I was three pages into Harold Bloom’s celebrated masterpiece, Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human, and Twelfth Night sounded like the dullest play ever written. So I did myself a favor: I put Harold Bloom on the shelf for my annual yard sale. Then I plowed through the text of Twelfth Night once so I could know I had actually read it since this is my project: to read the works of Shakespeare.
I realized right away that Twelfth Night needs to be seen. Reading it for the first time, it was too hard to keep track of a woman disguised as a man but still resembling her twin brother enough that another woman who falls in love with the woman will easily transfer her affections to the man who looks like his sister once the other woman realizes that the woman is a woman. Marriage equality was not to come about for another 500 years and the now reasonable notion that if a woman was attracted to another woman, maybe she was a lesbian, is not explored here.
Twelfth Night needs to be heard, too, because of all the songs that the fool sings. His first song, “O Mistress Mine, where are you roaming” I long ago learned from recordings of Janet Baker, my all-time favorite mezzo-soprano. Even when I was in my twenties, I got a lump in my throat hearing her voice declaiming,
Then come kiss me sweet and twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure
In any case, I am so glad I did not let Harold Bloom put me off. I went on an orgy of watching four different productions on DVD. Then I re-watched my two favorites and re-read the play a second time. That’s eight times through the play and now I know bits of it by heart, I can’t wait to see it at Shakespeare in the Park in Seattle this summer.
A couple of performances on those DVDs made the play alive for me. Joan Plowright as Viola (1969) was a revelation not just of the character but of the craft of acting. She pulled into herself and her soul shone through her eyes when she said:
Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house,
Write loyal cantons of contemnèd love,
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Hallow your name to the reverberate hills. . .
Ronnie Stevens as Sir Andrew Aguecheek (1980) made me totter between wet-my- pants laughing and suddenly wanting to sob when he says, “I was adored once, too.”
Twelfth Night is one of those plays full of famous and quotable lines. Here are some of the ones I wrote down in my notebook:
*What great ones do, the less will prattle of (I, ii)
*Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has. But I am a great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit. (I, iii)
*Is it a world to hide virtues in? (I, iii)
*Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage. (I, v)
*Journey’s end in lover’s meeting. . .
What is love? Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure;
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me sweet and twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure. (II, iii)
*Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale? (II, iii)
*He does it with better grace, but I do it more natural. (II, iii)
*She never told her love
But let concealment like a worm in the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy,
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. (II, iv)
*He hath been yonder in the sun practicing behavior to his own shadow. (II, v)
*Be not afraid of greatness: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. (II, v)
*A sentence is but a chev’ril glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward. (III, i)
*Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere. (III, i)
*Out of my lean and low ability, I’ll lend you something. (III, iv)
*If music be the food of love, play on. (First line)
The very first line of Twelfth Night is associated in my mind with my college roommate, formerly The Very Miss Mary-Ellis Lacy, who has not lost her youthful sensibilities.(http://www.elenalouiserichmond.com/2012/06/the-very-miss-kiss-my-ass-girl/) Mary-Ellis grew up to be a Singer. In one of her celebrated performances she begins a song by Henry Purcell called “If music be the food of love, sing on” while lovingly caressing a box of See’s Candy.
Maybe youth has stuff that can endure.