Twelfth Night: Not that there’s anything wrong with that

Yesterday, I wrote some on the different forms of love in Twelfth Night, including heterosexual, homosexual, and self-love. I ended the post with a quote from the old Seinfeld television series: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” which was used when the characters would talk about gay issues. I meant it as a snarky joke to cap the discussion yesterday, but it got me thinking:

Is there anything wrong within the world of the play in regards to these transgressive desires?

Short answer: no.

Olivia doesn’t voice any qualms about her falling in love with such an effeminate boy. In fact, I talked a little yesterday about her use of the term “perfections” (I.v.285) in reference to Cesario, and how that term could be seen as the perfect hermaphroditic combination of male and female. It’s Cesario’s “perfections” that “with an invisible and subtle stealth // (have) creep(ed) in at (her) eyes” (I.v.286-7), and she has no problem with it.

Orsino, too, has no problem “unclasp(ing) // To (Cesario) the book even of (his own) secret soul” (I.iv.13-4), and by the end of the play, he is quick to tell the newly revealed Viola,

Your master quits you; and for your service done him,
So much against the mettle of your sex,
So far beneath your soft and tender breeding,
And since you called me “master” for so long,
Here is my hand. You shall from this time be
Your master’s mistress.
  • V.i.315-20

Pretty quick turnaround with seemingly no issue.

Sebastian comes the closest to voicing a concern, but even this seems more like a wink than a glare, as he tells Olivia in the final scene,

So comes it, lady, you have been mistook.
But nature to her bias drew in that.
You would have been contracted to a maid.
Nor are you therein, by my life, deceived:
You are betrothed both to a maid and man.
  • V.i.254-8

Neither Olivia being married to a woman nor her marrying both a woman and a man (oooh, polyamory!) seems to be a problem; Sebastian appears downright twenty-first century with the marital/sexual choices of his new bride.

So marrying within or outside of the expected gender seems to be acceptable… then what might be unacceptable?

To continue, let me use a cooking metaphor. When you bake a pineapple upside-down cake, you put the pineapple slices in at the bottom of the pan, but when the cake is flipped and removed from the pan, the slices are now on the top surface of the cake. This is what’s expected. Even if you unpanned the cake so that the slices were on the bottom, that would be unexpected (the slices as a surprise), but it would still be acceptable. What would be unacceptable would be if those pineapple slices floated somewhere inside the cake.

What’s my point?

I would posit that transgressive sexuality is OK, but changing one’s social status through marriage is not.

Orsino feels that neither he nor Olivia is “marrying down” as he tells the countess, “Be not amazed; right noble is his blood” (V.i.259). The nobility of these siblings from Messaline are enough to make them marriageable material. But what about a servant? Maria marries Sir Toby, but Toby is barely above the level of the household staff (he certainly spends his time with them), and neither appears at the end of the play; they may be together, but they’re no longer part of the social ecosystem.

However, what about Malvolio? He is a steward, and while this position makes him “an official who controls the domestic affairs of a household” (“steward, n.; 1a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 3 February 2015.), he’s still part of the staff, “the fellow of servants, and not worthy to touch Fortune’s fingers” (II.v.148-9). Even the suggestion of marriage–“To be Count Malvolio” (II.v.32), to have “been three months married to her” (II.v.41), and to thus have Sir Toby “curts(y)” (II.v.58) to Malvolio–are enough to invoke ridicule. Maria’s forged note reinforces this idea: it’s addressed to “the unknown beloved” (II.v.87) and “No man must know” (II.v.95) of her feelings because “in (her) stars (she is) above (Malvolio)” (II.v.135-6). Worse is his own diction when it comes to love. As I mentioned yesterday, Malvolio uses the word “love” only five times in the play, and three of those are readings from Maria’s letter. The fourth use refers to Olivia’s action of love, and the last is a reference to his love (as a noun). Nowhere in the play does he use the verb “love” in reference to his own feelings. One could conclude that the idea of marriages is one of social advancement, not love. Malvolio has no place in Olivia’s romantic sphere, but his quick acceptance of the idea, makes him ridiculous in the truest sense of the word, allows us to laugh at him, and consequently allows the cruelty of the tormenting scene to follow.

The moral of this story may very well be: Love anyone in any way, just keep the object of your desire in your own social strata.

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