Saturday, January 5, 2013

And the Winner Is...Orsino in Twelfth Night

I know Twelfth Night has nothing to do with Twelfth Night but today is Twelfth Night so I couldn’t resist…

“And the Winner Is…” Orsino
Twelfth Night or What You Will

                      In Jasper Fforde’s third Thursday Next novel The Well of Lost Plots, Thursday attends the ceremony for the Book Genre Awards. Othello has been nominated for the Dopiest Shakespearean Hero. I would nominate Orsino.         
                      Granted, Orsino starts out the play with one of Shakespeare’s best lines, “If music be the food of love, play on,” but that’s about the last good thing he says.  Among Shakespeare’s many stupid romantic leads, Orsino can certainly hold his own.
                      It may seem whiny to write about Orsino in this play which is one of Shakespeare’s best and most beloved but there is something grand about dopey guys amongst Shakespeare’s fabulous women.
                      So how can Orsino go from the sublime “If music be the food of love, play on,” to being a dope? I don’t know but he does and being a jury of one, I’ll give you the two scenes upon which the award is based.
                      The first is in Act 2.4. So far he’s been moping around, moaning and groaning about how lovesick he is and now he tells Viola/Cesario that he is a true lover:

For such as I am all true lovers are
Unstaid and skittish in all motions else
Save in the constant image of the creature
That is beloved…

                      In telling Cesario a few lines later that women should love men older than they are he rationalizes it with

For women are as roses, whose fair flower
Being once displayed, doth fall that very hour.

Nice. Whoever he marries is going to get too old immediately by that reckoning.  What’s he going to do about that? Summon and abuse a series of 18-year-olds on the side for the rest of his life?  Probably.
                      Interestingly, the song he wants Feste to sing at this point is all about death, the lover having been killed by his sweetheart:

Come away, come away death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fie away, fie away breath,
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

                      How romantic is that?  But then he tells Viola/Cesario that only men can really love, what women feel is only lust. Huh?! That’s not what they said in the 19th century.  But this is the bawdy England of the 16th century and Orsino claims:

There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much. They lack retention.
Alas, their love may be called appetite,
No motion of the liver, but the palate,
That suffer surfeit, cloyment, and revolt.
But mine is all as hungry as the sea,
And can digest as much. Make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.

                      To his credit Orsino – after this spout of pomposity – does listen to Viola talk of the “sister’s” love and this is after all a comedy and the scene can be played in such a way that Orsino comes off as the arrogant but the essentially harmless silly lovesick fool he’s known as.
                      But in the final act, Act 5.1, he turns really scary.
                      Having come to confront his beloved Olivia himself and being turned down once again he turns into the kind of guy that women who have been beaten, stalked and killed by their husbands and lovers throughout the ages probably have a hard time laughing at.  He says:

Like to th’ Egyptian thief, at point of death
Kill what I love – a savage jealousy
That some time savours nobly. But hear me this:
Since you to non-regardance cast my faith,
And that I partly know the instrument
That screws me from my true place in your favour,
Live you the marble-breasted tyrant still.
But this your minion, whom I know you love,
And whom, by heaven I swear, I tender dearly,
Him will I tear out of that cruel eye
Where he sits crowned in his master’s spite.
[to Viola] Come, boy, with me.  My thoughts are ripe in mischief.
I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love
To spite a raven’s heart within a dove.

                      In plain 21st century English: I should kill you for refusing me because I have the right to you but since I know that it’s partly your love for this boy that’s stopping you from loving me, I’ll kill him instead.  Come on, kid, let’s go so I can kill you.
                      Never mind dopey.  Orsino is one seriously sick dude. Or just a normal spoiled aristocratic guy in a patriarchal society.
                      And Viola says, “OK”.  But that’s another story and we’ve seen it before.  Bright, courageous, witty, sharp women fall for Orsino, Proteus, Demetrius, Claudio – who are all jerks.
                      The question is why do they fall for them, why does Shakespeare keep doing that?  The answer is: I don’t have a clue.  The next question is: after making wild and savage and categorical claims against said admirable young women, how can they suddenly be marrying them and saying (sort of) that they love them? Same answer.
                      Whatever. Orsino does it too. As soon as the twin thing is revealed he says:

Give me thy hand,
And let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds.
Here is my hand. You shall from this time be
Your master’s mistress.
…when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy queen.

                      And so the play ends.  What Viola thinks of all this Shakespeare doesn’t tell us.  As usual the most interesting character is silenced half-way through the last scene. And even a peek into the future marriage of Orsino and Viola is hard to manage, and we don’t really care to know because “she won’t be the Viola we’ve come to know, who is essentially a linguistic being, a speaker of blank verse and rhyme, a quick-witted wordsmith” (Gay, page 429). Shakespeare is probably once again reminding us that marriage was not always a great thing for women in the olden days (for him, of course, the now.)
                      A final mystery. Well, two.  Why do we put up with these stupid – and nasty – guys in these brilliant plays populated by the likes of Viola and Olivia?  And why did I choose Orsino when almost everybody else – certainly the two women as well as Feste, Malvolio, Antonio, Maria, Aguecheek – is so much more interesting?
                      The answer to both: because he is essential to Shakespeare’s – and our – conviction that romantic love is absurd and illogical but (and?!) created by the absurd and illogical and patriarchal society in which the characters – and we, more than we sometimes like to admit – live in. Orsino, alone in his ivory tower of romantic nobility really doesn’t interact with anybody, even Viola who is mostly just a willing recipient for his narcissistic love ramblings until the end, but the dopiness of Orsino is a sharp and necessary contrast to the brilliance of Viola (when she’s not with him).  That he comes around in the end (sort of) and she fades into nothingness, does not diminish the power of the play.  The zany and wildly funny – and deeply sad – shenanigans of Twelfth Night would be so much less piquant without Orsino.
                      And so, ladies and gentlemen, I am seriously happy and proud to present the award for the Dopiest but Essential Shakespearean Hero to…

Works cited:
The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
Gay, Penny. “Twelfth Night: ‘The Babbling Gossip of the Air’” in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, The Comedies, ed. Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard. 2003.

Films seen:
BBC, 1979. Director: John Gorrie. Cast: Orsino – Clive Arrendell; Viola – Felicity Kendal; Olivia – Sinead Cusack: Feste – Trevor Peacock; Malvolio – Alec McCowen; Sir Toby Belch – Robert Hardy; Maria – Annette Crosbie; Sir Andrew Aguecheek – Ronnie Stevens; Sebastian – Michael Thomas; Antonio – Maurice Roeves; Fabian – Robert Lindsay.  A well done enjoyable production.  The cast is very competent but sadly Felicity Kendal is just too sweet and girly to make a convincing Cesario. I have a hard time seeing Trevor Peacock as anybody but Talbot but he’s OK as Feste.  Best is Robert Lindsay (Benedick in BBC’s Much Ado About Nothing and Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)  He might have been better as Feste here.
1996. Director: Trevor Nunn. Cast: Orsino – Toby Stephens (Maggie Smith’s son); Viola – Imogen Stubbs; Olivia – Helena Bonham Carter: Feste – Ben Kingsley; Malvolio – Nigel Hawthorne; Sir Toby Belch – Mel Smith; Maria – Imelda Staunton; Sir Andrew Aguecheek – Richard E. Grant; Sebastian – Steven Mackintosh (known from Our Mutual Friend); Antonio – Nicholas Farrell; Fabian – Peter Gunn.  This production starts out slow and muddled but really pulls through in the second half to become the kind of masterpiece Trevor Nunn is known for.  Helena Bonham-Carter is so good as Olivia that one wonders how anyone else has ever been considered for the part.
1988. Director: Kenneth Branagh. Cast: Orsino – Christopher Ravwnscroft; Viola – Frances Barber; Olivia – Caroline Langrishe: Feste – Anton Lesser; Malvolio – Richard Briers; Sir Toby Belch – James Saxon; Maria – Abigail McKern; Sir Andrew Aguecheek – James Simmons; Sebastian – Christopher Hollis; Antonio – Tim Barker; Fabian – Shaun Prendergast. One of Branagh’s earliest film efforts, it already shows the greatness that he soon became known for.  Anton Lesser is the perfect clown, rough, subtle, sad and very funny, not to mention very good-looking in his rags and dreds.  James Simmons is the perfect Aguecheek – dumb, sad and funny.  Christopher Ravenscroft makes a great Orsino although he’s a bit too dignified.  Wonderful music by Patrick Doyle.  My only complaints – I don’t like Frances Barber as Viola - too teary and weepy and uncharismatic.  Best laugh: Aguecheek entering on snowshoes.

Seen on stage: twice
Theater in the Park at Steninge Castle outside of Stockholm in June, 2005. A fun production. What I remember most is the name of Toby Belch’s friend the knight Blek af Nosen which translated directly means “pale of snout”.  I thought that was so funny and not having read the play yet I had to check out what the original was – Aguecheek.  Sometimes the Swedish translation is even funnier than the original!
At the Stockholm Theater, March 12, 2011. A very colorful – Olivia wore an enormous very red gown most of the time – lively, musical and thoroughly delightful production.



  1. It takes genius to spend so much time on a jerk like Orsino. I agree with Harold Goddard that one of the most disappointing things about this play is that a woman like Viola should fall for a poser like Orsino. But this, Mr Goddard says, is precisely the point. She will make a man of him if any woman can. Same deal, but inverted and on a lower level, with Sebastian and Olivia: he will make a woman of her, as opposed to mere lady. Is it possible that you haven't seen the 1970 movie with Ralph Richardson as Sir Toby and Alec Guinness as Malvolio? Makes the BBC attempt as good as non-existent, although Joan Plowright can hardly handle Viola (not to mention her atrocious doubling as Sebastian). I haven't been able to find Branagh's version, unfortunately, but I do plan to see Nunn's as soon as possible.

  2. Are you implying that I'm a genius? How very kind of you ;-) No, I haven't seen the 1970 version and actually I have not yet seen anyone who could do justice to the Viola/Sebastian role.