Twelfth Night is one of the most frequently performed Shakespeare plays because of its lighthearted material. I have seen around 6 productions of the show, and each production has been radically different. Unlike a production of Phantom of the Opera (as a random example), Shakespeare plays are encouraged to radically change and offer new perspectives on the classic material, rather than just repeating the same costuming, setting, and movements of earlier productions.
Each performance of Twelfth Night brings something new to the story, which suggests that Shakespeare is in a constant state of reinvention. His works are never just one thing, they can be read through a variety of lens and backgrounds. As such, Shakespeare plays are a work in progress, and every adaptation is of equal importance and value to the broader canonical world of Shakespeare.
I adore the 1996 version of Twelfth Night because of the way it balances Shakespeare’s prose with modern sensibility. Rather than just filming a stage production, the film transforms the theatrical version of the play into a complex cinematic experience. It revisits the play in a new light, offering alternative readings, moments, and nuances which a theatrical production would have trouble staging. In other words, the film makes Shakespeare’s material cinematic, and removes it from the stage. This is especially evident in the “O Mistress Mine” song scene, or Act II scene 3 and 4 in the play.
What Can(t) Film Do?
Translating theater to film can be both challenging and liberating. With theater, you have a live interface with the audience, a group who you can interact with and read from. With multiple performances, you can experiment with phrasing and movement and really play with the role to discover what would be more engaging. Theater has time to be perfect, while film has one showing and one cut. A film audience only gets one version of the performance, long after the actors perform it. Production can also be rather jarring, as actors often shoot out of sequence and away from the narrative momentum.
However, film offers a different set of freedom, as actors can focus on minimalist performance rather than large and readable kinds which can be seen from a distance.
Adapting a Shakespeare play in film means you can easily link different moments from different scenes and focus on small details. As such, these films allow us to imagine new perspectives, or to see events in a different light. The “O Mistress Mine” scene is an excellent example of this, as it combines two separate scenes from the play into a cohesive event.
Two Scene, or Not Two Scene?
At first glance, Act II scene 3 and 4 are very different, as one takes place in Olivia’s home, and the other in Duke Orsino’s. However, by combining these scenes, the film suggests that the events and power dynamics between these characters mirror one another. We begin in Olivia’s kitchen, as Feste plays music for Toby, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Maria. As he sings, we cut to a card game between Viola and Orsino where the same song is playing, but just on the piano. Speaking broadly, both scenes include music and merriment and occur right before everyone goes to bed, suggesting that the characters are tired and have their guards down.
But there are other ways in which they are similar, more complex ways. For instance, both scenes position women in a similar light. They each include a woman who cannot admit that she is in love because it would be improper to do so.
Maria is in love with Toby but knows that he does not respect her, will not marry her, and is from a different class. Rather than declaring her love, Maria joins Feste’s song love, and indirectly comments on her position.
Like Maria, Viola finds a way to indirectly admit she has feelings for Orsino without really admitting anything. When Orsino asks about her mistress, Viola claims that her love is of his complexion and years, which answers the question but not entirely.
What additionally unites these moments is that Orsino and Toby are somewhat aware of the way Viola and Maria feel, but choose to ignore it. Eventually these figures couple off, but until then, this is the perfect unrequited love scene.
What’s in a Love Song?
When Feste is about to perform, he asks Andrew and Toby if they would like “A love song or a song of good life”. This suggests that you cannot be in love and have a good life, as the two are incompatible. This phrasing also relates to the reason love is unrequited in the play, as characters are trying to maintain their good life without sacrificing their class and dignity. It is why neither Viola nor Maria can profess their love, as it would be improper to do so.
The love song becomes a vehicle for the characters to express themselves, as suggested by the camera work in the scene.
The first time we cut to Viola, Orsino asks if she likes the piano tune, to which she replies, “It gives a very echo to the seat where love is throned”. Echoes are a good way to read the scene, as the song Viola describes echoes Feste’s performance, and the lyrics in that song echo the characters. The way the film cuts between these scenes creates a call and response dynamic, one where Feste’s lyric matches what the characters are unwilling to talk about.
For example, when Feste says, “True love’s coming”, it cuts to Olivia, sleeping upstairs. She wakes up just as we cut from that line, which sets up the next scene, while additionally foreshadowing Sebastian’s arrival (Viola’s brother and Olivia’s true love). As such, Feste acts as an omniscient figure, one who quietly guides characters in the right direction by hinting at what is to come.
Likewise, when Feste sings “What is love? Tis not here after present mirth and present laughter”, we cut to Maria, who is carefully watching Toby. This symmetry illustrates that while Maria is in love with Toby, and that her love will continue after this merriment scene, the same cannot be said of self-obsessed Toby. The “present laughter” line also cuts to Viola, which demonstrates that although she and Orsino are laughing, this moment will pass, and so might Orsino’s attention and feelings.
As Viola later finishes her line about women turning into roses, and then dying, we cut back to Feste as he sings “What’s to come is still unsure”. This implies that while both Maria and Viola feel helpless, the future may still work in their favour. Because the future is so unsure, it offers both opportunity and the death Viola describes.
When Maria joins in with Feste’s song, she repeats the line “In delay there lies no plenty” while looking at Toby. This is her way of confessing love, but also chastising Toby for not doing anything. By delaying, neither she nor Toby will find happiness. As a response, we cut to Toby as the line “Youth’s a stuff will not endure” plays, suggesting that Toby is stuck in his jovial lifestyle. Prior to this point, Toby has tried to be younger than he is, and to shirk as much responsibility as he can. While he is not willing to overcome this lifestyle just yet, he is aware that this attitude has a limited lifespan.
I find this scene incredible because it says so much about the characters through little filmic details, those which could not translate onto the stage. While both theater and film offer unique opportunities for Shakespeare, this film alters Shakespeare’s rigid act and scene structure for a looser narrative-based approach. The film cuts between scenes out of order, and sometimes cuts lines from the play, in order to appeal to a film audience, versus a theatrical. As such, the Twelfth Night film revisits Shakespeare’s script and tries to move away from theatrical conventions. Similar to how Viola describes music, the film is thus an echo of the stage play, a distorted but familiar sound/narrative played across different environments.