‘I am not what I am’ Twelfth Night and inverted identities
‘Twelfth Night Merrymaking in Farmer Shakeshaft’s Barn’ (Phiz, c. 1840)
Carnival and Elizabethan society • Elizabethan society was strictly hierarchical: • Every degree of people in their vocation, calling, and office hath appointed to them, their duty and order. Some are in high degree, some in low, some kings and princes, some inferiors and subjects, priests, and laymen, Masters and Servants, Fathers and children, husbands and wives, rich and poor, and everyone hath need of other: so that in all things is to be lauded and praised the goodly order of god, without the which, no house, no city, no commonwealth can continue and endure or last. (From Homily on Obedience, 1559)
Carnival and Elizabethan society • Built into the structure of Elizabethan society were a series of ‘safety valves’: periods of licence in which the strict social order would be temporarily reversed: • Shrove Tuesday • Misrule (Christmas – especially Twelfth Night) • May Day • summer games • These festivals often involved an invasion of the local church or churchyard with music, singing, dancing, joking, bawdy humour, role-play and outrageous costume.
Carnival • As Michael Bristol explains: • ‘Central to the experience of Carnival is a particular use of symbols, costumes and masks, in which the ordinary relationship between signifier and signified is disrupted and conventional meaning is parodied. Parody and travesty, the rude, foolish, sometimes abusive mimicry of everyday categories, create the topsy-turvy world of carnivalesque misrule.’ (Bristol 1983: 641)
Carnival theory • A key theorist of the carnivalesque is the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975). • Bakhtin’s view of carnival is in many respects the opposite to the ‘safety valve’ theory. • For Bakhtin, carnival ‘offers the chance to have a new outlook on the world, to realize the relative nature of all that exists, and to enter a completely new order of things.’ (1965: 34) • In the carnival of the Renaissance period, says Bakhtin, ‘the world is seen anew, no less (and perhaps more) profoundly than when seen from the serious standpoint’ (1965: 66).
Carnival theory • ‘Carnival with all its images, indecencies, and curses affirms the people’s immortal, indestructible character. In the world of carnival the awareness of the people’s immortality is combined with the realization that established authority and truth are relative.’ (Bakhtin 1965: 256) • For Bakhtin, ‘festive laughter’ is based upon an idea of ‘duality’ – of the old, dying world giving birth to the new one. Laughter in this sense is fundamentally progressive.
Carnival and the Elizabethan stage • Robert Weimann argues that ‘although the [carnivalesque] ceremonies were gradually discontinued, their spirit survived in the gaiety, the “immoderate and disordinate Joye,” of the Elizabethan clown, jig dancer, and “ieaster”’ (1987: 23-4): • ‘…his study is to coin bitter jests, or to show antique motions, or to sing bawdy sonnets and ballads: give him a little wine in his head, he is continually flearing and making of mouths; he laughs intemperately at every little occasion, and dances about the houses, leaps over tables, outskips men’s heads, trips up his companions’ heels, burns sack with a candle, and hath all the feats of a Lord of Misrule in the country.’ (Thomas Lodge, Wits Miserie, 1596)
Carnival and the Elizabethan stage • Theatres in the Elizabethan period were distinctly carnivalesque spaces, as Bristol argues: • ‘Theatre occupies a marginal space as well as a marginal time. This is pragmatically true of the earliest Elizabethan playhouses, which were situated outside the formal jurisdiction of the city authorities, although they remained de facto an integral part of the city’s economic activity.’ (Bristol 1983: 648)
Carnival and the Elizabethan stage • The Puritans of the period, of course, took a dim view of both carnival and theatre: • ‘… some spend the Sabbath day (for the most part) in frequenting of bawdy stage-plays and interludes, in maintaining Lords of Misrule (for so they call a certain kind of play which they use), May games, church-ales, feasts, and wakes: in piping, dancing, dicing, carding, bowling, tennis-playing: in bear-baiting, cock-fighting, hawking, hunting, and such like; … whereby the Lord God is dishonoured, his Sabbath violated, his word neglected, his sacraments contemned, and his people marvellously corrupted and carried away from true virtue and godliness.’ (Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses, 1583) • What are the politics of carnival…?
Twelfth Night and carnival • Bakhtin describes ‘the essential carnival element in the organization of Shakespeare’s drama’: • ‘This does not merely concern the secondary, clownish motives of his plays. The logic of crownings and uncrownings, in direct or indirect form, organizes the serious elements also.’ (1965: 275) • Twelfth Night’s title, of course, has festive and carnivalesque associations. • Sebastian, towards the end of the play, asks, ‘Are all the people mad?’ (4.1.26)
Twelfth Night and carnival • In Bakhtinian fashion, Twelfth Night might be characterised as a play which explodes traditional categorisations and hierarchies. • As Karin S. Cuddon argues: • ‘In Twelfth Night demarcations between male and female, master and servant, libertine and moralist come into festive – and not so festive – collision. (Coddon 1993: 309)
Sir Toby Belch • Lord of Misrule? • ‘I am sure care’s an enemy to life’ (1.3.2) • Ambiguous identity • Terry Eagleton argues that Sir Toby ‘is a rampant hedonist, complacently anchored in his body, falling at once “beyond” the symbolic order of society in his verbal anarchy, and ‘below’ it in his carnivalesque refusal to submit his body to social control’ (1986: 32).
Sir Toby Belch • ‘The grotesque body’ • ‘Laughter degrades and materializes… To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs’ (Bakhtin 1965: 20-1). • Compare Falstaff?
Malvolio MARIA. Marry, sir, sometimes he is a kind of Puritan. SIR ANDREW. O, if I thought that I’d beat him like a dog. SIR TOBY BELCH. What, for being a Puritan? Thy exquisite reason, dear knight. SIR ANDREW. I have no exquisite reason for’t, but I have reason good enough. (2.3.135-40)
Malvolio MALVOLIO. My masters, are you mad? Or what are you? Have ye no wit, manners, nor honesty, but to gabble like tinkers at this time of night? Do ye make an alehouse of my lady’s house, that ye squeak out your coziers’ catches without any mitigation or remorse of voice? Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you? (2.3.83-9)
Malvolio • Malvolio as anti-theatrical Puritan: MALVOLIO. I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal… I protest, I take these wise men, that crow so at these set kind of fools, no better than the fools’ zanies. (1.5.79-85) SIR TOBY. Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale? (2.3.110-11) • Of course, the festive world of the play turns the Puritan Malvolio into his very opposite… OLIVIA Why, this is very midsummer madness. (3.4.54)
Carnival and Lent in Twelfth Night What is love? ’tis not hereafter;Present mirth hath present laughter;What’s to come is still unsure:In delay there lies no plenty;Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,Youth’s a stuff will not endure. (2.3.46-51)
Carnival and Lent in Twelfth Night • The play stages a conflict between the force of self-denial and the more joyful spirit of liberation. VIOLA. …She pined in thought,And with a green and yellow melancholyShe sat like patience on a monument,Smiling at grief. (2.4.112-15) OLIVIA. Why then, methinks ’tis time to smile again. […]The clock upbraids me with the waste of time. (3.1.125-9)
Feste • Ambiguous social status of fools (and indeed of players) as at once ‘both high and low’ (2.3.40). • A wandering figure, Feste belongs both to the locus of the play world and the platea of the Elizabethan audience. VIOLA. Art not thou the Lady Olivia’s fool? FESTE. No indeed, sir, the Lady Olivia has no folly… I am indeed not her fool, but her corrupter of words. (3.1.30-5) • ‘Feste’s entrance … is coloured not only by the unauthorized absence from Olivia’s household, but also by his defiant resistance (‘Let her hang me’) to Maria’s interrogations about his whereabouts, even under the threat of hanging or unemployment.’ (Coddon 1993: 315)
Wise fools and foolish wits • ‘This fellow is wise enough to play the fool’ (3.1.59) • ‘Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit’ (1.5.32-3) • Feste and Olivia’s ‘Take the fool away’ exchange (1.5.35-68) disrupts categories of folly and wisdom in a carnivalesque manner. • This same disruption is later brought to bear on Malvolio: MALVOLIO. Fool, there was never a man so notoriously abused. I am as well in my wits, fool, as thou art. FESTE. But as well? Then you are mad indeed, if you be no better in your wits than a fool. (4.2.89-92) OLIVIA. Alas, poor fool, how have they baffled thee! (5.1.366)
Clowns and Fools • ‘Clowns’ • Rustic and idiotic • Bottom, Dogberry, smaller clown roles like Lancelot Gobbo and Peter • Many were written especially for Will Kempe • ‘Fools’ • Professional court jesters, often ‘wise fools’ • Feste, Lear’s Fool, Touchstone • These roles emerged after Kempe’s departure from Shakespeare company (around 1600) and were written for his replacement, Robert Armin…
Robert Armin (d. 1615) • Apprentice to the great Elizabethan clown Richard Tarlton • Joined Shakespeare’s company after Kempe left (around 1600) • Less physical, more intellectual than Kempe • Very short! • Often played ‘fool’ roles more integrated with the main plot: • ‘As a life-long solo performer, Kemp tended to dominate the stage whenever he appeared. … Armin’s attributes were better exploited in a different way. For a simple physiological reason, he could not so easily command the stage in a long monologue. He was of much more use as a foil, or as a distinctive individual who lent visual interest to a group.’ (Wiles 2005: 161)
Gender inversion • Three couples exhibit same-sex attraction in the play: • Olivia/Viola • Orsino/Cesario • Antonio/Sebastian • Casey Charles argues that • ‘…this theme functions neither as an uncomplicated promotion of a modern category of sexual orientation nor, from a more traditional perspective, as an ultimately contained representation of the licensed misrule of saturnalia. The representation of homoerotic attraction in Twelfth Night functions rather as a means of dramatizing the socially constructed basis of a sexuality that is determined by gender identity.’ (Charles 1997: 122)
Gender inversion • Complicating this, of course, is the fact that Viola-as-Cesario would have been played by a boy actor. • Boy actors already challenged any stable sense of gender in Elizabethan England: anti-theatricalists frequently complained that boys dressed as women provoked sexual desire.
Viola as liminal figure • Viola makes it clear that she is ‘acting a part’: VIOLA. I can say little more than I have studied, and that question’s out of my part. (1.5.171-2) OLIVIA. Are you a comedian? VIOLA. No, my profound heart; and yet – by the very fangs of malice I swear – I am not that I play. (1.5.175-7) • Later, however, this becomes a more profound identity crisis: VIOLA. I am not what I am. (3.1.139)
Viola as liminal figure • ‘…in her hermaphroditic capacity as man and woman… [Viola] collapses the polarities upon which heterosexuality is based by becoming an object of desire whose ambiguity renders the distinction between homo- and hetero-erotic attraction difficult to decipher.’ (Charles 1997: 127-8)
Viola as liminal figure VIOLA. Ay, but I know – DUKE ORSINO. What dost thou know? VIOLA. Too well what love women to men may owe.In faith, they are as true of heart as we.My father had a daughter loved a manAs it might be, perhaps, were I a womanI should your lordship. (2.4.103-9)
Viola as liminal figure VIOLA. What will become of this? As I am man,My state is desperate for my master’s love.As I am woman, now, alas the day, What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe! (2.2.36-9) ORSINO. Your master quits you, and for your service done himSo much against the mettle of your sex,So far beneath your soft and tender breeding,And since you called me master for so long,Here is my hand. You shall from this time beYour master’s mistress. (5.1.318-23)
Twelfth Night’s ending: Saturnalian or subversive? • ‘If in Twelfth Night the aristocratic order is ostensibly reasserted in the pairings of Orsino/Viola and Oliva/Sebastian, the refusal of the play’s closing to recuperate two of its most disorderly subjects – Malvolio and Feste – suggests rather less than a wholesale endorsement of the privileges of rank and hierarchy.’ (Coddon 1993: 309) • ‘The so-called ‘festive comedy’ concludes rather ominously; if indeed ‘the whirligig of time brings in his revenges,’ it is difficult to dismiss Malvolio’s parting threat as merely one sour note troubling an otherwise stable social hierarchy.’ (Coddon 1993: 322)
References • Bakhtin, Mikhail (1965) Rabelais and His World, trans. H. Iswolsky, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. • Bristol, Michael D. (1983) ‘Carnival and the Institutions of Theatre in Elizabethan England’, ELH, 50: 4, 637-654. • Charles, Casey (1997) ‘Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night’, Theatre Journal, 49: 2, 121-141. • Coddon, Karin S. (1993) ‘“Slander in an Allow’d Fool”: Twelfth Night’s Crisis of the Aristocracy’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 33: 2, 309-325.
References • Eagleton, Terry (1986) William Shakespeare, London: Basil Blackwell. • Halliwell, J. O. [ed.] (1844) Tarlton’s Jests, and News Out of Purgatory, London: The Shakespeare Society. • Palmer, D. J [ed.] (1984) Comedy: Developments in Criticism, London: Macmillan. • Weimann, R. (1987) Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, Baltimore/London: Johns Hopkins University Press. • Wiles, David (2005) Shakespeare’s Clown: Actor and Text in the Elizabethan Playhouse, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.