Since I finished my dissertation in May, I’ve been planning to start a Shakespeare blog. Despite the glut of blogs on the internet, I thought I could articulate several good reasons to do so. It would keep me busy, I’d say to myself. It would give me the chance to explore my thoughts, with less of the immediate pressure that comes with trying to write an article or a chapter for one’s advisors. It would allow me to find my own voice, to see what I sounded like when writing primarily for myself.
And yet, as the weeks ticked by, I didn’t start the blog. I had the desire, I had the reasons, and I even had a name. But what I didn’t have was an intro post. Introductions have always been hard for me: close attention to detail I can do, but laying out the broad rationale for a project tends to make me seize up. There always seems to be so much riding on any individual project, and in academic writing, the bigger the stakes, the better: writers are expected to say something utterly new with every article, change the field with every book. That’s obviously not the case with a little personal blog, but once you get into the habit of thinking (and worrying) in this way, it’s hard to break.
But then I remembered the yellow stockings. Twelfth Night fans will recall that Malvolio, pompous puritanical steward to the lady Olivia, is tricked by Olivia’s gentlewoman Maria into believing that Olivia is in love with him – and in the forged letter that Maria drops in his way, she asks him to wear yellow stockings and cross-gartering as proof of his love for her. We’ve seen this scene play out dozens of times, on stage and screen, as Malvolio sheds his customary black for showy yellow in his ardor to follow the commands of the letter.
Except it turns out that that’s not actually what happens. The letter never actually commands Malvolio to wear yellow stockings at all; it merely says, “Remember who commended thy yellow stockings and wished to see thee ever cross-cartered – I say remember” (2.5.149-150). Maria is sure that Malvolio will adopt these fashions after receiving the letter (2.5.191-4), and he does in 3.4, but – as with so many things – this has much more to do with the way Malvolio is led to read into the letter than with what it actually says. (Maria is a very subtle trickster.)
Even more interesting, though, is what the choice of yellow stockings for this trick tells us about Malvolio. And here we encounter a collective blind spot. It starts with John Manningham in 1602, who writes in his diary about a performance of the play, recording that there was “a good practice in it to make the steward believe his lady widow [sic] was in love with him, by counterfeiting a letter as from his lady, in general terms telling him what she liked best in him, and prescribing his gesture in smiling, his apparel, etc.” (Oxford ed., 1). The assumption is, and remains, that the letter introduces the idea of yellow stockings and cross-gartering, because Malvolio, puritan that he is, would never dream of such sartorial excesses on his own. But here’s how Malvolio responds to the letter:
“I do not now fool myself to let imagination jade me; for every reason excites to this, that my lady loves me. She did commend my yellow stockings of late, she did praise my leg being cross-gartered, and in this she manifests herself to my love and with a kind of injunction drives me to these habits of her liking.” (2.5.159-165, my emphasis)
Various editions of the play struggle to reconcile Malvolio’s announcement here with the fact that according to Maria, Olivia actually “abhors” yellow and “detests” cross-gartering (2.5.193-4). The Arden second series edition notes that Malvolio’s declaration is “obviously inconsistent” with Maria’s (p. 70), while the Oxford edition says that “Malvolio must be making this up” (p. 150). The Arden third series edition is a bit less certain, suggesting that Olivia’s praise “is evidently invented or imagined by Malvolio – unless he is referring to the letter” (p. 248). What all of these editions seem to overlook, however, is that even if Malvolio is making up Olivia’s approval of his attire, he says nothing to indicate that he never wore it in the first place. In fact, his eagerness to confirm what the letter says heavily implies that he’s remembering a time when he did wear yellow stockings and cross-gartering (whether together or separately). Maria’s trick really only works if Malvolio can recall wearing such attire, in order to go on to “remember” that Olivia liked it; otherwise the letter would risk drawing Malvolio’s suspicion instead of his support. What this means is that, at least once, Malvolio has worn yellow stockings of his own accord – and that instead of thinking of him as a complete Puritan in his costuming, tricked into dressing himself against his nature1, we might rather heed Maria’s shrewd observation that Malvolio is only “a kind of Puritan” (2.3.136), and see that the character we tend to think of as a dour and sober killjoy has always had an unexpected little bit of the fashion-conscious dandy in him. In this case, our focus on the Puritan label has hidden the peacock who has been there all along.
And so I thought, if I wanted to start as I meant to go on, this would make a pretty good introductory post. Because I’m interested in the little things, the things we overlook as we take the bird’s-eye view toward Shakespeare, looking for overarching interpretations and field-changing arguments. Those are necessary and important things to look for, of course – but there ought to be some room for the local and particular as well, and it’s there that I want to set up shop with this blog. I want to talk about the bits that don’t always fit into an article or present a big enough ground for an entire thirty-page argument, the lines and scenes and speeches that nevertheless reveal something quirky and unexpected if we spend a little more time with them. I hope this will be a place for the random, for the small picture, for the “quick bright things” that can illuminate familiar corners of Shakespeare, even if they don’t rebuild the house.
I also hope it will be fun.
1In his introduction to the Arden 3 edition, for example, Keir Elam makes exactly this argument, stating that Malvolio “is fooled…into betraying his personal integrity by dressing up showily against all his puritanical principles” (47).
Quotations from Shakespeare taken from the Arden Shakespeare edition of Twelfth Night, third series, ed. Keir Elam (London, 2008). Also cited: the Arden second series edition, eds. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik (London, 1975); the Oxford edition, eds. Roger Warren and Stanley Wells (Oxford, 1994).