TWELFTH NIGHT; OR, WHAT YOU WILL.
THIS is justly considered as one of the most
delightful of Shakespear's comedies. It is full
of sweetness and pleasantry. It is perhaps too
good-natured for comedy. It has little satire,
and no spleen. It aims at the ludicrous rather
than the ridiculous. It makes us laugh at the
follies of mankind, not despise them, and still
less bear any ill-will towards them. Shakespear's
comic genius resembles the bee rather in
its power of extracting sweets from weeds or
poisons, than in leaving a sting behind it. He
gives the most amusing exaggeration of the prevailing
foibles of his characters, but in a way
that they themselves, instead of being offended
at, would almost join in to humour; he rather
contrives opportunities for them to shew themselves
off in the happiest lights, than renders
them contemptible in the perverse construction
of the wit or malice of others.--There is a certain
stage of society in which people become
conscious of their peculiarities and absurdities,
affect to disguise what they are, and set up pretensions
to what they are not. This gives rise
to a corresponding style of comedy, the object
of which is to detect the disguises of self-love,
and to make reprisals on these preposterous assumptions
of vanity, by marking the contrast
between the real and the affected character as
severely as possible, and denying to those, who
would impose on us for what they've not, even
the merit which they have. This is the comedy
of artificial life, of wit and satire, such as we
see it in Congreve, Wycherley, Vanbrugh, &c.
To this succeeds a state of society from which
the same sort of affectation and presence are
banished by a greater knowledge of the world
or by their successful exposure on the stage;
and which by neutralizing the materials of comic
character, both natural and artificial, leaves no
comedy at all--but the sentimental. Such is
our modern comedy. There is a period in the
progress of manners anterior to both these, in
which the foibles and follies of individuals are
of nature's planting, not the growth of art or
study; in which they are therefore unconscious
of them themselves, or care not who knows
them, if they can but have their whim out, and
in which, as there is no attempt at imposition,
the spectators rather receive pleasure from humouring
the inclinations of the persons they
laugh at, than wish to give them pain by exposing
their absurdity. This may be called the
comedy of nature, and it is the comedy which
we generally find in Shakespear.--Whether the
analysis here given be just or not, the spirit of
his comedies is evidently quite distinct from
that of the authors above mentioned, as it is in
its essence the same with that of Cervantes, and
also very frequently of Moliere, though he was
more systematic in his extravagance than Shakespear.
Shakespear's comedy is of a pastoral
and poetical cast. Folly is indigenous to the
soil, and shoots out with native, happy, unchecked
luxuriance. Absurdity has every encouragement
afforded it; and nonsense has room
to flourish in. Nothing is stunted by the churlish,
icy hand of indifference or severity. The
poet runs riot in a conceit, and idolises a quibble.
His whole object is to turn the meanest
or rudest objects to a pleasurable account. The
relish which he has of a pun, or of the quaint humour
of a low character, does not interfere with
the delight with which he describes a beautiful
image, or the most refined love. The clown's
forced jests do not spoil the sweetness of the
character of Viola; the same house is big enough
to hold Malvolio, the Countess, Maria, Sir Toby,
and Sir Andrew Ague-cheek. For instance,
nothing can fall much lower than this last character
in intellect or morals: yet how are his
weaknesses nursed and candled by Sir Toby
into something "high fantastical," when on Sir
Andrew's commendation of himself for dancing
and fencing, Sir Toby answers--"Wherefore
are these things hid? Wherefore have these gifts
a curtain before them? Are they like to take
dust like mistress Moll's picture? Why dost
thou not go to church in a galliard, and come
home in a coranto? My very walk should be a
jig! I would not so much as make water but
in a cinque-pace. What dost thou mean? Is
this a world to hide virtues in? I did think
by the excellent constitution of thy leg, it was
framed under the star of a galliard!"--How Sir
Toby, Sir Andrew, and the Clown afterwards
chirp over their cups, how they "rouse the
night-owl in a catch, able to draw three souls out
of one weaver?" What can be better than Sir
Toby's unanswerable answer to Malvolio, "Dost
thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall
be no more cakes and ale?"--In a word, the best
turn is given to every thing, instead of the worst.
There is a constant infusion of the romantic and
enthusiastic, in proportion as the characters are
natural and sincere: whereas, in the more artificial
style of comedy, every thing gives way to
ridicule and indifference, there being nothing left
but affectation on one side, and incredulity on
the other.--Much as we like Shakespear's comedies,
we cannot agree with Dr. Johnson that
they are better than his tragedies, nor do we
like them half so well. If his inclination to
comedy sometimes led him to trifle with the
seriousness of tragedy, the poetical and impassioned
passages are the best parts of his comedies.
The great and secret charm of TWELFTH
NIGHT is the character of Viola. Much as we
like catches and cakes and ale, there is something
that we like better. We have a friendship
for Sir Toby, we patronise Sir Andrew;
we have an understanding with the Clown, a
sneaking kindness for Maria and her rogueries;
we feel a regard for Malvolio, and sympathise
with his gravity, his smiles, his cross garters,
his yellow stockings, and imprisonment in the
stocks. But there is something that excites
in us a stronger feeling than all this--it is Viola's
confession of her love.
"Duke. What's her history?|
Viola. A blank, my lord, she never told her love:
She let concealment, like a worm i' th' bud,
Prey on her damask cheek, she pin'd in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy,
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
We men may say more, swear more, but indeed,
Our shews are more than will; for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love.
Duke. But died thy sister of her love, my boy?
Viola. I am all the daughters of my father's house,
And all the brothers too;--and yet I know not."--
Shakespear alone could describe the effect of
his own poetry.
"Oh, it came o'er the ear like the sweet south|
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour."
What we so much admire here is not the image
of Patience on a monument, which has been
generally quoted, but the lines before and after
it. "They give a very echo to the seat where
love is throned." How long ago it is since we
first learnt to repeat them; and still, still they
vibrate on the heart, like the sounds which
the passing wind draws from the trembling
strings of a harp left on some desert shore!
There are other passages of not less impassioned
sweetness. Such is Olivia's address to Sebastian
whom she supposes to have already deceived
her in a promise of marriage.
"Blame not this haste of mine: if you mean well,|
Now go with me and with this holy man
Into the chantry by: there before him,
And underneath that consecrated roof,
Plight me the full assurance of your faith,
That my most jealous and too doubtful soul
May live at peace."
We have already said something of Shakespear's
songs. One of the most beautiful of
them occurs in this play, with a preface of his
own to it.
"Duke. O fellow, come; the song we had last night.|
Mark it, Cesario, it is old and plain;
The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,
And the free maids that weave their thread with bones,
Do use to chaunt it: it is silly sooth,
And dallies with the innocence of love,
Like the old age.
Come away, come away, death,|
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away, breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O prepare it;
My part of death no one so true
Did share it.
Not a flower, not a flower sweet,|
On my black coffin let there be strewn;
Not a friend, not a friend greet
Dry poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O! where
Sad true-love never find my grave,
To weep there."
Who after this will say that Shakespear's genius
was only fitted for comedy? Yet after
reading other parts of this play, and particularly
the garden-scene where Malvolio picks up the
letter, if we were to say that his genius for
comedy was less than his genius for tragedy, it
would perhaps only prove that our own taste in
such matters is more saturnine than mercurial.
Sir Toby. Here comes the little villain:--How now, my nettle of
Maria. Get ye all three into the box-tree: Malvolio's
coming down this walk: he has been yonder i' the sun,
practicing behaviour to his own shadow this half hour: observe
him, for the love of mockery; for I know this letter
will make a contemplative idiot of him. Close, in the name
of jesting! Lie thou there; for here come's the trout that
must be caught with tickling.
[They hide themselves. Maria throws down a
letter, and Exit.
Malvolio. 'Tis but fortune; all is fortune. Maria once
told me, she did affect me; and I have heard herself come thus
near, that, should she fancy, it should be one of my complexion.
Besides, she uses me with a more exalted respect
than any one else that follows her. What should I think on't?|
Sir Toby. Here's an over-weening rogue!
Fabian. O, peace! Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock
of him; how he jets under his advanced plumes!
Sir Andrew. 'Slight, I could so beat the rogue:--
Sir Toby. Peace, I say.
Malvolio. To be count Malvolio;--
Sir Toby. Ah, rogue!
Sir Andrew. Pistol him, pistol him.
Sir Toby. Peace, peace!
Malvolio. There is example for't; the lady of the Strachy
married the yeoman of the wardrobe.
Sir Andrew. Fie on him, Jezebel!
Fabian. O, peace! now he's deeply in; look, how
imagination blows him.
Malvolio. Having been three months married to her,
sitting in my chair of state,----
Sir Toby. O for a stone bow, to hit him in the eye!
Malvolio. Calling my officers about me, in my branch'd
velvet gown; having come from a day-bed, where I have
left Olivia sleeping.
Sir Toby. Fire and brimstone!
Fabian. O peace, peace!
Malvolio. And then to have the humour of state: and
after a demure travel of regard,----telling them, I know
my place, as I would they should do theirs,--to ask for my
Sir Toby. Bolts and shackles!
Fabian. O, peace, peace, peace! now, now.
Malvolio. Seven of my people, with an obedient start,
make out for him. I frown the while; and, perchance,
wind up my watch, or play with some rich jewel. Toby
approaches; curtsies there to me:
Sir Toby. Shall this fellow live?
Fabian. Though our silence be drawn from us with cares,
Malvolio. I extend my hand to him thus, quenching my
familiar smile with an austere regard of controul:
Sir Toby. And does not Toby take you a blow o'the lips
Malvolio. Saying--Cousin Toby, my fortunes having cast
me on your niece, give me this prerogative of speech;--
Sir Toby. What, what?
Malvolio. You must amend your drunkenness.
Fabian. Nay, patience, or we break the sinews of our plot.
Malvolio. Besides, you waste the treasure of your time
with a foolish knight--
Sir Andrew. That's me, I warrant you.
Malvolio. One Sir Andrew----
Sir Andrew. I knew, 'twas I; for many do call me fool.
Malvolio. What employment have we
here? [Taking up-the letter."
The letter and his comments on it are equally
good. If poor Malvolio's treatment afterwards
is a little hard, poetical justice is done in the
uneasiness which Olivia suffers on account of
her mistaken attachment to Cesario, as her insensibility
to the violence of the Duke's passion
is atoned for by the discovery of Viola's concealed love of him.