Initial Conflict: The Multifariousness of Crossing as a Plot Device
Crossed-plots function similarly throughout most Shakespeare plays. Crossing for comedic effect acts as a glazing over of audience sensibility. At first glance the assorted crossings in Twelfth Night Or What You Will seem merely humorous and useful only as plot devices; this is a false impression as the humor itself is intended to shape the perspective of the audience. Twelfth Night presents itself as an ordinary Shakespearean crossed-comedy which utilizes the resultant confusion of crossing character identities to distract the audience with humor while disseminating information concerning the fluidity of identity. Shakespeare utilizes the crossing-device as an experiment with effect on the audience through alteration of various perspective planes (individual world views). When an audience and/or character is introduced to crossings three things generally occur: 1) the crossing character must reconcile pre-crossed perspective with post-crossed perspective (the logical outcome would seem life-altering, this is not always the case); 2) the audience, as participants in group voyeurism, are introduced to the perspective shifts faced by a character who deliberately (or, unintentionally) crosses; and 3) the play’s invented society is subjected to perspective shifts that serve as a momentary awareness illuminating the current situation, right before they simulate a return-to-normalcy.
Reconciling Perspectives: How Crossings Effect Perspective Shifts
1) The crossing character must reconcile pre-crossed perspective with post-crossed perspective (the logical outcome would seem life-altering, this is not always the case).
Generally, the characters implicit in a crossing certitude (crossing that is going to happen) inform the audience of their intent. Occasionally, a group or individual attempts to convince another that they (alone) are out-of-character. In one such Twelfth Night instance, the Clown challenges Olivia’s wisdom and proves his case by accusing her of being the fool for mourning a brother she believes to be in heaven (1.5.38-73). In this scene, Olivia has been made the fool, she faces the Clown’s role-reversal accusation with humorous defeat when she asks Malvolio, “Doth he not mend?” (1.5.74-5). Another example of forced crossings is evidenced with Malvolio’s unwilling trip into madness when a group (Sir Toby, Maria, Sir Andrew, Fabian, and the Clown) convinces Olivia that he is a madman. The comedic effect is at its highest in Malvolio’s earnest insistence that he is not out-of-character. At this point, Malvolio, the guilty group, and the audience all know the truth, and the audience’s humor is tickled by Malvolio’s situation as well as his understandable reaction to social manipulations.
The Clown’s manipulating Olivia into identifying as the fool is an example of a character being tricked into a perspective switch (mental crossing). Malvolio undergoes a similar restructuring at the hands of Maria and Sir Toby, only for Malvolio the switch is physical (he remains himself mentally though they eventually drive him mad). Viola’s gender crossing is purposefully designed to protect her true identity and to give her access to Orsino’s court. These characters each face perspective alterations which subconsciously grip the audience who witnesses the difficulties in crossing. The audience watches as a third mentality occurs, a hybrid mentality that consists of the pre- and post-crossing perspectives merging. Through this hybrid perspective Shakespearean society resumes normalcy (Steven Shelburne, Shakespeare, Class discussion, 5 April 2010).
Narrowing Audience Attention
2) the audience, as participants in group voyeurism, are introduced to the perspective shifts faced by a character who deliberately (or, unintentionally) crosses.
Speaking technologically, an audience uploads much more than they process at the initial moment of input. Subconsciously, the audience inputs the entire play–every nuance–but the overt humor-filled distractions which are bound to occur with identity bumbles are meant to focus the audience’s attention on the humor, while diverting it from the seriousness of each situation. The narrowing of audience view allows the players to subliminally drive home the ridiculousness of categorizations without directly ostracizing the audience. The peripheral of the play offers subconscious yet, insightful social commentary to audience members. Such a commentary lingers as a phantasmic feeling–of being undone and remade–long after the play has ended. What’s the point of all the crossings in Twelfth Night? The point is to distract the audience while the message is disseminated. And, what is the audience being distracted from? Quite frankly: Themselves (Class discussion, 5 April 2010).
Perspectives: Disclosure and the Return-to-Normal
3) the play’s invented society is subjected to perspective shifts that serve as a momentary awareness illuminating the current situation, right before they simulate a return-to-normalcy.
After the final disclosures, Shakespearean characters typically find themselves in one of three categories: changed, unchanged, or exiled. Shakespeare plays tend to end with all major identities restored to their rightful places, what was once confused has returned-to-norm and marriage–or implied marriage bliss–finalizes the play (Class discussion, 5 April 2010). Major characters revert to social norms through marriage (either, intended or in ceremony), while minor characters remain unchanged or become exiled. Minor characters also experience a form of indemnity through exile, though their transgressions aren’t forgiven, so much as forgotten/ignored; this is especially the case for characters who have implied future usefulness (i.e., Malvolio).
Malvolio’s disclosure scene results in one last twist of the Shakespearean social commentary knife: Malvolio is brought to Olivia, where he confronts her for having wronged him (5.1.329-343). During this scene Malvolio learns that his identity-change was provoked by mischief-makers (Sir Toby, Maria, and Fabian). Olivia’s opinion of Malvolio changes to pity due to Fabian’s disclosure and her examination of the letter (5.1.368). Unfortunately for Malvolio, disclosure and Olivia’s pity does not solve his problems, but rather instigates further anger and a revenge vow (5.1.377). For Olivia the mystery of Malvolio’s madness has been successfully revealed (5.1.378). Malvolio responds to the joke with hostility that directs the audience to the fact that disclosure does not solve the problems which arise from forced crossings.
The Duke advises Olivia to make nice with Malvolio (perhaps through money), at least until they find out what happened to the Captain (5.1.379-380). In his advice, it becomes apparent that Orsino believes the social construct remains intact and that Olivia’s reinstitution of Malvolio’s subordination is the next logical step. The return of Malvolio is implied through his continued usefulness to the Duke; such subjugation no doubt results in the continued abuse of Malvolio. His drive for revenge stems not from the prank itself, but from smashed dreams inherent in the disclosure of the prank: Malvolio doesn’t get the girl or the rise in status, no, he is remanded to his pre-prank servile station now including the stigmatized foolishness. Rather than sticking around and dealing with the an unacceptable situation Malvolio institutes self-exile. However, until the Duke and his party find out what happened to the captain, Malvolio is subject to further abuse. The underlying message to the audience: view Malvolio’s forced crossing as a warning that self-imposed exile of subordinates can and will be crossed if higher ups deem it necessary.
Conclusion: Implications of the Return-to-Normal
Twelfth Night follows the cross-plot equation in almost every instance of crossing, however, the play veers from Shakespearean standard when Cesario does not physically reappear as Viola (her return is implied). Cesario is accepted by the group as being Viola, though through her own request masculine etiquette remains in place. Viola’s ambiguous return-to-norm centers around a future reacquisition of her female attire, meanwhile, the other characters miss no excuse to josh with her while reaffirming both her masculine and feminine identities. This jocularity is most vivacious in the Duke’s closing lines: “…Cesario, 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” (5.1.384-387). Orsino’s end lines mock social virtue, while upholding the virtue of individual will; in this particular case the upheld individual will belongs to Cesario-Viola as well as the risqué Duke (who apparently intends to have his cake and eat it too). Humor hides the resultant depth of crossing: self-examination and examination of self-within-society. This subtle function of crossing remains with audience members long after the play has ended.
The Clown concludes the play with a seemingly nonsensical song, upon closer investigation it becomes apparent the Clown has crossed and reaffirmed the audience’s identity. The Clown’s song is a reminder of social norms that uses cyclic nature to remind the audience of the natural progression. The Clown crosses the audience explaining: the child plays with toys; men play with knaves; women play with men; drunkards play with drunks; the world plays with people; and the actors play daily. The song is a crossed-advertisement that utilizes the tactics of the play to subliminally direct the future actions of the audience. The effect is no different than the Beverly Hillbillies television show ending with the “Ballad of Jed Clampet” and “Ya’ll come back now, y’hear?” In this way, the audience leaves the play on a humorous note subconsciously taking with them that faint feeling of having been undone and remade.
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night Or What You Will. Ed. William P. Holden. The Yale Shakespeare. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1965. (1-107).
Shelburne, Steve. Shakespeare. “As You Like It and Twelfth Night.” Class Discussion. Spring Semester 2010. Centenary College of Louisiana. 5 April 2010.