Book Simple: Almost Created
a life-in-books by Amy Brown
Having moved across the country in a dizzy week, I find myself cast ashore in sweaty northern Virginia. The capital beltway maintains the traffic but none of the charm of southern California. My desperate hatred of both the current humidity and temperature seems rather histrionic to my family, given that I grew up on this coast, but I’ve arrived with a mere carful of belongings to an empty apartment in a town where I know no one. It’s a disaster. How could I not think of Twelfth Night?
In Shakespeare’s play, first performed in 1602, our heroine, Viola, is shipwrecked upon the shores of Illyria, ruled by the love-sick Duke Orsino. In the wreck, she has lost everything from her former life, including her beloved twin brother Sebastian. “An apple, cleft in two, is not more twin than these two creatures,” and Viola believes that he is drowned. She appears on the stage full of questions and grief: “And what should I do in Illyria? My brother he is in Elysium.”
Unlike me though, Viola does not succumb to despair, but instead decides to reinvent herself. “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid,” Viola asks the sailor she has befriended, “What else may hap to time I will commit; Only shape thou thy silence to my wit.” Dressed as a man, Viola becomes Cesario, and heads off to serve the Duke. When the play next returns to her, Orsino “has known [Cesario] but three days, and already [he is] no stranger.”
Cesario and Viola’s secret, though, brings along complications. Duke Orsino is in love with the Countess Olivia, and in an effort to woo the lady, the Duke sends his new page to “unfold the passion of [his] love, Surprise her with discourse of [his] dear faith.” Orsino hopes that “She will attend it better in [Cesario’s] youth Than in a nuncio’s of more grave aspect” and indeed she does; unwilling to accept the Duke’s advances, Olivia pursues Cesario.
Viola meanwhile, has fallen in love with the Duke. “Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness,” she cries. “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?”
It’s one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, mainly for the many instances of mirroring between the characters. Both women grieve for lost brothers, and that sympathy between them makes Viola’s wooing of Olivia particularly poignant. Both Orsino and Viola love unrequitedly, and their imagined communal state allows them to speak more freely than men and women would usually be able. Later in the play, we meet more characters with similar pairings, and Feste, Olivia’s jester, who reassures us that “journeys end in lovers meeting.”
Of course the reason the play springs so much to my mind now is how marvelously Viola creates her new life while still mourning her past. Her in-between state is described “as a squash is before ‘tis a peascod, or a cooling when ‘tis almost an apple: ‘tis with him in standing water, between boy and man.” That’s how my current life feels, almost created. I hope I can do half as well as Viola does.
Click on the cover to buy the play!