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Rehearsing Shakespeare: Twelfth Night 3 - Enter Sir Toby

'there is no good comedy without tension and the possibility of sudden reversal'

Shakespeare In Italy presents the third instalment in its Associate Director Bill Alexander's truly enlightening series of of blogs on Rehearsing Shakespeare focusing on particular plays. In this  - Twelfth Night : Enter Sir Toby - he examines the nature of comedy and tragedy looking at the interaction between Toby, Maria and Andrew Aguecheek. 

The twin masks of comedy and tragedy revolve, blend and fade into each other in plays like ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘Hamlet’. Two of his greatest plays they were composed within the same year, 1600, almost exactly at the half-way point of his career. We call one a comedy and one a tragedy, but neither reveal their true nature in production if that is the way director and cast treat them. It is part of the definition of what makes great drama that an audience should not only suspend their disbelief but are, at the same time, suspended between laughter and tears.

It's said that humour doesn't translate well between cultures and the same can be said of periods of history, as the past is another country with a different funny bone. Finding the balance between sad and funny, tragic and comic, may be a vital part of rehearsals for any play, but with Shakespeare there is the extra challenge that you are often dealing with material that is clearly meant to be funny, that the Elizabethans obviously found funny, but to us is bewilderingly unfunny. Act One, Scene Three of ‘Twelfth Night’ is a classic example of the problem where obscurity of language and unfamiliar references combine and the director’s choices are: cut, change, distract or leave! The scene begins with an ill-tempered dialogue between Sir Toby Belch and a woman called Maria, who is described in the cast list as Olivia's waiting gentlewomen, and who we gradually come to realise is Toby's girlfriend - sort of. 

Sir Toby: "What a plague means my niece to take the death of her bother thus? I am sure cares an enemy to life."

Maria: "By my troth, Sir Toby, you must come in earlier o'nights: your cousin, my lady, takes great exceptions to your ill hours."

Sir Toby: "Why, let her except, before excepted."

Maria: "Ay, but you must confine yourself within the modest limits of order."

Sir Toby: "Confine? I'll confine myself no finer than I am. These clothes are good enough to drink in, and so be these boots too: and they be not, let them hang themselves in their own straps."

I have directed ‘Twelfth Night’ five times and have always had to use the notes to remind myself what these jokes mean. "Exceptis excipiendis" was a common legal phrase, so that was one for the young trainee lawyers in the Globe audience. Toby's "confine" twists Maria's use of the word to refer to getting himself dressed, which pun then sets up the mention of "boots" and thereby the use of the then well-known  proverb about hanging yourself with your own bootlaces, or garters. Equipped with this knowledge director and actors can then get down to working out how they want to play the scene, the relationship between Maria and Toby, their relationship to the broader household and what they will actually be doing while talking to each other. After a few rehearsals it's perfectly possible that everyone involved will have forgotten that to begin with none of them understood what they were saying. By the time the first performance arrives and the actors have confidence that they are making sense it may well be, if the playing is beguiling enough and the audience are charmed and intrigued by these new characters they won't notice that they don't understand the text, or don't care if they do notice. Another possibility is that hilariously comic physical "business" has been created, probably involving either Toby being drunk or hungover and Maria helping him on (or off) with his boots, and the audience are laughing too much to hear the lines anyway. Next option might have been the lines have been changed in some way to make them more comprehensible although, jarringly un-Shakespearian. Or perhaps they have simply been cut? Any of these four solutions - leave, distract, change or cut - could be absolutely fine but I'm interested in the fundamental question: how much should you care about lines not being understood by an audience? Actors can become deeply fond of lines they have worked hard to understand and are very good at persuading themselves that they can make them understood, and there is the possibility that one may actually be able to make listeners understand the precise meaning of "let her except before excepted" but certainly the actor has to remember that they once found it deeply obscure and the audience is hearing it for the first time and with no time to ponder its meaning. In rehearsal this dilemma needs to be thought through very carefully while remembering that if someone is thinking hard about what they've just heard they probably won't hear the next line at all. This is the framework in which I think you should make the decision about whether to cut, change, distract or leave an obscure line of text:

  1. The actor must know what it means.
  2. The character wants the person they're talking to know what they mean.
  3. There is a purpose behind them saying it.

However he says it, Sir Toby wants to communicate what he's thinking. If the actor energetically and with total commitment embraces this fact, there is a chance that if not understood exactly in terms of the original meaning it may be understood in a different, but relevant way such as: "let her accept me for the way I am without taking exception to everything I do." It matters to Toby that he is treated with some respect; it must be hard for him to accept that his young niece has authority over him and is in the position to police his behaviour. He is a man denuded of any authority in a household coming to be dominated by the Puritan ethic of a servant, the steward Malvolio, whom he suspects of gross hypocrisy. The way Toby and Olivia clash in the play will never be funny unless the underlying tension created by the balance of power between them is understood and played to the hilt. No actor in Shakespeare should ever speak a line unless they believe it will be understood by the entire audience in a way that is constructive to the story being told.

A Foolish Knight.

Maria: "That quaffing and drinking will undo you. I heard my lady talk of it yesterday; and of a foolish knight that you brought in one night here to be her wooer."

Sir Toby:"Who, Sir Andrew Aguecheek?"

Maria:"Ay, he."

Sir Toby:"He's as tall a man as any in Illyria."

Maria: "What's that to the purpose?"

Sir Toby:"Why, he has three thousand ducats a year."

Maria: "Ay, but he'll have but a year in all these ducats. He's a very fool and a prodigal."

Sir Toby: "Fie that you'll say so. He plays o' the viol-de-gamboys, and speaks three or four languages word for word without book, and hath all the good gifts of nature."

Maria: "He hath indeed all, most natural: for besides that he's a fool, he's a great quarreller; and but that he hath the gift of a coward to allay the gust he hath in quarrelling, 'tis thought among the prudent he would quickly have the gift of the grave."

Sir Toby: "By this hand, they are scoundrels and substractors that say so of him. Who are they?"

Maria: "They that add moreover, he's drunk nightly in your company."

Sir Toby: "With drinking healthy to my niece: I'll drink to her as long as there is a passage in my throat, and drink in Illyria: he's a coward and a coistrel that will not drink to my niece till his brains turn 'o the toe, like a parish top. What, wench! Castiliano vulgo: for here comes Sir Andrew Agueface.”

There is less obscurity in this passage until the reference to "parish top" and the bizarre pseudo-Spanish phrase that Toby comes out with on seeing Andrew approaching. The movement through the dialogue lets the audience begin to feel the shared sense of humour between the couple as her reprimanding gradually changes to complicity. It's classic role play: Toby's mock defence of his guest is an attitude put on to encourage Maria's acid wit and we should begin to see how much these two enjoy each other's company. 

There is an important narrative point that can easily get missed at the start of this section: that Andrew is here notionally as a potential husband for Olivia. "brought be her wooer" is the first mention of the devise being used to keep the man around long enough to milk him of his money. Toby has managed to persuade Andrew he's in with a realistic chance of marriage to his niece. This backstory is worth working on: how on earth did he do it? In the absence of father or brother, Toby can validly claim to be the only senior male figure in the household with any authority over Olivia - he's her uncle. I should qualify that: authority in a period setting; influence, in a modern. That he is using his position for wholly selfish reasons and doesn't care about the annoyance this will cause Olivia or the mental damage his certain rejection will do to Andrew is an important measure of his character, but the actors playing Andrew and Toby need to find ways of avoiding cliches and stereotyping. As there is no good comedy without tension and the possibility of sudden reversal, it is best to assume that Andrew is not a complete fool and that Toby is a superb actor, as most successful conmen are. The dialogue above sets this up. Maria's description of Toby's "friend" as a fool, coward, drunk and inveterate quarreller, needs to be set against the assertion that he is tall (which also meant valiant), a talented linguist, and a competent musician. Even though these compliments are clearly tongue-in-cheek and designed to wind up Maria's wit rather than actually convince her, it is also the kind of flattery that must be working. Andrew is still there, still believing in his chances and still believing Toby is a friend who admires him deeply. If this is to be credible in performance, it's better to assume there is a smattering of truth about it; the con man needs something to work on. Why shouldn't he be able to speak a little bit of Spanish and Italian? Why shouldn't he be able to pluck a few chords on a lute? Many men of his class in the Elizabethan period had this kind of training in music and languages, he will become a total caricature if all ability is denied him. He can't be played as a total idiot because that eliminates the possibility that he might, at any moment, realise he is being conned and that will leave the relationship stuck in the realm of pantomime. An interesting exercise would be for Maria to be a little uncertain about what Toby says: maybe he can play the bass viol a little bit: maybe he does speak another language, and even if she has heard he's cowardly, she's also heard he's always getting into quarrels! Uncertainty is richer territory than bland assumption for exploring one character’s view of another. Later in the play Sir Andrew has one of my favourite lines in the whole of Shakespeare when his "friend" boasts of being adored by Maria, Andrew replies " I was adored once too ".  I would rather believe that was true; it's both funny and sad, like so much of life.

And here he enters the action.

Sir Andrew: "Sir Toby Belch! How now, Sir Toby Belch?"

Sir Toby: "Sweet Sir Andrew!"

Sir Andrew: "Bless you, fair shrew."

Maria: "And you too, sir."

Sir Toby: "Accost, Sir Andrew, accost."

Sir Andrew: "What's that?"

Sir Toby: "My niece's chambermaid."

Sir Andrew: "Good Mistress Accost, I desire better acquaintance."

Maria: "My name is Mary, sir."

Sir Andrew: "Good Mistress Mary Accost-"

Sir Toby: "You mistake knight. Accost is front her, board her, woo her, assail her.

Sir Andrew: "By my troth, I would not undertake her in this company. Is that the meaning of accost?"

Maria: "Fare you well gentlemen."

It's easy to forget that Maria has never met Sir Andrew before, only heard about him. Her opinions about him earlier when talking to Toby were second hand. So what should her attitude to him be in this brief encounter? She must be curious and I think that would dictate her behaviour. It always makes good theatre to see two people forming a view of each other on a first meeting, especially someone you've heard about. We tend to be curious not only about others but about our own reactions to others. It's as if in feeling out where we can go with someone we are also finding out something about ourselves, often measuring our capacities for admiration or scorn. In this particular moment it seems Maria satisfies her curiosity fairly quickly, but Toby is determined to prolong the situation savouring the collision between Andrews clumsy hopelessness with women and Maria's sharp wit.

Sir Toby: "And thou let part so, Sir Andrew, wouldst thou never draw sword again."

Sir Andrew: "And you part so, mistress, I would I might never draw sword again. Fair lady, do you think you have fools in hand?"

Maria: "Sir, I have not you by the hand."

Sir Andrew: "Marry, but you shall have, and here's my hand."

Maria: "Now sir, thought is free. I pray you bring your hand to the buttery bar and let it drink." 

Sir Andrew: "Wherefore, sweetheart? What's your metaphor?"

Maria: "It's dry, sir."

Sir Andrew: "Why I think so. I am not such an ass but I can keep my hand dry. But what's your jest?"

Maria: "A dry jest, sir."

Sir Andrew: "Are you full of them?"

Maria: "Ay, sir, I have them at my fingers ends: marry, now I let go your hand, I am barren."

(She exits.)

The first question is how do you make the meanings clear concerning the Elizabethan belief that dry hands indicated sexual inadequacy, but if you can convince yourselves that is possible there remains the issue of exactly what physical activity is implied by the text. Clearly at some point the two need to make hand contact, probably immediately after "here's my hand", but how does he actually offer his hand? A modern handshake? Offering it to be kissed in reverse of convention? How he offers it conditions how she takes it, but essentially she must really feel it as dry and play the sense of wanting to help his sexual problem by giving the hand a drink. He, of course, doesn't get the joke, but the joke isn't for him it's for Toby. What we need to understand from the moment is that it's not about cruelty to Sir Andrew it's a step along the path of impressing and seducing Sir Toby. She is every bit as much a social climber as Malvolio and Toby is her mark. At the end of the play they marry, underlining the very real possibility of class mobility in this society, and that Malvolio is not so crazy after all. But we will come to him later. 

For the rest of the scene the two men are alone together and in performance we should suddenly feel an enormous change in the atmosphere. Andrew no longer has to think of impressing his friend with his chat up technique and Toby has lost his audience. While Maria was there he had someone to play to while enjoying the secret complicity of shared mockery. My making a quick exit Maria has made clear her disapproval of the scam that he's engaged in. To be alone with someone you despise while pretending to admire is not much fun, and keeping up the act must feel like hard work. The effort should show through; not enough for Andrew to be aware of it, but just enough for the audience to sense it. Toby Belch is treating his guest appallingly in pretending to like him, but there is a weird kind of poetic justice about the situation. In forcing himself to spend time with a person he can't stand he suffers stress, boredom and irritation and he deserves whatever discomfort this brings. The effect would probably be to make him permanently angry which he would have to work hard to conceal, and that effort would make him even angrier. He has to be on his guard not to give himself away - he is his own punishment. So, here is the source of tension the director needs to create. Toby needs the money and the deeper he lures Andrew into thinking of him as a dear friend the more dangerous the situation becomes for him. On top of this Andrew lacks confidence enough to give up on the Olivia project at any moment, a lack his host has to keeping boosting, but it is tiring work. Andrew, thinking his friend has faith in him, is in constant need of personal therapy and reassurance.

Sir Toby: "O knight, thou lack'st a cup of canary: when did I see thee so put down?"

Sir Andrew: "Never in your life I think, unless you see canary put me down. Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has. But I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit."

Sir Toby: "No question."

Sir Andrew: "And I thought that I'd forswear it. I'll ride home tomorrow." 

Sir Toby: "Pourquoi, my dear knight? 

Sir Andrew: "What is pourquoi? Do, or not do? I would I had bestowed that time in the tongues that I have in fencing, dancing and bear-baiting. O had I but followed the arts."

So maybe Sir Andrew’s linguistic skills are not so great after all, but with his nervy butterfly mind it's hard to know where his true personality lies. He is being indulged by his friend to think of himself as the heroic centre of his own fascinating story in a way he is not used to. I think it is interesting in rehearsal to find the most detailed ways of building the picture of Andrew’s dependency on Toby; the feeling that he is the best, maybe the one true, friend that he has ever had. By the time of their final joint exit in the fifth act, nursing the wounds inflicted by Sebastian, Andrew says tenderly "I'll help you Sir Toby, because we'll be dressed together", and it is that assumption of closeness and comradeship in adversity that finally unleashes in Toby the anger I was speaking of that must be gathering inside him throughout the play. As the rose coloured spectacles of their "friendship" are brutally ripped from his eyes we should experience one of those moments where comedy and tragedy are indivisible one thing, one complex emotion, typical of Shakespeare and typical of this play.

Sir Toby: "Will you help? An ass-head, and a coxcomb, and a knave, a thin faced knave, a gull."

Sir Andrew has no reply - but someone, somewhere, adored him once.

Bill Alexander ©

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