Monday, March 18, 2013

11: Twelfth Night - William Shakespeare

*Updated thoughts after watching the movie at the bottom of the review. 3/19/13

MALVOLIO: My lady loves me. She did commend my yellow stockings of late, she did praise my leg being cross-gartered...I thank my stars, I am happy. I will be strange, stout, in yellow stockings, and cross-gartered...[He reads the letter] 'If thou entertain'st my love, let it appear in thy smiling; thy smile becomes thee well. Therefore in my presence still smile, dear my sweet, I prithee.'
MARIA: He will come to her in yellow stockings, and 'tis a color she abhors, and cross-gartered, a fashion she detests; and he will smile upon her, which will now be so unsuitable to her disposition, being addicted to a melancholy as she is, that it cannot but turn him into a notable contempt.

If bitchymeangirl be your sense of humor, read on. 

The plot of Twelfth Night is so much borrowed from in our culture (my friend who orders the DVDs of the plays I need for class jokingly asked if I needed the "She's the Man" version of Twelfth Night) that I thought it seemed familiar, but it wasn't until I hit the yellow stockings that I had my two-fold high school flashback. Firstly, because I took a year of Shakespeare as a senior and we definitely read it. Secondly, because I was a weirdo girl who was sometimes bullied and mocked (my Shakespeare class was my 6th English class of high school) which means I sometimes navigated life worrying I was the butt of someone's joke.  Plenty of times I was. As an adult, I don't love practical jokes, particularly if they are intended to make someone look stupid. As a teacher, I loathe the trend in 'just playin' digs on teenage frenemies. I know I'm coming with a lot of baggage, but I hate the Malvolio subplot. It's not funny, it's meanspirited, and that is a huge chunk of the humor of Twelfth Night. (I am trying to be openminded to the movie because I would much rather laugh than be angry through it).

The Twelfth Night is not a play I would ever recommend anyone to read. "Readers of the script, as opposed to watchers of the script in production, find themselves constantly compelled to look at the footnotes to catch the verbal jokes and to use their visual imaginations to conjure up the physical gags designed for the stage" (Bruce R. Smith, ed.). I have the Bedford version, and their version of footnoting is particularly terrible - it's difficult to locate the footnote that you're searching for because of how they're organized on the page, and I do prefer the Arden footnoting even though it takes up more space. 

As Feste the clown/fool tells Viola, "I am indeed not her fool but her corrupter of words." So much of the humor relies on quick conversational back-and-forth puns, double entendres, etc, that it falls flat on the page. So much of the rest is physical and with very few stage directions to guide, the reader doesn't see what the joke is until another character comments on/reacts to it, which is not quite as funny. (I really am looking forward to seeing the rest of the jokes play out on the screen). 

I had no memory of the Antonio/Sebastian homoerotic relationship from my first reading which, on my second reading, is SO obvious. To be sure, they are my favorite coupling in the play and the only one that is not based on any kind off deceit or misunderstanding, and yet Antonio is one of the few people unmatched at the end of the play. (A PhD student who is examining all the different homoeroticisms in the recorded Shakespeare plays chatted with my class last week and will be chatting with us again this week - I am VERY much looking forward to watching whether the director plays this up/down and what the PhD student's thoughts on it are.)

If you want some serious cultural/historical information to enhance your reading of the play, I would recommend the Bedford edition which has a chapter devoted to each of the following: romance, music, sexuality, clothing and disguise, household economies, puritan probity, clowning and laughter. Each chapter is a mix of commentary from the editor, related poetry/prose, and primary source documents. 

An example of this is a few chapters from the book "The Golden Grove Moralized in Three Books" by William Vaughan (1600) which includes some delightful quotes:

"Lechery is a short pleasure, bringing in long pain, that is, it expelleth virtue, shortenth life, and maketh the soul guilty of abominable sin."
"Now to come to drunkenness, I find that there be three sorts thereof. The first when we being very thirsty, not knowing the force of the drink, do unwittingly drink ourselves drunk, and this can be no sin. The second, when we understand that the drink is immoderate, and for all that, we respect not our weak nature, which unawares becommeth cup-shot, and this is a kind of sin. The third, when we obstinately do persevere in drinking, and this certainly, is a grievous and intolerable sin."

I apologize that my thoughts are all over the place, but I really could not determine a better way to organize them.

After watching the Trevor Nunn version of Twelfth Night with Helena Bonham Carter as Lady Olivia and Ben Kingsley as Feste

This is the version assigned by my professor, but after clicking around a bit on IMDB I think it's probably the most watchable Twelfth Night, and I would recommend it. Feste steals the show in this production - Ben Kingsley is wonderful (also OMG he is going to be Mazer Rackham in the Ender's Game movie!) and plays the clown perfectly. 

The physical comedy works much better on the screen - the dueling scene between "Cesario" and Sir Andrew made me laugh out loud. Nunn also plays with the organization of the play, transposing scenes and lines into an order that works better and frequently making use of jumping back and forth between scenes in a way that is not possible in a stage production (unless you had one half of the stage set up for one setting and another half for another setting and then lit one side at a time as you bounced back and forth). It builds tension, shows parallelism, and rolls to the climax wonderfully.

Malvolio is played as a truly self-righteous insufferable character who is obnoxious, no doubt, and early in the movie I found myself giggling at the prank. However, the movie shows you just how far the prank is taken (way too far) and it just made me feel dirty to watch Malvolio exit his dark prison, covered in dirt, giggled at by Lady Olivia's ENTIRE household, and completely humiliated IN FRONT OF EVERYONE. Even an obnoxious, self-righteous prick does not deserve that.

1 comment:

  1. I love Twelfth Night, but I think it definitely plays a lot better than it reads. (Most of the comedies do.) I saw a really fun version of it in Battery Park where the actors would change locations for each scene, making the audience move from place to place while they made use of the park's setting as props. (Including the World War II memorial, which was very strange.)

    I agree with your reaction to the Malvolio plot, but I think there's something purposeful in it--there's something about the whole play that really pushes comedy too far, and is unsettling. The other moment that comes to mind for me is the last scene, when Orsino almost murders Viola/Cesario to spite Olivia, and Viola seems as if she's willing to go along. That really changes the tenor of the whole play, and I think the final Malvolio scenes do the same thing.