One of the main sources for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is the story of Apolonius and Silla, written by Barnabe Rich, and told in his anthology of tales entitled “His Farewell to Military Profession.”
Although the plots are very similar in nature, the nature of the characters, the feeling of the original, is much, much darker. For example, Rich’s tale begins onboard the fateful ship before it is wracked by storms and, Silla (later Shakespeare’s Viola) is on her way to meet her beloved. While on board, the Captain “seeing Silla’s singular beauty” calls her to his bed, offers her his hand in marriage and, when she refuses, says to her, “Seeing you make so little account of my courtesy, from henceforth I will use the office of my authority; you shall know that I am the captain of this ship and have power to command and dispose of things at my pleasure seeing you have so scornfully rejected me to be your loyal husband, I will now take you by force and use you at my will; there shall be no man to protect you, nor yet to persuade me from that I have determined.” Silla prays to god for deliverance and, suddenly finds herself and the ship in the middle of a terrible storm, “the terror whereof was such that there was no man but did think the seas would presently have swallowed them.” Silla survives and, in abject terror for her life and her maidenhead, or, as Rich puts it “to prevent a number of injuries that might be proferred to a woman in her case, she determined to leave her own apparel and to sort herself into some of those suits, that, being taken for a man, she might pass through the country in the better safety. She called herself Silvio, the name of her own twin brother, whom you have heard spoken of before.”
The genesis of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is in a story of great threat, danger and, indeed, terror. The characters in Rich’s story are fearful, frightened, frightening and, in many ways, more suited to a tragedy than a comedy. Although Shakespeare altered this tale significantly, it is my belief that he was not able to completely divorce his play, described by Samuel Johnson as “light and exquisitely humorous” from the essential bones of darkness and pathos found in the original sources.
And it is not just Rich’s original text that feeds Shakespeare’s play with darkness; HB Charlton points out that Shakespeare also borrowed from an incredible play, John Lyly’s Gallathea, where, we are told, every year Neptune, arriving in a great storm, sends a monster to devour the fairest and chastest virgin in all the country. Two shepherds, each convinced his daughter to be the most likely candidate, separately decide to disguise their daughters as boys and send them out into the world where, of course, the two girls meet and fall in love with each other and where, eventually, one of the girls is forced to offer herself to the goddess Aphrodite as sacrifice. Shakespeare borrows liberally from Lyly’s play, taking whole sections of Gallathea and adapting it into dialogue between Orsino and Viola.
So much of the foundation of Shakespeare’s play has its roots in darkness, in pain, suffering, and even the first years of performance help to draw our focus to the inherent elements of tragedy in Twelfth Night.
One of my favorite descriptions of the play comes from Hotson, where he writes, “To see Twelfth Night is to be reminded of those occasions when we are making merry with those who are closest to us in sympathy and affection, and yet, though the pleasure is keen and genuine, we are fractionally conscious that the formula is not quite right. We cannot quite keep it from ourselves that a real effort is required for the creation of harmony. The moment comes when we look coldly on the merry making and the good relationships and see the precariousness of our tolerance for one another, the degree of pretense in all sociability.”
There is something dark at the heart of Shakespeare’s comedy.
Remember that, when Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night, he was just ending a period of writing that would see him produce some of the greatest of his romantic comedies, such as Much Ado and As You Like It, but also immediately before he wrote his some of greatest and darkest tragedies. G K Hunter, in his essay onTwelfth Night, writes, “Seen in the context of Shakespeare’s canon, the melancholy mood of Twelfth Night cannot well be kept apart from the tragic vision of plays like Troilus and Cressida and Hamlet which are its contemporaries. The comedy ends with happiness for some, but the happiness has no inevitability.” In Twelfth Night we see echoes and undertones of the great tragedies written at the same time. “In Twelfth Night the impetus towards reconciliation (harmony, comedy) is tentative enough to allow doubts, and in such doubts lies the death of comedy.”
There is something dark at the heart of Twelfth Night.
When I first started thinking about Twelfth Night, I was also revisiting a list of must-read American novels again, including F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and the parallels between the two works are…well, it may be a stretch to say remarkable, but they struck me as profound.
Both works take place in a location near the sea. Both works are about love found and lost, about love spurned. Both works are about people creating new selves, about hiding their true origins. Both works take place in a social structure where love is a game, where money is no object, where hangers on and poor relations live under the roofs of the weathly and idle. Both works are concerned with wit and the way language can be used to both hide and reveal. My initial instinct was to actually intersperse sections of Gatsby throughout our script, actually weave Fitzgerald’s prose into Shakespeare’s, and I tried, but, only a few nights before sending out the final script, I realized that it wasn’t necessary to do so. What Shakespeare and Fitzgerald did was to layer the light and the dark, to mingle them together, to create a kind of amalgam of comedy and tragedy. More tragic in Fitzgerald and more comic in Shakespeare, but still, essentially, similar in tone.
In fact, with a little liberal trimming and clear focus from the actors, I think our script will enable us to re-divide Shakespeare’s play into its two component parts: The comedy he was driving at with Toby, Andrew, Maria and Malvolio and the tragedy he was given in the story of Viola, Orsino, Sebastian and Olivia.
It has often been said of Twelfth Night that it isn’t really that funny. It is charming, delightful, festive, clever, witty, sweet, and pleasant…but not really funny. Clifford Leach writes, “This is not a comedy with a lot of laughter in it.”
William Hazlitt, although he didn’t agree with this assessment, gets close to what I mean when he wrote of Twelfth Night, “Shakespeare’s comic genius resembles the bee, rather in its power of extracting sweets from weeds or poisons than in leaving a sting behind it.” Shakespeare attempts to draw sweetness from weeds and poisons, but does not accomplish the feat of really landing a sting of hysterical comedy. I would like us to do a little bit of both; find some of the weeds and poisons and also try to land some significant bee stings of humor.
And, let’s be honest, only some of this stuff is actually funny and much of that humor is based on cruelty, selfishness, humiliation and rejection. Even within the so called “comic characters” there is a mixture of anger, hatred, humiliation and despair. I believe that Twelfth Night sits almost perfectly balanced between As You Like It and Much Ado on the comic side and Troilus and Cressida and Hamlet on the tragic side, ultimately creating a not so funny comedy and a not so tragic tragedy that would benefit from a little distance from each other.
The challenge we have before us is to create two different plays that work hand and hand with each other. One the one side, the Tragics: Olivia, Orsino, Viola, Sebastian, Antonia and Valentine. This group will be our Gatsby crew, the actors asked to dig into motivation, emotional truth, and find the kernels of sadness, loneliness, fear and need at the very heart of Shakespeare’s play. On the other side, the comics: Toby, Andrew, Maria, Feste and Malvolio. Feste and Malvolio are perhaps closer to the middle of this range, but in essence these are the characters that Shakespeare used to lighten the freaking mood, to give us a chance to laugh a little, make fun a little, and giggle at. There will be times when both teams will need to share the burden; the tragics being a bit funny and the comics being a bit sad, but those places are easy to find and will not necessarily be the greatest challenge that we face as a cast.
Remember how Shakespeare’s play ends. Russell writes, the play does not end in a communal feast, a dance, or a grand gathering as do many of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. Instead, Shakespeare leaves us with Feste, alone, to sing of man’s folly and disorder, of the passing of time, and of the wind and rain, a reflection back to the chaotic storm that starts the play. In Twelfth Night, the “conclusion” of the chaos and mistaken identities is not, in fact, a re-instatement of order. In this, if in nothing else, Twelfth Night does not follow a traditional Shakespearean comic trajectory. It is something different.
Marjorie Garber, in Shakespeare After All, writes, “ Some of the play’s characters find that their fantasies do come true, while others are punished for daring to have fantasies at all.”
One thing to remember about Feste’s final song. Does anyone know the only other place in the canon that this song is used? Feste’s song is also sung to an aged king, alone with madness born of grief, in the middle of a terrifying storm, by Lear’s nameless and tragic fool. Shakespeare may have written the song for Twelfth Night, but it found its true home in Lear.