This term I am teaching Twelfth Night, the last of Shakespeare’s so called romantic comedies. My Shakespeare classes have been going for seven or eight years now, but it has taken a long time for Twelfth Night to come round, mainly because I was specifically asked to focus initially on plays that the groups would know less well and everyone seems to have at seen at least one production of this play if not to have actively studied it at some point. However, having most recently tackled Timon of Athens and Pericles I put my foot down this year and decided that we were going to focus on two of my favourite plays. Twelfth Night will be succeeded by The Winter’s Tale.
Twelfth Night was the first play that I saw on stage. I was eleven. I fell in love with it then and have never seen any reason to change my mind that it is a masterpiece. However, as is the case with so many of Shakespeare’s plays, it defies simple categorisation. It is always placed in with the Comedies and undoubtedly there are many comic elements, especially the scenes with Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria. But, it comes at a point in the canon when Shakespeare’s thoughts are moving away from comedy and history writing. Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida are already in his mind and much of this play is clearly underscored by melancholy. In its final moments Feste bids us remember that the rain it raineth every day. The next time we hear those words they will be in the mouth of Lear’s Fool as he and his master stand desolate on the blasted heath.
The wonder of studying any Shakespeare play is that each time you come back to it you discover something new because you are a different person, and this time round, perhaps because I have so recently been reading Linda Grant’s novel The Dark Circle, I’ve found myself focusing on the relationship between the twins, Viola and Sebastian. In Grant’s novel fraternal twins are discovered to have contracted TB and as a result are hospitalised. At one point it looks as if they are about to be separated and this causes them very real distress. In all their nineteen years they have never slept apart. Their reaction made me look more closely at what Shakespeare’s twins are going through and also made me rethink the way we normally talk about what was going on in the playwright’s own life around the time he was writing the play. The date assigned to Twelfth Night is 1600. Four years earlier, Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, had died, aged eleven. There has been much written about the way in which the death of his son affected Shakespeare but what we rarely speculate on is the way in which it must have affected Hamnet’s sister, Judith. For eleven years they had probably been together almost every single day. What must she have felt when suddenly half of herself was ripped away? Grant’s twins give us some idea. And, when you look closely at this play, it is clear that Shakespeare was aware of his daughter’s distress. Indeed, possibly of his elder daughter’s devastation at the loss as well. Viola isn’t the only young woman to have lost a brother, Olivia is in mourning for her sibling too. This time round I find I am reading Twelfth Night in part, at least, as a reflection on the love Shakespeare’s girls had for their brother and the yawning gap that his death has left in their lives.
Twins in literature have always interested me. Of course, they turn up regularly in children’s fiction, especially in the sort of school stories that I was reading in the late 50s and early 60s. There were the twins at St Clare’s, the Bobbsey twins and I remember an entire series of what I suppose I should call faction books, each one centred around twins from a different country. If not that numerous in adult fiction, I was still able, this summer, to offer a trio of novels featuring a twosome as one choice for the annual Summer School that I run in August: Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. I know that the third of those is a bit of a cheat and if I repeat the choice next year I’d like to come up with something more definitely ‘twinny’. I can’t put the Grant in because many of the people who come to the Summer School will have already read it, so do you have any other suggestions? The only restriction is that the book has to be easily available in paperback, so nothing too recent and nothing likely to be out of print and difficult to source. We have to be able to get hold of at least fifteen copies.
Postscript: I was going to couple this post with one on the current RSC production of Twelfth Night, which I saw last Saturday. However, having travelled back from Stratford thinking ‘my goodness, that was dire’, I woke up on Sunday morning thinking ‘no, that wasn’t just dire, it was a travesty’. This is, therefore, one of those occasions when I have decided to answer the question ‘to review or not to review’ by very definitely not reviewing it.