THE ESOTERIC MEANING
Beryl C. Pogson
From Baconiana Spring 1948
The key to the meaning of Twelfth Night is in the title. Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany in the Christian Church, commemorates the showing of Christ to the Magi, the Wise Mennot to the multitudeand represents the manifestation of Light, or Truth, to those who have enough understanding to perceive it. This revelation of Light, or Truth, is the subject of the play.
For those who do not look for an inner
meaning, the Feast of Twelfth Night, is a time of revelry, a time for
song and dance and cakes and ale. This also is the subject of the
It is interesting to study the inner meaning in connection with Bacon's own words about allegory in his De Augmentis Scientiarum (XIII). He says :
"It (allegory) is of double use and serves for contrary purposes; for it serves for an infoldment; and it likewise serves for illustration. In the latter case the object is a certain method of teaching, in the former an artifice for concealment. Now this method of teaching, used for illustration, was very much in use in ancient times.... And even now, and at all times, the force of parables is and has been excellent; because arguments cannot be made so perspicuous nor true examples so apt. But there yet remains another use of Poesy Parabolical, opposite to the former; wherein it serves (as I said) for an infoldment; for such things, I mean, the dignity whereof requires that they should be seen as it were through a veil; that is when the secrets and mysteries of religion, policy, and philosopy are involved in fables or parables."
Bacon's De Sapientia Veterum is an
interpretation of some of the Greek Myths, showing that the author
was familiar with the ancient language of symbols in which
fundamental truths have been preserved throughout the ages.
In Twelfth Night traditional symbolism is used to work out
First of all, it is a play about twins. Sebastian tells Antonio that he and his sister Viola were "both born in an hour." (II I. 23). Now twinship has always had a deep, esoteric significance. Twins in ancient mythology signified the two sides of Man, the inner and the outer, the divine and the human, manifested in separate persons. It is clear that the twins, Jacob and Esau, for instance, represented the two levels of Man. The hairy Esau, had no vision of the Ladder reaching to heaven. In the mythology of many races one twin is sometimes said to be the child of a divine father and the other the child of a mortal father. In legend about such children one twin has to die, while the other may attain immortality. Remus was killed, but his twin-brother, Romulus, said to be the son of Mars, became immortal and, according to Plutarch, no man saw him die but he was carried up to heaven in a thunderstorm. The legend of the Dioscuri, the Heavenly Twins, Castor and Pollux, relates that Castor was slain, while Pollux was immortal, although in this story Castor was allowed, by the grace of Zeus, to share his brother's immortality. and both these twins are spoken of as "the sons of Zeus." Now it is significant that the power of healing was attributed to the Heavenly Twins, especially the power of restoring sight, not only physical sight, but inner sight, and they were known as the Light-bringers who saved men from darkness.
In his Essay on "Pan" Bacon speaks of the two sides of Man. He says :
"The body of Nature is most truly described as biform.....There is no nature which can be regarded as simple, everyone seeming to participate and be compounded of two.... and so all things are in truth biformed and made up of a higher species and a lower."
Let us consider how far the twins in Twelfth Night play the traditional part of Healers and Lightbringers, Viola being clearly set apart as capable of higher development than her brother. First, the twins come from the sea. In ancient legend wisdom comes from the sea. Jonah had to go down to the depths of the sea before he was fitted to do the work for which God called him. Initiates had to be cleansed in the sea. Hercules had to sail across the Ocean to set Prometheus free. Bacon refers to this several times and seemed particularly interested in it. In his Essay on Adversity he says :
"Hercules, when he went to unbind Prometheus (by whom human nature is represented) sailed the length of the great ocean in an earthen pot or pitcher, lively describing Christian Resolution that saileth in the frail bark of the flesh through the waves of the world."
Odysseus likewise had to endure the buffettings of the 'waves of the world' for nine years (the full period of initiation). His journey has been interpreted as the journey of the soul of Man to find inner peace, the journey home to himself, and he is not home until he is so far from the sea that he needs a man who mistakes an oar for a winnowing-fan a sign that he is at last no longer involved in the turmoil of life but has attained inner freedom. Prospero had to sail across the sea with Miranda before he reached his Magic Island. His enemies had to be wrecked at sea before they could be brought to acknowledge their guilt. Thus Viola seems to represent an initiate, the divine twin, who had the possibility of developing and who therefore can help others. She is able to bring light. (Notice how often the word darkness is used in the play)Having been through the trials and stress of life, the tempest at sea, Viola at last reaches dry land, but mourns for the loss of her brother, her lower, or material self. Now, having passed through one stage, she has to go on to another. She has to serve, to play a part. She takes a new name. There is deep, esoteric meaning here. And the new name suggests great possibilitiesfor Cesario means a king. This theme of playing a part runs through the plays. It was particularly interesting to Bacon, who himself had a part to play.
The plot of Twelfth Night, shows how Cesario is able to awaken the dwellers in Illyria, the land of Illusion, out of their phantasies. She is certainly suprised to find herself there. "What should I do in Illyria?" she asks. The cold water of reality has long since dispelled her illusions. Who are these people who inhabit Illyria? The Duke is hypnotized by his imagination, Olivia is entranced by a picture of herself as a devoted sister, Malvolio is eaten up by his own conceit. Two of these people, the two who are nobly born, are changed by their contact with Cesario. It is interesting to see how Cesario's real suffering is contrasted with the imaginary suffering of Orsino and Olivia. Orsino delights in himself as a lover, cruelly treated. He stays at home indulging in day dreams. His love is clearly self-love, nourished by his imagination, which in its turn has to be fed with music and flowers. What he lacks is well described in Cesrio's words to Olivia :
"If I did love you in my master's flame,
With such a suffering, such a deadly life,
In your denial I would find no sense;
I would not understand it.
And then she goes on to say how she would woo, with such passion that even the self-possesed Olivia is moved and says : "You might do much." Orsino, too, when to his question : "How dost thou like this tune?" Cesario replies : " It gives a very echo to the seat where love is throned," is struck by the sincerity of her speech and recognizes that is springs from personal experience. He says :
"Thou dost speak masterly.
My life upon it, young thou art, thine eye
Hath stayed upon some favour that it loves;
Hath it not, boy?"
(II. iv. 22-5)
It is a task which recurs in
this wooing on another's behalf one with whom one is oneself in
Olivia, like Orsino, dramatizes herself. She tries to present her enduring love for her brother to the world in crystallized form by deciding that :
"The element itself, till seven years' heat,
Shall not behold her face at ample view,
But like a cloistress will veiled walk,
And water once a day her chamber round
|With eye-offending brine; all this to season
A brother's dead love, wherein she would keep fresh
And lasting in her sad rememberance."
(I. i. 26-30)
Cesario by contrast, is not in a position to show any outward signs of mourning for Sebastian. But her sincerity and charm and wit take Olivia out of her phantasy and arouse her real feelings of affection, even of passion, so that she soon forgets to play the part she had assigned to herself and throws aside her veil and eventually leaves her cloister. Before she can have her heart's desire she has to have the experience of her own love rejected just as she has had rejected that of Orsino.
Cesaro continues to play and does all that
is required of her until she has to fight Sir Andrew, when she
falters and her physical courage is at a low ebb. She has however
little to fear from her cowardly opponent. It is only when he returns
to the attack, emboldend by his belief in her unwillingness to fight,
that she is any
it is at that moment that her lost brother Sebastian receives the
brunt of the attack in her place and makes short work of her
assailant and also of his reinforcement, Sir Toby. The material side
of a person's nature has it uses after all.
Now it is an interesting point that Cesaro has to continue her service even up to the supreme test of having to face death. It is true that she flinched before Sir Andrew's sword, but in different circumstances she is prepared to accept death in the true tradition of the inititate. When the Duke, jealous of Olivia's apparent love for Cesaro, says
"Come, boy,. with me; my thoughts are ripe in mischief;
I'll sacrifice the lamb that I do love,
To spite a raven's heart within a dove."
Cesaro replies :
"And I, most jocund, apt, and willingly,
To do you rest, a thousand deaths would die."
Having been brought to the point of
accepting the sacrifice of her life, she then has everything restored
her brother, her life, and in addition Orsino's love. Because she has
learned how to suffer, it is no longer necessary. And Orsino and
Olivia, freed from their phantasies about themselves, are brought
face to face with their real feelings, and discover who it is that
they really love.
And now we come to the most interesting part of the play the sub-plot is in many ways more real that the main plot Malvolio might be said to be the central figure of the play. Consider first his name : Malvolioill-will The theme of the sub-plot might be said to be the madness of Malvolio. Now some passages in The Anatomy of Melancholy throw light on this form of madness, which are quoted here because Bacon claims, in a Cipher-Message in the First Folio (set out by Mr. Edward Johnson in his recent publication on the Bi-literal Cipher) that Burton is one of his Masks. The author of the Anatomy of Melancholy speaks of the disease of self-love.
"which causeth melancholy and dotage and puffs up our hearts as so many bladders, and that without all feeling insomuch, as those that are misaffected with it never as once perceive it,"
Is not this picture of Malvolio? The Author continues :
"This disease ariseth from ourselves or others... It proceedeth inwardly from ourselves, as we are active causes, from an overweening conceit of our own good parts.... All this madness yet proceeds from ourselves. The main engine which batters us from others,we are merely passive in this business : from a company of parasites and flatterers that with immoderate praise and bombast epithets, glowing titles, false eulogiums, so bedaub and applaud, gild over many a silly undeserving man that they clap him quite down out of his wits.".
This, surely, was what was done to Malvolio. And the author of The Anatomy goes on :
"My silly weak patient takes all these eulogiums to himself; commend his housekeeping, and he will beggar himself,commend his temperance, and he will beggar himself, commend his temperance, he will starve himself...."
(He might have added : "Commend his yellow stockings and his smiling and he will go in yellow stockings and smile!")
"He is mad, mad, mad, " he continues, "so many men, if any new honour fall unto them, for immoderate joy, and continued meditation of it, cannot sleep or tell what they say or do, they are so ravished on a sudden; and with vain conceits transported, there is no rule with them."
All this seems to be a description of what happened to Malvolio. The whole study of Malvolio's character seems to illustrate the theme of these two passages. It would to-day be called a study in paranoia. Malvolio, like many paranoids, was normal in every-day life and able to carry out his duties with efficiency. The excellence of his stewardship is testified to by Olivia, and Maria says :
"My lady would not lose him for more than I can say."
But in one odd corner of himself he is vain and puffed up he thinks he is right and all others wrong. He has mistaken appreciation of his good stewardship for personal affection. In the words of Maria :
"He is an affectioned ass that cons state without book, and utters it by great swarths : the best persuaded of himself; so crammed as he thinks with excellencies, that it is his ground of faith that all who look on him love him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work."
The letter is a very clever trick to send Malvolio over the borderline by means of flattery. Bacon in his Essay on Praise says :
"If a man be a cunning flatterer, he will follow the arch-flatterer, which is a man's self, and wherin a man thinketh best of himself, therein the flatterer will uphold him most."
This is done in the letter. The flatterer works on Malvolio's belief that Olivia cares for him. In the scene where he later finds the letter he is day-dreaming aloud, thinking about Olivia and the possibility that she loves him. He says :
"Maria once told me that she did affect me; and I have heard herself come thus near, that, should she fancy, it should be one of my complexion. Besides, she uses me with a more exalted respect than anyone else that follows her." (II. v.28)
Now it is clear to an observer that none of this is really evidence of affection, but once the idea has been suggested to him as it evidently had been suggested in the first place by Maria herselfeverything seems to point to it. Malvolio is flattering himself that his mistress seeks his hand in marriage, and the letter bears this out and expands the idea so he reaches the pitch of saying : " Every reason points to this that my lady loves me." What brilliant psychology is in the letter. "Immoderate praise" is certainly used to "clap Malvolio out of his wits." When it has taken effect, Sir Toby says to Maria : "Thou has put him in such a dream that when the image of it leaves him he must run mad." (II. V.211-3)
The letter is the core of the play. At the end of it are the words : "Thou canst not choose but know who I am," Following the instructions given in the couplet :
" I may command where I adore, but Silence like a Lucresse Knife With bloodless stroke my heart doth gore, M. O. A. I. doth sway my life."
Mr. Edward Johnson solves the "fustian
riddle," and traces Bacon's signature.
Who brings the light to Malvolio, who of all characters in the play is the most completely in inner darkness? The ordinary sane people in the play Sir Toby, Maria, Fabian, the Clown, act as a kind of chorus in this play. The only other character who falls into the same trap as Malvolio is Sir Andrew, who is equally ready to be persuaded that Olivia considers him as a possible suitor, and, ironically enough, he is conemmed from the first by Malvolio as a "foolish knight." It is strange thought tht the capable respected Steward and the half-witted Sir Andrew can be thus bracketed together. Sir Toby, with his innate good sense, in saying to Malvolio "Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?" sums up his character a mingling of self- compacency and ill-will. But it is the Clown who is really the foil to Malvolio. His part in the play is shrewdly described by Cesaro :
"This fellow's wise enough to play the fool,
And to do that well craves a kind of wit:
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, check at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practice
As full of labour as a wise man's art;
For folly that he wisely shews is fit;
But wise men, folly-fall'n, quite taint their wit."
The clown would never have been taken in by immoderate flattery. In his altercation with the Duke he said he was the better for his foes and the worse for his friends, his explanation being :
"My foes tell me plainly I am an ass; so that by my foes I profit in the knowledge of myself..."
There is an echo of these words in The Advancement of Learning where Bacon says :
"Men's weaknesses and faults are best known from their enemies."
Here the wisdom of the fool stands out in contrast to the ignorance of Malvolio. When the Fool, as Sir Topas, visits Malvolio in his confinement, he addresses him thus :
"Madman, thou errest, I say there is no darkness but ignorance in which thou art more puzzled than the Egyptians in their fog,"
referring to Malvolio's ignorance of himself and other people, his ignorance also of how he appeared to others, the ignorance springing from vanity, from an entirely false idea of himself. Light has come, at the end of the play, to Orsino and Olivia, to dispel the mists of their illusions, but Malvolio's inner darkness has apparently not been pierced by any gleam of light, as his final words show :
"I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you."
Orsino and Olivia have had their illusions replaced by reality, but Malvolio cannot face reality, asit would strip him of so much that bolsters him up, so he falls back on his characteristic ill-will. There is little hope for him, for, as Bacon says in his Essay On Revenge :
"This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well."
It is as though Truth can enter where there is charity or goodwill, but not where there is evil will. Bacon contrasts what he calls "a natural malignity" with a disposition to goodness (in his Essay On Goodness of Nature). The Duke and Olvia show much generosity and kindness of heart towards those about them, particularly towards those who serve them.. The one is indeed "a noble duke in nature as in name" and, as for the other, what higher praise can be given than Orsino's greeting to her :
" Here comes the countess : now heaven walks on earth?"
The twins from the Sea have awakened them to the possibilites of their lives.
"Certainly it is heaven upon earth to have a man's mind move in Charity, rest in Providence and turn upon the Poles of Truth." (Essay on Truth).