Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Twelve Nights to “purg[e] the air of pestilence”

“The Twelfth Days of Christmas” has got to be the single most annoying holiday song ever. And the feature that makes it so annoying—the infernal repetition—is, perhaps, why it is beloved by children (including my precious daughter) the world over. But of course most American children who insist on singing it ad nauseam have no clue what those “twelve days” are all about. Those twelve days (nights, really) were, as Wikipedia can explain, an extended excuse for wildly drunken debauchery during the Christmas season in Ye Olde England.
One of Shakespeare’s last “true” comedies, Twelfth Night, is named for the culmination of that extended romp, which is the “Feast of the Epiphany” that falls on the twelfth and final night of Christmas.
As the twelve-night countdown began this year, I got to thinking about Twelfh Night. One fascinating thing about this play is that it incorporates virtually all of the bits that Shakespeare tried out in various other comedies:
  • A shipwreck;
  • Twins who are separated through some mishap and create problems associated with mistaken identity;
  • Lovers who are each in love with someone other than the person who is in love with them;
  • Cross-dressing heroines hiding their identity as both females and nobility; and
  • Fools that speak Truth to Power.
With Twelfth Night, it is almost as though Shakespeare decided to push the comic form to the breaking point by utilizing everything from his bag of tricks—thereby representing a kind of excess analogous to the holiday for which the play is named.
What, generally, is the result of such binging?
A horrible hangover.
Yes, I would say that Twelfth Night virtually induces a hangover with its layers of excess—too many coincidences, too much star-crossed love, too many cruel tricks performed by human beings upon one another.  And that is, perhaps, why the play ends on such an unstable note, with a promise of revenge—such that the audience is left feeling, not only unsatisfied, but a tad sickened. The vengeful threat is issued by poor “Malvolio” (note the “mal” in his name).  Malvolio is a prickly, supercilious, yet devoted servant who has been tricked rather sadistically by some other more fun-loving servants into believing that the noble mistress of the house is in love with him when she most certainly isn’t. (Throughout the play, she (Lady Olivia) is busy pining for Viola who is disguised as the boy Cesario, sent from Duke Orsinio to try to win Olivia’s love for the Duke upon whom the disguised Viola herself has a mad crush. Got all that?) When Malvolio gets fired for making inappropriate advances towards his mistress (whom he was led to believe was really into him), he departs vowing “I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you.” And thus ends this “funny” play.
Yikes. The guy may have been a creepster, but he really was set up and then pushed too far, to the brink of insanity, really. Even the rich and powerful Lady Olivia and Duke Orsinio ultimately see that. So they send someone off to try to “entreat him to a peace.” Then the Fool (“Feste” as in “festival”) bursts into one last song. This song—the very last event in the play—is, however, all about how “the rain it raineth every day.”  Not exactly an uplifting motif, especially in light of what is supposed to follow now that the “play is done:” a dual wedding.
My view is that Twelfth Night demonstrates that Shakespeare, despite his great ear for comedic happenings and witticisms, was really no fan of the comedy genre or the comedic view of life. Even his more riotous comedies, like Midsummer and Much Ado about Nothing, have a decidedly bitter edge. Twelfth Night, which begins on a classically melancholy note, is among the most bitter of them all: 
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

The rueful notion of comedy, of the transformative power of love that is on display in Twelfth Night reminds me of successful mediations. In my limited experience, mediating a lawsuit has the best chance of success if scheduled during the twelfth days of the Christmas season. But, as many wise folk have observed, successful mediations are ones from which no one emergences truly happy. This is because mediations require true compromise; one achieves some closure on pronounced ugliness (litigation) but at a real cost on both sides in terms of money and/or justice. Such resolutions are not really funny, no occasion for unmitigated glee. But, I think, “’tis a consummation devotedly to be wished.” [Hamlet, III.1]
So I hope someone reading this is able to use the strange magic of the twelve nights of the Christmas season or the (remarkably similar) seven nights of Chanukah to get some troublesome case resolved outside of court through mediation. In doing so, all involved may walk away disgruntled, yet relieved to be temporarily out from under the cruel “whirligig of time.” [Twelfth Night, V.1.377]

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