Twelfth Night: prose, verse, and rhymes (oh my)

In Twelfth Night, as with most of the plays in the Canon, Shakespeare uses multiple avenues to convey his content. In the past, we’ve spent time in this project on the differences between the uses of prose, poetry, and rhyming verse. And yes, we do get some of that nobility-speaks-in-verse/lower-class-in-prose stuff. But what I find interesting in this play are the transition points.

The opening scenes’ use of language makes sense: the first two scenes, with Duke Orsino and Viola, respectively, are in verse, as we might expect, and they both close with rhyming couplets; the third scene with Maria and Sirs Toby and Andrew is in prose–again, totally expected.

Act One, Scene Four begins with a quick conversation between Valentine and Viola as Cesario, and–as they are attendants to Orsino–their prose exchange makes sense, as does the shift to verse after Orsino enters. When he speaks to the attendants at large, it’s still in prose, but when he and Viola speak privately, they are both in verse, and since we’ve seen/heard her speak in verse with the sea captain, this is not surprising. Viola’s closing aside as a rhyming couplet, too, is par for the course.

Act One, Scene Five begins in prose with Maria and Feste, and continues even as Olivia enters the scene. There is no one of her status in the scene for her to raise her linguistic game to meet. Until, of course, Viola as Cesario enters. Even then, though, Cesario’s first exchanges are in prose. It is not until the two are alone, and Viola responds to Olivia’s face revealed, that Viola begins speaking in verse (“‘Tis beauty truly blent…” [I.v.228]); this first verse speech of hers ends with a shortened line (“And leave the world no copy.” [I.v.232]), inviting an antilabe, a completion of the verse line by Olivia. But Olivia responds in prose, not yet sure that this conversation (or its speaker) deserves any sort of heightened language.

After Viola’s next verse response, again ending in a shortened line, Olivia takes the bait and responds with an antilabe (in fact, impatiently interrupting/overlapping the final word of Viola’s speech), “How does he love me?” (I.v.243). Viola begins her response, but then stops short after a clipped first line (“With adorations, fertile tears,” [I.v.244]), creating a slight pause before she continues… is she surprised to realize that Olivia has responded in verse? Does this throw her off? I’d contend that it does, as her next line is filled with images/actions that are at once overblown and prosaic (thunder love, sighs of fire). The remainder of the scene, including Olivia’s final soliloquy, continues in verse, culminating in three rhyming couplets for Olivia.

Act Two, Scene One, brings us Sebastian and Antonio, and they speak to each other in prose; when Sebastian exits, however, Antonio finishes the scene with a verse passage of how he “adore(s)” (II.i.43) Sebastian, which ends (no surprise) with a rhyming couplet. The second scene of the act follows the same pattern: Malvolio and Viola converse in prose, then Viola’s soliloquy finishes the scene in verse and with a rhyming couplet.

Act Two, Scene Three, save for Feste’s song in the middle, is a prose affair. While Act Two, Scene Four, with Orsino and Viola/Cesario is mostly a verse scene (including Feste’s rhymed song), both Feste’s and Curio’s answers to Orsino’s questions are in prose, and this scene as a whole, too, ends with a rhyming couplet. Act Two, Scene Five is the flip side of that coin with mostly prose during the gulling of Malvolio, save for the doggerel in the faked letter.

Act Three, Scene One starts in prose between Viola/Cesario and Feste, and when the clown exits, Viola’s soliloquy is verse. Enter Sirs Toby and Andrew, and we’re back to prose, but when they leave and Olivia enters, the dialogue through the end of the scene is in verse. Now, you’d think this scene would end like the other poetry-ending scenes of the play thus far, with a rhyming couplet. And you’d be right, but also very wrong. The last 18 lines of the scene, spanning three speeches, are all couplets (though the final speech/couplet is Olivia’s pseudo-non-rhyme, “move” and “love”). Why the shift? Is it to set this sequence–full of Olivia’s proclamation of love for Cesario–off from the rest? to show its ridiculousness? the impossibility of their love coming to pass in the real world?

The following two scenes are the all prose and all verse affairs between Toby, Andrew, Fabian, and Maria, and Sebastian and Antonio, respectively. Act Three, Scene Four begins with a verse aside by Olivia, followed by prose meltdown of Malvolio, and his meeting with Maria, Sir Toby and Fabian; there’s an island of verse when Olivia returns with Viola/Cesario, followed by prose again when Olivia leaves. It’s only when Antonio arrives to save Cesario, whom he believes his unrequited love Sebastian, do we get back to verse. Once Antonio invokes Sebastian’s name, the remainder of verse through the end of the scene are couplets (though interspersed with prose from the peanut gallery of Fabian, and Sirs Toby and Andrew). Again, this sudden burst of couplets: is it to point out the absurdity of the situation? (Is this why we don’t hear any lengthy sequence of couplets between Orsino and Cesario? because–since Orsino doesn’t admit his love to the boy–it’s less ridiculous? and is this why we DO get an extended stretch of couplets between Sebastian and Olivia later in the play?)

Act Four, Scene One begins with prose between Feste and Sebastian and continues through the entrance of and challenge by Sir Andrew. When Sebastian breaks free from Sir Toby, he begins speaking in verse–though more likely it’s the entrance of Olivia two lines later that brings this about; their conversation that follows is entirely in verse, and from the moment she asks him to come with her, the rhyming couplets begin, with the pair sharing the final couplet as they have an antilabe in the final line.

Act Four, Scene Two, the tormenting of Malvolio, is a purely prose affair, save for Feste’s song in the middle of it. The next scene is purely verse, with Sebastian and Olivia’s final lines rhyming couplets as well.

Which leads us to the beast that is the 400-line final scene.

It begins with prose as Orsino speaks with Feste. When he turns his attention to Antonio (and his arresting officer), we move to verse and there we stay until Sir Andrew appears. What happens midway through this verse section, though, is fascinating. After Orsino believes he has been betrayed by Cesario, he begins to exit, finishing his “last” speech with a couplet. When the revelation of Olivia’s marriage to Cesario spins the scene out of control, not only do we get antilabes, but rhyming couplets as well, often crossing over each other. As the confusion subsides and Olivia begins to prove that the wedding took place, the antilabes and rhyming couplets end momentarily.

We get the Andrew and Toby prose interlude, but when Sebastian enters, he brings verse with him. The verse continues through the reunion until the topic of discussion turns to Malvolio. With exposition from Fabian and Feste, we are dumped back into prose, but when Fabian exits to bring Malvolio in, we return to verse, where we stay to the end of the play (save for a prose speech by Feste), with the final speech by Orsino, before Feste’s closing song, ending with a rhyming couplet.

From a dramaturgical point of view, if we can get to the reason and rationale behind the shifts in linguistic approaches, we can better help the actors and director find the key to character and concept.

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