Category Archives: Comedies

What can you say about Troilus and Cressida? A lot, but does any of it make sense?

There is a popular conception of Shakespeare’s works that we teach our students; that is, Shakespeare is universal. Whether you were an educated lord or an illiterate groundling, everyone could go and enjoy a Shakespeare play. And that is one reason why, we say, Shakespeare is appreciated by thousands 400 years later, and why we continue to teach him in schools. But find me an English teacher brave enough to teach Troilus and Cressida (Troi)! Troi is considered, with reason, to be Shakespeare’s most elitist play: supported by the scholarly opinion that this play was never publicly performed in Shakespeare’s time. The theory is that it was performed for a private group of educated persons, probably Cambridge lawyers. Was he making amends for Dick’s quip in 2 Henry VI: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” (IV.ii)? Either way, the elitism of this play is held up by two pillars. Troi, more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, relies on a Latinate vocabulary that only the educated at the time (and now?) would possess. Second, the audience must have some familiarity with Homer’s Iliad to fully appreciate this play. Both then and now, familiarity with Homer was not universal.

Personally I found Troi to be the most difficult of Shakespeare’s plays that I have read thus far. The reason for this is not in its plot or characters, or even Shakespeare’s complex webs such as we find in Hamlet, but more due to the question of comedy. Is this play a comedy as so many claim? How far does the comedy go to mask the tragedy? Post-Hamlet, Shakespeare plays around with genre far more than has been seen both his plays and the plays of his contemporaries. Despite the tensions in genre that we find in plays like Twelfth Night, Measure For Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, and the later Romances, nothing surpasses Troi in its ambiguity when it comes to genre. The compilers of Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623 categorized the plays into the banners of Comedy, History, Tragedy – and even they couldn’t figure out where to stick Troilus and Cressida: it is noticeably absent from the Catalogue (Table of Contents.)

Like Antony and Cleopatra will do a few years later, Troi splits the focus between two plotlines: I will very quickly outline both. The titular plot – that of Troilus and Cressida – is based on the medieval story Troilus & Criseyde, made most popular by Chaucer: this is probably the source Shakespeare used. Troilus is a young Trojan prince. Cressida is the daughter of a Trojan priest who defects to the Greeks because he knows Troy will fall. Cressida remains in Troy but is viewed as a traitor. Troilus is madly in love with Cressida but she spurns his advances. We quickly learn that she is doing this because of the belief that men prefer women who play hard to get: she really does love him. Eventually (at the half-way point of this play) Troilus and Cressida meet, declare their love for each other and bind themselves together under the guidance of their go-between, Pandarus (Cressida’s uncle). Their quick meeting and hasty union are very reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. Troilus and Cressida too suffer their tragedy shortly following the union. In the scene following the lovers’ meeting and union, Cressida’s father, Calchas, urges the Greek leaders to get his daughter from Troy. He suggests an exchange of prisoners – Cressida for a Trojan prisoner captured by the Greeks. They agree, as do the Trojans and this goes forth. Troilus and Cressida have another Romeo and Juliet moment when they are in Cressida’s room saying their final farewells to each other. Cressida is taken by Diomed, the Greek solider, to her father. In a later scene Troilus spies on Cressida as Diomed comes to meet her. Diomed flirts with her and eventually Cressida gives in to his advances, to the great displeasure of Troilus. Cressida gives Diomed the very sleeve that Troilus had asked Cressida to keep as a token of his love. This further enrages the young prince. Later Troilus engages in two fights with Diomed – neither of them kills the other. In the last scene, Pandarus comes to give Troilus some news: Troilus strikes him and leaves: Pandarus alone remains on stage to give the epilogue.

The second plotline follows Homer’s Iliad. After a day of fighting, Hector proposes a challenge for the strongest Greek to fight him one-on-one to settle the ongoing war. Achilles has secluded himself and refuses to participate in the war – Shakespeare does not give the same reason for this act as Homer does at the start of the Iliad. The reason Shakespeare gives is that Achilles is in love with Cassandra – Priam’s daughter – who is in this version still in Troy, and mad. Meanwhile Ajax is mad at Achilles supposedly because Achilles inveigled Ajax’s fool, Thersites. Meanwhile, Ulysses and Nestor come up with a secret plan to goad on the argument between Ajax and Achilles in order to get Achilles back into the war. It works, sort of. Achilles is put off by the fact that the rest of the Greeks are praising Ajax’s strength over his and he urges a peaceful meeting between Hector and the Greeks. Ajax is chosen and goes to fight Hector, but Hector is hesitant to fight Ajax because Ajax is actually Hector’s first cousin, and thus part Trojan. They break off the fight and all meet peacefully. Hector and Achilles exchange some haughty words and the decision is that they will celebrate tonight and kill each other tomorrow. The next day the war resumes. Hector is the only one to suffer: he is confronted by Achilles and Achilles’ myrmidons kill him.

HECTOR

I am unarm’d; forego this vantage, Greek.

ACHILLES

Strike, fellows, strike; this is the man I seek.

HECTOR falls

So, Ilion, fall thou next! now, Troy, sink down!
Here lies thy heart, thy sinews, and thy bone.
On, Myrmidons, and cry you all amain,
‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.’ (V.viii)

Anyone familiar with the Iliad will notice the distinct shift in Achilles’ character: here he is far more a coward than in Homer’s text – this lack of heroism persists throughout. After Hector’s death, the Greeks prepare to advance and the Trojans prepare to stand their ground – as with Homer’s text the fall of Troy is implied.

You can probably tell at this point that the story is somewhat more complex than the more popular plays. Troi falls in with Antony and Cleopatra as well as some of the Histories for not having a unified story. But there is far more than the plot that makes this play so difficult to dissect.

The comedy seems to reside in the question of expectations. Everyone familiar with the Iliad knows that honour and glory is the driving force behind the action. Shakespeare, searching for the humanity in these near-mythic figures, plays with this question of honour and glory, with a comedic purpose. In Act II, scene ii Priam, Hector, Paris, and Troilus review the Greeks’ offer that if they return Helen to them, all will be forgiven and the war would end. Hector takes the side of “reason” and calls for an end to the bloodshed. Paris and Troilus take the opposing view:

HECTOR

Paris and Troilus, you have both said well,
And on the cause and question now in hand
Have glozed, but superficially: not much
Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought
Unfit to hear moral philosophy:
The reasons you allege do more conduce
To the hot passion of distemper’d blood
Than to make up a free determination
‘Twixt right and wrong, for pleasure and revenge
Have ears more deaf than adders to the voice
Of any true decision. Nature craves
All dues be render’d to their owners: now,
What nearer debt in all humanity
Than wife is to the husband? If this law
Of nature be corrupted through affection,
And that great minds, of partial indulgence
To their benumbed wills, resist the same,
There is a law in each well-order’d nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory.
If Helen then be wife to Sparta’s king,
As it is known she is, these moral laws
Of nature and of nations speak aloud
To have her back return’d: thus to persist
In doing wrong extenuates not wrong,
But makes it much more heavy. Hector’s opinion
Is this in way of truth; yet ne’ertheless,
My spritely brethren, I propend to you
In resolution to keep Helen still,
For ’tis a cause that hath no mean dependance
Upon our joint and several dignities.

TROILUS

Why, there you touch’d the life of our design:
Were it not glory that we more affected
Than the performance of our heaving spleens,
I would not wish a drop of Trojan blood
Spent more in her defence. But, worthy Hector,
She is a theme of honour and renown,
A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds,
Whose present courage may beat down our foes,
And fame in time to come canonize us;
For, I presume, brave Hector would not lose
So rich advantage of a promised glory
As smiles upon the forehead of this action
For the wide world’s revenue. (II.ii)

They both agree that returning Helen is the “right” thing to do: Hector anachronistically points to Aristotelian morals to demonstrate his point. But they also both agree that glory and honour is more favourable than morals. Troilus’ final liens touch upon the crux of the conflict that is the Trojan War or any war in general: “Brave Hector would not lose/ so rich advantage of a promised glory…For the wide world’s revenue.” “Sure we can give Helen back,” Troilus seems to say, “If we want to be seen as women.” This piece of biting anti-war satire is wholly relevant today – the same rhetoric holding true in the early 21st century when the Western powers were thrown into an unfavourable war.

Tied to this is the issue of “womanishness”: seeing these epitomes of valour and glory – the great heroes of the Trojan War! – reduced to womanish acts can certainly give us – or at least an elitist 17th century audience – something to laugh. At one point or another, all the principal characters are referred to as women, meaning weak. The comedy or the satire, as with the scene quoted above, lies in the fact that the derogatory deeds that make these characters “womanish” are peaceful acts.

Troilus speaks these lines because he is too much in love to fight.

The Greeks are strong and skilful to their strength,
Fierce to their skill and to their fierceness valiant;
But I am weaker than a woman’s tear. (I.i)

Patroclus says to Achilles, when the latter refuses to fight:

To this effect, Achilles, have I moved you:
A woman impudent and mannish grown
Is not more loathed than an effeminate man. (III.iii)

And in the same scene Achilles says:

I have a woman’s longing,
An appetite that I am sick withal,
To see great Hector in his weeds of peace. (III.iii)

This almost sexual depiction of Achilles (his woman’s longing to see Hector) is so grossly altered from the Achilles Homer paints that we cannot help but laugh. And upon reflection we discover that we are laughing at, or perhaps put off by, the idea that these brave heroes are discussing peace and cordiality – that they dare bring Aristotelian morals into the Trojan War! What does this say about us?

Before I further this trajectory, I want to make a brief foray into the subject of women, the actual women of this play, not the feminine qualities of the men. There are two major female characters – Helen of Troy, and Cressida – and two minor ones – Cassandra and Andromache. And while the men are bemoaning their womanish states, the women either have power in this play or long for it.

In the first scene, the bitter Troilus remarks, after hearing once more of Helen’s fairness:

Fools on both sides! Helen must needs be fair,
When with your blood you daily paint her thus. (I.i)

Troilus is here picking up a common conception: blame Helen. She is the cause of the Trojan War: she is the reason so many die. But this notion of Helen elevates her above all the supposedly superior men in this play, past manhood to a god-like status. She seems to command all around her, they do as she wishes. Only Hector in Act II, scene ii briefly suggests surrendering her.

Cressida is the most interesting of the four females. She is often overlooked in discussions of Shakespeare’s women. She does not manage to reach as high as Viola and Rosalind, despite that her wit is as sharp as Violas (she does not match Rosalind.) I think it is her inconstancy, particularly when she so blatantly betrays Troilus that turns us away from her. She is Desdemona if Desdemona was as Iago paints her. But she is a wit, and outwits all the men around her, until she finally succumbs to Diomed.

PANDARUS

Do you know a
man if you see him?

CRESSIDA

Ay, if I ever saw him before and knew him.

PANDARUS

Well, I say Troilus is Troilus.

CRESSIDA

Then you say as I say; for, I am sure, he is not Hector.

PANDARUS

No, nor Hector is not Troilus in some degrees.

CRESSIDA

‘Tis just to each of them; he is himself.

PANDARUS

Himself! Alas, poor Troilus! I would he were.

CRESSIDA

So he is. (II.ii)

This banter continues for some time as Cressida parries Pandarus’ foolish remarks. When she is alone she is able to be a woman and admits her true feelings to us, but in the presence of men she must arm herself and prove (successfully) that she is stronger than they are.

ULYSSES

May I, sweet lady, beg a kiss of you?

CRESSIDA

You may.

ULYSSES

I do desire it.

CRESSIDA

Why, beg, then.

ULYSSES

Why then for Venus’ sake, give me a kiss,
When Helen is a maid again, and his.

CRESSIDA

I am your debtor, claim it when ’tis due.

ULYSSES

Never’s my day, and then a kiss of you. (IV.v)

Here she is presented to the Greeks, and outwits them all, including Ulysses is Homer what Falstaff is to Shakespeare.

But then of course Cressida falls: she betrays her love and promise to Troilus and blames the act on the fact that she is a woman.

Helen surpasses the men by spurring on their sense of glory and honour: Cressida outwits them. The other two women derive their power through prophecy. The mad Cassandra raves about the destruction of Troy: she is dismissed for being mad. Andromache tells Hector she had a dream that he would die: she is dismissed for being a woman. As with all prophecies and curses in Shakespeare, the audience knows that what is said will come true, despite how much the characters may doubt it. “Beware the Ides of March” says the Soothsayer: we know then that Caesar will fall. The fact that these prophecies are given to the women furthers this play’s attempt to reverse the established notions of power that exists within the world of the Iliad.

With weak men and strong women we begin to say that Shakespeare has turned the battlefield of Troy into a topsy-turvy world in order to strike blows against the baser parts of humanity, but also to bring some comedy into what should be a tragic story. We might liken the nature of this play to Twelfth Night, composed immediately before or after Troi. Twelfth Night: where servants rise beyond their means, where stewards can dream of being counts, where a fool is a priest &c. Troi: where Achilles and Hector are cowards, where Cressida can outwit Ulysses, where the Aeneas and Diomed can praise each other and swear good fortune to the other &c. When we are dealing with a world flipped on its head, what happens to the Fool: the notorious outsider who is supposed to bring chaos into order? Feste remains on the side of light-heartedness but is he? Spurned by Malvolio in Act I, he successfully gets revenge the end of Act IV:

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. (V.i)

It is as if Feste were the mastermind behind everything that happened to Malvolio – despite the fact that we know otherwise. If this makes Feste seem to have a spark of maliciousness, we need only to turn to Thersites to see how malicious a fool can be.

Ten points for anyone who can place Thersities within Homer’s Iliad! He appears once, in Book II, accompanied by this description:

A man of many words, and those unseemly; a monger of sedition, a
railer against all who were in authority, who cared not what he
said, so that he might set the Achaeans in a laugh. He was the ugliest man of all those that came before Troy- bandy-legged, lame of one
foot, with his two shoulders rounded and hunched over his chest. His
head ran up to a point, but there was little hair on the top of it. (Iliad Book II)

Shakespeare took this figure and, picking up on the line “who cared not what he said, so that he might set the Achaeans in a laugh” he turned Thersites into his fool, maintaining his deformity and obscene nature. Thersites is the most bitter of Shakespeare’s fools, exceeding Barnadine in Measure For Measure. Interestingly, Homer does not give Thersities a father’s name that he ascribes to most of the characters. In Ancient Greece this meant that he was a commoner as opposed to a noble, but Shakespeare takes this piece of information and decides that Thersities is a Bastard. And so he joins the ranks of the Bastard Faulconbridge, the Bastard John, and the Bastard Edmund. He is probably closest to John, but he does possess Edmund’s nihilism. He is also like Faulconbridge of Act II in King John, the Bastard who urged the kings to war and scorned the peaceful arrangement made at the end of the act. For in a world where the heroes struggle towards peace in the face of their already prescribed polemic fate, Thersites must be the outsider who hates peace.

We first see Thersites in Act II, scene i:

AJAX

Thersites!

THERSITES

Agamemnon, how if he had boils? full, all over,
generally?

AJAX

Thersites!

THERSITES

And those boils did run? say so: did not the
general run then? were not that a botchy core?

AJAX

Dog!

THERSITES

Then would come some matter from him; I see none now.

AJAX

Thou bitch-wolf’s son, canst thou not hear?

Beating him

Feel, then.

THERSITES

The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel
beef-witted lord!

AJAX

Speak then, thou vinewedst leaven, speak: I will
beat thee into handsomeness.

THERSITES

I shall sooner rail thee into wit and holiness: but,
I think, thy horse will sooner con an oration than
thou learn a prayer without book. Thou canst strike,
canst thou? a red murrain o’ thy jade’s tricks!

AJAX

Toadstool, learn me the proclamation. (II.i)

This is not Touchstone or Feste: this is not the Fool who makes us laugh. This is the bitter Fool who hates all those around him. Agamemnon is incompetent and a coward; Ajax is beef-witted. The comedy comes, as it is does with the Fools, in the fact that he is right. Bitter and obscene as he is, the Fool speaks the truth. We might see Thersities as representing us, the audience. He puts into words our thoughts as we read/watch this play. “No! This is not Agamemnon, this is not Ajax! This is not how the story is supposed to be!”

We encounter this again in the scene between Cressida and Diomed. Thersities spies on Troilus as Troilus spies on Cressida, placing himself in the same seat as us, the observers. His lines are such: “How the devil Luxury, with his fat rump and
potato-finger, tickles these together! Fry, lechery, fry!” and “Now the pledge; now, now, now!” (V.ii). Even as Cressida tries to fight against Diomed and reject him, we are meant to know that this is not how the story ends, and that she does indeed give in to Diomed. Thersites is there urging the “natural order” on, filling in for our expectations.

Thersites is the fool – albeit a bitter fool – and thus he must make us laugh, right? He does not do so through wordplay as other fools do (including a servant in this play), but through his insults. And who doesn’t love a barrage of Shakespearean insults?

ACHILLES

How now, thou core of envy!
Thou crusty batch of nature, what’s the news?

THERSITES

Why, thou picture of what thou seemest, and idol
of idiot worshippers, here’s a letter for thee.

ACHILLES

From whence, fragment?

THERSITES

Why, thou full dish of fool, from Troy.

PATROCLUS

Who keeps the tent now?

THERSITES

The surgeon’s box, or the patient’s wound.

PATROCLUS

Well said, adversity! and what need these tricks?

THERSITES

Prithee, be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk:
thou art thought to be Achilles’ male varlet.

PATROCLUS

Male varlet, you rogue! what’s that?

THERSITES

Why, his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases
of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs,
loads o’ gravel i’ the back, lethargies, cold
palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing
lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas,
limekilns i’ the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the
rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take
again such preposterous discoveries!

PATROCLUS

Why thou damnable box of envy, thou, what meanest
thou to curse thus?

THERSITES

Do I curse thee?

PATROCLUS

Why no, you ruinous butt, you whoreson
indistinguishable cur, no.

THERSITES

No! why art thou then exasperate, thou idle
immaterial skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarcenet
flap for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal’s
purse, thou? Ah, how the poor world is pestered
with such waterflies, diminutives of nature! (V.i)

Despite his position, Thersites is still a Greek and still a part of the war. So there are places where he is forced into the action of the play, and here he becomes as cowardice as those he accuses.

THERSITES

Hold thy whore, Grecian!–now for thy whore,
Trojan!–now the sleeve, now the sleeve!

Exeunt TROILUS and DIOMEDES, fighting

Enter HECTOR

HECTOR

What art thou, Greek? art thou for Hector’s match?
Art thou of blood and honour?

THERSITES

No, no, I am a rascal; a scurvy railing knave:
a very filthy rogue.

HECTOR

I do believe thee: live. (V.iv)

This is a far more classic form of fooling, designed to make us laugh in the midst of a series of more tragic scenes.

In a chaotic world, the fool, instead of brining chaos to order, urges order to chaos. He makes laugh through his obscenities – as Homer describes – but his bitterness helps us to bear in mind that we expect tragedy and the comedy of this play is out of place.

Forgive the jumbled nature of these analyses, but they are meant to show how difficult it is to piece this play together. The central conceit of everything presented here is expectations and what happens when they are shattered. We know that the characters cannot escape their fates – those that Homer and Chaucer prescribed for them – but they do try. Cressida tries to be faithful; Hector and Achilles try to be peaceful. And this attempt to rail against their “Creator” so to speak is both comedic and off-putting, and we must rely on Thersites to remind us of how things ought to be. For we do not like to have our assumptions disturbed, we do not want Achilles to be a coward. And we do not want Hector to relent in the face of the Greeks, despite the fact that he presents an excellent case for doing so. So we may laugh at the foolishness of the characters in this play, but we are laughing at peace and righteousness. And then we find, upon reflection that is indeed the satire that courses through this play – that when we stop to think, we are all as bitter as Thersites.

Copyright ©, 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved

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Filed under Comedies, Post-Hamlet

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, or What You Will (Twelfth) is Shakespeare’s last “pure comedy.” Following this play, first performed in either late 1601, or more probable 1602, the plays that fall in the comedy category are the three problem plays (Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure For Measure) and the Romances (Pericles, Winter’s Tale, Tempest, Two Noble Kinsmen). Incidentally, Troilus and Cressida could very well have been written before Twelfth. There is a debate about this (isn’t there always!), but since Feste references Troilus and Cressida in Act III, scene I – “I would play Lord Pandarus of Phrygia, sir, to bring a Cressida to this Troilus” – I choose to believe that Twelfth followed closely after Troilus and Cressida. To play Devil’s Advocate however, Shakespeare also references the characters of Troilus and Cressida in Merchant of Venice, a play certainly written before Troilus and Cressida: all this goes to show how fickle these debates on dates truly are.

And yet, the implication in believing that Twelfth was written after Troilus and Cressida is that Twelfth becomes placed in the centre of the problem plays. Is it a problem play? It is not often thought so. But it is agreed upon that there is a distinction between Twelfth and the other “pure comedies”: Twelfth is most often compared to As You Like It due to similarities that I will touch upon. As You Like It was written shortly before Twelfth, but there is a key factor separating the two plays, and his name is Hamlet. I do not like to speculate on who Shakespeare was, and I find the “real author debates” so tiresome, but it is hard to ignore the fact that Hamlet marked a major transition in his writing. Taking what we have on paper as our only source, something happened to him while writing Hamlet. As Hamlet himself is bewildered after seeing the Ghost and, though he says he feigns it, goes mad, so is Shakespeare affected by Hamlet. He does not go mad, certainly, but the heaviness of the play, the depth of the tragedy, and the monumental nature of the Prince, who even then leaped out of the theatre and into the world – all this amounted to Shakespeare no longer able to create the type of plays he did before Hamlet. Shakespeare’s pre-Hamlet career was marked by histories and “pure comedies”: there were only three tragedies. Post-Hamlet we get tragedies, Romances, and problem plays – with Twelfth lingering in a crowd that it does not seem to belong to. So while Twelfth reaches for earlier comedies like Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or most notably As You Like It, it cannot get past the sheer darkness that is Hamlet. As with Hamlet, Twelfth is preoccupied with death. We first hear about Olivia as she is in an Hamlet-like state of mourning for a dead father and brother. Viola and Sebastian as well are in deep mourning for each other (as both think the other is dead until the very end of the play). Pretence, and the fine line between being one person or another is a commonality shared between Hamlet and Viola. Madness of course, and its tragic consequences – albeit less tragic in Twelfth than in Hamlet – is another tie. The world is out of order in both plays – and with a very different tone than the chaos that hangs over Midsummer Night’s Dream. As far as Twelfth tries to push itself towards As You Like It, we are never free of the darkness that looms in Illyria. Thus, Twelfth is a marriage of As You Like It, and Hamlet.

At the same time, I will argue that Twelfth is Shakespeare’s funniest play on paper. I mentioned in my post about Comedy of Errors, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse’s shtick about the geography of the fat kitchen maid, and how this outright comedy is a rare moment in Shakespeare. Generally speaking, in classical theatre tragedies (or histories) exist in the lines, comedies exist in the acting. This is true of Shakespeare. There is plenty of laughter to be had in Shakespeare’s comedies but often they require a good actor to convey the comedy. Take this example from Merchant of Venice, a speech by Launcelot the Clown.

Certainly my conscience will serve me to run from
this Jew my master. The fiend is at mine elbow and
tempts me saying to me ‘Gobbo, Launcelot Gobbo, good
Launcelot,’ or ‘good Gobbo,’ or good Launcelot
Gobbo, use your legs, take the start, run away. My
conscience says ‘No; take heed,’ honest Launcelot;
take heed, honest Gobbo, or, as aforesaid, ‘honest
Launcelot Gobbo; do not run; scorn running with thy
heels.’ Well, the most courageous fiend bids me
pack: ‘Via!’ says the fiend; ‘away!’ says the
fiend; ‘for the heavens, rouse up a brave mind,’
says the fiend, ‘and run.’ Well, my conscience,
hanging about the neck of my heart, says very wisely
to me ‘My honest friend Launcelot, being an honest
man’s son,’ or rather an honest woman’s son; for,
indeed, my father did something smack, something
grow to, he had a kind of taste; well, my conscience
says ‘Launcelot, budge not.’ ‘Budge,’ says the
fiend. ‘Budge not,’ says my conscience… (II.ii)

Reading this to yourself probably did not make you laugh, but if acted in a certain way, this speech can garner quite a bit of laughter. Now compare that with:

OLIVIA

Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?

MALVOLIO

To bed! ay, sweet-heart, and I’ll come to thee. (III.iv)

You can see that Twelfth is more apt to cause laughter without an actor needing to push it. This is one reason why, in high school, we teach the tragedies more than the comedies, and when we do teach a comedy it is Twelfth: comedies really need to be seen properly staged to appreciate. But that is another matter entirely.

The point I wish to make when embarking through this play is that unlike tragicomedies, which blend tragedy and comedy into a unified experience, Twelfth presents us with a struggle between the two forces. Take the following exchange:

Clown

Good madonna, why mournest thou?

OLIVIA

Good fool, for my brother’s death.

Clown

I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

OLIVIA

I know his soul is in heaven, fool.c2c

Clown

The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s
soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen. (I.v)

When Claudius accuses Hamlet of mourning his father too much, Hamlet pushes him away for nothing shall clear the presence of death in Hamlet’s mind. Feste, reaching for Hamlet’s wit to battle Olivia, moves her (and the audience) to laughter. But Feste is not Theseus from Midsummer Night’s Dream, who with a word dispels the presence of death. Olivia laughs but a moment later she orders her veil before she meets Viola: she cannot throw off her mourning – that is until she falls in love with Viola. A constant struggle exists in Olivia between mourning and merriment.

Perhaps the greatest way to view the marriage of As You Like It and Hamlet, and the greatest way to view most of the key issues of interest in this play, is through the central character Viola/Cesario: central to the action despite the fact that she only speaks 12.5% of the lines in the play. Viola ends up on the strange shores of Illyria (a made-up country somewhere on the Adriatic) after she and her twin brother Sebastion are shipwrecked. She thinks her brother is dead and we first encounter her in a state of mourning: “And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium” (I.ii). When she is told about Olivia she immediately recognizes herself in Olivia (and of course Viola is literally in Olivia, but I will get back to that) and longs to be with her. The captain informs her that Olivia will admit no one, so instead Viola has him present her in men’s clothing to the Duke Orsino, telling the Duke that she is a eunuch named Cesario. Viola/Caesario is often compared to Rosalind from As You Like It: they are both women who disguise themselves as men in order to blend into a foreign place, and once there both help a love-sick man attain the love of the woman he desires. The grand difference between the two is that Rosalind helps Orlando attain the love of Rosalind (herself), whereas Caesario helps Orsino to attain the love of Olivia. Meanwhile, Viola/Caesario loves Orisno – creating the problematic love triangle that is Twelfth.

But first: names. The first interesting point is Rosalind and Viola’s chosen pseudonyms. Rosalind chooses the name of Ganymede – kidnapped by Zeus and made the cup-bearer of the gods. Viola chooses the name Cesario, or little Caesar. Yet, in the realities of the plays Rosalind is in complete control of her world and everyone in it, but Viola has no real power and is a relatively passive character, acting as a conduit for the action to flow through. So Rosalind is the Caesar of her world and Viola the Ganymede of hers, yet the names are as they are to ask why they are not reversed is futile. Just an interesting point.

The more relevant point about names is that if you are watching the play (and do not have a programme in hand) you do not find out that the central character is named Viola until act V.

Were you a woman, as the rest goes even,
I should my tears let fall upon your cheek,
And say ‘Thrice-welcome, drowned Viola! (V.i)

The fact that we do not know her real name until the end of the play puts us at a distance from Viola. Yes we know a fair bit about her before this point but since we only know her as Cesario it is hard to distinguish Viola from Cesario beyond their physical barriers (their genders). Rosalind/Ganymede had a partner to confide in: because she is with her cousin Celia, also in disguise, her character shifts between Rosalind and Ganymede. She is Rosalind with Celia, Ganymede with everyone else. Viola does not have this partner. The only other person who knows who she truly is is the sea captain and he disappears after Act I, scene ii, and for whatever reason is arrested by Malvolio. Therefore, she is Cesario and only Cesario until the end. Yes, Viola slips through the cracks when Cesario speaks with Orsino, but not enough that we can truly distinguish the two. She is a mistress of disguise, second only to Hamlet. In this way she is Rosalind in her predicament: Hamlet in her distancing, and her tragedy. Furthermore, you really have to wonder why Shakespeare created the relationship in names between Viola and Olivia only to conceal Viola’s name. Is this meant to inspire reflection? Are you supposed to realize, after watching the play, that Cesario’s real name is so close to Olivia’s and this really strengthens the parallels drawn between the two characters throughout the play? I don’t know.

There certainly are connections between Viola and Olivia. The first one, as I mentioned, is their shared losses. Of course Cesario never lost a brother and is not in mourning, Viola did. So this is a connection that Viola immediately recognizes but hides from Olivia. Cesario could have expressed to Olivia that he understands her pains, but Cesario is the dutiful servant to Orsino and thus was very careful to speak only within her text – that is say only what Orsino sent her to say:

OLIVIA

Whence came you, sir?

VIOLA

I can say little more than I have studied, and that
question’s out of my part. (V.i)

As the scene progresses Viola does go “out of her text” as Olivia points out, but she is very careful to keep Viola protected and present only Cesario. That being said, the two characters blend further into each other in Act III.

OLIVIA

Stay:
I prithee, tell me what thou thinkest of me.

VIOLA

That you do think you are not what you are.

OLIVIA

If I think so, I think the same of you.

VIOLA

Then think you right: I am not what I am.

OLIVIA

I would you were as I would have you be!

“I am not what I am” is the truest statement we receive from Viola until she is unmasked at the end of the play. And it is a very Hamlet-like statement, for surely Hamlet is rarely who he is. Harold Bloom points to this statement in connection with Iago’s similar remark to Roderigo: “I am not what I am” (Othello I.i). But I do not believe that there is any real connection between the sinister Iago and Viola – just a recycling of lines. Going back to Rosalind in As You Like It: Rosalind fled the to the forest because she was threatened by the usurper, and she chose her male disguise because she thought that two women would not be safe in the forest. Viola does not find herself in this predicament. Viola is the daughter of a fairly wealthy man from Messaline, Sebastian, dead for some years. She arrives safely on the shores of a country ruled by a man who, as she informs us, her father was on good terms with. So why does she disguise herself? Why not just go to Orsino and explain the situation? The simple answer is – where is the comedy in that? But it is not until Act III, scene iv that we get a good insight to why Viola is not who she is, or why she continues her pretence.

He named Sebastian: I my brother know
Yet living in my glass; even such and so
In favour was my brother, and he went
Still in this fashion, colour, ornament,
For him I imitate: (III.iv)

Viola maintains her disguise so she could keep her brother alive in herself. This prevents her from revealing herself to Orsino. This prevents her from confessing her love. This prevents her from escaping the awkward situation with Olivia. The need to keep Sebastian alive prevents her from living her own life. This is reminiscent of Hamlet.

Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter: yes, by heaven! (I.v)

Hamlet cannot live his own life because he has sworn to abandon it in favour of his father’s cause: revenge. The difference between Viola and Hamlet is that Hamlet’s father is dead: Viola’s brother is not, and it is he alone that can unmask her at the end of the play. Sebastian is a relief for Viola at the end of the play, as he is a relief for the audience earlier on.

Sebastian arrives on the scene at the start of Act II much in the same way Viola arrived at the start of Act I. He is in mourning for a dead sister and he goes to seek out Orsino. But while he is in his tragic state, a remotely educated audience knows that his arrival means the solution to the central issue of the love triangle. We know that Olivia will satisfy her love for Viola by getting Sebastian and Viola will be free to get Orsino. The only one who doesn’t get what he wants is Orsino, but he seems perfectly content with Viola. So while the dark moments hang over this play, we know by the start of Act II that all will be well and that we are indeed in a comedy. Sort of. Sebastian solves the love triangle, but what about the other threads of this play. It is about time we look at that.

Shakespeare presents us with an interesting world in Illyria. Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and As You Like It all deal with two worlds – the “civilized worlds” (Venice, Athens, the French court respectively) and what Northrop Frye termed the “green world” (Belmont, the forest, the forest of Arden respectively). Two Gentlemen of Verona, Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Winter’s Tale also display this contrast. The way Frye descries the “green world” as working is:

The action of the comedy begins in a world represented as a normal world, moves into the green world, goes into a metamorphosis there in which the comic resolution is achieved, and returns to the normal world. (Anatomy of Criticism)

Do we get this in Twelfth. The play seems to take place in a unified location – Illyria. There are people who move from the “normal world” into Illyria: Viola, Sebastian, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Antonio, but we do not see them before they come to Illyria, so there is no transition there. And yet, Illyria itself is a divided place. The action of the play takes place in Orsino’s court or Olivia’s house. There are only two characters – Viola and Feste – who are able to move between the two houses. There are scenes that happen on the street, and two scenes on the sea coast, but only Viola and Feste breech the doors of both houses. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria, and Malvolio have no place in Orsino’s palace, just as Orsino or his nobles have no place in Olivia’s house. Feste explains his ability to travel between the two houses when he says: “Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines every where” (III.i). What he is alluding to is the common notion that the character of the Fool is an outsider, the basis of his comedy is that he is able to provide commentary into a world in which he doesn’t belong. Viola is also an outsider, in a more literal sense. But she is able to travel between the two houses due to her disguise. The fact that she is not who she is allows her to be whoever she wants to be, and this gives her access to both houses. Unlike Andrew Aguecheek who is only who he is and is tied to Sir Toby. Even Sebastian, another physical outsider, says he will go to Orsino but never seems to make it there, and is trapped in Olivia’s world.

But do the two houses constitute two worlds? Is one, as Frye would say, a normal world and one a “green world”? If anything, Orsino’s court is the civilized world, and Oliva’s house the “green world”. Melancholy holds sway in Orsion’s court. Even the Fool is subdued. The song Feste sings for Orsino is this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1X7kfjvQ4o. Ben Kingsley, who would have thought? This is the tone of Orsino’s court: nothing loud or excited happens there. The famous opening line of the play – “if music be the food of love, play on” – seems to set his court up as a place of music and merriment, but Orsino quickly dispels this and the court just becomes mellow.

Olivia’s house on the other hand is a place of pure chaos. While Olivia tries to live in a state of silent mourning, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew turn her house into an Alehouse, drinking and singing until all hours of the morning. Feste’s songs are more lively, or at least happier – Sir Toby’s jests are outrageous and even the steward, Malvolio, becomes a madman. On the one hand, Olivia’s house is meant to be a place of harmless fun – like Puck’s jests, Sir Toby is cautious to play pranks that don’t have any real consequences. Even when urging a fight between Cesario and Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby and his accomplice Fabian are always mindful of the law, and push the scene towards harmless fun.

SIR TOBY BELCH

‘Youth, whatsoever thou art, thou art but a scurvy fellow.’

FABIAN

Good, and valiant.

SIR TOBY BELCH

[Reads] ‘Wonder not, nor admire not in thy mind,
why I do call thee so, for I will show thee no reason for’t.’

FABIAN

A good note; that keeps you from the blow of the law.

SIR TOBY BELCH

[Reads] ‘Thou comest 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.’

FABIAN

Very brief, and to exceeding good sense–less.

SIR TOBY BELCH

[Reads] ‘I will waylay thee going home; where if it
be thy chance to kill me,’–

FABIAN

Good.

SIR TOBY BELCH

[Reads] ‘Thou killest me like a rogue and a villain.’

FABIAN

Still you keep o’ the windy side of the law: good. (III.iv)

In this sense, Olivia’s house is much like the forest in Midsummer Night’s Dream – Malvolio is transformed into an ass, and Cesario and Andrew Aguecheek are set against each other as Lysander and Demitri were. However, Sir Toby is not Puck and there is no magic involved – so unlike the events in the forest, the events in Twelfth do not become a dream and have real consequences. The fight between Cesario and Andrew, initially harmless, becomes out of control when Andrew and Sir Toby confuse Sebastian with Cesario. Cesario, as Sir Toby rightly judges, is not prepared to fight and thus there is no harm – but Sebastian seems quick to anger and draws his sword against his two attackers the first chance he gets. He wounds both Sir Toby and Andrew – turning the harmless fun into near death. And yet, no one is actually punished for this act. The incident is quickly taken over by the revelation of Viola’s identity and we forget that Sir Toby is hurt, or that the doctor is drunk in the morning. We kind of assume that everything on that end will work out fine. The other incident however, the one with Malvolio, has darker consequences. Malvolio was humiliated and imprisoned because of Toby’s harmless fun. His final words, hanging so close onto the end of the play, are: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” (V.i). We never do find out what happens with this. Olivia sends someone to fetch him to smooth the matter out, but will it be? If we were to have the hypothetical Act VI of this play, would we have a revenge tragedy on our hands? Olivia’s house is a “green world” as Frye defines it because Viola undergoes “a metamorphosis there in which the comic resolution is achieved, and returns to the normal world [Orsion’s court]”, but at the same time it is not because Sebastian was only able to bring a resolution to the love triangle – Sir Toby’s acts have unresolved consequences, and there really is no metamorphosis. So as Malvolio’s curse silences the audience shortly after the joyous reunion of Viola and Sebastion, we see the struggle between comedy and tragedy – between As You Like It and Hamlet at its height. And we are unsure of how we should feel at the end. Ten years later, Shakespeare will heighten this feeling at the end of The Winter’s Tale – but we will get to that.

The final moment of the play is another Feste song, which only serves to add to the confusion and struggle of comedy and tragedy. I’d once again present Ben Kingsley, but the director of that version works against the text of the final song in order to present Twelfth as a neatly-wrapped up comedy. So here is Alfred Deller: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q910HEkDOmE&feature=results_main&playnext=1&list=PL7E08725024EE1AB9

The song is not really a joyous one. It is not as melancholy as the one Feste sings to Orsino, but its leaves us puzzled. He says “we’ll strive to please you every day” – but does he?

(There are several other issues I could have explored in this play, but chose not to. One such issue is with Antonio, a seemingly minor character with a big impact; also one who really forces the question of sexuality in this play. Emma Smith, Oxford University professor, gives a great lecture on Twelfth, focusing in on the character of Antonio. It is free to download on iTunes U and I highly recommend it.)

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Copyright ©; 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved

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Filed under Comedies, Post-Hamlet