Sunday, January 5, 2014

Twelfth Night: Misruled by Emotion

In much of Western Christianity, Epiphany, January 5-6, is marked in commemoration of the visit of the Magi to the Baby Jesus. It celebrates the revelation of the Christ Child to humanity, and the beginning of great changes to a civilization. In the same way, what is known as an epiphany moment is the revelation of an insight that can change the course of one's life.

I had an epiphany moment in October: a chance comment by a friend unleashed a string of realizations about how I felt and what I needed to do. My friend's intention was not to give me life-changing advice, but it triggered awareness that brought clarity about what was and was not working in my life.

I ended a relationship that was not right for me. With newfound consciousness and freedom to act, I set about contacting someone who had been in the background of my mind and my heart for a while. What I got back was a friendly and gentle rebuff. I accepted it, at least outwardly, with grace. But inside my emotions were slipping into chaos. Being in touch with one's emotions is generally a good thing, but they can misrule us.

In the Church of England, Epiphany coincides with Twelfth Night, the conclusion of the Twelve Days of Christmas (there is some debate about whether Twelfth Night is the evening of January 5 or comes after midnight on January 6). On the Twelfth Night the Lord of Misrule is chosen who symbolizes the world turned upside down. Under the Lord of Misrule, the masters become the servants of the household and the servants become the masters for that night.

Shakespeare's Twelfth Night explores the theme of the love-sick fool, blinded by the folly of misdirected desire. Everyone is in love with the wrong person.

Orsino and Olivia are enthralled in their own notion of love. Orsino is obsessed with Olivia. Olivia is unavailable because she has declared that she will mourn her dead brother for seven years. The two of them are so focussed on their inner worlds that they have lost touch with the outer world. Orsino, for all his professed love of Olivia, does not actually pursue her and try to bring her out of her shell of mourning, but rather sends Cesario to press his suit.

It is Viola, and her disguise as Cesario, who turns Osino and Olivia's worlds upside down and allows them to escape their self-obsession. Viola/Cesario represents the real flesh and blood world, the new perspective that allows the self-absorbed Orsino and Olivia to reengage with society.

Malvolio provides a delightfully pathetic subplot in misguided love. He has let himself become convinced that the reverence he feels for Olivia is love. Because of his obsession with her, Malvolio is easy prey for the pranksters Sir Toby and Maria who egg him on by writing a love letter to Malvolio and leading him to believe that Olivia is his secret admirer. By taking himself too seriously, he sets himself up to be let down. Malvolio is vain enough to let himself be flattered that Olivia could love him, without ever having exchanged any word of love with her. Still, he follows the letter's suggestions and winds up making a fool of himself.

This is one of my favourites among Shakespeare's plays. Human fragility, vanity, hope, desire and love can drive us to comedy and pathos. In love we are all fools, and I am no exception. Like Olivia, I found myself obsessing and the obsession ate away at me. I still have not found a Cesario, but putting the feelings into words helps provide some perspective, and hopefully some wisdom, to forgive the foolishness and get on with living.


I saw a fabulous production of Twelfth Night at the Stratford Festival in 2011.
This production was filmed as a part of the Cineplex high-definition theatre-on-film series. I haven't seen the film version but if it is ever playing in your area, I would highly recommend it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How true. How true. The recommended production of Twelfth Night is available in our library in London - perhaps it is in yours! Look for Twelfth night [videorecording (DVD)] / [written by William Shakespeare ; directed for the stage by Des McAnuff ; produced and directed for film by Barry Avrich]
[Canada] : Entertainment One Films Canada, c2012