Shakespeare: Twelfth Night

December 20, 2015

51drgdDFhEL._AA160_A friend took me to task the other day for omitting Twelfth Night from the list of Shakespearean comedies I liked in my post on The Taming of the Shrew. I was so astonished at my own oversight that I went back to the play…

I recall a wonderful amateur production many years ago at my last school, when we were lucky to have a sufficiently talented group of actors to put on a production (I stage-managed) which went down very well. I think I’ve seen the play once or twice in the theatre, too, but not recently, so there’s something to look forward to one day.

Re-reading the play set me off thinking further about comedy. So much more seems to be riding on the language than in tragedy. Yes, in the tragedies there are the great set-piece speeches and soliloquies too, and I’m not disparaging these at all, but they accompany clear onstage action, and the emotions and responses expected from an audience are clear; in spite of any issues with the sevententh century language, a twenty-first century audience is in no doubt about what’s going on – the deaths and murders that are the stuff of tragedy are obvious.

There seem to me to be rather more obstacles to the appreciation of Shakespearean comedy, which I’ve been aware of in the theatre when I’ve often found myself much readier to laugh than most of the audience (which is fine, as I love laughing). The language is sharper, the exchanges between characters are more rapid, quick-fire wit is the key: a modern audience will surely understand if they have the time to take everything in, if they are as quick-witted as Shakespeare’s characters, but comprehension is often lost: puns, innuendos and obscenities that make up the core of the humour flash by too quickly. And then, there are the changes in the use of the language itself, and the different context of some of the exchanges, before we even get on to the action onstage.

What the actors themselves are up to may also be less easy to interpret: yes, there is cross-dressing and hiding and general silliness which one can usually understand, and there’s certainly lots of this in Twelfth Night, but one also needs to be clear about the very diferent attitudes to courtship and marriage, which are woven into the complexities of the plot.

 

With this re-reading, I was struck quite forcefully by the perfection of the plot of the play, the wonderful symmetry of the story of brother and sister lost in shipwrecks and ending up with weddings at the end, as well as the chaos of the many subplots and distractions so artfully woven together, the Malvolio story and the antics of the two drunken knights, and the Duke and Olivia story that is not to be, with the added complexity in the role of Cesario as the go-between…

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