Twelfth Night (An Early Winter's Draft)

On-Line Summaries of Twelfth Night:

Musty Musings on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

We’re Not in Belmont Anymore

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia the Lady of Belmont is courted by three suitors who are to be counted as only a single prince with three different identities. Bassanio of Venice was unable to win Portia as a Moor from Morocco, as a Spaniard from Aragon, but only as an Italian (and more particularly, a Medici) of Venice. In Twelfth Night the tide is turned on the persuasive Medici suitor Orsino, who fails to shake down the Countess Olivia by the tried and true tricks of the Renaissance player. The courtiers of the Duke are called Valentine and Curio. Their names suggest that Olivia is to be acquired by means of love, even as Bassanio procures the bounty of Belmont in The Merchant of Venice. Olivia is more discerning than Portia it seems, and is not spellbound by the formerly irresistible wave of the Medici magic wand.

Note: Duke Orsino is a character name patently based on Virginio Orsini son of Isabella de Medici who visited London on the occasion of the play, Christmas of 1600-1601, and just after attending the wedding of Maria de Medici to the king of France.

Refer to previous commentary on The Merchant of Venice, including background on Virginio (de Medici) Orsini:

We are tipped off at the beginning of the play to be on the lookout for ungainly groups of two that are really three. In Twelfth Night, as in The Merchant of Venice, the successful suitor has three identities. In the guise of the devoted but duped Malvolio, as well as that of wealthy but weak Andrew Aguecheek, the paramour is rejected by Lady Olivia. The third time is the charm however. Olivia cannot resist the tri-fold persona of Viola-Cesario-Sebastian.

Tongue in Aguecheek

Andrew is the Apostolic name of James brother of Jesus, who became patron saint of Scotland. King James (a.k.a. Andrew) became king of Scotland at birth, and was also a hereditary prince of France by virtue of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, who was a member of the French royal house of Guise through her mother (Mary Guise). Twelfth Night indicates that James did not benefit much from his French influence. In the play, Andrew is given the silly French-sounding surname Aguecheek (connoting “weak ass” in Elizabethan English), and depicted as a physical and intellectual pussy willow. However, this might reflect English opinion of the French royal court as much as the young (and physically inactive) King James of Scotland (with his abortive French acculturation).

Malvolio’s Volition

The name of the steward Mal-volio mirrors that of Olivia. In this get-up the historical Stuart (King James) comes a little closer to being deemed marriage material by Elizabeth. In the play, the oddly puritanical and self-absorbed Malvolio covets the rank of Groom to Elizabeth’s Toilet, the most intimate of roles and a title reserved only for a member of the court’s innermost circle. It suggests that Malvolio is over-zealous not only to kiss Olivia’s ass but also wipe it in order to be named bridegroom of her greater royal movement. This posture is a turn-off for Olivia and one that exposes Malvolio to being played a fool by other courtiers. That in turn makes him even less attractive and potentially malevolent. The badly reformed and regressive Malvolio MacLovin’ is still Mr. Wrong. He needs much more flipping, tripping, and turning before he’s ready to compete against world-class movers and shakers.

Malvolio is vaguely typecast as a Puritan, which would have drawn an immediate negative reaction from a crowd of unwashed theatre-philes. However, the treatment of Malvolio is so cruel, that members of the audience are eventually led to sympathize with him and even feel guilty for enjoying the public spectacle of his ordeal. The succession of Queen Elizabeth was the ultimate spectator sport. The common people were actively involved, even as they are ingeniously engaged in the Twelfth Night play.

The success of the next ruler of England depended to a large degree on the people’s acceptance and support. In the play, it is Malvolio alone that Olivia directs to do “As You Will”. It will shortly be his will that must be done. The play also ends with a threat from Malvolio against those that have baited him like a bear on stage. The last laugh is not to be on James but the Medici prince Orsini, whose name literally means “little bear”. Even Olivia’s “uncle Toby” promises to see that Malvolio is avenged. This serves as a not so subtle warning to the Medici or any others that might wish to challenge the decision of Elizabeth.

The fake letter sent to Malvolio included the intriguing phrase, “M.O.A.I. doth sway my life”. This is likely a parody of the Habsburg all-vowel monogram A.E.I.O.U, which had to do with the Habsburg’s claim to the right of “playing God/YHWH” over the various regions of the known world. Because the letter did not come from Olivia but from Maria (patterned after Maria de Medici, Queen of France), the “M” was likely intended to represent the Medici and the acronym Medici ambition to rule Anglia/England (if not also Austria, Asia, Africa and America). This of course is a major theme of the play itself.

Malvolio does recognize that “M.O.A.I.” consists of four letters from his name. Two letters are however missing, L.V. This leads to another important interpretation of the phrase as, “The lack of love doth sway my life”. This was true for Elizabeth as well as King James, whose parents were taken from them at an early age. And those desperate for love were easy prey to Medici Amore Maestros.

Note: In a 1703 rendition of Twelfth Night, Sir Toby was instead called Drances. Andrew and Malvolio were combined into a character named Taquillet. (See the Arden Shakespeare’s commentary on Twelfth Night, p 96) Drances is apparently based on Sir Francis Drake. Taquillet conjures up the New Testament tag team (and drag team?) of Aquila and Priscilla. Although this version of the play was not popular, it did offer some insight for a more privileged audience.

Violated Viola’s Violence

The name of the page Viola is also a play on Olivia. And it is in this strange incarnation that James is, Voila!, finally recognized as the genuine reflection of Elizabeth herself. According to the play, the character Viola and her twin brother Sebastian had been separated at the age of 13 when their father died. When King James was about 12 or 13 his step-father passed away and James entered into a torrid homosexual love affair with an older French cousin Esme Stuart. The Scottish nobility banished James in disgust.

It was also around this same time (1578) that the young (24 year old) and very popular King Sebastian of Portugal took sail to Africa in hope of conquering Morocco. The conquest failed miserably, due in part to the betrayal of his uncle Philip II of Spain. Sebastian was never seen again and two years later Philip II claimed the throne of Portugal for himself.

Virginio Orsini was also 13 years old when his own father died (or rather was killed). The story of his mother’s affair and murder by his father is even more sordid than that of Duke Francesco de Medici and Bianca alluded to in the play Othelo. His father later had an affair with the wife of the nephew of the Pope and had the nephew killed. Upon the murder of his father (apparently in revenge), his young son Virginio became a Duke.

In Twelfth Night, the lives of King James and King Sebastian are crossed (through the synchronicity of their separate tragedies). Viola believes that her twin Sebastian died long ago in a shipwreck. However, the two become wondrously reunited in Illyria (mythical Western Greece). Prior to the reappearance of Sebastian, a vulnerable Viola prepares to offer herself first to Olivia and then to Duke Orsini. Viola does enter the service of the Duke, but not as a eunuch. Although Orsini is consumed with pursuing Olivia, he has no qualms adding Viola (enlisted as a male page named Cesario) to the roster of his “favorites”.

Illyria had been the land of exile for Cadmus/Sargon and later of Alexander the Great. It evidently had remained a place where “Greek love” was still en vogue. And the moral landscape of the play’s setting in ancient Illyria very much resembles that of contemporary Elizabethan London. The Reformation had not as yet made lasting pilgrim’s progress in England. To wit, the exodus of persecuted Puritans to the New World was almost 20 years away.

When the hand and land of Olivia is up for grabs, the Duke persuades Viola/Cesario to be his side-kick (ala Merchant’s Gratiano servant of Bassanio) in courting Olivia, and presumably both will share in the spoils of conquest (as in Merchant). Viola agrees to be pimped out, but scotches the mission. Love for the Duke causes Viola to act with impertinence toward Olivia. The feistiness of Viola, who on one occasion is referred to as Violenta, has the unintended effect of infatuating Olivia, who sees something of herself in the cross and doubly cross-dressed page. The salvaged mojo of James somehow dredges up the Narcissist in Queen-King Bess.

Elizabeth was known far and wide as the Virgin Queen. The united Medici-Orsini family must have urged Elizabeth to find her true reflection in their own Virginio. Although the dashing young prince hoped to pull off a last minute miracle, the succession was all but settled. James had made a double flip and come full circle. He began as a Scottish king and would be summoned from Scotland to claim the throne of England. Virginio Orsini would have to settle for being the choice of Elizabeth’s choice, that is, the servant of her servant (and even a sort of common law wife to James)!

Although Elizabeth had once executed the mother of James, she was now adopting him as her own son and successor. Elizabeth’s own mother had been executed by her father and kingly predecessor. Her adoption of James (and the naming of his daughter as Elizabeth) was then also a type of circle or completion. Guilt could be expatiated, a curse could be broken. James though arguably a “swine” would inherit the “pearl” of the Americas that had been trampled upon by Portugal and Spain. The “plague” of Elizabeth’s love for James was to be her final sickness. The process of her self-deception was at last complete. She had come to terms with all. She had made her peace with all and with herself.

Olivia gives her ring and picture to Viola before presenting Sebastian with the pearl. The dying Elizabeth likewise sent a token to James in Scotland as final proof of his election. In the play, Olivia however resigns herself to accepting that Viola still loves Orsino. Olivia instead addresses Cesario as “husband” and enlists a priest to arrange her private marriage to Viola’s incredulous male twin Sebastian (despite Sebastian also having a male lover of his own, Antonio). This is confusing only if one does not realize that Viola/Cesaro and Sebastian are all representations of King James, along with Malvolio. As with Malvolio, James was tormented and “kept in the dark” until nearly the very end regarding Elizabeth’s decision.

It seems that Antonio of Twelfth Night is stilted (in both love and money) by Sebastian even as the Antonio in Merchant is by Bassanio, unless of course he represents a twin of Orsino.

James, at least later in his reign, developed a father-son fetish. He arranged a marriage for his lover George (“Stephen/Steenie”) Villiers and encouraged him to sire boys for royal bedmates. A second homosexual partner of James was Ludovic Stuart son of Esme Stuart, the first love of James while still a boy-king of Scotland. One must wonder then if Duke Orsini’s father had also been a lover of a younger James, and now James was lusting after the son. Is Twelfth Night warning James about the predation of Orsini, or is Orsini being warned about that of James?

Does the Twelfth Night reveal an association between the Stuart and/or Guise family and the Medici and/or Orsini family? The portrait by the Flemish artist Paul van Somer of pretty boy George Villiers (whose father also passed away when he was 13) could certainly pass for that of a Medici.

Royal Gay Pride

Twelfth Night is quite specifically a celebration of the bi-sexuality of James, or tri-sexuality if we include the enduring love James had for himself. More generally, the play pokes a funny (but largely non-judgmental) finger at a royal race that is both effeminate and over-sexed. The divine make-up was created (or so they thought) to transcend the ordinary boundaries of gender, culture, language and nationality. Ironically, royals frequently suffered from speech impediments and other physical abnormalities such as genital dysfunction and infertility (especially with other in-bred royals), as well as bi-polar (manic-depressive) disorder and other extreme behavioral traits.

The emphasis on double-ness or dual-nature was supposed to reflect royal fertility, but it came to be associated with the instability of the royal family as a “new breed”, that is, a narrow breeding population that was perpetually seeking a metamorphosis into a superior race. James is put forth (humorously and seriously) as an example of this super-sexed, shape-shifting caste. He has a voice that is able to sing high (like a female or castrato) and low (like a male). He functions more-or-less equally as a man or a woman. As a woman he attracts men, and while pretending to be a man he seduces a woman.

Grandam of the Empire

In Twelfth Night Olivia is in mourning her recently deceased brother and husband. Likewise, Queen Elizabeth had only just survived her brother Philip II (d. 1598) and also her “Godfather” Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor (d. 1597). In the play Othello, Maximilian (Othello) is characterized as the elderly husband rather than father of “faithful but ill-fated” Elizabeth (Desdemona). In Twelfth Night, Olivia pays her respects as a dutiful sister and daughter, but there is a distinct impression that it is mostly an act. The deaths of Philip II and Maximilian II left Elizabeth in a far better position to settle her own affairs, if not those of the greater Empire.

The context of Twelfth Night is the “Eleventh Hour” of Elizabeth’s life and reign. References to time, sickness, and death redound. The father and brother of Olivia have just passed away and are now out of the way. The status of Olivia as a Countess is higher than her still living uncle/cousin, Sir Toby Belch, who can only complain about her choice of marriage partner and then give her away. Toby prefers Andrew Aguecheek and his idea of matchmaking through the exchange of wealth rather than compatibility or merit. This was evidently also the approach taken by either Philip III or a Medici suitor when a large jewel arrived in London with Rodrigo Lopez as a bribe for a bride (or something more sinister if the indecent proposal was refused). The overture was a signal disaster, especially for Lopez, but Twelfth Night at least offers some hope of redemption for the youthful Philip III and/or Virginio Orsini if they evolved as monarchs (and with King James as their dubious role model).

The general tone of Twelfth Night is conciliatory toward the Empire. England and Scotland are no longer to be alienated in a cold war with Rome and the Holy Roman Empire. Olivia, as Elizabeth, wishes the Powers to pronounce absolution and a benediction on her unorthodox reign. King James also is safely in the bosom of the Boss, as indicated by the character name Cesario, “Caesar’s Creature”.

Uncle Toby (short for Tobias, “God is Good”) represents a benign, even carefree and happily intoxicated Supreme Authority. Sir Toby acts as a kind of Regent on behalf of the Empire in England. A real-life figure would have been someone like Leicester (prior to his death) or Francis Drake, who had appropriated Spanish gold with impunity and therefore likely led a double life as a noble/prince of the Habsburg Austrian branch. Irrespective, past offenses are to be forgiven or at least temporarily forgotten, and with a little clerical help in Twelfth Night. The priestly character of the play, Topas, is an obvious natural twin of Toby in that there was no separation between church and state at the time. Topas is also appears on the scene as a much needed antidote for royal and religious madness. His precise Catholic or Protestant denomination is deliberately obscured, and the jester Feste even puts quintessential existential (humanist/atheist) words in his mouth: “That that is is”.

Through the priest Olivia receives the blessing and official sanction she craves in the matter of her marriage to Sebastian. Another unexpected marriage also takes place at the ending of the play, that of the uninvited guest Sir Toby to Olivia’s door-opener Maria. The Empire would maintain a permanent residence in the Illyria (“free land”) of England, welcomed or not.

The character name Maria is important if for no other reason than it was such a common queen name of the time. Maria de Medici had just married the King of France (with blessing of the Empire). Maria was even the name of the Holy Roman Empress and wife of the recently deceased Maximilian II. Another Maria was the fourth and final wife of Philip II of Spain. Emperor Ferdinand II (“elected” in 1619) was married to a much younger Maria. There were other Maria’s besides, yet there remained one ring to wed them all.

James, Lord at His Birth

Sebastian of Portugal and James of Scotland were both kings at (or very nearly at) their birth due to the deaths (or absences of their respective fathers). Such kings had a special status due to the first royal king Horus the Younger having been born around the time of his putative father and predecessor’s death, Osiris.

King Sebastian was a young man of refinement, and like James not particularly attracted to women, but considered a progressive ruler. King Sebastian was nicknamed “The Desired”. After his metamorphosis into a renewed Sebastian, James became the desired of Elizabeth. King Sebastian had been a more worthy leader than either of the two sons Philip II had produced. The succession of James over Don Carlos and Philip III became a kind of vindication for Sebastian.

The Catholic saint Sebastian was renowned as a healer (of the blind and mute), herald of true faith, and the harbinger of Constantine’s reign (which brought about the end of Christian persecution). It was further believed that St. Sebastian survived his first execution (being shot by arrows), and only later became a martyr when he was thrown into a privy. The typecasting of James as the revival of defeated King Sebastian (and by extension St. Sebastian) signified the end of plague and religious strife in England would soon occur, or so it was hoped. The humor of Malvolio’s desire to be placed in the privy of Olivia shouldn’t be missed. It symbolized that James would survive being shot up (as in the Gunpowder Rebellion) and die as King of England.

Note: The name Sebastian is related to the Egyptian god Seb/Geb called “the heir”. This god was an archer (Sagittarius) that shot arrows (astrologically, at Scorpio), and therefore persecuted the line of Adam/Dan and his successor Enoch/Joseph. The roles are reversed (topsy-turvey) in Elizabethan England. The Tudors, a branch of the formerly superior (Geb/Seb) house of Constantinople, now represents a junior dynastic line that is being persecuted by the new senior line of the Habsburgs (now also Ottomans), and trying to hold out like Athens against the Persian horde.

The occasion of the Twelfth Night (after Christmas) was also known as “The Epiphany”, that is, the “feast of the revelation of the Christ”. (See the Arden Shakespeare commentary on Twelfth Night, p 21) In the play Twelfth Night, King James is being revealed as a type of Christ and something more – a farcical Three-in-One, a veritable Trinity, a Fearsome Threesome, A Self-Love Triangle. In defense of his scandalous affair with Steenie Villiers, King James cited the love of Jesus for his disciple John. It is still be debated today whether John was a young or youthful looking man who looked like a woman, or a woman (i.e., Mary Magdalene) cross-dressed as a man.

The title of the play, Twelfth Night, is not meaningless as sometimes concluded. The title is comparable to that of Midsummer Night’s Dream, which drew upon the Midsummer Night Festival of St. John (associated with the play’s leading character of Pyramus). That play also incorporated at least one other major warm weather festival day. Twelfth Night does the same for cold season festival days ranging from 30 November to 14 February. (See again Arden Shakespeare, p 23)

(See also previous commentary on Midsummer Night's Dream:

Twelfth Night festivities involved role-reversals, especially servants becoming masters and masters behaving as compliant, pleasing slaves. As part of this Feast it was traditional for a mock king or queen to be crowned. It seems to have been a carry-over from the marriage festival of goddess Ishtar/Inanna in which a substitute king was appointed and then sacrificed at the end of a year and to ensure fertility in the next. Literal death of the temporary king was no longer expected, and assuming that no one took their fleeting indulgences too far, all were held harmless and unharmed when the topsy-turvy day was over.

The Medici represented a lower rung on the ladder of contemporary royalty, however the character Duke Orsino is depicted as the highest ranking in the play. Olivia is only a countess, and yet she becomes subservient to Viola the humble Page of Orsino. The point is that Elizabeth’s servant James of Scotland was about to become much “more than a steward”, yea verily, the master of all England.

Shakespeare’s favorite literary source is Ovid and favorite literary device Ovidian Metamorphosis. The object of the strange transformation in Twelfth Night is not a Medici, but ironically one made desirable to Elizabeth by the Medici touch. In Twelfth Night, the Medici are doubly credited (or blamed, if you will) both for the debauching of James and his rehabilitation from dynastic “eunuch” into a viable successor of Elizabeth! The Medici, as masters of Morocco, were quite possibly also responsible for the defeat and demise of King Sebastian of Portugal, whose likeness James was to assume.

The backdrop of the Catholic feast of Twelfth Night doubling as the pagan Saturnalia also provided Elizabeth with a form of plausible denial. If the rule of James proved to be a mistake, then his election could always be looked upon as a joke. In that event, James would serve as a forerunner for one of her true surviving sons or grandsons (such as the son of Essex who later rebelled against the Stuart Dynasty).

It isn’t clear whether or not the play performed for Virginio Orsini was in fact Twelfth Night. If so, it wasn’t hastily written and the visit of Orsini must have been planned well in advance. Lampooning of the Orsini family would certainly have been something for the young duke to write home about!

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