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The Food of Love, or Humour?

The Food of Love, or Humour?

By Diana Major Spencer


Suppose Orsino were actually as love-smitten as his most popular opening line in the entire canon would indicate: “If music be the food of love, play on” (1.1.1; all line references are from Twelfth Night, The Riverside Shakespeare, 1974). “Give me excess of it,” he swoons (1.1.2), yet it takes only six and a half lines before, “Enough, no more” (7). His comrade Curio’s suggestion that they go hunting momentarily invigorates the Duke, but naming the hart as sporting target reduces our would-be wooer to lovelorn visions of himself as a vulnerable hart, pursued by the “fell and cruel hounds” of “[his] desires” (21-22). Alas!

Suppose Olivia, Orsino’s intended, were forthright enough to refuse Orsino outright instead of indulging the ruse that weeping and wailing her brother’s death would occupy her for the next seven years, and that word of her pseudo-devotion had not wafted in the public gossip-stream to the captain of an unfortunate ship that was about to be shipwrecked on the stormy seas off the shore of Illyria.

Then suppose Viola, cast ashore in the company of the captain after a violent shipwreck separated her from her twin brother, and thinking him drowned and herself forlorn, were able to realize her first choice in the “what-do-I-do-now?” lottery—find a position in Olivia’s household. Yet the captain’s knowledge of Olivia’s pseudo-seclusion (thinking it real) sends her in a different, far more interesting, direction—to Orsino in disguise.

What if? Let’s just say we’d miss out on one of Shakespeare’s most delightful comedies, full of illusions, delusions, disguises, mistaken identities, and dirty tricks. Twelfth Night has always been popular on stage—John Manningham’s diary entry in February 1602 was most likely not about its first performance, say several scholars, and evidence exists of many enactments through the years. Even Dryden and his fellows in the Restoration permitted Shakespeare’s script on stage without rewriting it to classical specifications. Further, 2019 marks its tenth production at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, with high expectation of full houses. In the Festival’s second tour through the canon of thirty-seven or so scripts, only a handful of other plays is produced as often.

It’s hard not to like Twelfth Night. Shakespeare concocted a double love story with traces from several sources, none definitive, and gave it a couple of outlandish twists based on the unlikely survival of both shipwrecked twins and the far-fetched three-month interval between their respective arrivals in Illyria, each accompanied by similarly benevolent captains.

Orsino seems less ardent than a serious true-love should be, and his pursuit of Olivia consists primarily of sending messages via servants. He accidentally woos Viola as he philosophizes about affairs of the heart in fairly intimate terms with Cesario (Viola in disguise), while she falls in love with him as she delivers love notes to his intended, Olivia, while awaiting “what else may hap” (1.2.60).

Olivia turns out to be not so unwilling to love as unwilling to love Orsino. Her dear departed brother, along with the obscuring crepe and veil, dissipate after Viola/Cesario’s first visit pitching Orsino’s woo. She develops such passion, in fact, that in the end she compels a perfect stranger, Sebastian, to take refuge in her house and then into marriage because she mistakes him for Cesario (Viola). Sebastian, the long lost identical-twin brother, shrugs and accepts.

Except for Sebastian, the characters in the love plot move politely through their futile adorations, and it’s all very pleasant and they’re all very nice and we’re enjoying it and it’s amusing, but it’s not very exciting. However, as with his other comedies, Shakespeare includes a motley underclass of characters with their own rowdy plot that weaves in and out of the love plot at strategic moments. As You Like It, for example, has Jaques, Touchstone, and Audrey; and Much Ado about Nothing is saved by Dogberry and Verges and their intrepid police force.

In Twelfth Night, the rousing secondary plot is thoroughly intertwined with the mild-mannered main plot through Olivia’s relationships as niece to the rowdy Sir Toby and as mistress to her servants, Malvolio and Maria, all of whom reside in her household. Sir Andrew Aguecheek, frequent visitor to Sir Toby to advance a futile pursuit (by proxy) of Olivia’s hand, belongs to Shakespeare’s “humourous” characters. (Reminder: Olivia stubbornly rejects courtship; think’st thou her available choices motivate her cloistering?)

“Humourous” characters are governed by out-of-balance humours. Until William Harvey discovered human blood circulation and published a treatise in 1628 (five years after the First Folio and twelve years after Shakespeare’s death), the dominant theory of human physiology dated from Greek physician Hippocrates (450-370 BC), the Father of Medicine. For all those centuries, the humours—bodily fluids blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile—were believed to govern health, complexion, and disposition. We all have some of each, but proportions (deficiencies or excess) define our respective peculiarities.

Inevitably, peculiarities beget stereotypes, which become literary tools for depicting character (e.g., Hamlet and Romeo associated with melancholy [black bile] and Falstaff with sanguinity [blood]). With these concepts inherent in the world view of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, they were among the tools he’d unconsciously reach for as he constructed his plays and poems—in histories and tragedies to help us understand the behavior of a character (Hotspur, Laertes), but in comedies to mock and exaggerate character traits. Ben Jonson’s Every Man In [and Out] of His Humour illustrates a formal acknowledgment of stereotype as comic character. This theatrical trend, in fact, changed the meaning of humour in common usage from “mood, disposition, subject to imbalance of your fluids” to “comical.” (The change of spelling to “humor” happened only in the United States with Noah Webster in 1828.)

In Twelfth Night, the most humorous character is Malvolio, who is not only Puritan, but also priggish, choleric, splenetic, bilious, ill-tempered, irascible, angry, et cetera. lists thirty-one categories of synonyms for choleric, each containing twenty to fifty additional (though overlapping) examples. Olivia finds Malvolio a splendid steward because he’s so thoroughly nit-picky, but Sir Toby—actually his social superior—takes exception to his superciliousness (which literally means “raising [super] eyebrows [cili]”). Feste suffers Malvolio’s disdain and specific insult to his vocation as a professional fool, while Maria bristles at his scolding. These three justifiably conspire to get even.

Brilliantly, they play on the characteristics of his choleric pridefulness and ambition: “I will drop in his way some obscure epistles of love, wherein by the color of his beard, the shape of his leg, the manner of his gait, the expressure of his eyes, forehead, and complexion, he shall find himself most feelingly personated,” says Maria (2.3.156–61). As an excess of yellow bile causes Choler, the color yellow defines the disease, hence yellow stockings; cross-gartering constricts the blood, as Malvolio tells Olivia, a much happier and balancing humour (if not in excess); and smiling is entirely foreign to his usual surly disposition.

In contrast, Sir Andrew Aguecheek exhibits phlegmatism, associated with water, dullness, sleepiness, the ague (chills, fever, runny nose), and lack of drive of any sort. Most of his dialogue consists of saying “Me, too,” “So could I too,” or “Nor I neither” to Sir Toby, never initiating either suggestion or action. He’s passive enough to fund Sir Toby’s drinking on pretext of wooing Olivia, at least until the funds run low. He’s the perfect patsy to amuse Sir Toby and Feste with a challenge to Cesario for Olivia’s hand (3.2); and his pale, thin, limply hanging hair (1.3.99-104) reinforces his other signs of physical and mental weakness. Accompanied by a dose of sanguinity or choler, he might project a calm stability and serenity, instead of complete sluggishness.

These “lesser” characters produce two major distractions from the love-plot—Malvolio’s come-uppance and the parody duel between Cesario and Sir Andrew. Just as Sir Andrew is formulating his challenge to Cesario, Sebastian and Antonio remind us they’re in town, then depart separately. Antonio stumbles onto the duel, interrupts the swordplay to defend Cesario (mistaken for Sebastian), then is arrested by Orsino’s officers for being in Illyria. Sebastian (mistaken for Cesario) is waylaid by Sirs Toby and Andrew, then rescued by Olivia after thumping his attackers.

The delightful confusion ultimately reunites the twins, sorts out the couples, and proposes a wedding. Sirs Toby and Andrew seek care for their hurts, and peace and civility return. Only Malvolio’s choleric humour tarnishes the happy ending: “I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you” (5.1.278).