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September 5, 2007

or what you will

On reading Twelfth Night recently, I was moved by the ending. Feste the Fool is left standing alone to sing of the cold winter, when the rain it raineth every day. Twelfth Night marks the end of Christmas, an interlude from work. This particular Christmas in Illyria also seems a break from the weather, for no one speaks of cold even though most of the action is outdoors. A willow cabin seems sufficient shelter. These are perhaps the "Halcyon days" of the winter solstice, what we would call an "Indian summer" (cf. 1 Henry VI, I,ii,131).

This Christmas is also a break from war and--most strikingly--from family. Orsino, Olivia, Viola, and Sebastian, the romantic leads, are all orphaned and childless. There is no mention of any family, either, for the minor characters of Sir Andrew Aguecheeck, Sir Toby Belch, Malvolio, Antonio, Maria, and the Fool. Since these characters have no parents or children, they have no one to govern them and no responsibilities. Virtually any of these people could be paired with anyone else. Even gender is no bar, for Viola is dressed as a man and attracts Olivia's love. Illyria is like summer camp or freshman year at college. The characters are not wanton, but for them, everything is undecided.

The marriages of Olivia and Sebastian, Viola and Orsino represent a happy ending, but also the end of the interlude. After their weddings, Illyria will have a governing structure; families will be created in separate households. Immediately before everyone leaves the Fool alone on the stage, Orsino carelessly addresses his fiancée by the name she has used in her guise as a man:

Cesario, come--
For so you shall be while you are a man,
But when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino's mistress, and his fancy's queen!

Orsino still sees Viola as "Cesario" and wants to postpone their marriage (and her transformation into a woman) until after the play ends. Maybe his slip of the tongue is homoerotic, but I think it is something else as well. Orsino wants to prolong the interlude, the time when he pines for a distant lover to the sound of "high fantastical" music, no one is attached to anyone, people drift freely from court to court, and you can do what you will. But the Fool is the most knowing character throughout the play, and once Orsino sweeps offstage with his retinue, the Fool sings of the winter that is adult life:

But when I came to man's estate
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain
'Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate
For the rain it raineth every day.

September 5, 2007 12:46 PM | category: fine arts | Comments


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