Many patrons of the Utah Shakespeare Festival have never missed a production in the entire thirty-five years of its existence. Others started later, but have been just as consistent since being hooked. Why do we keep coming back? Surely not to see a Shakespearean play we haven’t seen before—there just aren’t that many left. After Pericles is produced this season, only the three Henry VI plays and King John remain to complete the canon.
My own enchantment with the Festival has progressed through stages. Aside from relishing the plays, my first in-depth discovery was the repertory cast list in the Souvenir Program, from which I learned the repertory concept and the pleasure of admiring the same actors in radically different roles. Then, as plays I had seen several years before started coming around again, I pondered how dissimilar two productions could be and still be the same play. My current fascination is the constantly shifting juxtapositions of plays which allow insights into Shakespeare’s thinking that book study may not. Similarities and differences among the plays that might have gone unnoticed begin to emerge, sometimes involving different uses of the same source.
A case in point, last season the Festival produced The Comedy of Errors. This year, we see both Twelfth Night and Pericles. All three begin with a disaster at sea that breaks up a family as well as a ship, and all three end with a family reunion. The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest (1594 or earlier), Twelfth Night from his rich middle period (1600-1601), and Pericles from around 1608. In both The Comedy of Errors (a farce) and Pericles (a romance), children are separated from parents and parents from each other. In the end, both fathers are reunited with their now adult lost babes, and both mothers, presumed dead for a decade or two, miraculously emerge from the conveniently located cloisters where each has served as abbess in the interim.
In both The Comedy of Errors (a farce) and Twelfth Night (a romantic comedy) identical twins separately survive their respective shipwrecks, later to swirl in a maelstrom of mistaken identities. Both include near-identical scenes between an old man and the wrong twin: In The Comedy of Errors, old Egeon, the father of the twins, who needs to pay a hefty fine because he is a Syracusan in Ephesus, asks money of the wrong Antipholus to pay his fine (5.1.283-323). Similarly, in Twelfth Night, the sea captain who has loaned money to Sebastian asks Viola to return it in order to pay his fine (3.4.320-70).
Scholars agree on identifying Shakespeare’s source for both Pericles and the frame for The Comedy of Errors as John Gower’s version of Appolonius of Tyre in Confessio Amantis. The first extant mention of Twelfth Night, the diary of lawyer John Manningham, describing the Candlemas Feast of February 2, 1602, reports: “At our feast we had a play called Twelfth Night, or What You Will, much like The Comedy of Errors, or Menechmi in Plautus, but most like and near to that in Italian called Inganni” (quoted in The Riverside Shakespeare [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974], 403; all references are to this volume). Manningham might have included Pericles were his diary entry six or seven years later.
Still, although Shakespeare used the same motifs again and again, the combinations differ so greatly that each play is genuinely unique. For example, the “identical” twins in Twelfth Night differ in gender (not so in The Comedy of Errors), and while each Antipholus in The Comedy of Errors has a Dromio--and vice versa--Viola in Twelfth Night has no companion. We first meet her as she assesses her situation, wishing aloud to the captain that she could serve Olivia. He discourages her because he has heard of Olivia’s vow to receive no requests. She then suggests serving Duke Orsino. The captain agrees to present her to Orsino as “an eunuch” (using the name Cesario), but we see nothing more of him. We hear about him in act 5 in reference to Viola’s “maiden weeds” (5.1.255), when Viola reports his imprisonment on some accusation of Malvolio’s; and again, after Malvolio has vowed revenge “on the whole pack of you,” when Orsino reminds us we need the captain to retrieve Viola’s regular clothes. Thus, after act 1, scene 2, Viola has no confidant whatsoever. Only she knows who and what she is.
Consequently, she has a vulnerability other romantic heroines lack. Rosaline, Rosalind, Beatrice, Portia, Kate are bolder, brasher, more assertive, and more willing to take matters into their own hands. In contrast, Viola follows her one moment of problem-solving assertiveness by saying, “What else may hap, to time I will commit” (1.2.60); that is, “I’ll let time take care of everything else.” Things happen to her; she is not the causer of events. Compare Olivia’s self determination: Olivia’s brother dies, and she determines to indulge in a seven-year grief--for which she has the leisure and the means (though not the will). Viola has also lost a brother, but she has neither leisure nor means; she must find a way to survive--as a humble page.
Almost immediately, she reveals that she wants to marry Orsino: Valentine, another servant, reminds “Cesario” that the duke “hath known you but three days, and already you are no stranger” (1.4.3-4). The same short scene ends with Viola woefully agreeing, at Orsino’s insistence, to carry love messages to Olivia: “I’ll do my best / To woo your lady. [Aside.] Yet a barful strife! / Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife” (1.4.40-42). As usual, Viola is helpless to act.
Nor does she provoke Olivia’s love-at-first-sight. After all, her meeting Olivia was an assignment from the duke. But Olivia acts: “Even so quickly may one catch the plague? / Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections / With an invisible and subtle stealth / To creep in at mine eyes” (1.5.295-98). The smitten Olivia sends Malvolio after “Cesario” with a ring, which, when refused, Malvolio throws to the ground. “Fortune forbid my outside have not charm’d her,” Viola says incredulously (2.2.18). “If it be so, as ‘tis, / Poor lady, she were better love a dream” (2.2.26-27).
Viola’s subsequent lines sum up the plot: “My master loves her dearly, / And I (poor monster) fond as much on him; / And she (mistaken) seems to dote on me. / What will become of this? As I am man, / My state is desperate for my master’s love; / As I am woman (now alas the day!), / What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe! / O time, thou must untangle this, not I, / It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie” (2.2.32 40).
Again she waits to see what time will bring. But, ironically, even as she prays for time to bail her out, she laments what the passage of time means to her future prospects: Orsino tells Cesario, “women are as roses, whose fair flow’r / Being once display’d, doth fall that very hour.” Viola responds, “And so they are; alas, that they are so! / To die, even when they to perfection grow” (2.4.38 41).
Her vulnerability is especially poignant in her asides and soliloquies. During the fight with Sir Andrew, and in the final scene when she is called “husband” by Olivia and threatened by a jealous Orsino, she shrinks back in confusion. The sword fight, concocted by Sir Toby to shift the blame away from himself for Sir Andrew’s lack of success in wooing Olivia, is thrust upon her. Viola is only trying to survive. Even more reluctant than Sir Andrew to fight, she gulps a timorous aside: “Pray God defend me! A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man” (3.4.302 303).
An important structural consequence of Viola’s passivity, which contributes tremendously to Twelfth Night’s uniqueness, is the extensive and complex sub-plot which weaves in and out of the Orsino-Olivia-Viola-Sebastian plot. Instead of evaluating circumstances and plotting actions and teasing with her companions about who loves whom and how to get the attention of the love object, Viola quietly defers to time to solve everything, while Shakespeare invents the drunken Sir Toby Belch, the gullible Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the supercilious Malvolio, and Maria, with the supporting cast of practical jokers who give Malvolio his, perhaps excessive, come-uppance.
The fact is the main plots of Shakespeare’s comedies have a formulaic quality, but the individuation of his characters from play to play precludes monotony. So soon after last year’s Festival production of The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night seems much more accomplished, not only in the twist to the twins theme, reminiscent of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, where Viola in disguise must woo on behalf of the man she loves, but even more in the development of these incomparable “cakes and ale” characters who have no echoes anywhere. Déja vu from season to season, it seems, begins with similarities, but ends up emphasizing differences among the plays.