Looking forward to Anne Hathaway's appearance as Viola in the current Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night, Ron Rosenbaum hopes Hathaway will have sense enough to give a certain line a particular reading that will call attention to her pudendum and invite the audience to imagine her naked and speculate about her bikini lines.
The line in question comes in the third act. Hathaway, playing Viola, a young woman shipwrecked on the seacoast of Illyria who disguises herself as a young male page in the court of Orsino, is engaged in raillery with the jester Feste. The jester slyly takes note of her androgynous, beardless appearance and tells the cross-dressed page, "Jove in his next commodity of hair send thee a beard."
To which Viola replies, "By my troth I'll tell thee I'm almost sick for one, though I would not have it grow on my chin."
Viola is in love with Orsino, but he doesn't know she exists. He knows a boy name "Cesario" exists. And Viola can't tell him the truth because she believes...Well, she believes she has to maintain her disguise at all costs, although she never really explains why.
Now it seems to me that in this scene Viola is slyly admitting her love in that line and the actress playing her needs to come down hard on the word my. The beard she wants sent to her is the one on Orsino's chin. Viola is being off-handedly witty, which is her way, and taking advantage of the fact that Feste thinks she's a boy to say out loud what's in her heart. She's hoping Feste isn't paying too close attention to her words and if he catches what she said at all will just casually assume this "boy," who is too young to grow a proper beard, is wishing he was more grown-up. The question for the director here isn't how Viola should say the line, but how Feste should react to it.
Feste is Shakespeare's wisest fool. Viola might think he's not listening, but he might very well have heard her distinctly, picked up the clue, and figured her out. That would change the dynamic between them for the rest of the play. Viola would have what she hasn't had to that point, an ally and even a friend helping her protect her secret.
At any rate, the reading for Viola's aside is so obvious that neither my Arden edition of the play nor my Yale edition includes a note on it.
But Rosenbaum thinks it's too obvious.
He thinks Hathaway needs to put the emphasis on chin because it's a joke about Viola's muff.
Here's where an actress can turn the line into a sexual reference if she wants to. Once, at another rehearsal of another production, I overheard another Viola and her director discuss how to play it. If she emphasizes chin, then she's indirectly but unmistakably wishing for the "beard," the hair, to grow elsewhere, leaving little doubt where that elsewhere is. On the other hand, if she emphasizes the my in "my chin," then she seems to be wishing that the beard would grow on someone else's chin, not between her legs.
It's hard to figure out why she'd care whether a beard was growing on somebody else's chin. The scholarly Arden footnotes both the sexual and nonsexual readings of the line, although its explanation of the latter—that she wants somebody else's beard on her chin—seems reminiscent of the puritanical bowdlerizing of editions past. The footnote says that "... with emphasis on my Viola would like to possess Orsino's beard (and thus) him, rather than one of her own."
Frankly this is tortured nonsense; if you don't do the dirty joke, you're repressing the vitality of the sexuality Shakespeare embedded in the line, the kind of body-part joke he rarely resisted. It's a play shot through with sexual references, and this one would be missed. So much depends on the inflection.
True, that last bit.
But the inflection depends on the intent, and the intent belongs to the character. The intent is part of what makes the character.
Why would Viola be lamenting, even humorously, her lack of pubic hair?
Did she have a full Brazilian before she set sail on her cruise and learn since her shipwreck that bare is not the fashion here in Illyria? Has Orsino confided a fetish? Is she telling us she hasn't reached puberty yet? That would make the happy ending we're expecting problematic, if she's younger than Juliet.
Viola is pretending to be a boy too young to grow a beard but that doesn't mean she's the same age as that boy. She's a young woman, not a girl, of marriageable age, and even though in Shakespeare's day that might have meant she was as young as fifteen or sixteen, she was certainly not twelve.
Maybe Rosenbaum is right that it's a sexual reference but wrong about what it refers to.
Maybe it's a joke about oral sex.
If the usual way a girl gets a man's beard "on" her chin is to be kissed by the mouth the beard surrounds and Viola wants that beard but wants it to go elsewhere on her person...
In fact it's unlikely that Viola would make any sort of joke about sex.
When trying to figure out how a line should be said, look at the character.
It's become a commonplace that Shakespeare could be bawdy, but it was actually a pun--a quibble---Dr Johnson said Shakespeare couldn't resist, the fatal Cleopatra for which he would lose the world and be content to lose it, not a dirty joke. It's some of his characters who can't resist a good sex joke.
In Romeo and Juliet when Mercutio delivers his line about the prick of noon, there's no doubt what he means and no doubt for the actor playing him about what gesture should accompany the line. There's also no doubt that this is Mercutio talking.
Shakespeare has established that Mercutio is a rather dirty-minded young rogue, cynical about love and sex, and inclined to find ways to ridicule and embarrass everyone he deals with, including his best friends, when he thinks they're being foolish or self-destructive or pursuing pleasures that don't include Mercutio. He's a bit of an intellectual bully who uses words the way dumber, less subtle bullies use wedgies and noogies. And in this scene he's bullying Juliet's nurse, for no particular reason except to amuse himself and to hear himself talk, one of his favorite hobbies. His sex jokes here are coarse and crude and not particularly imaginative or original, a form of linguistic slumming on the part of the speaker of the Queen Mab speech. He's talking down to what he thinks is the Nurse's level, and apparently expects her to mistake what he's doing for flirtation---You know, Mercutio is one of my favorite characters in Shakespeare, but he's really not a nice guy. But the jokes have one thing in common with the Queen Mab speech, and with everything else he says, except for his terrible last lines. He doesn't mean them.
For Mercutio, words are sounds that are most useful for expressing his mood at the moment, and since he is a moody young man and his moods are always changing, his words are always changing. He can go from lyrical and rhapsodic to crude and vicious in an instant and the words he uses match the shifts in gears---are the sounds of the gears shifting.
In the scene with the nurse he is in a nasty mood to start and he just gets nastier, which is an annoyance to the Nurse, but a disaster for Mercutio himself, because Tybalt is about to enter.
I said Shakespeare has established Mercutio as the character he is. But as far as an audience is concerned, it's Mercutio himself who establishes his own character for us, who in fact creates himself on stage right before our eyes---or rather our ears---through what he says and how he says what he says. Mercutio's wild habits of speech and his careless use of words tell us that he is a wild and careless person. His abrupt shifts in style and form, back and forth from the intellectually pretentious to the crass and vulgar, back and forth from poetry to prose, are the expressions of his mercurial temperament. They make the mercurial young man Mercutio. In Shakespeare character is words, words, words, and so words are fate. Those nasty jokes at the Nurse's expense come out of Mercutio's carelessness and a fundamental cynicism that borders on nihlism. They are expressions of his general quarrel with the world, and they lead him into his fatal duel with Tybalt.
The sex jokes then aren't there for the sake of the laughs. They're they're because they are the sound of the mood that gets him killed.
And that's the way it is with all the sex jokes in all the plays, the same way it is with all the words, words, words. They are the particular expressions of particular characters.
Shakespeare's characters aren't just creations of words. They are creatures of words. They have to tell us who they are but they do it by how they us. The words they use, their idiosyncratic imagery, their styles, are the sounds of them coming into being. The more intelligent and loquacious of them, like Mercutio, like Hamlet, like Rosalind, Cleopatra, and Iago, seem aware of this---and half-aware of us---and attempt to control it. They fight with their author for the command of their own speech and of course through that for command of their own souls and fates. They make themselves up as they go.
So when they speak of what Hamlet calls country matters, they do it in character, and their jokes are like them. Petruchio's are blunt and bluff and good-natured. Lucio's are base and evil-minded. Mistress Quickly's are naive and impulsive and goofily literal. Dogberry's are stupid, accidental, and oblivious. Hamlet's are passive-aggressive, alienating, alienated, and often downright mean.
And so, Viola.
Rosenbaum's preferred reading of that line is a legitimate one for rehearsal. It's worth trying out because it's a way for the actress and the director to ask themselves the question, What if Viola is making a dirty joke here? What would that tell us about her?
It would tell us that she is a very different sort of person than all her other lines tell us she is.
I left no ring with her: what means this lady?
Fortune forbid my outside have not charm'd her!
She made good view of me; indeed, so much,
That sure methought her eyes had lost her tongue,
For she did speak in starts distractedly.
She loves me, sure; the cunning of her passion
Invites me in this churlish messenger.
None of my lord's ring! why, he sent her none.
I am the man: if it be so, as 'tis,
Poor lady, she were better love a dream.
Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness,
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
How easy is it for the proper-false
In women's waxen hearts to set their forms!
Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we!
For such as we are made of, such we be.
How will this fadge? my master loves her dearly;
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him;
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master's love;
As I am woman,--now alas the day!--
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!
O time! thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me to untie!
Viola is a shyer and more timid young woman than Rosalind and Portia, Shakespeare's other famous gender-benders. Those other two get a kick out of pretending to be boys. It makes them bolder and more brazen. It frees them.
But Viola feels trapped within her disguise. First of all, she is not very good at being a boy. She is often embarrassed by what she has to do to pass herself off as a guy and when being a guy gets her into guy trouble---a duel with the fop Sir Andrew Aguecheek---she nearly faints from fright and the only thing protecting her is that Sir Andrew is more frightened than she is. (It's easy to imagine Rosalind enjoying the chance to show off her fencing skills.) But beyond that, Viola's disguise has gotten her into trouble from two sides. She has fallen in love with a man who thinks she's a boy and therefore has no romantic interest in her, and a woman, Olivia, has fallen in love with the boy Viola's pretending to be, and is making a serious and aggressive play for "him."
In both cases it would be in her best interest to throw off her disguise, but she can't do that. She's stuck inside her boy's clothes. Worse and worse, she feels she needs to remain in disguise but the greatest threat to that is her own body.
We should see Orsino casually slapping "Cesario" on the back, throwing a friendly "arm" over his shoulder, and see Viola visibly shrinking within her clothes. The same goes when Olivia leans in close, hoping to prompt a kiss. An accidentally misplaced hand, a too tight hug, and the game's up. It's not just that Orsino or Olivia might touch something that shouldn't be there---a pair of somethings. With Olivia, Viola might give herself away by clenching up too tightly, pulling away too fast, and with Or by not clenching up, by going all soft and pliant, by melting into his arms.
If Viola has any of her own body parts on her mind, it's her breasts, not her crotch. One good heaving sigh, her nipples showing a mind of their own at the wrong moment, and the traitors will have exposed her.
Viola then needs to be on guard and doubly modest. Rosalind might be played as having a grand time toying with Orlando by acting seductively when he thinks he's talking to a boy. But Viola should be played as always pulling away, with one eye on the lookout for the nearest avenue of escape---intellectually as well as physically. Her wit then is part of her defense. She uses words as a deflection. Which makes it highly unlikely that she would risk giving herself away to Feste that way.
Her aside makes the most sense not as a conscious joke, but as mental relief. For a second she, reflexively, stops pretending, and in her head does what she's afraid she's going to do with her body around Orsino, respond to his touch and melt into his arms.
In short, wishing for a beard that is not on her chin is not a dirty joke. It's an expression of romantic longing. It may be erotically charged. But if it is, it's because Viola herself is erotically charged. She's sexy. The joke isn't.
By the way, Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups, and his essay isn't all about or even really about Viola's aside. It's about all the asides and all the lines and all the words in all the plays and how to say them so that they make sense and make character and make poetry. It's about how to speak the speech since Shakespeare himself isn't here to pronounce it to us.
Still. I don't think Viola would make that joke if she did lose control and give in to even a fleeting temptation to expose herself---Rosenbaum's reading of the line suggests an imaginary striptease, but I mean that almost literally. Viola is always on the verge of revealing herself, and when she finally does it will be a matter of undressing. In performance, the actress playing her "proves" Viola's a girl by exiting the scene for the time it takes to change and coming back in a dress. But in the fictional world the characters inhabit, and into which we can follow them in our imaginations, Viola will prove to Orsino that she's a woman by climbing naked into bed with him. That's the moment she's dreaming of, longing for, and trying her darndest to put out of her mind. Thinking about it is her problem.
But it's not likely that when she does let herself look forward to it, she worries that when the moment finally arrives Orsino will be disappointed because she doesn't have much of a beard.
Hat tip @GraceToy.