I recently saw Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, with Mark Rylance, on Broadway, in an all-male performance. It was sublime. We are seeing it again next week, so I read the play in preparation. I haven’t read the play – perhaps any Shakespeare – for at least 15 years. It turns out reading Shakespeare is like riding a bike. (Although if you have to get onto a bike after 15 years, it is far scarier than reading Shakespeare.)
Viola and Sebastian are twins, shipwrecked and separately rescued. They believe each other to be dead. Viola disguises herself as a man so she can travel safely, and finds work in Orsino’s household, with whom she is immediately smitten. Orsino is in love with Olivia, and he sends Viola – now disguised as Cesario – to woo Olivia on his behalf. Olivia is immediately smitten with Cesario/Viola. Meanwhile, Sebastian, Viola’s brother, appears in the town, and quickly meets up with Olivia himself. Mistaken gender, and then mistaken identity, causes hilarity, and as happens in all Shakespeare comedy, all is right with the world by the end. There is a side plot with the household guests and servants (involving an officious Stephen Fry in this production), also involving misdirection but this time instigated by mischief rather than fate, that leads to much hilarity of its own.
The play is perfection. (The performance is beyond perfection. If you have a chance to see it, go! It ends very soon.) The thing that non-readers/non-viewers of Shakespeare don’t know, and that those of us who haven’t seen Shakespeare recently forget, is that he is bawdy as hell. His mind is constantly in the gutter, and he has the talent and wit to twist his words into double-entendres that sound just proper enough to pass. Orsino, watching Olivia dedicate herself to grieving her dead brother, sees this as evidence that she has extreme devotion, which will someday be directed to him. In this passage, he describes how much love she will show Orsino when finally they are together:
How she will love, when the rich golden shaft
Hath killed the flock of all affections else
That live in her, when liver, brain, and heart,
These sovereign thrones, are all supplied, and filled
Her sweet perfections with one self king!
Away before me to sweet bed of flowers.
Love thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers.
No Fear Shakespeare (a version of the play that shows the Shakespeare on the left page and a “translation” on the right page, which I was reading because I borrowed the play from a first-time Shakespeare reader) translates this as:
Think how she’ll love me when I finally win her over and make her forget all her other attachments! Her mind and heart will be ruled by one man alone – me! Take me to the garden. I need a beautiful place to sit and think about love.
Well. That is indeed one reading of it. Here’s my lusty translation of the other side of the double-entendre.
Think how she will love me when my arrow (*cough cough*) pierces her, and I fill her hot body full of my love juices. She’ll want me day and night! Take me somewhere pleasant where I can be alone, so I can engage in a little self-love.
Shakespeare scholars and aficionados, correct me, but I believe that’s at least one meaning Shakespeare is trying to get across. And that’s in the first scene! Shakespeare had sex on the brain, and the talent to express it most wittily.