For a long time I preferred Shakespeare's tragedies to his comedies, and to an extent I still do; but I have found a new appreciation of his comedies, particularly in Twelfth Night
. Economical yet unforced, hilarious yet humane, confined yet infinite, clever yet accessible: such is Twelfth Night
or What You Will
. The play follows the shipwrecked twins, Viola (disguised as the boy Cesario) and Sebastian, in Illyria, where the hilarity of mistaken identity and unwanted love and unrequited love are all turned up on the head and brought to a comedic reveal and reversal. Viola loves Orsino loves Olivia loves Viola, then marries Sebastian, mistaking him for Viola, upsetting Orsino, offending Antonio, etc. The tangled web of comedy in the final two acts is masterfully done, and the sideplot trick on the proud Malvolio is a misjustice sweetly served.
What strikes me in Shakespeare is the commonalities among his plays, even down to the very tautology: "I am what I am," which I suspect is uttered in some permutation in all, or nearly all, his plays, which drives at the truth of identity and what it means to be "what you are." I was particularly struck by Viola's final assertion in this comedic exchange:
I prithee, tell me what thou thinkest of me.
That you do think you are not what you are.
If I think so, I think the same of you.
Then think you right: I am not what I am.
"I am not what I am" - the very line which is the key to the character of Iago in Othello
quoted verbatim for the ends of comedy. In saying the same line, Iago means that he is a trickster, that he deceives and betrays those who hold stock in his outward appearance of honesty. When Viola exclaims the same words, she means that she is literally not as she appears, that her outward appearance of a boy is but a disguise.
Can anyone truly say "I am what I am," or conversely claim the opposite, without some irony or self-awareness that reverses the very claim? I am what I am, only insofar as I am aware of it myself, and only to myself can I be thus. To an acquaintance, I may be something utterly unfamiliar to my own perceptions of myself, which is shaped by his/her desires of me, expectations and prejudices of me, etc. So am I entirely what I am, or what I am not? The question of identity, what it means to be your true Self, is a common thread which traces its spool to the pre-Shakespearean dawn, and up through the consciousness of our own modern times. It is a question ever unresolved. And it can lead to both tragic, malicious ends, or result in comedic bemusement. Unlike in the literal masquerade of false identity in Much Ado About Nothing
, the masks of Twelfth Night
are true faces, disguised, but essentially true. In loving Viola and professing her love to her, Olivia reveals her masculinity and boldness, and also her Narcissism for liking what is literally closer to her self than any man. Though the play ends in a double marriage, and a conjoiner of Orsino and Olivia by the mutual relation of their spouses, one can't help but wonder of the happiness of Olivia with Sebastian, a man who she scarcely knows. Does she only love him for his appearance, which he shares with his sister's disguise? Or is there something more at the heart of it. While Viola truly loves Orsino as he is, even in his love for someone else, Olivia's love for Sebastian is never proven, only transferred. Despite the high comedy of the play, and the interplay of identities, doubles and disguises, there is a subtle question of the nature of the play which follows the play, the unwritten play, wherein the full effects of mistaken identity may play out to tragic or yet comedic ends.
Additional thoughts on Twelfth Night
If Denmark is a prison, Illyria is a madhouse. The distinct flavor of pure
comedy is a direct result of the the zaniness of all characters, save the fool! Shakespeare's "most perfect comedy" achieves such a status though Shakespeare's parodies on his own devices: turning upside-down his own ploy of mistaken identity and criss-crossed loves explored in previous romantic comedies and taking them to hilarious extremes. Illyria is a dukedom haunted by strange phantoms, men and women of such peculiar extremes as to parody themselves.
Take the Duke, Orsino, who despite his surety of his infinite love for Olivia, seems more in love with himself, or rather in love with being in love. How quickly he can transfer his love for Olivia to Viola, as if it were a matter of rearranging the letters in her name. Olivia too is an oddity. Originally racked with grief, swearing off men completely, she is apparently fallen in love at first sight with the first boy she meets, and her boldness which may surpass some of Shakespeare's bolder heroines, though her bold pursuits are in favor of so ridiculous a prize.
But the oddest man, or rather perhaps the least odd (besides the fool, which remains the only sure-headed man of the chaos of Illyria), is Malvolio, who feels very much at odds with his surroundings and would likely be much happier in almost any other play. In the pace of the play, we find Malvolio a fun butt to the deft prankster Maria, but at second glance, his fate is undeserved and almost cruel. Like Orsino, he is a parody unto himself, but he has an almost infinite creative imagination of himself: "Count Malvolio!" Surely his pride and egoism boarder on solipsism, but he remains one of Twelfth Night
's great tragicomedic masterpieces. He at once deserves out pity and our jibes, though he is a man "greater sinn'd against than sinning" - to quote Lear's self styled betrayal by fate. He is an involuntary fool, gulled into a role which he holds beneath his station even as steward, and is locked in the dark cellar as his punishment, a fitting end for a man locked otherwise in the blinding brightness of his own imagination.