If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.
I must confess, I’ve been avoiding this post for some days—indeed, this avoidance is the real reason I reread Twelfth Night. So much has been said about Shakespeare already, there is almost certainly nothing I can add to the discussion, and so I find myself short on words.
The overwhelming impression I have on reading and rereading Twelfth Night is how much I want to see it performed live. I can picture the action to some extent, and thanks to too many viewings of British TV and movies, I can “hear” the dialogue in a British accent, but I can’t help but thinking how much richer the experience would be performed. To see how the director and actors interpret the work, the staging, the motivations interests me. Although I could read the scenes and see where the comedy lay, sometimes even mildly laughing, I could tell that it would be that much more humorous to see the body language, to hear the tone of voice and emphasis than to merely try to picture it with my feeble imagination.
So perhaps this is what makes me reluctant to discuss Twelfth Night: I read it for amusement, and so I feel that in one sense I read it poorly, as entertainment not enlightenment. But then again, for what were the Shakespearean plays written but for our amusement and entertainment? (OK, not ours. Theirs. I somehow doubt Shakespeare would have imagined we’d be reinventing his plays over 400 years later.) And Twelfth Night is an entertainment.
Reading the play, the question was raised in my thoughts “why ‘Twelfth Night’?” Traditionally, “Twelfth Night” marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas and the coming of Epiphany. Outside of literature it is not a tradition I am familiar with, so I am under the impression that it was celebrated more in the past than at present. However, no mention of Christmastide or Epiphany is ever mentioned in the play. There is no discussion of dates or time. According to the introduction of my edition of Twelfth Night, at least one scholar believes that the play was performed on Twelfth Night in 1601, although the first recorded performance was February 2, 1602. But there might be another reason for the title: in addition to a being time of holiday revels, among the traditions of Twelfth Night is the idea of the world being turned upside down—king becoming peasant and peasant becoming king. Choristers and minor church official could mock their superiors and the liturgy without fear of punishment.
Wit, an ‘t be thy will, put me into good fooling! Those wits that think they have thee do very oft prove fools, and I that am sure I lack thee may pass for a wise man. For what says Quinapalus? ‘Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.’
To this background comes the play: where the fool may be the wisest, a woman may dress as a man, identities may be confused, a servant may fancy himself lord. Foolery abounds, pranks abound, but in the end, all is set right, the proud is humbled, the lovers are appropriately matched, and the festive spirit may come to a happy end. Tragedy this is not. I loved it.
I do I know not what, and fear to find
Mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind.
Fate, show thy force. Ourselves we do not owe;
What is decreed must be, and be this so.
On an unrelated note, it seems that Blogger & OpenID (which I’ve always used to comment on Blogger sites) aren’t playing nicely anymore. I can’t really do anything about it, so I’ve finally caved and set up a Blogger profile to comment with. I just wanted to let those on Blogger know since I won’t “look” quite the same anymore! I would have done this a long time ago if I’d have realized that I wouldn’t have to memorize a new password since I already had a gmail address I was using. The things I learn the hard way…