Twelfth Night; or What You Will by William Shakespeare

Twelfth night

I read this one for The Classics Club.

All’s well that ends well, right? And this one certainly does end well after putting the reader through the wringer, piling one mess upon another until it seems the characters will never be able to extricate themselves from the bottom of the pile. I knew the basic story, in which twins become separated in a ship wreck. Each thinks the other is dead, and the sister Viola disguises herself as a man to serve Duke Orsino. Orsino is trying to woo Olivia, a young woman whose father and brother have died, who in her mourning has decided not to respond to suitors. Orsino uses Viola (whom he thinks is the young man Cesario) to get to Olivia, who falls in love with Viola, not knowing she is a he. Meanwhile, Viola falls in love with Orsino. Then, the twin brother Sebastian (who looks exactly like Cesario, of course) arrives on the scene. I also knew this was a comedy (so there’d be no horrific, death-laden ending), and I still found myself worrying, thinking, “How on earth are they ever going to set things right?” That’s the sign of a brilliant author, of course.

Another sign of a brilliant author is that he can write comedy. I’ve said this elsewhere before, I’m sure, but I’ll repeat it here. I know Shakespeare gets most of his credit for his tragedies — and I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve credit for the greatness of those — but I’ve always been a huge fan of his comedies. Years ago, someone told me, “Writing great comedy is much harder than writing great tragedy. Anyone can make an audience cry, but it’s very hard to make an audience laugh.” That’s true. A sense of humor seems to be a much more personal and variable animal than a sense of tragedy. I’ve lived and worked in some places in my life where people “got” my sense of humor and in other places where people didn’t.

Shakespeare would’ve “gotten” my sense of humor, if I can judge by what he wrote. I can still remember reading A Comedy of Errors in the undergraduate library in college and being worried I was going to be kicked out for laughing too hard (as if a librarian would kick someone out for such a wonderful thing!). That’s one of the reasons I was a little disappointed with Twelfth Night. I did giggle a few times, but I never found myself giving way to uncontrollable laughter. Still, that’s a feat, isn’t it? 400+ years after this play was written in England it can still make an American giggle. It begs the question we literary types are always asking: what’s being written today that will still make people laugh 500 years from now?

My other disappointment was the treatment of Malvolio, Olivia’s steward. I know. I know. He’s a pompous ass who deserves to be taken down a notch, but it was all a bit too cruel for my tastes. Make a fool of him, sure, but did they have to continue it to the point that he’s locked up as a mad man? (Although, I have to admit that it was funny when he was complaining about the dark, and they were all proclaiming that he was in the bright light.)

We’re talking about Shakespeare here, though. The disappointments are only mildly so, and the marvels outweigh them. Of course, I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who loves Shakespeare. If you don’t love Shakespeare, I wouldn’t recommend this one if you’re trying to change your mind. For that, I’d recommend A Comedy of Errors. For those of you who love Shakespeare and haven’t yet read this one? Do.

2 thoughts on “Twelfth Night; or What You Will by William Shakespeare

  1. I read this one but a long time ago. The plot does get all twisted up, doesn’t it? And the thing with Shakespeare is even when he’s disappointing he’s still a darn good read!


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