“Twelfth Night,” frequently performed on stage by professionals and amateurs, and with outstanding versions available for film and television, can hardly fail to delight with its themes of disguise, misrule, and mistaken love. How presidential candidate Donald Trump fits in this narrative will be explained below.
Shakespeare must have spotted fertile ground for broad comedy in the traditions of carnival associated with Epiphany. Yet, being Shakespeare, he took the ingredients of the topsy-turvy world that tradition handed him and created something profound. Not too surprising, that.
One of the chief points of focus in the play is, indeed, misrule: Duke Orsino, sick for love, turns a blind eye to the operations of Illyria; Countess Olivia, immersed in an excess of mourning, neglects her estate; Sir Toby and Sir Andrew pursue a life of hedonistic revelry that may be appropriate to the season but appears more of a vocation.
Private emotions seem to have gained full sway over public responsibilities. Of course, Shakespeare will set all things right by the end of Act Five, but not before he introduces Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, a thoroughly intriguing character.
Among the many things that make Malvolio fascinating is the way—in motive and action—he underscores the problem of the private versus public world besetting Illyria. On the surface he appears thoroughly responsible, an attitude that surely would do the country and the estate a great deal of good.
But he has a nasty, puritanical disposition, and furthermore imagines himself worthy of both Olivia and the title of Count that would accompany union with her. The picture he conjures of himself and his glorious future is, since we expect no less, mildly revelatory of the man he is: a self-important, self-enamored, would-be petty tyrant.
Much of the action revolves around exposing him, an enterprise both comic and cruel, which, although it strips him of his power and shows him for what he his, does not quite draw out all his fangs, even as Duke Orsino, having come to his own senses, dutifully enjoins the household to “entreat him to a peace.”
Donald Trump is assuredly more than a steward. Among other things, he is rich, and contrary to Mr. Bernstein’s — played by Everett Sloan — declaration in the film, “Citizen Kane,” making money is not easy if that’s all you want to do. I suspect there would be a lot more millionaires — nay, billionaires if Bernstein were right. So give Trump his due. He may not be as rich as he claims, but he’s more than rich enough, and that took gumption, drive and brains.
Those qualities have something but not everything to do with character, and that’s the problem—other than the fact that he’s running for president of the United States.
Trump, the tycoon, is purported to have made, lost and re-made more money than any hundred of us commoners will ever see. We all admire the stick-to-itiveness that leads a man to smile at the loss of a billion, only to then dive back in the shark-infested seas of business and make another billion.
Again, contra-Bernstein, it’s a rare man that can manage that. But let’s face facts: part of what inspires such a man is the rakish, devil-may-care spirit of the buccaneer. We love it in the movies and in Sabatini novels like Scaramouche. But do we really want that spirit in the oval office?
Emotion may say “Yes,” but prudence must cry “No.” A Trump casino going bankrupt after a bad roll of the dice is one thing; the economy of the United States is another.
Yes, I know, we’re bankrupt already, but that’s all the more reason for not trusting a character like Donald Trump. When the fate of a country is at stake, there are only so many throws of snake eyes it can weather.
It all comes down to arrogance. Trump is just too much like Malvolio: competent at a limited number of things, such as managing a household staff. But Malvolio supposes that his limited gifts equip him for loftier, grander things. The household, as Aristotle thought, may be the foundation of the state, but at best it’s the state in miniature. And scale counts for something.
A small man such as Malvolio may work wonders in a small place, but that does not qualify him as nobility. But he thinks it does. Add to his ambition a complete lack of forbearance—he isn’t Malvolio (ill-will) for nothing—and you have a recipe for calamity.
And so with Donald. Like Malvolio he imagines his accomplishments make him a perfect fit for the oval office; the sound of 21 guns must reverberate in the corridors of his imagination. But however cutthroat the business world may be, it still operates in the relatively benign waters of American business law. Not so the international community with its Ali Khameneis, Putins, Li Keqiangs, and Kim Jong-uns. They have or soon will have nuclear weapons to, shall we say, bankrupt entire peoples. An over-inflated ego won’t go very far in that theater.
Trump for President? In a topsy-turvy world maybe, but when Twelfth Night is over the real world dawns and with it real challenges for real men. It’s time we stopped flirting with a Malvolio.