Shakespeare in Love ...

I have been thinking a lot recently about the personality of Shakespeare. This is because I am watching, together with our Sixth Form English Literature group, a fascinating documentary series from the BBC, called In Search of Shakespeare, with Michael Woods. I can heartily recommend it.

We are studying Twelfth Night together for the A-level syllabus, and we have been trying to find new critical angles for our reflection. Something that I came up with today was how the play sets out a vision of all the different kinds of love, making the point (not too distant from the Pope's in Deus Caritas Est) that they are all really very much closer than we think.

We looked at the relationships between

Viola/Cesario/Sebastian and Olivia, Orsino, Antonio

and also those between all the other characters ... and we found platonic love, the love of friends, sexual love, family love

and then we used the Sonnets as a kind of guide to the whole vexed, but interesting question of love between man and woman, and man and man.

In the early sonnets Shakespeare advises his protege to marry so as to leave the world a copy of his beauty, a theme taken up by Cesario/Viola in her exchanges with Olivia. It is also reminiscent of Orsino's exchanges with Cesario/Viola. There is a moment, however, in Orsino's advice to Cesario/Viola, where he notices that Diana's lip is not more rubious, and that all is semblative of a woman's part; a more delicate treatment of the theme taken up in the somewhat bawdy Sonnet 20, "A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted..."

One supposes that at the same time that Orsino is falling in love with Cesario/Viola, because of his(her) extraordinary good looks, Antonio is doing the same with Sebastian. Given that Viola/Cesario and Sebastian are supposed to be as alike as peas in a pod, there is an obvious comparison invited between the restraint of Orsino and the more freely expressed devotion of Antonio.

The fact that at the end of the play three lovers are left somewhat marginalised (Malvolio, Sir Andrew and Antonio) and also that love is so often spoken of in the same breath as pain or death, certainly reinforces the message that, despite the plays incredible fairy-tale ending, there is no real love without sacrifice; also that 'pleasure will be paid' ... Sir Toby's 'cakes and ale' and Malvolio's Puritanical Lent are both essential parts of life.

A contextual point which I have seen in none of the editions of crib notes, but which occurred to me after watching the BBC documentary, is the fact that Shakespeare himself had twins from whom he was separated by a kind of exile, and that the boy twin, Hamnet, died, when on the threshold of manhood. The tale of Sebastian and Viola is very close to this. The love of Antonio for Sebastian might tell us as much about a father's love as about male Platonic love; one never sees Antonio played as a 'happy father' figure at the end of the play, but it might work.

There are all sorts of interesting points that come out of Woods' documentary. I cannot recommend it highly enough, even if his excessive 'bardolatry' is sometimes a bit tiring.


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