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The ancient Catholic world was rich, colorful, and full of ritual and rumbustiousness. It was the culture of the rough and tumble, blood and glory, lusting and loving, fasting and feasting of the lives of the English people…

malvolioI was introduced to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when I was a college freshman. Having learned to act in high school plays, I auditioned for the Classic Players’ Autumn production at Bob Jones University and was rewarded with a walk-on part. It was fun to be there for rehearsals and enjoy one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies. Years later, in England I played the part of Antonio in an outdoor summertime production.

It was with some pleasure therefore that I attended the play with Joseph Pearce, his daughter and members of my family at Bob Jones University. Jeffrey Stegall, an actor and drama professor at Bob Jones, is also the founder and director of the Greenville Shakespeare Company—a non-profit theater group that produces Shakespeare’s plays and other classic works. Mr. Stegall read Joseph Pearce’s review of Bob Jones’ Merchant of Venice in The Imaginative Conservative and offered us some free tickets.

The production of Twelfth Night was expertly trimmed down to be fast paced and accessible. With large numbers of children and teenagers seated in the small black box theater, the show was intimate, colorful, funny, and fun. Suitably, respecting the young audience and the sensibilities of a largely Bob Jones clientele, the show was somewhat sanitized. Innuendo bowed to innocence. The Lady Olivia was more lovely than lustful, Sir Toby drank nothing more dangerous than orange pop and Andrew Aguecheek was more of a fool than a fop.

Thomas Bowdler was the nineteenth-century physician who, along with his sister, produced The Family Shakespeare—an expurgated edition of Shakespeare’s plays deemed more suitable for the Victorian drawing room. At Bob Jones the bawdy, bibulous and brawling parts of the play were bowdlerized.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. Shakespeare’s work is nothing if it is not universal and universally adaptable.

But this delightful summer time family confection reminded me that the Bob Jones production some forty years ago was not similarly laundered. I can remember Maria’s behind being slapped by Sir Toby Belch, who was played as a reeling, lecherous old coot. Sir Andrew Aguecheek was hilariously campy while partying with a deviously devilish Feste and Sir Toby. The riotous revels were all the more hilarious when the upright Malvolio appeared, like an imperious schoolmarm catching the boys in the midst of a midnight feast.

Malvolio’s indignation is delicious: “What, my masters are you mad? Or what are you? Have you no wit, manners, nor honesty by to gabble like tinkers at this time of night? Do you make an alehouse of my lady’s house, that you squeak out your coziers’ catches without any mitigation or remorse of voice? Is there no respect of place, persons or time in you?”

Later on Malvolio is accused by Sir Toby of being a “Puritan.” Shakespeare’s plays were always topical, and Peter Ackroyd points out in his biography of the bard, that the conflict between the Puritans and the Players was one of the most divisive of the period. The Puritans were famously opposed to the playhouses, which were usually associated with the lowest elements of society. Brothels, beer, brawling, and bear baiting were all part of the theater scene. The Puritans were also opposed because the playhouses were in competition with their pulpits. In addition, the sexual innuendo, corruption of boys (who played the female parts) and general mis rule were anathema to the Puritan preachers. Ackroyd suggests that Malvolio may even have been created to lampoon a notorious killjoy, Sir William Knollys—Comptroller of the Royal Household and one of the royal censors.

Of course the clash was not only between the Puritans and the Players. More profoundly it was a clash between the new Protestant religion and Shakespeare’s own, older Catholic culture. The ancient Catholic world was rich, colorful, and full of ritual and rumbustiousness. It was the culture of the mystery plays and the rough and tumble, blood and glory, lusting and loving, fasting and feasting of the lives of the English people.

The Puritans, in contrast, were Protestant, punctilious, sober, and serious.

Malvolio was their man.

After vaunting himself before the Lady Olivia, Malvolio is teased about being mad, then locked up as a lunatic. Without pushing the comparison too far, does Shakespeare consider the Puritans’ self righteousness to be a kind of lunacy? Does he see them as chained in a purgatorial prison of their own making? The fact that Sir Toby and Maria pretend Malvolio is possessed, and Feste (disguised as Sir Topas the curate) mockingly attempts an exorcism, would indicate that Shakespeare pushed the puritanical madness even further—seeing it as a kind of incurable demonic obsession.

Some might find it ironic that Bob Jones University—famous for its own brand of puritanical piety—would produce a play whose subplot turns on the mockery of puritanical Protestantism. If they are aware of this dimension to the play and perhaps see themselves, it is all the more to their credit, and if their laughter punctures prudish pomposity wherever it appears, even better, for Protestant fundamentalists most certainly do not hold the monopoly on puritanical self-righteousness.

There are plenty of Catholic Malvolios, Mormon Malvolios, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim Malvolios— and wherever they appear may the Festes, Sir Tobys, and Marias of this world twit them cheerfully and drink to their final happiness.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Roman Catholics didn’t limit themselves to the 12 days of Christmas as Protestants did, hence Twelfth Night.

    Perhaps it was the allegories of theatre that the Puritans disliked, something they worked hard at to eliminate from Scripture.

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