Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Meaning of Feste.

We watched Trevor Nunn's film version of Twelfth Night this evening as part of the Shakespeare on film season I'm running to supplement the Early Modern Drama module. Filmed in and around the beautiful Penwith peninsula in Cornwall and set in the early years of the nineteenth century, it's a version that's grown on me over time.

I've often thought of Twelfth Night as the pivotal play in the entire canon. A moment of revelation for Shakespeare as a writer. The moment, perhaps, where he simultaneously becomes sure of his place in the world and his impending mortality. Nothing he wrote before was as tightly structured and nothing he writes afterwards is as freewheeling.

The key to my mini-theory is Feste who seems, particularly in the last moments of the play to be as autobiographical a character as Shakespeare wrote. His final song, which starts so clearly to lay out the ages of man, seems to loose heart after just four verses - compare this with Jacques in As You Like It, written just a couple of years earlier, who finds seven distinctions in his All the World's A Stage speech.

The song ends with a passionate statement in which personal ambition is resigned in favour of self-knowledge. The focus is shifting from virtuosity to craft.

'A great while ago the world begun

With a hey, ho the wind and the rain

But that's all one, our play is done

And we'll strive to please you everyday.'

Shakespeare was 38 when he wrote that and staring into middle age. The sixteenth century had come to an end. Within a year Elizabeth had died and England was once again thrown into religious and political uncertainty. His later works, all written under the new patronage of James I, would reflect a desire to provide intellectual and philosophical succour to the Jacobean world order. Illyria was the world that he left behind.


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