360. (William Shakespeare)

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the good great houses of Orsino and Olivia insist upon decorum and the traditions of civilization; though they are not courtly, as Sir Andrew Aguecheek fails to appreciate, their exact social degree depends on knowing the difference between a great house and a court. They are places of immense comfort and luxury and play; they are not impervious to worldly care—Olivia is in mourning—but they guard against it, and they are impervious to worldly exigency and, within their bounds at least, violence. In the mistreatment of Malvolio, the violence exceeds its proper limit; but that excess is a reaction against Malvolio’s own excessive insistence on decorum and station. The delicate equilibrium that Olivia chooses to preserve in her own house, between Feste (or Toby) and Malvolio, tolerating both for their extremes, reveals the delicate, but not precarious, architectural balance of social forces that Shakespeare celebrates and opens up to his audiences in the play: order and disorder, routine and spontaneity, purpose and play, necessity and chance, decorum and desire, civility and violence, station and freedom. The play itself is constructed with a double-plot that is less a matter of reflective layers and more a matter of center and periphery, where the periphery does the work of balancing the oppositions more intensely, so that Feste, Toby, Maria, Sir Andrew, and Malvolio(and even Antonio) often steal the show. The gender play and vicissitudes of desire that characterize Orsino, Viola, Olivia, and, eventually, Sebastian, are the flower that resides amidst the more active and tangled thicket; in them, the luxury of love is allowed to blossom, but also to be seen as itself dependent on all of the oppositions, perfectly reconciling them, but only through the drama of being reconciled to them. Like Messina or the Forest of Arden, the great houses on Bohemia are havens, but, mirroring their sequence of composition, with each play in which the havens appear, from Much Ado to Twelfth Night the number of characters who look out from, and live on, the peripheries of those havens increase; in Much Ado it might be that there are none, in As You Like It, the double-plot is a reflection of courtly life rather than a circumscribing of it, and the far-gazing Jacques receives a monologue but no real drama, but in Twelfth Night the action on the periphery of the haven, starting with the return of Feste, makes it a center of play. Accompanying that broadening notion of the work done upon, and by, the borders is a deepening sense, from play to play, of what virtues matter to these enclaves of dwelling and also how these enclaves matter to virtues; it is something of an Aristotelian point about a healthy society in which virtues flourish, also depending on those virtues. In each play, virtue triumphs along with dwelling (a sort of Heidegger/Aristotle mash-up), after being subject to misunderstanding, error, fortune, and violence, and that triumph is celebrated as love. In Twelfth Night, though the sense of what virtues involve transcends the earlier understanding of Much Ado, where gender and virtue are closely aligned; liberated from rigidly-scripted and followed gender roles, virtue in Twelfth Night can take on a breadth that is new: the extremes are now the oppositions (routine and spontaneity; purpose and play; decorum and desire; civility and violence), which it is virtue to straddle and balance. At the same time, the play is a declaration of hope that such places may exist that allow those virtues to work themselves out, and that can themselves be sustained by their working, and by the playing.


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