Cakes & ale
The character of Orsino, Duke of Illyria in Twelfth Night, & for that matter the beautiful Countess Olivia whom he woos in his overstated way, are wonderful reminders that narcissism is not a modern invention. The parade of “feelings” — which begins in what might be truly felt, & ends in keeping up the appearances — has been wending through the City of Man since it was first incorporated. The narcissism isn’t in the feelings, of course. It is in the parade.
Things may have been worse in Shakespeare’s day, when people could more skilfully articulate their feelings, in dress & manner as well as words; when they could sing, & dance, & play upon musical instruments. Shakespeare gives us full in the face what today would slap quite noodling — stale & wet & second-hand. Our own narcissistic performances seem less rehearsed, than taped. The Elizabethans knew far better how to emote for attention. It was less like whining, more like physical attack.
Nor is the self-righteous Malvolio other than a character we still see all around us — differing only in facundity, his ability to express himself. He is humourless, officious, conceited, & a prig. It is evident his own creator hates him, & it is interesting to learn that the subplot, in which the story of Malvolio nearly takes over the play, was entirely of Shakespeare’s invention. The rest of the machinery he lifted from the usual Italian sources, making a few startling improvements; but the Malvolio subplot was all his own.
Malvolio is high steward in the young widow Olivia’s extensive household, but his like may be observed today in every government department, or mixing into any controversy as uptight spokesman for the “politically correct.” A person who brashly presents himself as a moral improvement on the rest of mankind; whose interest is excited exclusively by power. “The personal is the political” for him, & the focus is upon personal advancement. He is a character who flourishes in business, too — I’ve seen him climbing corporate ladders, & one cannot watch one’s back too carefully when the office politician is about. I’ve even seen his like in the Church hierarchy.
At the other extreme, Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s drunken uncle, rowdy & careless to a fault, whose frolicsome nature is untainted by any ambition higher than a practical joke; & whose Sancho, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, would be characterized today as “a complete idiot.” The whole play, it seems to me, is about the art of making a spectacle of oneself, but Sir Andrew is presented as artless. He thinks he can do things like speak French, & boogie, but no one could take offence at his pretensions. His suit of Olivia is all but ignored. Still, he serves his loyal turn by Sir Toby’s side when the gloves come off, & the fight is starting.
The whole play turns, in my obsequiously humble opinion, on the scene where these two are returning to the household from the evening’s revels — the worse for wear, but wanting more wine. They are confronted by the august Malvolio, there as ever to lay down the law. Maria, Olivia’s magnificent gentlewoman, has already warned our knights what it is that they are stepping into. Feste, Olivia’s Fool or Clown, is trying to run some interference. But the full horror of Malvolio’s Puritanism — & through Maria & Sir Andrew, Shakespeare drops the “P” word in plain sight — has commoved the household. Something must be done.
Sir Toby is still merrily singing when the Clown intervenes for his own good. Taking the Clown for Malvolio’s proxy, Sir Toby observes: “Out o’tune sir.”
Then taunts: “Art any more then a Steward?”
Then throws down the gauntlet entirely: “Dost thou thinke because thou art vertuous, there shall be no more Cakes & Ale?”
“Yes by Saint Anne,” saith the Clown, still perhaps trying to lower the temperature. “And Ginger shall bee hotte y’th mouth too.”
Malvolio tells Maria that her job is as secure as his next report to her Lady, then marches sternly off.
But Maria, clever girl, has conceived a scheme that will see Malvolio into the madhouse, & the others join heartily in. She has mastered her mistress’s handwriting, & will write a note to Malvolio, as if from Olivia. It will persuade him that Olivia herself would welcome his romantic advances, & tell him in ludicrous detail how he may dress & behave to please her. It will be a list, naturally, of everything the Countess most detests.
And Malvolio, easily seized by ambition, & totally incapable of smoaking a jest, takes it hook line & sinker. He makes a side-splitting fool of himself, after which he is carted away as insane.
The main plot — the usual Plautine round of twins & mistaken identities, comic love triangles, messages & messengers gone astray, nefarious manoeuvres dissolving into farce — with cross-dressing for additional sport — proceeds to a triple-deck ending, & happy marriages all round. Each character gets better than he deserves, & as the conspiracy finally unravels, even Malvolio gets released from the loony bin. By the tradition of the times, in England, the twelfth day of Christmas leading into Twelfth Night (eve to the Epiphany), was a jolly party. The play is in this spirit, & the subtitle, “What You Will,” promises only slapstick entertainment.
The thrill is entirely in the subplot; in the wicked glee with which the playwright drags Malvolio across the stage, & administers the kicking.
Long before I became a Catholic myself, I realized that Shakespeare was one: as Catholic as so many of the nobles, artists, musicians & composers at the Court of Bad Queen Bess. I did not come to this conclusion because some recusant document had fallen into my hands, or because I subscribed to any silly acrostic some over-ingenious scholar had found, woven into a patch of otherwise harmless text. My view came rather from reading the plays; the Histories especially. But everywhere, Shakespeare’s outlook & attitudes are palpably Catholic, to say nothing of reactionary. He can be discreet; but in his loyalty to the old Roman worldview, he is unwavering. That he came from Warwickshire tells us plenty to start: the county remained all but impenetrable to Protestant agents & hitmen, well into Shakespeare’s time.
As something of a courtier himself, in later years, he would have fit right into a regal environment in which candles & crucifixes were diligently maintained, the clergy were cap’d, coped, & surpliced, the cult of the saints was still alive, & outwardly one might not think anything had changed from the reign of the late Queen Mary.
The politics were immensely complicated; we will get into them some other day. The point to take here is that the war on Catholics was happening not inside, but outside the Court. Inside, practising Catholics were relatively safe, so long as they did not make a big scene of it. It was outside that Queen Elizabeth I walked her tightrope, above murderously contending factions. She found herself appeasing a Calvinist constituency for which she had no sympathy, yet which was rapidly becoming the main threat to her rule, more dangerous than any Jesuits or Spaniards. Quite apart from the bloodshed, those were interesting times, in every part of which we must look for motives to immediate context, before anywhere else. Eliza was herself a ruthless, even fiendish politician; but in her tastes, of the old school.
Twelfth Night was first performed at Court (in Whitehall probably), & despite some cute references to the town — for instance to the Elephant, a Southwark pub (transposed to Illyria) — it was pitched to an audience that only went there slumming. Had it been played instead before the pit at the Globe, I doubt the author would have left in the tongue-lash Maria delivers on the Puritan “dogs.” This would have been equally acceptable to Catholic & Anglican at Court, for whom Puritans were the common enemy. But “out there,” budding Roundheads could be scattered through the audience, maybe looking for trouble. Things might not have ended so well. The Globe theatre cost money to build, & was made of wood entirely; you wouldn’t want to tease them.
In this respect we are in a parallel situation today, with our contemporary “progressive” canines. Behind their backs, we say what we think, but it would be unwise to say it to their faces, for their pride is sensitive to the slightest nudging, & they play for keeps. Prudence dictates Maria’s more subtle strategy of revenge: set them up to perform their own self-destruction.