Exam Reading – Twelfth Night and “Acting As If”

Twelfth Night is a play full of hypotheticals. The first word of the play, spoken by Orsino, is “if” (1.1.1) and in his closing lines before Feste’s sung epilogue Orsino leaves the audience with a series of hypotheticals: “when that is known, and golden time convents” (5.1.381), “when in other habits you are seen,/ Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen” (5.1.384-7). These closing hypotheticals are particularly important because they concern what is, arguably, the play’s most contentious moment – Viola’s transformation from boy to woman. But these are not the only hypothetical moments the play poses for us. In many of the crucial scenes surrounding the love triangle of Orsino, Olivia, and Viola, the play text presents us with hypotheticals that are then played out.

For instance, when Orsino calls on Viola/Caesario to voice his suit to Olivia, Viola poses, “Say I do speak with her, my lord, what then?” (1.4.23). In Orsino’s response (“O then unfold the passion of my love,/ Surprise her with discourse of my dear faith”) the audience gets a taste of what’s to come in 1.5 when Viola is, in fact, granted an audience with Olivia and at least starts by “unfold[ing] the passion” of Orsino’s love. Later, in 2.4 during Orsino and Viola’s discussion of Orsino’s love for Olivia, Viola poses this hypothetical: “My father had a daughter lov’d a man,/ As it might be perhaps, were I a woman,/ I should your lordship” (2.4.108-10). Like the previous hypothetical in 1.4, the audience sees this hypothetical played out on stage. In fact, here, we already know this to be the case (Viola does love Orsino), whereas in 1.4 we have to wait a scene before the hypothetical is acted through in Viola’s wooing of Olivia.

The crowded hypotheticals of Twelfth Night‘s play text (“if,” “but I were,” “were you so,” etc.) call our attention to the structure of performance and the early modern stage in particular. Theater is, arguable, always structured by hypotheticals; we could even equate a “willing suspension of disbelief” to a hypothetical. Connecting ideas from both Stanley Cavell and Slavoj Zizek, in order for a performance to be successful, both actor and audience member must “act as if” the events being played out are real. In suspending our disbelief, we “act as if” and in order to achieve such a state, according to Cavell, we have to respect the space and time of performance. Can Twelfth Night – a play that draws explicit attention to its hypotheticals – then help us understand something about the structure of theater more broadly and, specifically the early modern theater’s consciousness of itself as a particular kind of performance?

Many scholars have argued that Twelfth Night is a play obsessed with theatrics and its own performance (something I recently read even equated Twelfth Night with Hamlet in terms of its meta-theatricality). If Twelfth Night can indeed be positioned among the most meta-theatrical of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, the meta-theatrics of its archive text are structured around the concept of the hypothetical – the “performance hypothetical” perhaps we could say. In fact, as we have seen in both 1.4 and 2.4, many of the play’s hypotheticals are actually structured around truth. They are posed and then the hypothetical is carried out. This happens again in 5.1, although more marginally related to the play’s most obvious love triangle, when Sebastian says to Viola, “were you a woman, as the rest goes even,/ I should my tears let fall upon your cheek,/ And say, ‘Thrice welcome, drowned Viola.’” (5.1.237-9). 

But, crucially, circling back to where I started, at the play’s end we’re presented with a hypothetical that doesn’t play out. Viola’s transformation is infinitely delayed by the play’s final scene. Calling attention several times to the fact that the absent Captain is the one who has Viola’s “woman’s weeds,” rendering her unable to play out the full transformation, the play’s final scene only permits Viola to verbally transform back into a woman. Because this verbal transformation cannot take the place of an actual transformation, it necessarily occurs in hypotheticals. To Sebastian, she says, “If nothing lets to make us happy both,/ But this my masculine usurp’d attire,/ Do not embrace me, till each circumstance/ Of place, time, fortune, do cohere and jump/ That I am Viola” (5.1.247-51). And then Orsino’s lines again at the closing continue the hypothetical transformation: “If this be so, as yet the glass seems true,/ I shall have share in this most happy wreck” (5.1.263-4), and then more directly, “Caesario, come;/ For so you shall be while you are a man;/ But when in other habits you are seen,/ Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen” (5.1.384-7). This is a transformation that will occur, but only “when in other habits” Viola is seen. Orsino continues to call her “Caesario” and “boy” and never “Viola” – the best he can do is refer to her as “your master’s mistress” (echoing the slippery gender construction of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20) and his “fancy’s queen” (5.1.325; 387).

How does this permanent delay of Viola’s transformation function within the play’s larger hypothetical structure? The lingering “if” of Viola’s transformation withholds the action played out that the rest of the text trains us to expect. Does the play, then, teach us how to be effective audience members and then ask us to put that lesson into practice at its end? We are asked to imagine the final act of Viola’s transformation for ourselves? Or, in its withholding, does the play suggest something about the instability of performance structured around what ifs?

In closing, permit me to pose my own hypothetical. If the play is meant to question the broader structures of performance, then it seems important to account for the actor/character divide of Viola’s role and the complicated gender identity and performance questions raised by it. As many scholars have noted, Viola is, in truth, being played by a man and her “woman’s weeds” are no more than a costume, even though within the play world s/he is actually meant to transform back to the true Viola, the woman, at the conclusion. Many have written on this play’s troubling of gender categories, both on the level of performance and  within the world of the play. Without the space to think through this more thoroughly, I’m left wondering how a consideration of this play as one structured by hypotheticals might add a layer of complexity to these arguments. What does seem most assured, though, is that the “golden time” of the play’s end can’t help but be indefinitely delayed by the very structure of its container.



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