improving on shakespeare?

"The plots are often so loosely formed that a very slight consideration may improve them, and so carelessly pursued that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own design." —Samuel Johnson, on Shakespeare's plays  

I don't claim that ILLYRIA is an improvement on the Bard, but I've always been very pleased with and proud of the few changes I made to the plot of Twelfth Night in adapting it.   True, for every change I made, there were probably about ten cases where I tried tinkering with something only to realize why it was better Shakespeare's way.   But here are a few of the changes that really seemed to work well:

1) Toby and Maria are developed as a secondary comic romance, unfolding by way of their practical jokes, so that their eventual marriage feels less arbitrary.   What initially appears to be Maria's scheme to fool Malvolio turns out to be a scheme to fool Sir Toby into marrying her.   When Toby is on the verge of being thrown out of Countess Olivia's house for the cruel prank on Malvolio, his only means of escape (provided by Maria) is to claim that the love letter Malvolio found--which spoke of a noble person's love for a lowly servant--was a letter he'd written to Maria.   And so, at the story's end, we have a new understanding of what Maria was thinking when she initially laid out the plan to Toby, saying "The man is mine..."

2) Rather than calling herself Caesario, Viola simply adopts her brother's name when she is disguised as a boy.   This allows for some delicious comic misunderstandings once the real Sebastian shows up.   For instance, when Olivia comes to Sebastian's aid in the duel, she uses his name.   When he says, wonderingly, "You called me Sebastian..." she replies, "I know it is wrong of me to be so familiar, but in the short time we've known each other, you've become very dear to me."   As far as Sebastian knows, that "short time" is about half a minute.   But Viola's use of her brother's name pays even bigger dividends when Sebastian goes to the Duke's palace... see below.  

3) Duke Orsino, who largely disappears from the later part of Shakespeare's play, is given an extra scene that does not appear in Twelfth Night.   Left alone at his palace, the Duke muses on his hopeless love for Olivia, and how it is his servant Sebastian who truly understands him best... and whose lips are more "smooth and rubious."   Then, just as the Duke is confronting these alarming feelings of his, the real Sebastian shows up to seek a position as a servant.   What follows is a pretty rich misunderstanding--as Orsino confesses his love to the bewildered Sebastian, who eventually flees.   As silly as the moment is, it fills in a part of Orsino's arc that does not appear in the play:   that moment when Orsino comes to realize that it's not Olivia but Sebastian (i.e. Viola) he loves.  

4) Malvolio is given a happy(er) ending. Rather than have Malvolio stalk off saying "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you," we instead give him a chance at reconciliation and redemption.   After Malvolio complains bitterly that everyone is to be married and yet there is no consolation for him, Toby says, "Might I make a suggestion...?"--which is the cue for a reprise of "Cakes And Ale."   When it appeared earlier in the show, the song was about the provocation and humiliation of Malvolio.   Now Toby offers it to him as an olive branch.   Near the end of the verse, Toby pauses at a crucial moment... will Malvolio reject Toby's peace offering?   No, he joins in the refrain, and this gesture launches us into the final choruses of the show.   Some may think it's sacrilege to change Malvolio's ending; the Shakespearean version is undeniably truer to the character.   But hey--this is a musical; and more to the point, it's a musical that is several shades lighter in tone than the original play throughout.   How can our cast sing a final joyful refrain if Malvolio's bitterness has been left to fester?  

5) The circular journey of Olivia's ring is a minor bit of plotting legerdemain, but it makes me happy.   In Twelfth Night, Olivia sends Malvolio after Viola to return what Olivia says is the Duke's ring--an unwanted gift.   In fact, it's Olivia's own ring, which she's sending Viola as a love token.   In the Shakespeare, Viola refuses to take the ring, so Malvolio drops it on the ground... end of story.   In ILLYRIA, Viola pockets the ring, and in a later scene she gives it to Orsino as a token of "a servant's love."   Later, when Orsino has come to realize his feelings for Viola, he tries to give the ring back as a token of his love... except that he foists it upon the real Sebastian rather than Viola.   And finally, at the end of the show, Sebastian offers the ring to Olivia as a marriage proposal, saying, "I hope it fits."   Olivia sees the ring and replies, "I'm sure it will."

Musings Past