Twelfth Night: Incivility, Disorder and Misrule

Yesterday, I talked a little about how Sir Toby was the character with the most scenes, speeches and lines, in Twelfth Night.

But who is Sir Toby? How is he seen within the world of the play?

He acts outside “the modest limits of order” (I.iii.8). His actions are described as “disorders (and) misdemeanors” (II.iii.90). “Order,” as we see it today, can be “a regular or customary mode of procedure” or “the condition in which everything has its correct or appropriate place” (“order, n.; 12.a and 14.a, respectively.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 25 January 2015.).

He is “uncivil” (III.iv.242 and IV.i.51)–at the opposite end of the spectrum from Malvolio, who is “sad and civil” (III.iv.4). Again, in our current view, “civil” is “educated; cultured” and “courteous” (“civil, adj.; 6.a and 7.a, respectively.” OED Online).

And Sir Toby’s is an “uncivil rule” (II.iii.114), one he holds “over” (V.i.300) Malvolio. Then, as today, the prevailing meaning of this kind of “rule” is “power, sway” (“rule, n.1; 12.” OED Online).

And all of this makes sense, perfect sense to us today.

However, (and you knew there’d be a “however” coming, right? right), there are other meanings that, while they don’t change the color of these speeches, certainly add shadings to them.

The “order” outside of which Sir Toby plays was also known during Shakespeare’s day as “social class or division consisting of persons of the same status” (“order, n.; 7.a.” OED Online). And while “civil” had the aforementioned meanings, there are other layers of “civil”-ity that also fit for Sir Toby: “relating to citizens or people who live together in a community” and “appropriate to a citizen or citizens generally” and “in terms of legal rights or status” (“civil, adj.; 3.a, 4, and 14.a, respectively.” OED Online). And Sir Toby’s “rule” could also be “riotous conduct, disorder; a disturbance or commotion” (“rule, n.2; 1.” OED Online).

Fitting, right?

Even more than you might think.

Back in jolly old England (actually throughout much of Europe), there was something called the Feast of Fools. It was a kind of upending of the social order, allowing for a brief cultural blowing off of steam. The Lord of Misrule (in England; in Scotland and France he had other names) was king for day in a sense, overseeing the drunken partying during the feast when those in power took on subordinate positions, and vice versa.

The social world upside-down, for a day.

Sir Toby, in a sense, is this Lord of Misrule.

But more on this in a couple of days…