November 2, 2020

After the Calamity: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

By Rev. Hayden A. Butler

Feste. Good madonna, why mournest thou?

Olivia. Good fool, for my brother’s death.

Feste. I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

Olivia. I know his soul is in heaven, fool.

Feste. The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s

soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.

In the Christian calendar, the Advent season comes with a dual purpose. On the one hand, it is the beginning of the Christian year, directing us to a lively remembrance of anticipating the first coming of Jesus in great humility as the savior of the world. On the other hand, it is the ending of the Christian year, directing our hearts and minds to the last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Advent reminds us that the world’s time is running out, that the end of all things is at hand, and that Christ the King will come again to judge the world with righteousness. Advent reminds us that the first coming of Christ is the assurance of the second coming of Christ.

Christmastide is a time of great celebration. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us in the fullness of humanity and the fullness of divinity, very God and God with us. But alongside the joy of Christ’s birth is the rejection of the world. Christmas Day is followed by the feasts of Stephen the first martyr, John the apostle and exiled evangelist, and the Holy Innocents, victims of King Herod’s brutal attempt to exterminate the infant Jesus. Christmastide is celebration of God’s coming in love for us and of the world’s violent rejection of that love.

This culminates on the eve of Epiphany, the twelfth night of Christmastide. Epiphany will be a revelation of Jesus as the well-beloved son of the Father to His ancient people Israel and then to the whole world. Epiphany will reveal Jesus’ Sonship, His Kingship, but also the fact that He is a sign from God that will be opposed by humanity–He will have to walk the way of sorrows. As the chimney-sweeps of Mary Poppins would say, Epiphanytide is a dappled season: ‘things ‘alfway in shadow and ‘alfway in light.’ 

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night draws on the sacred drama of the liturgical calendar to cast a romance out of tragedy. The play begins with a shipwreck off the coast of mysterious Illyria, and the assumed death of most on board–yet such is the cruelty of death at sea that there are no bodies to bury. The protagonist, Viola, is left to ask an all too familiar question: what are we to do when the worst has happened? 

On shore, the local aristocrats of Illyria are asking the same question. The Lady Olivia has recently suffered the death of a beloved brother and continues in unremitting sorrow for him. Her attendants mostly abet her mourning, but for the shockingly irreverent Feste, who breaks the dirge with a riddle: if you believe your brother is at peace, why do you continue to mourn? 

Twelfth Night is a play about our responses to calamity, and arrays a number of case studies. Some collapse into obsequious grief, some merely perform grief to curry favor, some resort to clever industriousness, some to romantic pursuit, some to gluttony, and so on. Yet as the play goes on, the drama obliges us to consider how complex and even paradoxical responses to the world’s sorrows are always the right path. One-dimensional seriousness and one-dimensional levity cannot account for the world because the real world is the dying world after Eden and Calvary as well as the world of the New Jerusalem. It is, as O’Shaughnessy quipped, a world that is dying but also one that is coming to birth. 

As you watch Twelfth Night performed by our outstanding theatre department, consider in the characters where you see yourself reflected–how do you respond to calamity, how do you grieve what must be grieved while also living in hope. Twelfth Night turns us to the grace of Christian time as reflected in the Church Calendar. We don’t really know when it’s time to fast and weep and we don’t really know when it’s time to feast and sing unless such things are revealed to us. Twelfth Night, in this way, is a fiction that tells the truth. We go together to Illyria so that we can come back from it wiser to live in God’s good world in its fullness. 

We’re living through a season much like the beginning of this play. The calamity has come and rocked the ship in which we trusted. Where we’ve landed is a strange place and we’ve had to become something we previously weren’t so as to to make a way forward. Like Viola, we have to be ourselves while not being ourselves. We have to act practically even while our hearts sing a different song. And, in due time, we’ll have to become again who we really are to find again a life beyond the calamity. 

Christian revelation requires us to live in two simultaneous truths, confronting with proper mourning the death of Adam’s world while hailing the birth of Christ’s new creation. On the pilgrimage between the Eden we left and the new Jerusalem ahead, the disposition of the Christian is always mixed-modal: one foot in tragedy and one in a divine comedy. Twelfth Night, like the Christian life, is a romance. 

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it.”

“Good madonna, why mournest thou?”

Sign up for our newsletter!

Learn more about our joy-instilling, freedom-producing education by subscribing to our e-Newsletter.