By Rachel A. Brune (Priest, Twelfth Night)
On the opening night of Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s production of “Twelfth Night,” or “What You Will,” I joked to a friend that, as the Priest, I was the most important character in the play. To her look of doubt, perhaps spurred by the fact that I have six lines at the end of the play, I replied:
“If it weren’t for the fact that everyone gets married at the end, this play would be a tragedy, not a comedy!”
While I am, of course, exaggerating for the sake of wit, it is the revelation, recognition, and acceptance of love that reclaims the promise of happiness from the darker threads underlying the scenes of the play. Truly, as the Sweet Tea players are fond of quoting, “Love is the strongest choice.”
And yet, when we say this, the first impression is that of action. We the characters make the choice to love. We choose to bestow our love—or to withhold it, to accept another’s love, to go off stage hand in hand to the altar, to rescue one another from the tragedy of mistakenly sowing love where it cannot grow. Each of these choices holds inherent risk for us—perhaps we have accepted or bestowed that love too soon; perhaps, we are not, in fact, the characters we play.
I would like to propose, however, viewing this concept from an alternate perspective, especially within the confines of the play, and suggest instead that love is the choice that affects us most strongly. The perception of being loved affects each character in a unique way, leading in some instances to folly, but in others to the most wonderful of conclusions.
When we first meet the Countess Olivia and her pursuer, Duke Orsino, Olivia has been in mourning for quite some time. Orsino bemoans the fact that she chooses the dirge of familial love lost over the opportunity for romantic love at his hands and lips. And yet, what effect does his choice have on Olivia?
In a time when a woman needed a male protector, she has lost both father and brother. Her decision to extend her period of mourning is both admirable, and also the only amount of breathing space she will have before Orsino’s suit—and the societal pressure to accept it—force her hand into marriage. Thus, his love has the effect of unwelcome pressure and the reminder that without formal alliance, her position remains ever precarious once she removes the armor of her mourning weeds.
The perception of being loved inspires not only amore, but also agape. Depending on one’s interpretation of Antonio’s love for the young man, Rodrigo, he has rescued from the sea, this love is an unrequited passion or the deep bond that comes between comrades in arms. Either way, the support and friendship Antonio unhesitatingly provides to Rodrigo, even at the threat to his own life, gives Rodrigo life, independence, and that exhilaration that makes him the sort of man to give as freely of his own devotion when the object (Olivia) presents him with the opportunity to do so.
And what of Malvolio? Poor steward, he has the audacity to dream above his station, which makes him vulnerable to the juvenile practical joke devised for him by Mistress Maria. Malvolio, as priggish and fussy as he is, becomes a sympathetic figure to anyone who has ever been caught daydreaming of something wonderful (how many times have I imagined that interview on The Daily Show talking about my latest novel?)
Although Malvolio stands as a figure of fun to the other characters, what would humans be without the capacity to love and dream? And how does the object of his hopes for love respond to his affection when it is revealed? Indeed, Olivia recognizes the love her steward has, and instead of participating in the ridicule, graciously accepts the idea of that love without necessarily condoning or returning it. Perhaps cognizant of the turmoil of her own unrequited love to the unknown Viola, she states that to make fun of love sincerely given is a “notorious wrong.”
And yet, love that is unwanted—from a Count, from a steward—prepares the heart to recognize love when it is true, as from Olivia to Rodrigo, or when it is revealed, as from Viola to Orsino.
Love is the strongest choice, both in our actions, and how it acts upon us in all its joy and melancholy. It is the mystery that imbues the spirit of the play.
And, in the end, the tragic mistakes and notorious abuse are resolved in the “contract of eternal bond of love”—and so it is. By my testimony.