Set in a topsy-turvy world like a holiday revel, this comedy devises a romantic plot around separated twins, misplaced passions, and mistaken identity. Juxtaposed to it is the satirical story of a self-deluded steward who dreams of becoming “Count Malvolio” only to receive his comeuppance at the hands of the merrymakers he wishes to suppress. The two plots combine to create a farce touched with melancholy, mixed throughout with seductively beautiful explorations on the themes of love and time, and the play ends, not with laughter, but with a clown’s sad song.
This is the first play I read for The Shakespeare Challenge. I picked it because I wanted something funny to start with and because I’ve never read this one before. It was a great choice because I loved it… regardless of all the things that didn’t make sense to me.
It starts with Duke Orsino’s speech about his love:
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.
So the beginning isn’t the happiest. Poor Duke is in love with Olivia, who’s not interested at all and has just decided to spend 7 years veiled because her brother died. I know the grieving process varies from person to person, but this seems like overkill.
The second scene introduces Viola, the main female character, who just survived a shipwreck, but her brother may or may not have died. He’s included in the list of characters, so it’s obvious to the readers that he’s alive, but Viola doesn’t know that. So Viola is alone, and she doesn’t even know which country she’s in until the captain tells her it’s Illyria. She decides to disguise herself as a man, and work for the Duke. If Olivia’s grieving process seemed like too much, Viola’s seems like too little. She doesn’t try to go back where she came from, as soon as she’s saved from a shipwreck, she plans out a life for herself in Illyria. I guess Shakespeare just wanted to get to the point.
What a plague means my niece, to take the death of her
brother thus? I am sure care’s an enemy to life.
Yes, Sir Toby, I agree with you.
I liked Toby, Andrew and Maria a lot before their jokes went too far. Sir Toby was trying to get Sir Andrew to marry Olivia, and you’ll see he has great reasons:
SIR TOBY. He’s as tall a man as any’s in Illyria.
Of course, the real reason is money. Sir Andrew is a hilarious character who gets easily confused in pretty much every converstaion he’s part of.
AGUECHEEK. Bless you, fair shrew.
MARIA. And you too, sir.
SIR TOBY. Accost, Sir Andrew, accost.
AGUECHEEK. What’s that?
SIR TOBY. My niece’s chambermaid.
AGUECHEEK. Good Mistress Accost, I desire better acquaintance.
MARIA. My name is Mary, sir.
AGUECHEEK. Good Mistress Mary Accost-
SIR Toby. You mistake, knight. ‘Accost’ is front her, board her,
woo her, assail her.
AGUECHEEK. By my troth, I would not undertake her in this
Is that the meaning of ‘accost’?
MARIA. Fare you well, gentlemen.
Who greets people with ‘bless you, fair shrew’? Was this a thing in Shakespeare’s time or is Sir Andrew being ridiculous as usual? I should do some research.
Something that’s really missing from this play is the first meeting between Viola and Duke. The story is about how they get together but we don’t get to see them meet? We read about Viola planning to work for him, and in the next scene with her she’s already been working for him for three days and she’s his favorite servant. He doesn’t know she’s a woman so he calls her Cesario, but he loves to talk about how pretty Cesario is. And is there a better way for Duke to get Olivia to want him than to send his prettiest servant? Wow, Duke really didn’t think this through.
VIOLA. I’ll do my best
To woo your lady. [Aside] Yet, a barful strife!
Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.
After three days of knowing him?!? Shakespeare’s characters fall in love really easily – it’s not realistic, and I prefer slower development, but I’m not gonna hold this against him. The characters need to have strong emotions to get the story to work. Everyone is either not interested at all or head over heels in love with someone, there’s no such thing as mild emotions when you need characters to be motivated to do ridiculous things.
CLOWN. Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage
Well, he’s not wrong. I remember from other plays I read years ago, that clowns and fools in Shakespeare’s work are usually there to say wise things while pretending to joke.
The only character whose name I knew before reading this play was Malvolio. I knew nothing else about him, so at first I was surprised that he was just a minor character, and then I was surprised that his story really wasn’t that funny. Malvolio is a steward to Olivia, but he wants to be more than that. He’s also the one that announces Viola when she comes to deliver Duke’s message:
OLIVIA. What kind o’ man is he?
MALVOLIO. Why, of mankind.
OLIVIA. What manner of man?
MALVOLIO. Of very ill manner; he’ll speak with you, will you or no.
OLIVIA. Of what personage and years is he?
MALVOLIO. Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a
It’s a woman, actually. And because everyone is falling in love left and right, Olivia falls in love with Viola, except she thinks it’s Cesario. As I (and probably every other reader) predicted.
VIOLA. My master loves her dearly,
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him;
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.
What will become of this?
Now the mess has truly started.
I know that there are theories that Shakespeare was bisexual, and I know that people say there’s subtext in his plays that’s not entirely heterosexual, but holy fuck, I didn’t expect something as blatant as Antonio’s relationship to Sebastian.
So Sebastian is Viola’s lost brother, and Antonio is the one who saved his life. Now Sebastian is leaving, and Antonio wants to go with him:
ANTONIO. The gentleness of all the gods go with thee!
I have many enemies in Orsino’s court,
Else would I very shortly see thee there.
But come what may, I do adore thee so
That danger shall seem sport, and I will go.
One of the funniest exchanges in the play happen when Duke figures out that Olivia/Cesario is in love with someone:
DUKE. Thou dost speak masterly.
My life upon’t, young though thou art, thine eye
Hath stay’d upon some favour that it loves;
Hath it not, boy?
VIOLA. A little, by your favour.
DUKE. What kind of woman is’t?
VIOLA. Of your complexion.
DUKE. She is not worth thee, then. What years, i’ faith?
VIOLA. About your years, my lord.
DUKE. Too old, by heaven!
Haha, if you only knew.
I don’t like Duke. He’s a selfish asshole who doesn’t deserve Viola or Olivia and I don’t believe he’s actually in love with either of them. He tells Viola that women can’t love as strongly as men but Viola tells him off, and also adds a weird comment:
My father had a daughter lov’d a man,
As it might be perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.
Obvious much? Also, he’s your boss, Viola, control yourself.
Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria are sick of Malvolio so they decide to make him think Olivia is in love with him – the point of all this is simply to embarass the guy. There’s a hilarious scene when Malvolio is talking to himself and imagining that he’s married to Olivia, but he doesn’t know there are people listening. This is also the time when Sir Andrew shows some self-awareness:
MALVOLIO. ‘Besides, you waste the treasure of your time with a
SIR ANDREW. That’s me, I warrant you.
MALVOLIO. ‘One Sir Andrew.’
SIR ANDREW. I knew ’twas I; for many do call me fool.
Malvolio really wants to believe he can marry Olivia and be the boss instead of servant, so he falls for a ridiculous letter that Maria forged. The letter says that he has to do things like wear yellow stockings and be rude to people to prove his love. He does exactly that, and Olivia is absolutely freaked out at what’s happening to her usually serious servant, but he just keeps quoting the letter to her:
MALVOLIO. ‘Remember who commended thy yellow stockings,’-
OLIVIA. ‘Thy yellow stockings?’
MALVOLIO. ‘And wish’d to see thee cross-garterd.’
MALVOLIO. ‘Go to, thou an made, if thou desir’st to be so’;-
OLIVIA. Am I made?
MALVOLIO. ‘If not, let me see thee a servant still.’
OLIVIA. Why, this is very midsummer madness.
At this point, the joke is still funny, but later on, it becomes cruel. The other characters try to convince Malvolio that he’s actually gone mad, and I can’t help but feel sorry for him. Because of his ambition, he believes he has a chance with Olivia, and doesn’t understand that he’s just being used for entertainment.
Olivia is kind of in a similar situation – she believes she has a chance even after Viola makes it clear she’s not interested:
VIOLA. By innocence I swear, and by my youth,
I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth,
And that no woman has; nor never none
Shall mistress be of it, save I alone.
That’s a NO.
But now Sebastian is in town, and Antonio followed him, gave many speeches about his love AND gave his wallet to Sebastian. Those two should have been the main characters.
When Sir Andrew gets into a fight with Viola, Antonio shows up with this proclamation:
ANTONIO. Put up your sword. If this young gentleman
Have done offence, I take the fault on me:
If you offend him, I for him defy you.
SIR TOBY. You, sir! Why, what are you?
ANTONIO. One, sir, that for his love dares yet do more
Than you have heard him brag to you he will.
Poor guy is so heartbroken when he thinks that Sebastian has abandoned him, he doesn’t know he’s actualy defending Viola.
The similarity in looks between Viola and Sebastian makes things even weirder when Olivia accidentaly marries Sebastian. He’s shocked that this woman he doesn’t know wants to marry him, but he goes with it:
SEBASTIAN. What relish is in this? How runs the stream?
Or I am mad, or else this is a dream.
Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep;
If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep!
The entire mess comes to an end when all the characters end up in the same place and everyone is shocked when they see both Viola and Sebastian:
DUKE. One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons!
A natural perspective, that is and is not.
Antonio’s reaction is even funnier:
ANTONIO. How have you made division of yourself?
I knew it will end this way, but still, Duke going from heartbroken when he finds out Olivia is married to happy and in love when he finds out Viola is female is way too quick and shows that he doesn’t really care about either of them. Similarly, Olivia doesn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that she married a stranger; after all he looks like the guy she was in love with. Malvolio is the only one who has a realistic reaction to the things that happened to him:
MALVOLIO. I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you.
This could be a great start to a sequel tragedy.
There’s a comment that Fabian makes, that expresses my feelings about the play:
FABIAN. If this were play’d upon a stage now, I could condemn
it as an improbable fiction.
But, improbable or not, it’s ridiculous and crazy and fun. How can anyone think that Shakespeare is boring?