The Reading Room

Twelfth Night: Feasting Gone Wrong?

To drink or not to drink? To laugh or not to laugh? To jest or not to jest? These are the questions that run through Sir Toby Belch’s mind during the entirety of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Yet, beneath his jocular, inebriated exterior lurks a far darker question: to empathize or not to empathize? With all the feasting and clowning in Twelfth Night, it is easy to lose sight of the other overarching theme: a complete lack of empathy. 
As a brief refresher, twins Viola and Sebastian are separated in a shipwreck and both eventually end up on the island of Illyria (after much confusion, homoeroticism, and gender swapping), each thinking the other has drowned in the wreck. To protect her chastity and her fortune, Olivia disguises herself as the male Cesario and becomes a boy servant to Duke Orsino, who is helplessly in love with Olivia. Unfortunately for Orsino, his love is unrequited. Unfazed, Orsino vows to pursue Olivia as a hunter pursues his deer (or hart – with deer/dear and hart/heart being a common pun in Shakespeare’s day).  Act 1 begins with Orsino’s famous line, “If music be the food of love, play on.” What is often taken as a romantic invitation, however, is actually a wish to be so satiated by love that he “sicken[s] and die[s]” (1.1.3). Charming. It turns out this is exactly what he is doing to poor Olivia, who swore off of love to mourn the loss of her brother. Rather than empathizing with Olivia, Orsino quantifies and monetizes her bereavement, musing that if she’ll “pay this debt of love but to a brother,” how ardently will she love when Cupid’s arrow has killed all other affections and her “liver, brain and heart” are filled “with one self king” – i.e., Orsino (1.1.33-8). Like Petrarch’s hunter, Orsino plans to stalk Olivia until her heart and person belong to him, despite her persistent objections. 
To the modern reader, this is highly insensitive and Olivia seems rather unjustly abused – that is, until she meets Viola disguised as Cesario. Viola’s distress over her brother’s death seems to all but vanish when she spies Cesario’s lip, “smooth and rubious” and hears his “small pipe” which sounds exactly “like the maiden’s organ” (1.4.32-3). Preferring Cesario’s delicate features and genteel manner to Orsino’s bravado, Olivia begins to pursue Cesario with nearly as much aggression as Orsino pursues her. (Thus, the hunted becomes the hunter.) Yet, all the while, Olivia believes she is being cruelly abused by Orsino and Cesario, who refuses to show affection for her (as Olivia refuses to show affection for Orsino). This reveals the central issue of the play: apart from, perhaps, Sebastian, Viola, and Antonio, the characters display a complete inability to understand one another’s emotional state. 
The love triangle between Viola, Olivia, and Orsino is comedic, but the play’s subplot between Malvolio and Sir Toby, Maria, and Feste is not. Nowhere is the theme of cyclical abuse more glaring than in the “dark room” scene, in which Sir Toby and Maria lock the puritanical Malvolio in an underground dungeon and abuse him mercilessly in an effort to convince him that he is mad. And what is the reason? Malvolio is a puritan and Sir Toby, a hedonist who wants to enjoy Twelfth night feasting without the moral police degrading them. This is something that many of us can get behind, but his treatment of Malvolio is beyond the pale. For they do not simply lock him away, but intentionally ridicule, embarrass, and shame him openly in court with the express intention of demoralizing him so they may be equal parts entertained and avenged. Maria has set Malvolio up to make a fool of himself by publicly declaring his love for Lady Olivia, while dressed in ridiculous yellow stockings, so that the feasters may “laugh [themselves] into stitches,” seeing Malvolio “turned heathen” and play the madman (3.264-6). It is not just embarrassment they seek, however, but total castigation and physical violence, culminating in Malvolio’s demotion. Maria delights in his promised abuse as she “know[s her] lady will strike him” and she herself can “hardly forbear hurling things at him” (3.2.69-78). They aim to take Malvolio’s station and his sanity in one fell swoop.
When Olivia does not strike or demote him, his abusers take his punishment into their own hands and Sir Toby vows to have him bound and locked in a “dark room . . . for our pleasure and his penance, till our very pastime, tired out of breath, prompt us to have mercy on him: at which time we will bring the device to the bar and crown thee for a finder of madmen” (3.4.131-6). Like most bullies, though, Sir Toby, Maria, and Feste never do grow tired of abusing Malvolio and never do release him. Instead, Malvolio is bound, taunted, deprived of light, tortured, and left alone in darkness while the others feast, siblings are reunited, and lovers are merrily coupled off.  
The trick only ends when Malvolio enters the stage seeking justice. After the abusers finally admit to their crimes, Olivia musters little empathy. Instead, she seems to join in the laughter, exclaiming “Alas, poor fool, how they have baffled thee!” (5.1.363). While everyone else in the play seems to get their comedic resolution – as marriages and happiness abound between Sir Toby and Maria, Olivia and Sebastian (Viola’s male twin, remember, who happens to look exactly like Cesario), and Orsino and Viola – Malvolio never gets justice. Instead, the abuse has birthed more abuse: not unlike Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, in the face of violence, Malvolio promises more violence.
As he exits the stage, Malvolio spits out (to his peers and the audience) “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” (5.1.371). Like Shylock, who promises to exact his own revenge in the form of a pound of human flesh, Malvolio seems to mean it. Unlike The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare shrouds Twelfth Night’s darkness in feasting and revelry, but cyclical abuse seems to be a parallel theme of the play. We see lover abuse lover, beloved abuse beloved, and the wronged abuse the wronged, without remembering their own suffering. Even the clown, Feste, is in on it, convincing Malvolio he is daft and mad in the dark room scene because Malvolio had called Feste dim-witted in 1.5. The play gives a solution to the lovers’ quarrel but it offers no answer to man’s lack of empathy. As we look toward a new year in an uncertain world, it is worth remembering that just as blood begets blood (so says Macbeth) and revenge begets revenge, empathy can go a long way toward begetting kindness or, at the very least, understanding.