Sentences from Shakespeare

by Janis Lull 

 
 
 

(4) Even so quickly may one catch the plague? (TN 1.5)

This is what Olivia says when she realizes she has fallen in love with Viola/Caesario. Love is like the plague. Households in Shakespeare’s time were said to be “visited” by plague, as lovers (especially in Shakespeare) are mysteriously visited by romantic love. Even after COVID-19, most people know little about how plagues work. Nor do we understand love at first sight, although there does seem to be such a thing. Sudden ardor “with an invisible and subtle stealth” creeps in and takes over.
 
Olivia names the plague, but her metaphorical sentence is really about love. Partly she’s asking if there’s a way for her to slow it down: “Not too fast! Soft, soft!” But by comparing love to the plague, she’s also asking to be relieved of responsibility. Is love a disease? If so, she can hardly be held accountable for how fast it’s happening to her. As questions do, this one contains the reply the speaker wants. Asked and answered. Love is like the plague, and so there’s nothing Olivia can do except “let it be.”
 
Olivia is alone on stage when she speaks this line, but in real life, “Olivia” is an actor in a play. This is the situation of all Shakespeare’s soliloquies, and opinion differs about whether these characters are talking to themselves or to the audience. Olivia might be looking into her soul as she says this sentence, or she might be looking into the front row of seats. Actors and directors will make their own choices. But even if you’re just sitting home reading Olivia’s words, she is asking something of you: don’t hold me responsible. Let me off the hook.
 
Surprisingly, you might think, young students of Shakespeare are inclined to deny Olivia’s wish. Whether because they’ve learned that love at first sight is irrational or because they haven’t experienced it themselves, audiences in their teens and twenties tend to reject the Shakespearean convention that true love can be caught like the plague. They oppose the notion that good relationships can be built on impulses; the bonds will be flimsy, and it won’t last. Older readers or playgoers—in their thirties and beyond—are more likely to give Olivia a break.
 
The kids do have a point. In life, we should probably dig deeper into the origins of sudden attraction. Like the plague, falling in love must be caused by something. But the thirty-and-upwards also have a point: the more we dig, the more we discover what we don’t know. Shakespeare’s contemporaries had ideas about the origins of bubonic plague, most of them wrong; it is not airborne, not a result of bodily “humours,” not a kind of supernatural punishment, and not governed by the stars. Today we know a bit more about disease, maybe not much more about romantic love. Recognizing that we still have a lot to learn, we may want to suspend our judgment of Olivia. Sometimes it’s best to “let it be.”

(3) Me thinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has. (TN 1.3)

In Shakespeare’s time, “a Christian” was pretty much synonymous with “an ordinary man.” English citizens were Christians by compulsion. They drew fines if they didn’t go to church. The joke here is that the speaker, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, seems to have considerably less wit than an ordinary man. Andrew is a gull and a dupe, easily manipulated by Sir Toby, who sponges off him and exploits him.
 
Is is it still funny today when friends take advantage of a not-very-bright person, even if that person is also something of a braggart and has weird hair? The English Renaissance was a crueler age than ours, at least officially. Shakespeare walks a fine line with his buffoons, sometimes mocking them and sometimes eliciting sympathy for them. One of the most cruelly used, Falstaff, is also one of the most beloved.
 
What to say about fools—not wise fools, professional fools, like Feste in this play, but genuine simpletons? Today, as in the Renaissance, one possible impulse is to make fun of them, play tricks on them. That’s what happens to Sir Andrew. But it happens to almost all the other characters, too. By design or by accident, everybody plays the fool.
 
Sir Andrew’s temporary insight into his ordinariness can be very touching. Just for a moment, he understands that although he’s a rich knight, he’s also a person of very average ability. But the moment passes, and Andrew’s humility fades. The most attractive characters in Twelfth Night—Viola, Sebastian, and Olivia, for example—know how to admit when they’re flummoxed. The least attractive—Malvolio and Sir Toby—get angry rather than acknowledge their mistakes. Sir Andrew falls somewhere in the middle.
 
Most of the characters in Twelfth Night are not ordinary. They’re clever. They’re also either young, rich, and attractive, or they’re close companions to people who are. Sir Andrew has rank and money, but no cleverness. When he forgets about his limitations—which is most of the time—he’s a stick figure who invites ridicule. But when he speaks with self-doubt, as in this sentence or the poignant “I was adored once, too,” he seems more human. As Shakespeare says elsewhere, “the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Sir Andrew knows this about himself intermittently. Malvolio and Toby, both much smarter than Andrew, never show any self-knowledge, and we are less likely to pity them when they come to grief. Perhaps Sir Andrew, ridiculous and pathetic, exists to remind us that sometimes Fools R Us.

(2) If music be the food of love, play on. (TN 1.1)

This might be the most famous opening line in all of Shakespeare. People sometimes
remember it as, “Music is the food of love,” but that’s not quite right. The sentence starts with “If,” and follows up with “be” instead of “is,” putting the verb in the old-fashioned subjunctive mode. The subjunctive is not much used in English any more, but it’s still available to anyone who wants to signal heavy doubt. “It’s important that you be on time,” for example, addressed to someone who’s always late. Duke Orsino’s sentence says that If music nourish his feelings of love, then the musicians should keep on playing. (Notice it’s not “nourishes,” but “nourish,” the subjunctive verb of doubt.) Sure enough, Orsino changes his mind in about a minute: “Enough, no more, / ’Tis not so sweet now as it was before.”
 
“Much virtue in ‘if,’” says Touchstone in As You Like It. The greatest virtue of “if” is to offer speakers the option of reversing themselves. For Orsino, it’s a way of indulging himself, releasing the oscillating play of his emotions. An actor may choose to bluster out these first lines—waving his hand, shouting commands to the musicians—but the grammar of Orsino’s sentence betrays him. He’s confused. The “if it be” shows he’s grasping at straws—“Just possibly this music is what I need. But, wait. No it’s not.”
 
Maybe romantic love should always be spoken of in the subjunctive. One feels something, but one has doubts. Is it love? We hold our emotions up to the light, weigh them against ideal love, and wonder if the two really have anything in common. Shakespeare himself probably described ideal love better than anyone: “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, / But bears it out even to the edge of doom” (Sonnet 116). How will Orsino’s moods stand up to that? How about the passions of the other young lovers in the play? Do we believe that their commitments, made in the heat of impulse and error and fed by popular tunes, will stand the test of time? Will they “bear it out even to the edge of doom?” In Twelfth Night, as in life, “What’s to come is still unsure,” and uncertainty is the natural home of the subjunctive mode.

(1) Twelfth Night, Or what you will. 

Twelfth Night is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays for which he wrote a subtitle, “what you will.” Although it’s not a grammatically complete sentence, it has the force of an imperative directed to the audience: “Call it whatever you want.” A couple of Shakespeare’s other titles show this same spirit of apparent carelessness—As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing. The names seem to say that these works are mere trifles.
 
Or possibly titles didn’t matter much to Shakespeare. Most of his tragedies and histories simply take their names from the main characters. The titles of the comedies, whene they aren’t throwaways like “what you will,” usually name the plots, like The Taming of the Shrew. Such titles are basically labels that identify the subject of the play without trying to add any new meaning. (Compare this to titles like A Long Day’s Journey Into Night or A Streetcar Named Desire, for example.) For Twelfth Night, though, I think the subtitle was more than just a throwaway, even if it looks like one at first.
 
Tradition says Twelfth Night was named for the occasion of a performance of the play before Queen Elizabeth, on the last night of the Christmas season. If so, that was a good enough reason to use it as the title of the play thereafter, to advertise the work’s prestigious history. But why did it get a subtitle? The main title, Twelfth Night doesn’t explain the piece, since it isn’t about Christmas. But As You Like It doesn’t explain anything about that play, either, and yet nobody seemed to think it needed a subtitle. I suspect the difference was “will,” which may have been Shakespeare’s favorite word. To begin with, “Will” was his name. And it turned out his name could mean many other things. He wrote a famous sonnet about all those meanings of the word “will,” number 135.
 
No matter how he got the idea to use the phrase “what you will” in connection with Twelfth Night, it must have seemed an inspired choice once he thought of it. The play may not concern Christmas, but it certainly concerns “will” and “willfulness.” It’s about privileged people who insist on having their own ways, often driven by “will” in the sense of self-assertion, but also “will” in the sense of carnal desire (a meaning still current today, and one Shakespeare used often.) The antagonist of Twelfth Night is even named “Malvolio,” which literally means “Ill Will.”
 
In spite of ill will and plot twists, things usually come out all right at the end of a Shakespearean comedy. That’s the future toward which comedies tend. In Twelfth Night, as inSentences from Shakespeare English today, the most common sense of the word “will” is simple futurity. The characters use “will” the same way we use it, to refer to what is (probably) going to happen. “Will” means the future, and a lot of us in the audience at the start of a comedy expect that in the near future we will experience a (more or less) happy ending. In Twelfth Night, if not in every Shakespearean comedy, we will have our will.