Twelfth Night: see gull(ing)

Ah, the home stretch of a play’s discussion… you know what that means: concordances and dictionaries.

I love to see how Shakespeare employed different words (and their meanings) in various plays. For today, I’d like to look at the idea of the “gull” and “gulling.”

As a noun, a “gull” is “a credulous person; one easily imposed upon; a dupe, simpleton, fool” (“gull, n.3; 1” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 15 February 2014.); as a verb, “to make a gull of; to dupe, cheat” (“gull, v.3; 1” OED).

In all the plays of the Canon, Shakespeare uses one form or the other of the word only 11 times. It’s used twice in Henry V, and once apiece in Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Richard III, and Timon of Athens. That totals six uses. The remainder, all five, are in Twelfth Night.

In other words, almost half of the instances Shakespeare used the word in all his plays happen in this play.

In Act Two, Scene Three, after Malvolio’s interruption of the revelry of Feste and Sirs Toby and Andrew, and the chastisement that follows, Maria tells Sir Toby,

For Monsieur Malvolio, let me alone with him. If I do not gull him into a nayword and make him a common recreation, do not think I have wit enough to lie straight in my bed.
  • II.iii.124-7

Maria intends to dupe the steward with her forged letter, and when she has, Fabian will later call her “(his) noble gull-catcher” (II.v.178), the catcher of fools. She refers to Malvolio as “young gull” (III.ii.63).

But Malvolio isn’t the only “dupe” in the play. Before Maria makes a fool of Malvolio, Sir Toby has cheated Sir Andrew to the amount of “some two thousand (pounds) strong or so” (III.ii.50-1), urging the flax-haired fool to woo Olivia, convincing him to “send for (more) money” (II.iii.174), all the while using that money for their entertainments (and Sir Toby’s drinking). And when the fool offers his help to the errant knight in Act Five, Sir Toby’s final words in the play reveal his cruel nature and his cheating to Sir Andrew: “Will you help?—an ass-head, and a coxcomb, and a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull?” (V.i.201-2).

And just as those words leave no doubt in Andrew’s mind as to his state, the torment that Malvolio has undergone leaves him sure of his position as “the most notorious geck and gull // That e’er invention played on” (V.i.337-8). Malvolio sees himself as both a simpleton (“geck, n.1” OED) and a fool.

If admitting you’re a fool is the first step of becoming less of one, then Sir Andrew and Malvolio begin to move away from their dupe-states at the end of Twelfth Night. Malvolio has been changed and has a new goal as the play closes: revenge. But what will Andrew do? Join forces with the steward (since they both have been wronged by the same man)? or just continue being the fool, the comic fool who doesn’t know he is the fool, the one “by (whose) friends (he is) abused” (V.i.18-9)?

But I’m still wondering why? Why all the “gulling” in Twelfth Night, while all the other uses in the plays barely add to more than the references in this play alone?

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