Director Diary – Twelfth Night! – Why’s it got two names?

Hello all.

Well, it’s the beginning of March, we’ve had our first audition, the bulk of the places are filled and things are looking very promising. All is looking good.

So let’s talk about the play. Did you know it’s the only play by Shakespeare with two names?  Other plays have a subtitle, but this is the only one with two titles:

Twelfth Night, or What You Will.

Bit of an odd one, because that “What You Will” could, if read in a certain tone of voice, sound dismissive, even petulant.

So why Bill Shakespeare, why give it two names?

We look at the play itself, and it is looking… there is no “is looking”, it’s clearly been reworked.  If we look at Act 1 Scene 2, we see Viola tell the Sea Captain that she’s an excellent singer and instrumentalist.  Terrific, but that’s all we’ll ever see of it.  Viola never sings in the play, she never plays an instrument.  The sea captain tells her that he’ll be a mute to her eunuch (a clue perhaps that the actor originally playing Viola (who would of course have been male) had an unbroken voice). Make the most of that folks, because that’s the last you’ll ever see of the sea captain.

Let’s all wander to the top of Act 1 Scene 4. Remember that the play is ostensibly about the saucy, sapphic and homoerotic love triangle between Orsino, Viola, and Olivia.  All the poetry is in that triangle, all the show stopper speeches are given to those three (well, they’re given to Orsino and Viola, Olivia doesn’t get one).  So the meeting of Viola and Orsino, the development of feelings between them, is an critical part of the play.  What do we see? We see exposition deliverer Valentine walk on with Viola and tell her how brilliant the last scene between Viola and Orsino was. The scene itself is gone.

What the hell is going on?

We could debate this forever (and people have), but I’m going to tell you what I think.  I think that this was presented in front of drunken lawyers in 1602 then added to the general repertoire. I think we have King Charles I’s copy of the Shakespeare folio. I think we have Samuel Peyps going to see it and mentioning it (not very flatteringly, but he was never a big fan of Shakespeare) in his diary. And every time the play is mentioned the lovers aren’t.

Because Shakespeare wrote his saucy love triangle and then threw in some clowns for some light relief. And everyone loved the clowns.  Charles I writes the single word “Malvolio” next to the play’s title in the contents page.  Contemporary writers talk about “the torment of the servant”.  They loved the clowns.  They didn’t love the triangle.  Today we’re the other way around. In fact there is a difficulty staging the clowns which I’ll talk about elsewhere.

I reckon this became apparent very early, probably after the first handful of performances.  And Shakespeare was confronted with his daring little love story that he’d clearly sunk a lot of effort into, and a really quite clumsily written clown subplot that (given what we know of how plays were written in Elizabethan theatre) may not even have been his. And the horrible realisation that people preferred the clowns.

So Viola lost all her songs, which were probably all given to Feste.  The Viola/Orsino scenes were pruned. New characters were parachuted in to cover for Feste as Feste took on extra duties.

But Bill wasn’t happy.  Malvolio isn’t properly resolved (we have, at the end of a romantic comedy, a character declaring that he’s going to be revenged on all of them, which isn’t the happiest of moments), Viola’s musical boasts aren’t removed.  Characters are left in prison, it’s all a bit of a mess to be honest. Because I really don’t think Bill was overjoyed at being told to rejig his very clever romantic comedy into a clown show.

So, there it is. Four hundred years later, Twelfth Night, or “What You Will”.

The original title, and the Elizabethan equivalent of “Whatever”.