Artwork by Catherine Craig
If asked what they think about Shakespear’s play Hamlet most people have strong feelings – they either love the dark, brooding and philosophically searching main character or they hate what they take to be Hamlet’s angst-ridden indecisiveness.  By way of contrast, when asked what they think about the comedy  Twelfth Night many people have neither read it nor heard about it, and those who have remember it as a kind of funny diversion that took too long to get through in high school. (For the record, until recently I hated Hamlet’s existential crisis and had vague but not strong memories or feelings about Twelfth Night).

Even those of us who haven’t read Hamlet can quote its most famous line: “To be or not to be.” Hamlet’s force lies in its investigation of the nature of “being.” And that’s the stuff of the most complicated philosophic investigations. As most of the primary characters are dead by the the end of the play, it seems that Hamlet’s question is answered in the negative, as everyone it seems will die and all of existence has its end in non-existence.  But for that to be the answer depends on how one finally accounts for the nature of being itself.  Is existence limited to the physical and finite world or is there a metaphysical existence beyond our current experience? The appearance of Hamlet’s dead dad as a ghost suggests the question is more complicated than it might initially appear.

A comedy seemingly filled with more slapstick humour than any of Shakespeare’s other plays, it’s easy to read Twelfth Night as Hamlet’s underachieving kid brother forever destined to live in mom’s basement. Because it comes in the middle of a joke, you could miss the philosophic question that demands an answer from Twelfth Night’s audience. Most of the comedy of the play is derived from the antics of Sir Toby, rogue of a man who lives off the estate of his niece Olivia, and Sir Andrew, a dullard who Toby hopes to marry off to Olivia, thereby securing his fortunes. When Sir Andrew begins to think that Olivia will never choose him, he threatens to leave and Toby asks, “pourquoi?” Not knowing what this means, Andrew turns Hamlet’s question in another direction, saying, “pourquoi? Do or not do?”   While Hamlet asks us to investigate the nature of being, Twelfth Night asks the equally if not more difficult question of why? Why is there existence at all? Or what is the primary motive or cause of our doing, acting and being? 

For most of the play, there seems to be no good or obvious answer to this question. Characters seeking meaning for their lives seem to consistently fall back upon themselves, finding no other answer than the fulfillment of their petty desires, like Toby, or their pride, like Orsino and Olivia. In both instances, what seem to be harmless vanities have potentially tragic consequences for these characaters and others, culminating in Orsino’s threat to kill Viola, who he believes to be a young man who has betrayed him. And perhaps with greater consequence, Toby’s mistreatment of Malvolio that even at the end of the play, leaves Malvolio in rage, demanding revenge.

Through the course of the play, characters ask Feste, the court jester, to sing a haunting refrain, Oh Mistress Mine, a song which always quiets their turbulent passions and indicates their desire for a more fuflifilling end:

What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter

Present mirth hath present laughter;

What’s to come is still unsure.

In delay there lies no plenty,

Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,

Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

The song highlights the impermanence of our finite pleasures and the play itself begins with loss, as Olivia mourns for a brother who has recently died and Viola fears that her brother, Sebastian has drowned in a shipwreck.  Frightened of uncertain futures and certain deaths, the characters in the play try in their own ways to gain control and find safe refuge. For Toby and Andrew this means drowning their fears in drink and manipulating others so as create an illusion of power. For Olivia and Orsino it means explicitly asserting their wills on others as Orsino insists and persists in his demands on Olivia’s affections while she refuses to give him admittance, hiding behind the black veil of mourning that seems to have no other purpose than to frustrate Orsino’s will.

Viola, however, who was washed ashore in the same shipwreck in which she lost her brother, faces the possibility of his death and of death in general not in the assertion of her own power (even though she does masquerade as a boy as a way of securing her livelihood in this unknown land), but rather in hope – hope that somehow the brother she loves will be returned and hope that the love she now feels for Orsino will be reciprocated. The foundation of Viola’s hope is love. Whatever might come of Sebastian and Orsino, Vila persists in her love and loyalty to each.  In both instances, Viola’s hope is answered, as her brother is seemingly resurrected, having been washed ashore himself, and Orsino, discovering that she is a woman, realizes that he returns her love in full. Fittingly, Viola’s name, derived from Latin, means to be exultant or joyful for all she has hoped for has come to fruition.

In Twelfth Night we discover what the world of Hamlet is missing. Answering the question about the nature of existence or being, requires that one consider at the same time what the essence of existence depends on. Having posed the question, “to be or not to be,” Hamlet must also answer Sir Andrew’s question, “Pourquoi?” Not just what is life, but why is there life or what is the purpose and cause of existence? What makes life meaningful? And the answer comes not in Hamlet’s tragic existential crisis, but rather in the love given and sought by the young and hopeful Viola.