Twelfth Night?

Now, I'm no Shakespeare scholar. In fact I'm quite the philistine, hardly being acquainted with even a small selection of his corpus. But I am working to improve my situation. This Friday me and my fiance are going to see a production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. In an attempt to prepare myself, I've read through the play. Shakespeare plays with gender roles and offers what seems to be a simple love triangle story that resolves itself in a humorous way. But other than that, I can't seem to get much out of the play. I did not notice any especially profound insights or passages that were extraordinary in greatness, but I think this is because I do not have the eyes to see such things if they are indeed there. SO that brings me to my question: Is anyone familiar with Twelfth Night? If so, could you explain the particular greatness of this play, or at least point me to someone who could?

**Turns out Harold Bloom has some very helpful essays in his work Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Mr. Bloom has informed me that the play is about the abstract and possibly arbitrary origins of love. That is, the play skewers those who would be "in love with love", rather than actually in love with a person. Light dawns over marble head!


CMinor said...

Well, I hope you enjoyed it, though as a romantic comedy it probably didn't pack the punch of the tragedies or histories.

It's been a while, but I recall a few good lines, e.g.
"If music be the food of love, play on."

Darwin said...

"Ah, but I know."
"What dost thou know?"
"Too well what love woman to man may owe."

I was in Twelfth Night back in college (very small part) so for a while there I had major parts of it memorized. I'd say that it's not very deep, though it is fun and of course brilliantly written. Shakespeare is not always a deep writer (if there's a deep meaning in Comedy of Errors, I know it not) but he is certainly one of the greatest wordsmiths to ever use the English language. So nearly any Shakespeare play is worth it just for that.

If you were shooting for the deep ones, I'd say the most obvious would be:

Henry V
King Lear
Richard III
Richard II
Much Ado About Nothing
Midsummer Nights Dream
Merchant of Venice

Also, keep in mind, a Shakespeare play doesn't tend to be powerful the way a modern movie or book is. They're not necessarily tightly written -- partly because the style of plotting is a little loose, but also because Shakespeare can never resist a chance to write brilliant stuff, whether it's relevant to the plot or not.

So for instance, I'd argue that Merchant of Venice does not necessarily have at a plot level a very good message, and yet Shakespeare can't resist turning Shylock's "Do I not bleed" speech into one of the most brilliant statements about human dignity ever written in the English language. The plot itself is arguably quite anti-semitic, and Shylock is not a likable character, but when Shakespeare writes a speech he can't resist turning it into something brilliant. And so when the character of Shylock pleads for mercy, Shakespeare throws off, just as an incidental, a truly brilliant and humane speech which in some ways is out of place in the play.

Or with Henry V, I'd argue the play is not exactly "about" political morality and philosophy or just war in the sense that a modern movie might be "about" such topics, and yet there are half a dozen speeches or dialogues in the play which provide some of the most powerful discussions of those questions in English literature.