What You Will (E2) – A Queer-er Shakespeare

Content notes: violence, sexism

The surviving sailors gathered together driftwood and broken timbers from the ship and built a large fire. They sat around it all together, with no concern for rank or privilege. Fire and closeness slowly brought warmth back into sea-chilled limbs.

Warmth brought thought beyond the needs of the moment, and Viola finally turned to the future. “Know’st thou this country?” she asked the huddled seamen.

It was the captain who responded, seeming to take strength from a question he had answers to. “Ay, madam, well; for I was bred and born not three hours’ travel from this very place,” and he gestured to the southwest, along the coast and away from the imposing cliffs that guarded this section of the beach.

Ilyria, the captain had named this country, but though the name seemed familiar, Viola could not put her hands on it. “Who governs here?”

“A noble duke, in nature as in name.”

Which told her all of nothing. “What is the name?” Viola demanded.

“Orsino,” the captain replied, strangely short and sparing of words he was, when speaking of the lord. He had some history with his lordship that the good captain thought, perhaps, best buried and forgotten.

But to Viola, the name was a relief, for it was as familiar — more familiar — than the name of the land he ruled, and she exclaimed. “Orsino! I have heard my father name him: He was a bachelor then.” Bachelor enough and long enough to be noted by those who had ties there. For if he would not take a wife and have an heir, the land might be disrupted eir long.

The captain nodded and looked away to not meet her gaze, words now falling from him like water tripping over rocks in a stream. “And so is now, or was so very late; for but a month ago I went from hence, and then ’twas fresh in murmur — as, you know, what great ones do the less will prattle of — that he did seek the love of fair Olivia.”

“What’s she?”

The sailors, seeing the captain and their passenger occupied, turned to their own discussions. The captain took note and was relieved. For nothing so worries a captain as a subdued and quiet crew.

Giving his full attention to Viola then, he explained, “The countess is a virtuous maid, the daughter of a count that died some twelvemonth past, then leaving her in the protection of his son, her brother, who shortly also died. For love of him, they say, she hath abjured the company and sight of men.”

The captain was wise in the ways of people, as one must be to command a crew through gale and wrack some twenty years or more. So he was not surprised to see tears once again in Viola’s eyes and recognition in her face. Her state and the countess’ were in truth much alike.

“O that I served that lady,” Viola said, “and might not be delivered to the world, till I knew in full what my estate is!”

“That were hard to compass,” the captain said with a shake of his head, “because she will admit no kind of suit.”

Viola started at that — no kind of suit, not even…

“No, not the duke’s.” The captain answered her unvoiced question.

The captain’s quick understanding in that moment joined with his honesty and courtesy, and Viola came to a decision. “There is a fair behavior in thee, captain; and though that nature with a beauteous wall does oft close in pollution, yet of thee I will believe thou hast a mind that suits with this thy fair and outward character.”

She had to do something, Viola knew. No matter how she wished to fall into grief like the countess, she was a young woman, unmarried and alone, in a foreign country. She had an idea — a dangerous, glorious, heart-shaking idea — she leaned in towards the captain and spoke softly, sure that the wash of sea and cries of gulls would hide her voice from the nearby sailors. “I prithee, and I’ll pay thee bounteously, conceal me what I am, and be my aid for such disguise as haply shall become the form of my intent.” A disguise she was well familiar with, for often had she and her brother tricked their tutors and parents so. “I’ll serve this duke.”

The captain, of course, was shocked, shook his head in immediate rejection, but Viola pushed on. Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him: it may be worth thy pains; for I can sing and speak to him in many sorts of music. That will allow me very worth his service.” This stopped the captain, caught hold in his mind. For all men have their weaknesses. Viola sought to arouse his ambition, to have the count favor him for presenting a new addition to the count’s court. But it was a far different weakness she touched on. A weakness, a dream perhaps, that the captain would share with no one alive and very few among the dead.

Viola saw the captain’s reluctant agreement, if not the reason for it. She looked out over the sea, reminding herself of the disaster that could await even the most well-provisioned voyages. “What else may hap to time I will commit;” she nodded to herself, then looked back to the captain, “Only shape thou thy silence to my wit.”

Taking a deep breath and sending a prayer winging to the heavens, he committed himself. “Be you his eunuch, and your mute I’ll be:” he swore. “When my tongue blabs, then let mine eyes not see.”

They gazed at each other a moment, each in their own way casting a coin in the air and trusting to fate and the other that it would land aright.

“I thank thee,” Viola said, “lead me on.

The captain, of course, led her nowhere at that moment. He waited until he was sure all were dry and had eaten what food they could find. Then the group gathered together, carrying what goods they could, and began the long walk around the cliffs to a road where they might flag down aid. From there to the captain’s hometown to prepare her disguise, and finally…

What You Will (E1) — A Queer-er Shakespeare

Viola is in love with Duke Orsino
Duke Orsino is in love with Countess Olivia
Countess Olivia is in love with Cesario
Cesario is really Viola in disguise… or is he?

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a very queer play,
But what if you could make it queerer?

 

“If music be the food of love, play on,” declaimed Duke Orsino of Illyria. “Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.”

His gentlemen, long used to his ways, waited in silence. Hoping that their lord might give some order that would let them escape his melancholy presence — or else by some miracle break free from this fit which had, in their opinion, lasted far too long. All, that is, save Curio, playing the pianoforte, who bravely continued the latest in a series of tragic love songs it had been his fate to play in recent days. As he finished a difficult arpeggio, the Duke bolted upright, shocking everyone into alertness.

“That strain again! it had a dying fall:” Temporary alertness. “O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound, that breathes upon a bank of violets, stealing and giving odor!” Curio hesitated but played the strain again. Knowing that played alone, without the context of the song– “Enough; no more:” the Duke slammed a hand across the keys in a discordant thunder. “‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.”

It is the closest to an apology Curio would get. And well he knew it.

Orsino, caught by a muse — or perhaps a bit of indigestion — threw himself back on the settee saying, “O spirit of love! how quick and fresh are you, that, notwithstanding your capacity, you receive as the sea, nothing enters– nothing at all — but is ruined and rendered valueless.” He blinked and looked around at his household, hiding yawns or looking cross-eyed as they tried to follow his metaphor. He shrugged. “Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy, that it alone is high fantastical.”

And with this, everyone had to agree. The duke’s fancy was indeed… fantastical.

Curio, hoping to distract the duke, suggested “Will you go hunt, my lord?”

“What, Curio?”

“The hart.” Curio persisted, but his hope was in vain.

“Why, so I do, the noblest that I have: O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first, methought she purged the air of pestilence! That instant was I turned into a hart; and my desires, like fell and cruel hounds, e’er since pursue me.”

It cannot be said that Curio rolled his eyes at this wordplay. Such would have been disrespectful to his noble patron. But his expression certainly became somewhat… strained. Curio was saved from needing to reply by the arrival of Valentine.

Valentine was another of the duke’s court, sent on yet another attempt to woo the lady who had unwittingly stolen his heart.

“How now! what news from her?” Orsino leapt to his feet with the eagerness of a child.

Valentine braced himself, and said, “So please my lord, I might not be admitted; but from her handmaid do return this answer:” he unfolded a message and began to read, “The element itself, till seven years’ heat, shall not behold her face at ample view; but, like a cloistress, she will veiled walk and water once a day her chamber round with eye-offending brine: all this to season a brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh and lasting in her sad remembrance.”

The duke’s gentlemen all tensed, preparing for an outburst. Curio may have muttered a curse under his breath.

But the duke surprised them all, smiling beatifically and collapsing back onto his couch.

“O, she that hath a heart of that fine frame to pay this debt of love but to a brother! How will she love, when the rich golden shaft hath killed the flock of all affections else that live in her; when liver, brain, and heart, these sovereign thrones, are all supplied, and filled her sweet perfections with one self king!” He sighed happily.

“Away before me to sweet beds of flowers: love-thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers.”

He jumped up again and strode out the door towards the gardens. His gentlemen, including Curio and Valentine, followed. At least, they thought, they would have fresh air and a change of scenery.

While Orsino and his entourage endured his changeable moods, a very different scene played out upon the coast. An early morning storm had driven a ship onto the rocks. A double handful of survivors now stumbled from a battered lifeboat and onto the shore.

Exhausted from hours clinging to a storm-tossed boat, Viola collapsed as soon as her feet touched the ground. Waves rushed around her and back, gentle now that the storm was gone. Unwilling to endure the touch of saltwater a moment more, Viola crawled further up the beach. Blinking her eyes clear, she tried to make sense of the pebbled ground and low cliffs.

She swallowed several times and when she thought her voice would work, asked of the battered sailors that had washed up with her: “What country, friends, is this?”

The captain also examined the cliffs, but with the relief of a man returning home after a great trial.

“This is Illyria, lady.”

Viola accepted this silently and with the sailors began combing the beach for what wreckage the waves had brought. Too tired to think, she focused only on the moment until she stumbled across a familiar chest. The chest brought memory and she sat next to it, wrapping her arms around the salt-soaked wood. “What should I do in Illyria?” She cried out. “My brother is dead!”

The sailors, familiar with the grief of those who live by the sea, continued their work. But several paused to awkwardly pat her shoulder or offer some small condolences as they moved around the weeping woman.

When exhaustion again overwhelmed her grief, she found within her a glimmer of hope and asked, “Perchance he is not drowned: what think you, sailors?”

The captain shook his head and said. “It is only chance that you, yourself, were saved. Still, madam, comfort yourself with chance. After our ship did split, when you and those poor number saved with you hung on our driving boat, I saw your brother, wise against in peril, bind himself, courage and hope both teaching him the practice, to a strong mast that lived upon the sea; where, like Arion on the dolphin’s back, I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves so long as I could see.”

Did the captain speak truth? Who can say? But Viola took hope from it. In gratitude, she offered the captain some of the jewelry from the battered chest.


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