by Stuart Sherman
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night takes its title from the last day of the Christmas festival, the Feast of the Epiphany, which we know better as the day of twelve drummers drumming. To Shakespeare and his society, it was a day for revelry and gift-giving, and a day for theater. It is possible that Twelfth Night was written to be performed on the holiday. But the play is, fundamentally, less about a specific time of year than a state of mind, indicated by its subtitle, What You Will. One by one, its characters put their desires ahead of social rules until they are snarled in such a tangle that only fate or nature can sort it out.
Shakespeare builds his plot and his atmosphere gradually, as he introduces a series of characters who at first seem unrelated: Orsino, the fantastical love-sick duke, who may be more in love with his own love-sickness than with any lady; Viola, the shipwrecked maiden who disguises herself as Orsino’s page "Cesario"; and the outrageous Sir Toby Belch, whose behavior is summed up by his name. Finally, there is the puritanical Malvolio, the socially ambitious steward who dreams of being a great statesman while trying to put a stop to all revelry.
At the center of the myriad characters and multiple plots of the play is the noblewoman Olivia, who has retired from the world in mourning for her father and brother. The long, complex scene where she is introduced is a masterpiece. At its opening she is, in the jesting words of her fool Feste, a “madonna,” and a “mouse of virtue.” When Viola, disguised as Cesario, arrives as the ambassador of Orsino’s love-suit, Olivia shows herself to be a satirist in her own right, cutting through the hypocrisy of courtship and of the cult of female beauty. But in the youthful Cesario she sees something else—a passion based on genuine emotion and free of the socially confining weight of conventional marriage. Step by step, Olivia casts off her self-imposed repression and gives in to her giddy love for Cesario. “May one so easily catch the plague?” she asks herself, “Well, let it be.” Viola/Cesario in turn feels pity for this woman who has mistakenly fallen in love with a cross-dressed woman, but is intent on her own love for Orsino, who in turn is attracted to her as a man.
Should we give in to such desires? That is the question that the play poses so acutely for its characters and for us. The desires that the characters feel for each other zigzag across socially established courtship rules and gender roles, leaving rules and roles in shambles. But in a comic world, nature is finally more forgiving than social convention, and by following their instincts the characters gradually work out what they want. By loving another woman—however unwittingly—Olivia is able to evade the forms of male dominance that have made her retreat from the world in the first place. She is able to choose the mate she wants, not the one others want, and have a chance at independence. Viola/Cesario, in turn, learns to speak her true feelings, at first obliquely, as what Orsino might say to Olivia, or what she as Viola might wish to say to Orsino. And at the end she releases Orsino from the conventionality of his own desires, as he ponders whether he likes her best as a woman or as a man.
Holidays should end happily, and Twelfth Night ends almost perfectly. After all the confusions and cross-dressings, the couples are still paired off boy/girl, boy/girl. Viola’s twin brother Sebastian sums it up as “Nature’s bias,” drawing them to an ending that reconciles desire with conventional social order. But Shakespeare rarely is content with a perfectly happy ending. The spirit of resistance embodied by Olivia and Viola passes at the end to Malvolio. It is hard for audiences to feel much sympathy for this egotistical killjoy, because his driving ego and seething class resentment represent the desires that finally cannot be contained in the neat world of a comic ending. “I’ll be revenged on the pack of you,” he cries as he rushes off stage. Into the world of comedy, he cannot return. But in Shakespearean tragedy—above all in the figure of Iago—we see how terrible the desire for vengeance can be.