John Basil, founding member of the American Globe Theatre in New York City, directed graduate students from Penn State's School of Theatre in this production of selected scenes from William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night during Penn State's 2007 theatre season.
Jennifer Evans, Josie Gildow, and Gary Masquelier, English teachers from central Pennsylvania, wrote lesson plans based on these video segments.
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Malvolio, now imprisoned in a tiny cell, is visited by Feste in the guise of Sir Topas. Feste and Maria continue to enjoy harassing Malvolio, but Sir Toby suggests that the trick end soon since he is already in hot water with Olivia. Feste also speaks to Malvolio as himself, and Malvolio begs for paper and a writing utensil while continuing to maintain that he is quite sane despite what his visitors tell him.
Malvolio’s conversation with “Sir Topas” revolves around dark imagery; Malvolio complains of the “hideous darkness” of the space in which he is being held. Feste toys with him by saying that it is in fact light and bright (with “bay windows transparent as barricades”), but it is Malvolio’s mind that is dark and clouded. Consider the symbolism Shakespeare is employing here; we know that Malvolio’s name means “bad feeling” and he is often portrayed as a Puritan wearing all black attire. On top of this, Maria and company are trying to make Malvolio believe that he is mad as the result of demonic possession (a common belief about the cause of insanity in Shakespeare’s day). Although this scene is comic in some ways, it also borders on the tragic due to the darkness of the trick that is being played on Malvolio. (See “Themes” below.)
It is interesting to note here that “Sir Topas” would have been an evocative name in Shakespeare’s day. At that time, many gems and semi-precious stones were considered to have medicinal properties, and topaz was thought to cure or stave off madness.
Despite the dark imagery and the cruel turn the prank has taken, there is (as in Scene 1) a certain amount of physical humor in this scene. Feste wears a beard to play Sir Topas, but even Maria notes that it isn’t necessary because Malvolio can’t see him anyway. Of course, the audience can see him, and the actor playing Feste can really use this prop to ham it up (think Groucho Marx in a really obvious disguise). Discuss how the use of prop comedy (and irreverent references to the clergy) adds a comic touch to this otherwise shadowy scene.
Potential for tragedy in a comedy
At this point in the play, the trick being played on Malvolio may begin to seem a bit cruel, particularly depending on the director’s choice of staging. He is imprisoned in a cramped, dark cell and being told that he is mad when he is clearly not. Even Sir Toby suggests that the conspirators cut short their gag. Discuss the line between a funny joke and a cruel one. Do you think this prank has crossed the line? Might the audience’s contempt for Malvolio now turn to sympathy?
The theme of capriciousness and fluid identity continues in this scene as we see yet another character donning a disguise: Feste becomes Sir Topas and even goes so far as to speak as both himself and Sir Topas in the same breath.
Wisdom in foolishness
Up to this point, Malvolio has looked down on Feste as a fool, but in this scene it becomes apparent that Feste may be the only person who can help him out of his predicament. Rather suddenly, Malvolio’s attitude toward this “Fool” changes dramatically, and Feste clearly has the upper hand in the relationship at this point. (Indeed, it seems that Feste has always had the upper hand because he is wise even in his foolishness).
Songs of the play
Feste’s lyric here is a singsong, playful sendup of Malvolio’s “madness.” The reference to Pare thy nails, dad refers to the treatment of mental patients, whose fingernails were clipped to prevent them from hurting themselves.
Oxymoron: Adieu, goodman devil. (Line 134)
1. How do you know when a practical joke has gone too far? When do jokes cease being funny and start being cruel? Has the prank on Malvolio crossed this line? Why or why not?
In Shakespeare’s day, certain gems and semi-precious stones were considered to have medicinal properties. Topaz, for example, was thought to cure or prevent madness. Research other stones that were considered to have healing properties and prepare a brief presentation for the class.