“Now winter nights” is a rather charming poem about the pleasures one can derive from long winter nights. As a person who wants to creep under covers in late October and not to get out of bed until April, I appreciate reminding me about the solaces of this season – drinking wine (yes!), singing (ermm….), partying (not so much…) and making love (I’ll stay discreet on this topic). Some people dance, some people tell riddles, some read poems. Anything to shorten these tedious nights.
This is unfortunately only the recording of the first stanza.
“There is a garden in her face” is a poem in the tradition of blazon poems, where all the individual features of the lover’s face are examined separately and compared to various things. The centrepiece of this garden are the lover’s lips, compared to cherries. The refrain, repeated in each stanza emphasizes that nobody can touch these “sacred cherries” until the beloved herself will call “Cherry ripe!”, the traditional call of London fruit-sellers. I don’t think the woman here is a country girl like Amaryllis, come to sell her fruit in town – the comparisons Campion uses are far too elegant (her teeth like orient pearls, her eyes like angels etc.) It’s more about the veiled invitation to come and taste her fruit. I think it’s the first poem in a long time in which the woman is the one explicitly issuing an invitation, instead of framing rape as seduction, as it happens too often in older literature. I could not find a recording of this poem I liked, so I’ll leave it there.
“Fain would I wed” is an interesting song on many counts: Campion employs here an unusually long line of fourteen syllables and he impersonates a flighty young girl who does not know her own mind. She would like to marry a young man who could comfort both her body and mind when she is sad. She makes a general remark that “maids are full of longing thoughts that bring a bloodless sickness”. Campion was a doctor so he knew what he was writing about – in this respect, the idea that unfulfilled sexual urges lead to some kind of anaemia that is best cured by marriage. I thought it was a Victorian idea, but apparently it’s much older. The girl has had many admirers but she cannot love any of them for more than a day. In the last stanza she fantasizes about fleeing to a convent, but then she remembers she wants to have children.
I like this recording because of its fast tempo, which reflects well the character of the song and the maid who is the speaker. There are also other, much slower recordings which do not convey the mood of this song as well, I think. I guess Campion did not mark the tempo in his notation, so it’s left open to the interpretation of the musicians.
Thomas Campion started as a law student, eventually got his degree as a medical doctor, but all his life was primarily preoccupied with songwriting for the lute. Maybe it was just one of these stories where parents tell the child: “Fine, if you insist on trying to make your living as an artist, but first you need a proper degree in case this lute-playing thing does not work”? The poems in the NAEL selection are from his Book of Airs, a collection of his songs. “My sweetest Lesbia” is a loose paraphrase of a poem by a Greek poet Catullus. The poet exhorts his lover to love him, using a version of the carpe diem argument – sun and moon return daily, but once the course of our life is run, we never return but sleep in ever-during night, which last two words serve as a refrain of this poem. The second stanza is about making love, not war: if everybody followed the poet’s example and only loved, there would be no wars. But unfortunately, fools insist on wasting their lives. In the last stanza the poet imagines his funeral not as a sad affair but a triumphant march of love, where all the lovers are going to have a good time at his tomb and Lesbia will come to pay her tribute.
“I care not for these ladies” is a naughty song, contrasting the “natural” “wanton country maid” with gold-digger court ladies. I may be naive but I fail to see the obscene pun all the critics see in the line “wanton country maid”. I mean, I get it, but the words “country maid” seem to me like the most obvious choice of words to describe Amaryllis, without the need to look for the obscene puns in the first syllable of the word “country”. The pun in the refrain is more obvious to me: even though Amaryllis may feign resistance during the petting stage, “when we come where comfort is, she never will say no.” Of course 16th-c. sexual politics about how a woman’s resistance to sexual advances, especially that of a lower-class woman, is always for show, are very unpleasant, but we have to let it go. So, the upper-class ladies need to be showered with gold, but Amaryllis, the child of nature, herself gives her lover flowers and fruit. The ladies need soft pillows and imported beds, but nut-brown (so not conventionally beautiful) Amaryllis needs only a bower of willows, with complimentary moss and leaves.
“When to her lute Corinna sings” is set on the parallel between the inanimate lute and the animate listener and would-be lover of the singer. The heavy string of the lute respond with echo to Corinna’s voice and they break when she sings sad songs; similarly, she pulls the listener’s hearstrings: his thoughts “enjoy a sudden spring” when he hears her voices and his heart breaks when she sings of mourning.
Olivia asks Fabian to fetch Malvolio, and in the meantime, seeing as she and Orsino are going to become in-laws by marrying the twins, she offers her house for a double wedding at her expense. Orsino accepts and now formally proposes to Viola. Malvolio comes on stage and accuses Olivia of egging him on, showing the incriminating letter. Olivia answers coolly that it is not her handwriting and she in fact recognizes Maria’s. She promises Malvolio an investigation but Fabian steps out and admits it was the plot of his, Toby’s and Maria’s, the latter two just having been married secretly off-stage. In the previous act Toby invited Maria to his room, so presumably this was when it happened. They just wanted to have revenge for Malvolio’s stubborn and uncourteous behaviour, Fabian explains. He is warming up, quoting some of Malvolio’s funny or stuck-up lines. Malvolio says the famous line “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” and storms off. Some people used to read it as the adumbration of the Puritans’ victory in the Civil War. In fact, it seems that in the 1620s the play was staged under the title Malvolio and this was the title Charles I gave to it in his copy of Shakespeare. But I don’t think Shakespeare, despite being called the Bard, was that prophetic; it’s more the case of every age inventing its own Shakespeare. Olivia expresses some sorrow over his treatment and Orsino sends some servants after him, to calm him down but also to locate the whereabouts of the captain in whose house Viola’s clothes are kept. Then he invites everybody to the wedding in due time and everybody exits, except t Feste who sings a melancholy song about the passage of time, wind and rain, which serves as the play’s epilogue. I wonder if there’s some premonition here of Lear’s Fool, struggling through wind and rain.
Twelfth Night is a sweet play, once you learn to accept the huge logical holes in the plot I mentioned in my earlier posts. But the really interesting point for me is Malvolio. It seems to me that like earlier with Shylock, Shakespeare sets out to create a character he has no reason to like (his culture tells him Jews are avaricious and cruel; his own experience tells him the Puritans are stuck-up, holier-than-thou and obviously they hate the theatre) and then somehow he can’t help presenting even him in a sympathetic light. George Eliot had a similar skill to an even greater degree; I think she had something nice to say even about her most morally compromised and nastiest characters. Charles Lamb wrote in defense of Malvolio, describing the performance of one of his favourite actors in this role as closer to Don Quixote, a similarly deluded person. Which is one more reason to love Charles Lamb, whom I adore.
Antonio is similarly amazed by seeing Sebastian and Viola at the same time, comparing them to two halves of an apple. Sebastian finally notices Viola and I guess for poetic purposes Shakespeare makes him a bit thick: he’s like “I used to have a sister but she drowned, and I have no brothers, are you by any chance some long-lost relative of mine?” Viola answers that she is from the same city as Sebastian, Sebastian was her brother’s and father’s name, but her brother drowned too – are you his ghost? They finally recognize each other, but Viola says the moment of full recognition will come when she puts on her woman clothes. Sebastian says to Olivia “You’ve been served a screwball, my lady, but hey, it all came all right in the end. If you had married Cesario, you would have been married to a virgin, and now you’re married both to a virgin and a man”. I find it surprising that Sebastian talks so honestly about his lack of sexual experience and also are we meant to believe that Antonio’s fervent adoration was merely platonic? Or maybe anything but a vaginal intercourse didn’t count?
“Do you really love me as you sad you did?”, asks Orsino. “Yes, I do”, answers Viola.”Let me see you in your woman’s clothes”, says Orsino, in the surprisingly rapid process of transferring his affections. Viola says she would bring them on immediately, but she left them with the nice captain who helped her and who is now in prison for some trifling offence, thrown there by Malvolio. “Malvolio will free him”, says Olivia. “Oh, shucks, in all the excitement about my clandestine marriage I’ve quite forgotten that Malvolio seems to be not in his right mind.” Feste appears on stage, carrying a letter from Malvolio. Olivia asks him to read it aloud, but then takes issue with the opening line “By the Lord, madam”. I am not sure whether this phrase is too direct to address one’s social superior or whether she is offended by Feste’s tone. Anyway, she asks Fabian to read it. In the letter Malvolio accuses Olivia of playing with his feelings and threatens he is going to use what he believes to be her love letter against her.
Orsino calls Cesario to follow him, Olivia calls him to follow her and in doing so she accidentally on purpose slips and call him her husband. The priest, who has just entered, confirms that the two have been properly wedded not more than two hours ago. Viola is flummoxed, although honestly she should have realized by now it’s her twin brother. Orsino is very angry and like “get off my face, I don’t want to see any of you anymore”. I know it’s nitpicky of me and you should not look for the narrative logic in Shakespeare’s comedies, but since Illyria seems to practice some form of Christianity, I would like to to point out that both in the Catholic marriage service, in the Book of Common Prayer and probably in every Christian wedding service under the sun during the wedding vows the participants say their own names and the name of the person they are getting married to. Didn’t it seem strange to Sebastian that Olivia called him Cesario? Or didn’t Olivia hear the man she took for Cesario to call himself Sebastian? And if Sebastian for some inscrutable reason just decided to play along and call himself a false name, is the marriage even valid?
Let’s step over this huge narrative hole and go on. Sir Andrew appears, calling loudly for a surgeon, since he and Sir Toby have just been beaten up and wounded by Cesario. Olivia sends them home to bed. Then the cause of this whole misunderstanding, that is Sebastian, himself steps out on stage. Again, I find it a bit strange that he fails to notice the sister he claims to love so much , but perhaps it could be remedied in the production by hiding Viola in the crowd , and there are quite a lot of people on stage at the moment. Instead he first addresses Olivia, apologizing to her for beating up her relative, but he did it in defence of his own body and honour. Then he notices Antonio and is overjoyed at finding him at last. Meantime, Orsino notices the uncanny similarity between the two and is bemused by it.
The officers bring Antonio, whom they identify as the pirate who robbed Orsino’s ships. Antonio does not deny it, only taking issue with the word “pirate”. When Orsino asks him what made him do the reckless act of appearing in the streets of the enemy town, he says it was the love of this boy, whom he saved from drowning and who is paying him now with blackest ingratitude. Orsino says it makes no sense, because Antonio claims he and Sebastian arrived today in the city, while Cesario has been serving him for the last three months. But this conversation has to be put aside as Olivia enters. Orsino again makes declarations of his love and is again rebuffed. He says he knows who possesses Olivia’s heart and calls Cesario aside. What is he going to do with him? We don’t know exactly but apparently nothing good. However, Viola loves Orsino so much that she is willing to die a thousand deaths for him. Olivia, hearing these declarations of love, laments that she is beguiled, and Viola is surprised, since she promised nothing to Olivia. Olivia calls to bring the priest as a witness
Sebastian is amazed by the sudden love Olivia apparently shows him. He does not think he is mad as his senses serve him right. Is Olivia mad? She seems to run her household very efficiently and everybody follows her orders, so she can’t be mad either. He went looking for Antonio, trying to get his counsel, but Antonio disappeared. Olivia enters and reveals they are about to get married in secret and whenever Sebastian is ready, they are going to have a proper wedding befitting a woman of her social standing. Thus somewhat unexpectedly ends Act 4.
Act 5 begins with Fabian begging Feste to reveal to him the contents of a letter, presumably by Malvolio, and Feste staunchly refusing. Their bickering is interrupted by Orsino entering with all his court and Cesario/Viola in tow. Orsino recognizes Feste and asks him how he is doing. Feste answers “the better for my foes and the worse for my friends”, explaining to the bemused Orsino that his foes tell him the honest truth, i.e. he’s an ass, while his friends, by hiding this truth from him, make an ass of him. Orsino tips him and Feste through some more ingenious word play, manages to wheedle the second tip out of him, but Orsino draws a line at the third one, instead asking Feste to go and tell Olivia he’s waiting.