Tag Archives: play: twelfth night

Notes on four words in Twelfth Night


[I wrote this a few weeks ago, and have been meaning to come back and edit it since then: to tamp down some of the more effusive enthusiasm, to prune some of the more indulgent sentences. But given that this is unlikely to happen any time soon, now that the school year has begun, I thought perhaps an actual messy post was better than a hypothetical neater one.]

Eventually, this post is going to be about four words in Olivia’s first scene, the question she poses to Feste when he asks for leave to prove her a fool: “Can you do it?” It’s just going to take me a bit of time to get there.

I have many theories about Shakespeare’s comedies (unsurprising, since I wrote my dissertation on them), but one of those theories is that they require you to be a much more nimble close-reader of small details than the tragedies do. And in performance, they require you to hit your mark far more exactly than the tragedies, because tragedy will give you a whole soliloquy where comedy will often give you a line. If Twelfth Night were a tragedy, and Viola’s brother Sebastian had really died in their shipwreck, she might get a whole speech about her grief and loss. But it’s a comedy, and he isn’t dead – but here’s the thing: Viola doesn’t know that. So you have to give her the expression of that same grief and loss, or you hollow out the breathtaking reunion scene at the end of the play – only here’s what you get to do it in:

And what should I do in Illyria?

My brother he is in Elysium.

Perchance he is not drowned: what think you, sailors? (1.2.3-5)

Then, when the captain replies, “It is perchance that you yourself were saved” (look at the forbidding emphasis those repetitive pronouns place: don’t hope for a second miracle when your own survival barely occurred), you get one more line: “O my poor brother! And so perchance may he be” (1.3.7). A couple of lines later, after the captain reveals that he saw Sebastian tie himself to the mast of the ship and float away (“hold acquaintance with the waves” is what he says, beautifully, as though Sebastian is an equal of the ocean, not at its mercy), Viola thanks the captain and says, “Mine own escape unfoldeth to my hope, / Whereto thy speech serves for authority, / The like of him. Know’st thou this country?” (1.3.19-21). The caesura in that last line is a marvel of compression: from desperate hope to practicality so fast that if you haven’t played the previous lines properly, it’s easy to downplay or overlook the terrible future Viola is holding at bay here, a world without her brother. And indeed, you see this all the time, on stage and (especially) in criticism: people relying on their foreknowledge of a comic ending to assume that we don’t have to give this shadow-world its due. (I think this is why so many productions of Twelfth Night seem so oddly weightless to me.) But we have to live in that world with Viola, even if only for as long as it takes for her to say “My brother he is in Elysium” – that stark moment where she cannot imagine how she could manage to live without him, what the point of such a thing would even be (“And what should I do in Illyria?”). If you’re the actor or the director, and you don’t come absolutely prepared to make us live in that shadow-world from the top of the scene, it flickers away and vanishes, and you can’t call it back; you don’t get another shot. At best, you get a reminder, in 2.4, when Viola speaks obliquely of an imagined sister whom she still – even fictional as that sister is – can’t bring herself to label as dead; she meets Orsino’s “But died thy sister of her love, my boy?” with “I am all the daughters of my father’s house, / And all the brothers too, and yet I know not” (2.4.126-7). (If you’ve done your job properly, that word “brothers” ought to punch us in the chest.)

So too, in a less fraught vein, with Olivia. She doesn’t get a soliloquy, or even a monologue like Orsino’s opening “If music be the food of love, play on”; her entire first scene is about her interactions with others. We’ve learned before now, through the remarks of others, what she is – “the fair Olivia,” “daughter of a count,” in double grief for a father and a brother – but not who she is. And her first line is… “Take the fool away” (1.5.33). A good actor can do a lot with that line, but even so, it’s not the most revealing introduction for a character. She gives the game away just a bit when she responds to Feste’s repeated insistence that she is in fact the fool by calling him “Sir” (1.5.47): as Feste is one of her servants, there’s a sense of potential playfulness to her use of the title. If she were truly angry or even just dismissive, she would probably call him “sirrah” (which is her usual term of address for her male servants [1]), so even if she’s not being playful exactly, she is being ironic in being exaggeratedly over-formal. So we know she has something at least resembling a sense of humor. But it’s when Feste insists that she should ‘give him leave’ to prove that Olivia is in fact a fool, and she responds with “Can you do it?” (1.5.51), that we learn something important about what Olivia is like.

Take a second, and imagine this black-clad figure on stage. We know she’s still in the grip of mourning; she’s just sent a message back to Orsino’s court that she intends to hide away from the world in grief for seven years (“The element itself, till seven years’ heat, / Shall not behold her face at ample view…”). She’s suggested throughout this encounter with Feste that she wants nothing more than for him to go away (“Take the fool away”). And yet, the moment Feste offers her this bait of a witty intellectual puzzle, her response is not an angry dismissal, or a repeated command for him to leave her, but a glimmer of interest: “Can you do it?” She can’t help herself; the puzzle is too puzzling for her to resist. She tries, in her other answers to Feste after this – the terseness of “Make your proof” (1.5.53); the airy unconcern of “Well, sir [there’s that “sir” again], for want of other idleness, I’ll bide your proof” (1.5.56-7) – to pretend as though she hasn’t just cared about something, but it’s too late.

And the thing about a question – this is practically tautological, but bear with me – is that it isn’t an answer. Answers are (or can be, anyway) chary, parsimonious things; they give as much information as the other person requires, sometimes even a little less. (“What are you reading?” “A book.”) But a question – that requires opening yourself up to dialogue, to spontaneity, to risk: you may know what answer you hope for, but a real question means that you don’t know what the answer will be. Dialogue, spontaneity, risk: all of those are things that Olivia has been trying to shut out, with her rituals of mourning (“But like a cloistress she will veilèd walk, / And water once a day her chamber round / With eye-offending brine,” 1.1.29-31). The goal of her mourning is to resist change: “All this to season / A brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh / And lasting in her sad remembrance” (1.1.31-33). But dialogue is all change, all the time; a question makes you the asking, vulnerable partner in a dance, where the other person could dismiss or reject.

Olivia’s question, too, is wholly unnecessary from the standpoint of the parameters that Feste has set up. When he says “give me leave,” she could say simply “yes,” or “you have leave,” or – as she says two lines later – “Make your proof.” But “Can you do it?” means she’s showing an interest, giving something of herself to the moment, taking part. It’s overabundant, in the way that comedy is often overabundant, in the way that Feste’s own response to Olivia’s question is: not just “yes, I can,” but “Dexteriously, good madonna” (1.5.52). Things aren’t just happening to Olivia or around her, when she asks a question instead of simply responding; she is putting herself into the stream of a situation that could go horribly awry. (As it very nearly does, when Feste says as part of his “catechism,” “I think [your brother’s] soul is in hell, madonna” [1.5.60]. Can you imagine what that line must feel like – what a betrayal it must seem to be – when Olivia has put her trust in him in opening herself up to this exchange?) It’s easy to play the scene as though Olivia is simply won over by Feste’s catechism about mourning and foolishness – but that little question of hers shows that this isn’t quite right: there is a willingness to her, an eagerness to participate in the world, that is crucial to the headlong way she falls for Cesario later in this scene. Even if she can’t yet admit it to herself, she is ready for the world to come to her.


[1] Olivia calls Feste “sirrah” at 5.1.286, and addresses Fabian with the same term at 5.1.301 (“How does he, sirrah”; “Read it you, sirrah”). This word is oddly popular in this scene, after appearing nowhere else in the play; Orsino also uses it toward Cesario at 5.1.146 – “Her husband, sirrah?” – although there it feels almost insulting, given Orsino’s tendency to refer to Cesario as “Dear lad” or “boy” elsewhere in the play. (This is another one of those small comic details that carries a lot of weight.)

Text: Twelfth Night, RSC Shakespeare (Modern Library). Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, eds. New York: Random House, 2010.



Want a really authentic Shakespeare experience? Try not understanding some words!

At our recent Back-to-School Night, the parent of a former student wanted to know what I thought of a recent article he’d read about whether Shakespeare’s language should be translated “into English.” I hadn’t read the article (though that didn’t stop me from having an opinion about it!), but a day or two later I found the article in question: John McWhorter’s piece in the Wall Street Journal, in support of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s recent announcement that it planned to commission modern English translations of Shakespeare’s plays.

(If you haven’t seen it, the article is here:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/a-facelift-for-shakespeare-1443194924 )

McWhorter begins with an assertion that he ought to know is simply untrue from a grammatical standpoint – that Shakespeare’s English is too far removed from today’s English to be understood – and goes on to make much hay from fairly minor examples. I think most people can imagine how a mind might be described as “generous” even if they aren’t experts in early modern nuance, for example, and his worry that modern listeners can’t make the association between the word “character” and writing seems misplaced in the age of Twitter, where many people strive daily to contain their thoughts in 140 characters. McWhorter also spends a fair amount of time attempting to demonstrate that Macbeth’s soliloquy debating the murder of Duncan is so arcane that it requires translation to mean anything to an audience – but perhaps not so coincidentally, my last post on this subject was about this very scene, and the same thing I said then holds true here: that complexity and confusion are part of the point. Macbeth can’t express clearly what he cannot see clearly in the first place.

This round of arguing in favor of Shakespeare translations seems to be particularly focused on individual words: the idea that not knowing the early modern meaning of “generous” or “faculties” or “taking-off” prevents audience members (and, to a lesser extent, readers) from being able to grasp what’s happening. (McWhorter also seems very concerned about “faculties,” which Shakespeare uses a total of nine times across all of his plays. That’s about nine seconds of possible confusion in all of Shakespeare.) The suggestion seems to be that so many words have changed their meanings that Shakespeare is rapidly becoming impossible to understand (though there are far more words that haven’t changed their meanings). Behind this idea, though, lies a false assumption: that audiences in Shakespeare’s day understood every word of the plays, so we – in order to have the same kind of experience the original audiences had – have to change the text to make up for all of those differences. But in Shakespeare’s day, new words were being imported and created all the time. The flip side of the frequent assertion that Shakespeare invented many new words [1] is that such words must have been unfamiliar to the people hearing them for the first time – probably even more unfamiliar to them than to us, since many of those words have since been adopted into the English language! Early modern dramatists, Shakespeare included, were writing at the cutting edge of the English language, and coining new words when the old ones wouldn’t do. So how might audiences have coped with so much unfamiliarity?

Let’s take a look at two words that I’ve seen suggested as words that are too difficult for many people in a modern audience to understand: prorogued (in Romeo and Juliet) and abatement (in Twelfth Night). The thing that’s important to note is that these two words were considered difficult in Shakespeare’s day as well – at least according to Robert Cawdrey, the creator of what is often called the first English dictionary: A Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604. Unlike modern dictionaries, however, Cawdrey’s only includes what he calls “hard English words, which [people] shall hear or read in Scriptures, sermons, or elsewhere.” The fact that “prorogue” (‘put off, prolong, defer’) and “abatement” (‘taking from, lessening’) are both in this book tells us that even in 1604, several years after the composition of both Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, these words were still thought of as “hard” and unfamiliar to a sizable part of the population. So it’s likely that quite a few people in the audience at the Globe would have heard them and not known what they meant. Those people could simply have passed over those words, of course; that’s always an option. But perhaps there’s something about the text itself that can help an audience member to understand what a word must mean even if he or she doesn’t actually know what it means.

In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo responds to Juliet’s worry about her kinsmen (“If they do see thee, they will murder thee”) by exuberantly declaring,

And but [=unless] thou love me, let them find me here;

My life were better ended by their hate,

Than death prorogued, wanting of thy love. (2.2.76-8)

Out of context, “prorogued” could mean practically anything. But in context, where it is part of a claim that Romeo would rather die than experience whatever “death prorogued” is without Juliet’s love, it becomes clear that “death prorogued” – even if we still have no idea what “prorogued” means – has to be the opposite of death: that is, life. If we stopped to break this down further, we could probably therefore deduce that “prorogued” itself has to mean something like “avoided” or “put off,” but in the theater, that level of detail isn’t necessary as long as you understand the general sentiment. (In English class you might be required to know what “prorogued” meant, after you’d figured all of this out; but then, in English class you’d just look down at the footnotes.)

Shakespeare’s use of abatement at the beginning of Twelfth Night is similar. After Orsino’s famous pronouncement that music might be “the food of love,” he demands an “excess” of that music, then describes the spirit of love as being so capacious that it takes in everything that comes its way and still remains unsatisfied:

…Naught enters there

Of what validity and pitch soe’er

But falls into abatement and low price

Even in a minute. (1.1.11-14)

This is a complex passage, because Orsino is trying to express a complicated idea; Keir Elam, the editor of the Arden third series edition of the play, refers in the footnotes to “Orsino’s baroque conceit” (162). But we still don’t need to know what all of the words mean in order to make sense of it. “Pitch,” for example, is a term from falconry; I certainly did not know this the first time I read the play! However, if you keep his larger point in mind, “validity” and “pitch” must be the opposite of “low price,” that is, “value”: no matter how valuable something is, its worth will fall off sharply. (This entire image makes a lot more sense in the moment because it comes after Orsino’s much simpler exclamation that the music he just finished praising is “not so sweet now as it was before”; he’s now trying to figure out why and how such a change could happen so quickly. Context really is everything in Shakespeare; you should always use it to help you understand what’s happening, rather than trying to take each word or line on an individual basis.)

But what about “abatement”? Here, Shakespeare helps us by doing something that he often does: using a more elevated, potentially foreign word and then following it with its more ordinary definition. You can see this when Macbeth says that his bloody hands will “The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red.” If you don’t know what “incarnadine” means, you only need to wait a few seconds to find out. In Twelfth Night, “abatement” might be a new word for the audience, but “low price” is everyday. And it’s the “and” between the two – “abatement and low price” – that signals to us that these two terms must be more or less the same thing.

So, you may be thinking, if you don’t actually need to understand a word like “abatement,” why not just go ahead and translate it? Because even if you could find a replacement word that preserved the meter and rhythm of the original line, and even if you found one that preserved important sound patterns like alliteration, and even if you examined the entire text to make sure you weren’t disrupting any thematic patterns by changing the original word – because the idea of things “falling into abatement” echoes throughout Twelfth Night – you’d still lose the character information that comes with that word. Orsino is the kind of character who comes up with baroque conceits and uses words like “abatement” when “low price” will do, just as Macbeth feels that he needs grandiose words and phrases like “all great Neptune’s ocean,” “multitudinous,” and “incarnadine” to express the magnitude of the horror of the deed he’s just committed. And saying “abatement and low price” instead of just “low price” is perfect for a passage that is all about excess. Shakespeare chose those words (or invented them, sometimes) because he wanted them for something; it’s worth keeping them because they can still tell us what that “something” is, even today.

Nevertheless, not knowing a word like “incarnadine” is not a deal-breaker, in part because Shakespeare was writing for an audience who didn’t know every word he was using, either. It turns out that we actually don’t need to do anything to make our experience of Shakespeare more like that of the original audience, at least as far as individual words are concerned. If words like “abatement” and “prorogued” are unfamiliar or confusing to us, we have hundreds of years of company. And those unfamiliar words shouldn’t make us think that we can’t understand Shakespeare, or stop us from enjoying it. After all, they didn’t stop audiences in 1604.


[1] For a discussion of how large Shakespeare’s vocabulary actually was in comparison to other dramatists of the period, see Hugh Craig, “Shakespeare’s Vocabulary: Myth and Reality.” Shakespeare Quarterly 62:1 (2011): 53-74.

Texts: Romeo and Juliet, New Cambridge edition (G. Blakemore Evans, ed., reprinted 2012).

Twelfth Night, Arden third series (Keir Elam, ed., 2008).

On introductions and yellow stockings

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).