Twelfth Night: midpoint

Using Professor Rodes’ midpoint theory, let’s take a look at Twelfth Night.

There are 2462 lines in in the play, which means the midpoint is at line 1231, or at Act Three, Scene One, line 65. Now, Rodes’ theory postulated that you could find (within twenty lines either way) a speech that perfectly summed up the major theme of the play. The 20-line leeway was to help remove the differences in prose line lengths between individual editions; and in a play with as much prose as Twelfth Night (63% of the lines are prose), this forty-line window seems to be all the more important.

The midpoint line in question comes during a speech by Feste the clown to Cesario (Viola in disguise). The two have bantered on the meaning of words, and Feste has called for Jove (“in his next commodity of hair” [III.i.44]) to bring Cesario a beard. When Cesario jokes that (s)he needs one but not on her face, the fool responds,

I will conster to them whence you come. Who you are and what you would are out of my welkin—I might say “element,” but the word is overworn.
  • III.i.55-58

He says that he will construe or “interpret” (“construe/conster, v.; 7a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press,
December 2014. Web. 21 February 2015.) for Lady Olivia that the Cesario has come from Orsino (“whence” [III.i.56]).

Yet there is more to discuss than just where Cesario has come from.  Like what? Who Cesario is, for one. And for the other, what Cesario might (or might not) decide to (“would, n.” OED Online.) do.

The one–the first–is the crux of the plot of the play now, isn’t it? Cesario isn’t Cesario, but rather Viola, and if this was any ordinary play taking place in an ordinary comic universe (and not a world turned upside-down), she should be our main character.

The other–the second–is very, VERY interestingly phrased: “what you would.” Why is this so interesting? “Would” is “the subjunctive of will” (“would, n.; Etymology” OED Online.). And “what you will” is, of course, the alternate title to the play itself.

But these subjects–what Cesario is, and what he might decide to do–are out of Feste’s “welkin” or “‘heaven’ or sphere” (“welkin, n.; 4.” OED Online.). The fool then engages in a bit of wordplay (fitting, as that was what he and Cesario had been discussing leading up to this point in the scene), equating this idea of “welkin” to the meaning of the word “element.”

It’s interesting that “welkin” also meant “a cloud” or “the sky” (“welkin, n.; 1. and 2.a., respectively” OED Online.). Remember when we were discussing humors and elements, I mentioned that that the “element” were not just one of the four elements, but sometimes one in specific: air.

But even for a wordsmith like Feste, such a link is “gone” or “obsolete” (“overworn, adj.; 3 and 4, respectively.” OED Online.).

Wordplay. Identity. The alternate title of the play. Elements. The original order, now passed, past, and gone.

Yeah, this midpoint passage encompasses many of the concepts from the play.

Chalk up another one to ol’ Professor Rodes.

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