Heretic’s Foundation VIII: Seeing Beneath Twelfth Night


By John Hudson
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

When I got to Central Park on my second attempt to see the Public Theater’s production of Twelfth Night, I was told I was too late: the line had begun to snake around the reservoir by 7 a.m. Evidently, Charles Isherwood’s review in the New York Times had brought out the crowds even more than usual. It was a long, flattering review claiming that this was the best production in a decade. But what did the review actually say? That Anne Hathaway was attractive, the costumes colorful, the music fine, the characters funny? This tells us absolutely nothing about what really matters to me, especially if one has waited in line for six hours: Did this production help people understand the meaning of the play? That is what the Elizabethan theater was for — not simply to produce a sparkling, witty surface, but to help audiences see beneath it.

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No audience nowadays will see beneath the confusing surface of Twelfth Night without considerable help from the dramaturgy. To begin with, a production could highlight the existence of the strangely named characters Fabian and Sebastian. We should immediately be reminded, perhaps with a calendar, of the two saints by those names who share the same feast-day, January 19. This is also the day the Elizabethan church began reading St Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians. Twelfth Night is also set in Illyria, a location where St Paul claimed to have preached, and from which those same letters to the Corinthians were conceivably written. Indeed, at the beginning of the play, Sebastian is compared to the Corinthian poet Arion. At the end of the play, the first paragraph of Feste’s song about what he regarded as foolish when young, echoes 1 Corinthians. So do Feste’s reflections on wisdom and foolishness. For example, his comment “Those wits that think they have thee, do very oft prove fools; and I that am sure I lack thee, may pass for a wise man” (V.1.31-3) echoes “if you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so you may become wise” (1 Corinthians 3;18).

So the play seems primarily set in first-century Illyria, where, as Steve Sohmer has shown in his book Shakespeare’s Mystery Play, the events resemble the problems among the early Christians in Corinth. The reason why Twelfth Night is a play about foolishness of various kinds is that foolishness was the defining characteristic of the Corinthians — St. Paul’s letters to them use the word six times.

Paul argued that to become a Christian, one had to embrace the foolishness of God, which to Jews was a stumbling block and to Greeks was not wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:23). So, if a production wanted to make clear where the playwright had set the play, it could present these various households on stage. To wit, we find a Greek Feste — called a “foolish Greek” (IV.i.18); a household, presumably of Jews, run by Olivia who is repeatedly called “Madonna” (I.v.55-68), whose name echoes the olive tree, the symbol of the spiritual heritage of the Jewish people; and a collection of foolish Christian clowns.

Shakespeare scholarship shows that Sir Tony Belch is a parody of Sir Toby Matthew, a Catholic sympathizer who later became a priest. The “tall” Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who has no more wit than a Christian and speaks three or four languages but cannot understand basic Latin or French, is a parody of a very tall, able linguist, an Anglican clergyman named Sir Lancelot Andrewes, dean of Westminster. He was also known for obsessive nocturnal studying, which would have given him his sickly complexion and perhaps an “ague cheek.” The noise-hating Malvolio is, among other things, a parody of a puritan, T. Posthumous Hoby, who with his mother led a protest against the Blackfriars theater for causing too much rowdiness, and carried out a lawsuit against visitors to their country house for causing too much noise. So, Twelfth Night mocks the foolishness of Christianity by presenting a member of various denominations — Catholicism, Anglicanism, Puritanism — as foolish.

One subplot however, which appears nowhere in the Twelfth Night’s main sources, Gl’Ingannti and Barnabe Riche’s Apolonius and Silla, involves Maria playing a trick on Malvolio through a letter — an epistle — that causes him to give up his Christian faith and become a heathen “Yond gull Malvolio is turned heathen, a very renegado” (III.iii.66-7), renegado meaning a deserter of Christianity. Malvolio, whose name in Italian means bad-will, or “I wish to do evil,” is also referred to as being possessed by Legion, and all the devils in hell (III.iv.86-7). A fiend speaks from inside of him; he is bewitched; he is tricked into believing “impossible passages of grossness” in a letter. He is confined under the stage, where he is exorcised by the fictitious figure of Sir Topas, a curate named for a jewel, topaz, that cures madness. So Malvolio, in his steward’s chain, parodies the story in the gospels of Jesus meeting a demoniac in broken chains called Legion, and exorcising him to expel the demons from him. But whereas in the Gospel the demoniac is cured and wants to become a follower of Jesus, Malvolio in the play ceases to be a Christian.

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Into this first century Illyria also arrive the twins. There’s Sebastian (the revered one), from the nonexistent town of Messaline (an allusion perhaps to the messiah); he has been in Elysium (heaven) and in a “watery tomb” (V.i.232) from which he emerges symbolically on the third day. He is imitated (III.iv.393) by Cesario (as in “belonging to Caesar”). By pretending to be the messiah, and holding an olive branch in his hand (I.5.212), Cesario gets the love of Orsino, of Olivia and of Antonio, who does devotion to his image as a vile idol (III.iv.374).

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However, at the end of the play when the twins are finally together in the same room, the play’s language becomes full of theological imagery. Orsino is astonished: “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,” he says (V.i.214). Similarly, Antonio asks, “How have you made division of yourself?” (V.i.220). These comments allude to the Black Rubric in the 1552 prayer book stating it was against truth for Christ’s body to be “in more places than in one at one time.” This was mocked in Nicholas Udall’s play Jack Juggler (1562): “Why thou naughty villain, darest thou affirm to me…That one man may have two bodies and two faces.”

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I believe this reference unambiguously identifies Cesario and Sebastian as different bodies of Christ, yet as Sebastian notes, there cannot be “that deity in my nature of here and everywhere” (V.1.225-6). A production of Twelfth Night could thus lead the audience to a radical question: What would it mean if Caesar had the same identity as the messiah? Exploring this radical question is the focus of some of the latest, most interesting New Testament research. It would appear that this question also underlies Twelfth Night, and that one challenge is to make it obvious onstage. I am beginning to do the early dramaturgical work for a university production in Massachusetts next year, and it is already clear that the scholarship on the play can be used to create an entirely unique production. It is well known that the mystery plays and miracle plays were highly didactic: they existed to teach people about Catholic theology. But it is becoming gradually clear that Shakespeare’s plays are also allegorical exercises in teaching theology of a very different kind, with enormous implications for performance.

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Twelfth Night is not a play about foolishness or falling in love and certainly not the mindless comedy that I used to believe it was. My hope is to use stagecraft to show the play for what it now seems to be: a cleverly crafted account that suggests the true identity of Jesus as a literary allegory for Caesar. Perhaps, after all, that is why it is called Twelfth Night — the night on which the 12 days of Christmas fantasies are over, when stark reality begins to set in. That should make a production worth seeing.

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John Hudson is a strategic consultant who specializes in new industry models and has helped create several telecoms and Internet companies. He has recently been consulting to a leading think tank on the future of the theater industry and is pioneering an innovative Shakespeare theory, as dramaturge to the Dark Lady Players. This Fall he will be Artist in Residence at Eastern Connecticut State University. He has degrees in Theater and Shakespeare, in Management, and in Social Science.