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Notes Towards an Elizabethan Twelfth Night

Allowed Fools: Notes Towards An Elizabethan Twelfth Night

by Charles Boyle

David Bevington has written that Elizabethan courtiers were trained to read plays allegorically. Their Age was epoch-making and Shakespeare had a great feel for people and politics. Of course all court entertainment had a political intent, even if only to impress the mind of the Prince, but along with flattery could come some highly pointed comment, what the Elizabethans called wit. In the introduction to Troilus and Cressida it is claimed Shakespeare’s was so sharp that he, like Falstaff, could provoke wit in others. He was so funny he made you smarter just to get him. But the courtier had to “get the metaphor” to get the hidden meaning and the humor which, judging by his popularity, Shakespeare provided in abundance. His contemporaries must have roared. But why should they have all the fun?

One wonders not so much how his theater looked as how it felt. Certainly there were real-life forces that deeply shaped what was written and how it was delivered on the stage. The author as he wrote heard the tone of a line, a word. In the beginning there was a reality. Any attempt to recapture that original humor, the insights that made his first audience laugh, can only be gained by learning to think not only like an Elizabethan, but indeed like that most original of Elizabethans, Shakespeare.

In this regard the new historicism continues to make discoveries that inspire further research. In her new book, Shakespeare and the Politics of Protestant England, Donna Hamilton, “rejects the notion that the official censorship of the day prevented the stage from representing contemporary debates.” She believes the author positioned his writing politically in ways that had much in common with the Essex-Southampton-Pembroke group, representing the interests of those aristocrats who were liberal but Catholic-leaning, still upholding the virtues of chivalry and feudalism. Hamilton’s analysis of Twelfth Night offers much that illuminates an Elizabethan reading of this almost perfect comedy of manners.

It was played for the first time we know of on February 2, 1602 at Middle Temple, an inn of court, and as such “a place away from (the Royal) court that had a well-established and thus protected tradition of giving plays…that mocked government practices.” A safe haven for allowed fools. The plot of the play is organized “around a woman and her household – a woman whose reclusivity and passivity are among her chief characteristics. Appearing near the end of the reign of Elizabeth, a reign that had grown increasingly repressive, and appearing as well within the month of the first anniversary of the execution of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, Twelfth Night encompasses the anxieties of this later time.”

It is sufficient to suppose the author had some as yet undetected but intimate connection with the Essex/Southampton circle, for clearly his subject and his inspiration is—as in Sidney, Spenser and Lyly—Queen Elizabeth and her Court.

This idea can be used as the concept for an Elizabethan production of the text, affecting not only period costumes, music and dance, but an Elizabethan sensibility as well.

For instance, having identified Olivia with the Queen, Hamilton further observes a “distinguishing feature of the play’s language of suing and love is the way in which love conventions are shaped to emphasize Olivia’s (and Elizabeth’s) reclusiveness.” She adds that the suing of Olivia and the scapegoating of the puritan Malvolio as plots “interrogate the `household’ as a model for the state.”

It must be remembered that in this state the government literally was a household. Most of the people around Elizabeth were related to her by blood. The secretaries to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, her most powerful minister, were private servants of his household, not public officials. What officials there were conceived themselves as servants to the Queen, the Royal House of Tudor.

Ever since Henry VIII’s break with Rome the Tudor Dynasty had grown increasingly adamant about forcing the Anglican brand of Catholicism on the population. The situation for anyone who did not pledge allegiance to the state Church of England was very dangerous. Heresy and treason had come to mean the same thing. Yet many yearned for the old, true Church, still others for a Puritanism that dispensed altogether with obedience to any hierarchy or class-system, save that of the prosperous and the saved. Members of these Puritan churches even proposed to elect their own leaders. The Queen and her government, her household, closely allied to the Cecils, felt threatened on one side by those who might bow first to Rome and on the other by English believers who questioned the value of any earthly crown.

New men like Cecil and Leicester had risen on the spoils of the Tudor destruction of the monasteries. Perhaps more Puritan than Anglican in their actions, they were discovering in a national church and monarchy a marvelous mechanism for economic and political control of the county. The old aristocracy, for whom Shakespeare so often speaks, were mainly Catholic at heart, the faith of their forefathers, and the more spiritual among them abhorred both the religious and political absolutism of the new Tudor order and the naked materialism of its upstart adherents. These class tensions are present in Twelfth Night, particularly in the household reaction to Malvolio’s wooing of Olivia. If she is the Queen, who might he be?

This pompous steward can be identified as a caricature of Sir Christopher Hatton, who was Elizabeth’s steward and did, indeed, woo her. His manner was so fawning and obsequious – the Queen called him her “Sheep” or “Mutton” – that some courtiers found him both hypocritical and ridiculous. Having caught her Majesty’s eye by displaying a well-turned calf in a galliard, he was known forever after as the “Dancing Chancellor”. A leg of mutton is referred to slyly by Toby as he encourages Aguecheek to dance his way into Olivia’s heart (I. iii). Hatton’s poesy was identified by Gabriel Harvey as “Fortunatus infoelix”, which in English is “The Fortunate Unhappy.” So does Maria sign a letter intended to project Malvolio’s vain hopes onto Olivia. Apparently Tobey and Maria (and Shakespeare) found such a commoner truly a fool to believe his Mistress would ever stoop to marry him.

How intensely personal this all is to Elizabeth can be discovered by unraveling the most famous business of the show, the abhorred yellow stockings Malvolio sports to woo his fair Olivia. To get the full import of this little jest one must know some history. Lacey Baldwin Smith reports in Henry VIII, The Mask of Royalty:

“Word of Catherine of Aragon’s death was celebrated with a masque, banquet and ball where Henry, cross-gartered in yellow hose, danced the night away with Anne Boleyn.”

Later Elizabeth’s father had her mother Anne beheaded for adultery. Such was the lot of a King’s wife. After the execution the Court was in turmoil. Should they mourn or rejoice? No one knew. As always, they would take their cue from the King. That night, his new paramour on his arm, he appeared before them, dressed head to toe in resplendent canary yellow. Now the modern reader may wish to dismiss this as so much coincidence, but it is difficult to imagine Queen Elizabeth doing so. Nor any of her Court. The mockery is blatant:

You want to win this Mistress? Wear yellow. She loves a suitor in yellow hose, and cross-gartered, too. Brings back old memories.

For the actor—or reader—the practical effect of understanding these jokes is that it gives the characters more subtext, more reality. These insights can make a player believe more deeply in the world of the play. So often in productions of Shakespeare, both professional and amateur, one gets the feeling that the actors don’t quite believe they are playing real people. These scripts are mere fictions, we are sometimes told, written for money, dreamed out of airy nothing or revived from history—but never taken from the life at hand.

This vacuum at the core can make an actors search for motive, for the author’s intended point, needlessly uncertain. In the case of Twelfth Night it can make the spine of the show harder to find.

If, for instance, Olivia is the Queen and Malvolio Hatton, who is the nervy fool, Feste? R. G. Gervinus once observed, “No other of Shakespeare’s fools is so conscious of his superiority as this one…”

Now the clowns in Shakespeare may be stupid or sly but the Fools are fools for telling the truth. Yet they are often played as silly, ingratiating sorts, spinning round in a world of their own, orbiting the main action, almost peripheral. But a Shakespearean Fool should avoid that kind of thinking and see himself instead as more akin to Mercutio or Hamlet – who plays his own Fool in lonely Elsinore. Like Touchstone in As You Like It, this Fool is clearly a courtier and bohemian aristocrat who plays the fool only when it suits him.

This view has the theatrical affect of making him a far more pointed and dangerous character and explains why everyone, even his Mistress and the Duke, tolerates his cutting sarcasm. When Olivia is understood as Elizabeth it further sharpens the edge of her “allowed fool”.

For instance, Sir Andrew remarks during some late night carousing (II. iii) that the Fool was “in very gracious fooling last night, when thou spok’st of Pigrogromitus, of the Vapians passing the equinoctial of Queubus, ’twas very good…”

No one purports to know what these lines mean but the capitalized words are described in the Arden notes as “extravagant invented names, recalling Rabelais but not found in his writing. Since `the equinotical’ means the celestial equator, Queubus may be an alphabetical sequel to Phoebus, the sun.” The Q, then, could signify Queen. Phoebus is the king, Queubus the Queen. There is a contemporary portrait of Elizabeth in which she wears a map of the world as her gown. Remember also the ribald likening of a woman’s body to the earth that is the subject of extended punning in A Comedy of Errors (where Hamilton locates Elizabeth in Adriana, the suspicious wife, the church, the queen):

“In what part of her body stands Ireland?” “Marry, sir, in her buttocks, I found it out by the bogs.”

If one has a Rabelaisian sense of humor the image of Phoebus’ rays shooting below the Queen’s equator begins to emerge. It’s a daring jest and certainly not one to be made lightly. But the insiders at this table laugh, though one now suspects Aguecheek wouldn’t get the metaphor here any better than he will Olivia’s C’s, U’s and T’s. (Did Elizabeth laugh so hard at this she made one of her great P’s?)

More pertaining to her Majesty follows.

After Malvolio discharges his sanctimonious tirade at the revelers, Sir Toby asks:

Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?

The Fool caps it with:

Yes, by Saint Anne, and ginger shall be hot i’ th’ mouth too!

Ginger, often used to spice ale, was then believed to be an aphrodisiac. “Hot in the mouth” has obvious connotations. But who is Saint Anne? She is invoked here and only once else in the canon, by lucky Christopher Sly.

Saint Anne was mother to the Madonna as Anne Boleyn was mother to the Virgin Queen. Anne’s cult, aimed at aiding maids find husbands, had been derided during the English Reformation. Anne Boleyn, who found herself Harry, was out of favor too.

Throughout the play the Fool seems to be having fun with the legend of her Majesty’s chastity, celebrated by all her court poets in the national myth of a Virgin Queen, the Anglican answer to Rome’s Mary. It is remarkable that in all of Shakespeare the word “madonna” is used only by this Fool and only when he is addressing Olivia. Such emphasis from such a character can only be intended as ironic.

So who is this Fool? Who would dare?

During the Howard-Arundel affair of 1581 Henry Howard, in a letter to the Queen, claimed Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford, had boasted that he had “abused and polluted almost all the noble women of account in England.” When the Queen commanded Howard provide her with a full explanation of this allegation, he wrote that Oxford’s “lavish and untamed tongue hath…vaunted of some favors from your Majesty which I dare take mine oath upon the sacred Testament were never yet imparted unto any man that lived on this earth…The particulars till this day never passed from my lips, nor never shall, I do protest, before I may deliver them unto that sacred ear…”

Howard would not commit to paper the “particulars” of his charge that Oxford had “vaunted” of sexual “favors” from the Queen. Had he done so it is unlikely the letter would have survived. Here he merely hints at what he would save for the singular hearing of the Queen’s sacred ear. For a “lavish and untamed tongue” is the tongue of a fool.

Oxford was known as a great wit, a poet and patron of players during the reign of Elizabeth. Shortly before these charges, according to one court observer, he had been “superlative in her favor”. Gabriel Harvey had once compared him to Phoebus in her presence, declaring the god had “cultivated thy mind in the arts.” Even the seemingly fantastic “Pigrogromitus” can be read as a pun on one of his nicknames around court, “the Boar”, or in this case, the great boar.

There is an amusing story in John Aubrey about Oxford which may be apocryphal but is still very telling. It seemed that one day, making his low obeisance before her Majesty, poor Oxford broke a blaring trumpet of wind. Mortified, he withdrew from Court and traveled on the Continent for seven years. Upon returning the Queen smiled in welcome and reassured him, “I have quite forgot the fart.”

Oxford did travel on the Continent, but not for seven years, and no doubt the Queen could never forget so memorable a breech in Court decorum. But knowing Oxford, one is tempted to read this passing of wind by the metaphor, as it were, for the wind of words, which can also cause a stink.

An allowed Fool must have his fun.

Yet through it all Oxford was always more or less protected by the Queen, barred from most responsibility but indulged with a grant of a thousand pounds a year and thrown in the Tower only briefly, and that for getting a child out of wedlock by one of her Maids of Honor. He got away with a lot. According to Elizabeth Jenkins in Elizabeth the Great he twice refused – without rebuke – a command from the Queen’s lips to dance for some French ambassadors. She compares his self-centeredness to Hamlet’s. Certainly the boast of having slept with her has been attributed to no other Elizabethan. And he was known to have had a rivalry with Hatton over the Queen’s favors.

So it would seem Oxford was, at least in part, Shakespeare’s model for the Fool.

This concept even answers technical questions as when the Fool exits in the carousing scene, which is not marked in the text. This Fool would not be one who hangs around to be included. He has other matters to attend to. With his innuendo on Saint Anne, thumbing his nose at Malvolio, he bids them all adieu.

And productions that conflate the characters of the Fool and Fabian only hurt the integrity of both. They are very different people. Fabian’s language has the habitual imagery of a sadistic bully, the perfect setup for his final nervous confession to his furious Mistress, where he starts out bravely and ends up fingering every one but himself. The Fool, on the other hand, is not intimidated by anyone, certainly not by his Mistress.

Pursuing the logic of these assumptions leads to the unspoken heart of Twelfth Night, the love, indeed the secret bond, existing between Olivia and her Fool. Once detected, this insight finds support throughout the play.

There is only one moment in Twelfth Night when Olivia and the Fool are alone on stage together. (I. v.) Malvolio has been sniping at the Fool in front of an amused and encouraging Olivia in what should now be a scene crackling with sexual energy. The Fool breezily gets the best of the suppressed, infuriated Puritan. But after Malvolio exits in a huff, Olivia turns on her Fool. “Now you see, sir, how your fooling grows old, and people dislike it!”

He snaps back:

Thou hast spoke for us, madonna, as if thy eldest son should be a fool: whose skull Jove cram with brain…

This moment, in which a family relationship is suddenly invoked, can be played with the abrupt, violent intensity of a domestic spat. There is no question of Olivia being coolly in charge here or the Fool smoothly agreeable. In an instant they are at each others throats…and on the entrance of a third party they are as instantly apart.

Though Olivia acts the ice princess in public, her veil is dropped in other private moments and we are allowed to see the lust-crazed being within. The mark of her majesty is how quickly she reverts to her regal role. “Will you be ruled by me?” she asks the bedazzled Sebastian, for these are her marriage terms.

This sort of analysis affects the tone of the play right down to individual line readings. When Viola, who is openly loved by Olivia, runs into the Fool (III, i) he delivers a series of sarcastic observations on the manners, morals and hypocrisies of their society.

“I warrant thou art a merry fellow, and car’st for nothing,” Viola remarks.

“Not so, sir,” he replies. “I do care for something; but in my conscience, sir, I do not care for you: if that be to care for nothing, sir, I would it would make you invisible.”

Initially the actor playing the Fool might put the emphasis on “invisible”, which could work, making the meaning merely that he wished Viola would disappear, be gone. But that reading offers no explanation as to why the Fool, who can be very good-natured, is suddenly so insulting to Viola, one of the most sympathetic characters in the play. (Hamilton notes that “Viola and Sebastian can be read as types of the incarnate Christ…”) Is the Fool simply being a jerk? What’s his problem?

But put the emphasis on the “you” preceding “invisible” and there is a clear subtext, “I would that you were invisible, just as I am.” Now the actor has a motive for this Fool’s behavior that is consistent with an overall concept.

The problem of this impervious Virgin Queen and her enforcement of the Tudor state religion by the ruthless silencing of all discussion is present later in the play as well. In the Elizabethan Review Richard Desper has pointed out that the mock trial scene (IV, ii) works as a parody of the government persecution of Catholic martyrs.

“The playwright,” he writes, “demonstrates for us a world turned upside down, with clowns passing themselves off as men of learning, while men of learning such as Campion are pressed to deny what they believe to be true to serve political ends.”

Campion is the “old hermit of Prague” set before a “niece of King Gorboduc” i.e. a mythic king of England, as Elizabeth would have been to Henry VIII’s older brother Arthur, who died before becoming King Arthur. On trial for his life, without even pen and ink to defend himself, the hermit answers her demand for supremacy “very wittily” with the statement, “That that is is.”

This is connected to God’s declaration of his name to Moses, “I am that I am.” Shakespeare uses this exact phrase of himself in Sonnet 121, as does Oxford in a private letter declaring his independence from his prying father-in-law, Lord Burghley. These links between Oxford, Shakespeare and the Fool can also be made to Essex and Southampton and their struggle to win respect for individual conscience and the individual’s singular link with the one Creator.

The hermit, Desper continues, “is not the Creator, thus, he renders the phrase in the third person, declaring that God Is, because He Is; he owes his existence to no earthly agency, certainly to no King or Queen.”

Even Sir Walter Raleigh once protested a government bill that would exclude Brownists from orthodoxy. “What danger may grow to ourselves if this Law pass…” he asked, “For it is to be feared, that men not guilty, will be included in it.”

In his persecution of Malvolio the Fool is showing how these unfair legal tactics might be turned on anyone. In its biting satire it is really a plea for mercy and justice, as Hamilton argues:

“Shakespeare focuses not on Puritanism or on madness or on exorcism, but on the extent to which authority will fabricate in order to protect itself, thus laying bare the strategies of containment, suppression, demonizing, and scapegoating that the ecclesiastical officials had been using…by implication, against all nonconformists.”

Malvolio is a sort of Puritan as Shylock is a kind of Jew – and Shylock seems half Puritan really, reminiscent, like Hamlet’s Polonius, of Lord Burghley. These characters are fellows of the Cecil-Walsingham-Hatton faction, the new men who believed by their very faith in the principal of money making money.

The Fool, alive to some deep feudal sympathy, is ambivalent about schemes that so obviously work, yet by their very nature tend towards a materialism that would devour the core and soul of human relationships. Orlando, too, speaks to this fear with Adam in As You Like It. Another dispossessed outsider, he dreads some future age when society will be forced to worship the values of the marketplace above all else.

Yet in his generous heart Shakespeare knows Malvolio must be included, somehow, in the new order or civil war will tear the household apart.

But we never see that reconciliation. When the humiliated Puritan stalks off, vowing vengeance on the whole laughing pack of aristocrats, the author’s prophetic soul may well have been dreaming on the coming of Cromwell.

Many critics (and productions) have dismissed the song that closes Twelfth Night as practically irrelevant to the play. It is sung by the Fool alone on stage after all the happy couples have departed. The opening verse goes:

When that I was and a little tiny boy
With hey ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

Leslie Hotson interpreted this as ribaldry directed to a moral end, noting that “thing” would have a phallic meaning in this context. For him the whole song served as a warning against loose living. The third verse is interesting:

But when I came, alas, to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

Why should the Fool sing this song? A song the Fool in Lear will echo. What does it mean to him? Charles Knight called it “the most philosophical Clown’s song upon the record…and the conclusion is, that what is true of the individual is true of the species…”

The lyric describes a wife who broke her husband’s pride. In Lear the Fool asks why his King has bared his behind and handed the rod to his daughters. So often in Shakespeare a woman gains the upper hand. One can hear in the Fool’s incessant refrain a deliberate punning of “reign” on “rain”. Only a “reign” can “reign” every day. It is Elizabeth again. She who claimed the whole of England as her spouse.

But her last great favorite was Essex.

Essex, known to history as a great fool, also represented, according to Hamilton, an extreme of openness and tolerance that her authoritarian reign found intolerable. He and Southampton headed the last rebellion of the old aristocracy. They were abandoned and destroyed by the Queen. Both she and England would live to rue her victory.

As Patrick Collinson observed, “There can be little doubt that if Essex rather than Cecil had conducted the king into his English inheritance, the outlook for the puritan would have been somewhat brighter.”

Bright enough, perhaps, to avert a bloody civil war, among other miseries.

Shakespeare was with the young nobles in spirit and they were with him. A performance of Richard II (where even Elizabeth later declared, “Know ye not. I am Richard!”) was arranged by members of the EssexSouthampton faction on the eve of their ill- fated Rebellion.

In a world where every public act contained a political message it is significant to note that February second, the date of the Middle Temple performance of Twelfth Night, or What You Will, marked the first anniversary of the Queen’s beheading of Essex. February second is also Candlemas, the Feast Day of the Purification of Our Lady.

So the Fool that night might have the last word, but he would have it alone. In history fools count for nothing, might is all. Poets can be the invisible souls of their age, but those ages take their name from kings and queens.

This knowledge can open great depths of feeling in any actor who plays the Fool. The closing song, sung alone, can mean something individual and real to the abandoned singer, sharing his summing up with his eternal audience.

We listen, for the Fool knows why he sings.


David Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics, Harvard University Press, 1968.
Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967,1992.
Richard Desper, The Elizabethan Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1995, p.37-47.
Donna Hamilton, Shakespeare and the Politics of Protestant England, University Press of Kentucky, 1992.
Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth the Great, Coward-McCann, Inc., 1958.
Lacey Baldwin Smith, Henry VIII, The Mask of Royalty, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1971

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