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To the Editor:

When I got to Central Park, making my second attempt to see the Public Theater’s production of "Twelfth Night," I was told that I was too late, the line had begun to snake around the reservoir by 7:00 am. Evidently Charles Isherwood’s review had brought out the crowds even more than usual. It was a long and flattering review, claiming that this was the best production in a decade. But what did it actually say? That Anne Hathaway was attractive, the costumes colorful, the music fine, the characters funny? I am sorry but this tells us absolutely nothing about the thing that really matters--especially if one has waited in line for six hours--did this production help people understand the meaning of the play?

We really cannot assume that an audience nowadays will understand the play without considerable help from the acting, the set, and the dramaturgy. To begin with, a production could highlight the existence of the strangely named characters Fabian and Sebastian. This should immediately remind us, perhaps with a calendar, of the two saints by those names who share the same feast-day, of 19 January. This is of course the day that the Elizabethan church began reading St Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians which can be made clear perhaps with the appropriate reading of the lesson. The play not only includes two Epistles, it is also set in Illyria, a location where St. Paul claimed to have preached, and from which those same letters to the Corinthians were conceivably written. Indeed at the beginning of the play Sebastian is compared to the Corinthian poet Arion, and at the end of the play Feste’s song about what he regarded as foolish when young, echoes 1 Corinthians, as do his reflections on wisdom and foolishness (1,5,30-35).

So while on one level this play is set in Elizabethan London, it also seems to be set in first century Illyria where the events resemble the problems among the early Christians in Corinth. The reason why "Twelfth Night" is a play about foolishness of various kinds, is that foolishness was the defining characteristic of the Corinthians--in whose letters all of the New Testament uses of this word appear. St. Paul argued that to become a Christian one had to embrace the foolishness of God--which to Jews was a stumbling block, and to Greeks was not wisdom, and embraced only by Christian fools.

So a production should reveal how these various households are replicated in the play. We find a Greek Feste, who is a non Christian called a “foolish Greek” (4,1,18), a household of Jews run by Madonna Olivia (echoing the olive tree the standard Jewish symbol), and a collection of foolish Christian clowns. Costuming should show their affiliations with each major Christian denomination. Sir Tony Belch is an allegory for Sir Toby Matthew, a Catholic sympathizer who later became a priest. The ‘tall’ Sir Andrew Aguecheek who has no more wit than a Christian, speaks 3 or 4 languages, but cannot understand basic Latin or French, is a parody of the very tall and able linguist Sir Lancelot Andrewes, dean of Westminster, who was known for obsessive nocturnal studying, and his ague cheek. The noise-hating Malvolio is a parody of the sickly Puritan T.Posthumous Hoby who, with his mother, was leading a protest against the Blackfriars theater for causing too much rowdiness, and carrying out a lawsuit against some visitors who had come to their country house and caused too much noise. So the play mocks the foolishness of Christianity by presenting each of these denominations as foolish, and it also goes into detail mocking transubstantiation, and the Trinitarian Eucharistic belief that one person can have multiple bodies in different places.

One sub-plot however, which appears nowhere in the sources, involves Maria playing a trick on Malvolio, through an Epistle that causes him to give up his Christian faith. In the gospels there is a story of Jesus meeting a demoniac called Legion and expelling the demons from him through an exorcism. Malvolio, whose name even means bad-will, is also referred to as being possessed by Legion, and all the devils in hell (3,4,86-7). A fiend speaks from within him, he is bewitched, and tricked into believing “impossible passages of grossness” by which he is “turned heathen” (3,3,67). Maria has dropped a letter in which she says M.O.A.I doth sway her life, moai being the Italian word for the good Lord, who presumably sways her life because while praying Jews often make a swaying motion. Malvolio is puffed up and believes the letter refers to him. He is tamed, as Hercules was when he dressed in women’s clothes, and bound his legs with cross garters and put on yellow socco in Seneca’s play Phaedra. Later Malvolio is confined under the stage to hell where he is cured and exorcised by a fictitious figure Sir Topas, named after a jewel that cures madness. So this is a parody of the exorcism cure in the gospels, Malvolio is cured of his fiendish Christianity, by being shown to be a real fool, and forcing him to come to his right Five Wits, and no longer participate in the play.

Into this Illyria also arrive the twins--who had been separated in a shipwreck that took place on the date of the major schism in Christianity--as noted by Steve Sohmer in his essay "Ilyria’s Faulty Calendar." Sebastian (the revered one), from the non existent town of Messaline (an allusion to the messiah), has been in Elysium (heaven), and in a “watery tomb” from which he emerges symbolically on the third day. He is imitated (3,4,393) by Cesario (meaning belonging to Caesar). By pretending to be the messiah, and holding the olive in his hand, Cesario gets the love of Orsino, of Olivia and Antonio who does devotion to his image as a vile idol (3,4,374). At the end of the play however, both of Cesario’s disguises are revealed to the other characters in the play, the foolish illusion is over, and he is discovered to merely be a girl Viola.

Finally, the healing of the demoniac Legion at Gadara, on which Malvolio’s exorcism is based, has been shown in the latest NT research to be a fictional event. Like other key events in the gospels, it is a literary satire of one of Caesar’s victories over the Jews during the Roman-Jewish war. Evidently the author of "Twelfth Night" was well aware of this, because the playwright created Malvolio’s sub-plot as a counter-satire. So my hope is that future productions will use their stagecraft to show the play not as a mindless comedy but as what it is--a device for undoing the foolishness of Christian belief. Perhaps after all that is why it is called "Twelfth Night," the night on which the twelve days of Christmas fantasies are over, and when the stark reality begins to set in. That would make a review worth reading.


John Hudson is Artistic Director to the Dark Lady Players, an experimental Shakespeare company that is re-inventing allegorical dramaturgy. He is author of The Dark Lady: The Woman Who Wrote Shakespeare. A major academic article on his new Shakespeare theory will appear this summer in a special issue of The Oxfordian. [Email this writer]

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