"How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?": A Problematic (Re)interpretation of Maria in Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Nigh

By Marshall, Kelli | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

"How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?": A Problematic (Re)interpretation of Maria in Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Nigh


Marshall, Kelli, Literature/Film Quarterly


About one-third of the way into Trevor Nunn's film Twelfth Night (1996), the maidservant character Maria (Imelda Staunton) summons her fellow cronies-Sir Toby (Mel Smith), Sir Andrew (Richard E. Grant), and Feste (Ben Kingsley)-to join her in a plot against Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne), the stuffy steward who eliminates all fun from their household. Laughing, drinking wine, and openly badmouthing Malvolio's name, Maria gathers her conspirators around a parlor table and rattles off her plan of action: she will write-in the hand of her lady, Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter)-a phony love letter to Malvolio, which will prompt the pretentious steward not only to don a very uncharacteristic smile and yellow stockings ("a color [Olivia] abhors"), but also to woo an oblivious Olivia in the process.

The Maria character in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is generally interpreted in this same light: as feisty, witty, and outgoing. After all, within the text the clever maidservant challenges Feste's bawdy puns with her own, openly confronts her fiance about his sloppy drinking habit, and most significantly, initiates the conspiracy against Malvolio. In Nunn's adaptation however, this plotting scene is the only one in which Maria assumes this traditional role. As a matter of fact, throughout the remainder of the film she is represented as the complete opposite in nature-somber, introverted, and matronly-an interpretation that makes the character, and thus the onscreen portrayal, somewhat problematic.

Imelda Staunton's uncharacteristic portrayal of Maria in Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night works against the plausibility of the narrative's subplot, largely because Staunton's onscreen depiction of a timid, melancholy spinster contradicts Maria's commanding (and expected) role as the initiator of the Malvolio scheme: in addition, some of the camerawork and editing choices (both filmic and textual) around Staunton's scenes reinforce this inconsistency, as both tend to distance her significantly from her conspiring cohorts.

In an interview for the film's official Web site, Staunton remarks that she took on the role of Maria twice before but that she did not truly enjoy it. She further comments that "what's so good about this adaptation is that [Maria] is not a pert and jolly maid but a woman of a certain age who is desperate to catch Sir Toby-it's her last chance. So she's prepared to be cruel to Malvolio (who's been cruel to her), to get what she wants." Suffice it to say, these ideas come through clearly in the film, as this Maria is a long way from "pert" and "jolly." Those film critics who discuss Staunton's interpretation (it seems that most avoid her role) recognize this atypical portrayal as well. Stanley Kauffmann for instance says that Maria is played "without an iota of merriment." Jonathan Coe contends that Staunton (along with Mel Smith and Richard E. Grant) "make[s] slightly heavy weather of the comic relief." And Gary Crowdus claims that Maria "is a much less comic figure than usual," and (much like Staunton herself) that "she sees in Toby her last, desperate chance at love." Although these critics do not explicitly voice it in their reviews, they seem to suggest that it is not necessarily Staunton's acting that is unsettling to watch, but her character interpretation. Rightly so, there is something rather peculiar here as Staunton's disposition conflicts with the typically delightful Shakespearean character.

The first time we see Maria in Nunn's version she and Malvolio are examining Olivia's kitchen. While Maria, Malvolio, and two other male attendants enter the kitchen, non-diegetic music is played-full of the pomp and circumstance that Nunn more than likely wants us to identify with the pretentious Malvolio. Maria follows closely behind Olivia's chief steward, who is busy inspecting the servant girls' hands, and with only his gestures calling order about the kitchen. At the same time, Maria holds in her arms a notepad and pencil, ready at any moment to jot down even the slightest wrongdoing of the servants before her. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

"How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?": A Problematic (Re)interpretation of Maria in Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Nigh
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.