"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, September 26, 2011

Twelfth Night–Nietzsche Again!

 

Twelfth Night is the first of Shakespeare’s ‘high comedies’ that I have read in my Second Coming.  As I have written, little of Shakespeare took hold in my first reading as an English major at Yale; and nothing at all of the comedies which I thought were senseless, silly and a waste of time.  I have put them last this time around after the Histories and the Tragedies – put them off is a more honest way of putting it, although a close friend of mine who has read and studied the whole of Shakespeare’s works said I had a treat in store.  He was right.

First, I found Twelfth Night actually funny.  I never found Falstaff funny – witty, yes, but funny ha-ha no; and in my first contact with Sir Toby – especially in the BBC 1980 video production – I found the same fat blowhard as I did in the Henry IV plays.  As Bloom points out, he knows Falstaff (perhaps his favorite character in all of Shakespeare, perhaps because he looks like him and fancies himself as witty, earthy, and vital), and Sir Toby is not Falstaff.

Shortly after this introduction Maria enters and concocts with Sir Toby and others the schemes to deflate the pompous buffoon, Malvolio.  Act II.5 is hilarious – Malvolio mouths utter, self-absorbed, nonsense about the presumed love of Olivia for him; and the reactions of  the concealed Toby, Fabian, and Andrew trying to stifle their exclamations of amazement at the pompous silliness uttered by Malvolio is real slapstick comedy:

Malvolio: ‘Tis but fortune; all is fortune.  Maria once told me that she [Olivia] did affect me; and I have heard herself come thus near, that, should she fancy, it should be one of my complexion. Besides, she uses me with a more exalted respect than any one else that follows her.  What should I think on’t?

Toby: Here’s an overweening rogue.

Fabian: O, Peace! Contemplation makes a rare turkey cock of him.  How he jets under his advanced plumes!

Andrew:  ‘Slight, I could so beat the rogue

Toby: Ah, rogue!

Andrew: Pistol him, pistol him.

Toby: Peace, peace.

Malvolio: There is example for’t.  The Lady of the Strachy married the yeoman of the wardrobe.

Andrew: Fie on him, Jezebel.

And so it goes.  It is even funnier when Malvolio finds the counterfeit letter, supposedly written by Olivia but really by Maria, which instructs him to do ridiculous things – to dress and act in exactly the way which will displease Olivia.  Act III.iv in which Malvolio acts out the instructions in the letter before Olivia is equally funny.

The humor of course comes at the expense of Malvolio.  His later treatment by Maria and her cohorts, putting him in a dark cell and making him think he is mad is considered by many critics to be cruel, going beyond acceptable social bounds (i.e. deflating a pompous fool) and entering a realm of psychological torture.  They carry the prank too far, say these critics, going beyond the already achieved goal of revealing to Malvolio his absurd pomposity, and simply exercising meanness.  Bloom comments:

What happens to Malvolio is…so harshly out of proportion to his merits, such as they are, that the ordeal of humiliation has to be regarded as one of the prime Shakespearean enigmas.  Even if a poet’s war with Ben Jonson was the occasion for creating Malvolio, the social crucifixion of the virtuous steward passes the possible bounds of playful literary rancor. The Invention of the Human

Other critics disagree.  A.D. Nuttall says:

I have said that Malvolio should not be there, but there is perhaps a sense in which he is actually needed.  Nietzsche wrote, “Not so very long ago a royal wedding or great public celebration  would have been incomplete without executions, tortures and auto da fe, a noble household without some person whose office it was to serve as a butt for everyone’s malice and cruel teasing…There is no feast without cruelty, as man’s entire history attests.  Punishment, too, has its festive features”

Nietzsche’s  blood-chilling observations can have a certain shrewdness.  One begins to wonder whether, when spirits are high, there has to be someone to suffer the impact of the aggressive element in all this joy.  Malvolio is “ill will” in contrast with the others, but Nietzsche implies that his description can be turned inside out: the butt is there to receive the malice of the happy persons.  Who better for such a role than one who despises merriment? Shakespeare The Thinker

I agree with Nuttall and find Maria the most appealing character in the play – she is the plotter and schemer with nary a thought to the possible immorality or simple wrongness of her acts of humiliation. “The house will be quieter without him”, is all she says when planning Malvolio’s demise.  She goes on:

The devil a Puritan that he is, or anything constantly but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass, that cons state without book and utters it by great swarths; the best persuaded of himself; so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work.

Maria holds nothing back in her assessment of Sir Andrew:

…He’s a fool, he’s a great quarreler; and but that he hath the gift of a coward to ally the gust he hath in quarrelling, ‘tis thought among the prudent he would quickly have the gift of a grave.

She schemes to do him in with as much trickery as that for Malvolio. She has energy, wit, passion – although negative – and is neither redeemed (as Malvolio is with his contrition and admission of his faults, thus convincing some critics that he is really a good but wronged person at the heart of the play) nor punished.  She is the Nietzschian hero of the play and therefore mine.

With the exception of Maria, I do not like the characters in Twelfth Night, and even she does not have the substance and power of Caliban in The Tempest (not officially a comedy but a romance) or that of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.  Leaving her aside, and leaving aside as well the wonderful language, quick reparties, and wit of the play, what is left?  The gender-bending for a modern reader is interesting, but not innovative, and great stretches, and willing suspensions of disbelief are required.  The satire of people being in love with love – especially Orsino, but also Olivia – is obvious; the double identities, coincidence, and circumstance are amusing, but again predictable. 

What saves the play for me is Maria and her malicious trickery – both of Malvolio and also of Sir Andrew Aguecheek who is almost as big of a jerk as Malvolio.  Her plotting with Sir Toby to engineer a duel between Aguecheek and Viola (Cesario) is not as ingenious but illustrative of a spirit who understands that she is more intelligent than anyone else, that she is stuck in a low-class position, and that only through plotting, gossip, and trickery can she possibly get ahead. 

I knew a woman like Maria – a secretary at the World Bank in the days before computers and when there were still secretaries, who was from a working class English family.  She knew that in the Bank there was a rigid class system – upper class English were the professionals, working class the secretaries.  Using gossip, innuendo, and very ingenious trickery, she exposed the pomposity of those English professionals who denied their working class roots, and did what she could to show the incompetence of the upper class.  She was a woman to be feared, and not unlike Maria who only had these resources with which to rise or succeed.

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