Some people might see this as a cop-out. I’m just prefacing this by saying that I don’t. Yes, I’m in the play and yes this last week included tech weekend… but, no joke, I’ve read the play three times all the way through, notes and all.
The show is billed as Shakespeare’s last “festive comedy” but (and perhaps this comes with our production of the play) I don’t really see it that way. It is much more of a “problem play” like The Winter’s Tale. There are elements of comedy and tragedy, sometimes in equal measure, and there are major issues that are relatively unresolved at the end.
Okay, first off: two plots. There’s the Romantical plot and the Comedical plot. The two certainly overlap but, for the most part, they exist in separate realms within the same universe. The Romanticals are Olivia, Orsino, Viola, Sebastian, and Antonio. Malvolio begins in this group but quickly moves into the Comedicals. They speak in flowing language and emote heavily. They are passionate. That’s the best word to describe them. Olivia makes the snap decision to fall for Cesario, Orsino spends his days and nights pining after Olivia, Antonio feels a deep love (homo-erotic or otherwise) for Sebastian, and Sebastian leaps head first into marriage with a stranger (albeit a gorgeous one).
As for the Comedicals, they are Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria, Fabian, Feste… and eventually Malvolio. They speak more gutterally, they are bawdy, they are “base” creatures. Even the two “sirs” – of elevated stature – are drunken sots who are simply out to have a good time. They are also passionate, but in the pursuit of the physical as opposed to the intellectual/ethereal.
This play is not really all that funny. I mean, it is – when the Comedicals are in play, its funny… but more through the fact that these characters are written to BE funny. They are BEING fun, in that sense of “trying” to be funny as opposed to just having it happen. They need to entertain themselves in order to survive – but even then, they tire of it. Sir Toby, for example, basically gives up on the gulling of Malvolio before it has even ended. He gets bored and moves on.
In the end, this play is a lot of egotistical people just going for their own interests. It has a “happy” ending (for most of the characters) – Olivia realises Sebastian is the one she fell in love with when she fell for Cesario, Orsino realises his affection for Viola has been there all along, and even Sir Toby and Maria have been married. Antonio doesn’t get a happy ending and Fabian is essentially forgotten about. Malvolio has an interesting ending, hinting at a sequel that (obviously) never developed.
The character of Fabian is an odd one. Rather pointless – a Maria2. Similarly, Antonio and Sebastian seem essentially like plot devices in order to wrap the story up in Act V. All of the aspects of this play point towards it being a mid-level entry to the canon… and yet the things that they say… beautiful.
To Sum Up: This has some of the best and most lovely quotes in all of Shakespeare’s canon. A problem play but a fun one to try to decipher – it isn’t quite a comedy and it definitely isn’t a tragedy. It is what it is and, hey, people enjoyed the hell out of it.