Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

"Sportful Malice," or What Maria Wills: Revenge Comedy in Twelfth Night

Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

"Sportful Malice," or What Maria Wills: Revenge Comedy in Twelfth Night

Article excerpt

   Maria writ
   The letter, at Sir Toby's great importance,
   In recompense whereof he hath married her.
   How with a sportful malice it was follow'd
   May rather pluck on laughter than revenge,
   If that the injuries be justly weigh'd
   That have on both sides pass'd? (1)

Recent theater productions and literary criticism of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night acknowledge the disquieting nature of the revenge plot carried out against Malvolio; yet the degree to which directors and critics allow revenge to unbalance romantic comedy varies significantly, as do perceptions of how the dynamics of revenge operate in this comedy. These interpretive differences, I argue, arise from Shakespeare's deliberate use of contradictory figurative constructions of revenge, which create tonal ambiguity and destabilize generic boundaries. Complexities in tone and genre are directly related to the avenger's character and function in the play. Critics have generally overlooked the role of Maria, Olivia's lady-in-waiting, as the lead avenger. Unassuming as she is, Maria takes the part of Nemesis, goddess of retribution, whose righteous indignation and resentment against pride and undue disturbances of Fortune and Justice drive her "to give what is due" (the Greek root of nemesis). The avenging Maria stands as a figure for comedy's contradictory impulses; her vengeance generates and undermines comedy from behind the scenes, eliciting both uproarious laughter and moral disquietude. Her journey's end, like Viola's and Olivia's, is comedic, but her function as Nemesis complicates the play's generic purposes. Her ingenious plot fuels communal resentment and retribution, revealing not only that comedy is hospitable to revenge, but, most surprisingly and rarely observed by critics, that vengeance, with its attendant pleasures, cruelties, and humiliations, is constitutive of the genre.

Twelfth Night raises troubling questions about revenge as a means for individual and communal retribution; at the same time, questions about generic integrity come into focus. To what extent does comedy license excessive revenge? What conditions, generic and personal, transform revenge fantasy into reality? Can revenge be constructive or therapeutic, or does it simply encourage further injury? Does revenge teach a lesson? How much revenge is enough? The specter of such questions betrays how awkwardly Twelfth Night's revenge plot fits into traditional views of comedic design espoused by critics such as C. L. Barber. (2) Critics who defend the poetic justice of Malvolio's treatment are "bent on repressing instincts which, outside the theatre of Twelfth Night, they would surely admit." (3) We need only examine the figurative language used to characterize the revengers' plot and the play's final moments of awkward reconciliation to detect textual complexities and contradictions that cannot be glossed over or laughed away. Malvolio's exit line and Fabian's peacemaking speech offer ready examples. In comedy's world, how can we make sense of the harsh, discordant notes of the persecuted steward's cry, "I'll be reveng'd on the whole pack of you!" (5.1.377)? This chilling line, with its intimations of tragic fury, the bearbaiting ring, and bloodthirsty dogs, demands to be taken seriously. Alternately, if the Folio's question mark at the end of this line were to be used by an actor, we might feel a real sense of pathos and remorse upon the shamed steward's exit. Fabian's speech, quoted in part as the epigraph for this essay, seems intended to provide clarification and preserve wonder at the play's end, but succeeds mainly in leaving us with a nagging sense that reconciliation has been hastily attempted, that it is a far more fragile business than the characters--or we comedy lovers--admit. Words such as "recompense" and "sportful malice" sit uncomfortably with "married" and "justly weigh'd." We wish to reconcile them, to say with Feste, "that's all one" (5. …

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