Thursday, 5 January 2017

The True Villain of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night?

Happy January 5th! Also known as the twelfth day of Christmas, or if you're a theatre buff, twelfth night.

I've been watching a lot of Game Theory and Film Theory as of late, so I thought it would be fun to try doing a similar styled theory of my own. So what better piece of entertainment to cover on twelfth nigth, than Twelfth Night?

Written as late New Year's entertainment, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night or What You Will, has a lot of similarities with a traditional pantomime. Very straightforward, some people say. Viola's the heroine and Malvolio is the de-facto villain, right?

Well, I'm sorry to say, that is a false conclusion. I hate it as an unfilled can (or an antiperspirant that doesn't work).

People often label Malvolio as the villain, but when you pay attention to his actions during the play, he never actually does anything wrong, legally or morally. So, he's not really a villain at all. Arrogant- yes, ambitions- yes, in possesion of an ego the size of Seattle- oh, God, yes...

But evil? Not really.

What's that you say? He antagonises Viola? Well, yes, he's rude to her, when he gives her Olivia's ring and tells her not to come back, but remember- who was it that told him to do that? Hmmm, name's just on the tip of my tonge...Oh yes! It was Olivia!

Really, you can't fault the man, just for doing what his employer asks of him, can you?

In fact, the most antagonistic he gets is when he puts a damper on Sir Toby's drinking party, threatening to kick them out of the house if they don't behave. Seriously, that's the worst thing Malvolio does- tell a bunch of party animals to keep the noise down. For years, this poor man has been labelled a villain, just for doing his job.

“Ah! Then the villain must be Sir Toby!” I hear you say “Of course! He's the one playing pranks on everyone, instigating fights with the twins and setting Olivia up with Sir Andrew! Of course, he must be the real villain!”

Again, a false conclusion, more hated than an unfilled can, or a season finale of The Big Bang Theory that ends on a cliff hanger, so I have to wait another year or so before...

Anyway, Sir Toby Belch, the portly partaker of pickled herrings isn't the villain either. This may come as a shock to you, but Toby is actually the true protagonist. And before you ask, no, I'm not just saying that out of narcissism, because I actually played Sir Toby in a local production of Twelfht Night (or What You Will)...okay, I suppose it is parly out of narcissism...but I can back up my claim with evidence. Firstly Sir Toby has the most lines out of any character in the play.

No, I'm not making this up. 343 lines, just above Viola's 335. 


Numbers aside, Toby's actions through the play aren't really villainous either. A common misconception is that he's trying to arrange a marriage between Olivia and Sir Andrew, so Toby can help himself to Andrew's family fortune. But if that were the case and Toby was just marrying her off for money, why is he helping Andrew instead of Orsino?

Considering that Orsino is the one who governs Illyria, it makes sense that he would not only have higher social status but more money. If Toby was just trying to marry Olivia off for cold hard cash, why set her up with a buffoonish knight when he could just barter with the Duke himself?

Because he and Andrew are friends. He simply wants Olivia to be with someone he knows that he can trust. I mean, Orsino has no sympathy for the fact that Olivia's still in morning for her late brother. Not exactly winning any points with the family, Orsino.

While it's true that Toby does play some mean spirited pranks, that's really all they are- pranks. He does instigate fights between Andrew and other people, but he knows when his pranks have gone too far. Both times when it escalated into the actual drawing of weapons, Toby stood up for Andrew against Antonio and later Sebastian, only relenting when the officers (or his cheesed off niece) show up.He's pretty down to earth, too. His relationship with Olivia's chambermaid Maria is actually a lot better fleshed out and more believable than the ones either of twins end up it.

So who are the real villains?

Not Malvolio, not Toby or Maria, not even Feste. 

It is in fact the twins themselves.

Yes, Viola and Sebastian, the cover girl and poster boy of modern adaptaions are the real villains of Twelfth Night (or What You Will). These two, who have been hailed as heroes are in fact, shallow, dishonest, opportunistic gold-diggers.

Now, since it's ladies first, we'll start with Viola, one of the most two-faced characters in Shakespeare's entire cannon of work.

First thing to address is the fact that she spends most of the play lying through her teeth, introducing herself as a boy named Cesario. Hell, her real name isn't even mentioned until the final scene. One thing that's puzzled me lately is WHY Viola dresses up as a boy? If she needed to find work, she could have just got a job as a maid, like Maria.

Put simply- more money.

Disguised as a man, she would not only earn higher wages, but would also have better prospects for promotion. Hey, it is still the 16th century, after all.

In fact in the very first scene, she asks the ship's captain “Who governs here?”. Right here, she's planning on going right to the top, seeking out the man in charge of Illyria and disguising herself as a boy, not only for higher wages, but also to get close to the Count.

In the following scene she and Orsino share, where she utters “Myself would be his wife...” Orsino never actually shows any attractive qualities. Most of his dialogue is either gushing over Olivia or telling Cesario lines that in modern English, translate to “You look like a girl.” So, what does Viola see in him? Well, first of all, money, as we've already established- she doesn't see a potential husband, she sees a walking £££ sign (or at least Illyria's equivalent of a pound sign.)
Though another possibility is that she's just sick of hearing Orsino going on and on and on about Olivia when there's a perfectly good set of female organs right in front of him.

Hmm...compulsive liar, motivated by greed, jealousy and ambition...traits you'd associate with the villain. Know what other characters in Shakespear's works share these traits?

Claudius in Hamlet, Iago in Othello, the title character of Macbeth.

Oh, just a minute, I need to do the superstition


So Viola is really a manipulative gold-digger and not the goody-goody heroine modern adaptations try to paint her as.

But as vile a person as Viola is, she's not a patch on her horrible brother Sebastian.

Lets start with the company he keeps- the notable pirate Antonio. He rescues Sebastian from the shipwreck and takes him to Illyria, yet doesn't ask for anything in return. He follows Sebastian into enemy territory, knowing full well that Orsino's men are on the look out for him and even lends Sebastian his purse. This all seems...surprisingly generous for someone who's CV lists pillaging, plundering and looting as special skills. Sure, you could just say that Antonio is doing all of this out of the kindness of his heart. Like Captain Jack Sparrow, it is possible to both a pirate and a good man, but why would Antonio risk his life and lend a large amount of money (all he has on him , apparently), for someone he's only just met?

To answer that question with a question- what if they've actually met before the events of the play?

Back in Act 1 scene 2, the ship's Captain tells Sebastian's money hunger sister-

I saw your brother, most provident in peril, bind himself, (Courage and hope both teaching him the practice), to a strong mast that lived upon the sea.”

Captain Nameless claims that it's “courage and hope” teaching Sebastian how to tie himself to a mast, but that's all it is- a claim. I have a theory that the twin with the Y chromosome already knew how to do that. What I propose is that Sebastian is himself... a pirate.

It would explain why a salt water thief like Antonio is willing to stretch his neck out for him without asking for something in return. 

But, of course, that's just speculation.

If you want actual evidence of what a nasty, evil person Sebastian is, you only have to look at his behaviour in act 4.

After Andrew belts him one, believing him to be Cesario (whom Andrew has reason to believe abandoned his friend Antonio and fled their duel. So Andrew's actually doing somehting wrong for the right reason), Sebastian beats him up and then goes for his weapon. Toby, seeing that he's got Andrew in trouble again, tries to defuse the situation by grabbing Sebastian's arm and threatening to throw his knife over the fence. Sebastian breaks free and pulls his knife on Toby, who in turn is forced to draw steel in self defence.

So, just to reiterate- Sebastian pulled a knife, durring a fist fight, and threatened a man who was simply trying to break it up.

Then Olivia storms on gives Toby a bollocking, believing him to be the one at fault (if something stinks, it's usually The Belch. Yes, I was looking for a way to sneak a Phoenix Wright reference in here. =P ), she then takes Sebastian aside, also believing him to be Cesario and proposes marriage. Shallow Scallywag Seb agrees to marry Olivia, simply because she's beautiful and obviously rich.

Again, to reiterate- he takes advantage of a woman who's mistaken him for somebody else.

Then in the final scene, Andrew and Toby stagger on, after Sebastian beats them up. Round 2 of Delinquent vs Dunken Knight obviously happened off stage, so we're supposed to believe that the Laurel and Hardy of Illyria jumped him again, only to get their clocks cleaned. Well, what do you expect? Toby's niece, the only family he has left has just married a violent sociopath that she literally only just met. Of course Toby's going to be angry at his niece being taken advantage of! What would any self respecting parental figure do?! Most adaptions of this final scene also show Toby to be drunk at time, so there's also Sebastian beating up a man who's too drunk to fight back.

It looks like a happy ending because those shady twins have married rich and attractive nobles. But audiences overlook the fact that Olivia is now shackled to a violent and shallow man she that she doesn't even know. No sympathy goes to poor Malvolio, falsely imprisoned and humiliated. It's like “Who cares! The twins are happy and that's all that matters!”

Therein lies to real tragedy of Twelfth Night (or What You Will). The bad guys get everything they want without trying, while the real heroes are beaten, disgraced and humiliated. Despite their best efforts they failed to save Olivia from the clutches of an evil, bad tempered and cruel scrounger.

Like they say in the anime, Ouran High School Host Club- Twins with too much time on their hands are the devil. 

So do you agree with my interpretation of the characters? Or are you now after a pint of my malapert blood? Please, let me know in the comments. Please be aware, I'm not trying to ruin the play for you, I'm just having bit of fun. Hey, the fact that I've even come up with this over the top fan theory proves that Shakespeare's work is still enjoyable after 400 years.
Have a great twelfth night and remember- don't follow Toby's example. He's the 16th century star of “Why let good times go bad.”

No comments:

Post a Comment