Greatness thrust upon ’em

One of the more virulent plagues to affect my department at present is a member of the faculty hierarchy who, despite having no academic background, has begun to invent and impose diktats on unmistakably academic matters, such as the pattern of teaching required on particular courses. I’m not good at keeping my temper under such provocations, and on a few occasions I’ve caught myself referring to this individual as “a jumped-up ******* typist” — amid, I should say, no noticeable dissent. What makes me uncomfortable is that every time this phrase escapes me, I remind myself of Sir Toby Belch, his veinous face bristling a foot away from Malvolio’s, spitting the arrogant question “Art any more than a steward?”

The trouble with that scene in Twelfth Night is that it pulls our ethical and our imaginative sympathies in different directions. Ethically, there really ought to be no doubt about it. Sir Toby is a scoundrel: he leeches off his kinswoman; under the guise of friendship he has been quite cynically “dear” to Sir Andrew to the tune of “two thousand strong, or so”; and he is a sot who has just roused the household with his drunken singing. Malvolio, self-righteous as he might be, has been charged with a message from the mistress of the house, and should any case be within his rights in telling the revellers to keep it down. In this light, Sir Toby comes across as the worst kind of bullying aristocrat, to whom the argument “Am I not consanguineous? Am I not of her blood?” seems feudally unanswerable. He’s not a comfortable model for anyone who pretends to a scrap of decency.

Imaginatively, though, it’s hard to view this scene in quite that light. Partly this is because we have already seen Malvolio, and know what he is: “sick of self-love”, or as Maria puts it, “a time-pleaser, an affectioned ass that cons state without book and utters it by great swathes” — a servant only of his own pride and ambition. Additionally, though, it is because Sir Toby, like Shakespeare’s other tremendous drunken knight, jams our ethical radar by his sheer presence on the stage. Crucially, Sir Toby, like Sir John, has a power with words. He can cross wits with Feste almost as an equal, and is capable of issuing a devastating assessment of another’s language: “Therefore this letter, being so excellently ignorant, will breed no terror in the youth; he will find it comes from a clodpole.” Twelfth Night is not simply a carnival; it is a carnival of language, in which we judge a character’s merit by the beauty of his or her speeches rather than by his or her actions. (Orsino, however weak and self-indulgent the Moony Duke may objectively be, cannot quite seem so in our eyes, because nobody given such an opening speech can be entirely contemptible.) By these standards, Malvolio’s bloodless prosing and his echoing of his betters mark him out as Sir Toby’s inferior, even his parting sally of “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” a flat echo of the relish in Feste’s “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges”.

However Malvolio’s pride and Sir Toby’s parasitism may compare ethically, as the audience we must side with Sir Toby because we sense that he inhabits the world of the comedy in a way that Malvolio cannot. Even when he pulls rank so directly, this somehow feels less like the arrogance of caste than an assertion of his deeper right to exist: he is “consanguineous” not merely with Olivia, but with Feste, with Viola, with Orsino and with the lifeblood of the play itself. The world of Twelfth Night is not one in which a servant is confined to his or her station: Maria goes from being Olivia’s servant to her kinswoman, Viola from Orsino’s factotum to his wife; and Feste walks freely among all ranks, all equally a little afraid of the switchblade of his tongue. What is absurd, and what is punished, is not to know the place to which one’s talents entitle one — to be a steward who thinks himself fit to be a master, or a coward who thinks himself fit to be a duellist.

So back to the university. The problem with our pestilential faculty steward is that this individual is a Malvolio, and a Malvolio who views the whole pack of academics as Sir Tobies. To such an individual, a great deal of what goes on in academia will appear foolish: correcting it will appear to be a moral duty — and, as it leads to the smooth advance of one’s career, a pleasant duty withal.

Someone who is deaf to the language of wit and poetry can never be fit to hold mastery in Illyria; and worse, will never understand why not. Similarly, someone who is deaf to the language of scholarship — who cons state without book and utters it by great swathes — can never be fit to hold mastery in academia. Such a person will always, and with some justice, see academics as disorderly, feckless, disruptive and occasionally insanitary, and will never see more to them than that. While they exercise their stewardship diligently, and do not meddle with what is beyond them, such Malvolios are entitled to their opinions, and even to some respect. Heaven save us, though, from having Malvolios set over us, because it is only while they are held at bay, whether by the authority of an Olivia or the belligerence of a Sir Toby, that wit and truth can continue to be spoken. Yes, by Saint Anne, and ginger to be hot i’ the mouth too.

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One Response to Greatness thrust upon ’em

  1. Pingback: Timeo Danaos… | New-cleckit dominie

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