What You Will (S1 E6): A Queer-er Shakespeare

Season notes: violence, sexism

As the fool left, Malvolio re-entered wearing a deep scowl. “Madam, yon young fellow swears he will speak with you. I told him you were sick; he takes on him to understand so much, and therefore comes to speak with you. I told him you were asleep; he seems to have a foreknowledge of that too, and therefore comes to speak with you.” He shook his head and growled. “What is to be said to him, lady? he’s fortified against any denial.”

“Tell him he shall not speak with me!” Now Olivia, too, was scowling, her peace and humor of the moment before quickly wiped away.

“Has been told so,” Malvolio grated out. “And he says, he’ll stand at your door like a sheriff’s post, and be the supporter to a bench, but he’ll speak with you.”

“What kind o’ man is he?”

Malvolio blinked, stammered out, “Wh- why, of mankind.”

Olivia had long suspected that Malvolio’s dislike of humor came from his literalness. The fool did not agree with her, for had known many others with like literalness who had learned to use it to make jokes, rather than squash them. Be that as it may, the Lady likely should have expected this response from him. Thus her rolled eyes were probably directed at herself. Though who can say for sure. “What manner of man?” she asked with studied patience.

“Of very ill manner; he’ll speak with you, will you or no.”

What was the lady thinking now? Who could say. Perhaps she had begun to grow tired of grief. Perhaps the return of her fool reminded her that there was life outside her manor. Or perhaps she was simply intrigued. For all she had long been subjected to the Duke’s advances, to come wooin with rudeness had the sole virtue or novelty.

So instead of dismissing the matter she asked further.

“Of what personage and years is he?

Malvolio’s scowl deepened. “Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy;” he paused seeking words to convey his sense of the messenger. “As a squash is before ’tis a peascod, or a cooling when ’tis almost an apple: ’tis with him in standing water, between boy and man.” Giving up the rambling attempt to say what was plain to anyone at his first words, he continued, “He is very well-favoured and he speaks very shrewishly; one would think his mother’s milk were scarce out of him.”

Truly intrigued now, Olivia murmured, “Let him approach,” then started, as if the words had surprised even her. In a firmer tone she ordered, “Call in my gentlewoman.”

After a stunned moment, Malvolio strode out of the hall, calling ahead of himself, “Gentlewoman, my lady calls.”

Maria, of course, came to the call and walked with her lady to Olivia’s prefered receiving room.

“Give me my veil:” Olivia said once she was settled. “Come,” when Maria did not move quickly enough, “throw it o’er my face.” Maria soon had the black lace veil settled across her lady’s countenance, hiding clear view of her. With a sigh, already regretting her impulse, Olivia leaned back into the cushions of her chair. “We’ll once more hear Orsino’s embassy.”

A few moments later, Malvolio bowed in Cesario — that is, Viola — and quickly left the room. The discourtesy of not announcing the Duke’s messenger was not lost on anyone. Viola stepped further into the room looking nervously between Olivia and Maria. Her boldness deserted her at the very moment it won her entrance.

Silence stretched a long moment and Viola nervously asked, “The honourable lady of the house, which is she?”

Olivia had been studying Viola, surprised in spite of Malvolio’s report at how young ‘he’ was. She was surprised again that the Duke’s messenger did not recognize her despite her veiling. New, she quickly realized, not only to the Duke’s service but to the realm. New and intriguing, with exotic accent and coloring. New to the Duke, and perhaps not firmly tied to him.

“Speak to me;” she said, “I shall answer for her.

“Your will?”

Viola bowed to her, took a breath and began, “Most radiant, exquisite and unmatchable beauty,–” the words had felt foolish enough when she practiced them on her way over. Addressing them to a veiled unknow who might or might not be the one she sought crossed over from foolish to madness and she could not continue. She was embarrassed, and becoming angry at the lady (and a small bit Orsino) for putting her in this position. With anger returned her former boldness and she turned to Maria. “I pray you, tell me if this be the lady of the house, for I never saw her.” A stage whisper, “I would be loath to cast away my speech, for besides that it is excellently well penned, I have taken great pains to con it.” In truth is had not been ‘penned’ at all, being the product of Viola’s thoughts on the way there. Though she had ‘conned’ — that is, memorized — it as best she could hoping to avoid making a fool out of herself. An effort now gone to waste.

When no response came, she let herself be drawn into pleading — she was not there of her own will and well they knew it. “Good beauties, let me sustain no scorn; I am very comptible, even to the least sinister usage.”

Take some small pity, Olivia asked, “Whence came you, sir?”

Not willing to get drawn into discussion, Viola replied, “I can say little more than I have studied, and that question’s out of my part. Good gentle one, give me modest assurance if you be the lady of the house, that I may proceed in my speech.”

“Are you a comedian?” Olivia asked.

Viola couldn’t help a small laugh at the idea. “No, my profound heart,” but some imp slipped between her lips and made her continue, “and yet, by the very fangs of malice I swear, I am not that I play.” That confounded the lady and Viola continued quickly before she could ask further: “Are you the lady of the house?”

Done with the game, Olivia replied, “If I do not usurp myself, I am.”

“Most certain,” Viola muttered with a snort, “if you are she, you do usurp yourself; for what is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve.” With a shake of her head she recalled herself to duty. “But this is from my commission: I will on with my speech in your praise, and then show you the heart of my message.”

“Come to what is important in’t: I forgive you the praise.”

” Alas, I took great pains to study it, and ’tis poetical.”

“It is the more like to be feigned,” Olivia snapped, “I pray you, keep it in.

“I heard you were saucy at my gates, and allowed your approach rather to wonder at you than to hear you. If you be not mad, be gone; if you have reason, be brief: ’tis not that time of moon with me to make one in so skipping a dialogue.”

Viola, who had her own suffering when the moon had it’s way with her, winced in sympathy”

Maria stood and crossed to the door. “Will you hoist sail, sir? here lies your way.”

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