The Reading Room
Marriage, Cake, and the Paradox of Twelfth Night
It shouldn’t be surprising chez Shakespeare, but whenever I pick up Twelfth Night, I am amazed by the continual invitation to play – the ludic dare to experiment with gender, sexuality, crossdressing, feasting, drinking, and social norms. It’s this forward-looking, evocative side of Shakespeare that always makes me wonder how people can slander the canon for being exclusionary and old-fashioned.
This hit home most recently when I picked up the first January issue of The New Yorker. Cracking open its matte pages, I happened to land on the article “Open Season,” in which Jennifer Wilson explores the rise of open marriages in contemporary culture. While Wilson interrogated “Succession,” I was pondering Twelfth Night’s favorite throuple, Cesario/Viola, Orsino, and Olivia.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2022 production of Twelfth Night does a superb job of drawing out the sexual fluidity between what we might assume are the two “couples,” Viola and Orsino and Sebastian and Olivia. As you’ll recall, the play’s comedic ending hinges upon the fact that Viola and Sebastian are twins and, in his absence, Viola has been crossdressing as Orsino’s boy servant Cesario, who is the spitting image of Sebastian. Cesario is sent by Duke Orsino to court the Duke’s crush Olivia and his strangely feminine, boyish charm quickly wins Olivia’s heart. Soon, Olivia finds herself pining for the “ruby-lipped” Cesario, largely because of his femininity. This makes the ending rather awkward, seeing as Olivia loses her lesbian lover when Sebastian enters the scene and marries her, all the while Olivia thinks she is marrying Cesario.
The RSC production, however, took Shakespeare’s invitation to play and cheekily lets us have our cake and eat it too. In the titillating and sexually scrambled ending, we get not a throuple but a kind of quadrouple, as Orsino and Olivia agree to share Cesario and Viola. Instead of Viola abandoning her boyish alter-ego, her lovers invite her to keep her drag king garb on hand. The magic of Shakespeare, of course, is that the androgyny is written into the seventeenth-century text. The genius of the Royal Shakespeare Company, in turn, is that they drew it out for the modern audience – an audience who, as Jennifer Wilson notes, is increasingly open to open marriages. In the playtext, act 5 ends with Orsino promising to wed Viola and make a “solemn combination” of their souls. He then calls the newly engaged Viola by her male name, commanding Cesario to
come – For so you shall be while you are a man;
But when in other habits you are seen, Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen. (5.1.378-81)
This is where things get confusing, as the sexual possibilities unfurl. Whom exactly is sharing whom? The text seems to suggest that Orsino wants a mistress to play with, not a wife to wed. He calls his “boy,” Cesario, and invites him to stay in his male garments and prolong the fantasy, implying that he might enjoy his “mistress” both as a drag king and as a woman in the traditional “other habits” of feminine dress. Things only get more confusing from here. When in “other habits” – i.e., female dress – Viola is seen, she will be Orsino’s mistress and his “fancy’s queen.” This could mean two things: she could be the queen of Orsino’s desire or this could be an invitation for Olivia and Viola to be lovers, as he sends his wife off to conquer his original “fancy” or romantic fascination, Olivia. The RSC chose the latter interpretation. In the 2022 performance, the RSC gives the lines in question to Olivia, so that it is Olivia who invites her “sweet sister” to come join her as both Cesario and as Viola. Olivia then holds her hand out to Viola, who extends her hand to Orsino, who does not reciprocate. Instead, he looks longingly at Sebastian, clearly wanting the real homoerotic coupling he tasted with his “boy” Cesario. Sebastian ignores Orsino and holds both hands out to Olivia. As the lights go down, it is clear there is unfinished business. Instead of two conventional, closed marriages, we are led to expect an open “quadrouple,” as all lovers are able to enjoy the sexual flavor of the day, whether it be wife, mistress, man, or cross-dressed “boy.”
The sexual play within Shakespeare’s original text is extraordinary but giving Orsino’s lines to Olivia cracks open new sexual potential, offering up the benefits of an open marriages to a modern audience. Instead of Orsino having all the fun with his boy and mistress, Olivia is able to keep her “sweet sister.” Sebastian seems to be the only straight-laced party among them, elated to have secured Olivia and not desiring anything further (much to Antonio’s disappointment). This introduces the challenge of open marriages where, in many cases, there are clear winners and losers. The partner who desires more sexual freedom is the obvious winner, while the partner who craves fidelity loses with each sexual conquest. In America, as Wilson points out, this necessitates the introduction of rules, leading to a marriage that reads more like a complex game than a committed relationship. Anyone who has seen the recent movie Good Grief, which Daniel Levy wrote, directed, and stars in, will understand how quickly marital bliss can turn to torture. In the film, Levy’s character agrees to an open marriage with rules. A year after his husband is tragically killed in a car accident, he finds out that his dead husband broke those rules and his grief quickly becomes anger, shame, and relief that he no longer misses his “cheating” husband. This is what happens when you break the rules of the game – fun becomes fatal.
So when Jennifer Wilson asks whether opening up a marriage can save it, the ultimate answer seems to be no – at least not the way modern open marriages work. Wilson pokes fun at us puritanical American for ruining a good time. Unlike European Lotharios or Shakespeare’s Orsino, who manage to play in an undefined space, we can’t seem to escape our traditional roots. For us, “play” must have rules and games quickly become work. In contrast to Shakespeare’s ending, in which Olivia and Sebastian close the play happily coupled in a conventional marriage and Orsino and Viola enjoy her fluid sexuality, the RSC’s act 5 opens up more room for failure.
By injecting the play’s concluding scene with the modern desire for excess, we are left in a world of uncertainty. We hope that that our love quadrangle remains happily intact, but the odds that the lovers can play the game without breaking any rules are slim to none. The 2022 ending and the modern obsession with open marriages – a seeming oxymoron – underscores the age-old paradox of the beautiful birthday cake. Once you open the pandora’s pastry box and cut a slice, you have forever altered the beauty you once enjoyed: you have eaten the cake you once had. There doesn’t seem to be a world in which you can have your cake and eat it too. This is something that our three lovers seem destined to discover as the spring of marital freedom soon becomes a winter of matrimonial discontent.