How can a play in which there is a shipwreck which surely kills many people, a male romantic lead who is murderous misogynist (and almost a stalker), a pathetic vain old man who is shut up in the dark and told he is mad, two sisters grieving over the deaths of their beloved brothers, a loyal friend who is betrayed then abandoned, and two old men who live as parasitic, drunken sots – how can a play with all this be so funny?
Well, to start with there are some great one-liners.
Sir Toby: ‘He…speaks three or four languages word for word without book’ (Act 1.3).
Sir Andrew: ‘I am a great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit’ (Act 1.3). Hmmm, maybe not so funny after all! But clever.
Orsino: ‘I myself am best when least in company’ (Act 1.4). Again, not so funny but in Orsino’s case (and often mine!) so true.
Maria: ‘Go shake your ears!’ (Act 2.3). Must remember that one and use it sometime.
Sebastian: ‘ …let me be boiled to death with melancholy’ (Act 2.5). Not funny at all but such an unexpected turn of a phrase that I laughed out loud.
Sir Toby: ‘For Andrew, if he were opened and you find so much blood in his liver as will clog the foot of a flea, I’ll eat the rest of th’ anatomy’ (Act 3.2). What an image!
And then there are those silly, fast-paced scenes. Feste showing Olivia why she’s the fool, not he. Viola in her first meeting with Olivia and trying to give her prepared speech: ‘Alas, I took great pains to study it, and ‘tis poetical’ (Act 1.5). Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Feste, Maria and Malvolio upon partying late into the night: Sir Toby, ‘To be up after midnight and to go to bed then is early’ (Act 2.3). The duel between Sir Andrew and Cesario, from planning, to challenging, to evading and finally to almost fighting – classic slapstick!
And, of course, poor Malvolio’s entire yellow-stockings-crossed-garters-and-smiles episode. Poor ridiculed humiliated Malvolio. We cringe, we pity him, and we laugh. It can’t be helped. Malvolio making a fool of himself is simply hilarious.
One final little detail that endears this play to me. Sir Andrew’s name. Aguecheek. It sums him up perfectly. Pale, insipid, bloodless, pathetic aristocrat. It’s even better in Swedish. Blek af nosen. Pale of snout. What a perfect name.
What a perfect comedy, steeped as Shakespeare so well understood – in tragedy and human foibles. If we didn’t laugh we’d never survive.
Films seen this time:
- 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.
- 1988. Director: Kenneth Branagh. Cast: Orsino – Christopher Ravenscroft; 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 dreads. 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.
- The Globe production, 2012. Director: Tim Carroll Cast: Orsino – Liam Brennan; Viola – Johnny Flynn; Olivia – Mark Rylance; Feste – Peter Hamilton Dyer; Malvolio – Stephen Fry; Sir Toby Belch – Colin Hurley; Maria – Paul Chahidi; Sir Andrew Aguecheek – Roger Lloyd Pack
- A very successful all-male cast. Stephen Fry is always a sweetie and Mark Rylance has the perfect balance of comedy and sorrow.