What You Will, or What You Won’t

· 25 January 2016 ·

[The satire in ‘Twelfth Night’ that almost nobody gets]

If music be the food of love, play on

opening line, Twelfth Night, or What You Will

Synopsis of Twelfth Night with lossy compression:

Shipwreck separates twins. Countess loves girl twin posing as boy, who loves lovelorn duke, who loves countess. Countess’s drunken uncle’s foppish friend loves countess. Countess’s maid, drunken uncle, and fool fool sanctimonious steward with forged love letter. Steward’s besotted behaviour concerns countess. Steward, immured, is mocked by fool’s mock minister. Girl twin posing as boy hints of love to lovelorn duke; duke continues crush on countess. Foppish friend fights girl twin posing as boy. Countess confuses confused boy twin for girl twin posing as boy. They marry. Girl twin posing as boy arrives with duke. Consternation, revelation, reunion. Duke, no longer lovelorn, now loves girl twin now not posing as boy. They will marry. Drunken uncle has married maid. Foppish friend and sanctimonious steward depart. Fool sings.
Over the last four hundred years, a lot of people have laughed a lot at Twelfth Night. Not to be immodest about it, it’s good and it’s funny. I’m glad they’ve enjoyed it.

But Twelfth Night isn’t only a romantic comedy about separated siblings and simpering servants, with bendable gender for added titillation.

Remember that back in my day women’s roles were played
by men, so Viola/Cesario was not Imogen Stubbs in a
false moustache, but a boy playing a girl playing a boy,
in love with another boy. No wonder the Puritans hated
the theatre
. (Some things never change.)

Ever since its first publication in 1623’s First Folio, nearly everyone who has seen Twelfth Night has seen it as a sort of bootlegged DVD, with only a single audio track in the default language, and no bonus features. It’s entertaining to watch, but there’s not much depth to the experience.

What few people know, and fewer acknowledge, is that a commentary track exists for this play, an alternate set of subtitles, a historical metaphorical SRT file.

Anyone who knows what was going on at Elizabeth’s court back around the ’80s (that’s the 1580s), and who knows enough about me to approach Twelfth Night through my eyes, can comprehend an additional layer of caricature in the characters. If you understand the history and admit my authorship, it’s very easy to see and enjoy.
A different illustration of dual-layered content can be seen in The Simpsons, the animated television series set in Springfield, Oregon. Children, who process only the show’s base level, see the antics of a cheeky boy named Bart getting into all sorts of hot water at school and at home. The cartoon works perfectly well that way. But their parents, at least the bright ones, with a more mature knowledge of what things are in heaven and earth, enjoy a multiplexed signal. The additional frequencies are stuffed full of cultural and topical zings and arrows, and close attention rewards the viewer with the brilliance of the writing. I adore The Simpsons. It’s so smart, so funny, and so fast.

It’s impossible to pick one episode from the 27-year
multitude. Since brevity is the soul of wit, here’s the
Academy Award-nominated 2012 short film,
The Longest Daycare. It’s not typical, but it’s
poignant and perfect in panto. You’ve probably
seen lots of regular episodes anyway.

I’m not going to type a list with Twelfth Night’s characters in column A and their courtier counterparts in column B. If you don’t already know them then it’s up to you to dis-cover them for yourself, now that you know what to look for. (A few hints follow.) Take heart: homework like this is a lot easier than it used to be.

Twelfth Night was not written for the groundlings at the Globe, nor for modern moviegoers whose lives are lived cultural and temporal centuries from the people being parodied. My original, intended audiences knew the court because they were the court. There were always red faces in the front rows when the self-awareness dawned. I enjoyed that.

As I was a courtier also, I could easily turn the likes of Hatton (sheep-biter indeed), that puppy Sidney, my termagant sister and her sot of a husband, and even Bess herself, into the food of satire, to play on.

And if you as a viewer of Twelfth Night don’t understand that, or far worse, choose to close your eyes to it because it interferes with your wrong-headed conception of who and what Shake-Speare was, then you’re missing out on most of the fun.