I can think of no better wrapup to my play of the month “Twelfth Night,” than by reporting on my visit to an actual Twelfth night Party, presented by the Society For Creative Anachronism.
What’s a Twelfth Night Party?
If you took my class on Shakespearean Christmas traditions or read my blog posts, you know that, back in Shakespeare’s day, Twelfth Night was a party to end the Christmas season. It was presided over by a Lord of Misrule, who would lead people in games and songs. The party would also have a Twelfth Night Cake with a bean in the center. If you found the bean, you’d have good luck for the year! So I was pleased to come to a real-life Twelfth Night party and see these traditions come to life!
What is the society for Creative anachronism?
The short answer is- it’s LARPING for history nerds. Rather than creating a D&D persona and then getting arms and armor to play-fight in the backyard, SCA members create personas based on real medieval history, make or buy real historical arms and armor, (or arts and crafts as the case may be) and spend years of their lives studying and perfecting their immersion in that character’s life. SCA-ers learn how to fight with swords, daggers, spears, etc, how to sing medieval songs, medieval dances, and many other medieval ‘mysteries,’ which in this case means arts, crafts, and professions.
The Shire of Owlsherst
Owlsherst is the SCA’s local chapter in York PA. They have a number of dedicated members who specialize in textiles to rapier-dagger fighting. I’ve posted some videos of their fighting demonstrations on Youtube and Tiktok and their archery master has his own Tiktok channel. They hosted this year’s Twelfth Nigh party and have many other events throughout the year. For more information on this chapter, go to https://owlsherst.eastkingdom.org/
Every SCA event is a great way to celebrate people who are passionate about history and have talents for arts and crafts. Everything from the tapestries to the to the food, to the adorable owl toys, was made by hand by these dedicated people (most of whom brought their own medieval costumes). More members were doing live demonstrations of rapier/ dagger fights, binding books in cow leather, and singing medieval Christmas songs. I was inspired by everyone’s dedication and hard work to put this together. I also wonder if this is how Shakespeare himself felt when, as a child, he went to sheep shearing fairs and saw his friends and fellow artisans put on amateur bible plays on medieval pageant wagons.
I should warn you that, like a lot of historical reenacting societies like Civil War reenactors, etc, this society is more aimed at hardcore history nerds, than anyone else. This isn’t Medieval Times or a big-budget renaissance fair which is aimed at children and casual fun seekers. As such, it wasn’t really family-friendly. There aren’t many activities for kids and many of the arts and crafts are too delicate for toddlers and young kids. Also, this event isn’t particularly immersive or organized. People mostly just mingled, ate, and watched the various demonstrations. Keep in mind, this is just one chapter and just one event, which means your experience may vary. Nevertheless, because of the organization’s amateur historical nature, I would caution you to manage your expectations. Like I said before, this isn’t some big-budget Disney theme-park ride, but it is a chance for hardcore history nerds to get together, share their knowledge, and celebrate the traditions of a bygone era. If that’s your thing, I highly recommend it!
I’ve been in this play three times and I’m continually struck by how fun, romantic, and progressive it is. It raises questions about gender roles, social norms, bullying, and even catfishing and heteronormativity! It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking play and it’s my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies!
Shakespeare’s early comedies are about young love, infatuation, and being ‘madly in love’ (sometimes literally). His middle plays are about mature relationships between men and women and the need for commitment. I would argue that Twelfth Night, (and possibly Much Ado About Nothing), are the best examples of Shakespeare telling meaningful stories about romantic relationships.
In honor of “Twelfth Night,” I’ve created a coupon for my course on Shakespeare’s comedies from now till January 31st: Get $10 off my class “Shakespeare’s Comic Plays” with coupon code HTHESYTIT110 until Jan 31, 2023. Get started at https://outschool.com/classes/shakespeares-comic-plays-868BR5hg and enter the coupon code at checkout.
To finish I wanted to give you a complete production of Twelfth Night for your viewing pleasure, but I can’t decide which one, so I will post a bunch today!
1. 1996 TV movie starring Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean)
Happy Pride Month everyone! This month I’m going to concentrate on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” more info on Shakespeare’s comedies, and a few little nerdy analyses, but first I wanted to extend a friendly hand to members of the LGBTQ+ community, whom arguably Shakespeare has celebrated in some of his writing, especially in Midsummer and the other comedies.
The quote on the featured photo comes from “Twelfth Night.” The character Antonio repeatedly mentions how much he loves Sebastian (Viola’s twin brother). He shows a great amount of courage and devotion. Sadly, Sebastian doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, but he is grateful to Antonio, and tries to help him when he gets in trouble.
If you’re interested in queer readings and queer coding in Shakespeare, enjoy this video analysis from Kyle Kalgren and Rantasmo- a scholar who delves into queer representation in popular media:
Let me know if you’d like me to cover more of this topic. I admittedly, haven’t read many Queer Theory papers on Shakespeare, but it’s a fascinating and wide-ranging topic. It also helps develop the case that, as Rantasmo puts it: “If we truly believe (and I do) that Shakespeare is a universal writer, then his plays should be able to speak to all races, cultures, and all forms of love.”
I want to give a shout-out to artist Maike Edling, who painted this beautiful rendition of Anne Hathaway (the actress, not Shakespeare’s wife), playing Viola in Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The colors and the long brush strokes remind me of Cezanne and other early impressionists and give a kind of chaotic feel (appropriate for such a chaotic love triangle). Also, the choice to show Olivia kissing Viola while Orsino looks sadly on is not only passionate and vibrant, it sums up in one image the central conflict of the play: how will Viola deal with the fact that she loves a man, but is pursued by a woman?
I also love the ambiguity of Viola’s expression. She’s looking at Olivia, but her lips don’t quite touch, as if she’s thinking, “This feels weird, but…” It highlights the flirtation with gender norms and questioning heteronormativity that every production of “Twelfth Night” must address. All in all, I think it is an excellent depiction of the characters, themes and ideas of “Twelfth Night,” and if you can, you should patronize her work. I found this painting at https://www.artstation.com/artwork/ELEEAv, and I think it should get more views.
If you’re pressed for time for your annual Twelfth Night party, I’ve got this quick and easy recipe card about how to make a Twelfth Night cake! I have three recipes in these cards- one 1604 recipe, which might have been used by Shakespeare himself, another Twelfth Night cake recipe, with modernized ingredients, and a more contemporary Christmas cake, (just in case you need a more kid-friendly recipe).
Finally, here’s a video about the most celebrated traditions surrounding Twelfth Night cake- the bean and coin in the cake!.
Since Twelfth Night is coming up, I’m going to review a blast from the past, the Amanda Bynes teen comedy remake of Twelfth Night called “She’s The Man”.
Some of you might remember that the late 90s and early 2000s were the heyday of Hollywood remakes of Shakespeare: Romeo + Juliet directed by Baz Luhrman, 10 Things I Hate About You, (The Taming Of the Shrew) “O” (Othello), and even “Get Over It” (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). Shakespeare was actually hot for a few years and many writers were riding his doublet.
Sadly, not all Shakespeare remakes are created equal. Most of them were created with care to try and either show love for the text (as in Romeo and ‘O’) or to improve or contemporize the text like in ‘O‘ and “10 Things I Hate About You,” (which interestingly, both starred Julia Styles). “She’s The Man” doesn’t feel like a faithful retelling of “Twelfth NIght” despite the fact that it keeps most of the characters and the central conceit of the story- a girl disguising herself as her twin brother, going to a new place called Ilyria and inspiring love in both a powerful man and a beautiful woman.
Amanda Bynes as Sebastian is a characature of 90’s bro culture and rarely ever plays her male role straight or convincingly. Nobody would be fooled into thinking this girl is a boy.
Bynes’ Viola rarely challenges anything or does a good job playing soccer until the end of the movie. Her main reason for her masquerade is that her brother forced to do it, so he can run away to become a musician.
I also don’t like that Sebastian never seems to impress or endeer the coach. If her goal was to prove that girls are just as good as guys, he should be her focus, but they rarely evershare the screen.
This Viola also never challengers Duke (her love interest played by Channing Tatum). One of the best parts of Shakespeare’s version is that Duke Orsino is a mopey would-be incel who puts women on a pedestal one minute, and condemns them the next. One of the best things about his relationship with Viola is that it makes him better able to appreciate women, but his counterpart in She’s All That has no such epithany.
I do want to give a shoutout to Laura Ramsey as Olivia . She frankly is a better actress then Bynes and plays Olivia’s unrequited love for Viola very well. Initially, she gets a copy of Sebastian’s song lyrics and she’s smitten by Sebastian’s words, rather than his looks. This makes you hope the real Sebastian will return.
Below is a montage of the jokes in the film. I hope you notice that most of them are very lowbrow and pretty cliche, even for teen movies. At 5:20 is the only really good part of the movie- it explains why Olivia’s love for Viola is funny and tragic. Guys are taught never to open up to women, but women want emotional connections. Men are taught women aren’t equal, but women yearn for acceptance. Viola in disguise has no concept of these unspoken ‘rules’ of male behavior, so she seems like the perfect man to Olivia- someone who treats her like an equal, isn’t afraid to open up, and is also male. The fact that she’s actually developing feelings for a woman is what makes it funny and tragic.
In conclusion, I’m kind of glad this Shakespeare rom-com is slinking into obscurity since it adds nothing and waters down the original to oceanic degrees. Frankly, I think there was a much better adaptation of Twelfth Night that, although it changed the names, location, and text, was a more thought-provoking and insightful rendition of the story- the 1996 animated film, Mulan.
The venerated Shakespearean actor, Sir Antony Sher, once said with frustration while he was acting at the RSC that, “even the best Feste is less funny than the worst Malvolio.” I actually have a rare insight into these two roles since I’ve played them both! So allow me if you will to present you with some insights I’ve gained into these two characters that are very much polar opposites. Although they are as different as night and day, they form the central comic premise of the whole play, and have some truly hilarious moments!
I played Malvolio when I was a senior in high school; he was my first principal Shakespearean role. My director chose to set the play in the 1940s and he re-purposed the kingdom of Illyria as the Hotel Illyria, with Malvolio as the concierge or lead butler in charge of all the hotel maids and other housekeepers. This not only made the play more accessible to a 2002 audience, it also really helped me understand Malvolio’s role: he is first and foremost a snob who is obsessed with efficiency and pleasing his mistress Olivia (in this version the owner of the hotel). I would soon also discover that, although Malvolio is certainly snobby and can be a bit of a killjoy, he also has qualities that make him appealing to everyone who has ever felt put down or bullied, and that’s what makes him a complex and endearing character today.
Some notes on the character: Malvolio’s name means “unsatisfied desire”- somebody who aspires to be what he is not. I find the relationship between Feste and Malvolio interesting because the two are partially defined by how each one is unlike the other. Feste is a clown, hired by the nobles to help them have a good time. He is described as “a merry fellow who cares for nothing.” In other words, Feste never takes anything seriously, except making a living with his jokes and songs. Malvolio is the exact opposite- he is also a servant, but he is a steward, in charge of running the Countess Olivia’s household. As such, he is obsessed with efficiency, commanding respect, and pleasing his mistress through his obsequious manner.
Like the Joker and Batman, both characters live according to an opposing viewpoint; Feste is a chaotic, happy-go-lucky sort, while Malvolio has a strict code of behavior which he expects everyone to follow. Their opposing world views bring them into conflict every time they meet. Plus, in most productions Feste is wearing brightly colored clown apparel or “motley wear,” while Malvolio is dressed in black. I’m not saying Malvolio is anywhere near as cool as Batman, but Malvolio can be just as sanctimonious. His journey is how he goes from being the trusted household servant, to a raving madman, to at last the Spectre at the feast at Olivia’s wedding.
I think the appeal of the character, which balances out the aforementioned snobbery, is that Malvolio is also a nerd: he dreams of becoming a count, he tries to make friends, but he does so by working far too hard at his job and not knowing how to fit in. This is why we inevitably feel sorry for him at the end of the play when he begs to know why his tormentors have locked him in a dark room, treated him like a lunatic, and made him think his lady was in love with him only to utterly destroy his hopes. The balance between the Nerd and the Snob that makes Malvolio a universal and complex part, and that’s why some of history’s greatest actors have played it!
Prepping for the Role: Alec Guinness, Laurence Olivier, Patrick Stewart, Donald Sinden, Nigel Hawthorne, Richard Briars, Steven Fry- these are just some of the names of actors who have played this part over the years. The first actor to play the role was Shakespeare’s leading actor, Richard Burbage, who also played Richard III, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Here’s a sample from Burbage’s famous eulogy, which mentions some of his most famous parts:
A Funeral Elegy On the Death of the Famous Actor, Richard Burbage,
He’s gone, and with him what a world are dead,
Friends, every one, and what a blank instead!
Tyrant Macbeth, with unwash’d, bloody hand,
We vainly now may hope to understand.
Brutus and Marcius henceforth must be dumb,
For ne’er thy like upon the stage shall come,
Vindex is gone, and what a loss was he!
Frankford, Brachiano, and Malevole.
One big decision that every Shakespearean actor needs to make is how to approach their role in a different way. To be honest, I was kind of a thief with my Malvolio- one of the first things I did was read a book by actor Sir Donald Sinden where he talks about how he delivered Malvolio’s first line, which occurs in Act I, Scene iii:
Olivia. What think you of this fool, Malvolio? doth he not mend?
Malvolio. Yes, and shall do till the pangs of death shake him:
infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the 365
better fool (Act I, Scene v).
Sinden described his first line as a snobby “nyess,” as if he were simultaneously bored and embarrassed by Feste’s jokes. The director told me to act around Feste as if I were the villain in a Charlie Chaplin movie- basically to bully Feste and make him feel very small with my lines, in order to justify the revenge Feste innevitably takes on him. Like any character in Shakespeare, this is only one way to play the role, so you don’t have to agree with me.
The Gulling Scene
Malvolio’s most famous scene is called “The Gulling Scene,” the scene in which he’s tricked into thinking Olivia is in love with him. This is the moment where Malvolio goes from being a respectable prudish servant, into a raving madman. He enters full of dreams and plans to become “Count Malvolio” and creates an elaborate fantasy of what his life would be like if he married the Countess. Act II Scene v. From Shakespeare Navigators.com
No sooner does Malvolio compete his fantasy of marrying Olivia, when lo and behold, a letter from her suddenly appears! Of course, the audience knows it’s all a trap and even worse, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and a boy named Fabian are watching him! It’s a moment of exquisite comedy that’s nearly impossible to get wrong.
One question I had when I did the scene was whether Malvolio really loves Olivia, or just loves her riches and her title. As a high schooler, I chose to believe that he really does have a crush on Olivia, but is too socially awkward to tell her. Having the letter is a chance to make his feelings known, which Malvolio can get very genuinely excited about! On the other hand, as you can see above, Malvolio might just be greedy to make himself even more respected and admired, and to have the power to throw out the likes of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria. Malvolio’s revenge fantasy is also fun to watch, since we know he’ll be punished for it later.
Part of the fun involved in the scene is that it’s basically a “play within a play,” a device that Shakespeare used to great effect in Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labor’s Lost, and both parts of Henry the Fourth. I think it’s the charm of seeing a character as he really is, Malvolio shows you his fantasies and creates a whole world in the middle of the orchard. Meanwhile, you feel complicit as you watch the people watching him, who could just as easily be part of your audience.Workshop on Twelfth Night and Bullying
On the other hand, the scene has also been called an example of bullying, since Sir Toby and Maria are using the letter to manipulate then humiliate Malvolio. Remember, Malvolio dresses like a fool and act like a fool in front of Olivia in Act III because he believes it will please the Coubtess. Basically Toby and Maria are Catfishing Malvolio, which can seriously hurt psychologically, as anyone who has been deceived over the internet knows. Plus, it ruins Malvolio’s reputation as you can see in this clip:
Again, as a teenager, I could certainly relate to a man making a fool of himself in a vain attempt to impress a girl. Seeing a man lose his head over a girl and then have her break his heart over a prank, is in some ways truly terrible to watch; even Olivia agrees by the end of the play that the joke has gone too far.
Malvolio. Madam, you have done me wrong,
Malvolio. Lady, you have. Pray you, peruse that letter.
You must not now deny it is your hand:
Write from it, if you can, in hand or phrase;
Or say ’tis not your seal, nor your invention:
You can say none of this: well, grant it then
And tell me, in the modesty of honour,
Why you have given me such clear lights of favour,
Bade me come smiling and cross-garter’d to you,
To put on yellow stockings and to frown 2550
Upon Sir Toby and the lighter people;
And, acting this in an obedient hope,
Why have you suffer’d me to be imprison’d,
Kept in a dark house, visited by the priest,
And made the most notorious geck and gull
That e’er invention play’d on? tell me why!
Olivia. Alas, Malvolio, this is not my writing,
Though, I confess, much like the character
But out of question ’tis Maria’s hand.
And now I do bethink me, it was she 2560
First told me thou wast mad; then camest in smiling,
And in such forms which here were presupposed
Upon thee in the letter. Prithee, be content:
This practise hath most shrewdly pass’d upon thee;
But when we know the grounds and authors of it, 2565
Thou shalt be both the plaintiff and the judge
Of thine own cause.
That’s the tragic part of Malvolio’s journey. We’ve all known a Malvolio, and we’ve all been him from time to time. That’s what makes him such an enduring character.