Even so quickly may one catch the plague?

It is telling, the words Olivia uses in Twelfth Night in soliloquy after meeting the young gentleman who is not as he seems:

“Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions and spirit,
Do give thee five-fold blazon: not too fast:
soft, soft!
Unless the master were the man. How now!
Even so quickly may one catch the plague?
Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections
With an invisible and subtle stealth
To creep in at mine eyes. Well, let it be.”

Haas there ever been in literature a better description of the internal turmoil of a woman falling reluctantly in love?

The plague is not an epidemic across a population but a malady very specific to the lady herself, deep within, and it well describes the fever and disorientation and helplessness in the face of it as if this were indeed a deadly disease. It is not wanted and may be resented, and the imbalance of the humours is like a sickness indeed, and the subject begs for it to be gone, but the fever deepens. However while a disease revolts, the fever of unexpected love intrigues and is grasped for again even

It seems too modern in the hidden suggested themes for Shakespeare to have woven those ideas into his text, but we read him with modern eyes and understandings, and it is a genius in Shakespeare that a play written at one definite time can speak to each generation in the understandings of that generation, where no such meanings were originally there as written.

As we know, the young gentleman is actually a girl, Viola. She has disguised herself out of necessity. Modern sentiment would infer that Olivia is prey to Sapphic impulses subconsciously, but not really: the weirdnesses of the heart are not so logical nor so simply categorised. The modern mind might also think of gender-fluidity and that seems compelling. There is something to that, but not the way we might think: throughout the play, Viola is very much a young woman, putting on male guise and airs with it, but never more than as a cloak. On the other hand, she is consciously trying to be her twin brother Sebastian. She lost Sebastian in the shipwreck and this way she can try to have him back with her. She makes herself look like her brother and imitates his aits as she remembers them, and it is this reflection of Sebastian, imitated by Viola, with which Olivia falls in love.

Shakespeare did this sort of thing a lot; women disguised as men and occasionally vice versa as on his stage all would be played by boys, so it was more of an in-joke. He may have seen fluidity in the behaviour of each sex (which is common enough in the theatre) and so knew there is much to play for in the imitation and subversion of them; expected roles and behaviour are oversimplified in the expectations of society, and so many a man or woman in matching up to the expectations may be playacting. As he would write elsewhere, all the world’s a stage and the men and women simply players.

What of Olivia though, the victim of deception? Who is she?

Olivia is a wealthy spinster, with an estate and servants, and she is often portrayed as past the first flush of youth. The play suggests otherwise though: she has been orphaned and mourns also the death of her brother, who was her guardian. She hides from society and from men in particular because she knows herself to be vulnerable and a target for adventurers. She has a natural, unconscious bond with Viola, who is also mourning a brother. Though she does not know this connection, the psychological connection is there.

Olivia and Viola are mirrors of each other in different circumstances, as their almost anagrammatical names suggest.

She is pursued: Orsino loves her, but is shunned. In the cold light of practicality they would seem the perfect match: he is wealthy, with a title and privilege, the most eligible bachelor upon the coast of Illyria, while she meets him as an equal, and she needs a strong protector. Olivia will not entertain his suit though, claiming that she must mourn her brother for seven years. Perhaps it is as well; Orsino has loved her face and his words suggest his love would fade when her face does. She is pursued too by a fortune-hunter, the awful Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who has no encouragement, and accidentally by her own servant, but that is another sub-plot.

There is no hiding though from the secret workings of the heart, and this similitude of the lost Sebastian grips her all against her will.

It is deeply uncomfortable though: she is deceived, deeply. It is Shakespeare’s original ‘catfish’ deception. (He understood social media terms 400 years ago: Viola says being washed ashore that she is “unfriended”.) It is not Viola’s fault: she never wanted to be loved, but she has created the fictional persona which reels Olivia in. The whole play revolves around making a virtue of the deception. It does not sit easily, and were it not for the happy ending, Olivia would be one of Shakespeare’s most tragically abused characters.

The point though is that the abuse is within Olivia herself, not a fault of the phantom Sebastian; hers is a tale of illogical, all-consuming love.

Orsino will be all right. He too has been captured by something he did not understand or even perceive: his servant, Cesario, is a girl and that invisible girl captures him, though he is not aware of it as it happens:

That old and antique song we heard last night:
Methought it did relieve my passion much,
More than light airs and recollected terms
Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times:
Come, but one verse.

Twelfth night by tradition is the end of Christmas and of all the revelry that provides a pause in the harsh reality of the rest of the year. Eventually then the masks and pretending must end and on twelfth night the real world reasserts itself. Acts have permanent consequences.

In the final collision of worlds, Sebastian is found to be alive and proves himself by nature better at being a man than the surface similitude conjured by his sister, and he is swiftly betrothed to Olivia, when she is still in confusion about it. Strangely, when she discovers the truth she does not explode in anger but seems delighted with it. She can do well: Sebastian is portrayed as the very soul of constant manhood.

In all the plays in which Shakespeare included cross-dressing characters, Twelfth Night has the most complicated mix-up, and (whether he knew it or not) the most philosophical exploration of what it is to be a woman or a man, the difference between appearance and substance, and the relations between men and women which engender friendship and love.

See also

Books

Theatre online? Why then the world’s my oyster

It is a bit late in the lockdown to have discovered the wonders of theatre on YouTube. The theatres remain shut and barred, but Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre and others have been putting filmed performances on YouTube. I recently watched the Globe’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, which I last saw at Tollethorpe Hall many years ago (and Tollethorpe productions are always excellent). The National has a good selection too.

It is almost a shock to find that YouTube is not just cat videos and the fortnightly Moggcast.

There is a different dynamic sitting in your own house watching the grand scene, the inns, grand houses and fields of Windsor, first encompassed in a wooden O, then crammed further into a box in the corner of the room. It is done well though. The Globe is a more intimate theatre experience anyway, with the actors playing to the groundlings and often bustling in among them for their exits and their entrances. Coming into my own front room is just the next obvious step. It does not replace the theatre – the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd, the immediacy with no physical barrier between me and the action, but it is good.

The play? It was done in an energetic, chummy way. The Merry Wives of Windsor needs its own review (yet another task for another day). It is noticeable as the play where the women lead the plot more than any other. Shakespeare, alone among his contemporaries, wrote good parts for women, letting them be real characters, not passing extras with a one-dimensional role. In the Merry Wives the nominal central character is Falstaff – he is the comic turn and in a way the McGuffin – but it is the wives themselves who take the lead, ably assisted by their own comic turn in Mistress Quickly. It is said that the play was written at the specific request of the Queen herself: it shows, and is better for it. The scenes, the quips, the clever women and the befuddled men, the local folklore, the comic Frenchman and comic Welshman (whose best scenes were missed, unfortunately) and all pomposity punctured – only Shakespeare can achieve all that in a play so neatly tied together, and all in my front room and all for free.

I will have to look for more on YouTube if I can get past the cat videos.

The main point though is not to spread culture to the masses, good as that is – it is to remind us of what we have lost without live theatre, while the lockdown closes it. They are suffering and many might not survive – and it is not because of COVID-19, but because of the lockdown. When the theatres open they will bring life to all the pubs and restaurants around them too – they are vital to the local economy, in London’s theatreland more obviously, but all around the country. The limitations of the small screen should whet our appetites to see the real thing. That is the point. I will go back to Tollethorpe when I can. In the meantime though we have the theatre coming into our homes, if we just care to look.

Proud man, Drest in a little brief authority

There is nothing I can ever say on any subject of import concerning mankind which Shakespeare has not said better. All the clashing claims of authority, from state or PC establishment are shamed before his observations, so I can hardly do better than to read to them a passage which has illustrated its own wisdom this last week.

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous To use it like a giant.

. . .

Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

Measure for Measure, Act II Scene II

See also

Books

If music be the food of love…

On Twelfth Night, the end of Christmas, naturally ones thoughts turn to the beginning of the year’s work, for we must all work hard to feed our families, but then there is always Shakespeare:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

There are no more Christmas carols for us, but there is always music. Orsino knows the intimate connection between the sound of the harp and the sound of the heart.

I once saw a production of Twelfth Night in 1920s dress, which opened with a chap in a boater dancing almost Charleston-style to a gramophone and it did not quite fit the pained opening soliloquy, but even the band-tunes of the 1920s dance hall were aimed at the heart (and it needed a lot of work to make that decade jolly, to forget all that had been before, and the resentful division between those who had served and those who had not, and those who came home whole and those who did not).

However, we misread Orsino if we read only the first lines, as we usually do. Music is the food of love, or one food for it, and we sing the lines as if they were an invitation to conjure up love. Orsino though suffers from love. He loves Olivia and it is unrequired, and he wants to be rid of his affliction, and so he will be drowned in music so he is so full of the artificial love-feelings it generates that he is sick of them and will love no more. It is a dishonest trick though – he wants those emotions washing over him, until he admits it to himself perhaps and the music calls to him to well the remembrance that he can never be loved; ‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before. Is that the music, or the feelings of love?

Shakespeare knew what music could do, and his words were music in themselves. As he said elsewhere: “The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;” (The bard does not say whether writing a political blog counts. I expect so.)

Great music is a powerful think to mould the soul, even to our own day. Ours is not an age without music, but the cacophony of popular singers and sickening lyrics might make you think so. Great music is still written these days, but you may not notice you are hearing it – it is written for films. There are composers today as great as there were in the classical age, writing for Hollywood not the opera. They move the soul as ever great music did.

In the play, Orsino is to be changed unwillingly. Enter Viola, who unwittingly returns to the theme as she goes to seek the Duke’s employment:

I can sing
And speak to him in many sorts of music
That will allow me very worth his service.
What else may hap to time I will commit;
Only shape thou thy silence to my wit.

And so the transformation begins, moving the affection from Olivia to Viola. The almost anagram of the ladies’ names is a clue to the muddles of the plot.

Orsino cast music aside, but not for long. He seeks the thing it engenders in his heart and he looks for it again:

Give me some music. Now, good morrow, friends.
Now, good Cesario, but that piece of song,
That old and antique song we heard last night:
Methought it did relieve my passion much,
More than light airs and recollected terms
Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times:
Come, but one verse.

The old and antique song is what we all seek. Though it seems a cultureless age, there is something eternal in music worthy of the name that ensures it cannot disappear.

The whirligig of time brings in his revenges

Why, ‘some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrown upon them.’ I was one, sir, in this interlude; one Sir Topas, sir; but that’s all one. ‘By the Lord, fool, I am not mad.’ But do you remember? ‘Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascal? an you smile not, he’s gagged:’ and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.

What has happened to all those high-flying Members of Parliament who have all of a sudden stepped away to let others, untried but often as able, step into their places? When they vanish as vanish they must, will they find real life and absorb themselves in it? They must be men and women and not just political personae, but it is easy to categorise them as such and expect that there is some political strategy behind it. In truth though, no one has a right to sit in Parliament, until they are periodically elected to it, and no one has a right to be elected.

Some have found the very flavour of the House of Commons soured and repulsive. Some find that of the politics outside the formal procedures, in the interview and on social media (which it is hard to ignore even if you try not to do social media: it must be cutting to think there are people thinking about you and hating you at a distance, when all you ever wanted to do was to work for the public good).

Others though are cast out for rebellion. Some have greatness torn from them, and it hurts. Some lost favour for backing the wrong side, like a lord who wore the king’s white rose only to find Lancaster on the throne or vice versa, and thus condemned as a retrospective traitor. Many of the accustomed rulers lost their lands and their lives in that way in the days of the unfortunate King Henry VI and those who usurped his throne. The new leader of a political party may be even less forgiving than Richard of York.

They were full of confidence when they had power, and think they are still players. Once they step outside the doors of Westminster however they become ordinary men or women, with no call on the press or voice of influence. Goodness – they will even have to find jobs.

Some still now hold back through pride. It will be the end of their political careers though. They should not assume their local members will ride to the rescue – it does not work like that outside cheap Hollywood films. They stood against their own party (Conservative or Labour) and successfully prevented its action in some way, but now they find that their strength has undercut their power – the times come round again and retribution with them, to leave then whipless or deselected: the whirligig of time brings in its revenges.