Cakes & ale

The character of Orsino, Duke of Illyria in Twelfth Night, and 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, and 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 of them.

Things may have been worse in Shakespeare’s day, when people could more skilfully articulate their feelings, in dress and manner as well as words; when they could sing, and dance, and play upon musical instruments. Shakespeare gives us full in the face what today would slap noodling — stale and wet and second-hand. Our own narcissistic performances are cliché-ridden, seem almost taped. The Elizabethans knew far better how to emote for attention, wording for surprise. 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, and a prig. It is evident his own creator hates him, and it is interesting to learn that the subplot, in which the story of Malvolio nearly takes over the play, may have been 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 is edgier than that.

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.” He is a person who brashly presents himself as a moral improvement on the rest of mankind; a man whose interest is excited exclusively by power. “The personal is the political” for him, and the focus is upon personal advancement. He is a character who flourishes in business, too — I’ve seen him climbing corporate ladders, and one cannot watch one’s back too carefully when the office politician is at large. I’ve even seen his like in the Church hierarchy.

At the other extreme, Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s drunken uncle, rowdy and careless to a fault, whose frolicsome nature is untainted by any ambition higher than a practical joke; and 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, and 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 as the gloves come off, and the fight is starting.

The whole play turns, to my mind, on the scene where these two are returning to the household from the evening’s revels — the worse for wear already, 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 against what they are stepping into. Feste, Olivia’s Fool or Clown, is trying to run some interference. But the full horror of Malvolio’s Puritanism — and through Maria and 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 and 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 no more secure than his next report to her Lady, marching off in his highest dudgeon.

But Maria, clever girl, has conceived a scheme that will see Malvolio into the madhouse, and the others join heartily in. She has mastered her mistress’s handwriting, and will write a note to Malvolio, as if from Olivia. It will persuade him that Olivia herself would welcome his romantic advances, and tell him in ludicrous detail how he may dress and behave to please her. It will be a list, naturally, of everything the Countess most detests.

And Malvolio, easily seized by ambition, and totally incapable of smoaking a jest, takes it hook line and 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 and mistaken identities, comic love triangles, messages and messengers gone astray, nefarious manoeuvres dissolving into farce — with cross-dressing for additional sport — proceeds to a triple-deck ending, and happy marriages all round. Each character gets better than he deserves, and 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 big thrill is in the subplot; in the wicked glee with which the playwright drags Malvolio across the stage, and administers the kicking. Yes, Mr Shakespeare is declaring: we shall have cakes and ale!


Long before I became a Catholic myself, I realized that Shakespeare was one: as Catholic as so many of the nobles, artists, musicians and 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 verses. My view came rather from reading the plays; the Histories especially. But everywhere, Shakespeare’s outlook and 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 and 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 and crucifixes were diligently maintained, the clergy were cap’d, coped, and surpliced, the cult of the saints was still alive, and 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 Armada. 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, a pupil of the old school.

Twelfth Night was first performed at Court (in Whitehall probably), and 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 ever 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 and Anglican at Court, for whom Puritans were the common enemy. But “out there,” budding Roundheads could be scattered through the audience, and looking for trouble. Things might not have ended so well. The Globe theatre cost money to build, and 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 incontestible, and sensitive to the slightest nudge, and they play for keeps. Prudence dictates Maria’s more subtle strategy of revenge: set them up to perform their own self-destruction.