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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Two Thoughts on Twelfth Night

Saturday, July 02, 2011

I went to see a cracking production of Twelfth Night at the Ludlow Festival last night. Two very brief thoughts occur to me now (I was too busy laughing last night at a superbly fast-paced, comic production).

Firstly, is Sir Toby Belch not a kind of less critical iteration of Falstaff from Henry IV? They bear many similarities - both are larger than life (both physically and wittily), both are archetypes of the lazy squire, both are attached cloyingly and inappropriately to a court (Olivia's) or royalty (Henry).

The difference comes in the judgement made of them on stage. In Henry IV, Part 2, Hal - now King Henry V - repudiates his former comrade in drink, his "old lad of the castle":
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn'd away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
By contrast, in Twelfth Night, Belch's horrid manipulation of Malvalio, which leads to Malvolio's outcasting as an apparent lunatic, goes unpunished. Whilst the comedy of marriage and disguise is neatly concluded - Viola revealed as a woman so she can marry Orsino, Sebastian able to marry Olivia - the comedy of bawdy humour that takes place at Malvolio's expense does not get resolved.

Right at the end the clown continues to mock Malvolio - mimicking his famous lines about "greatness" even as he confesses to playing his part in his downfall.
Clown. Why, 'some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrown upon them.' I was one, sir, in this interlude; one Sir Topas, sir; but that's all one. 'By the Lord, fool, I am not mad.' But do you remember? 'Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascal? an you smile not, he's gagged:' and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.
What is this whirligig of time that will bring in his revenge, morally chastising those, such as Belch, who have usurped and satirised the social order? In Henry IV we find out; later history tells us that Falstaff could not participate in Henry V's heroic and honest court to come, and so the play must make this judgement too. But in Twelfth Night Malvolio simply exits the stage muttering "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you"; the play ends on a song. As Twelfth Night was the Elizabethan festival involving the antics of a Lord of Misrule, it may seem appropriate not to have Belch punished on stage, just as there is no option but to judge Falstaff in the history play. Nevertheless, one still feels that in Twelfth Night, which is a set in the hyperbolically fictional world of Illyria which allows for much metatheatrical irony, it is the audience who are encouraged to recognise and reflect upon the limits of the comic genre for offering judgement on the world.

The second thing which occurs to me is just how deliciously lewd and bawdy Twelfth Night is. Next time you read a Daily Mail columnist muttering about the decline of moral values on television, or swearing, or sexuality, consider these lines from Twelfth Night, when Malvolio picks up a love letter he believes to be from Olivia:
By my life, 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.
It may look innocuous on the page, but when delivered by a good comic actor (and Malvolio last night was played by John Challis of Only Fools and Horses), the lines' audacious bodily humour can still draw a gasp from a middle-class audience in the twenty first century.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:30 am

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