Some Notes on Twelfth Night

1996 was a year of cinematic Shakespeare. HAMLET (Kenneth Branagh's full-text version seething with brilliant supporting performances), LOOKING FOR RICHARD (Al Pacino's stream-of-consciousness meditation on Richard III) and ROMEO + JULIET (the Baz Luhrmann's MTV adaptation that grossed fifty million dollars) each brand movie history with their own radically distinctive mark. Despite their markedly different goals, these films tried to make Shakespeare accessible to the movie-going masses--even the American ones.

Lurking behind these landmark films was another Shakespearean adaptation in 1996: TWELFTH NIGHT: OR, WHAT YOU WILL. Unlike HAMLET, LOOKING FOR RICHARD and ROMEO + JULIET, this film was barely noticed; critics acknowledged it as a good but not great ensemble piece and the movie-going public entirely failed to see it in droves.

This was not for want of a creative advertising, which attempted to engage contemporary audiences with references to contemporary culture. One trailer gleefully exclaimed, "Before Priscilla crossed the desert, Wong Foo met Julie Newmar, and the Birdcage was unlocked, there was TWELFTH NIGHT!" Though TWELFTH NIGHT certainly shares with PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT; TO WONG FOO, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING, JULIE NEWMAR; and THE BIRDCAGE the motif of cross-dressing, the advertisers have done it a disservice by pretending that it focuses on this. Instead, it uses farce, mistaken identities, misguided passion and indelible characters to evoke Philip Sidney's concept of 'delight'. From his 1580 Apology for Poetry:

But our comedians think there is no delight without laughter; which is very wrong, for though laughter may come with delight, yet cometh it not of delight, as thought delight should be the cause of laughter; but well may one thing breed both together. Nay, rather in themselves they have, as it were, a kind of contrariety: for delight we scarcely do but in things that have a conveniency to ourselves or to the general nature: laughter almost ever cometh of things most disproportioned to ourselves and nature. Delight hath a joy in it, either permanent or present. Laughter hath only a scornful tickling. ... [The] representing of so strange a power in love procureth delight: and the scornfulness of the action stirreth laughter.

Yet we should not express great surprise that these advertisements display a confusion over what Shakespeare meant to evoke in this play; its theatrical history is riddled with misinterpretation and mystification. After the performances of Twelfth Night during Shakespeare's lifetime, the play largely disappeared from the English stage until 1703. In that year, it was transformed by Charles Burnaby into a play called Love Betrayed, in which the main conflict was between Malvolio and Viola over Olivia's love.

When Twelfth Night again appeared, it had been affected by this reinterpretation, and presented Malvolio as the central character of the play. In the years since, many stars have done turns in such roles as Viola or Malvolio or Feste, serving to disturb the delicate ensemble constructed herein. There is quite a web of parallels between characters which is lost if this balance is disrupted. (For example, Viola and Olivia are two women who have lost a brother; "Cesario", Malvolio, Aguecheek and Orsino are four men involved with Olivia; Antonio, Orsino, Sebastian and "Cesario" are four men who form fast (pun intended) friendships with each other; Sir Toby, Sebastian, Orsino, Olivia and Viola all fall in love at the drop of a hat.)

Even this film has been faulted for unbalancing the ensemble. Some reviewers, familiar with Helena Bonham Carter's work, hail her Olivia as the outstanding performance of the piece; others, remembering Nigel Richardson's recent success in THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE, claim that he steals the show. To still other reviewers, Ben Kingsley was the most recognizable face (probably given his roles in SCHINDLER'S LIST, SNEAKERS and SPECIES--okay, and maybe GHANDI too), which caused them to focus on his performance. And even others decided that Trevor Nunn had pulled off the balancing act required in creating this sort of Shakespearean piece, keeping even his wife (Imogen Stubbs) in line with the ensemble.

What is left to say? I leave you to experience Nunn's portrayal of this wonderfully complex romantic quadrangle (read: tangle), with only the words of Shakespeare to guide you on your way...

"You do usurp yourself; for what is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve."

"If music be the food of love, play on."

"Care's an enemy to life."

"Dost though think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?"

"Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em."

"He hath been most notoriously abused."

"This is very midsummer madness."

"But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day."

[Home] [Index]