Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale? – William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (II, iii)
As I stated in my column of one year ago today,
Today is the twelfth day of Christmas and tonight is Twelfth Night, traditionally celebrated with parties and feasting. It is the eve of the Epiphany, the day on which Christian myth holds the Magi arrived to give gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus. Because of this it was the custom in medieval times to exchange Christmas presents on that day, and Twelfth Night was the celebration preceding the exchange. Even after the gift exchange moved back to Christmas Day proper in the Renaissance, Twelfth Night continued to be celebrated as the transition between Christmastide and Carnival (which starts tomorrow)…Remember the old Saturnalia inversion of the social order we talked about before? In Christian times this portion of the festivities was shifted to Twelfth Night celebrations. The masters waited on their servants and everyone shared a cake which contained a bean; whoever got the bean became the Lord of Misrule, the ruler of the feast. This went on until midnight, when Christmas ended and the world returned to normal.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was specifically written for the holiday in 1602, though it was not publicly performed until Candlemas of that year (February 2nd, 1602). As befitting the occasion, the play is full of drinking, feasting, singing, merriment, silliness, chaos and inversions such as Viola’s disguising herself as a man (such “breeches parts” would later become a staple of Restoration theater) and even subtle breaking of the “fourth wall” (in III, iv Fabian remarks, “If this were play’d upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction“). But the most topsy-turvy character of all is the foolish servant Malvolio, Countess Olivia’s steward, a Puritan who believes it is his place to stop others from having fun (the epigram is spoken to him by another character, Sir Toby Belch). Malvolio is so full of himself that he not only has the nerve to chastise his social superiors (Sir Toby and his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek), but also the egotism upon which their revenge feeds: they send him a faked love-note from his employer asking him to behave in all sorts of absurd ways to supposedly demonstrate his acceptance of her troth. Olivia (who is not in on the joke) believes that Malvolio has gone insane and allows the conspirators to lock him in the cellar. At the end he is released, but storms off vowing “I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you.” (V,i)
Alas, this Twelfth Night of 2012, 410 years later, sees our entire society beset by a whole pack of Malvolios. Because they hate fun and merriment they wish to ban such activities for everybody, usually under the guise of “health”, “law and order” or “helping victims”. But in an inversion which is not at all festive or in the spirit of good fellowship, these modern Malvolios are the ones who forge documents full of lies in order to make their victims seem mentally ill and/or to have them locked up. Alas, this “improbable fiction” is all too real, and because it is we can’t count on a resolution by the end of Act V; as I predicted in my column of January 2nd we’ll eventually be rid of these pompous Puritans, but it will be through our own perseverance rather than the kind intercession of the Great Playwright.