Twelfth Night, Musings on Shakespeare’s Most Wonderful Play ( Book Review )

(The full title of Wayne Myers’ book is The Book of “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” Musings on Shakespeare’s Most Wonderful Play. I just couldn’t fit that meaningfully in my title.)

I am woefully behind on my book reviews, but isn’t that always the case? Truthfully it’s taken me longer to write this review than it did to read the book!

Mr. Myers book is just the right size and scope for my kind of reading. Weighing in at just under 100 pages and covering one specific play, it’s small enough to be welcoming to the casual reader while still managing to pack a serious amount of discussion material in its dozen or so chapters. Most chapters center around a specific character, so the reader can easily flip around to favorites, or just read straight through.

Twelfth Night is a complex play. On one level it’s a light romantic comedy, some cross-dressing here, a little mistaken identity over there, a reunion of siblings separated by tragedy, a happy ending. It’s practically As You Like It.
Look closer. Look at the treatment of Malvolio, for an obvious starter. What about poor Viola, who not only assumes the identity of her dead brother, but seems to be stuck in the middle of a bizarre love triangle that none of the parties involved fully understand. Who does she love (erotically speaking) more, Olivia or Orsino? It’s clear that Olivia wants her (in her Cesario/Sebastian persona) more than she wants Orsino, and Orsino’s almost certainly got some strange feelings brewing as well. How does this happy ending work out, exactly? Orsino’s spent the play lusting after a boy, only to be told she’s a girl, and he says “Oh, phew, ok cool, I can marry you.” Olivia has been lusting after that same boy, but she’s told, “No, he wasn’t real, but here’s a brother that looks just like him. A brother you’ve never really met, but physical appearance is apparently all that matters.” And so on. Much fan fiction has been written about exactly what happens after Twelfth Night ends. Does anybody end up happy, really?

Viola and the Countess (Twelfth Night, Pickersgill)
Myers’ book tells the story for those unfamiliar with it, and then takes it apart character by character, discussing different interpretations throughout the years. How should the shipwreck be staged? Should it open the play, or come after Orsino’s “If music be the food of love…” speech? Is Olivia truly in mourning at the beginning of the play, or just going through some formality? It is no coincidence that Olivia is mourning the death of a brother, as is Viola. So how much should this be played up, and how?

At times this “one chapter per character” breakdown doesn’t hold up. Characters don’t exist in a vacuum. To explain Malvolio, you have to explain how Maria and Toby and the others treat him. So then when you get to the chapter on Maria, what do you talk about? The cast is already small enough, but it does make you think that maybe some characters didn’t need their own chapter, and could instead have shown up strictly in their relationship to the more major characters. More than once while reading I thought, “This often comes out like a series of blog posts, like the author got an idea and then went out to do some research backing up that idea. Then, he moved on to the next idea.” This is ok if you’re a fan of that sort of short-attention-span, read-5-pages-and-then-flip-to-a-different-chapter that sounds interesting approach to tackling a book.

The book is a guide to staging Twelfth Night (giving many, many examples of how others have done it). A great deal of research has clearly gone into this material. Instead of abstract pondering about how a scene could be played, the reader is shown examples throughout the years of how the scene was played. Unfortunately there are no images from these productions, something that I think would have added tremendously to the final product. You can only go so far explaining what Viola looked like emerging from the sea. Show us a picture.

However, if like me you’re more into Shakespeare as literature and have no real interest in staging your own production, there’s still plenty here for discussion. What’s the deal with Orsino, isn’t he basically stalking Olivia? Are we supposed to be sympathetic toward him? What do we do with the whole Malvolio issue? What do we do when he leaves, do we laugh, or do we fear for our safety?

I expect over the coming weeks that I’ll be able to pull a half dozen blog posts out of this book, and that’s a good thing. I can’t even really say that about books like Bloom and Garber┬ábecause volumes like that tend to spend so many hundred pages tackling a topic that I can never truly get a handle on the author’s argument. Here, Myers has made it simple enough – here’s what happens in Twelfth Night, here’s how the characters treat each other, what do you think? If you’ve seen the play, and/or read the play, you can jump in this discussion.

Overall I’m quite pleased with this book. If I found out that Mr. Myers were planning to do the same thing with another play, maybe Shrew or All’s Well, I think that I’d seek it out. I like the size, I like the format, I like the writing style. Having said that I’m finding it hard to fully grasp the intended audience for a book like this. It seems introductory in many places, but then makes a number of leaps about the book (often referring merely to a scene’s numbering, without explaining what the scene is about), as if the reader is intimately familiar with the play. In other words…, I guess. The “more than casual fan”, the kind of reader who does have more than one-time experience with the play, who is interested in deepening their knowledge by finding the key points where there’s discussion to be had.

I’d like to see more books like this, is really the best way I can put it.

One thought on “Twelfth Night, Musings on Shakespeare’s Most Wonderful Play ( Book Review )

  1. I'm sold. And it's on one of my favorites! I'd so much rather read a small-scale book with no filler than a 400-page opus in which you have the author's point after the first chapter or two.

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