What I love about this play: It’s got some very, very funny moments – Sir Toby and Sir Andrew carousing, Malvolio in his yellow stockings, Viola and Sir Andrew’s duel – but there are also so many grace notes of melancholy and wistfulness to set off the hilarity and give it depth. (You’ve probably gathered by now that I’m a sucker for this sort of tone-play.) Comparing it with Errors is always interesting. Even in the earlier play, there’s real grief and some serious stuff at stake, but in Twelfth Night not all of the losses are recoverable: Olivia’s father and brother are really dead, as is Viola and Sebastian’s father, and the revelations of the last scene leave a handful of characters embittered or alienated rather than mollified. And that potential for sadness makes room for some moments of stunning lyricism, like Viola’s speech from 1.5:
Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me.
(Olivia tries to maintain the skeptical tone she’s been cultivating – “You might do much” – but she’s knocked flat. How could she not be?)
On a similar note, I really love Orsino’s description of the “Come away, death,” song:
Mark it, Cesario, it is old and plain;
The spinsters and the knitters in the sun
And the free maids that weave their thread with bones
Do use to chant it: it is silly sooth,
And dallies with the innocence of love,
Like the old age.
It’s such a lovely, idyllic little sketch of workaday life, but also a bit melancholy, what with the allusion to a lost golden age, and the way the bones for lace-making also provide a neat little reminder of the presence of death (as does the song itself). Really, every word in that scene is so, so right. How in the world did Shakespeare come up with “Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm / More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,” when most writers would reach for the convenient phrase “lost and won”? (Having said this, it occurs to me that this just might be a typographical error. If it is, it’s a brilliant one.)
On a lighter note, I really like Sebastian. He’s just so delightfully laid back in situations that would make most people blink at least a little. (Hmm, I seem to have picked up a gay pirate as a traveling companion? Cool. A complete stranger has just pounced on me and decided to marry me? Well, she doesn’t seem to be crazy, so I guess I’ll just roll with it.) He's adorable, in a slightly daft way.
Favorite moment: “O mistress mine,” no question. (Especially in the Trevor Nunn film; this may be my favorite Shakespeare-on-film moment ever.) I have a soft spot for carpe diem poetry, and this is easily my favorite song in Shakespeare, with its acknowledgment that youth and love and laughter are fragile. It’s especially poignant in context – here Feste is, singing to a couple of drunken ne’er-do-wells who are probably past their best years. (I also like the way they call for “a love-song, a love-song” and not “a song of good life,” as if the two are mutually exclusive.)
But don’t take my word for it. Watch for yourself.