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?”
“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.