Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”
Have you heard “If music be the food of love/
Play on…” ?
Or: “I will be revenged on the whole pack of you!”
Or: “… and the rain it raineth every day.”
Or: “'Better a witty fool than a foolish wit"
The first of these is from Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night.” The second is from “Twelfth Night.” And the third, and the fourth, and … you get the picture.
Or how about:
"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Or, possibly my favorite:
"Dost thou think that because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?'"
All of these are from “Twelfth Night,” possibly the richest of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies.
Seeing the play a week ago performed by a troupe from the Teaching Program of Shakespeare & Company outdoors at the Mount, the company’s former haunt, a sylvan setting on the Edith Wharton estate in the Berkshire woods was like paying a visit to an old friend. A particular companionable and witty friend, who has a good story to tell. Even though it’s the same story each time, you never tire of hearing it. Or in this case, of watching it on the stage played by people who love what they're doing.
The play is a tale built around a number of Shakespeare’s favorite plot devices. A storm at sea, a case of mistaken identity, twins (justifying the previous as an occasion for comedy), cross-dressing so that the heroine can play a man’s role in her tale, and multiple marriages at the end.
Its main characters include classic Elizabethan (and Renaissance) types. A ‘cruel mistress’ who refuses the love of a perfectly adequate suitor. A narcissistic, self-involved royal suitor with a grievance – not far, say, from Hamlet – who has the luck to be situated in comedy rather than tragedy. Orsino has woman troubles, but no one has killed his father or polluted his realm. He holds languorous court in the play’s near opening (many productions skip-wreck at the start), indulging his love-sickness with the command to the court musician to feed his languor: “If music be the food of love, play on.” A few more self-referential observations later he’s tired of it.
Enter Caesario, which is to say the shipwrecked Viola, dressed as a slender young man – “I am all the daughters of my father’s house” he/she will say a few scenes later – to whom Orsino takes an immediate liking. A certain amount of guy-affection takes place between them, shoulder slapping and the like, inherently comic under the circumstances and rather slap-sticked in this one. Orsino dispatches Caesario to be his go-between with the Lady Olivia, who's drowning her own self-indulgent neurosis expressed as prolonged grieving for the death of her brother. We take her widow’s weeds and veiled face as signs of her unwillingness, as we would put it today, to ‘engage’ with the world. Like Orsino she has servants to do her living for her.
One of these is Malvolio, who will be tricked into believing that he is about to have “greatness thrust upon him.” He does a bit of clichéd thrusting to give the audience the point.
Another is Feste, one of Shakespeare’s most appealing clowns (or court fools), who wittily proves that Olivia in her grief-hangover is more “fool” than he is. So you’re still suffering for your brother? he asks; then asserts “I believe he is hell.”
“I know he is in heaven!” she retorts angrily.
Then surely, the fool replies, there is no reason to grieve for a loved one who is now in a better place.
Having scored this unarguable point, Feste triumphantly echoes his lady’s earlier command: “Take away the fool.”
The licensed fools of Shakespeare’s courts are the voice of the commoner allowed to needle nobility. The role is an egalitarian gesture to the sentiments of ordinary folk, including the groundlings who paid a penny to watch a play standing below the stage in The Globe. The best bargain in popular entertainment ever offered.
The fool, in his role as entertainer, is also a musician. The production we saw by the education program actors, some eight or so players who engineered quick-change acts barely off stage so smoothly it took me a while to realize what was going on, gave Feste a guitar, plugged in a mike, and turned him into a popular entertainer offering pop-song versions of the play’s classic ditties.
Shakespeare’s theater encompassed song and dance. Today’s classic revival theater uses the same devices in contemporary ways to engage the senses enliven the action and allow comedy and enchantment to stretch beyond the spoken word. Shakespeare & Company pioneered this approach 30 years ago. For years we saw the fruits of their labors staged on the lawn and wooded backdrop of the grounds of the Mount, taking full advantage of moonlight and darkness to serve as a fairy-land of Midsummer Night's Dream. When the 'rude mechanicals' convened for rehearsal, they arrived in a contractor's pick-up truck.
It’s highly satisfying to see how easily these classic works of an Elizabethan theater accommodate modern styles and trickery. The new "Education Program" production at the Mount employed every vaudevillean schtick in the book, sight gags, foolish tumbles and falls from unearned grace. Plugged-in Feste rises above the fray with his sad-happy "so it goes” commentaries in verse-song on the way of the world. He’s not talking about the weather when he sings “Heigh-ho, the wind and the rain… And the rain it raineth every day.”
Or the across-the-classes wisdom-warning come-on of
“Come and kiss me sweet and twenty
Youth’s a stuff will not endure…”
The play's social comedy also offers us a war of the lifestyles contest between Olivia’s “be drunken always" frat boy brother Antonio and Shakespeare’s portrait of a Puritan abstainer Malvolio. Malvolio is both the deserved object of his enemies' take-down and the victim of a prank that gets out of hand and goes too far, weaving a thread of darkness into the play's comic resolution.
Yet most of us take the side of the irresponsible Antonio when he responds to Malvolio's smug preachiness with the rebuttal:
“Just because thou art virtuous do you think there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
Almost everybody who hears that exchange is voting for cakes and ales.
And I'm voting for "Twelfth Night," a play with more wit than foolishness, where most of those plot twists turn out right in the end.