06/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pranks Gone Too Far in Shakespeare and South Hadley

"Go hang yourselves all! You are idle shallow things," sputters Malvolio in Shakespeare's so-called comedy, Twelfth Night. "You shall know more hereafter."

Hereafter, we know that the type of bullying and abuse the Bard portrays in three characters who torment Malvolio was done by nine teen-agers in South Hadley, Mass. against high school freshman Phoebe Prince.

She must have wished that the "idle shallow things" tormenting her all semester long would "go hang themselves." Realizing that wouldn't happen, she hanged herself last January in her family living room. The cruel nine now face criminal charges. The school authorities may be prosecuted as well.

"Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?" King Lear bellows after enduring similar abuse. Lear's may be the most penetrating question posed in our post-Holocaust era, when we try to make sense of the society-wide barbarism ignited by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

Shakespeare does not, indeed cannot, answer Lear's question. But he shows the path downward, the incremental steps leading to such vicious cruelty, with stunning poignancy.

The pranks of Maria and Sir Toby in Twelfth Night begin as high school-ish. They're mischief against the all too serious, all too sensitive Malvolio, especially when he dresses in yellow stockings cross-gartered and tried to woo the lady of the manor. The gig begins funny and, in most productions, is done throughout and ends funny.

But in Shakespeare's play itself, the derision gets too heavy. It goes on too long.
In a great production of the play, we in the audience begin to feel uncomfortable. The prank becomes distinctly unfunny as the tormenting goes on relentlessly. The doings in the South Hadley high school must have unfolded the same way.

Late in the drama, Malvolio is cast into a dark prison. He vows, "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you." Maybe Phoebe Prince will get "revenged on the whole pack of" them when the convictions come down, but she won't see such justice being done.

Regardless, both Malvolio and Phoebe end up isolated and miserable, victims of behavior that, however it began, ended as pure bile.

Seconds after Malvolio spits out, "Go, hang yourselves all!" in Act III, scene four, the character Fabian says, "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."

Odd words indeed, since what's played upon the stage of Twelfth Night can't be "condemn[ed] as an improbable fiction" at all. Since it's so true to life.