Whatsoever thou art, thou art but a scurvy fellow

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.

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Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars

There is not a field of human strife in which Shakespeare did not dip his pen to enrich our understanding of ourselves and to beautify the harsh or the common. His patrons were amongst the greatest in the kingdom and ultimately he received patronage of the King himself, but Shakespeare’s subject was mankind, the individual, who in the most ordinary state are of such beautiful complexity that any drama of princes and generals is just a reflection of the politics which is played out over the milking-stool, and worldly greatness is but a surface show which will not endure beyond the span of a man’s life and fortune may end at a moment, but whatever gold leaf titles there may be, the man or woman beneath is the reality.

Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,
Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.
Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foil’d,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toil’d:
Then happy I, that love and am beloved
Where I may not remove nor be removed.

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In praise of plagiarism

Many books, poems and art are fine, but in need of improvement by a more skilful hand, or just a different voice. Some great authors have built monuments which define style and art, but most have slips that could benefit from a brush-up or are in places a semi-tone off. Another hand could step in and make it perfect, but modern sensibilities condemn this as a cheat’s trade.

Without constructive plagiarism, we would lack several great plays by Shakespeare: Hamlet was a complete lift from Thomas Kyd’s version, which itself was from Saxo Grammaticus; the Merchant of Venice is largely swiped from Marlowe’s grim The Jew of Malta. Each was written when the original writer was barely cold in the grave, but each was turned inside out and improved immeasurably.  Bach swiped others’ tunes continually and magically transformed them into something new. A great artist need not be completely original when he can be an alchemist, performing transmutation of weak material into gold.

In the modern day though, this treatment of another’s work unless radically undone and rewritten is looked down upon as if it were a sort of theft.

We do permit radical film adaptations, because it is such a different medium. I never hear complaints against Coppola that he stole from Conrad when he made Apocalypse Now, because it is a new work of art adopted from Conrad’s work. It can be an improvement: Ray Bradbury said that the changed ending in the (original) film version of his most celebrated novel was possibly a better conclusion that the ending he wrote. (That is a curse for a writer who creates such perfect fluidity of plot – how can it end? The ending is where many great works fail.) As a book, I would count Fahrenheit 451 amongst those great works which should not be bowdlerised, of which it would otherwise be in danger because at least a shadow of it has become part of common culture, and because what was when written a work of wildly fantastical dystopian fiction is becoming, horribly, prescient. For film adaptation, changes are necessary for the medium.

Not all works deserve such reverent preservation: the books that fade out in the middle; the poems that have a couple of great lines and an idea but then turn mediocre; the film which wastes its premise; the music that find a pretty section and repeats it endlessly for want anything better – I would argue that we should be happy for an artist to improve on these.

It is part of our preconception of art and literature that it should be a single, inspired piece. That is an attractive idea, but I would say it comes more from a superstitious desire for purity than from rational consideration. As we know though, the love of purity is at odds with the creative spirit.

If a fine house is built, but the garage at the side is poorly proportioned, we do not insist that the whole house be demolished and started from the foundations:  we get a new builder to knock the poor bits down and build then better. If a good book has almost been written but goes wrong somewhere, it makes sense to let someone write it. Editors of cheap novels arrange that more than you might think: they are not daft. In the film world they understand this very well: when a film goes awry, the studio sacks the director or the scriptwriters, but keeps as much as possible of the good work they have already done. (Sometimes they get it wrong, which is why the Director’s Cut is often better than the original. There is, for a true artist, such a thing as purity of conception.)

Shakespeare did not face copyright claims, so he could do what he liked with other people’s work. Today we would need permission, and the profit of any ‘improved’ book would go mainly to the original author whose donkey-work has provided the bulk of it. That accepted, there is no other reason not to revisit works which could be improved markedly by others. I read plenty of poetry I would like to rewrite.

It is not cheating but perfecting; not dishonouring an original author, but making their hard work flower into what it deserves to be.

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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.

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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.