Twelfth Night: Classless? Not so much …

Yesterday, I talked a little about gender in Twelfth Night. Well, not so much about gender as women. How there are so few in the play, and the world they’re in is less than hospitable toward them. But also how they end up on top in the world of the play.

I also mentioned that while Viola is a major role in the structure of the play–and by that I mean in the number of scenes in which she appears, as well as the number of speeches and lines the character has–she doesn’t have the largest role in the play. Now if I asked you, who that might be, maybe you answer Orsino, as he’s the purported male romantic lead in the plot. But you’d be way off. Malvolio, the man around whom the major subplot revolves? Nope, but you are getting warmer. Feste? Warmer still, but still no cigar.

There are 18 scenes in Twelfth Night. Sir Toby appears in ten of them (two more than either Viola or Sir Andrew; Maria, Malvolio, and Feste appear in 7, Olivia in 6, Sebastian 5, and Orsino appears in only 4 [the same amount as Antonio and Fabian]). But, Bill, you say, that’s scenes, what about speeches? Well, he wins there, too, and it’s not even close: Toby 152, Viola 121, Olivia 118, Feste 104, and the rest all under 100. OK, sure, but how about lines? Still the champ: Toby 343, Olivia 335, Olivia 314, Feste 306, Malvolio 281; no one else over 250.

Sir Toby Belch.

I’m still dumbfounded.

He’s a kinsman to the countess, but a no-account count, lacking nobility. He’s “Sir” Toby, but certainly not knightly. He’s decidedly low-class, if not no-class, though of a greater status than Malvolio (to whom he derisively asks, “Art any more than a steward?” [II.iii.105-6]). He’s a drunk. He’s a cheat (already into Sir Andrew for “two thousand strong or so” [III.ii.50-1] ducats). He’s got a cruel streak a mile wide (and not just to the malevolent Malvolio; his final words in the play are a biting, insulting, epithet-filled dismissal of the poor “gull” [V.i.202], Sir Andrew).

This is the character, to paraphrase the musical Les Miz, who is the play’s master of the house?


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