Updated December 13, 2011 and reproduced on realson.co.uk
Twelfth Night has long been one of my favourite of Shakespeare's plays, certainly my favourite of his comedies and when, a decade ago, I was casting around for a username, a character from the play was an obvious choice. I cannot recall now why I settled on Sir Andrew Aguecheek, except that many of the more dashing characters were already taken. Nonetheless, my adoption of his name has given me cause to make a small study of his character.
Sir Andrew Aguecheek is one of the three men at the court of the Countess Olivia who in the play's farcical sub plot, play a cruel trick on the puritanical butler Malvolio. Sir Andrew himself is an unsuccessful suitor to Olivia. His name implies a sickly man and he is usualy portrayed as a pretentious, boasting fop and a gullible fool. His main purpose in the play is to serve as a gull to the Falstaffian toss-pot Sir Toby Belch. His usual portrayal is as something of a pantomime imbecile, weak and limp-wristedly camp, his belligerent moments turned into petty, whining speeches. Despite him apparently being aware of people's opinion of him, he is often portrayed as oblivious to it and the world around him; famously he is usually costumed in yellow, a colour that it is revealed Olivia hates.
Sir Andrew is mocked by the other characters behind his back. When describing him to Olivia's maid Maria, Sir Toby briefly claims that he is "as tall a man as any's in Illyria," but soon admits that his actual purpose of seeking Sir Andrew's company is that he has three thousand ducats a year. He knows Sir Andrew's high opinion of himself as a musician and a dancer and when in his company eggs him on, insisting that were he as skilled, his every walk would be a jig, even going so far as commanding that Sir Andrew caper for him, which he does willingly and one presumes badly.1
Interestingly Sir Toby, when mockingly praising Sir Andrew to Maria adds a skill with languages to his supposed talents2 but this is unfair. Admittedly, when we first meet Sir Andrew he does not know the meaning of the word 'accost', mistaking it for Maria's name and when Sir Toby uses the French 'pourquoi" when Sir Andrew threatens to leave, he is compelled to ask what it means. Later when he has a brief exchange of French greetings with Viola, he ends it in English, implying perhaps that the phrase "Dieu vous garde, monsieur" ("God bless you sir") is the limit of his knowledge.3 However, when discussing it with Sir Toby, he reveals that he is aware of his lack of linguistic talent, blaming it on the time he has spent learning dancing, fencing and at bear baiting. Indeed, his proudest linguistic achievement is that he may be "let alone for swearing"4.
Although he acknowledges his shortcomings in language, Sir Andrew nonetheless considers himself to be something of a natural wit.5 Examples of spontaneous banter are few however and an exchange in one scene consists of him agreeing with Sir Toby's remarks without even an attempt to embellish them.6 Furthermore he is confused by the jokes that others make, being thoroughly outclassed even by the maid Maria. Shakespeare uses his lack of sharpness to have him break the fourth wall a little when he fails to notice the innuendo of Malvolio recognising his mistress by "her very C's, her U's and her T's and thus she makes her great P's", a joke the audience may need a moment's contemplation to understand.7
Sir Andrew's quarrelsome belligerence comes up more than once; first there is the alleged skill with fencing for which he sacrificed a study of the arts.8 Then, after being remonstrated by Malvolio for boisterous drinking and singing, he says that he will "challenge him the field." Sir Toby is more than willing to act has is second and deliver the challenge, perhaps intending to play the joke he later plays in the abortive duel with the disguised Viola, but is interrupted by Maria who suggests the more subtle humiliations that form much of the rest of the play.9 Later, while they are hiding in the Garden watching Malvolio contemplate the counterfeit letter from Olivia, Sir Andrew again becomes belligerent, declaring that he could "so beat the rogue" and would "pistol him".10 He is evidently proud of this aspect of his character, after yet again being ignored by Olivia, he says that he would rather redeem himself by valour for he hates policy and would never be a politician.11
Despite his belligerence, Sir Andrew has little genuine bravery. As Sir Toby has it, he has "so much blood in his liver as will clog the foot of a flea".12 His bold words are usually spoken when there is no chance of a matter actually coming to blows; although to his credit, Sir Andrew does draft what he at least believes to be a challenge with "vinegar and pepper in't",13 on hearing from Sir Toby that Caesario is a masterful fencer, he immediately tries to capitulate and offers his horse as compensation to get him out of the fight and ultimately he only agrees to the duel because he has an assurance that Caesario will not hurt him.14 He soon reverts to form however, for when Caesario (who is really Viola) is mistaken for her missing brother Sebastian and led away, Sir Andrew berates him for a dishonest, paltry coward and vows to beat him. Unfortunately for Sir Andrew, he and Sir Toby happen upon Sebastian who knows nothing of earlier quarrel and, remarking that all the people are mad, soundly beats the poor knights. At this, Sir Andrew swears that he will sue him for battery.15
He is not, however, an entirely unsympathetic character. Although a crass, crude braggart, he is apparently generous, Sir Toby having managed to gull around two thirds of his income away from him.16 Nor is he completely oblivious of what others think of him, is aware that many call him a fool, even recognising that Malvolio must be talking about him when he refers to "a foolish knight".17 His ego survives these assaults throughout the play through the flattery of Sir Toby. He does start to suspect that he has no chance with Olivia and it is only at Sir Toby's urging that he has one last attempt to prove himself in the duel. It must have been a sore blow when, having spent all his money and grown bored of him, Sir Toby burns his bridges and declares him to be "an ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull!"18 He ends the play along with Malvolio, unmarried to the object of his affection and worse off than when it began. This ending is all the more poignant for one line earlier in the play when Sir Toby first reveals Maria's feelings for him. In a moment of melancholy Sir Andrew says "I was adored once too".19
1Act 1, Scene III
2Act 1, Scene III, Sir Toby Belch: Fie, that you'll say so! he plays o' the
viol-de-gamboys, and speaks three or four languages
word for word without book, and hath all the good
gifts of nature.
3Act 3, Scene I
4Act 3, scene II
5Act 2, Scene III, Sir Andrew: Of Sir Toby's wit Ay, he does well enough if he be disposed, and so do
I too: he does it with a better grace, but I do it
6 Act 2, Scene V,
Sir Toby Belch: I could marry this wench for this device.
Sir Andrew: So could I too.
Sir Toby Belch: And ask no other dowry with her but such another jest.
Sir Andrew: Nor I neither.
Fabian: Here comes my noble gull-catcher.
Sir Toby Belch: Wilt thou set thy foot o' my neck?
Sir Andrew:Or o' mine either?
Sir Toby Belch: Shall I play my freedom at traytrip, and become thy
Sir Andrew: I' faith, or I either?
7 Act 2, Scene V, possibly a modern audience would require her Ns to be a further recognisable feature?
8 Act 1, Scene III
9 Act 2, Scene III
10 Act 2, Scene V
11 Act 3, Scene II
13 Act 3, Scene IV
15 Act 5, Scene I
16 Act 3, Scene II, Sir Toby Belch: I have been dear to him, lad, some two thousand strong or so."
17 Act 2, Scene V
18 Act 5, Scene I
19 Act 2, Scene 3
William Shakespeare, Twelth Night (or What You Will), (1602)
Wikipedia, Andrew Aguecheek (accessed 11/12/11)
Half remembered GCSE English Literature studies