Twelfth Night: Puritanical Shorthand

I’m going to start this post seemingly off-topic.

Last week, Jon Stewart announced his upcoming departure from The Daily Show. Stewart, if you’re going to label him, is a liberal. Now watching the show on television (or online, if you’re a cord-cutter) can be a fairly enjoyable experience, no matter where you sit on the socio-political spectrum. There’s enough stuff there needling everyone, that even non-liberals can find something to laugh at. In person, however, you get a different vibe (even from just listening to the broadcast): here, the audience is a little more rabidly left-wing, as you can tell whenever Stewart ridicules conservative philosophy. It could be said that he doesn’t even have to ridicule conservative thinking, all the has to do is mention it to get a rise out of his audience. “Conservative” for his audience has become a kind a shorthand, encompassing an veritable cornacorpia of political, fiscal, military, and social sins in the eyes of his live audience.

Why do I mention this?

Stewart isn’t the first to do this. I would argue that Shakespeare did it over 400 years ago in Twelfth Night. Only then it was not “conservative” that was the shorthand, bur rather “Puritan” that was the red-meat for the groundlings.

Who were the Puritans? They were a religious reformist movement. They had become disenchanted then hostile toward anything that wasn’t purely Biblical. The Catholic Church was an example of what, to the Puritans, was wrong with religion: too much pomp, too much ritual, too much decoration. The Church of England breaking away from the Catholic church was a fine beginning, but not nearly enough for the Puritans, who saw this as nothing more than trading one head of the church (the Pope) for another (the reigning monarch of England). The Puritans wanted more alignment to the Protestant churches of mainland Europe (it would be great if Protestant came from the idea of “protesting” the Church, but alas, not so much: it’s actually from Latin, either from “pro” [“for”] and “testari” [“witness”], or from “protestatio” [“declare”]).

In their Bible-centric world view, everything had its place in the social order: God over man, masters over servants, parents over children, husband over wife. And if something didn’t contribute to that order, then it was gone. Decoration in church? gone. Even music was problematic. Singing hymns was fine, but playing instruments? no can do.

And if they booted instrumental music from their religious services, you can only imagine how they felt about public entertainments.

Like the theater.

These kinds of entertainment were sinful, and since the Puritans were trying to purify their religion, their parishioners needed to be cleansed. Thus, what those people saw and heard had to be tightly controlled. Repeated efforts were made to close the theaters and to end bear-baiting.

But the groundlings loved their entertainments. So when Stewart throws around the term “conservative” I mean, when Shakespeare throws around the term “puritan,” it’s shorthand for all the close-minded, fun-hating, do-good-ers who are trying to shut me (and by extension, us) down.

Boo. Hiss.

By Act Two, Scene Three, we’ve seen enough of Malvolio to have not exactly the greatest opinion of him. First, his name is Malvolio… literally, “ill will.” Next, he insults Feste the clown (and is chastised by Olivia for it). Then he haughtily throws the “returned” ring to Cesario (though, really, he is mirroring Olivia’s demeanor when she gives him the ring to return). And now he’s just interrupted the fun time being had by Feste, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, in terms that are both superior and tattletale-ish (and yes, I know that’s not a word). It’s not exactly a flattering picture.

But then Shakespeare drops this exchange into the mix:

Marry, sir, sometimes he is a kind of puritan.
O, if I thought that, I’d beat him like a dog!
What, for being a puritan? Thy exquisite reason, dear knight?
I have no exquisite reason for ‘t, but I have reason good enough.
The devil a puritan that he is, or anything constantly but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass that cons state without book and utters it by great swaths; the best persuaded of himself, so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him. And on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work.
  • II.iii.130-42

The groundlings already saw Malvolio as a buzz-kill, but now with this “puritan” moniker (used not once, not twice, but three times in this short segment), he’s become the societal fun-killer.

Boo. Hiss.

Something must be done (even the coward Sir Andrew threatens the Puritan). And something is. That tormenting scene in Act Four, Scene Two. From a modern perspective, it’s painful to watch. Its cruelty seems over-the-top, gratuitous.

But for the groundlings, it was like Stewart skewering Fox News.

It comes as no surprise to me, then, that Shakespeare uses “puritan” more in Twelfth Night than in any other play. As in the case of “gull,” nearly half of the instances found in Shakespeare’s plays come from this play. Yes, the data sample is small (seven total uses; three from Twelfth Night); but I do find it fitting, and of note (thus today’s post).

Also, of note: Malvolio’s final words are a threat of revenge. Is this a bone being thrown by Shakespeare to the Puritans (not that they would have heard it, since they didn’t attend the plays)? Was it a cautionary warning to his audience and his peers? Or was it a Nostradamus-like prophecy of the English Civil War to come in 40 years?

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