Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Twelfth Night (Shakespeare Re-Read #12)

For me, Twelfth Night is less reading a play than it is slipping into a warm bath.  It was the very first Shakespeare I ever read, I've seen it performed twice and I've studied the play in at least three or four university classes.  So, despite the fact that it's been over a decade since I last picked it up, Twelfth Night immediately seemed as comfortable as ever, its plot and characters as familiar as the back of my hand.

My affection for the play is undoubtedly a bit rooted in nostalgia, yet it could also just be that Twelfth Night is just a naturally inviting story.  Even moreso than light entertainment like A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night is all in good fun.  There aren't really any life-or-death stakes, the plot is all based around simple misunderstandings and mistaken identities, and there isn't even a villain.  Sir Toby is just a rabble-rouser, Sir Andrew is a walking joke and Malvolio is just kind of a dick.  Put it this way, when Malvolio realizes he's been tricked and walks off in a huff swearing revenge, Olivia and Orsino are just like "Meh, someone go after him and make sure his feelings aren't too badly hurt."  One gets the feeling that Olivia has to sooth Malvolio's wounded ego in the wake of another Sir Toby prank on about a weekly basis.  Antonio's imprisonment is kind of a loose end, though while it's never explicitly addressed, my guess is that Orsino freed him to do his new brother-in-law a solid.

Also adding to Twelfth Night's general bonhomie is the fact that, unlike virtually every other Shakespeare comedy, there aren't any blatantly racist or sexist lines that make a 21st-century reader take pause.  It's probably for this reason that Twelfth Night was one of my high school curriculum's "intro to Shakespeare" choices.  (The other was Romeo & Juliet, which, uh, is slightly more grim, yet still, high schoolers can easily relate to teen angst).  The way it worked at ol' Oakridge High was that you read either TN or R&J in Grade 10, the other in Grade 11, Macbeth in Grade 12 and then either Hamlet or King Lear in your final year.  I often wonder how different my life would've had if I'd read Romeo & Juliet first rather than Twelfth Night, and the answer is…probably not different whatsoever.  Hard to foresee a 'sliding doors' scenario from that one.

Just throwing it out there -- Sir Andrew Aguecheek is Shakespeare's funniest character.  This guy is a nonstop parade of comedy.  Start with the fact that he looks like a stringy-haired twerp of a man, and add in that he's a total coward, an idiot, both vain and yet painfully aware of his shortcomings, and so completely in Sir Toby's pocket that a quarter of his lines are parroting everything he says (yet somehow misinterpreting them).  Many is the Shakespearean comic character whose actual dialogue isn't all that funny and you have to rely on the actor to bring it to life, yet Aguecheek's lines just leap off the page.

He steals the show for me, which says a lot in a play where every character is well-written and well-characterized.  Viola/Olivia/Orsino is the rare love triangle where you can see every character's side, though admittedly Orsino's emo caterwauling makes him the least interesting of the three.  Malvolio's officiousness is evident from the moment he opens his mouth.*  Even lesser personalities like Maria and Fabian have a couple of terrific lines that allow the audience to immediately get them and their roles in the action.  They're all familiar personalities but not two-dimensional ones. 

* = One of our Grade 10 assignments while studying this play was to write up a cast list if we were making a film version of Twelfth Night.  I'm sure my full list is in a booklet in a file cabinet somewhere in my parents' basement, yet the only one I can recall coming up with John Cleese as Malvolio, which is admittedly bang-on.  Good work, teenage Mark!  And don't worry about that acne, it'll eventually clear up.

It's weird, this seems like by far the shortest of the entries in this Shakespeare re-read series yet Twelfth Night is one of my favourite plays.  Maybe there simply isn't much to say about a play that's virtually perfect.  Some plays are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.  Twelfth Night is the first, maybe some big Broadway musical that took several different remounts to get right is the second and...I dunno, maybe 'Hamlet 2' is the third. 



12. Pericles
11. The Taming Of The Shrew
10. Antony & Cleopatra
9. Much Ado About Nothing
8. Coriolanus
7. The Two Gentlemen Of Verona
6. The Comedy Of Errors
5. The Winter's Tale
4. A Midsummer Night's Dream
3. Julius Caesar
2. Twelfth Night
1. Othello

My New Year's resolution for 2012 was to re-read (and in some cases, read for the first time) all 38 of William Shakespeare's plays.  2012 has long since ended, but still, onward and upward.  And, since in these modern times it's impossible to undertake a personal project without blogging about it, here are a series of reviews/personal observances I'll make about the plays.  Well, 'reviews' is a bit of a stretch.  It's William goddamn Shakespeare.  What am I going to tell you, "Don't bother reading this one, folks!  What a stinker!  Ol' Mark doesn't like it, so you should definitely believe ME over 400 years of dramatic criticism!"

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