probably draw on Robert Jones's First Book of Songs or Airs (1600). See Wells and Taylor, Textual Companion, p. 123, for a more detailed discussion of the dating.

  3. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews, 11 vols. (1970-83); 2.177, 4.6, 9.421.

  4. The play was reprinted by the Cornmarket Press in 1969. Charles Molloy's The Half-Pay Officers, of 1720, listed by e.g. Campbell and Quinn in A Shakespeare Encyclopaedia (1966) as an adaptation of Twelfth Night, bears scarcely any relation to Shakespeare's play. It is described by George C. D. Odell, Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving, 2 vols. (New York, 1920), 1.248, and was reprinted by the Cornmarket Press in 1969.

  5. Full information on performances from 1660 to 1800 is given in The London Stage, 11 vols. (Carbondale, Illinois, 1965-8).

  6. Kemble's edition was reprinted by the Cornmarket Press in 1971 with a brief introduction by John Russell Brown. It is discussed by Odell, 2.52, 62-3.

  7. Leigh Hunt's Dramatic Criticism 1808-1831, ed. L. H. and C. W. Houtchens (1950), pp. 227-31.

  8. Jean Anouilh similarly adapted the play, in his own translation, for the French actress Susanne Flon, reviewed by Alan S. Downer, ‘For Jesus’ Sake Forbear’, SQ 13 (1962), 219-30; pp. 226-8.

  9. Described and analysed by Odell, 2. 386, 406-7, and 441-2.

  10. Our Theatres in the Nineties (1932, reprinted 1948), 1.184-91; p. 189.

  11. Odell, 2.455.

  12. Barker's production is described in detail by Dennis Kennedy, Granville Barker and the Dream of Theatre (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 136-47.

  13. ‘The Design of Twelfth Night’, SQ 9 (1958), 117-39; p. 118. The topic is also discussed by François Laroque in Shakespeare's Festive World (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 227-8.

  14. In Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, 1959), C. L. Barber argues that Shakespearian comedy draws on the forms and traditions of Elizabethan holidays (not just Twelfth Night) to create a pattern of festive release leading to psychological clarification: ‘People are caught up by delusions or misapprehensions which take them out of themselves, bringing out what they would keep hidden or did not know was there’ (p. 242).

  15. Hands's 1979 RSC production is discussed in Roger Warren, ‘Shakespeare at Stratford and the National Theatre, 1979’, SS 33 (Cambridge, 1980), 169-80; pp. 170-1.

  16. Barbara Everett argues that ‘the “sub-title” is really no sub-title, but a generic, perhaps primary, and certainly important part of the title’ (‘Or What You Will’, EC 35 (1985), 294-314; p. 304). She points out that ‘Marston's What You Will, though not published till 1607, was almost certainly written and first performed not long before the first performance of Shakespeare's comedy’, so this may have necessitated a change in Shakespeare's title (p. 313).

  17. An Actor and his Time (1979), p. 176.

  18. Peter Thomson considers ‘Twelfth Night and Playhouse Practice’ in his Shakespeare's Theatre, 2nd edn. (1992), pp. 91-113.

  19. There is a photograph of the twins in SS 32 (Cambridge, 1979), facing p. 88.

  20. There are several photographs in Dennis Kennedy, Granville Barker and the Dream of Theatre (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 136-47.

  21. ‘The Whirligig of Time’, SS 12 (Cambridge, 1959), 122-30; pp. 128-9.

  22. This production is discussed in Stanley Wells, Royal Shakespeare (Manchester, 1977), pp. 43-63, and in Lois Potter, ‘Twelfth Night’: Text and Performance (1985).

  23. Several of these texts are conveniently gathered together in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 2 (1958), pp. 286-372. They are discussed in Bullough, in Robert C. Melzi, ‘From Lelia to Viola’, Renaissance Drama, 9 (1966), 67-81, and in Salingar (see p. 5 n. 1 above).

  24. For commedia performances in England, see K. M. Lea, Italian Popular Comedy, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1934), 2.339-455.

  25. Other interesting verbal similarities are the use of ‘leasing’ (rather than ‘lying’) by Riche (Bullough, pp. 357, 360) and by Feste (1.5.92); and of ‘denay’, rather than ‘deny’ by Riche (pp. 357, 359) and by Orsino (2.4.124). Silla's passions are said to be ‘contagious’ (p. 347), like Feste's singing (2.3.52); Julina's bitterly ironical remark that she has ‘so charily preserved mine honour’ (p. 360) recalls Olivia's that she has ‘laid mine honour too unchary out’ (3.4.195).

  26. ‘Shakespeare's Twelfth Night’, Rice Institute Pamphlet 45 (1959), reprinted in Shakespeare: the Comedies, ed. Kenneth Muir, Twentieth Century Views (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1965), 72-87, and in ‘Twelfth Night’: Critical Essays, ed. Stanley Wells (New York and London, 1986), 171-89, from which page references are taken; p. 180.

  27. This means, of course, that they cannot be physically identical, an advantage when casting them.

  28. This evidence is usefully summarized by Joan Woodward, ‘A Twin's View of The Comedy of Errors’, in the RSC programme for that play, 1990-1, preserved in the archives of the Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

  29. Shakespeare III, 1599-1604 (Edinburgh, 1971), p. 40.

  30. Shakespeare, the Twentieth Century and “Behaviourism”’, SS 20 (Cambridge, 1967), 133-42; p. 134.

  31. ‘Shakespeare's Twelfth Night’ (see p. 20, n. 1), p. 178.

  32. Peter Thomson goes so far as to say that the ‘highly wrought language of his first speech is designed to be a verbal accompaniment to the melody’ rather than the other way round (Shakespeare's Theatre, 2nd edn., 1992, p. 92).

  33. ‘Shakespeare's Twelfth Night’ (see p. 20 n. 1), p. 177.

  34. Shakespeare's Plays in Performance (1966), p. 209. In an earlier book, Brown emphasizes the youth of the characters. He calculates that since Sebastian is the same age as Viola and ‘still beardless enough to be imitated’, they cannot be more than about nineteen; Orsino is of ‘fresh and stainless youth’ and believes that the man should be older than the woman, so must be older than Olivia; ‘by the same token Olivia should be younger than Sebastian and hence younger than Viola’. This may, as he says, ‘be pushing consistency too far’; but it is worth remembering at a time when Shakespeare's heroines are usually played by actresses rather than boy actors (Shakespeare and his Comedies (1957), pp. 176-7).

  35. Shakespeare on the Stage (Boston and Toronto, 1973), p. 281.

  36. Dorothy Tutin's performance is preserved in a sound recording (Argo ZPR 186-8 (1961)), as are those of two other members of Hall's cast, Patrick Wymark (Sir Toby, 1958-60) and Derek Godfrey (Orsino, 1960).

  37. John Lyly: The Humanist as Courtier (1962), p. 366.

  38. ‘Interpretation or Experience? Shakespeare at Stratford’, SS 23 (Cambridge, 1970), 131-5; p. 135.

  39. ‘The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice’, ELR 22 (1992), 201-21; pp. 202, 204-5.

  40. Stephen Orgel, for example, calls Antonio and Sebastian an ‘overtly homosexual couple’ (‘Nobody's Perfect: Or Why Did the English Stage take Boys for Women?’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 88 (1989), 7-29; p. 27).

  41. In an account of sexual ambiguity and hermaphroditism in the Renaissance, Stephen Greenblatt suggests that the blurring of accustomed sexual distinctions in the play, especially as represented by an all-male cast, is such that Sebastian and Viola become ‘indistinguishable’ figures. Perhaps this pushes the play's sexually ambiguous potential rather far; but his discussion focuses ‘the sexual energies that [are] transfigured in the comedies and the melancholy darkness that lies just beyond the transfiguration’ (Shakespearean Negotiations (Berkeley, 1988), pp. 91, 184).

  42. Stephen Greenblatt (see previous note) argues that this slip is the ‘normalization’ of the ‘major male wish-fulfillment fantasy’ of marrying a wealthy widow (pp. 69, 176).

  43. Essays of Elia (1823), much reprinted, and quoted here from ‘Twelfth Night’: Critical Essays, ed. Stanley Wells (New York and London, 1986), 49-60; pp. 52-4.

  44. ‘Charles Lamb and the Tragic Malvolio’, PQ 33 (1954), 178-88.

  45. Alan Hughes discusses Irving's production and performance in Henry Irving, Shakespearean (Cambridge, 1981), remarking that from 4.2 onwards ‘Malvolio became too human’ (p. 201). He lightened his interpretation in later performances.

  46. Shakespeare Memorial Theatre 1954-56 (1956), pp. 6-7.

  47. Sinden details his approach in Players of Shakespeare 1, ed. Philip Brockbank (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 41-66.

  48. ‘Shakespeare's Twelfth Night’ (see p. 20 n. 1), p. 185.

Abbreviations and References

The following references are used in the introduction, in the collations and in the commentary. In all bibliographical references, the place of publication is London, unless otherwise specified.

Editions of Shakespeare

F, F1: The First Folio, 1623

F2: The Second Folio, 1632

F3: The Third Folio, 1663

Arden: J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik, Twelfth Night, new Arden Shakespeare (1975)

Cambridge: W. G. Clark and W. A. Wright, Works, The Cambridge Shakespeare, 9 vols. (Cambridge, 1863-6)

Capell: Edward Capell, Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, 10 vols. (1767-8)

Collier: John Payne Collier, Works, 8 vols. (1842-4)

Collier 1858: Comedies, Histories, Tragedies, and Poems, ‘The Second Edition’, 6 vols. (1858)

Collier MS: Notes and Emendations to the Text of Shakespeare's Plays from Early Manuscript Corrections of the Folio, 1632 (1853)

Donno: Elizabeth Story Donno, Twelfth Night, New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1985)

Dyce: Alexander Dyce, Works, 6 vols. (1857)

Dyce 1866: Alexander Dyce, Works, 9 vols. (1864-7)

Hanmer: Thomas Hanmer, Works, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1743-4)

Harness: Dramatic Works, with notes … By the Rev. William Harness, 8 vols. (1825)

Johnson: Samuel Johnson, Plays, 8 vols. (1765)

Keightley: Thomas Keightley, Plays, 6 vols. (1864)

Mahood: M. M. Mahood, Twelfth Night, New Penguin Shakespeare (Harmondsworth, 1968)

Malone: Edmond Malone, Plays and Poems, 10 vols. (1790)

Oxford: Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Complete Works (Oxford, 1986; Compact Edition, 1988)

Pope: Alexander Pope, Works, 6 vols. (1723-5)

Rann: Joseph Rann, Dramatic Works, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1786-94)

Riverside: G. B. Evans (textual editor), The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, 1974)

Rowe: Nicholas Rowe, Works, 6 vols. (1709)

Rowe 1714: Nicholas Rowe, Works, 8 vols. (1714)

Steevens: Samuel Johnson and George Steevens, Plays, 10 vols. (1773)

Theobald: Lewis Theobald, Works, 7 vols. (1733)

Theobald 1740: Lewis Theobald, Works, 8 vols. (1740)

Warburton: Alexander Pope and William Warburton, Works, 8 vols. (1747)

Wilson: John Dover Wilson, Twelfth Night, the New Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1930; 2nd edn., 1949)

Other Works

Abbott: E. A. Abbott, A Shakespearian Grammar, 2nd edn. (1870)

Berger/Bradford: Thomas L. Berger and William C. Bradford, Jnr., An Index of Characters in English Printed Drama to the Restoration (Eaglewood, Colorado, 1975)

Bullough: Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (1957-75)

COD: The Concise English Dictionary, 7th edn. (Oxford, 1982)

Daniel: P. A. Daniel, Notes and Conjectural Emendations of Certain Doubtful Passages in Shakespeare's Plays (1870)

Dent: R. W. Dent, Shakespeare's Proverbial Language: An Index (1981)

Directors' Shakespeare: Directors' Shakespeare: Approaches to ‘Twelfth Night’, ed. Michael Billington (1990)

EC: Essays in Criticism

ELR: English Literary Renaissance

T. R. Henn: T. R. Henn, The Living Image (1972)

Henslowe's Diary: Henslowe's Diary, ed. R. A. Foakes and R. T. Rickert (Cambridge, 1961)

Hotson: Leslie Hotson, The First Night of ‘Twelfth Night’ (1954)

Hunter: Joseph Hunter, New Illustrations of the Life, Studies, and Writings of Shakespeare, 2 vols. (1845)

Mason: John Monck Mason, Comments on the Last Edition of Shakespeare's Plays (Dublin, 1785)

Nashe, Works: The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. R. B. McKerrow (1904-10), revised by F. P. Wilson, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1958)

NQ: Notes and Queries

ODEP: Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, 3rd edn., revised by F. P. Wilson (Oxford, 1970)

OED: The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn., 20 vols. (Oxford, 1989)

Onions: C. T. Onions, A Shakespeare Glossary, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1922)

PQ: Philological Quarterly

Re-Editing: Stanley Wells, Re-Editing Shakespeare for the Modern Reader (Oxford, 1984)

RES: Review of English Studies

Schmidt: Alexander Schmidt, Shakespeare-Lexicon, 2 vols. (Berlin and Leipzig, 1923)

SQ: Shakespeare Quarterly

SSt: Shakespeare Studies

SS: Shakespeare Survey

Thirlby: Styan Thirlby's unpublished conjectures (mainly manuscript annotations in his copies of contemporary editions)

Tilley: M. P. Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, 1950)

Turner: R. K. Turner, Jnr., ‘The Text of Twelfth Night’, Shakespeare Quarterly 26 (1975), 128-38

Tyrwhitt: Thomas Tyrwhitt, Observations and Conjectures upon Some Passages of Shakespeare (Oxford, 1766)

Wells and Taylor, Textual Companion: Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor with John Jowett and William Montgomery, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford, 1987)

Criticism: Character Studies

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2964

SOURCE: Willbern, David. “Malvolio's Fall.” Shakespeare Quarterly 29, no. 1 (winter 1978): 85-90.

[In the following essay, Willbern relates Malvolio and his downfall to the play's theme of festivity.]

Malvolio, that humorless steward, sick of merrymakers and self-love, seems almost a stranger to the festive world of Illyria. His very first words reveal his acrimonious opinion of Feste, the soul of festivity:

What think you of this fool, Malvolio? doth he not mend?
Yes, and shall do till the pangs of death shake him. Infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the better fool.

(I. v. 73-77)1

Everything about Malvolio's character sets him apart from frivolity.

Even his vocabulary isolates Malvolio. When he chastises a rowdy Sir Toby by demanding “Is there no respect of place, person, nor time in you?” Toby quips, “We did keep time, sir, in our catches” (II. iii. 91-94). For the solemn steward and the carousing knight, the word “time” has different meanings. Malvolio hears only a cacophonous violation of decorum; Toby hears only melody and lyrics.2 When, a few lines later, Toby and Feste “converse” with Malvolio in song, Malvolio simply does not understand (II. iii. 102 ff.).

But while Malvolio may have no use for festivity, festivity has considerable use for him. In the paragraphs that follow, I shall consider the steward's collision with the merrymakers, the nature of the damage he suffers, and its relevance to the general theme of festivity.


When Malvolio falls into Maria's cunning trap and makes his sole concession to frivolity by donning yellow cross-garters, the desires he has previously hidden beneath a staid composure suddenly emerge exultant. On the surface Malvolio's wish is to be a social climber, “to be Count Malvolio.”3 Yet there is a deeper desire here, and even though cross-gartering “does make some obstruction in the blood,” as he complains, it does not obstruct an unwitting expression of the steward's strongest yearning: to sleep with his lady Olivia. In the forged letter scene, he alludes to a daydream of “having come from a day-bed, where I have left Olivia sleeping” (II. v. 48-49). And he jumps eagerly at an imagined opportunity when Olivia, thinking that a man who dresses so oddly and smiles so incessantly must be deranged, suggests rest: “Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?” she asks. “To bed?” he exclaims. “Ay, sweet heart, and I'll come to thee” (III. iv. 29-31).

But Malvolio's latent sexual wishes are also evident in his reading of the forged letter. While his fantasy of leaving Olivia in their shared day-bed is romantic enough, his remark to Toby about fortune “having cast me on your niece” (II. v. 69-70) may be less so, and his spelling lesson betrays the crudest carnality. “By my life,” he swears,”this is my lady's hand. These be her very c's, her u's, and her t's, and thus makes she her great P's.” After thus spelling out the carnal focus of his fantasies, he sounds out the word itself, hidden within a term of disdain: “It is, in contempt of question, her hand” (II. v. 86-88). It must have been important to Shakespeare that the bawdy secret be heard, for Andrew immediately repeats, “Her c's, her u's, and her t's: Why that?”

Some fine and famous Shakespeareans have been unable or unwilling to hear the answer to this question. Arthur Innes reasoned in 1895 that “probably Shakespeare merely named letters that would sound well.”4 G. L. Kittredge considered Andrew's question “impossible to answer.”5 Once the bawdy note is sounded, of course, the question is embarrassingly easy to answer.6

In one sense, the event illustrates Shakespeare's insight into the psychology of the bluenose censor, secretly fascinated by and desirous of the eroticism he condemns. But it may also demonstrate Shakespeare's playful insight into his own wordplay, so frequently erotic. As the body lies at the basis of metaphor, bawdiness is basic to much punning: playing around with language.


But Malvolio is not playing; he is being played, for a fool. His hidden desire emerges, but only cryptically. Later, Feste, with his characteristically well-disguised perspicacity, mockingly underscores Malvolio's latent wantonness. “Sir Topas, Sir Topas, good Sir Topas,” cries Malvolio from his prison, “Go to my lady.” To which the dissembling Feste replies, “Out, hyperbolical fiend! how vexest thou this man! Talkest thou nothing but of ladies?” (IV. ii. 23-26). Until his surrender to festivity, Malvolio's black suit and anticomic bearing have concealed his “fiend”; now it is out in the open.

Up to the moment of his fall, Malvolio had been able to keep his overt behavior and his covert desires neatly separate, thereby maintaining the condition he had earlier demanded of Toby the reveler: “If you can separate yourself and your misdemeanors, you are welcome to the house” (II. iii. 98-99). But Malvolio's careful division between act and desire, reason and fantasy, collapses when he falls into Maria's trap, even though he himself is certain he has maintained it yet. “I do not now fool myself,” he asserts,” to let imagination jade me, for every reason excites to this, that my lady loves me” (II. v. 164-65). From the inverted perspective in which reason “excites” rather than informs, Malvolio finds the way to shape the letter in terms of himself, and then to reform himself in terms of the letter: “M. O. A. I. … If I could make that resemble something in me!” (II. v. 109-20). It requires only a little “crush” to make the fit. Excited by false reasons, his reason fails him. His “madness” is thus his conviction that he is not mad, his illusion of maintaining control over circumstances when in fact he has lost control. “O peace!” Fabian cautions the impatient Andrew as they watch Malvolio drawing the net more tightly about himself: “Now he's deeply in. Look how imagination blows him” (II. v. 42-43). As he cleverly deciphers the forged letter, Malvolio believes that his supreme reason is shaping his destiny: “Thou art made,” he reads, “if thou desir'st to be so” (II. v. 155). Instead of making him, however, his desire unmakes him. His efforts to reform his image lead to disgrace: a fall from grace which is not only personal and social, but has spiritual resonance as well.

Feste is not merely joking when he refers to Malvolio's “fiend.” For indeed, the steward behaves, as Toby and Maria maliciously observe, as though he were “possessed.” Maria claims that “Yond gull Malvolio is turn'd heathen, a very renegado; for there is no Christian that means to be sav'd by believing rightly can ever believe such impossible passages of grossness. He's in yellow stockings” (III. ii. 69-73). Malvolio's plight is comical, of course, but there is an undercurrent of seriousness throughout. Malvolio surely means to be saved by believing rightly, but erroneous beliefs and impure desires have placed his soul in precarious balance. A bit of Feste's seeming nonsense clarifies the situation. After paralleling himself and Malvolio (incarcerated) with the medieval figures of Vice and Devil, Feste departs with a song whose final line is “Adieu, goodman devil” (IV. ii. 120-31). A typical Festean riddle, the phrase makes appropriate sense. It is a syntactic representation of the basic Morality Play scheme: “man” is centered between “good” and “devil” and should turn in the right direction, “à Dieu.” This moment of mini-allegory prefigures Feste's later banter with Orsino, when the Duke tells the clown, “O, you give me ill counsel,” and Feste continues: “Put your grace in your pocket, sir, for this once, and let your flesh and blood obey it” (V. i. 31-33). Feste's counsel here echoes the voice of the archdeceiver, perched on his victim's left shoulder: “let your flesh and blood run free,” he advises, “just for this once. Don't worry about your soul, just hide it and the possibility of grace away temporarily, ‘in your pocket, sir.’” Such brief transgressions, however, will not be forgotten. “Pleasure will be paid,” Feste reminds us, “one time or another” (II. iv. 70-71).


The underlying seriousness of Malvolio's fall is further suggested by the nature of the punishment he suffers. On one level, he is imprisoned for the “madness” of being rigidly sane in a frivolous world. On another level, his humbling is a direct rebuke to his social-climbing aspirations. On a yet deeper level, he is punished for his hidden concupiscence, with the punishment combining various symbolic “deaths.” Malvolio is not only mortified; metaphorically he is also mortally assaulted, killed, and buried. “I have dogg'd him,” gloats Toby, “like his murtherer” (III. ii. 76). The steward who wanted to possess his lady is instead thrown into a small dark hole: having wished for a bed, he finds a grave. He complains to Feste, the singer of “Come away, come away, death, / And in sad cypress let me be laid” (II. iv. 51-52), saying that “they have laid me here in hideous darkness” (IV. ii. 29-30). Malvolio does symbolically “die,” but not as he had hoped; his is not the sexual death of Feste's ambiguous song, but the comic scapegoat death of a victimized gull.7

Even when released from his symbolic cell, however, the unrepentant steward refuses to participate in the lovers' celebrations. Faced again with merriment, he steadfastly clings to sobriety. His letter to Olivia from his cell—signed, accurately, “the madly-us'd Malvolio”—is calm, reasonable, and correctly descriptive of his treatment (V. i. 302-11). His only request is “Tell me why.”

Why have you suffer'd me to be imprison'd,
Kept in a dark house, visited by the priest,
And made the most notorious geck and gull
That e'er invention play'd on? Tell me why!

(V. i. 341-44)8

He receives no answer, and although Olivia promises him future justice, he is not appeased. The steward who earlier declared to Toby, Maria, and Fabian, “I am not of your element” (III. iv. 124), is thus alone at play's end. While Feste remains to sing his lovely and melancholy song, Malvolio exits, snarling promised revenge.9

As Malvolio departs, he leaves behind an unresolved conclusion to the play, taking with him the key to any clear resolution. For all its conventional comic devices of repaired unions, the ending of Twelfth Night is indeterminate. We look for the settlement of disputes and the reunion of fragmented relationships, “confirm'd by mutual joinder of their hands,” as the priest says of Olivia and Sebastian (V. i. 157). But though the final scene of Twelfth Night is in fact constructed so as to allow “mutual joinder,” no such resolution occurs. The prolonged hesitation of Viola and Sebastian to identify each other, which includes a careful scrutiny of all the evidence (names, sex, moles, age, clothing), finally results not in any embrace of recognition but in Viola's odd provision of postponement:

Do not embrace me till each circumstance
Of place, time, fortune, do cohere and jump
That I am Viola.

(V. i. 251-53)

One expects a coherence of circumstance, place, time, and fortune at the conclusion of a successful comedy—and Twelfth Night has often been viewed as a paradigm of the form. But Shakespeare deliberately defers a denouement, and the play ends before we see one enacted. Viola maintains that the resumption of her true identity depends upon the old captain who brought her to Illyria, the captain who has kept her “maiden weeds.” The captain, however, has been jailed by Malvolio, “upon some action” (V. i. 275-76). Malvolio is therefore essential to a final resolution of the plot; the ultimate coherence of time and circumstance depends upon the mistreated gull. When he stalks out, swearing revenge, he also disrupts the plot, refusing to fulfill his essential role in the final “mutual joinder.” Orsino commands, “Pursue him and entreat him to a peace; he hath not told us of the captain yet” (V. i. 380-81). But we hear no more from Malvolio, nor from anyone else, for the play almost immediately concludes, with the loose ends of its unfinished plot knotted abruptly into Feste's final song.

Similar gestures of irresolution occur at the end of almost all of Shakespeare's comedies—as though he was habitually skeptical of the resolutions the genre typically provided. Whether through hints of failed marriage at the end of As You Like It, or the sudden mournful disruption at the end of Love's Labor's Lost, or the preposterous rapid-fire revelations at the end of Cymbeline, Shakespeare usually complicates the conventional comic ending, stressing the fragility of its artifice. As Feste's concluding song suggests in Twelfth Night, the momentary pleasures of plays and other toys are only transient episodes in a larger season of folly, thievery, drunkenness, and old age. To the extent that the tidy finales of conventional comedies deny such larger, extradramatic realities, Shakespeare seems to have been uneasy with them: the ending of The Tempest is his final manifestation of this uneasiness.


An aspect of Shakespeare's distrust of romantic conventions underlies Malvolio's spelling lesson, to return to that scene for a moment. I want to ask Andrew Aguecheek's question once more, and offer a speculative answer. “Her c's, her u's, and her t's: why that?” Why, indeed? Why does Shakespeare so carefully embed this grossest of verbal improprieties in a play which even Eric Partridge calls “the cleanest comedy except A Midsummer Night's Dream”?10

One answer involves what Shakespeare evidently considered the natural and undeniable bases of human behavior. The romantic comedy of Twelfth Night transmutes our basic appetites, sublimating carnal hunger into romantic yearning: food becomes music, as Orsino's opening speech reveals (but melancholy music, with “a dying fall”). Twelfth Night enacts an elaborate dance around a central core of carnality, which Malvolio's unconscious cryptogram literally spells out. The idealized festivity of Twelfth Night is to its secret erotic core as the innocent Maypole dance is to the symbol around which it revolves—except that the joys and celebrations of Maygames are muted in Shakespeare's play by wintry, “dying” tones of mourning and loss. Erotic desire and symbolic death intermix throughout the play, creating a continuous undertone of romantic melancholy best personified in the figure of Feste. Festivity and loss are presented as reciprocal: carnival is a farewell to the carnal (carne-vale).

What makes Twelfth Night ultimately so melancholy, however, is not the sounding of these baser tones in the music of love, but the futile (albeit beautiful) effort spent trying to deny the facts of desire and death with the artificial toys of romantic wish-fulfillment. Finally it won't work. In retrospect, the festive fantasy of innocent indulgence looks like another version of the puritanical Malvolio's effort to deny or repudiate base carnal desire. Illyria's romanticism is psychologically reciprocal to Malvolio's rigidity and restraint: both represent denials and sublimations. Feste's final song seems to admit the futility of both defenses against the real world.

For all their mutual antipathy, Malvolio and Feste are symbolic brothers: both estranged from yet integral to the festive yet melancholy world of Illyria. To achieve a comic world of reunion and restoration, it is necessary to omit or deny or banish their respective melancholies. But, since melancholy preceded and prompted the merriment, this is impossible. Malvolio therefore retreats to his threats of vengeance, Feste to his ambiguous lyric. Finally both characters withdraw from the comic world. But without them and the impulses of restraint and loss they represent, that comic world has no motivation, no “reason” for being.

At Malvolio's fall we laughed all. Yet without the (scape) goat, there would have been no carnival to provide either the fall or the merriment attending it.


  1. References are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. B. Evans, et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  2. Specifically, Malvolio complains that the revelers are violating the traditional “three Unities” of Renaissance dramatic criticism. John Hollander has noted this analogy in his excellent essay, “Twelfth Night and the Morality of Indulgence,” Sewanee Review, 67 (1959), 220-38.

  3. For a brief discussion of Malvolio from this point of view, see Frank L. Hoskins, “Misalliance: A Significant Theme in Tudor and Stuart Drama,” Renaissance Papers 1956 (University of South Carolina), pp. 72-73.

  4. See A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: Twelfe Night, or, What You Will, ed. Horace Howard Furness (New York: Dover, 1964 [1901]), p. 166, n. 88.

  5. See Kittredge's note on the lines (II. v. 80-82), in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Ribner and Kittredge (Waltham, Mass.: Xerox Publishing, 1971), p. 411.

  6. Even Eric Partridge evidently did not notice it in an early edition (1955) of Shakespeare's Bawdy. See the revised and enlarged edition (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968), pp. 151-52.

  7. See Melvin Seiden, “Malvolio Reconsidered,” University of Kansas City Review, 28 (1961), 105-14.

  8. Both J. W. Draper—who terms Malvolio “the only sober man in all this crazy company”—and C. J. Sisson—who concludes that “whatever Malvolio's faults, in this scene [of his imprisonment] he bears himself with dignity against an outrageous attack upon the citadel of his being”—have written essays stressing Malvolio's essential sanity and reasonableness (except, of course, his one hysterically funny lapse). See “Olivia's Household,” PMLA, 49 (1934), 797-806, for Draper's argument, and “Tudor Intelligence Tests: Malvolio and Real Life,” in Essays on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed. Richard Hosley (Columbia, Mo.: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1962), pp. 183-200, for Sisson's.

  9. The figure of the despiser of festivity exists, but he does not disappear. As C. L. Barber put it, “in the long run, in the 1640's, Malvolio was revenged on the whole pack of them.” See Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959), p. 257. Just as Malvolio again subdues his imaginative desires and regains his solemn bearing, the Puritans finally suppressed the dramatic imagination and enforced zealous sobriety.

  10. Shakespeare's Bawdy (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968), p. 45: but see p. 53. C. L. Barber has also noted how “little direct sexual reference” there is in this play: see Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, p. 258.

Robert Brustein (review date 7 September 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 902

SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. “Pastoral Shakespeare.” The New Republic 219, no. 10 (7 September 1998): 26-8.

[In the following review of Nicholas Hytner's Twelfth Night, Brustein contends that the production failed to explore the play's deeper issues and complexities. Brustein applauds Helen Hunt's solid interpretation of Viola, but notes that Kyra Sedgwick's Olivia is somewhat hyperactive.]

Summer Shakespeare has always been a joy because summer is a season that belongs to Shakespeare. No other dramatist has imagined so vividly the bracing pleasures of life in the woods. A country boy himself, he gave his own name to a rustic in As You Like It and his mother's name to the Forest of Arden. The allure of that Arcadian world, where the banished Duke Senior finds “tongues in trees” and “sermons in stones,” not to mention the magical properties of Titania's fairy kingdom, the coastal beauties of Duke Orsino's Illyria, the bumptious rusticity of Polixenes's Bohemia, and other such bucolic sites, provide a storehouse of images that remain an indelible source of comfort through the long winter months. Two recent summer Shakespeare productions lovingly capture those recreational images—not just through verbal metaphors but through the splendors of their physical design.

Nicholas Hytner's version of Twelfth Night at the Vivian Beaumont is distinguished by another exquisite setting from Bob Crowley, an Irish scenic artist who is finally receiving the recognition here he has long deserved. Crowley's last assignment with Hytner was Carousel, a musical the designer turned into a dazzling retrospective of early twentieth-century American art. Enhanced by Catherine Zuber's costumes, Crowley's Twelfth Night is set in an exotic court out of The Arabian Nights, bounded by circular wharves stretching out to a distant sea. Even before the lights come up, Orsino (Paul Rudd)—a bare-chested, long-haired Eastern potentate—is lolling languorously near a bathing pool in a drug-induced torpor, listening to Jeanine Tesori's Oriental melodies being played on bongos and gamelans. Drowsy, languid, overfed on the food of love (music), this Orsino is almost always in the company of musicians. Accompanied by three sailors, Viola (Helen Hunt) enters from far upstage, in a seagreen gown, wading through shimmering water and mist. Accompanied by her ladies in waiting, the Countess Olivia (Kyra Sedgwick) enacts her grief in a large arbor under huge black umbrellas, moving in rhythm to a requiem.

In tune with contemporary fashion, the production is set in no consistent culture, place, or time. Sir Toby Belch (Brian Murray) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Max Wright) wear contemporary Western clothes, and, at one point, eat some Chinese takeout. The acid fool Feste (David Patrick Kelly) hops about in a green suit, an orange knitted cap, and sandals, and sings “Oh Mistress Mine” in the style of a soft rock ballad with electric guitar arpeggios. When Malvolio dons his yellow stockings, he attaches them to a pair of shorts.

The problem is that Hytner's inspiration seems to have stopped with the sets and costumes. Certainly, Brian Murray's Sir Toby and Max Wright's Aguecheek are an engaging pair of clowns. Looking and sounding like the old movie actor Cecil Kellaway, Murray plays that renegade sot with all the florid gestures of a classical ham. But his exploitation of Sir Andrew has a streak of mean cunning, suggestive of the way that, later, Iago will gull Roderigo. As for Max Wright, he makes another rich artistic gift to Lincoln Center, following his contribution last year as Lebedev in Ivanov. His voice quavering through his glottis like a constipated bellows, his body jerking through space like a mechanical toy, he becomes the very embodiment of craven idiocy, of false bravado. Terrified by Sebastian, he jumps into Orsino's pool and frantically backstrokes away. I also admired the way David Patrick Kelly managed to emphasize not so much Feste's amiable charm as his bitter foolery. He is largely motivated by a sour vindictiveness toward Malvolio (“And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges”).

Alas, this gifted acting trio is not helped much either by Amy Hill's flat Maria (cast against type as a buxom Amazon), or by Philip Bosco's humorless Malvolio. I once described Bosco as an American actor who looked like Sir Michael Redgrave and sounded like Sir John Gielgud. Here he seems to be bucking for his own knighthood, giving an elocutionary performance that would not seem out of place at the Royal National Theatre. Bosco's Malvolio is pompous all right, but it's questionable whether that quality belongs more to the character or the actor.

Helen Hunt gives a clean, clear, cool interpretation of Viola. She reads the verse in a controlled, informal manner, and moves with considerable grace and poise. But her air of sangfroid would have been more appropriate in the role of Olivia. Hunt would certainly have given a better account of that proud, regal woman than Kyra Sedgwick, whose brassy, squeaky hyperactivity belongs in a sitcom. (Her charms become more vivid when, having jumped into the pool with Sebastian, she emerges with her dress clinging to her wet body.) Hytner has staged a fine recognition scene where the reunion of Viola and Sebastian rises in an emotional swell, and there are other good things in the evening. But the deeper issues of the play often seem to be scanted, especially the ambiguous sexuality of the relationship between Olivia and Viola. Most of the pleasures of this Lincoln Center Twelfth Night are absorbed through the eyes. …

John Kerrigan (essay date 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10697

SOURCE: Kerrigan, John. “Secrecy and Gossip in Twelfth Night.Shakespeare Survey 50 (1997): 65-80.

[In the following essay, Kerrigan studies Twelfth Night within the context of the Renaissance conventions regarding secrecy and gossip, finding that gossip is a means—both in early modern society and in the play—of maintaining social bonds. Kerrigan also discusses the affinity between Cesario and Malvolio, noting that as servants both characters are expected to be discreet.]

Renaissance secrecy is no longer quite as secret as it was. Art historians and iconologists have returned to the myths and emblems explored by Panofsky and Edgar Wind, and reassessed (often sceptically) their claims to hermetic wisdom. Thanks to Jonathan Goldberg and Richard Rambuss, we now have a better understanding of the early modern English secretary,1 and of how his pen could produce, in Lois Potter's phrase, Secret Rites and Secret Writing.2 Not just in popular biographies of Marlowe and Shakespeare,3 but in such Foucauldian accounts of high culture as John Michael Archer's Sovereignty and Intelligence,4 the world of Renaissance espionage is being analysed afresh. William W. E. Slights has written at useful length about conspiracy, fraud and censorship in middle-period Jonson.5 And, though the tide of Puttenham studies has now begun to ebb, students of Elizabethan England are still profiting from the work done by Daniel Javitch and Frank Whigham6 on what The Arte of English Poesie calls ‘false semblant’ or ‘the Courtly figure Allegoria7—a line of enquiry which leads back to the civilized dissimulation advocated by Castiglione, but also to the politic ruthlessness of ‘l'art machiavélien d'être secret’.8

These investigations have not advanced in a state of mutual ignorance, but they have, inevitably, suffered from a degree of exclusive specialism. What interests me, on the other hand, is how different modes of concealment operated together. Certainly, I have found it impossible, in thinking about Twelfth Night, to separate iconography from secretarial inscription (as when Malvolio unpicks the Lucrece seal of silence on Maria's riddling letter), or to divorce Sebastian's intelligence-gathering, among ‘the memorials and the things of fame’ in Illyria,9 from that rhetorical discretion in him which is equally recommended in courtesy literature.10 At the same time, Twelfth Night pushes one's perception of Renaissance secrecy beyond the usual categories. It makes one return, for instance, to courtesy literature to notice what it says about that irregular but ubiquitous practice, the circulation of secrets as gossip, and to wonder how the gendered speech-patterns which Castiglione and his successors discuss might bear on the reticences and self-concealments involved in the construction of sexual identity.

By gesturing towards social practice, I am, of course, begging questions, and it is worth saying, at once, that Elizabethan London was not, in my view, full of cross-dressed maidens in love with Dukes. There is plainly much to be said against the current historicist tendency to discount the made uniqueness of particular Shakespearian play-scripts for the sake of readily meshing them with circumstantial contexts. Formalist criticism had its drawbacks, but its respect for the artful integrity—for the shifting, secret coherence—of such elusive works as Twelfth Night remains, in my view, admirable. On the other hand, there is no doubt that, as Richard Wilson (among others) has shown with As You Like It,11 mature Shakespearian comedy goes much further in internalizing and articulating political conflict than traditional criticism realized. Good productions of Twelfth Night—such as John Barton's in 1969—have always been alert to the tensions which arise between kin-status and the dignity of office (Sir Toby vs. Malvolio), to the insecurity of a figure like Maria, whose social rank is ambiguous, and to the importance, in Illyria, of jewels and cash changing hands. Above all, in this connection, Twelfth Night is interested in service. It explores the fraught relations which often held, in early modern households, between employment and eroticism. This dialectic is most active in the Viola-Orsino plot,12 but it also significantly contributes to the misfortunes of Malvolio. Too often, critics view his gulling as an incidental intrigue. When he asks his mistress, however, in Act 5, ‘tell me, in the modesty of honour, / Why you have given me such clear lights of favour’ (5.1.334-5), he lands on a complex word which catches his outraged feeling that his preferment (both real and imaginary) cannot have stemmed from nothing in Olivia's heart. The play punishes the steward for believing that the more precisely he obeys his mistress's wishes the more he will deserve her favour (in every sense), even while it allows, in Cesario/Viola's relations with Orsino, a ripening into love of what is erotically problematic in Elizabethan ideas of service.

One way of developing these claims is to make an oblique approach to Twelfth Night through the autobiography of Thomas Whythorne: the Tudor poet and musician who was employed in a series of noble households before his death in 1596. Though the memoir which he compiled in the late 1570s lacks great events, it is altogether enthralling because of its attentiveness to social detail, its intricacy of self-criticism and rationalization, and its almost neurotic sensitivity to the role of flirtation, deceit and gossip in the politics of favour. Like Gascoigne's Adventures of Master F. J.—a work which probably suggested to Whythorne how his occasional poems could be linked by commentary and narrative—the book of songs and sonnets, with long discourses set with them is particularly alive to the use and abuse of secrecy. Thus, as autobiographical writing starts to emerge from the commonplaces which begin the memoir, Whythorne describes a friend who once told a woman ‘the very secrets that were hidden in his heart’, only for her to ‘blaz[e] abroad that which he had told her to keep in secret’.13 Similarly, the first of many love intrigues in which he played a part involves a girl who wooed him by leaving a note threaded through the strings of his gittern. His typically wary reply praised her for proceeding ‘secretly’, but gossip made the affair ‘known all about the house’ and the girl was promptly discharged (pp. 22-3). Throughout his memoir, Whythorne describes situations in which secrecy and dissimulation shadow-box with each other and attempt to evade the tattling which his epigram, ‘Of secret things’, calls ‘blab’ (p. 224).

The episode which bears most interestingly on Twelfth Night—though it can only be loosely contextual—comes shortly after the dismissal of the gittern girl, while Whythorne was still at the age which he calls ‘adolescency’ (p. 11). Like the young Cesario waiting upon Olivia, Whythorne found his way to the household of a beautiful young widow. Even before he accepted a position as her tutor and ‘servingman’, he was wary of enduring ‘the life of a water-spaniel, that must be at commandment to fetch or bring here, or carry there’ (p. 28). His resentment mounted when he discovered how manipulative his mistress could be. Whythorne vividly describes the sort of emotional pressure which could be brought to bear on a man whose position as a servant resembled that of a biddable suitor:

Many times when I was not nigh unto her, although she had appointed me to wait on her cup when she sat at meat, she would bid me come nigher unto her. And therewithal scoffingly she would say to those that were with her, ‘I would fain have my man to be in love with me, for then he would not be thus far from me, but would be always at mine elbow.’ And then would she sometimes put a piece of good meat and bread on her trencher, and forthwith bid me give her a clean trencher, for the which I should have that of hers with the bread and meat on it.

(p. 29)

The problem for Whythorne, however—as he chooses to remember the situation—was that, while he disliked these coercive games, he had to flirt with a mistress towards whom he was clearly attracted (not least in her exercise of power) because ‘open contempt might breed such secret hate in her toward me’ (p. 30). Innured, like F. J., to duplicity, and hoping for advancement, he recalls deciding that, ‘if she did dissemble, I, to requite her, thought that to dissemble with a dissembler was no dissimulation … But and if she meant good will indeed, then I was not willing to lose it, because of the commodities that might be gotten by such a one as she, either by marriage or otherwise’ (pp. 30-1). As a result, when the widow told him ‘how she would have me to apparel myself, as of what stuff, and how she would have it made’ (though cross-gartering is not specified), he ‘feathered his nest’ by accepting money from her to buy clothes and other finery (p. 32). He also wrote to her in secret, and was, like Malvolio, deceived by an encouraging letter which, he later discovered, had been written by her ‘waiting gentlewoman’ (p. 34). By now, of course, gossip was rife (the attempt at secrecy assured that)—‘our affairs were not so closely handled but they were espied and much talked of in the house’ (p. 36)—and the problem of his mistress having to disguise any signs of love which might, in themselves, be dissimulated, added to Whythorne's difficulty in deciding whether she could be won. The ‘comical’ affair (as he calls it) reached its climax when he appeared before her, not exactly in yellow stockings, but in ‘garments of russet colour (the which colour signifieth the wearer thereof to have hope). And one time I did wear hops in my hat also; the which when my mistress had espied, she in a few scoffing words told me that the wearing of hops did but show that I should hope without that which I hoped for’ (pp. 40-1). Thanks to his quibbling wit, Whythorne was able to deflect this rebuff, but his suit thereafter cooled.

If one moves too hastily from this material across to Viola and Malvolio, the contrasts are overwhelming. Where Whythorne describes his affair in such calculating and duplicitous terms that even an impression of mutual vulnerability cannot offset his cynicism, Twelfth Night shows Viola concealing what she is to persist in faithful service. Unlike Rosalind, who seems, at least initially, pleased by the experimental scope which men's attire affords, she speaks of frustration and self-division, and the dissembling which her disguise entails is not embraced with relish. Malvolio, rather similarly, is constrained by the habit he adopts. His alacrity in putting on yellow stockings may smack of the self-promotion which infuriates Sir Toby, but his inability to see (as Whythorne instantly would) that he is being made a fool of stems as much from his eagerness to obey Olivia as from ingrown pride. Yet these differences between the memoir and Twelfth Night should not distract attention from their shared early modern fascination with the ambiguities of service, and their interest in how secrecy relates to what Cesario calls ‘babbling gossip’ (1.5.277).

Certainly these issues are prominent in Viola's opening scene. When she questions the Captain about Illyria, he can tell her of the Duke's love for Olivia—that obsession of his ‘secret soul’ (below, p. 72)—because ‘murmur’ has put it about. ‘What great ones do,’ he observes, ‘the less will prattle of’ (1.2.32-3). Gossip is equally active around the countess's reclusive life. The Captain knows of her resistance to Orsino because, again, of report: ‘(They say) she hath abjur'd the company / And sight of men’ (40-1). Olivia's withdrawal into mourning for the death of her father and brother naturally attracts Viola, because she fears herself equally bereft, and she cries out for a position in her household which she imagines will bring emotional consonance: ‘O that I serv'd that lady’ (41). Though the motif is merely incipient, the play is beginning its exploration of the knot which ties employment to love. Hence the Captain's reply, ‘That were hard to compass, / Because she will admit no kind of suit, / No, not the Duke's’ (44-6), where the idea of suing to serve is inextricable from a lover's suit.

In Shakespeare's chief source, Barnabe Riche's novella ‘Of Apolonius and Silla’, the Captain is a villain whose designs on Silla's virtue are only foiled by tempest and shipwreck. Early audiences of Twelfth Night may or may not have recalled this when they saw Viola come on stage with the Captain, but Shakespeare alludes, through the heroine, to the possibility that he might be as he is in Riche:

There is a fair behaviour in thee, Captain;
And though that nature with a beauteous wall
Doth oft close in pollution, yet of thee
I will believe thou hast a mind that suits
With this thy fair and outward character.
I prithee (and I'll pay thee bounteously)
Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent.


This is touchingly complex because Viola's youthful moralism about appearances slips into an equally youthful trust, while she raises doubts about dissimulation in the same breath as she proposes concealment. But their deeper interest lies in their showing us how secrets are made: produced through interaction with possible or actual disclosure. For what is only known to yourself cannot be a secret, except in so far as its potential for disclosure anticipates that disclosure, or in so far as you might feel (as Viola/Cesario will later feel) that you are sharing the secret with your self as with another person.

Unlike Silla, Viola does not explicitly disguise herself in men's clothes to avoid sexual predators. While she may share this motive, the scene points towards a practical desire to secure a court position and an impulse to escape from herself. It is as though, by becoming Cesario, she hoped to leave Viola to grieve in secret. That is, paradoxically, why her suit to serve the Duke can resemble Olivia's immurement. Just as the countess resolves to withdraw into a nun's asexuality, and thus becomes a ‘cloistress’ (1.1.28), so Viola proposes to be a eunuch—if not for the kingdom of heaven, then at least to sing at court. ‘I'll serve this duke’, she says:

Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to him.
It may be worth thy pains; for I can sing,
And speak to him in many sorts of music,
That will allow me very worth his service.


These lines have baffled editors not least because they seem to go from singing to speech but then return to music. What Viola is saying, however, in a play which is much concerned with that branch of rhetoric which Feste calls vox (5.1.295), is that she is not only musically competent but has the flexible pronunciatio of a courtier. ‘The pleasure of speech,’ writes Stefan Guazzo, in Pettie's 1581 translation of The Civile Conversation, ‘so wel as of Musicke, proceedeth of the chaunge of the voyce, yea … the change of the voice, like an instrument of divers strings, is verie acceptable, and easeth both the hearer and the speaker’.14 ‘If Nature haue denied you a tunable accent,’ James Cleland urges in Hρω-[b.pi ][b.alpha ]ι[ ]ει[b.alpha ], or The Institution of a Young Noble Man (1607), ‘studie to amend it by art the best yee maie’ (p. 186). Interestingly, when Viola concludes the scene by urging ‘silence’ on the Captain (61), he sustains her rhetorical concerns by promising to avoid the speech-style which Thomas Whythorne calls ‘blab’: ‘Be you his eunuch, and your mute I'll be: / When my tongue blabs, then let mine eyes not see’ (62-3).

At once the blabbers enter, as Maria, Sir Toby and, a few lines later, Sir Andrew come on stage. Maria is eager for Toby to avoid expulsion from Olivia's household by moderating his behaviour, but when she urges, ‘confine yourself within the modest limits of order’, he replies: ‘I'll confine myself no finer than I am’ (I.3.8-10). We have by this point become so accustomed to characters seeking confinement—Orsino lying ‘canopied with bowers’ (I.1.41), the countess's enclosure in mourning—that Toby's quibbling excess, as he sprawls through the play's first prose dialogue, is bound to appeal. As the scene goes on, however, the superb inconsequentiality of Maria's wit, when she toys with Sir Andrew, and his stupefying inability to get a grip on language, test the audience's patience. We feel assailed as well as amused by the prattle and networking chat which conduct books typically chastise by citing Plutarch's De Garrulitate. This challenge to the audience mounts. As the RSC director John Caird has noted, it creates problems in production that Sir Toby ‘goes on and on and on’ during Acts 2 and 3.15 Even in I.3, Shakespeare points up the garrulity of networking. Sir Andrew's reputation has reached Maria, for instance, from those she refers to as ‘the prudent’ and Toby calls ‘scoundrels and subtractors’ (32-5). Where report is offered sceptically by the Captain, gossip is here the stuff of life.

Anthropological work on gossip has stressed the importance of verbal trivia in maintaining social bonds. Max Gluckman, for instance, argues that scandalous chat draws participants together while serving to exclude others because access to conversation depends on inside knowledge. ‘The right to gossip about certain people is’, he says, ‘a privilege which is only extended to a person when he or she is accepted as a member of a group.’16 This account can be squared with the way the lighter people network in Twelfth Night in opposition to the aloof Malvolio. But Gluckman's critics are right to insist that gossiping is by no means always collective, and that a group can turn out, once inspected, to be full of conversational partitions.17 In that sense, the garrulous in Twelfth Night form an interestingly fractious set, with Fabian and Feste as satellites, and Sir Toby prepared to bamboozle Andrew with what sounds like friendly chat, in ways which make it easier for him to scorn and reject him in Act 5. But Sir Andrew is not the only one left behind in the conversational flow. Everyone who works on gossip would agree that the morsels of information and rumour which it retails must have some element of obscurity, some secret component worth disclosing, since they would otherwise not be passed on. Twelfth Night respects this principle to the point, almost, of defiance, by including material which may well have been written to exclude early audiences from what the play's in-crowd knows, and which certainly excludes us now. Who, for instance, is Mistress Mall, and why should we care about her picture?

In the drinking scene of Act 2, the obscurities of prattling accumulate. What is Sir Toby on about when he says, ‘My lady's a Cataian, we are politicians, Malvolio's a Peg-a-Ramsey’ (2.3.76-7)? The clown calls this ‘admirable fooling’ (81), and it does, indeed, resemble the patter of Feste, which rings in Andrew's empty head, and which he now babbles out: ‘thou wast in very gracious fooling last night, when thou spok'st of Pigrogromitus, of the Vapians passing the equinoctial of Queubus’ (22-4). This replication of proliferating nonsense recalls Plutarch's comparison of gossip to the porch or gallery at Olympia which ‘from one voice by sundry reflections and reverberations … rendered seven ecchoes’. When speech comes ‘to the eares of a babbler,’ he says, ‘it resoundeth again on every side … insomuch, as a man may well say: That the conducts and passages of their hearing reach not to the braine … but onely to their tongue.’18 Babbling of this sort climaxes in the drinking scene for obvious reasons. It hardly needs Plutarch to tell us (though he does so more than once) that drunkenness provokes ‘much babling and foolish prattle’ (p. 194). What we can misunderstand, historically, is that the folly of babbling was—partly because of Plutarch—so routinely associated with drink that when a commentator such as Thomas Wright seeks to explain garrulity, he gravitates to talk of ‘foolery’ and ale-house metaphors: ‘he that wil poure foorth all he conceiueth, deliuereth dregges with drinke, and as for the most part, presently men apprehend more folly than wisdom, so he that sodainely vttereth all he vnderstandeth, blabeth forth moore froath than good liquor’.19 This is the mixture of assumptions which Malvolio provocatively ignites when he stalks in and rebukes the drinkers for choosing ‘to gabble like tinkers’ (88-9).

It should now be clear why the Captain's word ‘blab’ refers as much to a style of speech as to the betrayal of secrets. Early modern accounts of the psychology and practice of gossip start, as it were, from rhetoric.20 The blabber was a verbal incontinent, whose itch to gabble whatever was in his mind would lead (as Plutarch warned) to rash disclosure. Avoid making friends, advises Wright, with the ‘blabbish, and … indiscreet’ because they will not ‘keep secret, or conserue thy credit, and so with one breath they blow all away’ (pp. 119-20). The corresponding virtue to this vice was called ‘discretion’—a word which, symptomatically, has etymological and semantic links with ‘secrecy’.21 Time and again, in conduct books, gentlemen are advised to be discreet. The courtier, Castiglione says, ‘shall be no carier about of trifling newes … He shall be no babbler [but keep] alwayes within his boundes.’22 In Guazzo, who is almost anticourtly, at moments, in his mistrust of easy eloquence,23 there is an equally firm resistance to what Cleland calls ‘pratling’ and ‘Babling’ (p. 189). ‘Blaze neuer anie mans secret,’ Cleland says, ‘nor speake of that which discretion commandeth you to conceale, albeit it was not commended to your silence’ (p. 190).

This has a gendered aspect, in that, while gentlemen are encouraged discreetly to converse, women are incited to a discretion which can be absolute. It is the anti-feminist Lord Gaspar who maintains, in Castiglione, ‘that the verye same rules that are given for the Courtier, serve also for the woman’, and the sympathetic Julian24 who argues that ‘in her factions, maners, woordes, gestures and conversation (me thinke) the woman ought to be muche unlike the man’ (pp. 215-16). Like the courtier, he argues, women should be ‘discreete’ and avoid ‘babblinge’, but they should concentrate, further, on cultivating ‘sweetnesse’ and reticence (pp. 216-18). English writers were as confident as Guazzo that ‘a young man is to be blamed, which will talke like an olde man, and a woman which will speake like a man’ (1, p. 169). Nor was it just the fools, including Sir John Daw in Epicoene, who believed that ‘Silence in woman is like speech in man.25 In The English Gentlewoman (1631), Richard Brathwait pushes his praise of ‘Discretion’ to the point of insisting that ‘bashfull silence is an ornament’ in women (p. 89). Against the background of a prejudice which assumed (as it still does) that women are more garrulous than men,26 he writes: ‘It suites not with her honour, for a young woman to be prolocutor. But especially, when either men are in presence, or ancient Matrons, to whom shee owes a ciuill reuerence, it will become her to tip her tongue with silence’ (ibid.).

In ‘The Table’ to The English Gentlewoman, Brathwait cites the apothegm, ‘“Violets, though they grow low and neare the earth, smell sweetest: and Honour appeares the fullest of beauty, when she is humblest”’ (††2). As Gerard's Herball confirms,27 the Latin word ‘Viola’ was used in Elizabethan England as another name for the violet, a flower which, in general, was associated with modesty. What Cesario inherits from Viola is the discretion which a female upbringing made second nature to gentlewomen. What he gains, as it were, over Viola is permission to speak out—even when men are present. These claims are not in conflict with traditional accounts of the role, but they do, I think, point up the hybridity of Viola's performance. To think about her in relation to courtesy literature is to notice those comical moments when she overplays the courtly rhetoric—as when Cesario impresses Sir Andrew (always a bad sign) by praying for the heavens to ‘rain odours’ on Olivia, or, more oddly, when Andrew surprises us by speaking French, and exchanges such exquisite salutations with Cesario that both are satirically construed.28 As strikingly, to look at Viola in the light of Guazzo, Cleland and other conduct writers is to recognize the acute importance of discretion in the play.

While describing his affair with the widow, Whythorne glumly notes: ‘It is a common matter among servants, … if any one of them be in favour with their masters or mistresses above the rest, by and by all the rest of the servants will envy him or her, and seek all the means and ways that they can imagine to bring them out of credit’ (p. 36). Again, it would be wrong to read too directly from this into Twelfth Night. Because critics have neglected the politics of favour, however, they have missed the edginess of Viola's first exchange as Cesario, when s/he comes on stage with Valentine, who was trusted, in I.1, with the task of visiting Olivia, but who is now losing his influence. ‘If the Duke continue these favours towards you,’ Valentine says, ‘you are like to be much advanced: he hath known you but three days, and already you are no stranger.’ This could be spoken neutrally, but Cesario's reply indicates that the actor playing Valentine should give his words some salt: ‘You either fear his humour, or my negligence, that you call in question the continuance of his love. Is he inconstant, sir, in his favours?’ (I.4.1-7). The question is fascinatingly pitched, given the erotic range of ‘favour’, since the constancy which Cesario hopes for in his master is not one which Viola, who now loves the Duke, would unambiguously welcome—at least in Orsino's relations with Olivia.

One thing is clear immediately, though: Valentine is right to envy Cesario's progress with Orsino. As soon as the Duke appears, his cry is for Cesario, and for the rest to stand ‘aloof’ (12). Drawing his servant down-stage, no doubt, into the theatre-space which signifies and facilitates intimate conversation, he says:

Thou know'st no less but all: I have unclasp'd
To thee the book even of my secret soul.
Therefore, good youth, address thy gait unto her,
Be not denied access …


In the Italian comedy Gl'Ingannati—a probable source for Twelfth Night—the Viola-figure says to Clemenzia, when asked why she attends her lover in disguise, ‘Do you think a woman in love is unhappy to see her beloved continually, to speak to him, touch him, hear his secrets … ?’29 Shakespeare's emphasis is more on the intimacies of disclosure than on the content of those ‘secrets’ which are, in any case, the stuff of Illyrian gossip. This is not a process which can be represented, entirely, through dialogue. It depends on proximity and touch between actors, and on the boy or woman playing Cesario having a demeanour which promises that discretion described in Bacon's ‘Of Simulation and Dissimulation’: ‘the Secret Man, heareth many Confessions; For who will open himselfe, to a Blab or a Babler? But if a man be thought Secret, it inviteth Discoverie.’30

Cesario gains access to Olivia by means of stubborn pertness, but his suit is then advanced because he is a ‘Secret Man’. As Bacon adds, with worldly acumen: ‘Mysteries are due to Secrecy. Besides (to say Truth) Nakednesse is uncomely, as well in Minde, as Body; and it addeth no small Reverence, to Mens Manners, and Actions, if they be not altogether Open’ (ibid.). If there is a technology of mystery, Cesario exemplifies it. Olivia's veil of mourning cannot but advertise the celebrated beauty it conceals, and she is right (though her modesty is false) to worry about prosaic nakedness when the lacy screen is lifted to reveal ‘two lips indifferent red … two grey eyes, with lids to them’ (I.5.250-1). Cesario, whose ‘smooth and rubious’ lips are so meshed into gender ambiguity that their very nakedness tantalises (I.4.32), has a nature more covert and estranged, which, because of Viola's recessive psychology, is not just disguised by clothes. His embassy goes in stages. At first, he attracts attention by presenting himself as a forward page-boy, seeking to recite a script of compliments,31 but he intrigues Olivia by modulating into a more inwardly performative role which plays on the comeliness of secrecy while expressing, with a twist of pathos, Viola's sense of being mysterious to herself as she comes to terms with loving the Duke: ‘and yet, by the very fangs of malice I swear, I am not that I play’ (184-5). Orsino has told his servant to ‘unfold the passion of my love’ (I.4.24), but, as Cesario quickly discovers, that secret is too open to entice. It is almost an objection to the Duke, for Olivia, that his qualities are manifest and talked of: ‘Of great estate, of fresh and stainless youth; / In voices well divulg'd’ (I.5.263-4). Cesario, by contrast, has a secret allure—the allure of secrecy; and he uses it to secure a private audience by promising revelation: ‘What I am, and what I would, are as secret as maidenhead: to your ears, divinity; to any other's, profanation’ (218-20).

These lines are alive with risk. As Georg Simmel has noted, in his classic account of secrecy: ‘the secret is surrounded by the possibility and temptation of betrayal; and the external danger of being discovered is interwoven with the internal danger, which is like the fascination of an abyss, of giving oneself away.’32 Cesario's mention of a ‘maidenhead’ produces secrecy from what is hidden by anticipating disclosure. He alludes to the ‘she’ in Cesario, and ‘she’ alludes to something so essentially intimate that her feelings for Orsino come to mind. Yet the process of tempting Olivia into private conference, of enticing her (and the audience) with intimations of a sexual secret more real than maidenheads merely talked of,33 goes along with an urge on Viola's part to be done with her intolerable disguise and give herself away by blabbing. For as Simmel adds: ‘The secret puts a barrier between men but, at the same time, it creates the tempting challenge to break through it, by gossip or confession—and this challenge accompanies its psychology like a constant overtone’ (ibid.).

The overtone is most audible, a few lines later, in the willow cabin speech. If I loved you, Cesario tells Olivia, I should

Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love,
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills,
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me.


The speech is emotionally electric because, by positing herself as Orsino wooing Olivia, Viola is imagining what it would be like to woo the Duke,34 while seducing Olivia into imagining what it would be like to be wooed by Cesario.35 But the energy of the utterance, as it moves through double, endstopped lines to the suddenly freed enjambment and exclamatory caesura after ‘gossip of the air’,36 also stems from her frustrated impulse to babble out what she is. Given the fact that Shakespeare varied his characters' names from those in the sources, it can hardly be accidental that, if ‘the babbling gossip of the air’ did cry out ‘O-liv-ia’, the rebounding echoes would reverberate into something very like ‘Vi-o-la’—a word which is, for innocent audiences, a secret within the secret until, near the end of the play, Sebastian greets Cesario by saying ‘“Thrice welcome, drowned Viola”’ (5.1.239).

Characterization in mature Shakespeare is angled into complexity by what holds between roles as well as by what is written into them. The lucid symmetries and parallels which shape such early comedies as Errors and Love's Labour's Lost give way, from Much Ado onwards, to a recognizably more mannerist procedure in which analogies are elliptical and overdetermined, and characters who seem unlike can be, in fluctuating ways, related. No case is more extreme, perhaps, than the coupling of Cesario and Malvolio. Yet the resemblances are there. Both gentlemen are upwardly mobile suitors (respectively unwelcome and coerced) of Olivia. In the echoing cluster of names which lies at the heart of the play, ‘Malvolio’ is more involved with ‘Olivia’ and ‘Viola’ than is, for instance, ‘Orsino’. And this reflects, perhaps, a similarity rooted in source-material, given that, in ‘Of Apolonius and Silla’, the Viola-figure is thrown into the dark house reserved, in Twelfth Night, for Malvolio, when the Duke gathers, from gossip among servants, that the countess has fallen in love with his man.

It is in their role as servants, however, that the two are most closely aligned. As I noted in relation to Whythorne, both are equally subject to the politics of favour. At first, Malvolio is as successful as Cesario. If Orsino finds it natural to turn to his discreet young servant when thoughts about Olivia well up, Olivia calls for that ‘known discreet man’, her steward (I.5.95), both in sending Cesario her ring, and, later, in 3.4, when she comes on stage with Maria, but talks, rather, to herself about how to win the Duke's handsome ambassador. ‘I speak too loud’, she says, checking her own indiscretion: ‘Where's Malvolio? He is sad and civil, / And suits well for a servant with my fortunes: / Where is Malvolio?’ (4-7). The word ‘sad’ here does not mean ‘gloomy’, as in modern English. The steward is grave and close. He can observe the decorum which Puttenham praises when he says that a man should be ‘secret and sad’ in counsel (p. 292). This quality is defined, of course, against the babbling indiscretion of Sir Toby and his friends. Towards the end of 3.4, Cesario will say that he hates ‘babbling drunkenness’ (364). It is a trait which Malvolio shares, as we know from his denunciation, in the drinking scene, of those who ‘gabble like tinkers’ and keep ‘uncivil rule’ (2.3.89, 122).

To insist that Malvolio feels the same urge as Viola/Cesario to disclose a hidden nature through babbling would be false to the glancing way in which parallels work in Twelfth Night. His yellow stockings and forced smile do involve an element of disguise, since they belie his ‘sad and civil’ self; but they owe more (I shall argue) to adornment, and they cannot be patly compared to the costume which stirs up in Cesario a desire to reveal the Viola in him. Yet the steward is not as indifferent to ‘babbling gossip’ as he would like the world to suppose. Even before he reads the forged letter, he is fantasizing about Olivia by recalling, ‘There is example for't. The Lady of the Strachy married the yeoman of the wardrobe’ (2.5.39-40). This snippet from Illyrian gossip columns is every bit as trivially topical, or, more likely, pseudo-topical, as Sir Toby's allusion to Mistress Mall. Indeed the plot against Malvolio can be understood, in early modern terms, as designed to bring out the babbler in the discreet man, by emptying his language. ‘My masters, are you mad?’, the steward asks the drinkers (2.3.87). When denounced as a madman and locked up, he is not just confined as finely as Sir Toby Belch could wish: his words—once so commanding in the household—are discredited and trivialized, then mocked as empty verbiage. ‘Malvolio,’ Sir Topas cries, ‘thy wits the heavens restore: endeavour thyself to sleep, and leave thy vain bibble babble.’37

It is easy to see how the courtesy literature which sheds light on Cesario can also illuminate his double, Sebastian. In the elaborate, even stilted idiom of his first exchanges with Antonio, in the reserve and sturdy valour with which he engages Sir Andrew and Sir Toby, and in his discreet handling of the secret betrothal to Olivia, he conforms with the ideals laid out in such texts as Henry Peacham's Compleat Gentleman (1622). The plot against Cesario's more eccentric co-rival, Malvolio, might seem harder to relate to conduct books. In practice, though, even the courtly Castiglione is more tolerant of what Fabian calls ‘sportful malice’ (5.1.364) than a modern reader might expect. The Book of the Courtier describes, indeed, a series of ‘Meerie Pranckes’ which bear comparison with Twelfth Night. In one of them, an unfortunate man is persuaded by his companions that the dark room in which he has been sleeping is illuminated by the—actually, unlit—candles which they carry. Like Sir Topas visiting Malvolio, they cry, with incredulity, ‘Say'st thou that house is dark?’ (4.2.35) until—lacking the steward's resilience—the poor man is convinced of his blindness, repents his sins and prays to Our Lady of Loreto, whereupon his friends undeceive him (pp. 193-5). Almost as cruel is the tale told by Monsieur Bernarde about the occasion when he fell a-wrestling, in sport, with Cesar Boccadello on the Bridge of Leo. When passers-by made to separate them, Bernarde cried ‘Helpe sirs, for this poore gentilman at certein times of the moone is frantike, and see now how he striveth to cast himselfe of the bridge into the river’ (p. 197). Cesar was instantly set upon, and the more he struggled and protested, the more apparently justified and inevitable his confinement (like Malvolio's) became.

There are, Castiglione says, ‘two kyndes of Meerie Pranckes … The one is, whan any man whoever he be, is deceyved wittilie … The other, whan a manne layeth (as it were) a nett, and showeth a piece of a bayte so, that a man renneth to be deceyved of himself’ (p. 191). The plot against Malvolio is a fine example of this latter, more sophisticated form of joke. It is always surprising, when one returns to the play, to discover just how deeply the steward is mired in fantasies about Olivia before he finds the letter. Yet Malvolio does need some enticement to run himself into the net, and Maria's letter is well-judged to appeal not only to his ambitions but to his pride in managing secrets. It is relevant, in this regard, that her writing parodies secretaryship—or, as likely, abuses a secretarial office which she has discharged on other occasions—by conducting the sort of covert correspondence with a suitor which such a servant might expect to handle for her lady (as when the devious secretary in Gascoigne writes to F. J. on Elinor's behalf). In a secretary, discretion was essential. Indeed, as Angel Day notes, in The English Secretary, ‘in respect of such Secrecie … the name was first giuen to be called a Secretorie’.38 Equally integral, however, was the idea of imitative substitution. The secretary, Day reports, will be ‘a zealous imitator’ of his master, down to the ‘forme and maner’ of his penmanship.39 This is the context of Maria's announcement, ‘I can write very like my lady your niece; on a forgotten matter we can hardly make distinction of our hands’ (2.3.160-2). She is indicating that her letter will not be a forgery so much as a duplicitous secret.

The hermeticism of the missive is compounded, for it is wrapped in mysteries—ornamented by secrets—from the tantalizing address on its outside (‘To the unknown beloved …’ (2.5.92)), through the seal which closes it up (but which also dis-closes its matter, by hinting that Olivia is the author), into the enigmas of its message:

I may command where I adore;
But silence, like a Lucrece knife,
With bloodless stroke my heart doth gore;
M.O.A.I. doth sway my life.


This ‘secrete conceit’—to use Puttenham's phrase for the posies and anagrams of amorous courtiers (p. 102)40—is a sub-plot version of those riddles which elsewhere in the play (and especially in Cesario/Viola's lines) have an ontological aspect. And it does, more locally, raise the thought that Malvolio's cultivated discretion (his chosen mode of being) is a form of self-advertisement. For the ornate secrecy of the letter is calculated to command attention: it engages in a covert exhibitionism which the steward finds congenial. To that extent it recalls Simmel's insight, that ‘although apparently the sociological counter-pole of secrecy, adornment has, in fact, a societal significance with a structure analogous to that of secrecy itself’ (p. 338). In other words, the secrecy of the letter has much in common with the yellow stockings, cross-gartering and fixed smile which it encourages its recipient to adopt.

This claim may sound unlikely, but I am encouraged to advance it by the cogency of Simmel's observation that, while man's desire to please may include outward-going kindness, there is also a

wish for this joy and these ‘favors’ to flow back to him, in the form of recognition and esteem, … [B]y means of this pleasing, the individual desires to distinguish himself before others, and to be the object of an attention that others do not receive. This may even lead him to the point of wanting to be envied. Pleasing may thus become a means of the will to power: some individuals exhibit a strange contradiction that they need those above whom they elevate themselves by life and deed, for they build their own self-feeling upon the subordinates' realization that they are subordinate.


Even before he finds the letter, Malvolio's attentiveness to Olivia and his contempt for those like Sir Toby exemplifies a powerseeking desire for ‘favours’. His attraction to the countess has less to do with eroticism than with a longing for the unruly, over whom he elevates himself, to become his subordinates: his day-dream about Toby curtsying to him, and being required to amend his drunkenness, shows that he cannot imagine life in the household (certainly not an agreeable life) without having the lighter people to condescend to. In preparation for the happy day when he will be made Count Malvolio, he distinguishes himself before others by means of a singular discretion (so unlike their collective gabbling) which is actually a form of ostentation. We are not surprised when Maria reports that Malvolio ‘has been yonder i' the sun practising behaviour to his own shadow this half hour’ (2.5.16-18) because he is that recognizable type: a secret exhibitionist. The invitation to put on yellow stockings, cross-gartered, is, in one sense, ludicrous and improbable, because it contradicts those ‘sad and civil’ qualities which attract Olivia's praise. But it is hardly surprising that Malvolio takes the bait, because, as Simmel says, ‘Adornment is the egoistic element as such’ (p. 339), and the strange garb—which the steward claims he already owns, and which he may indeed have worn, at least in fantasy (2.5.166-8)—amplifies and gives expression to his desire for singularity without compromising his attentiveness to Olivia: on the contrary, it is a way of ‘pleasing’ her.

Simmel goes on to notice that adornment does not express the organic nature of the person adorned, but depends on superfluousness and impersonality. Jewels and precious stones are typical of its highly external relationship with the person, but yellow stockings and cross-garters work to similar effect because they divide up and cut into the wholeness and ease of the body (they obstruct, indeed, Malvolio's circulation (3.4.19-20)). One might compare Simmel's example of new clothes as against old: the former ‘are particularly elegant’, he says, ‘due to their being still “stiff”; they have not yet adjusted to the modifications of the individual body as fully as older clothes have’ (p. 341). There is a vein of comedy here, of course, because, as Bergson points out in Le rire, laughter is provoked by superimpositions of mechanical rigidity on the organic flow of the body. The ornaments seemingly requested by Olivia, the clothes which Malvolio puts on to mark his new status, are laughable even as—and for precisely the same reason that—they signify advancement. For adornment is a mark of status regardless of the materials used, and Malvolio's attire shares the usual property of adornment in bringing together, or parodying (since Olivia cannot bear yellow), what Simmel calls ‘Aesthetic excellence’ and the ‘sociological charm of being, by virtue of adornment, a representative of one's group’ (p. 343)—with the added delight, in this case, for Malvolio, that, by becoming a count, he will represent the dignity of Olivia's house to the consternation of Sir Toby and his ilk. Beyond that, and underwriting it, is secrecy: the ultimate bait. To assume yellow stockings and be cross-gartered puts Malvolio's discretion on display, without abolishing it, because the new garb allows him, as he thinks, to share a secret with Olivia, to signal an ambition and grasp of courtly intrigue (hence ‘I will read politic authors’ (2.5.161-2)) which she will understand and appreciate while the drinkers and babblers will not.

That this exhibitionistic secrecy is designed to please Olivia only with the intention of gratifying Malvolio is compatible with the sickness of self-love which she diagnoses when he first comes on stage (1.5.89). From a psychoanalytical perspective, indeed, the yellow stockings are narcissistic fetishes while the cross-gartering looks auto-erotic. This line of enquiry could bear a Lacanian twist, given that the anagrammatic relations which hold between ‘Olivia’ and ‘Malvolio’—pointed up by the disjection of those names (‘M.O.A.I.’) in the letter—register, at the level of the sign, her role in reflecting Malvolio's constitutive desire back on himself. Freudian speculation aside, there is certainly something masturbatory about the steward's complacent cry, as Sir Toby and the rest move in to take the yellow-stockinged madman away: ‘Let me enjoy my private’ (3.4.90). This recoil into self-pleasuring is not restricted, of course, to the steward. Critics often call Orsino (rather loosely) a narcissist, and his early remark—before Cesario's charms get to work—‘for I myself am best / When least in company’ (1.4.37-8) would have suggested to an Elizabethan audience, with its inherited disapproval (to simplify somewhat) of solitariness,41 a similarly troubling mind-set. The conduct literature is emphatic in its insistence on affective sociality. ‘Self-Loue is the greatest disease of the minde,’ according to James Cleland, and it has ‘beene the cause of manie Narcissus his changing among you Nobles’ (p. 241). There is, in other words, an important Renaissance distinction between the socially produced (and socially productive) quality called secrecy and suspect, anti-social solitude.

It is entirely in line with this that Stefan Guazzo celebrates discretion but bends his dialogue towards showing how arguments for civil conversation can persuade his brother, William Guazzo, from abandoning society: ‘And now my joye is the greater’, William's interlocutor, Anniball Magnocavalli, says at the end, ‘that I understande how readie and willinge you are to caste of the obscure and blacke Robe of Solitarinesse, and in liew of that to revest and adorne your selfe with the white and shininge garment of Conversation’ (ii, p. 215). The danger was, inevitably, that discretion could become exaggerated into self-absorption. Malvolio's anti-social vanity bears out Nashe's observation in Pierce Penilesse his Supplication to the Divell (1592): ‘Some thinke to be counted rare Politicans and Statesmen, by being solitary: as who would say, I am a wise man, a braue man, Secreta mea mihi: Frustra sapit, qui sibi non sapit [My secrets are my own; he is wise in vain who does not know his own business], and there is no man worthy of my companie or friendship.’42

Much is now being written about the way Renaissance culture developed modern ideas about privacy by building and exploring the uses of secluded chambers and closets.43 This emergent mentality is reflected in the appeal which Twelfth Night makes to varieties of privy space. Somewhere off-stage Andrew has his ‘cubiculo’ and Toby his own retreat. But it matters that we should learn of the former by Toby saying, ‘We'll call thee at thy cubiculo’ and of the latter by his remark (to Feste or Maria) ‘Come by and by to my chamber’ (3.2.50, 4.2.73-4). The babblers are social in their privacy, where Malvolio seeks to be private even in the open spaces of Olivia's great house. That is why the ‘dark room’ (3.4.136)—that dramatically overdetermined locale—is such an apt punishment for his pretensions: locked up there he is both cast out of society and thrown in upon himself. He is forced into a solitude which represents, but which is also maliciously designed to induce, asocial derangement. But he is also given a chance—I shall end by suggesting—to reassess the value of what Nashe calls ‘companie or friendship’.

I referred, a little earlier, to ontological riddling. What I mean by that is the presence of, and counterpoint between, such claims, in Cesario/Viola's part, as ‘I am not that I play’ and ‘I am not what I am’ (1.5.185, 3.1.143). As disguise and confusion mount, even simple indicative statements such as ‘I am the man’ (when Viola deduces that Olivia has fallen for Cesario) are deceptive, twisting into dubiety and delusion: ‘if it be so, as 'tis, / Poor lady, she were better love a dream’ (2.2.24-5). ‘Nothing that is so, is so’, the clown will later quip (4.1.8-9). Sebastian calls this ‘folly’, but Olivia is alert to the instability of so-ness when, a few lines later, she thanks him for agreeing to be ruled by her by saying, quite simply, but, by now, with some perplexity, ‘O, say so, and so be’ (64). This line of enigmatic quibbling, of instability in the indicative of being, runs all the way through the play to its perhaps redemptive reformulation when Cesario meets Sebastian: ‘A natural perspective, that is, and is not!’ (5.1.215). It matters to the Malvolio plot because, in his attempt to subvert the steward's sanity, Feste turns such riddling against him. ‘“That that is, is”’, he tells Sir Toby (with the assurance that, by this point, what is is not): ‘so I, being Master Parson, am Master Parson; for what is “that” but “that”? and “is” but “is”?’ (4.2.15-17).

Malvolio does not doubt that Master Parson is Master Parson, even when Feste presents himself in that guise without disguise—just in a different voice. By the same token, however, he persists in a stubborn belief that ‘that’ is ‘that’ and ‘is’ ‘is’. He has a self-centred clarity about what he credits which carries him with some dignity through Feste's peculiar questions about Pythagoras' metempsychosis, and whether the soul of one's grandam might haply inhabit a bird. No audience can entirely warm to Malvolio's self-assurance, unchanged since the letter scene, but his persistent protestations of sanity seem the more admirable as his opponents' pranks become redundantly sadistic. Their cruelty is particularly marked in respect of the motif of ‘companie or friendship’, because, if the plot to incarcerate Malvolio is justified in so far as it obliges him to confront what it means for a man to be truly solitary, it abandons any claim to the moral high ground when Feste assists the steward by bringing him writing materials and agreeing to take a letter to Olivia, but then suppresses the missive—an event of such moment that Shakespeare underscores it in that otherwise null episode where the clown refuses to divulge the letter's contents to Fabian (5.1.1-6).

I have touched, several times, in this paper, on the social dimension of secrecy, and stressed how it is produced, in the early modern period, out of civil intercourse. It should be clear, in consequence, at this late stage, why ‘companie or friendship’ is so important in Twelfth Night. Obviously, in this play of cross-dressing and variant sexuality, there is an interest in the mergings of heterosexual love with same-sex friendship, and with the friendship in heterosexual love as well as the eroticism of same-sex amity. But secrecy impinges on, and gives rise to, friendship (as in the shaping confidences shared between Sebastian and Antonio) because, although the period knew that—as the cynical commonplace put it—three can keep a secret when two of them are away, it was also aware that not to confide a hidden thing was to go the readiest way to public exposure or self-destruction. In trying to ‘keepe love secrete’, says Lord Julian in The Book of the Courtier, it is bad to be ‘over secrete’ and better to trust a friend with your feelings so that he can help you conceal what you will otherwise, certainly, betray (pp. 284-5). Recall Duke Charles the Hardy, Bacon advises, in his essay ‘Of Frendship’, who, because he ‘would communicate his Secrets with none’, damaged his wits. ‘The Parable of Pythagoras is darke, but true; Cor ne edito; Eat not the Heart. Certainly, if a Man would give it a hard Phrase, Those that want Frends to open themselves unto, are Canniballs of their owne Hearts.44

Bacon's fable from Pythagoras is not the same as Feste's, but something close to what the clown says can be found in Cleland's Institution, where, immediately after explaining why a man's friend should not be ‘a great pratler’, he enthuses:

O how much am I bound to Gods bounty amongst al the rest of his benefits towardes me, in sending me such a friend! … In the very first daie of our meeting … I found my minde so changed and remooued into the place of his, which before that time was in me. Hitherto I could neuer excogitate anie reason why I shoulde loue him, but Pythagoras his μετεμψύχωσις, and that hee is another my selfe.

(p. 197)

Why is a friend so valuable? Cleland's answer is typical of the period: because he is a person ‘in whom I dare better trust, and vnto whom I dare discover the most secret thoughtes of my minde with greater confidence then I am able to keepe them my selfe’ (ibid.). So the dialogue between Feste and Malvolio about the steward's grandmother and a woodcock is not just random nonsense, and more than an insult to the old lady's intelligence. It contributes to the close texture of Twelfth Night a riddling reminder that, notwithstanding the resistance of the self-centred steward, the soul can be said, at least in amity, to migrate from one body to another. This is what Viola/Cesario means when s/he speaks of calling ‘upon my soul within the house’ (above, p. 73), and what Orsino invokes when he promises the assembled lovers that ‘A solemn combination shall be made / Of our dear souls’ (5.1.382-3).

Malvolio is often seen as excluded from this finale. In one of the best essays on Twelfth Night, Anne Barton stresses the fragmentariness of its ending by pointing out that, like Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, the steward ‘comes as a figure of violence and leaves unreconciled’. At the end of As You Like It, ‘Jaques had walked with dignity out of the new society; Malvolio in effect is flung.’45 This is largely true. Yet the charmed circle of amity does not actively dismiss Malvolio: if anything, Olivia and Orsino do the opposite, acknowledging, in an echo of his own words, that ‘He hath been most notoriously abused’ and commanding, ‘Pursue him, and entreat him to a peace: / He hath not told us of the captain yet’ (5.1.378-80). What Orsino reminds the audience of here is that Malvolio is holding ‘in durance’, at his own suit, the Captain who arrived with Viola in the third scene of the play. This character, almost forgotten, is now freshly important, because he holds Viola's ‘maiden weeds’ (272ff., 251ff.). I am not myself persuaded that clothes were so constitutive of identity for Shakespeare's original audience that Cesario cannot become Viola until those very clothes are recovered from the Captain. Even Orsino, piquantly intrigued at being affianced to a boy, only says that ‘Cesario’ will keep his masculine name until ‘in other [unspecified] habits you are seen’ (386).46 Yet the gesture of deferral—as against fragmentation—is unmistakable, and compatible with a denouement which straggles its endings out, from the pre-emptive coupling of Maria and Toby, through the betrothal but delayed marriage of Olivia and Sebastian, to the as-yet-unrealized resolution of the Cesario/Viola-Orsino romance. In that delayed conclusion, space is made for Malvolio, his hold over Viola's weeds confirming what his anagrammatic link with her name implies. These characters belong together. Until the steward is reconciled, comedy will not be consummated. Just how he will be persuaded remains one of the secrets of the play.


  1. Jonathan Goldberg, Writing Matter: From the Hands of the English Renaissance (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1990), Richard Rambuss, Spenser's Secret Career (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993).

  2. Lois Potter, Secret Rites and Secret Writing: Royalist Literature, 1641-1660 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989).

  3. E.g., Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (London, Cape, 1992), Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman, The Shakespeare Conspiracy (London, Century, 1994).

  4. John Michael Archer, Sovereignty and Intelligence: Spying and Court Culture in the English Renaissance (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1993).

  5. Ben Jonson and the Art of Secrecy (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1994); for his comments on Shakespeare see pp. 25-30.

  6. Daniel Javitch, Poetry and Courtliness in Renaissance England (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1978), Frank Whigham, Ambition and Privilege: The Social Tropes of Elizabethan Courtesy Theory (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1984).

  7. George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, ed. Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1936), p. 186.

  8. Michel Senellart, ‘Simuler et dissimuler: l'art machiavélien d'être secret à la Renaissance’, paper at ‘Le Secret à la Renaissance’, Colloque IRIS 1996.

  9. Twelfth Night, ed. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik (London, Methuen, 1975), 3.3.23.

  10. E.g., James Cleland, Hρω-[b.pi ][b.alpha ]ι[ ]ει[b.alpha ],The Institution of a Young Noble Man (1607), Bks v, chs 7-9, and vi (‘shewing a young Noble mans Dutie in Travailing’)—esp. pp. 258-62, on sight-seeing as gentlemanly espionage (the pursuit of ‘manie secrets’).

  11. ‘Like the Old Robin Hood: As You Like It and the Enclosure Riots’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 43 (1992), 1-19; rpt. as Ch. 3 of his Will Power: Essays on Shakespearean Authority (Hemel Hempstead, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993).

  12. Cf. Lisa Jardine's excessively darkened judgements, in Reading Shakespeare Historically (London, Routledge, 1996), pp. 72-7.

  13. The Autobiography of Thomas Whythome: Modern Spelling Edition, ed. James M. Osborn (London, Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 19.

  14. The Civile Conversation of M. Steeven Guazzo, tr. George Pettie (Bks i-iii) and Barthlomew Young (Bk iv), introd. Sir Edward Sullivan (London, Constable, 1925), 2 vols; i, p. 129.

  15. Bill Alexander, John Barton, John Caird and Terry Hands, Directors' Shakespeare: Approaches to ‘Twelfth Night’, ed. Michael Billington (London, Nick Hern Books, 1990), p. 22.

  16. ‘Gossip and Scandal’, Current Anthropology, 4 (1963), 307-16, p. 313.

  17. E.g., Robert Paine, ‘What is Gossip About?: An Alternative Hypothesis’, Man, n.s. 2 (1967), 278-85.

  18. ‘Of Intemperate Speech or Garrulitie’, in The Philosophie, Commonlie Called, The Morals Written by the Learned Philosophy Plutarch of Chæronea, tr. Philemon Holland (1603), pp. 191-208 (p. 192).

  19. The Passions of the Minde in Generall, rev. edn (1604), p. 107.

  20. Contrast the more recent views surveyed in, e.g., Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip (1985; Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1986), ch. 2. For work by social historians on the practice of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century gossip see, e.g., J. A. Sharpe, Defamation and Sexual Slander in Early Modern England: The Church Courts at York, Borthwick Papers no. 58 (York: University of York, 1980) and Steve Hindle, ‘The Shaming of Margaret Knowsley: Gossip, Gender and the Experience of Authority in Early Modern England’, Continuity and Change, 9 (1994), 391-419.

  21. Cf. Sissela Bok, Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation (1982; Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 286 n. 7.

  22. The Book of the Courtier, tr. Sir Thomas Hoby (1561), introd. Walter Raleigh (London, David Nutt, 1900), p. 124.

  23. For contexts see, e.g., Daniel Javitch, ‘Rival Arts of Conduct in Elizabethan England: Guazzo's Civile Conversation and Castiglione's Courtier’, Yearbook of Italian Studies, 1 (1971), 178-98, pp. 188-9.

  24. See, e.g., Gaspar's remarkable anticipation, out of Aristotle, of Freud on the castration complex in women, and Julian's reply: ‘The seelie poore creatures wish not to be a man to make them more perfect, but to have libertye, and to be ridd of the rule that men have of their owne authoritie chalenged over them’ (pp. 226-7).

  25. Epicoene or The Silent Woman, ed. L. A. Beaurline (London, 1966), 2.3.109.

  26. Cf., e.g., Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton, Harvester, 1983), ch. 4.

  27. John Gerard, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597), p. 701.

  28. 3.1.86-7, 72-3. On courtly excess in ‘Salutation … complements, false offers, & promises of seruice’ see, e.g., Cleland, Institution, pp. 176ff.

  29. Tr. and excerpted as The Deceived, in Geoffrey Bullough (ed.), Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. ii (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958), pp. 286-339 (p. 296).

  30. The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall, ed. Michael Kiernan (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1985), pp. 20-3 (p. 21).

  31. Compare (but also contrast) lines 169-96 with Mote at Love's Labour's Lost 5.2.158-74, addressing the Princess and her ladies.

  32. ‘The Secret and the Secret Society’, pt iv of The Sociology of Georg Simmel, ed. and tr. Kurt H. Wolff (New York, The Free Press, 1950), pp. 307-76 (p. 334).

  33. The effect of elusive enigma was enlarged, no doubt, for early audiences aware of being addressed by a boy (playing a woman playing a boy), especially given medical doubts concerning the existence, in reality, of the hymen: see, e.g., Helkiah Crooke, Mι[b.kappa ]ρo[b.kappa ]oσμo[b.gamma ]ρ[b.alpha ][b.phiv ]ι[b.alpha ]: A Description of the Whole Body of Man, 2nd edn (1631), p. 256: ‘It hath beene an old question and so continueth to this day, whether there be any certaine markes or notes of virginity in women …’.

  34. To woo, that is, as Viola (if a woman might be so assertive), rather than compoundly, as in 2.4, where the attraction of Cesario/Viola's eye to ‘some favour that it loves’ (which riddlingly means the Duke's ‘favour’ (24-5)), prompts him/her to utter the half-betraying speech about ‘concealment’, ‘My father had a daughter lov'd a man …’ (108-19). Symptomatically, in the exchange which follows, Bacon's observation, ‘he that will be Secret, must be a Dissembler, in some degree. For Men are too cunning, to suffer a Man, to keepe an indifferent carriage … They will so beset a man with Questions, and draw him on, and picke it out of him’ (p. 21) is ratified both by Orsino's leading interrogation (‘But died thy sister of her love, my boy?’ (120)) and by Cesario/Viola's dissimulation (‘I am all the daughters of my father's house, / And all the brothers too’ (121-2)), which slurs into poignant honesty, as s/he hopes for Sebastian's survival (‘… and yet I know not’ (122)), but which remains sufficiently in touch with the deviousness of his/her opening ploy to recall (for instance) the explicitly seductive discretion of F. J. when he woos Dame Elinor with a lute song composed by ‘My father's sister's brother's son’ (Gascoigne, The Adventures of Master F. J., in Paul Salzman (ed.), An Anthology of Elizabethan Prose Fiction (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 3-81 (p. 28)).

  35. For another perspective see John Kerrigan, ed., Motives of Woe: Shakespeare and ‘Female Complaint’. A Critical Anthology (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1991), esp. pp. 20-3, 41-5.

  36. Folio punctuation mostly conforms to the rhetorical shape of the passage, though, as routinely, it divides the run-on ‘air / Cry’ with a comma.

  37. 4.2.98-100; cf., e.g., the ‘jangling bibble babble’ of ‘praters’ in Plutarch's ‘Of Intemperate Speech’ (p. 193).

  38. The English Secretary, rev. edn (1599), pt 2, p. 102.

  39. English Secretary, pt 2, p. 130; cf. Rambuss, Spenser's Secret Career, p. 43.

  40. For examples beyond Puttenham (esp. pp. 108-12), see, e.g., [Sir John Mennis], Recreation for Ingenious Headpeeces (1654), p5r-q4r, r3r-4r. On verse composition, more broadly, as ‘secret intercommoning’—a compromise formation between self-consuming inwardness and full disclosure (below, p. 79)—see Gascoigne, Adventures of Master F. J., pp. 40-1.

  41. See Janette Dillon, Shakespeare and the Solitary Man (London, Macmillan, 1981), chs 1-2.

  42. The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. R. B. McKerrow, corr. by F. P. Wilson (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1958), 5 vols, 1, pp. 137-245 (p. 169).

  43. See, e.g., Orest Ranum, ‘The Refuges of Intimacy’, in Roger Chartier (ed.), Passions of the Renaissance, tr. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1989), vol. iii of A History of Private Life, pp. 207-63, Patricia Fumerton, Cultural Aesthetics: Renaissance Literature and the Practice of Social Ornament (Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1991), ch. 2 and Alan Stewart, ‘The Early Modern Closet Discovered’, Representations, 50 (1995), 76-100.

  44. Essayes, ed. Kiernan, pp. 80-7 (p. 83).

  45. As You Like It and Twelfth Night: Shakespeare's “Sense of an Ending”’ (1972), rpt. in her Essays, Mainly Shakespearean (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 91-112 (p. 110).

  46. Contrast Stephen Orgel, Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 104.

Ted Merwin (review date 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 853

SOURCE: Merwin, Ted. Review of Twelfth Night.Theatre Journal 51, no. 2 (1999): 191-92.

[In the following review, Merwin offers a mixed appraisal of Nicholas Hytner's production of Twelfth Night. The critic argues that Hytner and stage designer Bob Crowley failed to create an atmosphere of eroticism, and that the romance between Paul Rudd's Orsino and Helen Hunt's Viola was lukewarm at best. However, Merwin offers high praise for the performances of the supporting cast, particularly Philip Bosco's Malvolio.]

A splashy new production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York was a feature attraction of the 1998 Lincoln Center Festival last summer. The well-traveled team of English director Nicholas Hytner and Irish stage designer Bob Crowley, who in 1994 brought to the Beaumont, from London's Royal National Theatre, an uncommonly dark and disturbing (and intensely stirring) production of Carousel, this time opted for a strategy of almost total immersion. They turned Twelfth Night into a kind of cross between productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream (beginning with Peter Brook-inspired light bulbs descending from the ceiling) and The Tempest (including a spectacular on-stage rainstorm)—a very wet dream, indeed.

In fact, Viola (played by Helen Hunt, fresh from her Academy Award) emerged dripping wet from the shipwreck to start the play. Water was a constant symbol: a large rectangular pool upstage and smaller pools downstage occupied much of the acting area, so that characters generally made their entrances and exits over flat bridges—curves which united at the end of the play for the two couples to make a grand exit. The water effect reached its zenith with a tension-breaking downpour that nicely formed its own conceptual bridge from the disappointments and cruelties caused by the characters' misunderstandings and mistaken identities, to the final scenes of recognition and reconciliation.

A multitude of Eastern motifs also heightened the play's atmosphere of fantasy. China silk hangings surrounded the stage floor, which was painted with an exquisite blue peacock design taken from Persian carpets and embellished with patterns inspired by Indian illuminated manuscripts. Crowley's set also provided three different perspectives of Olivia's house on different-sized drops, which nicely reminded the audience how far from that anchor-point each scene was taking place. Catherine Zuber's costumes ranged from what appeared to be Turkish harem outfits (for Olivia) to stunning blue and white guards' uniforms. Natasha Katz's lighting was also striking, beginning with the large bulbs which descended from the ceiling, like sacred Buddhist candles, and including a light-induced ripple effect on the upstage pool. But it was the directorial touches which were most impressive: one especially memorable moment was a procession of Olivia's retainers, holding tall Japanese-style umbrellas, over a hanamichi-type ramp.

Unfortunately, if the director and designer were aiming for an overall mood of erotically-charged languor, then for the most part only the languor came through. From the opening tableau, in which Duke Orsino and his men are stretched out on the stage (making it hard to identify, at first, who is speaking the famous opening speech about the relationship between music and love), many of the all-star cast seemed listless. More importantly, the romance between Orsino (played by a long-haired, bare-chested Paul Rudd) and Viola (played with low-key irony by Hunt) never really seemed to catch fire, despite her stripping him almost naked at one point (giving him an excuse to jump in one of the pools). Olivia (played by a glamorous but shrill Kyra Sedgwick) was, quite literally, all over the place; she bounded and lunged over the stage in increasingly revealing outfits which reduced her from supposed sexual unavailability to what seemed more like sexual desperation.

The supporting cast was uniformly superb, from a perfectly fussy and self-deluded Malvolio by Philip Bosco (whose performance in the famous letter-reading scene was a priceless puncturing of vainglory) to precise comic turns by Brian Murray as an almost-Falstaffian Sir Toby Belch, and Max Wright as an unusually doddering Sir Andrew Aguecheek (who, perhaps too predictably, ended up falling into one of the pools). And David Patrick Kelly stole the show as a short, hump-backed Feste, crooning the rhythmic, quasi-Country and Western songs written for the production by Jenine Tesori.

In the first of a “platform series,” inspired by informal talks with theatre artists at the Royal National, Crowley spoke in the lobby of the Beaumont on the evening before the final preview. He explained that the play's use of twins as a metaphor for the self-knowledge that comes from true reflection led him to produce his flooded-stage “environment.” The characters' investment in perpetuating their images of themselves, he said, made him realize the artificiality and affectation which underlay their self-conceptions; this provoked him and Hytner to “ransack the East” for the highly stylized designs and staging methods which the production employed. But if Crowley was happily true to what he called the “anarchy at the heart of Shakespeare,” his stated “dislike for symmetry in stage design” revealed the production's ineffectiveness. Inasmuch as Twelfth Night is preoccupied with the effects of disrupted equilibrium in human affairs, the production ultimately failed to render convincingly this emotional disorder and its resolution.

Angela Hurworth (essay date 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8053

SOURCE: Hurworth, Angela. “Gulls, Cony-Catchers and Cozeners: Twelfth Night and the Elizabethan Underworld.” Shakespeare Survey 52 (1999): 120-32.

[In the following essay, Hurworth explores the representation of deception, or gulling, in Twelfth Night. Hurworth highlights the links between criminal deception as it is described in Elizabethan narratives of the “underworld” and the deception found in the play.]

The age-old ploy of practising deception upon one's fellow for material profit and/or vindictive amusement, known as gulling, cozenage or cony-catching in the rogue literature of the Elizabethan period, figures prominently in the contemporary drama where its principal exponent is, of course, Ben Jonson. In Volpone and The Alchemist deception is treated as an art-form in itself. This is gulling on a grand scale, where the theatricality of deceiving and the deception inherent in the theatrical illusion find their finest expression. In Shakespeare's plays, gulling rarely occupies centre-stage as in Jonson (Othello may be the one exception to this), although it frequently surfaces as an incident in the main plot, for example, the double gulling of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, or the cozening of Falstaff by Hal after the Gadshill episode in 1 Henry IV. The term itself, however, occurs infrequently in Shakespeare's plays. Unusually, in Twelfth Night the text designates two characters, Malvolio and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, as ‘gulls’, the instigator of the trap set for the steward, Maria, is addressed as ‘my noble gull-catcher’ by Fabian (2. 5. 180), and there may be an implicit reference to ‘gulling’ in the title of the play, since the prologue of Gl'Ingannati, a likely source, has a reference to la notte di beffana,1 a phrase usually rendered as ‘Epiphany’ or ‘Twelfth Night’ in English but which, literally translated, may be understood as The Night of Gullings.

The gulling of Malvolio which results in his transformation from dour Puritan to ridiculous suitor is the comic highlight, if not the centre, of the play.2 In fact Malvolio's comment that he is the ‘most notorious geck and gull / That e'er in vention played on’ (5. 1. 340-1) may be read as a meta-theatrical prophecy of his box-office popularity,3 initially commented upon by Digges:

                                                                                                    loe in a trice
The Cockpit Galleries, Boxes, all are full
To hear Malvoglio, the cross-garter'd gull.(4)

And the propensity of the comic sub-plot to upstage the main plot has characterized the play ever since Charles I wrote ‘Malvolio’ against the title in his copy of the Second Folio. Indeed we may note that the term ‘gull’ in its ornithological sense is interchangeable with ‘cuckoo’ in Shakespeare's usage: ‘As that ungentle gull, the cuckoo's bird, / Useth the sparrow’ (I Henry IV, 5. 1. 60-1), so that there is a semantic association between the cuckoo-like sub-plot in Twelfth Night and gulling.5 The secondary intrigue's appropriation of the place normally accorded to the main plot functions as a metatextual paradigm of the patterns of deception, substitution and metamorphosis in the play.

I wish to compare the representation of gulling in Twelfth Night with the narratives of underworld literature where such deception, known as cony-catching, cozenage or gulling, receives its fullest treatment. In his study of the Elizabethan underworld, G. Salgādo noted the affinities between the deception practised in the narratives of rogue literature and the Elizabethan stage:

The paraphernalia used in this form of cheating had all the imagination, energy, sense of timing and understanding of character that we find in the Elizabethan drama itself …6

However it should be remembered that these narratives are every bit as fictive as their onstage representation and should not be read as documentary evidence of criminal activity in Elizabethan London.7 My aim therefore is not to establish a relationship between Shakespeare's play and criminality in Elizabethan London but to draw attention to the contact between the two different representational modes. Firstly I shall relate the dramatic syntax and lexis of gulling in Shakespeare's play to the lexis and syntax of gulling in the underworld literature; I shall then show how the definition of gulling as a game with rules influences the configuration of the gulling in Twelfth Night, and note the theatricality of gulling, as presented in these pamphlets.

Malvolio may be the play's most ‘notorious geck and gull’, but he is certainly not alone in the part. Twelfth Night is replete with gullings, albeit of different degrees and durations. Andrew Aguecheek is by nature a gull8 (as he virtually admits9), and he is gulled from first to last. It is no secret that he is fleeced financially throughout, that he is deceived into ‘supposing that Toby's dry gullet is the way to Olivia's heart’,10 and then cozened into challenging Viola/Cesario by Sir Toby, as the latter's boast, ‘Marry, I'll ride your horse as well as I ride you’ (3. 4. 281), proclaims for all to hear.

But gulling is not merely exemplified by those designated as ‘gulls’ nor is its functioning simple. The dynamics of gulling is centripetal and draws many of the characters into its force field. For instance, we observe a spiral of gulling in the activities of Sir Toby Belch. He gulls Andrew into providing him with money, and inveigles Viola/Cesario into a farcial duel, but his control of its energy falters when Sebastian appears, and his duping backfires on him. Indeed, gulling shows itself to be a reversible game since Toby himself is gulled most effectively by Maria. Such is the implication of Fabian's comment when Sir Toby, carried away by his delight in the spectacle of Malvolio's humilation, says:

SIR Toby
I could marry the wench for this device
                                                  […] Enter Maria …
Here comes my noble gull-catcher.
SIR Toby
(to Maria) Wilt thou set thy foot o' my neck?

(2. 5. 175-81)

This moment is an example of the intersection of two trajectories of gulling: that of Malvolio by Maria and of Toby by Maria. This mistress of the game is also expert enough to synchronize two moments of gulling when, immediately prior to Malvolio's appearance before his mistress in yellow stockings, she represents him to Olivia as unhinged: ‘Your ladyship were best to have some guard about you if he come, for sure the man is tainted in's wits.’ (3. 4. 11-13), thereby tricking Olivia, just as she has duped her steward. It should be noted however that there are different varieties of gulling. The trick played on Malvolio is of the savage, vengeful kind (known in the commedia dell'arte as a beffa) whereas Maria's gulling of Olivia and Sir Toby is essentially harmless (thus, in Italian terms, a burla).11

Although as a ‘waiting gentlewoman’ Maria is socially and dramatically marginal to the play, her part in concocting the plot and stage-managing the gulling game in its opening stages reveals her to be at the centre of the secondary intrigue, the mainspring of the action. She is responsible for unleashing forces which bring about hugely comic situations before spinning out of control. In spite of J. W. Draper's exhaustive and perceptive character sketch of Mistress Mary, she nevertheless remains something of an enigma.12 She never makes any comment on her role as a gull-catcher: all we are shown is her evident enjoyment in devising and executing her own schemes, and her apparent desire to please Sir Toby. Draper's conjectures regarding Maria's reasons for wanting to marry Sir Toby are plausible enough in terms of the social ambitions of Elizabethan waiting-women, for him the play's main theme is ‘the Elizabethan pursuit of social security’,13 but Maria is as much a dramatic construct as a representative of Elizabethan society. Her role is steeped in comic tradition: adept at the classic techniques of duping associated with the commedia dell'arte, she is also the trickster figure of classical comedy, the clever slave figure found in Plautus.14

Early in the play, the object of her desire, Sir Toby, apparently sees her in terms of sexual opportunity rather than wedlock. Feste comments on Sir Toby's failure to appreciate Maria: ‘If Sir Toby would leave drinking, thou wert as witty a piece of Eve's flesh as any in Illyria’ (1. 5. 24-6). This reveals to her the need to curb Sir Toby's carousing if she is to succeed in capturing his attention, hence her readiness to devise a scheme to be revenged on Malvolio for his disapproval of their drunken antics. The knight has to be brought to a realization of her worth as a wife. To use Leo Salingar's phrase, it is the experience of ‘the pleasure of contrivance’ that awakens Sir Toby to Maria's eligilibity: ‘She's a beagle true bred and one that adores me’ (2. 4. 173-4). This appreciation of the pleasure of intrigue leads Sir Toby to want to emulate his better half, to become a master of the game himself, but forces beyond his control make his gulling misfire, whereas Maria not only emerges unharmed, but is rewarded, as Fabian reminds us: ‘Maria writ / The letter, at Sir Toby's great importance, / In recompense whereof he hath married her’ (5. 1. 359-61).

The case of Malvolio demonstrates how a gulling trajectory may be subject to inversion, for not only is the steward gulled by the plotters, but he is also in the grip of ‘self-gulling’. In his egoism, Malvolio unwittingly appropriates the discourse of gulling. After reading the forged letter, he believes that he has in fact become a gull-catcher, having snared Olivia like a bird on a branch:15 ‘I have limed her’ (3. 4. 75). This reveals the steward at the centre of a web of real and imagined gullings: ‘self-gulled’, about to be gulled, he believes himself to be the gull-catcher. To complicate matters, Olivia is, of course, ironically enough, the victim of a gulling, but not by Malvolio, by Viola/Cesario instead (an unwilling and unwitting gull-catcher). Thus various instances of gulling may coincide or intersect, spiral or reverse one another.16

But gulling may also be linear and sporadic, in contrast to the density of gulling trajectories enmeshing Malvolio. Thus in the course of the gulling of Malvolio, the cozening of Sir Andrew surfaces from time to time in the text, as when Toby tells Andrew baldly:

SIR Toby
Thou hadst need send for more money.
SIR Andrew
If I cannot recover your niece, I am a foul way out.
SIR Toby
Send for money, knight. If thou hast not her i' th' end, call me cut.

(2. 3. 176-81)

Likewise, later, Sir Toby refers unabashedly to his fleecing of Sir Andrew:

This is a dear manikin to you, Sir Toby.
SIR Toby
I have been dear to him, lad, some two thousand strong or so.

(3. 2. 51-3)

This follows the broad outlines of the typical relationship between the would-be gallant and his gull described in Dekker's The Guls Horne-book17 (1609). The author claims to write as the arbiter of advice to the man-about-town—as opposed to his opposite, a gull—but the syntax of the title The Guls Horne-book is ambiguous, since ‘gulls’ may function as either a possessive plural or a genitive plural here. The choice of construction determines the meaning. Is it a manual of instruction for the gull-catcher or the gull? If the title has the sense of the possessive plural, then it is a manual destined for use by gulls, in order to avoid being gulled. Conversely, if the genitive plural construction is intended, then it is a work describing gulls, a manual for the would-be gallant whereby he may identify a gull (and take advantage of him). Furthermore, the grammatical ambiguity of the title is never elucidated by the hornbook's content, which implicitly ridicules the activities of the would-be gallant, so that there is only a difference of degree between his foolishness and that of his victim, the gull.

Sir Toby and Sir Andrew fit the categories of the would-be gallant and his gull to a nicety. Sir Toby is a ‘kinsman’ of Olivia's, apparently dependent on her hospitality. Salgādo suggests that part of the underworld society was composed of precisely this kind of rootless person, probably knighted in the wars and discharged from the army after some expedition against Spain18 (the gallants in The Guls Horne-book are frequently posited as soldiers19). Demographically the lesser gentry were increasing in numbers in the second half of the sixteenth century, but decreasing in wealth;20 enclosures, the abolition of the monasteries had swollen the ranks of vagrants; court faction also meant that today's great man (and his retinue) could be down on their luck tomorrow. If Sir Toby Belch conforms to the portrait of the gallant in Dekker's manual, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a perfect example of a gull,21 then their association may be no accident, for Dekker recommends that every gallant should find a foil to accompany him:

Select some friend … to walk up and down the room with you. Let him be suited if you can worse by far than yourself: he will be a foil to you, and this will be a means to publish your clothes better than Paul's, a tennis-court or a playhouse.22

To be a successful gallant, it is desirable to practise a perfectly hedonist life-style, adopting revelling and drinking as primary occupations: ‘your noblest gallants consecrate their hours to their mistresses and to revelling’.23 And as in Twelfth Night, life consists not of the four elements but of eating and drinking, so Dekker advocates joining forces with a fellow roisterer and getting drunk in public:

And if any of your endeared friends be in the house and beat the same ivy-bush that yourself does, you may join companies, and be drunk together most publicly.24

Moreover the gallant lives by his wits, never paying for his drink if he can avoid it,25 and the advice given by the hornbook is that gallants with empty purses should have recourse to gulling:

and, no question, if he be poor he shall now and then light upon some gull or other whom, he may skedler, after the genteel fashion, of money.26

Even though The Guls Horne-book was written in the decade following Shakespeare's play, it is possible to see it as an intertext to Twelfth Night, for it describes a category of person well known in Elizabethan London (or at least, in its fiction). Dekker's syntax of gulling has much in common with Shakespeare's: we see Sir Toby's strategies mimic the behaviour of the would-be gallant in the Horne-book. The reversibility of gulling is also suggested by Dekker, both in the title and in his advice to impecunious gulls that they should ‘skedler’ other gulls of money. In Twelfth Night the gulling game is reversed in the case of Sir Toby Belch, as we have noted. Equally, the term denoting his relationship to Olivia contains a certain semantic ambivalence, an inversion of its apparent meaning. At first Sir Toby is known as ‘kinsman’ to Olivia, but she later calls him ‘Cousin’ (1. 5. 113, 119) and subsequently ‘my coz’ (1. 5. 130), terms which may indicate a closer degree of relationship as well as suggesting that she is aware of his taking advantage of her hospitality, since the terms ‘cousin’ and ‘cozen’ were considered cognate by Cotgrave (1611): ‘to clayme kindred for advantage, or particular ends; as he, who to save charges in travelling, goes from house to house, as cosin to the owner of every one’.27 Toby is therefore acknowledged by Olivia as the swindler in their midst, but as we have already seen the word ‘cousin’ can equally well designate the victim of a cozenage, the ‘practice or habit of […] cheating, deception’,28 and this reversibility is replicated in his portrayal as both guller and gull.

Gulling, as represented in the literature of the underworld, is an essentially ludic activity, and, as such, rule-bound. A survey of early rogue pamphlets reveals its division into two main sub-genres: beggar-books such as the anonymous Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561) or Thomas Harman's A Caveat or warning for Common Cursitors (1566), and cony-catching tracts which were ostensibly written to expose underworld activities whereby the unwary were deprived of their worldly goods. One of the earliest exponents of this sub-genre was Robert Greene. His pamphlets span the early 1590s, and the first, A Notable Discovery of Cozenage (1591), contains narratives describing elaborate methods of cheating at cards. This is based on A Manifest Detection of Dice Play (1552), a tract attributed to Gilbert Walker. This narrative sets out a paradigm for cheating at cards which is subsequently expanded by Greene to provide formulaic accounts of other forms of cozening in The Second Part of Cony-Catching (1591), and The Third and Last Part of Cony-Catching (1592). There are also plays directly drawn from the rogue narratives of the pamphlets, such as the anonymous A Knack to Know a Knave (1592) where the protagonist is the arch cony-catcher Cutbert Cutpurse.

A Manifest Detection demonstrates the organization and codification of card-sharping crime, which functions according to specific rules just like an inverse form of law:

And thereof it riseth that, like as law, when the term is truly considered, signifieth an ordinance of good men established for the commonwealth to repress all vicious living, so these cheaters turned the cat in the pan, giving to divers vile patching shifts an honest and goodly title, calling it by the name of a law; because by a multitude of hateful rules, a multitude of dregs and draff (as it were good learning) govern and rules their idle bodies, to the destruction of good labouring people.29

There are many kinds of the ‘art’, but cheating is the common ground of them all and this is based on the cozener's capacity to dissemble effectively:

the first and original ground of cheating is a counterfeit countenance in all things, a study to seem to be, and not to be indeed.30

—a phrase which evidently evokes Viola's ‘I am not what I am’ (3. 1. 139). The rules for cheating with dice are set out in detail, and a frequent configuration described by Walker is that four accomplices lure a victim to participate in an elaborate game:

a jolly shift, and for the subtle invention and fineness of wit exceedeth all the rest, is the barnard's law which … asketh four persons at the least, each of them to play a long several part by himself.31

Greene takes up the same distribution of roles:

There be requisite effectually to act the art of cony-catching three several parties, the setter, the verser, and the barnacle [the fourth element being the cony himself].32

The narrative describes the complex interaction of the three rogues in extracting money from their prey: the plot is set in motion as soon as a suitable prey comes into view, typically:

a plain country fellow, well and cleanly apparelled, either in a coat of homespun russet or of a frieze, and a side-pouch at his side.33

and then the victim is duped into taking wine with the rogues:

then ere they part, they make a cony and so ferret-claw him at cards, that they leave him as bare of money as an ape of a tail.34

The ingenuity of such rogues is stressed: ‘they do employ all their wits to overthrow such as with their handy thrift satisfy their hearty thirst’.35 This same configuration surfaces in the gulling of Malvolio; there are three main gullers: Maria, Toby and Feste or Fabian (this may explain the mutual exclusivity of the last two in the gulling scenes), but Maria plays the most elaborate role, like the ‘barnard’ or the ‘barnacle’,36 and she is careful to observe the tripartite pattern of the game:

I will plant you two—and let the fool make a third—where he shall find the letter.

(2. 3. 167-68)

Indeed the ludic dimension of the tricking of Malvolio is underlined by its designation as ‘Sport royal’ (2. 3. 166), and it is alluded to as ‘sport’ several times (2. 5. 173; 2. 5. 191). In the last scene, when the Duke is about to pass judgement on the affair, Fabian pleads for this view of gulling as essentially ludic to be upheld:

How with a sportful malice it was followed
May rather pluck on laughter than revenge
If that the injuries be justly weighed
That have on both sides passed.

(5. 1. 362-65).

We may equally question whether the inversion of values in the underplot of Twelfth Night where Sir Toby Belch functions as the Lord of Misrule, and honest everyday activity is absent, does not replicate the inversion of the rules of honest society demonstrated by the description of the cheating ‘laws’ in the underworld pamphlets.37

Nevertheless ‘justice’ is not always done, for as the authors of rogue literature recognize, the game can sometimes turn against its instigator, and biters can also be bit:

Thus we may see, fallere fallentem non est fraus: every deceit hath his due: he that maketh a trap falleth into the snare himself, and such as covet to cozen all are crossed themselves oftentimes almost to the cross, and that is the next neighbour to the gallows.38

This mutability of fortune can be seen to apply to Sir Toby: his gulling Sir Andrew into a duel results in a bleeding head, and, as already demonstrated, he is comically ‘caught’ by Maria as a consequence of her success with Malvolio.

If gulling is a game, this implies performance, and, as such, it constitutes a spectacle. For example, the metamorphosis is verbally and visually an essential characteristic of the gulling process. In the table of words published in the Notable Discovery of Cozenage (1591), Greene informs us that in highway robbery the victim is called ‘a martin’; in cony-catching law, the victim received the designation of ‘cony’. In The Black Book's Messenger (1591), the same Greene lists the terminology used by Ned Browne, ‘one of the most notable Cutpurses, Crossbiters and Cony-catchers that ever lived in England’, which emphasizes the cynegetic transformation of all involved in the gulling process:

He that draws the fish to the bait, the beater.
The tavern where they go, the bush.
The fool that is caught, the bird.(39)

Dekker, in Lantern and Candlelight (1608) appends a list of those necessary to execute a swindle in a game of cards where all the participants are designated as varieties of birds:

In this battle of cards and dice are several regiments and several officers: …

He that wins all is the ‘Eagle’.
He that stands by and ventures is the ‘Woodpecker’.
The fresh gallant that is fetched in is the ‘Gull’.
He that stands by and lends is the ‘Gull Groper’.(40)

The OED records ‘to grope a gull’ as being synonymous in 1536 with the expression ‘to pluck a pigeon’.41 Thus the lexis of rogue literature represents gulling as the transformation of a human victim into an animal species, often into birds.

Similarly the representation of gulling in Twelfth Night recognizes that transformation is, by definition, inherent in cozening; Maria expresses her intention to transform Malvolio into his very opposite: to ‘gull him into a nayword’ (2. 3. 130); later she notes the success of her ambition, saying ‘Yon gull Malvolio is turned heathen, a very renegado’ (3. 2. 65-6). To be revenged on the steward for his reproval of their revelry, the plotters seek to change Malvolio into a creature of farce; like Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, he is to be transformed into an ass, as indicated by Maria's comment ‘Go shake your ears’ (2. 3. 121). Sir Andrew, for once, manages a real witticism in this respect, for when Maria says: ‘My purpose is indeed a horse of that colour’, he replies: ‘And your horse now would make him an ass’ (2. 3. 161-3).

When Malvolio takes up the forged letter, this process of transformation is marked by his metamorphosis into a whole range of native woodland animals. Already, in anticipation he has been designated ‘the niggardly rascally sheep-biter’ (2. 5. 4-5), ‘the trout that must be caught with tickling’ (2. 5. 20-1)42, and, as the extent of his self-delusions is revealed, the tricksters turn him into ‘a rare turkeycock’ (2. 5. 29). Then, just as he approaches the letter he is seen as a game bird (of a proverbially stupid nature): ‘Now is the woodcock near the gin’ (2. 5. 81); immediately after opening the letter he becomes a badger—‘Marry, hang thee, brock’ (2. 5. 102)—then a bird of prey—‘And with what a wing the staniel checks at it!’ (2. 5. 112)—then a hound sniffing at a scent while he wrestles with the conundrum of MOAI:

SIR Toby
… he is now at a cold scent.
Sowter will cry upon't for all this, though it be as rank as a fox.

(2. 5. 119-21).

This process of metamorphosis (of the basse-cour) echoes that of the real court (i.e. the haute-cour)43 where Orsino is changed into Actæon, the stag devoured by his own hounds, and Olivia compares herself to a bear chained to the stake, attacked by her own desires (3. 1. 117-19).44 Malvolio too is transformed into a bear, as Sir Toby says:

To anger him we'll have the bear again, and we'll fool him black and blue, shall we not, Sir Andrew?

(2. 5. 8-10).

What is more, in his comic transformation, Malvolio may well change himself into a grotesque bird before our very eyes, when he says to Olivia: ‘Not black in my mind, though yellow in my legs’ (3. 4. 24-5). This kind of grotesque transformation intersects with the disguises adopted as part of Carnival, where the sober black and white garb of the Puritan is transformed into motley, the garb of the Fool, by the garish addition of yellow; his identity is inverted and subverted by the force of comedy. The imposition of a symbolic animal identity on an individual, as E. Le Roy Ladurie notes, was characteristic of late sixteenth and seventeenth-century Carnival and the person thus disguised was king of his reynage or faction: thus in Romans in 1580, the representative of the upper classes adopted the identity of an Eagle, that of the lower classes, a capon, a castrated cock. There are references to Malvolio's provisional castration in the constriction imposed by cross-gartering; and by exposing him to the force of satire, via visual and mental metaphormosis into a gull, we recognize one of the typical forces unleashed by Carnival, that of seeking to purge society of evil45—indeed Maria refers to her gulling as physic (2. 3. 166). Such evil is formulated in Twelfth Night as self-love, hypocrisy, social ambition, elements united, for the gullers and for the play-goers too, in the guise of Puritanism. Indeed in this play deliberate trickery exposes hidden truth, evidence of a dialectic between truth and untruth noted elsewhere by Shakespeare, for instance when Polonius says: ‘Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth’ (Hamlet, 2. 1. 62).

It is possible that this visual transformation of Malvolio also contains a reference to the iconography of melancholy since the OED records as late as 1600 the adjective ‘gull’, meaning yellow:46 ‘Thou was full blyth and light of late … / And art now both gool and green’: thus yellow stockings may also be the symbolic markings of a melancholic. Malvolio has therefore been metamorphosed into the comic double of Orsino, whose narcissism he reflects and comically amplifies.

Nevertheless metamorphosis is not the only element borrowed from the performance aspect of gulling as presented in the narratives of underworld literature. Other characteristics include putting on an entertainment for the sake of others—this is what Maria achieves by making Malvolio into ‘a common recreation’. A typical cony-catching story demonstrates how the enjoyment of the spectacle of a victim's discomfiture constitutes an integral part of the action:

A kind of foist performed in St Paul's:

There walked in the middle walk a plain country farmer, a man of good wealth, who had a well-lined purse, which a crew of foists having perceived, their hearts were set on fire to have it, and every one had a fling at him, but all in vain, for he kept his hand close in his pocket, and his purse fast in his fist like a subtle churl. Well, however, it was impossible to do any good with him he was so wary. … At last one of the crew … spoke to fellows … went to the farmer and walked directly before him … swooned … the poor farmer, seeing a proper young gentleman, as he thought, fall dead afore him, held him in his arms … the foist drew the farmer's purse and away … coming to himself, staggered out of St Paul's to join his crew and there boasted of his wit and experience.47

The ingenuity required to devise a plan to rob this particular farmer of his money commands the admiration of the co-plotters: a similar concern for and delight in plotting is evident in the play, as Sir Toby says, gleefully: ‘Excellent, I smell a device …’ (2. 3. 156)

The ‘play-acting’ in St Paul's with the elaborate charade of the mock fainting emphasizes the incident's status as a dramatic interlude, and in The Guls Horne-book, Dekker describes how ‘plotting’ is one of the activities which occupy the gallant's leisure hours:

The Duke's Tomb is a sanctuary … There you may spend your legs in winter a whole afternoon: converse, plot, laugh and talk any thing.48

In Twelfth Night the plot to gull Malvolio introduces a theatrical mise en abyme, the intradramatic doubling of all the aspects of performance. It is an additional layer of reflexivity in a play whose plot turns upon the confusion engendered by the existence of twins, where narcissism creates its own double(s), and where disguise inverts notions of sameness and difference.

In the sub-plot of Shakespeare's comedy, energy and appetite—characteristics of gulling49—are meshed with farce. Although the origins of farce are ancient, it was an essential component of Mystery and Morality plays and flourished in medieval France as a dramatic genre in its own right. In La Farce ou la Machine à rire, Bernadette Rey-Flaud argues that medieval farce was not an intrigue following a linear scheme but a tripartite mechanism, comparable to a syntactic group centred on a verb.50 In her view, whatever the specificity of the verb according to the individual farce, its essential significance must be ‘to dupe’. One of the expressions for ‘to dupe’ in Middle French farces, especially La Farce de Maistre Pathelin, was ‘manger de l'oie’.51 It is striking that the paradigmatic image of the goose contains the same elements as we have seen in ‘gull’, i.e. a bird and the victim of a stratagem. Moreover, ‘gull’ in the dialect of Warwickshire and Worcestershire could, until relatively recently, have the meaning of ‘an unfledged bird, especially a gosling’: a sense found in Shakespeare: ‘for I do fear / When every feather sticks in his own wing / Lord Timon will be left a naked gull, / Which flashes now a phoenix.’ (Timon, 2. 1. 29-32); the word ‘gull’ here is cognate with ‘goose’. In medieval fabliaux, the goose is an object of desire, thus an object of theft, an easy prey and a silly victim. These characteristics are codified in 1597 in a game entered by John Wolfe in the Stationers' Register as A new and most pleasant Game of the Goose (sometimes also known as Fox and Geese).

The association of duping with the image of a bird is therefore common to both gulling literature and farce. If we examine the lexical ramifications of the term ‘gull’ in detail, a further clue to the dramatic syntax of the subplot may emerge. There are earlier attestations of the word where the seabird—a prominent meaning of the term here—figures allusively as an image of appetite. Crowley in A Way to Wealth in 1550 has it that: ‘Men that would have all in their own handes … Comerauntes, gredye gulls, yea men that would eate up mene, women and children’.52 This meaning can be extrapolated to include the other sense of ‘gull’, i.e. throat or mouth, and which occurs as a verb, from the French engouler. Palsgrave (1530) glosses ‘I gulle in drinke as great drinkers do’, as ‘je engoule’. There exists a further attestation (1607): ‘O you that gull up the poysoned cup of pleasure’. In the seventeenth century, this sense is apparently always associated with revelry and indulgence in drink: ‘They are roystering and gulling in wine with a dear felicity’53 (a phrase which admirably describes the knights' activities in this play). On a semantic level Sir Toby and Sir Andrew inscribe themselves as ‘gulls’, so that the dramatic and linguistic ramifications of ‘gulling’ reinforce one another in the play.

In the last Act, the limit of comedy is attained with the denunciation of gulling. Of the tricking of Malvolio, Orsino remarks: ‘This savours not much of distraction’ (5. 1. 311), the pun on distraction indicating that he finds not only that the steward is sane but that as Duke and ultimate authority, he fails to appreciate the humour of gulling. Here the designation of the various victims as ‘gulls’ can be seen as the final stage in the dramatic syntax, since for Malvolio and Sir Andrew the term ‘gull’ is the culmination of previous insults: Malvolio refers to himself as the ‘most notorious geck and gull’; and Sir Toby turns on Sir Andrew, stripping away any pretence of friendship, calling him ‘an ass-head, and a coxcomb, and a knave; a thin-faced knave, a gull’ (5. 1. 203-4). The ultimate metamorphosis bears no face, and as such it is the ne plus ultra of grotesque metamorphosis which marks the limit of carnivalesque transformation.

Examination of the context, or of the intertexts, of gulling in Twelfth Night might reveal an instance of what Stephen Greenblatt calls ‘the circulation of social energy’,54 when he argues that the theatre appropriates the energy of other kinds of discourse and adapts them for dramatic purposes. I would argue instead that the gulling game has affinities with theatrical representation since the simple narratives of the pamphlet literature enact fictive deceptions, in which comedy is often latent. To use Feste's expression (5. 1. 292) we observe how drama allows vox55 to the potential of these narratives, the result being an amplification of the dramatic dimension of gulling and a release of comic energy, as palpable on the twentieth-century stage as in the seventeenth-century playhouse.

But this is not to say that the loss of the Elizabethan context does not, in some sense, weaken the impact of the gulling on the spectator. The playhouse itself was the site of much nefarious activity: cut-purses, pickpockets and prostitutes thrived in the vicinity, if not on the premises themselves. Leah Scragg goes as far as reading into Twelfth Night a meta-textual warning against pickpockets: she argues that Malvolio's reference to Olivia's Cs, Us, Ts and her great Ps spells out the beginning of the word CUTP—, that is, cutpurse.56 The bear-baiting imagery associated with the treatment meted out to Malvolio may also allude to the proximity of the Elizabethan playhouse to the Bear Garden. ‘Yon gull Malvolio’ may then be designated as the most notorious of gulls, but certain of those looking on are gulled too, so the text reflexively implies that being a spectator to a gulling is to run the risk of becoming a gull oneself. Indeed the onstage gulling may have held a mirror up to cozenings in progress within the confines of the playhouse. Moreover, if the spectator has been led to believe in the innocuousness of gulling on account of its place in the comic underplot, the final moments of the play when Malvolio departs vowing ‘I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you’ (5. 1. 374) demonstrate that gulling takes comedy to its limit, and that in fact the playgoer may have been gulled into an assumption of its inoffensiveness.

In Twelfth Night gulling is allied with farce, but is also a means of exposing the truth. Malvolio, the pious Puritan, is revealed as an abominable hypocrite and a libidinous arriviste. But Maria is replaced by Feste as the master of the game, and the ‘sportful malice’ turns its perpetrators into sadistic persecutors in its latter stages, and demonstrates that gulling may unleash evil impulses in apparently good-natured characters. Malvolio has committed no crime, he is appreciated by Olivia for the quality of his stewardship and, if his humiliation may appear as poetic justice, his imprisonment and virtual torture cannot be justified; as Hazlitt remarks, ‘poor Malvolio's treatment is a little hard’.57 It has often been observed that Malvolio's refusal to participate in the festive ending points to the tragic potential of gulling, but the corrupting influence of the ‘sport’ on its agents passes without comment.

The darker implications of this ostensibly ludic activity may anticipate the Machiavellian appropriation of the sport by Iago in Othello (1604). Here there is but a single player, an infinitely more sinister master of the game than Maria, who nevertheless acquires diabolic associations by setting events in motion, being apostrophized as ‘thou most excellent devil of wit’ (2. 5. 199-200). But in Othello, the pleasure of contrivance is a private, perverted pleasure experienced only by Iago, whose gullings exceed the force of the beffa in their savagery. Like his counterparts, Iago takes delight in gulling, but unlike them, he revels in evil for its own sake; there is no satisfactory explanation for his obsessive desire to destroy, whereas we understand, and even sympathize with, the plotters' desire for revenge on Malvolio. Iago's prey, Othello, although not without failings, does not deserve to be cozened into murdering his wife, forfeiting his self-respect and taking his own life; thus the balance of sympathy is wholly on the side of the victims in this play, and the consequences of cozening result in the deaths of most protagonists. In Twelfth Night Malvolio's predicament awakens only tardy and partial sympathy and his refusal to join in the general celebration does not have any incidence on the comic dénouement; he emerges unscathed and unchanged from the gulling game. But the gulling of Malvolio (and even of Sir Andrew Aguecheek) has revealed that this is potentially, if not necessarily, a cruel game. Othello undergoes tragic metamorphosis, the efficient soldier being transformed into a jealous monster, and the moment of anagnorisis is reached when (as in Twelfth Night) the victim is called a ‘gull’ to his face. Emilia says to Othello:

                                                            O gull, O dolt,
As ignorant as dirt! …

(Othello, 5. 2. 170-1)

The depiction of gulling in Twelfth Night progressively reveals its latent forces, for the game's centripetal energy corrupts the players: Feste's sadistic treatment of Malvolio in the dark contrasts with Maria's innocent enjoyment of a ridiculous spectacle. In Othello, the latent energy of gulling is unleashed and we witness the extent of its capacity for destruction. But the game's forces, multiple trajectories and dramatic syntax are identifiably the same in both plays. Hence the difference between ‘comic’ and ‘tragic’ gulling as exemplified by Twelfth Night and Othello is one of emphasis and not of essence.


  1. G. Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 2 (1958), p. 287, says: ‘If we believe that Shakespeare used Gl'Ingannati as a source we may also believe that he took his title from a phrase in its prologue.’ However, he fails to make the connection between the sense of beffana and the comic gullings which figure in Twelfth Night: ‘Yet even if Shakespeare had read the passage and had recognized “la notte di beffana” as meaning “Twelfth Night”, there is nothing in the context of that prologue to lead him towards choosing this title for his comedy.’

  2. In 1602 John Manningham's comments record his impression of the gulling of Malvolio being the play's most memorable feature; see The Diary of John Manningham of the Middle Temple (1602-3), edited by Robert Parker Sorlien (1976), p. 48. Many modern critics have concurred with the view that Malvolio is the play's central attraction, for example, Mark Van Doren, ‘The center is Malvolio’, Shakespeare (1939), p. 169 and Milton Crane, ‘Twelfth Night and Shakespearean Comedy’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 6 (1955). For a counter-view, see Harold Jenkins, Shakespeare's ‘Twelfth Night’ (Rice Institute Pamphlet 45, 1958-9), pp. 19-42. All references to Twelfth Night are taken from The Complete Oxford Shakespeare, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford, 1986).

  3. For an account of the theatrical history of Malvolio's success, see Twelfth Night, The Cambridge Shakespeare, edited by Elizabeth Story Donno (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 28-33.

  4. Leonard Digges' much quoted commendatory verses in the Preface to Poems: Written by Wil. Shakespeare. Gent (London, 1640).

  5. Quoted by E. Story Donno, Twelfth Night, p. 8. The play was performed before Charles I at Whitehall on 2 February, 1631.

  6. Gāmini Salgādo, The Elizabethan Underworld, repr. Alan Sutton Publishing Company (Gloucestershire, 1995), p. 26.

  7. On the problem of the Elizabethan representation of the underworld, see A. L. Beier, Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560-1640 (London, 1985).

  8. Bertrand Evans, ‘The Fruits of the Sport’ in Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford, 1960), p. 130: ‘Of the race of Bottom, Sir Andrew would be at a disadvantage if he were not being gulled; being gulled, he is doubly “out”.’

  9. Nashe, in The Terrors of the Night (1594), qualifies the gull in the following terms: ‘Lives there anie such slowe yce-brained, beefe-witted gull’ (OED, sb. 3, 1., quoted from Grosart, 111, 257) and we note that Andrew Aguecheek inadvertently advertises his own gullibility by applying the epithet ‘beef-witted’ to himself: ‘I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit’; to which Sir Toby replies: ‘No question’ (1. 3. 80-1).

  10. Evans, ‘The Fruits of the Sport’, in Shakespeare's Comedies, p. 135.

  11. According to B. Rey-Flaud, La Farce ou la Machine à rire. Théorie d'un genre dramatique 1450-1550. Droz (Geneva, 1984), the former is ‘un bon tour pour rire’ (a good-natured trick to arouse laughter), and the latter ‘un mauvais tour’ … ‘pièce au déroulement complexe, articulée sur une tromperie fondée sur le jeu d'un mécanisme déterminant strictement les rapports entre les personnages’ (a nasty trick … whose progression is complex, involving a deception based on the action of a mechanism determining the relations between characters); p. 218, n. 50. The beffa is typically used to obtain reparation for insult or injury, as D. Boillet notes in ‘L'usage circonspect de la beffa dans le Novelino de Masuccio Salernitano’, Formes et significations de la ‘Beffa’ dans la littérature italienne de la Renaissance, 2 vols. (Paris, 1972-5) vol. 2, p. 101. See also K. M. Lea, Italian Popular Comedy. A Study in the Commedia dell'arte 1560-1620 with special reference to the English Stage, 2 vols. (New York, 1962).

  12. J. W. Draper, The ‘Twelfth Night’ of Shakespeare's Audience (Stanford and London, 1950), see the chapter on ‘Mistress Mary’, pp. 70-85.

  13. Draper, The ‘Twelfth Night’ of Shakespeare's Audience: ‘Twelfth Night is rather the comedy of the social struggles of the time. Orsino wishes to fulfill his duty as head of the house and prolong his family line by a suitable marriage; Maria wants the security and dignity of marriage to a gentleman—a difficult accomplishment in view of her lack of dowry. Feste and Sir Toby want the security of future food and lodging; Viola and Sebastian hope to reassume their doffed coronets; and Sir Andrew and Malvolio are arrant social climbers … In short, this is Shakespeare's play of social security’, pp. 249-50.

  14. Leo Salingar, Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge, 1974), p. 84: ‘The lesson of classical “art” for the comic playwright was the pleasure of contrivance. And the other leading motif Roman comedy, readopted and constantly diversified by Shakespeare and his renaissance predecessors, was deception—the irony of the trickster.’

  15. See The Black Book's Messenger by Dekker where Ned Browne designates ‘the fool that is caught, the bird’, in A. V. Judges, The Elizabethan Underworld (London, 1930, repr. 1965), p. 250.

  16. This may be another example of what L. G. Salingar calls ‘points of contact between characters’ which is a constant theme in the play; ‘The Design of Twelfth Night’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 9 (1958), 117-39.

  17. I have reproduced the title as found in the original printing. In The Gull's Hornbook, edited by E. D. Pendry, in Thomas Dekker: ‘The Wonderful Year’, ‘The Gull's Hornbook’, ‘Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish’, ‘English Villanies Discovered by Lantern and Candelight’ and Selected Writings’ (London, 1967), the title-page gives ‘The Gvls Horne-book’ (p. 67) showing that the editor's normalizing techniques have operated a grammatical choice.

  18. Salgādo, The Elizabethan Underworld, p. 111.

  19. See Draper, The ‘Twelfth Night’ of Shakespeare's Audience, the chapter ‘Sir Toby Belch’, pp. 26-7.

  20. S. T. Bindoff, Tudor England (Harmondsworth, 1950, repr. 1967), pp. 34-8.

  21. Draper in The ‘Twelfth Night’ of Shakespeare's Audience, chapter on ‘Sir Andrew Aguecheek’, comments on the ‘fellowship between Sir Toby and this foolish knight, the archetype of the contemporary dupe’: ‘Such gulls as Sir Andrew feathered the nests of many a rare bird in Elizabethan London’, p. 61.

  22. The Gull's Hornbook, p. 93.

  23. Ibid., p. 86.

  24. Ibid., p. 105.

  25. Ibid., p. 105-6.

  26. Ibid., p. 97.

  27. OED, v.

  28. Ibid., 1.

  29. A Manifest Detection of the most vile and detestable use of Dice-play, and other practices like the same; A Mirror very necessary for all young gentlemen suddenly enabled by worldly abundance to look in. Newly set forth for their behoof, by Gilbert Walker (1552), in A. V. Judges, p. 35. For comprehensive accounts of underworld literature see E. D. Pendry, Four Pamphlets, Stratford-upon-Avon Library (London, 1967), the collections of Frank W. Chandler, The Literature of Roguery, 2 vols. (Boston, 1907); and Frank Aydelotte, Elizabethan Rogues and Vagabonds (Oxford, 1913).

  30. Judges, A Manifest Detection, in The Elizabethan Underworld, p. 36.

  31. Ibid., p. 47.

  32. Greene, The Art of Cony-Catching in Judges, The Elizabethan Underworld, p. 123.

  33. Ibid., p. 124.

  34. Ibid., p. 125.

  35. Ibid., p. 125.

  36. A Manifest Detection: ‘the barnard go so far beyond him in cunning (i.e the taker-up), as doth the sun's summer brightness exceed the glimmering light of the winter stars’ (in Judges, The Elizabethan Underworld, p. 47). This is an apt description of Maria's mastery of the game. A barnacle is, of course, a species of wild goose, but it seems probable that both expressions for this virtuoso role in the game are derived from the French verb, berner, to dupe.

  37. Greene, A Notable Discovery of Cosenage: ‘High law is robbing by the highway side; sacking law is lechery; cheating law is play at false dice, cross-biting law is cozenage by whores; cony-catching law is cozenage by cards; figging law is cutting of purses and picking of pockets, etc.’ in Judges, The Elizabethan Underworld, p. 135.

  38. Greene, The Second Part of Cony-Catching, in Judges, The Elizabethan Underworld, pp. 161-2.

  39. Greene, The Black Book's Messenger, in Judges, The Elizabethan Underworld, p. 250.

  40. Dekker, Thomas, English Villanies Discovered by Lantern and Candelight, ed. by E. D. Pendry, Stratford-upon-Avon Library (London, 1967) p. 205.

  41. OED: 3. fig. b. slang: ‘one who lets himself be swindled’.

  42. Cf. Dekker, The Black Book's Messenger: ‘He that draws the fish to the bait [is] the beater’, in Judges, The Elizabethan Underworld, p. 250.

  43. See the analogy with the Carnival of Romans where social rank was replicated by the variety of birds adopted as disguises: the bourgeoisie assumes the identity of birds capable of flight, whereas the vulgar elements are earth-bound animals: Le Roy Ladurie, Le Carnaval de Romans: De la Chandeleur au mercredi des Cendres 1579-1580 (Paris, 1979), p. 240.

  44. Stephen Dickey, ‘Shakespeare's Mastiff Comedy’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 42 (1991), 225-75.

  45. See Le Roy Ladurie, Le Carnaval de Romans, p. 345.

  46. OED, ‘gull’, A. Obs.

  47. The Second Part of Cony-Catching, in Judges, The Elizabethan Underworld, pp. 167-8. This is a condensed quotation of the incident as indicated.

  48. The Gull's Hornbook, p. 90.

  49. In Figures théâtrales: spectacle et société, edited by F. Decroisette and Elie Konigson (Paris, 1970), B. Faure considers that the dynamic of farce is determined by the will for money, food and sex.

  50. B. Rey-Flaud, La Farce ou la Machine à rire: ‘on voit que le seul moment dynamique, celui qui engendre l'action, est constitué par la farce, qui fonctionne comme un verbe, porteur de l'action’ (one notes that the only dynamic moment, which starts up the action, is constituted by farce, which functions like a verb, the part of speech which signifies action), p. 231.

  51. Mario Roques, ‘Notes sur Maistre Pathelin’, Romania, 57 (1931) 548-60, sees the meaning of manger de l'oie to be de faire moquer de soi (to be an object of derision), p. 554.

  52. OED ‘gull’ n.1 b.

  53. OED ‘gull’ v.1 Obs. 1. trans.

  54. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford, 1988). Although Greenblatt states that ‘in a Caveat for Common Cursitors (and in much of the cony-catching literature of the period in England and France) printing is represented in the text itself as a force for social order and the detection of criminal fraud’, pp. 50-1.

  55. In the Arden edition of Twelfth Night, ‘allow vox’ is glossed by J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik as ‘permit me to use the appropriate voice’ (London), 1975.

  56. L. Scragg, ‘“Her Cs, her Us and her Ts”: Why's That? A New Reply’, Review of English Studies, 42 (1991), 1-16.

  57. W. Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, 1817, quoted in Twelfe Night, or What You Will, edited by Horace Howard Furness, A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare (Philadelphia and London, 1901), pp. 378-9.

Paul Dean (essay date 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8100

SOURCE: Dean, Paul. “‘Comfortable Doctrine’: Twelfth Night and the Trinity.” The Review of English Studies, 52, no. 208 (2001): 500-15.

[In the following essay, Dean analyzes Twelfth Night as the union of Renaissance Platonism and Augustinian theology, contending that Shakespeare employed the device of twins in order to explore the notion that two individuals are united as one through love, a concept that was understood by Neoplatonists to be analogous to the doctrine of the Trinity.]

One cannot read far into Twelfth Night without noticing the extent to which Shakespeare is fascinated, in this play, by triads and their possible resolution into monads. Olivia's ‘liver, brain and heart’ are to be supplied, in Orsino's imagination, with ‘one self king’ (I. i. 36-8); the Captain was ‘bred and born ❙ Not three hours' travel from this very place’ (I. ii. 20-1); Sir Toby tells Maria that Sir Andrew ‘has three thousand ducats a year’, to which she replies, ‘Ay, but he'll have but a year in all these ducats’ (I. iii. 20-1); Sir Andrew wishes he had ‘bestowed that time in the tongues that I have in fencing, dancing, and bear-baiting’ (I. iii. 88-9); Olivia will ‘not match above her degree, neither in estate, years, nor wit’ (I. iii. 102-3); Orsino has known Cesario ‘but three days’ (I. iv. 3); a drunkard is like ‘a drowned man, a fool, and a madman’ and Sir Toby is ‘in the third degree of drink’ (I. v. 125-30); Olivia possesses a ‘most radiant, exquisite, and unmatchable beauty’ yet remains a ‘good gentle one’ (I. v. 162, 171); Olivia's ‘schedules’ of her beauty proceed in three stages, ‘item, two lips … item, two grey eyes … item, one neck, one chin, and so forth’ (fourth?) (I. v. 236-7); Viola sets out the infernal triangle in which she, Olivia, and Orsino are trapped (II. ii. 33-5); Feste asks Sir Toby and Sir Andrew ‘Did you never seee the picture of “we three”?’ (II. iii. 15-16); Sir Toby proposes to sing ‘a catch that will draw three souls out of one weaver’ (II. iii. 56-7), and the catch when sung is for three voices; Sir Toby also sings ‘Three merry men be we’ (II. iii. 72); Malvolio asks the roisterers whether they have ‘no wit, manners, nor honesty’ (II. iii. 83); Maria schemes to ‘plant you two—and let the fool make a third’ in the box-tree (II. iii. 161-2, cf. II. v. 83); Orsino charges women's affections with suffering ‘surfeit, cloyment, and revolt’ (II. iv. 98); Sir Toby dallies with the idea of marrying Maria with ‘Shall I play my freedom at tray-trip?’, a dice game in which the winner was the one who threw a three (II. v. 179); Sir Andrew, impressed by Cesario's courtly vocabulary, recapitulates ‘“Odours”, “pregnant” and “vouchsafed”—I'll get 'em all three all ready’ (III. i. 88-9); Viola insists ‘I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth’ (III. i. 156); Sir Toby says of Sir Andrew's challenge, ‘If thou “thou'st” him some thrice, it shall not be amiss’ (a miss?) (III. ii. 41-2); Malvolio declares, ‘Please one, and please all’ (III. iv. 22); Sir Toby warns Cesario of Sir Andrew that ‘souls and bodies hath he divorced three’ (III. iv. 229); Feste attempts to beg a third coin from Orsino with a set of variations on triplets (V. i. 32-5); Antonio is as certain that he has been with Cesario/Sebastian for ‘three months’ as Orsino is that ‘three months this youth hath tended upon me’ (V. i. 89, 94); Sebastian says that if only Cesario were a woman he would say, ‘Thrice welcome, drowned Viola’ (V. i. 235).

There are of course other numbers in the play, and nobody would want to hang an argument on such evidence alone, but it seems indisputable that Shakespeare, like other writers of the period such as Spenser or Donne, was prepared to play teasing Neoplatonic, numerological games with ones and threes. A triad in Neoplatonism is not the same concept as the three-in-oneness of the Christian Trinity, but Shakespeare's non-dramatic poetry offers firm evidence that he was interested in the paradoxes of the latter doctrine. Commenting on Sonnet 105 (‘Let not my love be called idolatry’) in her recent study of the Sonnets, Helen Vendler notes that it

depends first of all on the reader's recognizing the speaker's inventive transmutation of Christian Trinitarian theology and of the doxology. But this substantial piece of cleverness is accompanied by others. First of all, by identifying his beloved's qualities (fair, kind, and true) as those of the Platonic Triad (the Beautiful, the Good, the True), the poet opposes to his accuser's Christian Trinity an equally powerful, but classical, cultural totem as an emblem of the divine. The early Christianizing of the Platonic Triad had somewhat muted the contrast between classical and Christian values, but Shakespeare here restores them to full opposition.1

She goes on to note the structuring of the poem in Trinitarian terms, the octave concentrating on oneness, the first three lines of the sestet on threeness, and the last three on three-in-oneness, so that the sonnet ‘is what it describes: a combination of one and three to make up three-in-one’.2 I agree with Vendler that Shakespeare is juxtaposing Neoplatonism and Christianity in this sonnet, although I am not as sure as she is that he is concerned only with the opposition between them, and I certainly do not believe that to be the case in Twelfth Night.

A further key piece of evidence from the poetry, The Phoenix and the Turtle, was written about the same time as Twelfth Night and published in 1601 in the collection Loves Martyr, edited by Robert Chester. It is, in the words of its recent editor John Roe, a poem about ‘the paradox of pure eros’3 which equally expresses itself in terms of the monad-triad relationship:

So they loved, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one:
Two distincts, division none;
Number there in love was slain.

(ll. 25-8)

The love engendered between the two birds becomes a third term in the equation: ‘Either was the other's mine’ (l. 35), a word which I would see as an extraordinarily bold use of the pronoun requiring mental inverted commas (‘Either was the other's “mine”’). J. V. Cunningham has argued that the doctrine of love put forward in this stanza is Trinitarian, a position to which Roe is sympathetic.4 The stanza which has received most recent attention runs:

Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called.

(ll. 37-40)

An exchange between Christianne Gillham, Peter Milward, and James H. Sims has sought to relate this stanza to Plato's Symposium and to Aquinas and Augustine on the Trinity,5 works which I shall also cite as important for our understanding of Twelfth Night. In passing from the anthem to the threnos, as Roe observes, ‘two-in-one becomes three-in-one’,6 as in Sonnet 105; and when he praises the poem for ‘The curious effect of producing a mood of triumph and exhilaration in treating of loss and disillusionment’7 I am irresistibly reminded of the peculiarly precarious comic mood of Twelfth Night, steeped as it is in a melancholy which could have turned to something more painful. Indeed, perhaps it shortly afterwards did so; Stephen Medcalf has drawn attention to the strain of Platonic argument, which he derives from The Phoenix and the Turtle, in Troilus and Cressida,8 while if E. A. J. Honigmann is right, as I believe he is, in his suggestion that Twelfth Night and Othello were acted by the same cast,9 the remarkable ‘infernal trigonometry: a perfect, highly complex pattern of incongruent triangles’ which A. P. Rossiter discerned in the later play10 could be seen as a kind of diabolical inversion of Trinitarianism.

Twelfth Night itself has been linked to Plato, although its Trinitarianism has scarcely been remarked. That unprecedentedly audacious Shakespearian coup de théâtre, the reunion of Viola and Sebastian, offers a moment of stasis, of contemplative wonder, in a play full of comings and goings; a moment, too, which challenges the other characters', and our own, faith in the evidence of the senses, as Orsino remarks, ‘One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons, ❙ A natural perspective, that is and is not’ (V. i. 209-10), and Antonio's question to Sebastian—‘How have you made division of yourself? ❙ An apple cleft in two is not more twin ❙ Than these two creatures’—is echoed by Sebastian himself: ‘Do I stand there?’ (V. i. 216, 220). Barbara Everett, in her fine essay on Twelfth Night, remarks that at this point ‘the language deliberately but signally takes on what can only be called metaphysical dimensions’, so that Shakespeare ‘is asking questions almost too profound and philosophical for a romantic comedy’, and she cites by way of analogy the discussion of the origins of gender in Plato's Symposium.11 At the same time, the echoic closeness of ‘twin’ to ‘twain’ was likely to raise biblical and liturgical echoes for Shakespeare and his audience: when the Pharisees question Jesus about divorce,

he answered and said vnto them, Haue ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning, made them male and female, And saide, For this cause, shall a man leaue father and mother, and cleave vnto his wife, and they which were two, shalbe one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twaine, but one flesh.

(Matthew 19: 4-6)12

In this passage Jesus alludes to Genesis 1: 26-7: ‘Furthermore God said, Let vs make man in our image according to our likenesse … Thus God created man in his image: in the image of God created he him: he created them male and female.’ Shakespeare and his audience also knew these passages from the marriage service (which probably underlies the opening of Sonnet 36, ‘Let me confess that we two must be twain, ❙ Although our undivided loves are one’), and Augustine several times quotes the words ‘Let us make man in our image’, in his treatise on the Trinity, as evidence that the doctrine was already latent in the Old Testament.13

If Shakespeare read Plato it was almost certainly in Latin; Stephen Medcalf speculates that he might have had access to Jonson's copy of Serranus's edition and translation.14 However that may be, Shakespeare had a close knowledge of the Platonic tradition as it had been transmitted by the Renaissance, and, I think, was also well acquainted with Augustinian theology, if not specifically with the treatise on the Trinity. Twelfth Night is a characteristic fusion (rather than a Vendlerian opposition) of these ideas. My argument in what follows will be that Shakespeare uses the device of the twins, two individuals with, as it were, one flesh in Cesario, to explore the mystery of human love whereby twain become one, understood Neoplatonically as an analogy of the doctrine of the Trinity.


In the Symposium Plato puts into the mouth of Aristophanes the myth that originally human beings were spherical in shape: ‘each human being was a rounded whole, with double back and flanks forming a complete circle’, with each bodily organ and feature doubled; there were three sexes, male, female, and hermaphrodite which was a compound of the other two. The male sprang from the sun, the female from the earth, and the hermaphrodite from the moon, ‘which partakes of the nature of both sun and earth’. Fearing that the power of the human race posed a threat to the gods, Zeus bisected each person in order to dissipate its energies. Love, and its physical expression in sex, are thus explained as ‘the desire and pursuit of the whole’, the longing of human beings to recover their original spherical shape (we remember Othello and Desdemona ‘making the beast with two backs’). Halves derived from hermaphrodites, Aristophanes adds, are heterosexual in orientation, halves derived from male spheres homosexual, and halves derived from female spheres lesbian.15

The relevance of this to the biologically impossible existence of identical twins of opposite sexes, Viola and Sebastian, and of the composite Cesario for whom each is at various times mistaken, seems clear. When Viola defines the incongruous and incongruent triangles which she finds so frustrating, she recognizes the dilemma of hermaphroditism in which she has unwittingly placed herself by her disguise—which, we may remember, she expected, in a strikingly Neoplatonic phrase, to ‘become ❙ The form of my intent’ (I. ii. 51-2):

How will this fadge? My master loves her dearly,
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him,
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master's love.
As I am woman, now alas the day,
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!

(II. ii. 33-9)

The ‘as’ in ‘As I am man … As I am woman …’ means both ‘in so far as’ and ‘since’. Her plight is made worse if she has, as she requested, been presented to Orsino by the Captain ‘as an eunuch’ (I. ii. 53). Shakespeare does not follow out this idea, perhaps wisely; at any rate the word suggests the frustrating denaturing which Viola must undergo in her disguise.

At the rediscovery of the Platonic corpus during the Italian Renaissance, the Symposium was frequently condemned as immoral, for instance by Antonio Panormita in his book Hermaphroditus (1425), although it found powerful defenders such as Leonardo Bruni and Cosimo de' Medici. In 1469 Cardinal Bessarion's treatise In calumniatorem Platonis rehabilitated the dialogue by placing it in what James Hankins calls ‘a tradition of metaphysical eros’,16 setting out the doctrines of Platonic love. Bessarion was buttressed by Marsilio Ficino's commentary on the Symposium, also published in 1469, which, like Bessarion, leaned on Augustine and recognized that Plato had evolved his own kind of Trinitarian thinking.17

Ficino's Convivium is undoubtedly the most important of these works,18 since it was widely known in England through its restatement by Castiglione in Il Cortegiano, translated into English in 1561 by Sir Thomas Hoby as The Book of the Courtier, a work Shakespeare knew. The Convivium is itself cast in the form of a symposium, whose participants take turns to comment on the speeches in Plato. There are numerous points of interest for a reader of Twelfth Night; for example, the remark that Platonists are supposed to think in triplets (p. 43 n. 7), or the belief of the Pythagoreans that ‘the Trinity was the measure of all things’ (p. 45)—Malvolio, we recall, was to ‘hold th'opinion of Pythagoras’ concerning transmigration before Feste would believe him sane (IV. ii. 57-9);19 or the statement that the soul dwells in the body as in the Lethe (p. 76), just as Sebastian prays, ‘Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep’ (IV. i. 60—the preceding line, quoted earlier, was ‘Or I am mad, or else this is a dream’). On a broader canvas, the speeches of the commentators frequently offer illuminating glosses on the relationships in Twelfth Night. Here, for example, is Cavalcanti commenting on Pausanias:

O wondrous contact in which he who gives himself up for another has the other, and does not cease to be himself! O inestimable gain, when two become one in such a way that each of the two, instead of being only one, becomes two, and, as if he were doubled, he who had one life, with only one death intervening, now has two lives. For a man who dies once and revives twice has acquired for a single life a double, for a single self two selves. … The soul of the love becomes a mirror in which the image of the beloved is reflected. For that reason, when the beloved recognises himself in the lover, he is forced to love him.

(pp. 56-7)

Or here is Cristoforo Landini commenting on that very speech of Aristophanes to which I referred at the outset. He allegorizes it, equating the male hemispheres with courage, the female with temperance, and the hermaphrodite, because of its impartial nature, with justice. Souls were created originally with two lights, one innate, whereby they perceived inferiors and equals, and one infused, whereby they acknowledged superiors. Division came when they turned to innate light alone:

When souls, already divided and immersed in bodies, first have come to the years of adolescence, they are aroused by the natural and innate light which they retained (as if by a certain half of themselves) to recover, through the study of truth, that infused and divine light, once half of themselves, which they lost in falling.

(p. 73)

If you are the lover, another speaker adds, you must be near the beloved in order to be near yourself, since all your striving is to ‘ransom your captive self’ (p. 129).

The trap of narcissism is also considered by Ficino. The inexperienced soul achieves in the body a beauty which is really its own shadow, so its desire is directed upon itself, but not realizing this it remains eternally unsatisfied (pp. 140-1). One thinks of Malvolio ‘practising behaviour to his own shadow’ (II. iii. 14-15), although the Echo and Narcissus myth has far wider applicability to the play.20 Medieval interpretation of Ovid had thrown up one detail which, as far as I know, is not paralleled elsewhere outside Shakespeare: Pausanias speculated that Narcissus might have had a twin sister who died, and that he drowned himself believing it was she whom he saw in the pool. It would follow from this, of course, that they were identical twins.21

Castiglione refers to the Symposium explicitly and allusively, as when he gives the following comments to Lord Julian de Medicis:

Truth it is, that Nature entendeth alwaies to bring forth matters most perfect, and therefore meaneth to bring forth the man in his kind, but not more male than female. Yea were it so that she alwaies brought forth male, then should it without peradventure bee an unperfectnesse: for like as of the bodie and of the soule there ariseth a compound more nobler than his partes, which is man: Even so of the felowship of male and female there ariseth a compound preserving mankinde, without which the partes were in decay, and therefore male and female by nature are alwaies together, neither can the one be without the other: right so he ought not to bee called the male, that hath not a female (according to the definition of both the one and the other) nor she the female that hath not a male.

And so for much as one kinde alone betokeneth an imperfection, the Divines of olde time referre both the one and the other to God: Wherefore Orpheus saide that Jupiter was both male and female: And it is read in scripture that God fashioned male and female to his likeness. And the Poets many times speaking of the Gods, meddle the kindes together.22

Lord Julian then becomes embroiled in a complicated discussion with Lord Gaspar Pallavicin about the similarity of male and female to Platonic Form and Matter respectively, until they are both rebuked by the umpire of the discussion, Lady Emilia Pia: ‘for love of God (quoth she) come once out of these your Matters and Formes and males and females, and speake so that you may bee understood’.23 The case is, however, even more complicated than Lady Emilia supposes.

Ovid's treatments of the myths of Echo and Narcissus in Book III, and of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus in Book IV, of the Metamorphoses lodged in the minds of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. As Leonard Barkan observes, the stories are thematically paired, that of ‘one being who becomes two lovers’ with that of ‘two lovers who are fused into one being’.24 Both, too, are narratives about the process of psychological and sexual maturation, showing that the discovery of the self is also the discovery of its limitations. Narcissus will live to old age, Tieresias predicts in Golding's translation, only provided that ‘him selfe he doe not know’.25 Cold and disdainful, he scorns women and men alike, one of the latter praying that he may know the agony of unrequited love, as Viola prays for Olivia (I. v. 276). The plight of Echo, ‘trapped’, in Barkan's phrase, ‘in imitation and reflection’,26 strongly anticipates that of Viola, who must ‘act’ Orsino's ‘woes’ and reduces herself to a voice in the ‘willow cabin’ speech. Narcissus, both ‘the party whom he woos, and suitor that doth woo’, states his dilemma in words which Shakespeare must have recalled when he gave Viola the ‘How will this fadge?’ speech I quoted earlier: ‘What shall I doe? Be wood or wo? whom shall I wo therefore? ❙ The thing I seek is in my selfe’.27 As for the story of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, that evokes the Symposium myth, and supplies a source for the denouement of Twelfth Night, when the lovers are fused into a single creature so that

The bodies of them twaine
Were mixt and joyned in one. To both them did remaine
One countenance.
.....They were not any lenger two; but (as it were) a toy
Of double shape: Ye could not say it was a perfect boy,
Nor perfect wench: it seemed both and none of both to beene.(28)

‘A toy ❙ Of double shape’ must be ‘A natural perspective, that is and is not’. Shakespeare would also have known Marlowe's use of the story in Hero and Leander (registered 1593), which credits Leander's lips with a beauty ‘exceeding his ❙ That leapt into the water for a kiss ❙ Of his own shadow’ (I. 73-5),29 so that ‘some swore he was a maid in mans attire’ (I. 83), just as Orsino will say of Cesario (I. iv. 30-4), while Leander's argument that Hero's refusal to propagate is a selfish waste (I. 234-48) is also urged by Viola to Olivia (I. v. 230-2). Hero is ‘Venus nun’ (I. 45), a cloistered solitary like Olivia; she is compared to Salmacis (II. 46) and Leander's flirting with her is said to be ‘as a brother with his sister toyed’ (II. 52), perhaps picking up ‘toy’ from Golding. Chapman accepted these ambiguities in his continuation of Marlowe's poem (1598); Hero deflowered is ‘even to her selfe a stranger’ (III. 203), and feels ‘As if she had two soules: one for the face, ❙ One for the hart’ (III. 271-2). She addresses Leander as ‘my selfe’ (III. 412) and the narrator summarizes, ‘Hero Leander is, Leander Hero: ❙ Such vertue love hath to make one of two’ (III. 357-8).30 Chapman's treatment is more elevated and Neoplatonic than Marlowe's, and Shakespeare would surely have found congenial the conclusion that ‘Where Loves forme is, love is, love is forme’ (V. 227).


It was at the Council of Nicea in 325 that the credal statements that Jesus was ‘begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father’ and that the Holy Ghost ‘proceedeth from the Father and the Son’ were framed. These formulas were the Church's response to the questions of the relationship between Christ's divinity and humanity, and of his relationship to those he called the Father and the Comforter. In his treatise On the Trinity, completed around the year 420, St Augustine, as Henry Chadwick engagingly puts it, ‘showed effortlessly that the concept of being both one and three is so far from being gobbledygook that simple reflection on the nature of human personality offers an immediate example’.31 Augustine defended the doctrine both in mathematical terms, with a sequence of arguments based on the ratio 1:2, and in relational terms, giving a whole series of analogies from our own experience, of which the most relevant one here is the triad amans, quod amatur, and amor: the lover, the beloved, and the love which each has for the other. I shall say a little more about each of these positions in turn.

First, the mathematical arguments. The number 3 consists, Augustine observes, of itself and also of the sum of the two preceding numbers. The number 6 is a perfect number

because it is made up of its parts, of which it has three, a sixth, a third, and a half; nor has it any other part which is a simple fraction of it. Its sixth part then is 1, its third part 2, and its half part 3. But 1, 2, and 3 added together make the same number 6.

(On the Trinity, IV. 2. 158)

I cannot help wondering about the relevance of this to Twelfth Night, which in the Christian liturgy commemorates the visit of wise men who early in tradition, although not in Scripture, numbered three, to adore the baby who was both a single child with two human parents, and a Person of the Trinity. (Furthermore, the sum of the two digits in the number 12 is itself 3—which may be seen as too neat but is no more so than much in Augustine's treatise.) The title of Shakespeare's play has often been dismissed as arbitrary; ‘a silly play, and not at all relating to the name or day’, Samuel Pepys thought.32 He could not have been more wrong. Although Leslie Hotson's argument that the play was originally staged on Twelfth Night 1601 ‘has not won general acceptance’33—the only recorded performance of it in Shakespeare's lifetime was on Candlemas, 2 February 1602—this does not mean that the Feast of the Epiphany is irrelevant to the play, as a glance at the passages appointed to be read for that feast and its season in the 1559 Prayer Book indicates.34 Augustine allegorizes the story of the Magi into a narrative of the human condition; just as they, ‘after they were warned of God in sleep that they should not go again to Herod … returned into their own country another way’,35 so we journey towards our homeland in Paradise, not by the way of death but by the way of life (IV. 3. 163). So, too, Viola and Sebastian journey to their reconciliation by an indirect and apparently circuitous path. The paradigm statement of this Christian romance is Gonzalo's in The Tempest: that each of the travellers found ‘ourselves, ❙ When no man was his own’ (V. i. 215-16).

The second great plank in Augustine's argument, the analogies with human personality, considers the nature of sexual love in markedly Platonic terms:

Now bodies of course grow by being joined together. Although it is true that whoever cleaves to his wife is one body, nevertheless it becomes a bigger body than the man's alone or the woman's alone.

(VI. 2. 211)

Yet even this does not approach the unity of the Persons of the Trinity, which Augustine states in what the translation renders as a staggeringly powerful series of monosyllables: ‘They are each in each and all in each, and each in all and all in all, and all are one’ (VI. 2. 214). In Book VIII he considers the triad referred to earlier, amans, quod amatur, amor: ‘What does spirit love in a friend but spirit? So here again there are three, lover and what is being loved, and love’ (VIII. 5. 255). This would fit the friendship of Sebastian and Antonio just as much as the more obviously sexual relationships in Twelfth Night. Meeting the objection that if I love myself there will be only two terms in the equation, Augustine asserts that ‘it is not the case that anyone who loves himself is love except when love loves itself’ (IX. 1. 272), a remark which conjures up the different narcissisms of Orsino, Olivia, and Malvolio. But if the mind knows and loves itself, there is the triad mind, love, and knowledge, ‘and so you have a certain image of the trinity, the mind itself and its knowledge, which is its offspring and its word about itself, and love as the third element, and these three are one (1 Jn 5: 8)’ (IX. 3. 282).

Attacking what he calls academic philosophy, which adopts a proto-Cartesian scepticism, insisting that we can know nothing for certain, Augustine maintains that the most fundamental knowledge we have is of our own existence. If an academic philosopher objects that our belief that we exist is caused by the fact that we are dreaming, or insane, we can retort that dreaming or insanity can be predicated only of existing beings: ‘So someone who says he knows he is alive can never be lying or be deceived’ (XV. 4. 412). These matters are reflected in Twelfth Night in both serious and light-hearted ways. Malvolio, whose love for Olivia is an illusion, really only love of self, is driven nearly mad by Feste in the prison scene (IV. ii), Viola realizes that, if Olivia has really fallen in love with Cesario, ‘she were better love a dream’ (II. ii. 27), while Sebastian, in his bewilderment following his meeting with Olivia, declares ‘Or I am mad, or else this is a dream’ (IV. i. 59), although he later becomes certain that ‘though 'tis wonder that enwraps me thus, ❙ Yet 'tis not madness’ (IV. iii. 3-4). The wonder is that Olivia did love a dream, whose name was Cesario, but that the dream had a correspondent reality; in Platonic terms Cesario is the Form of which Viola and Sebastian are the material embodiments, just as in Christian terms Viola, Sebastian, and their relationship, which is so strong that it has its own separate existence as Cesario, are the Trinity of this play of love. And if we agree with Linda Woodbridge that ‘the central mystery of Twelfth Night’ is that ‘Cesario is a being made up of both Viola and Sebastian—a hermaphroditic symbol of wholeness that calls forth love from Olivia and Orsino alike’,36 we can add that such a procedure is a characteristic Shakespearian fusion of Augustinian Trinitarian theology and the parallel Neoplatonic tradition of number symbolism which constructs a triangle of the two lovers and the third self which they become through their love.


Finally I should like to consider what light may be thrown on these issues by contemporary theological thinking about the Trinity. I shall focus on a recent stimulating book, Colin Gunton's 1992 Bampton Lectures. He regrets the fact that

The Symposium, with its systematic downgrading of bodily sexuality and of sexual distinctions—with some of which Augustine and other Christian thinkers unfortunately colluded—reveals an evasion of what I believe to be the fact that the whole person, body, mind and spirit, and not merely a part, is definitive of human being.37

Professor Gunton offers his lectures as an extended commentary on the first chapter of Genesis in opposition to those, among whom he names Augustine, whose interpretation of it was Platonic, seeing Adam and Eve as universal archetypes. Against this Gunton argues that the creation was of particulars, and that the neglect of this truth, paradoxically, lies at the heart of postmodernist relativism and subjectivity: for while ‘everything may be what it is and not another thing … it is also what it uniquely is by virtue of its relation to everything else’.38 In their uniqueness and diversity, human beings are images of the creative Trinity whose ‘persons do not simply enter into relations with one another, but are constituted by one another in their relations’.39

I see this as a profound and timely application of Augustinian thought rather than as antagonistic to it, and it certainly accords with what Shakespeare gives us. The first leader in The Times for 24 May 1997, which was the day before Trinity Sunday, well states that ‘At the heart of the doctrine of God as Trinity, is the conviction that God is a communion of persons’, a communion for which the writer, like Professor Gunton, reminds us that the ancient name is perichoresis, beautifully glossed as ‘a divine round-dance of mutually indwelling love’. All Shakespeare's comedies are like this, even if, as with Malvolio, Shylock, Jacques or Don John, there are always those who are ‘for other than for dancing measures’. One of the greatest representations of the perichoresis, the fifteenth-century icon ‘The Hospitality of Abraham’ by Andrei Rublev, is based, like much Trinitarian thinking in the Eastern tradition, on the interpretation of the visit of the three angels to Abraham in Genesis 18 as a figura of the Trinity. Augustine explains the passage in this sense (On the Trinity, II. 4. 111, II. 7. 121, III. 4. 142), so resolving the apparent contradiction that the angels are sometimes spoken of as though there were only one of them.40

I do not claim that Shakespeare knew the Rublev icon, but I am sure he knew its tradition, and I regret the refusal of editors of Twelfth Night to take that tradition seriously as an explanation of ‘the picture of “we three”’ (II. iii. 15-16). For instance, Warren and Wells simply note on that phrase, ‘A caption to a trick picture showing two fools' or asses' heads; the third was the viewer.’ However, in the Rublev icon, as in some medieval and Renaissance depictions of the Trinity or Holy Family, there is a vacant space at the table as though to be filled by the viewer, who is then a participant in as well as an interpreter of the picture. Similarly, Orsino and Olivia are both in love with images rather than substances; Viola's vocation is to be their therapist, to bring them from illusion to reality. Orsino's images of love as the amorphous and devouring sea (I. i. 10-11, II. iv. 99-100) are at odds with his claim that he is the archetypal lover, ‘unstaid and skittish in all motions else ❙ Save in the constant image of the creature ❙ That is beloved’ (II. iv. 17-19). Orsino sends Cesario to Olivia not only as his ambassador but as his substitute, who is to ‘act [his] woes’ (I. iv. 26), and his reason is not Cesario's asexuality but ‘his’ femininity: ‘all is semblative a woman's part’ (I. iv. 34), so that Olivia may listen as though to another woman. Olivia cannot love Orsino simply because she cannot (and, after all, what better reason could there be?), yet she falls in love with the image of Orsino embodied in ‘this youth's perfections’ (I. v. 286). Similarly, Cesario confesses that he has loved a woman who resembles Orsino (II. iv. 24-7), and plays a masochistic game of ‘Let's pretend’:

Say that some lady, as perhaps there is,
Hath for your love as great a pang of heart
As you have for Olivia
.....My father had a daughter loved a man
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman
I should your lordship …

(II. iv. 88-90, 107-9)

In the neutral space created by Viola's disguise, that may be spoken which must otherwise be stifled, yet only by analogy; hypotheses multiply, triangles become blocked off, emotional frustration results. Viola declares that ‘I am all the daughters of my father's house, ❙ And all the brothers too’—adding, more truly than she intends, ‘and yet I know not’ (II. v. 120-1). If she is all the daughters and all the brothers she is a hermaphrodite, yet her circular perfection is barren: what will release her lies beyond her control; she has already committed it to Time (II. ii. 40), and Time, directed by a benevolent Providence, casts her twin upon the Illyrian shore. She is never called Viola until Sebastian so calls her (V. i. 123); for us she has always been Cesario, and only Sebastian can restore to her her rightful name and the freedom to be herself. She at first assumes he is a ghost, ‘If spirits can assume both form and suit’, and has to be reassured: ‘A spirit I am indeed, ❙ But am in that dimension grossly clad ❙ Which from the womb I did participate’ (V. i. 229-31). Sebastian is no Neoplatonic Form, unlike Cesario; he is Form embodied in Matter.

In the parallel dialogue with Olivia in II. i, Viola speaks more openly, if more bafflingly. She has earlier stated that ‘I am not that I play’ (I. v. 176). Now she goes further: ‘I am not what I am’ (II. i. 139)—a line, incidentally, which she shares with Iago.41 Warren and Wells explain this by ‘I am not what I seem’, but it means what it says, and its wording must recall the self-naming of God in Exodus 3: 14, ‘And God answered Moses, I am that I am’, a verse cited by Augustine as an affirmation of God's eternal being and his defiance of further definition (On the Trinity, V. 1. 190, VII. 3. 228). Viola-as-Cesario brings no epiphany for Olivia, but rather a dangerous delusion; Viola's own true being is in suspension, awaiting its awakening, while she is forced to play Echo to everyone else's Narcissus—not only Orsino's and Olivia's, but Antonio's, who, mistaking her for Sebastian in the moment of his arrest, admits that he felt ‘sanctity of love’ and offered ‘devotion’ to Sebastian's ‘image’ (III. iv. 352-4), and exclaims:

But O, how vile an idol proves this god!
Thou hast, Sebastian, done good feature shame.
In nature there's no blemish but the mind.
None can be called deformed but the unkind.
Virtue is beauty, but the beauteous evil
Are empty trunks o'er-flourished by the devil.

(III. iv. 356-61)

These lines do not often receive much comment, but Antonio's recognition that he has been performing a kind of idolatry in his attachment to Sebastian is couched in Neoplatonic terms (cf. Viola's words to the Captain in I. ii. 44-8). Sebastian, after all, had entrusted Antonio with his true name (II. i. 13-15); Antonio is the only other person who knows that Sebastian is still alive, and his addressing Viola by her brother's name here reveals that fact to her (III. iv. 370). Antonio begs to be Sebastian's ‘servant’ and declares, though not to his face, that he ‘adore[s]’ him (II. i. 31, 42). To call Sebastian and Antonio ‘an overtly homosexual couple’, as Stephen Orgel has done42 is to commit a peculiarly naive piece of political correctness. To repeat Colin Gunton's point, personal relationships are constitutive of the persons related, so that it is only through our relationships that we come to understand ourselves. Not only theologians but philosophers such as John MacMurray and Michael Polanyi have stressed this anti-Cartesian point,43 which Olivia states when she acknowledges that ‘ourselves we do not owe’ (I. v. 300).

The movement from image to reality is a commonplace in discussion of Shakespeare, but we need, in this context especially, to give to the word ‘image’ an unusually strong meaning. The verse in Genesis 1: 26, ‘Furthermore God said, Let vs make man in our image according to our likenesse’, with its plural pronouns, had traditionally been taken, as I mentioned earlier, as evidence that the doctrine of the Trinity was latent in the Old Testament. Augustine had so taken it (On the Trinity, I. 3. 75, VII. 4. 231, XII. 2. 325, XIV. 5. 390), while cautioning that each human being is made in the image of the Trinity as such, not of any one of the Persons. The marriages which close Twelfth Night are evidence of the attainment of such a reality by the partners, summed up in the words of the Priest:

A contract of eternal bond of love,
Confirmed by mutual joinder of your hands,
Attested by the holy close of lips,
Strengthened by interchangement of your rings,
And all the ceremony of this compact
Sealed in my function, by my testimony;
Since when, my watch hath told me, toward my grave
I have travelled but two hours.

(V. i. 152-9)

The great surprise is that he does not say ‘three hours’, but that would be inappropriate; Shakespeare wants to emphasize two persons becoming one here, rather than one person reflecting three. Sebastian remarks to Olivia:

You would have been contracted to a maid,
Nor are you therein, by my life, deceived.
You are betrothed both to a maid and man.

(V. i. 255-7)

—a line of thought echoed by Orsino when he calls Viola ‘your master's mistress’ (V. i. 317, cf. Sonnet 20, 1. 2) and insists on retaining the name Cesario for her ‘while you are a man’ (V. i. 376). The notes in the current editions are less than helpful here. The lines, I take it, have to be understood as referring to the hermaphroditic wholeness of Cesario and to the completeness of the creation: ‘Thus God created the man in his image: in the image of God created he him: he created them male and female’ (Genesis 1: 27), quoted by Jesus in Matthew, as I mentioned earlier, just before he says, ‘For this cause, shall a man leaue father and mother, and cleave vnto his wife, and they which were two, shalbe one flesh’ (Matt. 19: 5)—‘as though’, the Geneva Bible wonderfully adds in the margin, ‘they were glued together’.

If we are created in the image of the Trinity, and the mutual love of the marriage partners is the highest analogy for the communion of the Persons of the Trinity, then reality is Trinitarian, human life a perichoresis. The natural perspective ‘is, and is not’, because, like God, it simply is what it is. When Sebastian says ‘Nor can there be that deity in my nature ❙ Of here and everywhere’ (V. i. 221-2) he is in a sense right, but in another sense Shakespeare, I have tried to show, wants to say emphatically that that is just what there can be.


  1. H. Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets (Cambridge, Mass., 1997), 445.

  2. Ibid. 446. Not that this Neoplatonic view of friendship was Shakespeare's alone. In the refrain of a poem first printed in 1602, for example, Sidney celebrated his friendship with Dyer and Greville in Trinitarian terms, as attesting the existence of ‘one Minde in Bodies three’: The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. W. A. Ringler Jr. (Oxford, 1962), 260-1.

  3. The Poems, ed. J. Roe (Cambridge, 1992), 47.

  4. J. V. Cunningham, ‘“Essence” and The Phoenix and Turtle’, ELH 19 (1952), 273; cf. Poems, ed. Roe, 233, n. on 1. 26.

  5. C. Gillham, ‘“Single Natures Double Name”: Some Comments on “The Phoenix and Turtle”’, Connotations, 2/1 (1992), 126-36; P. Milward, ‘“Double Nature's Single Name”: A Response to Christianne Gillham’, Connotations, 3/1 (1993), 60-3; J. H. Sims, ‘Shakespeare's “The Phoenix and the Turtle”: A Reconsideration of “Single Natures Double Name”’, Connotations, 3/1 (1993), 64-71; C. Gillham, ‘Single Natures—Double Name: A Reply to Peter Milward and James H. Sims’, Connotations, 3/2 (1993/4), 123-8.

  6. Poems, 53.

  7. Ibid. 54.

  8. S. Medcalf, ‘Shakespeare on Beauty, Truth and Transcendence’, in A. Baldwin and S. Hutton (edd.), Platonism and the English Imagination (Cambridge, 1994), 117-25.

  9. Othello, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann (London, 1997), 346-9.

  10. A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns (London, 1961), 206-8.

  11. B. Everett, ‘Or What You Will’, Essays in Criticism, 35 (1985), 31. The debt to the Symposium was also suggested by W. W. E. Slights, ‘Man and Maid in Twelfth Night’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 80 (1981), 346. Since this article was accepted for publication I have read Anthony Gash's ‘Shakespeare's Comedies of Shadow and Substance: Word and Image in Henry IV and Twelfth Night’, Word and Image, 4 (1988), 623-62, in which he discusses Neoplatonic triads in Twelfth Night and links the play with the Symposium (pp. 652-6). Anthony Gash, ‘Shakespeare, Carnival and the Sacred: The Winter's Tale and Measure for Measure’, in Ronald Knowles, ed., Shakespeare and Carnival: After Bahktin (London, 1998), pp. 177-210, has valuable incidental comments on Twelfth Night in relation to Erasmus's use of Plato's work in The Praise of Folly: see especially pp. 198-9.

  12. I quote from the 1599 Geneva Bible, repr. with an introd. by M. H. Brown (Ozark, Mo., 1990).

  13. Augustine, On the Trinity, trans. E. Hill OP as pt. I, vol. v of The Works of St Augustine: A Translation for the Twenty-First Century, published by the Augustinian Heritage Institute (New York, 1991), see Bk. I, ch. 3, p. 75; VII. 4. 231; XII. 2. 325; XIV. 5. 390. Subsequent references, citing book, chapter, and page number, are given in the text.

  14. Medcalf, ‘Shakespeare on Beauty, Truth and Transcendence’, 118. As he reminds us, Jonson was one of Shakespeare's fellow-contributors to Loves Martyr.

  15. The Symposium, trans. W. Hamilton (London, 1951), 59-62.

  16. J. Hankins, Plato in the Italian Renaissance, 2 vols., continuously paginated (Leiden, 1990), 259.

  17. Indeed, George of Trebizond had indicted Plato of Arianism: Hankins, Plato in the Italian Renaissance, 357.

  18. I quote from Sears Jayne's translation of Ficino, Commentary on Plato's ‘Symposium on Love’ (Dallas, 1985); subsequent references are given in the text.

  19. Independently pointed out in A. Fowler, ‘Twelfth Night and Epiphany’, in S. Chaudhri (ed.), Renaissance Essays for Kitty Scoular Datta (Calcutta, 1995). I owe this reference to the anonymous RES reader.

  20. See D. J. Palmer, ‘Twelfth Night and the Myth of Echo and Narcissus’, Shakespeare Survey, 32 (1979), 73-8, and J. Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford, 1993), 144-51. Plays, now lost, entitled Narcissus were, tantalizingly, presented at court on Twelfth Night 1572 and 1603: E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford, 1923), iv. 36, 87, 146.

  21. K. J. Knoespel, Narcissus and the Invention of Personal History (New York, 1985), 3; A. B. Taylor, ‘Narcissus, Olivia, and a Greek Tradition’, Notes and Queries, 262 (1997), 58-6, and, more broadly, his ‘Shakespeare Rewriting Ovid: Olivia's Interview with Viola and the Narcissus Myth’, Shakespeare Survey, 50 (1997), 81-9.

  22. The Book of the Courtier, trans. T. Hoby (London, 1928), 199.

  23. Ibid. 200.

  24. L. Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism (Yale, 1986), 273.

  25. Shakespeare's Ovid, ed. W. H. D. Rouse (London, 1904), iii. 433. The story had previously been translated by T. Peend in 1565, with a moralization interpreting it as a tale of youthful purity misled: D. Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry (Oxford, 1932), 303. Shakespeare had already drawn on these narratives in Venus and Adonis; see Poems, ed. Roe, 283, supplementary note on ll. 161-2.

  26. The Gods Made Flesh, 48.

  27. Shakespeare's Ovid, ed. Rouse, iii. 586-7.

  28. Ibid. iv. 462-4, 468-70. ‘Toy’ here must mean a perspective (not cited in OED), providing a further link with Orsino's words in Act V. Shakespeare takes this idea from Golding, not from Ovid, who compares the couple's closeness to that of a twig grafted on to a tree.

  29. Marlowe, Poems, ed. M. MacLure (London, 1968). References are given in the text.

  30. Chapman has numerological digressions in his continuation (e.g. V. 323-40). Marlowe had commented on the paradox that ‘one is no number’ (I. 255), which Shakespeare pursues in Sonnets 4-14: Sonnets and ‘A Lover's Complaint’, ed. J. Kerrigan (London, 1986), 175, headnote to Sonnet 4. Spenser's Venus is hermaphroditic in the Neoplatonic tradition: The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London, 1977), iv. x. 41, 6-9 and n.

  31. H. Chadwick, Augustine (Oxford, 1986), 91-2.

  32. Diary entry for 6 Jan. 1663, quoted in the Warren and Wells edn., p. 2.

  33. Ibid. 4. Hotson presented his case in The First Night of ‘Twelfth Night’ (London, 1954).

  34. For details see B. K. Lewalski, ‘Thematic Patterns in Twelfth Night’, Shakespeare Studies, 1 (1965), 168-81; M. B. Smith, Dualities in Shakespeare (Toronto, 1966); R. C. Hassel Jr., Renaissance Drama and the English Church Year (Lincoln, Nebr., 1979), 82-5. I have followed out some of the implications in ‘The Harrowing of Malvolio: The Theological Background of Twelfth Night, Act 4, Scene 2’, Connotations, 7/2 (1997/8), 203-14. Steve Sohmer has recently taken a different view of the evidence in Shakespeare's Mystery Play: the Opening of the Globe Theatre 1599 (Manchester, 1999), pp. 199-216. Setting Shakespeare's work in the context of the refusal of Protestant England to adopt the Gregorian calendar in place of the old Julian one, he suggests that the play's title in fact refers to 12 December (mentioned by Sir Toby at II. iii. 79), which would have been Christmas Day under the reformed calendar.

  35. The end of the Gospel passage for the Feast of the Epiphany (Matt. 2: 12) as given in the 1559 Prayer Book.

  36. L. Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Brighton, 1984), 141. My approach offers a different perspective on the role-playing to that which sees it mainly in terms of cross-dressing and gender ambiguity. The question whether a boy actor dressed as a girl had pederastic or homosexual appeal for some men in an Elizabethan audience is of course impossible to settle. In her pioneering Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London, 1975) Juliet Dusinberre argued against this supposition, and was challenged by Lisa Jardine in Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton, 1983). A recent contribution to the debate is M. Shapiro, Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages (Ann Arbor, 1994).

  37. C. E. Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity. The Bampton Lectures 1992 (Cambridge, 1993), 48.

  38. Ibid. 173.

  39. Ibid. 214.

  40. Contrast the interpretation given by the marginal gloss on Genesis 18: 3 in the Geneva Bible, which comments that Moses is ‘speaking to one of them in whom appeared to be most maiestie, for he thought they had bin men’.

  41. Othello, ed. Honigmann, I. i. 64.

  42. Quoted by Warren and Wells, p. 42 n. 2.

  43. J. MacMurray, The Form of the Personal, i: The Self as Agent (London, 1957); ii: Persons in Relation (London, 1961); M. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (London, 1958).

An earlier version of this article was presented to the Renaissance Graduate Seminar at the University of York in February 1998 at the kind invitation of Dr John Roe. I am grateful to him for his comments, and especially to my colleague Martin Cawte for many hours of discussion. Work on the article was greatly helped by the resources of the Folger Shakespeare Library and of the John K. Mullen Memorial Library at the Catholic University of America.

All references to Twelfth Night are to the edition by Roger Warren and Stanley Wells (Oxford, 1994).

Marla F. Magro and Mark Douglas (essay date 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6740

SOURCE: Magro, Marla F. and Mark Douglas. “Reflections on Sex, Shakespeare and Nostalgia in Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night.” In Retrovisions: Reinventing the Past in Film and Fiction, edited by Deborah Cartmell, I. Q. Hunter, and Imelda Whelehan, pp. 41-58. London: Pluto Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Magro and Douglas analyze the treatment of gender issues in Trevor Nunn's 1996 film adaptation of Twelfth Night, and maintain that Nunn's production suppresses the play's homosexual aspects.]

The date of 23 April 2000 was celebrated as usual as St George's Day and the anniversary of Shakespeare's birth in 1564. It was also the feast of Easter in the ecclesiastical calendar. BBC Radio 3 marked this millennial intersection of Christianity, nationality and sanctioned culture by dedicating the day's programming to Shakespeare. One week later, Carol Vorderman, British television's reigning popular intellectual, failed to identify Sir Toby Belch as the comic knight in Twelfth Night when she appeared on the May Day celebrity edition of ITV's top-rating gameshow Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Vorderman's subsequent avowal that the work of Shakespeare is ‘dull as ditchwater’ was widely quoted in the media. Now, it is neither the intention of this chapter to adjudicate between these competing evaluations of the contemporary status and social value of Shakespeare's work nor to engage in questions about the complex aesthetic codes, educational capital and cultural competencies at stake in the making of such judgements. Rather, we aim to examine Trevor Nunn's recent cinematic treatment of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1996), which makes claim to the contemporary representation of sexuality despite its period setting and framing. Our concerns here are two-fold. First, we will figure this conservative representation of Shakespeare in the context of the contemporary ascendancy of the costume drama and the nostalgic mood of 1990s television and cinema. Secondly, we seek to establish and contextualise what we argue are politically reactionary naturalisations of white heterosexuality in Nunn's film by placing it within a fin de siècle cultural milieu which insistently promulgates a sexual ideology in which white, heterosexual and, ultimately, monogamous sex is figured as the constitutive model for sexual behaviour and subjectivity.

The current vogue for costume drama genre in television and cinema was initiated by the commercial successes of Merchant-Ivory's sanitised and romanticised reinventions of the past, beginning with the adaptation of E. M. Forster's A Room with a View (1985). In fact, the latter was released in the wake of David Lean's orientalist epic A Passage to India (1984). These soft-focus texts and their proliferating progeny offer preferred strategies of historical understanding by encoding history, colonialism and the aesthetics of English class stratification within seductive codes of linear narrativity, melodrama and visual spectacle. The latter codes obviate historical contradictions, cultural ruptures and social tensions (those moments in which the explanatory power of history as linear and progressive breaks down) and in their place insert the totalising myth of heterosexual romantic love, set, usually, within an exotic, heritage or pastoral mise-en-scène. The success of these films, we suggest, lies not only in their spectacular appeal (lavish costumes, scenery and locations) but also in the fact that they give the armchair historian facile, easy-to-employ decoding strategies for making sense of the historical process. In this respect Nunn's decision to set his production of Twelfth Night in ‘West Barbary’, the wild and romantic landscape of Cornwall (Lanhydrock, Prideaux Place, St Michael's Mount), functions to idealise and abstract the historical context of the film, creating a dispersed sense of nostalgia for the romantic, lyrical countryside. In the same manner the ‘Globe-heritage’ representation of early modern London in John Madden's Shakespeare in Love (1998) engages the nostalgic myth of pre-industrial metropolitan life and theatrical community.1

The analysis of Twelfth Night in terms of its channelling of erotic desire into heteronormative narration does not in itself represent a particularly new trend in cultural criticism (Butler, Rubin, Sedgwick). What is interesting about this pre-millennial film, however, is the manner in which it seeks to establish a sexual mythology within the cultural framework of late Victorian England. We are interested in both why and how at this particular historical conjunction the Shakespearean texts and author-function are used as cultural masterpieces and paternal author(ity) for legitimating and buttressing what are clearly late twentieth-century discourses on sex. What is of particular interest here is the dramatic mobilisation of Twelfth Night, arguably Shakespeare's most provocative text in its representation of ambivalent sexual object-choice and culturally shaped discourses of desire, in creating a nostalgic myth of romantic, courtly love for both popular and middle-brow consumption. In Nunn's cinematic revisioning, moments of gender and sexual ambiguity involving misrecognition and misrepresentation are ultimately used to reaffirm established, normative heterosexuality, rather than asserting the existence and positive cultural value of diverse and multiple sexualities.

The alliance between the Shakespeare sign and narratives of romantic heterosexuality strikes us as a particularly uneasy one. Craig Dionne has pointed out how in the context of North American popular culture the Shakespeare sign is configured as something outside or ‘in excess of heterosexuality’.2 Likewise, the cultural work that Shakespeare and his textual production perform in Twelfth Night, while nostalgically presenting a cultural system purged of nonstraight sexualities, overflows its own signifying boundaries. There is a representational surplus in this film and other contemporary representations of Shakespeare and his texts that allows for the deconstruction of their ostensibly homophobic meaning. In other words, the de-queering of Shakespeare suggests that a queer Shakespeare may be lurking uneasily beneath the surface.


The proliferation of period and costume drama genres in British and American cinema and television during the 1980s and 1990s is symptomatic of an Anglo-American cultural obsession with the past, reflected too in the rise in the popularity of historical theme parks ranging from Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, to the web of country houses and gardens making up the British heritage industry. The connections here are mutually reinforcing. Imelda Whelehan has noted, for example, that ‘Lyme Hall in Cheshire, used to represent Pemberley in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is a National Trust property accustomed to around 800 visitors a week late in the season; yet, in the autumn of 1995, 5500 visitors arrived during the final two days of opening’.3 This postmodern commodification of the past signifies a cultural immersion in a nostalgia so thick and impenetrable that, as Frederic Jameson has observed, ‘we are unable today to focus on our own present, as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our current experience’.4 Jameson ascribes this mode of nostalgia to films that not only directly represent the past but also to those films like Star Wars that convey the past metonymically. That is, while Star Wars is ostensibly a narrative of futuristic intergalactic heroes and villains, its central tropes culturally enact a deep American yearning to return to the innocence of the 1950s ‘Saturday afternoon serial of the Buck Rogers type’,5 a period which for white American cinema and television audiences iconically signifies a moment of pre-lapsarian wholesomeness. Here the nostalgic motive in fact encodes in symbolic forms the political unconscious of a white supremacist culture, the unspeakable desire to return to the Eisenhower era, a time prior to mass mobilisations in the name of civil rights against racist and sexist power hierarchies.

Germane to this point is Lynn Spigel's research into women's popular memory, 1950s sitcom reruns and nostalgia shows on North American network and cable television. Spigel found that while some of the research participants acknowledged ‘these television images were more exclusive to the white middle class than representative of all women’,6 this acknowledgment by no means precluded ‘backlash discourses’ pitting ‘femininity against feminism’ and the construction of the 1950s by way of ‘nostalgic longing for the “good old days” when girls were girls and boys made money’.7 It is also worth noting here that Trevor Nunn's decision to place his production of Twelfth Night in the late Victorian era stemmed from a desire to have the film ‘set at a time when, in their silhouette, men were clearly men—no frills and lace—and when conversely women were expected to be very cosmetic, frail and delicate creatures, to be protected from the harsher realities’.8

The dialectical logic of Jameson's analysis of film and nostalgia invites possible reconfigurations or reversals of the terms of that analysis. Accordingly if films about the future can convey the past metonymically, then films set in the past can be decoded as metonymic representations of present cultural and political debates. In this context, the political unconscious of the costume drama provides a framework for understanding how the genre functions as a ‘safe’ signifying space for articulating ideas that may not be acceptably aired in contemporary cinema. In other words, the historical milieu of these productions provides an alibi for the industry that produces them; a director can always argue that she is not providing a forum for regressive politics, rather, ‘that's just the way it was back then’. Such a move brings to the fore the issue of history and its relationship to contemporary culture. The question then shifts from why period or costume dramas are so popular with contemporary audiences to how history functions as a sign in cinema and in popular memory. Following Spigel we understand popular memory as those constructions of the past ‘enmeshed in knowledge circulated by dominant social institutions’,9 particularly by television and cinema. What exactly is the costume drama made to speak that cannot be spoken in films which directly represent contemporary culture? Despite their patently conservative stance vis-à-vis cultural discourses of sexuality, do these films offer the possibility for oppositional readings? And, more to the point of this chapter, how and why are Shakespeare's name and works invoked in postmodern costume dramas? Does Shakespeare as author-function have a stable signifying meaning?10

As we noted above, the current ubiquity of costume drama in television and cinema was inaugurated by the commercial success and critical acclaim of films such as A Room With a View (1985), Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993), all from the production team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. Merchant-Ivory films demonstrated to audiences, the film industry and critics alike that the costume drama was not an obsolescent genre doomed to commercial morbidity. Quite the contrary, as Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt remark:

Up until the very recent Jane Austen fueled and Merchant-Ivory underwritten revival of period film anything considered ‘classical’ had become equated with a kind of artsy-fartsy cultural elitism that was bound not to make money and was something thus left to the independent film producer aiming at the art houses or the Sundance film festival.11

Exotic locales, lavish and ‘authentic’ period costumes and the omnipresent romantic diegesis have an appeal for both middlebrow and popular audiences trained in the conventions of the Hollywood style. History in these films invites audience identification with residual modes of gentility and the melodramatic entanglements of love: the otherness of the past is glossed over and the temporal and cultural distance signified by period costumes and historical locations are foreshortened by familiar narrative discourses, stable actors, intertextual references and the romantic spectacle of heterosexual melodrama.

An exemplary text in respect of this cinematic elision of history is Anthony Minghella's blockbuster adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (1996). In the first instance, John Seale's epic desert photography combines with the poignant romance of the plot to mystify the story's colonial setting. Secondly, the narrative of political betrayal—Ralph Fiennes's role as Nazi collaborator—is intersected by the melodramatic narrative of romantic treachery and duplicity and appears to offer a dubious exit from history. In The English Patient, then, the complexity and contradictions of history are ironed out; social relations are simplified to be displaced onto the romance of the white, heterosexual main characters. Audiences can leave the cinema (or the sofa) assured, in the slogan of the middlebrow North American Arts & Entertainment cable channel, that this was ‘time well spent’. Here they have absorbed a bit of history, been entertained and avoided the sort of ethical complacency encouraged by, say, going to see a shock genre piece like Scream 3.

The catalogue of film titles listed above suggests that the nineteenth century remains a popular historical period for the costume drama. Notably, Branagh's Hamlet, Hoffman's A Midsummer's Night Dream and Nunn's Twelfth Night all eschew a Renaissance backdrop for nineteenth- or turn-of-the-century settings.12 Citing Giddings et al., Imelda Whelehan suggests that recycling of nineteenth-century settings in the historical drama is due, in part, to their historical accessibility; the nineteenth century is, after all, relatively recent history.13 Whelehan further observes that the craving for images of the nineteenth century on big and small screens ‘are all symptomatic of the condition of the national psyche which is shedding layers of modernity and reverting to its own past tones under the stress of contemporary economic, political and social crisis’.14 Similarly, Spigel found in her research into women's popular memory and reruns of 1950s sitcoms widespread ‘nostalgia for a better past’15 represented in the worlds of Leave it to Beaver and the 1950s pastiche Happy Days.

However, what do we make of recent films dealing with either the Renaissance or the Shakespeare author-function and their critical and commercial popularity? Nunn's Twelfth Night, Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur, 1998) and Shakespeare in Love bear witness to the increasing popularity of the Renaissance and Shakespeare as tropes amenable to the commercially lucrative codes of the costume drama; Shakespeare in Love was nominated for an impressive thirteen Academy Awards and won seven, including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay, while Elizabeth was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actress. All of this at a time when pundits are bemoaning the decline of Shakespeare in the classroom and the ‘dumbing down’ of university and college English Literature curriculum,16 and when the G2 section of the Guardian featured a cover picture of the Bard overlaid by a multiple-choice question text, à la Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? ‘Question: “Who is this Very Famous Man?” Possible answers: A: William Shakespeare, B: William the Conquerer, C: William Hague, D: Who Cares?’17

Unlike the nineteenth century, neither the Renaissance nor Shakespeare has the advantage of historical proximity. Indeed, for the majority of contemporary viewers Elizabethan England must seem oddly foreign, another world. A symptomatic reading of nostalgia in film and television productions in which representations of Elizabethan England or the Bardic voice signal crises in the national psyche is one mode of understanding the putative nostalgia these texts evince. Another, complementary mode, we suggest, is to interrogate the meaning(s) these films create through their formal techniques and diegesis and ask why those meanings were rendered in the format of the costume drama. In other words, what kind of alibis do the costume drama and Shakespeare as legitimating author-function provide? What are adaptations of a text like Twelfth Night saying about contemporary sex and gender issues? Could the same meaning be created in an adaptation of the play that had a contemporary setting? And finally, what are the relationships between questions of nostalgia, authenticity and fidelity in adaptations of Shakespearean texts?


Trevor Nunn's adaptation of Twelfth Night sees itself as offering a sophisticated and even postmodern interpretation of Shakespeare's complex rendering of Renaissance gender confusion. The website for the film's video release boldly proclaims that ‘[b]efore Priscilla crossed the desert, Wong Foo met Julie Newmar, and the Birdcage was unlocked, there was Twelfth Night’.18 Through the invocation of contemporary films that treat matters such as cross-dressing, homosexuality and gender misrecognition the website suggests that the Renaissance text of Twelfth Night historically precedes them. Nunn's adaptation of Twelfth Night, the publicity proposes, is both modern and true to the integral meaning of Shakespeare's text. For Nunn Twelfth Night ‘is an examination of gender; Shakespeare is fascinated with what is attractive about the woman in man and the man in woman. “Gender-bending” we call it these days.’19 Presumably the gender and sexual issues in the primary text are retained in this film version. According to this logic Nunn's film satisfies the opposing demands of authenticity and postmodern sophistication without sacrificing either. Nunn's valorisation of authenticity is evinced even in the casting of the film. Accordingly, Telluride's corporate publicity for the film announces the superiority of British theatre-trained actors and their mannered speech over Hollywood stars who are unable to ‘speak Shakespeare's lines’: ‘the film succeeds in part due to Nunn's decision to ignore the box-office lure of Hollywood stars, and to cast all the parts with outstanding British actors who can actually speak Shakespeare's lines with proper cadence and clarity’.20 If the casting decisions signify Nunn's fidelity to the aural style of British Shakespearean performance, his alteration of dialogue, scenes and historical setting of the primary text positions him as an experimental director who is willing to take liberties with the source material.

Following from this assumption, the publicity material and Twelfth Night itself draw on contemporary understandings of gender and non-straight sexualities, suggesting that the Renaissance text understands gender and sexuality in a manner similar to the late twentieth century. The historical distance between Shakespeare's text (c. 1601) and contemporary models of gender and sexuality is telescoped to the point where difference is put under erasure. Drawing on the familiar humanist assumption that human nature is essentially the same across historical epochs and cultural milieus, both publicity material and film represent sexuality as fundamentally unvarying. This counter-factual assumption projects the same universal sexual scheme across widely divergent cultural contexts in the name of the transhistorical and transcultural Bard. Under the auspices of this false universality, three drag queens crossing the Australian outback and confronting often violent homophobia is equivalent to a pastoral romp in the fictional land of Illyria. Shakespeare is the universal signifier who does the cultural work of aestheticising what are political issues. It is precisely because of the social legitimacy of Shakespeare as a sign of high culture that adjacent universalising tropes come into play.

Contrary to the ahistorical construction of sexuality and gender posited above, the aligning of sexuality and gendered subjectivity with identity is a nineteenth-century phenomenon. In modern Western culture sex has had an increasingly privileged relationship to truth about the self. In the first volume of The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault argues that the Christian tradition of sexual confession gradually evolved into a scienta sexualis:

nearly one hundred and fifty years have gone into the making of a complex machinery for producing true discourses on sex: a deployment that spans a wide segment of history in that it connects the ancient injunction of confession to clinical listening methods. It is this deployment that enables something called ‘sexuality’ to embody the truth of sexuality and its pleasures.21

Sex, then, has since the nineteenth century been framed as an epistemological issue from which two processes emerge: ‘we demand that sex speak the truth … and we demand that it tell us our truth, or rather, the deeply buried truth of that truth about ourselves which we think we possess in our deeply buried consciousness’.22 It is significant, then, that Nunn's Twelfth Night poses problems of sex and gender as problems of truth. Here the problem of truth is metonymically played out through the truth of Viola's identity as a woman and the socially sanctioned couplings that resolve the gender confusion.23

The opening scene of Nunn's Twelfth Night is suggestive of the gender confusion touted in the website publicity material. Dressed as veiled harem girls, the identical twins Viola (Imogen Stubbs) and Sebastian (Steven Macintosh) are shown entertaining the other guests on a ship with the musical number ‘O mistress mine’. As they sing, the sound of a baritone male voice (Sebastian's) gives the lie to the illusion that both performers are female soprano or mezzosoprano singers. This auditory effect ‘is actually achieved by alternately overdubbing two female voices and one male voice’.24 However, since both performers are veiled and heavily made-up it is impossible at the visual level to ascertain which harem girl is really a man. The humour of the scene derives from a regressive striptease in which Sebastian turns to Viola and removes her veil. Viola, however, is wearing a moustache and so appears at first to be the female impersonator. To the delight of the other passengers, Sebastian tears off Viola's moustache, exposing her impersonation of a man impersonating a woman. Viola then removes Sebastian's veil, revealing another moustachioed harem girl. Just as Viola prepares to expose the ‘true’ impersonator by attempting to remove Sebastian's (real) moustache, the ship founders.

As Richard Burt has pointed out, this scene ‘raises the possibility of an infinite regress of false revelations in which any gender marker always has to be put in quotation marks as a performative signifier’.25 The stripping away of accretive layers of gender signifiers (voice, veil, moustache) illustrates Judith Butler's point that gender is a performance whose signifying gestures posit an originary or authentic sexual identity. ‘Gender is the repeated stylisation of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.’26

The drag sequence in the opening scene raises the prospect that the film will perform a critique of the fixity of sexual identity and the ‘naturalness’ of gender. However, this expectation is soon undermined by two contrary performative elements. At the same time that the film uses a technological apparatus to undercut the assumption that voice is an essentially gendered characteristic, it invokes the sovereign author-function, the anchoring voice of the patriarchal Bard-as-storyteller. Speaking in ‘pseudo-Elizabethan verse’,27 the male voiceover of the prologue begins: ‘I'll tell thee a tale. Now list to me …’ As the opening credits appear on the screen the voiceover is interwoven with the film's thematic music—the nostalgic ‘The Rain It Raineth Every Day’. The male voiceover interpolates the drag scene and subsequent shipwreck for the film audience. The authoritative voice of the omniscient narrator, Shakespeare as storyteller, guides the spectator's vision through the title sequence by steering our attention away from the gender-bending of the preceding drag sequence to the ‘real’ genders of the twins and the high drama of the shipwreck. Absurdly, though the ship is in imminent danger of sinking, Sebastian still has time to wipe off his make-up and don masculine attire—a naval officer's uniform—while Viola hurriedly removes her long black wig to reveal ‘natural’ long blond hair. The suggestion here is crucial to the logic of the narrative: the prologue must establish the authentic genders of the twins before the film proper can begin.

The male voiceover also provides a distraction from the second element of the scene that we wish to foreground—the Antonio character. In many readings of the play, Antonio is singled out as a gay character,28 the Antonio/Sebastian frustrated love story serving as a parallel to the other ‘false’ romances in the narrative based on gender misrecognition (Cesario/Olivia), obsessive desire (Orsino/Olivia), social promotion (Malvolio/Olivia) and comic courting (Andrew Aguecheek/Olivia). Excluded from the heterosexual economy and potential procreative plenitude of the play's final scene, Antonio's desire for Sebastian is frequently interpreted as having no place in the traditional comedic finale, the pairing-off of the principal characters. The text of the play, however, is vague concerning Antonio's actions, demeanour and physical positioning in this final scene, offering no stage direction. Taking into consideration the play's silence on this matter, the way in which a production deals with the Antonio character can provide an index to how that production envisages the sexual meaning and possibilities of the narrative.

The opening sequence of Nunn's film is organised by a shot/reverse-shot camera movement that links the performing twins by a long-shot to medium close-up of Antonio (Nicholas Farrell). This establishes an (homo)erotic triangulation which the film will eventually disavow. As the ship breaks upon the rocks, Viola is thrown overboard. While Antonio attempts to hold him back, Sebastian desperately throws himself into the water to save his sister. The twins are temporarily reunited under water in a moment of amniotic oneness, only to be separated by a strong current that ‘divides what naught had ever kept apart’. Though the voiceover insists that the strong currents and sinking boat are responsible for severing Viola and Sebastian, the visual logic and dramatic action of the scene position Antonio as the dividing element between the twins. Antonio tries to stop Sebastian from jumping in after Viola and, at the moment the twins are separated, he is preparing to jump into the water to save Sebastian (Viola has already been rescued by the captain). This complex visual diegesis combines with the matrimonial parlance of the voiceover—’what naught had ever kept apart’—to suggest that Antonio is a dramatic bar between the twins and symbolically disruptive of stable heterosexual relations.

The climatic pairing-off sequence in Nunn's Twelfth Night restores the ‘natural perspective’ (V.i.217)29 by which all the plot's misunderstandings and misrecognitions are resolved into authentic genders and desire is demonstrated to be essentially heterosexual. In this heteronormative context, as Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter) and Sebastian and Viola and Orsino (Toby Stephens) pair off happily, Antonio looks on with a slightly poignant but accepting smile, an attitude of resigned tolerance in the face of the inevitable romantic closure of the narrative. Along with Feste (Ben Kingsley), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant) and Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne), Antonio is shown leaving Olivia's house to clear the way for the finale in which the couples, dressed according to their appropriate genders, perform a nuptial country dance. This pairing-off scene echoes the drag scene at the beginning of the film by having Sebastian peel away Viola-Cesario's moustache to reveal the ‘real’ Viola underneath. The pairing-off scene, however, enacts a closure that is only partially achieved by the interruption of the shipwreck in the early drag scene. In fact, the entire narrative structure of the film pushes toward the ultimate closing down of radical possibilities for gender identification and sexual identity.

The audience is given privileged knowledge about Viola's transformation into the male courtier Cesario. After the shipwreck, Viola finds herself on the foreign and hostile shores of Illyria and, believing her brother to have been drowned, strategically dons masculine attire and presents herself at the all-male court of the Count Orsino. With the aid of the captain who saved her, Viola transforms herself into a dashing if slightly fey young man. Her spectacular transformation involves the casting away of her feminine garments (dress, corset, shoes, jewellery), cutting her hair, binding her breasts stuffing her trousers with a rag, and learning to walk and talk like a male courtier. Her masquerade works so well that she is accepted into Orsino's court and becomes Olivia's object of desire.

It is significant that, as Richard Burt argues, there is never any question of the articulation of lesbian desire in Nunn's Twelfth Night. Olivia's attraction to Cesario and Cesario's resultant consternation is played ‘strictly for laughs’.30 During the scene in which Olivia declares her love for Cesario, the camera lingers on Cesario's discomfiture and since we are in on the trick of her disguise we are forced to identify with Cesario's comical distress. The foreclosure on lesbian representation and desire in Nunn's Twelfth Night (like the ‘gender-bending’ twentieth-century films with which it is favourably compared) and exclusive concern with homoerotic possibilities between men is ultimately symptomatic of its sexual conservatism. That is, unlike Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Twelfth Night finally attempts to contain the very potential for same-sex desire it has explored.

The moment of negation of same-sex desire occurs in a sequence in which Cesario and Orsino are being serenaded by a guitar-playing Feste. Notably, the film comes teasingly close to allowing for same-sex desire on the part of Orsino. As Feste sings a romantic tune Cesario and Orsino lean close together and Cesario slowly tilts up his head to kiss Orsino. At the moment their lips are on the point of touching, Feste (who the film suggests is aware that Cesario is a woman; he has seen her emerge from a cave following the shipwreck and will return her cast-off necklace in the revelation scene) ends the song and Cesario and Orsino abruptly separate. Feste's reaction is one of feigned unawareness. This scene repeats the erotic triangle set-up at the beginning of the film between Sebastian, Viola and Antonio. This triangulation, however, sets the heterosexual structure of the narrative to rights. Rather than Antonio's intervening and destabilising homoerotic gaze, here the voyeuristic gaze of Feste brings Orsino and Cesario together. It is significant that, like the audience, Feste is in on the joke and hence his gaze functions to bring about the heterosexual resolution of the film. Notably, in the shot/reverse-shot movement that structures this scene, the camera's point of view is both that of Feste and an omniscient observer. As he plays the guitar, Feste is seated to the left of and below Cesario and Orsino. The camera is initially positioned over Feste's left shoulder. We see what he sees: the developing intimacy between Orsino and Cesario. However, as the scene unfolds, the camera observes Cesario and Orsino in profile, a point of view that Feste clearly cannot possess. The viewer is thereby also drawn into the erotic triangulation as voyeur as well. Knowing what Feste appears to know, that Cesario is a woman, the audience can safely indulge in some homoerotic titillation without guilt.31 Importantly, it is the male gaze (Feste's and the camera's) that orchestrates the heterosexual rapprochement of the film. In brief, not only does Nunn's Twelfth Night attempt to put homosexuality under erasure but it also legitimates the authority and potency of the male gaze.

What is particularly interesting here is that the terms of this legitimisation of the male gaze are predicated upon Feste's nonparticipation in the heterosexual discourse of romance. That is, the voyeuristic economy depends expressly upon Feste's diegetic role as narrator; Feste observes and orchestrates the erotic triangulation, functioning as narrative copula but never as the subject or object of desire. This voyeuristic quality, the structures of observation, vision and narration, are in fact the characteristics ascribed by Viola to the professional fool:

This fellow's wise enough to play the fool;
And, to do that well, craves a kind of wit:
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of the persons, and the time;
And, like the haggard, check at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practice
As full of labour as a wise man's art.

(III.i. 60-66, emphasis added)

Viola's soliloquy, of course, is also a metacommentary on the attributes of the professional playwright. At several points in Nunn's Twelfth Night there is the suggestion that Feste occupies the position of the Shakespeare author-function. The film's theme song ‘The Rain It Raineth Every Day’ is a framing vehicle whereby the author-function is articulated through Feste as performer. To reiterate, the title sequence establishes and connects an authorial voice with the musical theme while the closing shots link Feste's rendition of the theme song with the insistent heteronormativity of the dance finale. Similarly, Richard Burt has noted that the voyeuristic character of the Shakespeare persona is a recurrent trope in pornographic treatments of Shakespearean texts. Here he is present only to oversee but never to participate in the sexual economy. This nonproductive, one might even say queer sexuality, can be opposed to the Romantic and Freudian rendition of Will's erotic persona in Madden's Shakespeare in Love. In this volume, Elizabeth Klett rightly observes that Will's authorial productivity is represented in ‘stereotypically phallic imagery’:

Will himself seems painfully aware that his writer's block is intimately connected to his sexual performance; in his session with Dr Moth, he describes his problem in terms that make the connection abundantly clear: ‘It's as if my quill is broken. As if the organ of the imagination has dried up. As if the proud tower of my genius has collapsed … Nothing comes … It is like trying to pick a lock with a wet herring.’32

In light of the foregoing discussion, what are we to make of Nunn's Twelfth Night as an ironic postmodern production that simultaneously guarantees the legitimacy of heterosexual relations? The film mobilises notions of the literary text, Shakespeare author-function and history to create a myth of heterosexual romantic love that is stable across the centuries. As Simon Shepherd points out, Shakespeare's life and his texts have become ‘national cultural property’ and as such academic critics and the film industry construct both the texts and the Shakespeare biography as transcending history rather than being products of the historical process.33 So, despite disclaimers to the contrary, Twelfth Night is not about ‘gender-bending’ but rather an authorisation of heterosexual romance.

What we find of particular note in this film is the manner in which it rehearses homosexual desire and then disavows it in order to postulate the naturalness and transparency of heterosexual relations. The film's status as a potentially destabilising text in its treatment of sexuality and gender makes it an optimal instance of the rehearsal/disavowal configuration built into its narrative structure. The moments of homoeroticism signify much more than gender-bending titillation. Rather, they represent and enact homosexual desire in order to construct heterosexuality as natural and definitive, drawing attention to the very queerness they are meant to purge. By deconstructing the hetero-homo opposition we can see that not only is the transparency of heterosexuality spurious but it is heterosexuality that is the dependent concept, relying on homosexuality to provide it with its seeming authenticity. Following Harold Beaver's influential essay ‘Homosexual Signs’ we believe that

the aim must be to reverse the rhetorical opposition of what is ‘transparent’ or ‘natural’ and what is ‘derivative’ or contrived by demonstrating that the qualities predicated of ‘homosexuality’ (as a dependent term) are in fact a condition of ‘heterosexuality’; that ‘heterosexuality’, far from possessing a privileged status, must itself be treated as a dependent term.34

Given the recent furor over Section 28 (actually Section 2A of the 1986 Local Government Act), legislation installed by the Thatcher government that forbids local authorities from intentionally promoting homosexuality and New Labour's ‘on message’ policy that schools must now positively promote marriage and the family, the mobilisation of England's national author to naturalise heterosexuality and erase homosexuality from history seems particularly pernicious. Perhaps it is intellectually naïve to expect the film industry, particularly a film industry in which Hollywood studios are hegemonic, to present us with politically savvy and interesting filmic texts that appeal to the culturally disenfranchised. As Elayne Tobin has pointedly remarked, to continually assume the posture of being ‘gatekeepers of positive representation’,35 cultural critics who expose the bad faith of the film industry are being disingenuous: why, after all, should we expect Hollywood, or the film industry in general, to be sympathetic to our concerns? Tobin offers an important consideration here. However, we believe that cultural critique need not serve merely a negative function. We hope our analysis has demonstrated that Nunn's film contains ideological complexities and ambiguities, demonstrating that every representation contains within itself an oppositional or subversive reading. Though Twelfth Night may sound the trumpet of nostalgia for a heterosexual historical past that never was, this representation is always equivocal and will always attempt to cover its tracks. It is in these ghostly footprints that we can find the evidence for a counter-reading that suggests that maybe there is something queer about Shakespeare after all.


  1. For brief consideration of the uses of the Elizabethan London mise-en-scène in Shakespeare in Love, see Elizabeth Klett's chapter ‘Shakespeare in Love and the end(s) of history’ in this volume.

  2. Craig Dionne, ‘Shakespeare in popular culture: gender and high-brow culture in America’, Genre, 28 (1995), 385-411, 391.

  3. In Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan (eds), Adaptations: from text to screen, screen to text (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 14.

  4. ‘Postmodernism and consumer culture’, The Anti-Aesthetic: essays on postmodern culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, WA: Pluto Press), 1983, pp. 111-25, 117.

  5. Ibid., p. 16.

  6. Lynn Spigel, ‘From the dark ages to the golden age: women's memories and television reruns’, Screen, 36 (1995), 16-33, 26.

  7. Ibid., 28.


  9. Spigel, 25.

  10. The latter point is partly rhetorical because the variability in the meaning of Shakespeare can be anecdotally illustrated. The writers of this chapter were driving west on the M5 on Sunday, 23 April 2000 listening to the Easter bank holiday Shakespeare programming on Radio 3 and also discussing Richard Burt's Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares (1998). Burt's study is in part concerned with pornographic representations and uses of Shakespeare in such film productions as Tromeo and Juliet (1996), a text which alludes to imagined pornographic interactive CD-ROMs including As You Lick It, Et Tu Blow Job and Much Ado About Humping. Tromeo and Juliet and the middle-brow homage to Shakespeare broadcast on Radio 3 are suggestive of the heterogeneous range of connotations and values signified by the contemporary Shakespeare sign.

  11. ‘Introduction: Shakespeare the movie’, Shakespeare, the Movie: popularizing the plays on film, TV and video, eds Lynda Boose and Richard Burt (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 1-7, 2.

  12. Branagh's Hamlet is set in an opulent fin de siècle Denmark, while Hoffman's A Midsummer Night's Dream is set in late nineteenth-century Italy, complete with the newly invented bicycle as an index to the film's turn-of-the-century setting.

  13. Adaptations, p. 12

  14. Giddings et al., cited in Whelehan, p. 12

  15. Spigel, 29.

  16. As the final draft of this chapter was finished, Sarah Hall of the Guardian reported that Cambridge University was considering demoting the Bard, abolishing the examination paper on Shakespeare to make room for modern literature. Frank Kermode, one of the country's foremost literary critics, quickly responded to this threat against Shakespeare's canonical supremacy, arguing that ‘the whole of our literature has to be estimated in relation to him. This [the scrapping of Shakespeare] seems to me a foolishness. It would certainly change the whole balance of the course and would be a net loss to put it mildly.’ 3 May 2000, G2, 8.

  17. Guardian, 3 May, 2000, G2, 1.



  20. Boose and Burt, p. 16.

  21. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: an introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Allen Lane, 1978), p. 68.

  22. Ibid., p. 69.

  23. Similarly in Shakespeare in Love the truth/sex dyad is enacted through the terms of Queen Elizabeth's wager ‘can a play show the very truth and nature of love?’ The answer at both the diegetic and extra-diegetic levels is an emphatic ‘yes’. Shakespeare as universal literary genius can reproduce the nature of love because he himself has felt it, and this itself is an anachronistic projection of Romantic expressive ideology. And, more importantly perhaps, Shakespeare can demonstrate the ‘very truth and nature of love’ because he is one of us, a modern subject in search of the truth of love (for ‘love’ read ‘heterosexual love’), the truth of which will also reveal something about himself. For further discussion of Shakespeare in Love's satirical treatment of Freudian tropes, see Elizabeth Klett's chapter in this volume.

  24. Richard Burt, Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares: queer theory and American kiddie culture (New York: St Martin's Press, 1998), p. 177.

  25. Ibid., p. 177.

  26. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 33.

  27. Burt, p. 178.

  28. Simon Shepherd, ‘Shakespeare's private drawer: Shakespeare and homosexuality’, The Shakespeare Myth, ed. Graham Holderness (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), pp. 96-110, 96.

  29. The text used is The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). Further references are incorporated into the text.

  30. Burt, p. 179.

  31. Interestingly, there is a corresponding scene in Madden's Shakespeare in Love in which Will and Thomas-Viola are observed by a third person, the boatman as voyeur. For a fuller description of this scene, see Klett in this volume. To Klett's description we want to add that, like Feste, the boatman legitimates heterosexuality precisely to the extent that he functions as a voyeur. In fact, the playwright as voyeur is enacted in a comic manner by the young John Webster whose pubescent sexual desire is articulated through an economy of espionage, sadism and bloody spectacle. Here any notion of perversity is displaced onto the comic figure of the young Webster whose later cultural production will enact the dark night of the Jacobean soul as opposed to the ‘golden age’ of Elizabethan courtly heterosexuality.

  32. Klett, above, p. 34.

  33. Shepherd, p. 99.

  34. Harold Beaver, ‘Homosexual signs’, Critical Inquiry, 8 (1981), 99-119, 115.

  35. Elayne Tobin, ‘Coffee talk’, Meditations, 19 (1995), 67-75, 72.

Laurie Osborne (essay date 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9315

SOURCE: Osborne, Laurie. “Cutting up Characters: The Erotic Politics of Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night.” In Spectacular Shakespeare: Critical Theory and Popular Cinema, edited by Courtney Lehmann and Lisa S. Starks, pp. 89-109. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Osborne studies the ways in which Trevor Nunn's film adaptation of Twelfth Night adopts a heavy-handed approach to film editing and textual rearrangement in order to produce the effect of character continuity.]

After contrasting traditionalist readings of continuous, interiorized Shakespearean characters and poststructuralist analyses of their fragmentation and discontinuity, Alan Sinfield concludes that “some Shakespearean dramatis personae are written so as to suggest, not just an intermittent, gestural, and problematic subjecti[vity], but a continuous or developing interiority or consciousness; and we should seek a way of talking about this that does not slide back into character criticism or essentialist humanism.”1 Sinfield pursues this new way of talking about character, or rather “character effects,” by noting the history of responses to particular figures; he argues that a character such as Macbeth, for example, “is not a mysterious natural essence. Rather he is situated at the intersection of discourses and historical forces that are competing, we might say, to fill up his subjectivity.”2 Recent Shakespearean films speak directly both to critical concerns with discontinuity or inexplicable characterizations in Shakespearean plays and to readings of “a continuous or developing interiority or consciousness.” To put it another way, these films help us see how we also produce “coherent characters” from discontinuous fragments.

Specifically, the radical use of crosscutting and intercutting in such recent works as Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night (1996) and Al Pacino's Looking for Richard (1996) reveal how film editing produces cinematic fragments that paradoxically “fill up” the subjectivity of early modern characters. Although this essay concentrates primarily on Nunn's Twelfth Night, Looking for Richard is perhaps most blatant in using cutting and fragments to create continuity in character. The film presents only brief scenes of Richard III in its quest to explore whether Richard is relevant today. For example, the crucial and critically vexed scene of Richard's wooing of Anne is spliced into a series of cross-cut scenes in which the actors worry, first, about the scene itself and whether it can work and, second, about which actress is best suited for the part.

By juxtaposing the crosscut scenes discussing the play with act 1, scene 2, Pacino suggests that looking for Richard requires looking for Anne. Although critics have not necessarily been kind to Winona Ryder as the choice for this very difficult scene, the action itself takes on a compelling continuity in contrast to the intercut scenes that precede and follow it. Set against the talking heads of scholars discussing Anne's dilemma and the earnest round robin of actors debating the scene's purposes, this scene, like many chosen by Pacino for inclusion here, seems at first to play continuously. However, Pacino uses startling cutaway shots to himself—outdoors, out of costume, and without Anne—to maintain attention definitively on Richard. Three interruptions mark the scene. Her spitting at him cuts away to his fierce declaration, “I'll have her.”3 At her announcement of contempt, Pacino inserts a brief of image of himself, smiling, in the same visual context as the declaration—a swift reminder that he will have her. Her capitulation and rejoicing “to see you are become so penitent” (2.2.220) yields immediately to the alternate setting and Pacino's bark of laughter.

These cutaways are all the more effective as emphasis on Richard's coherence of purpose because of the startling shift from the darkened, seemingly interior and somber lushness of the “performance” to the bright daylight, exterior shots of just Pacino, unkempt with his characteristic backwards baseball cap, leaning on what looks like a contemporary metal sculpture. In a scene that is labeled “Lady Anne” and that presents such a provocative reversal in Anne's responses, Pacino uses cutaways to underscore Richard's single-minded focus and coherence. Moreover, like so many of the play's characters, Anne does not need continuity beyond this scene within the structure of Pacino's film because the quest here is for Richard's character, itself a monster of discontinuity, broken into by actors, critics, and crucial scenes. Even Kevin Spacey's Buckingham or Alec Baldwin's Clarence, who appear more than once, may command our interest but do not survive the obsessive attention to Richard himself as a character.

In Twelfth Night, Trevor Nunn also uses extensive film editing and rearrangements to elaborate character. Because of his cinematic choices, Twelfth Night has provoked radically contradictory reviews that often extend their critique to filming Shakespeare generally. Stanley Kauffmann laments the film as a disaster and concludes that “the film medium is like an x-ray that enlarges the flaws in plays,” in his assessment, the flaw of Malvolio's treatment.4 At the opposite extreme, John Podhoretz suggests that “Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night is a glorious piece of work, and one that brings to mind a heretical question: Is it perhaps the case that the cinema is the ideal medium for Shakespeare?”5 My answer to that question is that cinema is certainly the ideal medium for Shakespeare in the twentieth century, largely because film both creates and reinscribes our ideologically based expectations about character.

Other critics of Shakespearean film have made comparable claims, often using the structures of stage criticism to justify film's suitability for the plays. In Shakespeare, Cinema, and Society, John Collick effectively demonstrates that early film developed out of Victorian stage display in ways that persisted even until the BBC Shakespeare plays.6 Peter Donaldson places the great film auteurs implicitly in the crucial interpretive place that actor/directors have held since the late eighteenth century.7 Critics from Barbara Hodgdon to Douglas Lanier look to the valuable and provocative interpretations that individual films, like individual stagings, have brought to the text.8 My argument here follows these in several features: it draws upon the continuity from the play's stage traditions as they are reworked in the film, it analyzes Nunn's approach as an auteur's vision, and it concentrates on the cinematic potential for Shakespearean performance, which this film in particular realizes.

My discussion actually runs closest to Lorne Buchman's analysis of how film techniques relate to and rewrite Shakespearean dramaturgy. In particular, I share Buchman's interest in how spectators interact with the temporal display allowed (or disabled) by film; however, I do not agree that difficulties in analyzing time in Shakespearean film arise because “Shakespeare's own temporal structure is so close to that of the film medium itself.”9 In fact, what I find most intriguing about the current trend of restoring the text in films like Nunn's Twelfth Night and Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996) is the implicit affirmation that fuller texts require very aggressive film editing—less cutting of the text requires more elaborate cutting in the film. In Nunn's Twelfth Night, twentieth-century constructions of character emerge from within ideologies of romantic love and gender; moreover, these constructions thrive through film cuts rather than the textual cuts used in earlier centuries.

Since film editing most obviously influences the audience's sense of time, I find Franco Zeffirelli's description of that effect compelling: “You see, cinema creates a different chemistry, a different taste, and the attention of the audience moves so fast. Really, fantasy gallops in the audience in movies. They know all before the image is finished.”10 The speed Zeffirelli notes is everywhere in cinematic editing of late twentieth-century Shakespearean films, ranging from Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996) to Branagh's Hamlet. From a postmodern perspective, these quick cuts—or “flash cuts,” as Branagh calls them in his screenplay edition—offer the interplay of surfaces without depth.11 However, as Buchman points out, the spectator's interaction with these disruptions of expectation, like that of Iser's readers interacting with the disruptive text, produces a dynamic sense of time in film.12 And, I argue, this dynamic is produced in Twelfth Night's film editing to invoke depth of character for the twentieth-century spectator. The resultant “galloping fantasies” significantly extend and revise the stage practices that produced the “character effects” of earlier centuries. Nunn's cinematic solutions for apparent problems in the Shakespearean text on stage actually reveal the ideological imperatives of character construction in both the early modern and twentieth-century versions.

In his Twelfth Night, Nunn clearly draws upon changes made in performances since the late 1700s and often recuperates what typically was excised from the text. The film recasts in a modern idiom of crosscutting and the short take both the discontinuity of character produced by the twinning in the Renaissance text and the “character problems” that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century critics discovered within the play. As a result, far from agreeing with one of Nunn's detractors, who claims problems “can be laid at the feet of the director, who's hugely experienced in the theater but has his limitations when it comes to … the camera,”13 I see Nunn's film growing from stage conventions into quite thorough cinematic practice.

His Twelfth Night continues traditional theatrical changes, for example, opening the play with Viola's landing (1.2) rather than Orsino's speech (1.1). However, that reversal is translated through film convention: Viola's landing functions as part of the opening credits, as Nunn points out, “before the work proper, which would still begin with one of the most famous opening lines in the canon, ‘If music be the food of love, play on.’”14 Moreover, Nunn also employs a cinematic flexibility of setting and sequence to enact extreme revisions of the scenes between Orsino and Viola. Thus, his construction of these characters both draws on current cinematic models for displaying “depth” of character and on the Renaissance strategy of creating character through onstage relationships, suggested in the variable early speech headings.15 The interactions between Orsino and Viola are clearly key in the creation of both characters in the film; Nunn's several elaborations and elongations of that association actually emphasize the hierarchical connections between master and servant that underlie their mutual attraction in the Folio text. In this way, the Renaissance investment in the hierarchical nature of erotic involvement serves as the occasion for living up to twentieth-century assumptions that “true love,” as opposed to lust, develops over time.16

Nunn not only draws out Viola's involvement with Orsino, but also he brings her into the play early. Viola appears in act 1, scene 1, as the hapless musician first called upon to play “that strain again” and then forestalled because ‘“tis not so sweet now as it was before” (1.1. 4, 8). However, her presence is silent, unlike earlier stage performances, including those of Charles Calvert and Henry Irving, who combined and condensed act 1, scenes 1 and 4; none that I know have registered Viola's silent presence in Orsino's first scene.17 Moreover, Orsino connects with this musician specifically, first by walking over to stop his piano performance (“No more” [1.2.7]) and second by addressing Cesario directly in close-up before the premature ending of the scene. Whereas the early modern text exploits the conventions of the patronage system and the favoritism obvious in Orsino's confiding in Cesario after just three days, Nunn chooses to show the early moments of Cesario's service in order to mark out Orsino's awareness of his page from the start of the film and to track the development of their intimacy.

In a move that recuperates the closeness displayed in the Folio text, Nunn also restores a large proportion of the lines typically cut from act 2, scene 4, where Orsino once again sends Cesario off to woo Olivia. From the early nineteenth century on, 2.4 has undergone radical cutting, including the omission of all of Feste's role in the scene as well as the excision of Orsino's discourse on men's wavering love and its causes.18 Not only does Nunn retain Orsino's advice to Cesario about why “he” should choose a woman younger than himself, he also keeps the call for Feste to sing as well as the song itself. However, Nunn revises the scene just as radically as those early performances did: he intercuts act 2, scene 3, and act 2, scene 4, and disperses the remaining conversations between Orsino and Cesario throughout the film. The song that plays behind their initial conversation in 2.4 is the one that Feste sings to the below-stairs crowd in 2.3. And the song of the “fair cruel maid” is shifted well into act 3, the occasion for the near-kiss between Orsino and his page in the barn, which is the prelude to Orsino's perhaps overly vehement command: “once more, Cesario, / Get thee to yond same sovereign cruelty” (2.4.79-80). No other performance, not even John Dexter's inventively reordered 1968 television production, has so radically dispersed the various moments and moods of Cesario's second scene with Orsino. Nunn effectively keeps Viola and Orsino right before our eyes almost right up until the denouement.

These choices for Twelfth Night yield significant insight into characterization as reworked in cinematic productions of Shakespeare. In film, fragments paradoxically produce coherence and apparent depth of character within the sustained development of a relationship that critics since the eighteenth century have found both crucial and difficult. Samuel Johnson's early objections to Viola as an “excellent schemer” found their way into Francis Gentleman's commentary in Bell's 1774 edition of Shakespeare's plays: “Viola—It is very singular that a young lady, just escaped from a shipwreck, under apprehension for her brother, should so suddenly form a design upon the duke, whom she had never seen: But when Shakespeare wanted to push on his plot, he was not very ceremonious with probability.”19 By the mid-nineteenth century, Mrs. Elliott, whose praise for Viola is unstinting, finds Orsino problematic as the object of her affection: “It is earnestly to be hoped that Viola won as good a husband as she deserved. Orsino is no hero.”20 In the 1888 introduction to the Henry Irving Shakespeare, Arthur Symons offers the following brutal assessment of the problems posed by Orsino and Viola together:

The great defect of Twelfth Night as an acting comedy lies, no doubt, in the fact that the love interest never takes very much hold on our sympathies. Viola is a charming young woman and makes a pretty boy; but who can possibly sympathize with her in her ardent pursuit of such a lover as Orsino, a man whose elaborate sentimentality reminds one of those delicacies which cloy rather than delight the appetite, and whose plastic readiness to transfer his affections makes one suspect they were, after all, scarcely worth such trouble to win.21

The distaste that Symons displays for the crucial love between Viola and Orsino reveals the difficulties caused by nineteenth-century perception of Viola's character: idealizing her constancy throws Orsino's “weakness” into sharp relief. Orsino's apparent inconsistencies, especially in 2.4, were anathema in the nineteenth century because of the high value set on coherence and consistency in characters. The result was that Viola's relationship to Orsino became the radical flaw in the play.

Nunn takes a distinctively cinematic approach to the “problem,” which he frames specifically in terms of theater: “the biggest problem of the play in stage performance is that Orsino, who dominates the early part of the work, drops out at the end of Act Two and doesn't return again until the last scene of Act Five.”22 Nunn reworks the relationship between Orsino and Viola through the distinctive temporal strategies of film and edits their scenes together in three ways: he films continuous scenic sequences across a series of settings; he crosscuts pairs of scenes, like 2.3 and 2.4, so that continuous action becomes discontinuous by virtue of apparently simultaneous interactions; and he literally divides up both of the scenes between Viola and Orsino and spreads them throughout the film. Nunn uses these several strategies to earn the emotional impact of Viola's most famous, self-revelatory speech about her imaginary sister and the poignancy of her voice-over declaration “Whoe'er I woo myself would be his wife” (1.4.42), which he has moved to the end of their penultimate meeting in the film. As a result, the fragments and combined scenes produce a coherence in their developing relationship that a twentieth-century audience both “reads” and helps to produce as the film progresses.

The first of the displaced moments from the theatrical text emphasizes Viola's “tending” to Orsino and underscores what Nunn argues are the crucial difficulties of Cesario's disguise: “It was important to me that Viola, converting herself into her brother, Sebastian (who she believes has drowned), should have to face considerable physical and temperamental challenges.”23 For example, Cesario's appearance in act 1, scene 1, follows directly from the emotional trauma of shearing her locks and the physical pain of confining her breasts in the disguise; the difficulties of playing the piano and passing as male in this scene, which seems to include all of Orsino's court, abruptly gives way to the emotional pain of remembering her brother's death when Orsino looks straight at her in praising Olivia—”She that hath a heart of that fine frame / To pay this debt of love but to a brother” (1.1.34-35). Her brief flashback to the scene of her drowning brother vividly invokes the parallels between Viola and Olivia's situations while beginning to reveal what Viola might find so appealing about Orsino—his speech makes it seem that he knows the book of her secret soul. This first scene marks Viola's literal repositioning in the text and initiates the almost subliminal expansion of their relationship.

Nunn's strategies reveal an investment in the relationship developing over time, especially in contrast to the concentrated interactions between Orsino and Viola in the Folio. Love, according to current assumptions evident in film, television, and even romance novels, both arises from and generates continuous interaction. Nunn's Twelfth Night displays and reproduces this ideology.24 However, this film also, paradoxically, demonstrates that the impression of such “continuity” can only be achieved through the fragmentation and dispersal of scenes between the two.

When Nunn breaks Viola's encounters with Orsino into smaller, separate scenes, the time that will untangle Viola's dilemma becomes three months of service most convincingly, especially when scenes that run continuously are filmed in different locations and situations. For example, act 1, scene 4, plays continuously, but its temporal frame is visually extended. Orsino first interrupts Cesario's fencing lesson, “Who saw Cesario, ho?” (1.4.10) and then leads him out to the seaside to ask his help. Nunn's screenplay even registers an imagined length of time in this cut: “ORSINO is sitting by the sea, with the castle in the background, next to CESARIO, having told the whole story of his love for OLIVIA.”25 After Orsino teases him about his near-girlishness, inadvertently threatening both the false mustache above the lip “more smooth and rubious” (1.4.32) and her concealed breasts by grabbing the front of Cesario's jacket, Cesario punches him to get free and knocks Orsino over onto his injured arm. Nunn then cuts to Orsino, reclining as in the opening scene on his couch with his arm in a sling, as he reaches for Cesario's hand: “I know thy constellation is right apt / For this affair” (1.4.35-36). Although the scene's lines flow without interruption, the three complete scene changes and interaction of injury and forgiveness elongate the exchange. The abandonment of Orsino's sling by the middle of the film serves as a further subliminal reminder that, as Orsino puts it, “Three months this youth hath tended upon me” (5.1.97).

Beyond revisions in setting which nonetheless maintain textual continuity, Nunn also uses interwoven scenes to create “character effects” in Viola and Orsino. Although some critics have complained that “the film compulsively cross-cuts among the characters, rarely allowing a scene to build,”26 in fact that film strategy accomplishes several things. First, like extending a single scene across several settings, the crosscutting stretches out the conversation between Orsino and Cesario. Second, the strategy of intercutting the two scenes, uses specific aspects of the text, for instance, Feste's song, to illuminate the content of the scenes as well as Nunn's interpretation. All in all, Nunn fleshes out the verbal and thematic connections between sequential scenes—a cinematic underscoring of the diptych/triptych structure that Mark Rose has discussed in Shakespearean scenic construction.27 Nunn portrays as simultaneous the actions in two plots that explore the yearning singled out by some critics as the central insight of Nunn's production.

As Podhoretz's glowing review suggests, “two scenes are combined into an exquisitely edited expression of the way in which sister and duke and noblewoman pine for each other,”28 but the intermingling of act 2, scenes 1 and 2, is actually even richer, given the backdrop of Feste's song. “Oh Mistress mine” is the song that the twins originally sing on the boat before the shipwreck. Whereas their voices combined jest with the line “that can sing both high and low” during the boat scene because they do sing both high and low, in the middle of the film that line marks a cut to Olivia half-sleeping as she hears the singing from the kitchen. The scene thus foreshadows the replacement of Sebastian's low voice for Viola's high one in her affair of the heart.

Nunn also uses songs to mark significant parallels linking 2.3 and 2.4. For example, when Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby ask for a song, the scene cuts immediately to Orsino's request for a song.29 The account of this missing singer that Curio gives—“Feste the jester, my lord, a fool that the Lady Olivia's father took much delight in” (2.4.11-12)—cuts back to Feste's question to the revelers in the kitchen about what kind of song they would like. The song itself makes a vivid bridge between the two scenes, underscoring both the ambivalently voiced lover and the invocation of transitory youth in both scenes. For example, “high and low” not only functions as voice-over for Olivia but as the cue to cut back to Orsino's music room with the same tune playing in the background and his question to his page “How dost thou like this tune?” (2.4.20). Viola's “masterly” (2.4.22) response yields to Feste's verse “Every wise man's son doth know” (2.3.45). The “present laughter” (2.3.49) of the song then becomes Orsino's laughter at Cesario when perceiving that the youth's eye “hath stay'd upon some favour that it loves” (2.4.24). During their entire exchange, the music of Feste's song plays in the background, creating aural continuity between the interleaved scenes. When Orsino's comments on women as roses culminate in Cesario's lament, “alas, that they are so: / To die, even when they to perfection grow!” (2.4.40-41), the song's response in the cut back to the kitchen is that “what's to come is still unsure” (2.3.50). As Maria begins to sing with Feste, they arrive at the carpe diem motif in song, expressing her longing and the lament that “youth's a stuff will not endure” (2.3.53). That echo of Orsino's and Cesario's comments about women becomes a refrain repeated four times and a commentary on Maria's lost youth and palpable longing for Sir Toby in this production.

Nunn uses Feste's role rather than cutting it, as the nineteenth-century productions did, in order to emphasize part of what he thinks the play is about: “It's about mortality, the transience of youth, the transience of the happiness that we associate with youth.”30 Nonetheless, he has changed the song that Orsino requests at the beginning of act 2, scene 4, from “Come Way, Death” to “Oh, Mistress Mine,” in effect doubling the number of scenes that use song and lyrics to elaborate Orsino's relationship with Cesario. The impression of unrequited longing created by “Oh, Mistress Mine” is reinforced by a very brief, final, silent cutaway first to Cesario looking at Orsino and then to Orsino looking at Cesario after the song closes. Even Andrew Aguecheek, whose face on film supplies us with powerful emotional cues when, for example, he says, “I was adored once” (2.3.181). These images, especially the silent close-up, implicitly refute Mark Rose's contention that “the presentation of character in Shakespeare is perhaps less like a modern film in which the figures are in constant motion than an album of snapshot stills to be contemplated in sequence, each photo showing the subject in a different light, a different stage of development.”31 Shakespearean filmmakers incorporate these visual parallels without sacrificing the “constant motion”: the cut itself becomes the constant motion that engages the audience in comparing different views of a single character or comparing different characters entirely.

Although the entire sequence takes place continuously over the card table, the conversation is extended and builds audience involvement. The two scenes also become mutually interpretive. For example, the overt clues marking out Maria's painful longing for Sir Toby underscore the more subtle hints of Viola's apparently futile desire for Orsino—even though we have not yet heard about her love in the film. With this crosscutting, Nunn teaches his audience to expect and to “read” the brief scenes between Orsino and Viola with which he has seeded the rest of the film. Feste's song effectively situates the brief encounters between Orsino and Viola as evidence of desire functioning below everyday activities. Thus this scene prepares the audience still more thoroughly to perceive the “depth” of character in the yearning that underpins Viola's subsequent brief scenes with Orsino.

This strategy works especially well since Nunn creates a series of dislocated, composite scenes that flesh out and elaborate the closing conversations of act 2, scene 4. One pair of scenes interpolated into act 3 offers Viola the combination of “physical and temperamental challenges” I have already mentioned in the opening scene. Cesario's appearance, riding hard and jumping her horse with the Duke's court, leads directly to Orsino's calling for the “boy” to help him in the bath. Cesario's response to the physical difficulty of jumping the hedge (“cries of distress welling up in her”) yields to “the most compromising position so far.”32 The actual summons is taken from 2.4—“Come hither, boy” (2.4.15)—but the speech Orsino gives from his bath continues his early meditation about how Olivia's love for her brother augurs well for her later love, while Cesario, at first embarrassed and then bemused, bathes his back:

How will she love, when the rich golden shaft
Hath kill'd the flock of all affections else
That live in her. When liver, brain, and heart,
These sovereign thrones, are all supplied and fill'd
Her sweet perfections with one self king.


This speech, completing the one interrupted in act 1, scene 1, applies as vividly to Viola as Olivia, as Nunn once again draws out the parallels implicit in the Shakespearean text and allows Viola to hear this meditation. The accompanying action, the lingering intimacy of Cesario sponging Orsino's back, shows Viola in just the position that Orsino is imagining for Olivia—having taken him as her “one self king.”

What the Renaissance text implies in scenic parallels between act 1, scenes 1 and 2, Nunn's film interweaves explicitly for a twentieth-century audience. When Viola herself breaks off this moment, she reverts to act 2: “Sir, shall I to this lady?” (2.4.123). His response, though lacking the jewel he sends in the Folio text, follows directly: “Ay, that's the theme, / To her in haste; [Give her this jewel;] say, / My love can give no place, bide no delay” (2.4.123-25—bracketed material has been omitted). The physical challenge of riding like a man is juxtaposed here with the emotional challenge of acting the page to the man she loves and recalling the death of her brother. The two are spliced together in a scene that combines one speech from 1.1 with fragments from 2.4. Such brief sequences encourage an awareness of Viola's hopeless desire operating “beneath” her direct service to the Duke throughout the film, creating the sense of a coherent character through carefully dispersed fragments.

In a second reworked and relocated scene from 2.4, Nunn offers yet another location—the billiards room—and a useful separation of Orsino's contradictory representations of love. In this encounter, shifted still later in act 3 after Sebastian's meeting with Antonio in Illyria (normally 3.3), the film explicitly stages Orsino's advice to Cesario in the context of the two “men” playing billiards:

If ever thou shalt love, remember me;
For such as I am, all true lovers are,
He takes his shot and misses badly.
Unstaid and skittish in all motions else,
Save in the constant image of the creature
That is beloved.

(Nunn 74; 2.4.15-20)

In this context, Orsino's comment is a laughing excuse for his failed motion—he has missed his shot. Nunn thus displaces and recasts Orsino's claim of constancy well away from his account earlier in the film of wavering male affection that must choose a younger woman to “hold its bent” (2.4.37). The scene also offers Cesario the first chance to present her greater constancy; to her surprise, her motion is not skittish, and she makes her shot.

Moreover, this brief scene introduces the remainder of 2.4, which, like 1.4, emphasizes different moods by stretching the encounter across different settings. After Cesario successfully sinks his ball, Nunn cuts away to the two rushing down to the barn to solicit the song from Feste. The scene then resumes where it left off several sequences before with Orsino's request to the fool for “that old and antic song we heard last night” (2.4.3). The actual song from 2.4 that Feste sings provides the backdrop for the growing closeness of the two characters listening, as first Orsino crosses the room and places his arm behind Cesario and, next, in an over-the-shoulder shot, Nunn shows Cesario gradually leaning back as if to kiss Orsino. At Feste's final line of the song, the point of view cuts to a head-on two-shot of the pair, startled out of the intimate moment. Feste's reactions both during the song and immediately thereafter draw direct attention to the near-kiss—the measure of the intimacy the pair achieve by “act 3” of Nunn's film.

The scene continues directly from there, but only after Orsino and Cesario abruptly rush outside to stand by the sea. Shouting to be heard above the surf (much louder now than 'twas before), both Orsino and Cesario seem pushed beyond the “normal” friendly interaction of the game of billiards. In Orsino's case, the abrupt command, “Once more, Cesario” (2.4. 80) seems an almost desperate attempt to gain heterosexual equilibrium; moreover, Cesario both reveals and hides her love simultaneously in the story of her sister. Her speech serves both as a forceful defense for women “as true of heart as we” and a self-revelation that paradoxically seems to promise silence about “his” feelings for Orsino—“she never told her love” (2.4.107, 111). Through these sequences, Imogene Stubbs fully earns the poetry and poignancy of the “Patience on a monument” speech as she smiles at grief with a tear flowing down her cheek. Only after this scene, in fact the next morning when Cesario returns to Orsino still on the battlements, does Nunn produce Viola's telling comment from the end of 1.4: “Whoe'er I woo myself would be his wife” (1.4.42).33 The filmed fragments of her scenes with Orsino have effectively built up the conflict between her “interior” grief and love and her “exterior” participation in Orsino's household.

Thus Nunn elaborates the growing closeness between Orsino and his page by elongating the interactions of the playtext through filmic time. He claims to “alter the chronology so that the Viola/Orsino story could continue developing throughout, by being interleaved between Olivia scenes and Malvolio scenes, so that we never lose sight of the relationship about which we are required to be so joyously happy at the end.”34 This development actually builds the relationship in a variety of ways. Music room, seaside, riding country, bath, billiards room, battlements—all these varied settings demonstrate how thoroughly Cesario tends upon her lord. The dispersal of their concentrated time together illuminates Viola's life in Orsino's court while expanding Orsino's character and separating some of the startling, even incoherent reversals in his various speeches about love in 2.4. Most important, even continuous scenes, especially the crucial last one hundred lines of 2.4, spread across a variety of settings and an array of sounds—silence, song, surf—display the evolving relationship between Orsino and Cesario in visual and aural variations that justify the changes in tone and Orsino's sudden changes of attitude.

In fact, through film editing, Nunn resolves the inconstancy that leads Arthur Symons ultimately to dismiss Orsino as “a sentimental egoist.” Symons's distaste for Orsino's character derives from the scene he describes as “Shakespeare's judgment on him,” namely, Orsino's “shallow words on woman's incapacity for love (2.4), so contradictory with what he has said the moment before, an inconsistency so exquisitely characteristic; both said with the same lack of vital sincerity.”35 In the twentieth century such inconsistencies of character have been attributed to Shakespearean scene structure or even Renaissance ideology. Rose suggests that “a Shakespearean scene, when it is concerned with ‘character,’ will show us a figure in a given emotional posture, or assuming one, switching from joy to grief';36 more recently, Sinfield argues that “when critics believe they find a continuous consciousness … [in Shakespearean characters], they are responding to cues planted in the text for the initial audiences.”37 In planting film cues for a twentieth-century audience, Nunn separates Orsino's inconsistent assertions across space and time; he disperses Orsino's emotional postures rather than radically cutting an already comparatively small role as the nineteenth-century performances did. In Nunn's version, Orsino's inconsistency in act 2, scene 4, becomes less striking because his conflicting comments occur in different locations, even at different times. Moreover, these interactions in the film's configuration register his complex responses to Cesario as their relationship develops.

The success of these techniques suggests that such fragmentation—or intimations of fragmentation in changing settings—functions as the twentieth-century technique for developing character. Whereas the lengthy sustained intimacy of 2.4 in the Folio marks out the mutual definition of the two principals in the Renaissance theatrical context, and the eighteenth- to nineteenth-century versions simply cut Orsino's role to promote character consistency and ameliorate his suitability as Viola's love object, in twentieth-century film we can have almost all of the complicated interaction between the two characters, but only if those varied interactions extend across the surface of the action and allow us to supply their imagined depths. In both the seventeenth-century play and the twentieth-century film, the conventions registering the mutual attraction of Orsino and Viola expose ideologies of erotic union. The playtext stages multiple emotional postures that show Orsino's influence over Viola, displaying erotic alliance as hierarchical at its core; the film deploys fragments to convey long-term, continuous interaction. As a result, each in different ways and at different times produces “character effects.”

At the same time that the film editing of Orsino's and Cesario's relationship and characters exploits twentieth-century ideologies of romantic love, Nunn's treatment of the twins invokes ideologies of gender. As a result, he tests the limits of creating character complexity through cinematic fragments. Viola's abilities, developed through her tenure in Orsino's court, match her brother's, offering a version of gender equality in her mirroring of him. However, his appearances and their addition to Cesario's character and activities ultimately make Cesario an unreadably complicated figure, whose “depth” becomes obscurity when too many pieces of cinematic behavior are attributed to “him.”

In the process, Nunn uses the same strategies of intercutting and expansion in elaborating the relationship between Olivia and Sebastian as he has between Viola and Orsino. However, the later crosscutting, which mingles 3.4 and 4.1 and again 4.2 and 4.3, more significantly exposes, in the first pair of scenes, the potential to confuse the twins and, in the second pair, the madness that seems to result. Cesario's resistent reactions to Olivia's household are, at first, mirrored explicitly in her brother's responses. Cesario's final plea that Olivia love Orsino leads into Feste's question of Sebastian: “Will you make me believe that I am not sent for you?” (4.1.1). However, Sebastian's response is limited to “Go to, go to, thou art a foolish fellow”(4.1.2) before Nunn returns to Cesario listening to Olivia, who declaims, “Come again tomorrow. [Fare thee well;] / A fiend like thee might bear my soul to hell” (3.4.218-19). Cesario's attempt to depart cuts to and echoes Sebastian trying to shake Feste's persistence: “Let me be clear of thee” (4.1.2-3). After Sebastian walks off, with Feste swaggering along behind, Nunn then cuts quickly back to 3.4 and a side shot of Cesario walking, collar up and in the same coat as her brother, just before she is stopped by Toby for the duel. In addition to establishing the twins' parallel reactions to Olivia's solicitations, this scenic juxtaposition invites our confusion of the two characters as well as Feste's.

This echoing effect develops further in the unexpected interruption of Cesario's duel at the end of act 4, scene 1, when the mistaking of the twins for each other becomes part of Viola's experience as well. When Antonio is dragged off, pleading for the money Sebastian has been holding for him, Nunn cuts to Sebastian denying that he knows Feste yet a third time: “I prithee, foolish Greek, depart from me, / There's money for thee, if you tarry longer, / I shall give worse payment” (4.1.18-20). Unfortunately, as he denies that he knows Feste, he performs the same sleight of hand that Cesario did earlier when giving money to the fool. In this context the switch of hands in the coin trick not only further convinces Feste that Sebastian is Cesario but also resonates thematically with the money that Antonio has given into the other twin's hand. In effect, the twins embody the coin trick. Viola's purse is almost empty but Sebastian's is full; the hand that appears to hold the money is empty, while the identical but opposite hand actually does have the coin. The comparable abilities of the twins as entertainers from before the shipwreck emerge here as the sign that they are a single person.

This doubling underscores the emergent and contested Western ideas about gender equality that prove almost as significant to Viola's character as is her relationship with Orsino. Of all the Twelfth Night films I have seen, this one best creates the twinning of brother and sister. Viola's “training” in Orsino's military court gives her rough equality to her brother that extends beyond dress. This Viola plays cards and billiards as well or better than a man; she rides and jumps obstacles successfully, even if she gives muffled cries of distress; “Cesario” even (for once) acquits himself well in the duel. Although Antonio still interrupts to fight on “Sebastian's” behalf, Viola is at that point putting her fencing tuition into practice and fighting well against Aguecheek. This Viola is not only “as true of heart” as a man; she is also as competent as a man in several pursuits that face her during her adoption of male attire. Like the coin trick, which convinces Feste that the twins are the same person, Viola's skills as well as Sebastian's arrival make their ultimate confusion for each other unavoidable. By encouraging the audience to share the bemusement of the doubling, Nunn adds layers to Viola's character, playing upon twentieth-century gender ideologies as well as romantic ideologies in his construction of her plausibility as a character.

As Nunn very carefully places Sebastian in a world going mad even before Olivia lays claim to him, the film produces the Illyrians as the audience to the twins as a single character. The wholly unexpected assault by Aguecheek becomes the penultimate oddity in a series of strange encounters that Sebastian experiences. His question, “Are all the people mad?” (4.1.26), and his aggressive response to Aguecheek and Toby are all the more justified because his interactions with Olivia's household and his confusion at misidentification not only parallel Viola's final solo visit to Olivia (duel for no cause, strangers claiming to know her) but also immediately echo that experience. The simultaneity of the twins' experiences, “both born in an hour” (2.1.19), is restored cinematically as simultaneous experiences registered in crosscutting. At the same time, the audience becomes more aware of the confusion arising from mistaking the twins for each other as Olivia pleads, “Be ruled by me” (4.1.63). His acceptance of her and his willingness now to keep the madness or dream that has overcome him find an echo transported from 3.4 as Nunn cuts away to Viola, sitting by the sea: “Prove true, imagination, O prove true” (3.4.384). On the one hand, from the audience's privileged position, “reading” Cesario's character at the end of the film apparently presents no problem; on the other hand, the discontinuities perceived by the Illyrians, most by notably Orsino and Olivia, disrupt that character completely, in part because “Cesario” is a product of their imaginations supplying the “interior” logic of “his” character according to their own assumptions about servants and young gentlemen.

However, Nunn also significantly challenges the audience's superior knowledge in his filming of the twins. He provokes his audience's confusion by substituting Imogene Stubbs for Steven Mackintosh when Olivia spies Feste and “Cesario” outside her window just after this exchange. He also uses the same sleight of film several other times, interchanging Mackintosh for Stubbs when “she” rides away from Olivia's house after her second visit and again when Malvolio, crossgartered and convinced of her regard, peers through the window at Olivia and “Cesario” walking from audience right to left outside the window. In turn, Stubbs stands in for Mackintosh at the start of the first scene between Antonio and Sebastian on the quayside and outside the church where Feste spies “him” with Olivia. When asked about this cinematic indirection, Nunn acknowledges that “the twin trick was played on the audience several times, though that wasn't quite my intention—rather to imprint swift physical images on the audience's collective retina so that the final moment of re-union would be credible and moving.”38 In fact, Nunn himself is not sure how many times Cesario was filmed for Sebastian or vice versa. Whenever such substitutions occur, the film audience occupies the position of the Illyrians: they see the twin that they expect to see, projecting the identity of the actor-as-character into the situation that should present one or the other twin in terms of filmed and filial coherence.

The dangers attached to believing the imagination, to projecting a complete character from a partial view, become the core of the next pair of intercut scenes, foreshadowed by a brief cutaway to Malvolio (“they have laid me here in darkness. The world shall know it”).39 The crosscutting interleaving 4.2 and 4.3 hinges on the madness that Malvolio denies and Sebastian suspects. Malvolio's certainty that Olivia loves him finally rests on far less direct evidence than does Sebastian's; as a result, their responses prove different yet interrelated. The intercutting of these two scenes, while again drawing out the encounters with the Illyrians, explicitly uses references to madness as the cinematic pivot linking the gulling of Malvolio to the good luck of Sebastian. After all, Malvolio's insistence that the house is dark and that he is not mad leads immediately into Sebastian's opening speech in 4.3, in which he tries to determine who is mad:

This is the air, that is the glorious sun,
This pearl she gave me, I do feel't, and see't,
And though 'tis wonder that enwraps me thus,
Yet 'tis not madness.


Unlike Malvolio, Sebastian wavers on the subject of his own sanity; he is “ready to distrust [his] eyes” (4.3.13) as he looks at his reflection in one of Olivia's mirrors. His reflection, echo to the doubling that makes the twins so confusing throughout the last two acts of the play, leads him to “wrangle with my reason that persuades me / To any other trust, but that I am mad” (4.3.14-15). Not so Malvolio whose immediate line following the cut back to 4.2 is “I am not mad” (4.2.41). Malvolio's encounter with Feste offers another possibility besides madness for the confusion that both Sebastian and Malvolio are experiencing. After Malvolio begs Feste to “convey what I will set down to my lady” (4.2.115-16), Nunn cuts back to Sebastian in 4.3: “Or else the lady's mad” (4.3.16). But the proof of Olivia's sanity surrounds him in her well-ordered gardens and household. As Sebastian notes, if she were mad, “She could not sway her house, command her followers, / Take and give back affairs, and their dispatch, / With such a smooth, discreet, and stable bearing” (4.3.17-19). Of course, the crosscutting underscores that at least one of her followers is not being swayed or commanded with “smooth, discreet and stable bearing.”

As in the previous scene, where Sebastian accepts confusion and follows Olivia, here he again abandons his attempts to reason out his situation and promises, “I'll follow this good man, and go with you, / And having sworn truth, ever will be true” (4.3.32-33). Nunn then cuts away to Feste and Malvolio on truth and madness:

[I will help you too't.] But tell me true, are you not mad indeed, or do you but counterfeit?
Believe me I am not, I tell thee true.


This telling interchange happens before Sebastian's promise of truth in the Folio; Nunn's filming and cuts make the parallels more direct and pointed. Sebastian's primacy apparently sets his logic as the more valid one, but “truth” itself is suspect since Sebastian, like Malvolio, is caught up in mistaken identity.

The extensive elongation of the very short 4.3 by crosscutting it with one of the play's longest scenes, 4.2 (even though substantially cut here), sets the evolution of Sebastian's mistaken involvement with Olivia against the consequences of Malvolio's erroneous belief that she loves him. Not only does Sebastian's hesitancy show well against Malvolio's unyielding self-delusion, but also the extended time frame and parallels develop both Sebastian's character and his relationship with Olivia beyond the two brief encounters they have before their marriage in the Folio text. In this way, the striking fragmentations and rearrangements of the play's text in Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night not only answer the critical queries about Viola's sudden affection for Orsino, which extend from the eighteenth century, but also attempt comparable effects in making Olivia's mistake more acceptable. Nonetheless, this development is not and cannot be as thorough as the elaboration provided by the combination of 2.3 and 2.4 and by the dispersal of composite scenes between Viola and Orsino. Even though this mingling of 4.2 and 4.3 does extend Olivia's involvement with Sebastian and sets the level of confusion between the twins as high as possible, the layering of these fragments actually exposes how characters in Illyria interpret and try to make coherent their encounters with Cesario in assessing “his” character. Their mistaken reactions to the partial views offered them by Viola and Sebastian underscore how expectations set by gender and romantic ideology produce “Cesario” ultimately as an impossible character.

The twin relationship in Nunn's film calls into question the emerging fullness of “Cesario's” character by displaying Viola as complexly grounded in shifting ideologies of gender. Extending from the seventeenth-century text through the British nineteenth-century setting (“where the differences between men and women were at their greatest … the last years of the previous century took those attitudes to extremes exemplified in the dress silhouettes of the two genders”)40 to a twentieth-century audience, Nunn's film emphasizes Viola's abilities, once driven, to enact and dress the male part. The plausibility of mistaking one twin for the other derives not just from the excellent casting or even the camera tricks, but from the establishment of male and female characters whose talents, tricks, and even abilities prove closer to interchangeable than in any previous Twelfth Night film. In fact, the casting here is even more effective than those films that use a single actress for both roles and are consequently compelled to emphasize gender differences.41 Nunn's film as a whole works through the equality and blend of genders predicted in their opening performance, largely because this Twelfth Night reflects a particularly twentieth-century Western set of assumptions about gender equity—given equal opportunity. Sebastian's incursions into Cesario's Illyria expose how the Illyrians' mistaken constructions of Cesario mirror our investment in “reading” Viola's character within her extended association with Orsino.

Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night reveals our twentieth-century investment in character as a complex weave of gender identity and erotic alliance. The “depth” of Viola's character proves inextricably linked to the depth of her love, which can only be shown through her ongoing relationship with Orsino. The paradox, of course, is that both her character and their relationship are signaled by dispersed fragments of the text, echoed and emphasized by the comparable strategies applied to Sebastian's interactions with Olivia. As a result, the film exposes a peculiarly twentieth-century “filling up of subjectivities”: scenic parallels both confuse and establish gender identity, and only short, disjointed interactions can produce the required continuity. In Nunn's Twelfth Night, our “natural perspective” on the twins, like that in Shakespeare's play, proves at once fragmented and continuous—and therefore ideological rather than “natural.”


  1. Alan Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 62.

  2. Sinfield, 63.

  3. William Shakespeare, Richard III, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 1.2.229. All subsequent references to Shakespeare's plays will refer to this edition and be noted parenthetically in the text.

  4. Stanley Kauffmann, “Blanking Verse,” The New Republic, 2 December 1996, 42.

  5. John Podhoretz, “O for a Muse of Fire,” The Weekly Standard, 18 November 1996, 46.

  6. John Collick, Shakespeare, Cinema, and Society (New York: Manchester Press, 1989), 33-37.

  7. Peter Donaldson, Shakespearean Films/Shakespearean Directors (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990).

  8. See Barbara Hodgdon, The Shakespeare Trade: Performances and Appropriations (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), and Douglas Lanier, “Drowning the Book: Prospero's Books and the Textual Shakespeare,” in Shakespeare, Theory, and Performance, ed. James Bulman (London and New York: Routledge, 1996).

  9. Lorne M. Buchman, Still in Movement: Shakespeare on Screen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 107.

  10. Franco Zeffirelli, “Filming Shakespeare,” in Staging Shakespeare: Seminars on Production Problems, ed. Glenn Loney (New York: Garland Publishing, 1990), 261.

  11. Kenneth Branagh, Hamlet: Screenplay, Introduction, and Film Diary (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1996), 33.

  12. Buchman, 108-9.

  13. Joe Morgenstern, “Film: Vintage Wine in Hip Flasks.” The Wall Street Journal, 25 October 1996, A12.

  14. Trevor Nunn, William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: A Screenplay (London: Methuen, 1996), xii. Unfortunately, Nunn's screenplay text does not include page numbers for his valuable introduction; I supply them as they would appear.

  15. In “‘The very names of the Persons’: Editing and the Invention of Dramatick Character” in Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, ed. David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), Randall McLeod examines the variations in stage directions in All's Well in order to argue that characters on stage seem to be reconfigured—and renamed—according to their relationships to other characters on stage. Such variable naming does not appear in the 1623 Folio Twelfth Night, except insofar as Orsino wavers between being called “Count” and “Duke.” Some textual critics have taken this variation as a sign of textual revision in the play, but the naming has implications for characters as well since the counts in Shakespeare's plays have less authority and more involvement with love than do the dukes.

  16. This distinction between “true love” and lust is a common feature in popular romance fiction, as analyzed by Janice Radway in Reading the Romance: Women Patriarchy and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

  17. See Laurie Osborne, The Trick of Singularity: Twelfth Night and the Performance Editions (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996), 47-77.

  18. Osborne, 92-96.

  19. Francis Gentleman, Twelfth Night in Bell's Edition of Shakespeare's Plays, vol. 5 (London: Bell, 1774), 299.

  20. Mrs. M. L. Elliott, Shakespeare's Garden of Girls (London: Remington & Company, 1885), 215.

  21. Arthur Symons, introduction to The Henry Irving Shakespeare, ed. Henry Irving and Frank Marshall, vol. 4 (London: Blackie & Son, 1888), 355.

  22. Nunn, xii.

  23. Trevor Nunn, as quoted in Twelfth Night: About the Film, n.d., 16 July 2000.

  24. For a discussion of how underanalyzed are the effects of romantic ideologies as they affect the reception of Shakespeare's plays, see Linda Charnes, “‘What's Love Got to Do with It?’ Reading the Liberal Humanist Romance in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,Textual Practice 6, no. 1 (1992): 1-16.

  25. Nunn, Screenplay, 16.

  26. Stephen Holden, “There's Something Verboten in Illyria,” New York Times 25 October 1996, B1.

  27. Mark Rose, in Shakespearean Stage Design (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), draws attention to the roots of Shakespearean scenic structure in the visual arts, especially in the juxtaposition of scenes that “reflect upon” each other. Rose only addresses Twelfth Night specifically in his comments on the structural effects of the opening scenes; in Shakespeare's Art of Orchestration (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), Jean Howard analyzes more fully the dynamic development from scene to scene between stasis and motioning the comedy.

  28. Podhoretz, 47.

  29. Nunn, 42.

  30. Nunn, as quoted in Peter Marks, “So Young, So Fragile, So Vexed about Sex,” New York Times, 20 October 1996, 13.

  31. Rose, 9.

  32. Nunn, Screenplay, 54.

  33. Nunn allows Viola's glances to give this information almost as early as the first scene. Certainly her interest in him is clear as early as the seaside scene when he first sends her to Olivia; however, it is an interest that we as the audience must supply out of our interpretation of the cinematic gaze she offers of him rather than the revelation of a spoken declaration.

  34. Nunn, Screenplay, xii.

  35. Symons, 257.

  36. Rose, 9.

  37. Sinfield, 63.

  38. Trevor Nunn, Letter to Author, 8 May 1997. I wrote to inquire about the doubling I had noticed only to discover that the substitutions also appeared in places I had not recognized, despite several viewings.

  39. Nunn, Screenplay, 101.

  40. Nunn, Screenplay, 8-9.

  41. Osborne, 124-36.

Works Cited

Branagh, Kenneth. Hamlet: Screenplay, Introduction, and Film Diary. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1996.

Buchman, Lorne M. Still in Movement: Shakespeare on Screen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Charnes, Linda. “‘What's Love Got to Do with It?’ Reading the Liberal Humanist Romance in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.Textual Practice 6, no. 1 (1992): 1-16.

Collick, John. Shakespeare, Cinema, and Society. New York: Manchester Press, 1989.

Davies, Anthony. Filming Shakespeare Plays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Donaldson, Peter. Shakespearean Films/Shakespearean Directors. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990.

Elliott, Mrs. M. L. Shakespeare's Garden of Girls. London: Remington & Company, 1885.

Gentleman, Francis. Twelfth Night. In Bell's Edition of Shakespeare's Plays. Vol. 5. London: Bell, 1774.

Hodgdon, Barbara. The Shakespeare Trade: Performances and Appropriations. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Holden, Stephen. “There's Something Verboten in Illyria.” New York Times, 25 October 1996, B1, B16.

Howard, Jean. Shakespeare's Art of Orchestration. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Kauffmann, Stanley. “Blanking Verse.” The New Republic, 2 December 1996, 40-41.

Lanier, Douglas M. “Drowning the Book: Prospero's Books and the Textual Shakespeare.” In Shakespeare, Theory, and Performance. Edited by James Bulman. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Marks, Peter. “So Young, So Fragile, So Vexed about Sex.” New York Times, 20 October 1996, 13.

McLeod, Randall. “‘The very names of the Persons’: Editing and the Invention of Dramatick Character.” In Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama. Edited by David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass. London and New York: Routledge, 1991.

Morgenstern, Joe. “Film: Vintage Wine in Hip Flasks.” The Wall Street Journal, 25 October 1996, A12.

Nunn, Trevor. Letter to Author. 8 May 1997.

———. As quoted in Twelfth Night: About the Film, n.d., 16 July 2000.

———. William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: A Screenplay. London and New York: Methuen, 1996.

Osborne, Laurie. The Trick of Singularity: Twelfth Night and the Performance Editions. Iowa Studies in Theatre and Culture. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996.

Podhoretz, John. “O for a Muse of Fire.” The Weekly Standard, 18 November 1996, 46-47.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women Patriarchy and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Rose, Mark. Shakespearean Design. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Shakespeare, William. Richard III. In Riverside Shakespeare. Edited by G. Blakemore Evans et al. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

———. Twelfth Night, Or What You Will. In Riverside Shakespeare. Edited by G. Blakemore Evans et al. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Sinfield, Alan. Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Symons, Arthur. “Introduction to Twelfth Night.” In The Henry Irving Shakespeare. Vol. 4. Edited by Henry Irving and Frank Marshall. London: Blackie & Son, 1888.

Zeffirelli, Franco. “Filming Shakespeare.” In Staging Shakespeare: Seminars on Production Problems. Edited by Glenn Loney. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.

Films Cited

Hamlet. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. 3 hr. 58 min. Castle Rock Entertainment, 1996. Videocassette.

Looking for Richard. Directed by Al Pacino. 1 hr. 52 min. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 1996. Videocassette.

Twelfth Night. Directed by Trevor Nunn. 2 hr. 13 min. Fine Line Films, 1996. Videocassette.

William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. 2 hr. Twentieth Century Fox/Bazmark Films, 1996. Videocassette.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471


Berlin, Normand. “Traffic of Our Stage: Shakespeare in Stratford.” The Massachusetts Review 40, no. 1 (spring 1999): 137-53.

Reviews the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Twelfth Night at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The critic finds the production, directed by Adrian Noble, to be unmoving and palatable at best.

Brown, John Russell. “Twelfth Night.” In Shakespeare's Dramatic Style, pp. 132-59. London: Heinemann, 1970.

Examines the dramatic style Shakespeare used in Twelfth Night, demonstrating the ways in which Shakespeare employed simple lyricism as well as artistic prose dialogue.

Forbes, Lydia. “What You Will?” Shakespeare Quarterly 13, no. 4 (autumn 1962): 475-85.

Explores the ways in which productions of Twelfth Night can fully explore the play's potential, and asserts that the entire text, complete and in the order in which Shakespeare composed it, must be utilized by a production's director.

Hotson, Leslie. “Punning in Feste's Final Song.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Twelfth Night: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Walter N. King, pp. 105-08. 1955. Reprint. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Studies Feste's song, delivered at the end of Twelfth Night, and comments on its obscene implications.

Klein, Alvin. “Tangled Sex and Identity in Twelfth Night.New York Times (23 July 2000): NJ.13.

Reviews the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival's production of Twelfth Night, directed by Joseph Discher. In Klein's appraisal, the production failed at both comedic and romantic interpretations of the play.

Lampert-Gréaux, Ellen, David Johnson, and David Barbour. “Delirious Illyria.” Twentieth Century Interpretations 32, no. 9 (October 1998): 64-7.

Reviews in detail the stage design of the production of Twelfth Night directed by Nicholas Hytner and designed by Bob Crowley.

Musgrove, S. “Feste's Dishonesty: An Interpretation of Twelfth Night I.v.1-30.” Shakespeare Quarterly 21, no. 2 (spring 1970): 194-96.

Analyzes a passage of Twelfth Night (I.v.1-30) between Maria and Feste and offers an interpretation of the text that reveals Feste's nature and the dangerous potential of his wit.

Smith, Peter J. “M.O.A.I.: ‘What Should That Alphabetical Position Portent?’ An Answer to the Metaphoric Malvolio.” Renaissance Quarterly 51, no. 4 (winter 1998): 1199-224.

Attempts to answer the riddle concerning the initials “M.O.A.I.” presented in Act II, scene v, of Twelfth Night. Smith surveys solutions suggested by other critics and employs Renaissance semantics in order to propose his own reading of the scene.

Williams, Porter Jr. “Mistakes in Twelfth Night and Their Resolution: A Study in Some Relationships of Plot and Theme.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Twelfth Night: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Walter N. King, pp. 31-44. 1955. Reprint. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Examines the mistakes made by the protagonists of Twelfth Night, maintaining that the errors these characters make are not only part of the overt mechanisms of the plot, but also serve to reveal aspects of the characters' psychological motivations as well as the play's underlying themes of deception and love.


Twelfth Night Literary Criticism (Vol. 62)


Twelfth Night Literary Criticism (Vol. 85)