Why This Play?:
I firmly believe in exposing my kids to theatre. And testing the waters with a little free Shakespeare? Culture + my personal interests + FREE = yes please. It’s not Shakespeare in the Park season, but there is a group in my region that tours slimmed-down, hour-long versions of Shakespeare ( with a 5 person cast, no less!) each fall/winter around local libraries and community centers. [The world would be a better place if everyone had access to this.] I’ve certainly dragged my daughter to her fair share of theatre, including the Bard. This month, I tried an experiment that had failure written all over it: I invited my kid’s Daisy Scout troop to attend as well. That’s right – 12 first-graders, many with parents and siblings in tow, actually took me up on this event. I was utterly surprised to find that this simple outing would push me out of my safety zone, just by sharing an interest with some casual acquaintances. As a result, I feel like I'm the one who ended up in the fun-land that is Illyria.
So What Happens?:
Duke Orsino is the most powerful man in Illyria, but he’s still super-mopey (indulging himself in melancholy music). He’s desperately in love with the Countess Olivia, but she has resolved to refuse society for seven years while she mourns the death of her brother. On the shores of Illyria, another woman mourns a missing brother. Viola has been washed up with some sailors from a wrecked ship, and her twin Sebastian is nowhere to be found. She needs to find a job, and Olivia’s not exactly hiring these days. So resourceful Viola convinces the boat’s captain to disguise her as a boy and give her an intro to Orsino.
Under the name “Cesario”, Viola comes to be Orsino’s beloved servant. She serves as his page, and he appreciates her soft ways and attentive ear. He thinks “Cesario” has just the manner to be messenger of his love to Olivia. Viola agrees…while secretly yearning for Orsino. Olivia’s house has a few guests, despite her mourning. Her uncle Toby Belch (with the help of Olivia’s waiting-lady Maria) convinces his friend, silly Sir Andrew Aguecheek to stay longer and woo the countess. Olivia looks to her fool, Feste, to ease her grief, and he wittily replies that her grief is unnecessary if her brother’s soul is in heaven. “Cesario” arrives and insists on seeing Olivia. She admits the page and impatiently listens to Orsino’s message of love. However, she is captivated by the charms of the messenger. When “Cesario” leaves, Olivia hurriedly pretends that her ring was a gift from him, and she sends Malvolio to return the ring to “Cesario” with a message to return to see her later.
Back to the coast of Illyria, we discover that Sebastian made it through the shipwreck too! A sailor named Antonio rescued him and has now become very fond of Sebastian. Despite having Orsino for an enemy, Antonio follows his young friend into Illyria. Outside Olivia’s house, Malvolio tracks down “Cesario” and flings the ring at him. Viola is confused at first, then realizes she is deeply embedded in a love triangle – Olivia is into “Cesario”, Orsino is crazy about Olivia, and Viola adores Orsino.
That night at Olivia’s, Sir Toby leads Sir Andrew, and Feste in some raucous fun (drinking, singing, the works). Maria laughingly tried to quiet them, but sleepy Malvolio busts in and ruins the party, threatening to report them to the mistress. Maria decides Malvolio needs a little lesson in humility, and she concocts a plan: she’ll forge Olivia’s handwriting into a love letter for Malvolio. The knights adore the plan and promise to help. The night rounds out with more singing and drinking, as it’s already too late at night to go to sleep. Over at Orsino’s palace, the Duke moans to “Cesario” about love and women’s inconstant nature. “Cesario” disagrees, indicting that a woman in her family loved firmly and truly, even though she couldn’t speak of her love. Touched, Orsino sends “Cesario” back to Olivia’s to renew the wooing. Out in the garden, Maria puts the fake love letter in plain site and the men hide to witness the joke. Malvolio strolls in, spies the letter , and becomes completely ensnared in the idea that his mistress secretly yearns for him. The letter says that he should show his returned love by wearing ridiculous yellow stockings with garters crossed over them (a color and fashion Olivia actually hates), by railing at Sir Toby, and by smiling constantly. Malvolio is ready to ascend the social ladder, and Sir Toby and company delight in the trick.
Heading to Olivia’s, “Cesario” stumbles upon Feste and the two debate the nature of fools and if they can show true wit. “Cesario” moves on to the house, where Olivia openly declares her love (eep!). “Cesario” chooses his words carefully, claiming he could never love a woman, then steering talk back to topic of Orsino’s devotion. Sir Andrew has been listening in this entire time, and realizes that wooing Olivia is a fruitless endeavor. However, Sir Toby manages to convince him to honor his place and fight “Cesario”. Maria reveals that Malvolio is hilariously fulfilling the love note’s requests to the letter. Finally in Illyria, Sebastian wants to explore the land while Antonio decides to lay low and avoid trouble. He hands his money over to Sebastian so he can enjoy a day about town.
Malvolio attends on Olivia, wearing his ridiculous outfit and all the while grinning ear to ear. Olivia was hoping to see a somber servant and is perplexed by his new manner. As she leaves, Malvolio convinces himself that his wooing is going swimmingly. Maria and Sir Toby take the trick a step further, claiming Malvolio has gone mad and arranging to imprison him in a dark closet (apparently a common way to treat mental health in the 1600s?). Sir Andrew resolves to challenge “Cesario” by writing a very silly letter. Sir Toby acts as emissary, running back and forth between Andrew and Viola, hyping up the supposed bloodlust and rage of the other. By the time the two meet to fight, they are each properly frightened of the other, much to Toby’s delight. Before any actual blows come to course, Antonio wanders in searching for Sebastian. Mistaking “Cesario” for his friend, he intervenes on Viola’s behalf. Recognized as an enemy of the Duke’s, he is arrested. Antonio asks a bewildered Viola to return his money for bail; when she is unable to do so, he curses Sebastian. Viola perks up at the mention of her brother’s name, but is unable to get any further info.
Feste’s sent out to call for “Cesario” – he runs into Sebastian on the street and naturally thinks he’s found “Cesario”. Sir Andrew also mistakes Sebastian for “Cesario” and gets an unpleasant surprise when he picks a fight with someone who’s willing to fight back. Sir Toby is about to come to blows as well when Olivia breaks up the fray. Olivia, also thinking she’s speaking with “Cesario”, induces Sebastian to come home with her. He’s pleasantly surprised at the attentions of a stranger, and rolls with it. Feste then disguises himself as a curate, “Sir Topas”, and pretends to attend to the imprisoned and perplexed Malvolio. Malvolio insists he is sane and wants to write to Olivia for help. The prank is clearly going too far. In the house, Sebastian is stoked (albeit confused) over the attentions of a lovely Countess…and he agrees instantly when she presents a priest and suggests they marry straight-away.
Orsino has grown tired of waiting around and he heads to Olivia’s to speak to her directly with “Cesario” in tow. They bump into Feste there, then they spy Antonio in police custody, and “Cesario” identifies him as her mystery rescuer. Orsino recognizes him as an enemy, and Antonio bemoans that he was led astray by Sebastian’s false friendship. Olivia enters and dotes on “Cesario” as her new husband – Orsino blows up and starts making threats while Viola denies the connection. Olivia is equally upset that her hubs is choosing the Duke over her, and she calls in the priest to confirm the marriage. To confuse matters further, Sir Andrew enters, accusing “Cesario” of hurting him and Sir Toby in a fight. Viola has no idea what is going on. Sebastian enters, apologizing to Olivia for fighting her kin. Everyone does a double-take as they view the twins together for the first time.
Sebastian reveals he had a sister who was lost at sea, and Viola confesses to all that she is actually a woman (her lady clothes were left with the boat’s captain, a friend of Malvolio’s). The twins are happily reunited. Orsino realizes Viola is devoted to him, and he decides that love is more worthwhile than chasing his fancies over (the now-married) Olivia. He asks Viola to marry him. Olivia summons Malvolio (to call the captain to confirm Viola’s tale). Feste and Fabian produce the letter that Malvolio wrote from his prison to plead for freedom. Malvolio arrives, the picture of indignation. He demands to know why Olivia has treated him so poorly…and she confirms that his love letter is a fake. Maria and Sir Toby can’t exactly be punished though – they’ve run off and gotten married! Malvolio storms off to plot revenge. The two sets of lovers head off to celebrate their marriages while Feste sings a melancholy (but sometimes lively, depending on the tune) song.
Check This Out:
In fall of 2003, I started my final year of university. I also went with my Shakespeare troupe to see the Shakespeare’s Globe tour of Twelfth Night – happily, they performed at my school. That’s right, I saw the all-male, Mark Rylance-led production in it hey-day. I had seen Shakespeare on stage, but never an approximation of how it was originally performed 400 years ago. It was beautiful and funny and moving. Rylance was as mesmerizing as you’d expect – everyone was good, but the entire audience became more eager and attentive the second he stepped on stage. Yet another theatre experience I’m so grateful to have under my belt.
National Theatre has a current run of Twelfth Night starring the gorgeous and hilarious Tamsin Grieg as Malvolia. If you’re not in the UK, the show is still playing in cinemas around the US in April. Check it out!
I love reading views on Shakespeare’s plays that capture life experience outside the little bubble of my own life events. It’s one of the most beautiful things about his works – so many groups can identify with different issues and emotions he brings to life. The British Library has some really interesting takes on this play, particularly the gender bending. There’s a great LGBTQ lens on the show in this article.
Thoughts & Themes:
Viola opens her eyes on a beach, in a strange land, disoriented from the trauma of the storm at sea. She instantly realizes that her dearest family member, her own beloved twin, is nowhere to be found. We as an audience don’t know where she was heading on that ship; it’s irrelevant by this point. Her family is lost (in V.1, she tells us her father is dead), and she is alone. But Viola is resilient and a survivor. Without hesitation, she queries the boat’s captain on the circumstances of this new land. Within the course of a short scene, she formulates a plan to secure her safety and living. Viola may be melancholy and practically destitute, but she knows how to carry on. Viola is in so many women that I know, who all have that ability to assess the damage and to find a way to move forward anyway. She heads out to make connections in the unknown. What a strong and true example for us all. Just the kind of daughter I want to raise.
As I mentioned, I had the crazy idea to take a bunch of 6 and 7 year olds to see this play. A couple months ahead of schedule, I emailed the idea out to the mamas of my daughter’s Daisy Scout troop. And I was astounded by the positive response. Part of me shouldn’t have been: most parents are pretty thrilled with the idea of free entertainment for their kids on a Saturday afternoon. But the majority of adults I know would furrow their brows at the notion, thinking a Shakespeare show means difficult language and old-fashioned manners that need previous study in order to follow the plot. [Dear readers of this blog know that to be laughably false!] But the parents were excited to come with their kids. So I knew I had to make it a good experience so as to not mess up their entry into this amazing literary and theatrical mind. This was my chance to prove how accessible Shakespeare is to a entire group of people!
And you know what? It wasn’t anything that I could do alone, although I was fully prepared to. In prepping for this event, I was taught one of the biggest lessons of the play itself: the importance of female friendship and the fact that it’s much better not to go it alone. When I first emailed event details out to the troop, one of the parents offered her own wholly unique skills to help. This mama is an actress and happens to know people who work with SF Shakespeare, the group that ran the show. I like this mama, we’re on friendly terms, and I know her profession. Yet it never even occurred to me to ask her for any pointers or help on the event. She offered it freely, reaching out to SF Shakespeare to let them know our troop would be in attendance (more on that to come). I arranged to have the girls and families meet up at the library prior to the show. I sat them down to go over the story in advance. We talked about who Shakespeare was, that his language is different from the way we speak now, and some basic audience etiquette. And I produced a book, a retelling of Twelfth Night (Bruce Colville does some excellent kids’ adaptations of the Bard for interested parents!). I skimmed the story, telling it in my own words while showing off Tim Raglin’s beautiful illustrations. That same mama who offered help? She was smart enough to have brought chocolate chip cookies for the girls to munch while I relayed the story. It definitely helped their attention span and was such a kind gesture.
The multipurpose room finally opened up, and we loaded the girls in to find seats. The rep from SF Shakespeare saw me at the door and asked if we were the Daisy Scouts, which I confirmed. She said she’d been told about our group and offered us a meet-and-greet and props/set tour with the actors after the show. This was all thanks, of course, to my lovely mama friend who had simply reached out to her contacts. What a lovely surprise and a huge treat for the girls at the end of the play (sadly, cool mama had to leave right at the end of the show and her daughters didn’t get to enjoy the extra time with the cast – but selflessly, she made it happen for the rest of the troop). The girls had a blast playing with props that made thunder sounds, seeing the hand-painted backdrops up-close, and learning about why the play is called “Twelfth Night”. They loved the show. Five actors double-up on roles and they ask for a couple of audience volunteers to jump up on stage and play roles without lines (in this case, a girl from our troop got to be a silent Fabian and laugh at mincing Malvolio!). There was lots of music, which always helps. And after the initial dialogue-heavy explanatory scenes, the actors read the young audience’s enthusiasm and played up the physicality of the story. The Viola vs Sir Andrew “fight” had the girls rolling in the aisles.
Twelfth Night has female characters that rely heavily on their intuition. They persist throughout the heartache of mourning lost brothers. They are good listeners (Orsino comments on this quality in Viola several times). They don’t just succumb to others’ wishes but refuse to get roped into situations against their own feelings (Olivia will not give in to Orsino’s advances…nor Viola to Olivia’s for that matter). These women offer support without their friends needing to ask for it. They are feeling and sympathetic people – Viola pities Olivia for her misplaced affection, as does Olivia for Malvolio’s. Male friendship is so prized in Shakespeare’s day and in many of his works, but Twelfth Night shows us the benefits of gentler companionship too. Women have sensitivity as well as strength. Many women somehow just know when to check in, or to extend a gesture of help or support without it being solicited.
I’m lucky to have several strong and caring ladies in my life, girlfriends from my college days and my amazing book club. These are all women I’ve known for years who live within a 30-mile radius of each other, and we make sure to spend time in a group semi-regularly. But it’s not always enough. Since quitting my job 2 years ago to be with my kids, I miss regular interaction with other adults. Sometimes I feel a little lost at sea, living just far enough away from my busy friends and being one of the only stay-at-home parents out of my group. These past few months I realized that I was sort of an island in and of myself. On a daily basis, I’m friendly to neighbors and other school parents without actually making the attempt at friendship. Reading this play really drew my attention to my lame reticence. I had been Olivia for a while now, putting myself in this odd isolated position, using my small son or “busy” schedule as an excuse to not have to interact with others. I told myself I was content with the friends I already had (who are admittedly awesome), but really I was just nervous and feeling strangely out-of-place in the very places I so obviously belonged. I needed to stop being Olivia. And just as in the case of Olivia, Viola eased both our hearts open.
When I made the decision to invite the Daisy troop to see Shakespeare, I opened up a glimpse of my inner self to a group of casual acquaintances. My literary nerdiness is only shared by online friends, not people in my daily life. So I was shocked when they showed interest. I was pleased when the girls enjoyed the play. My heart swelled when I saw my daughter leaning against one of her young friends, both of them in gales of laughter over Malvolio’s yellow stockings. I beamed each time I heard from parents over the course of the following week how much they and their kids had enjoyed the show. It got us talking about topics beyond our kids. I finally realized how silly I was before to not even try to engage on a deeper personal level. So I decided to do what any Viola would do and to actively forge a new path (albeit with less cross-dressing). Since that show in early March, I have made a point of reaching out to other families, inviting their kids to play but also asking the adults to hang out as well. I’m slowly but surely working on making more local friends…and it’s actually working. My kid, who is far more social that I am, is noticeably relieved that I'm finally on board.
I love my long-time friends – we’ve seen each other grow and change; we have history. These new friends are needed too – people who fully understand and empathize with my current situation in life as a suburban parent. Besides, growth is good. Viola is an example on how to dive in, to be vulnerable, and to care steadfastly. So here’s to female friendship, to making oneself open to new people, and to our daughters.