Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek are social media trolls. Packed into the scenes are follies, misunderstandings, fake identities, error, jealousies and malice which are the weave and weft of all human society, and this is what is displayed in its rawest form for us on social media, which makes it so compelling and repelling. That modern medium revolts us, but it is only a reflection of humanity.
The Bard understood, long before Zuckerberg or Dorsey or any of the others. Antonio, ashore in Illyria, declares Sebastian to be ‘unfriended’. Nothing is new.
Being skilless in these parts; which to a stranger,
Unguided and unfriended, often prove
Rough and unhospitable
I know how he feels. I do not follow social media and its memes and challenges and pranks, reading about them afterwards. It would be not beyond the usual bizarreness to find pranksters persuading their victims to “come smiling and cross-garter’d to you, to put on yellow stockings”. Then there is “and to frown Upon Sir Toby and the lighter people”; which shows that the ‘cancel culture’ is a social activity; a meme.
The play even has a Metaverse moment:
If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.
A less regarded scene in Twelfth Night is actually very germane to its theme. In this, Sir Toby goads his easily led friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, to write a letter effectively challenging the young man Cesario (Viola) to a duel. Sir Toby is too much the coward to do it himself, but goads a patsy to do the dirty work. The excuse is that he believes ‘Cesario’ is making a play for Olivia’s hand, which Sir Toby hopes will go to Andrew Aguecheek (a hopeless vanity). It shows a lot about the characters of the men involved, and holds up a mirror to ourselves, and our online selves.
Therefore they set about a letter, a ‘malicious communication’ we might say, which makes sense only in the raucous, self-indulgence of drinking men’s society, and which could be deadly.
These are educated men though, not illiterate Tweeters, and some sense of caution is there to temper the words; a game which must have been familiar among disputing Jacobean swells in Shakespeare’s day who knew that the Assizes measured disputes which ended at the point of a sword:
Still you keep o’ the windy side of the law
The letter itself (excising the boisterous interruptions) runs like many an ill-thought accusation of our own day:
‘Youth, whatsoever thou art, thou art but a scurvy fellow. Wonder not, nor admire not in thy mind, why I do call thee so, for I will show thee no reason for’t. Thou comest to the lady Olivia, and in my sight she uses thee kindly: but thou liest in thy throat; that is not the matter I challenge thee for. I will waylay thee going home; where if it be thy chance to kill me, thou killest me like a rogue and a villain. Fare thee well; and God have mercy upon one of our souls! He may have mercy upon mine; but my hope is better, and so look to thyself. Thy friend, as thou usest him, and thy sworn enemy, ANDREW AGUECHEEK.
The misunderstood positions are in the comedy: Cesario / Viola is not after Olivia though Olivia has fallen in love with ‘Cesario’, or rather with the shadow of Viola’s brother whom she imitates; Andrew Aguecheek has only his own self-delusion as to his suit or his abilities with a sword; and of course Cesario is not even Cesario.
If all this clash of misunderstood ideas, accusation, worked-up fury and half-thought posting sounds too familiar and personal, then log out from InstaTwitFace and whatever: while I will not say ‘be more of a human being’, because that is the problem, do try to think outside yourself.
- Even so quickly may one catch the plague?
- Is Twitter evil?
- Man to Man is an arrant Wolfe
- If music be the food of love…
- The fearsome state of manhood
- Theatre online? Why then the world’s my oyster
- Twelfth Night
- As You Like it
- William Shakespeare: The Complete Works
- Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius by Boris Johnson
- Preface to Shakespeare by Samuel Johnson
- Works Politickal, perchance:
- Shakespeare between Machiavelli and Hobbes by Andrew Moore
- Shakespeare and Renaissance Politics (Andrew Hadfield ed.: Arden Critical Companions)
- Shakespeare’s Politics: A Contextual Introduction by Robin Headlam Wells
- Shakespeare’s Anti-Politics: Sovereign Power and the Life of the Flesh by D Gill
- Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt