Interpretations of Twelfth Night: What you will?

Mary Dragun 19 May 2011

Mary Dragun considers Cruelty and Comedy in the character of Feste

I first saw ‘Twelfth Night’ performed on stage in a Cheek by Jowl production in Oxford, featuring a Russian-speaking cast and an almost entirely bare stage. In the notorious ‘dark room’ scene, in which Malvolio is confined in obscurity and interrogated concerning his alleged madness, the actor playing the role stood in the centre of a dimly lit room, all the parts of his body being roped so tightly that he was unable to move. I was flabbergasted. The production attacked my GCSE notions of Shakespeare and, more specifically, Shakespearean comedy: Russian? Empty set? Scenes inducing more pathos than laughter? As an experienced Cambridge undergraduate, of course, I would now like to chortle at memories of those bygone GCSE anxieties.

Unfortunately, however, such self-satisfied chortling will have to be indefinitely postponed: I still find it difficult to see the way in which Act 4 scene 2 (the ‘dark room’ scene) slots into the overall tone of ‘Twelfth Night’. Feste’s psychological torture of Malvolio appears excessive and hardly furthers the plot development: it can only be rationally justified by the exploitative, detached nature of Feste’s profession itself, or by Malvolio’s pointed comments of the first act (‘I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal’). Furthermore, Feste’s superfluous disguise as Sir Topas points towards the obvious relish he takes in his torturous role-play: as Maria uneasily notes, ‘thou mightst have done this without thy…gown. He sees thee not’. This intimation of her awkwardness is effectively brought out in Trevor Nunn’s famous 1996 film adaptation, in which Maria stands to one side whilst Feste approaches the bars of Malvolio’s confinement, and even Sir Toby appears tired of the practical joke.

This is not to say that Feste’s performance here is entirely without its humour. His feigned assumption that Malvolio is mad, one underlying the entire scene is initially comic in its blunt assertion: in answer to Malvolio’s question of ‘Who calls there?’ Feste brashly defines the terms of their role-playing: ‘Sir Topas the curate, who comes to visit Malvolio the lunatic.’ But as the scene progresses, Malvolio’s repeated insistence upon his sanity in the face of such an assumption (‘I am not mad, Sir Topas’) increasingly assumes the monosyllabic angst of King Lear – ‘O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven’ – and shifts audience sympathy towards the steward. This is also the case with his description of the ‘hideous darkness’ of his surroundings, one that – through its sheer iteration – comes to be interpreted in existential, rather than merely literal, terms. The final difficulty of the scene arrives at its conclusion: Feste is free to leave, whilst we are left with Malvolio, spectators of his physical confinement as the lights fade.

How is this troubling scene to be negotiated? Several directors – notably Peter Gill in a 1974 RSC production – have highlighted the animosity between Feste and Malvolio in preceding acts, thereby emphasising the idea of retribution lurking beneath the surface of Feste’s enigmatic comment at the play’s ending: ‘And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges’. Yet it seems to me that this risks forfeiting the very ‘festivity’ that Feste’s name and professional purpose embodies. It may, instead, be more interesting to consider it in the context of Feste’s final song, which appears to celebrate the passing of time and, more importantly, implies that – despite ‘the wind and the rain’ – life goes on. Perhaps the fact that the ‘dark room’ scene is so difficult to consolidate with the rest of the play forms part of its comment on the unpredictable nature of life itself. Make of it ‘what you will’ indeed.

Twelfth Night by the Marlowe Society is playing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre at 7.45pm until Saturday 20th. Watch out for extra talks given by the Director, Martin Hutson and other leading Shakespeare academics.

Mary Dragun