GB II Twelfth Night
APRIL 2015. Neal Kelley assists students staging Act 4 Scene 1 to a Coachella Music Festival setting.

A year ago I had to decide on a Shakespeare play for my Great Books II course and narrowed the options to The Tempest, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night.  I was initially predisposed to As You Like It due to a plan to juxtapose it to The Letters of Abelard and Héloïse. However, I replaced it with Twelfth Night after consultation with the Great Books artist-in-residence for spring semester, who would work with students on staging and acting out scenes. As You Like It may be more poetic, but Twelfth Night is more zany and fun to stage, especially at the very end of a long semester.  I also find it deeper. Here are some thoughts prompted by re-reading, discussion with students, and subsequent reflection.

  • I happened to re-read Twelfth Night shortly before the fortieth anniversary year of the end of the Vietnam War.  The timing made me think more about Viola’s situation as a shipwrecked woman, who not only loses her brother (her only family member left for a start?), but also cannot return to her original land.
  • Admittedly little is known about Viola’s background. She also did not seek a new country prior to the shipwreck.  So the conceptualization can be problematic and, at the least, it is a bit of a stretch to call her a refugee. But it is unmistakable that she has to start from scratch after the shipwreck. At the least, her situation is analogous to that of a refugee.
  • It should be noted that asylum seekers figure large in Tim Supple’s movie version from a dozen of years ago.  In this case, the twins are South Asian refugees in contemporary London.  (Viola is played by Parminder Nagra of Bend It Like Beckham and TV’s ER fame.)  This summer, a theatrical production in Northern California does enough in the opening to prompt a local reviewer into referencing “the refugees [recently] trying to cross to Italy in leaky boats.” I have seen neither the Supple movie nor the production in Davis, but wish to lay it out as to say that the premise isn’t outrageous.
  • In this light, economic stability and marriage, which are among long-standing themes in the scholarship of Twelfth Night, nonetheless take on a heightened angle. Economic survival is the foremost concern of almost all refugees.  Not infrequently it is accompanied by marriage.  Most refugees tend to marry one another.  But some, especially women, marry the natives in their country of settlement.
Camp Pendleton weddings
CAMP PENDLETON, SAN DIEGO 1975. Two Vietnamese couples get married while waiting for resettlement elsewhere in the U.S. ~ pc Camp Pendleton Archives via KCRW
  • Adaptability is crucial to “success” for newcomers, and Viola adapts quickly and takes advantage of any breaks she could get.  First, she learns about the new landscape and society. Know’st thou this country?, she asks the Captain, who happens to know it quite well because he was bred and born not three hours’ travel from there.  It could be said that Viola gets her first break by knowing a knowledgeable and helpful native right at the very start of her life in Illyria. There is some luck amid her misfortune.
  • But luck is a small part. More important is her resourcefulness and resolution. Viola takes her luck and runs with it, plotting and planning with the Captain on her immediate future.  She takes command of the situation as much as possible, starting with the act of gender-bending. The disguise helps her fend off for herself in the new land while commemorating her presumably dead brother: great symmetry.
  • Viola closes Act I Scene 2: What else may hap, to time I will commit. / Only shape thou thy silence to my wit.  Here wit means “imagination” but also “plan.” She knows that luck will carry her only so far, and the rest will have to come from her initiative and creativity.  She is a woman of action and a person with a plan.  At the same time, she allows for considerable flexibility because someone in her situation is bound by limited resources and becomes dependent on the action of others.
  • I find Viola’s constant travels between Orsino’s palace and Olivia’s household an apt symbol for refugees and immigrants: they have to hustle within the system of their new society and follow the wishes and demands of the established people (or, in this case, the elite) of that society.  Viola is a talented person. Although she isn’t skilled in the martial arts, she is musically capable and verbally persuasive. She would be a perfect ambassador In the age of the nation states.  In any event, she still has to work very hard in order to get anywhere. This point is best illustrated by her zigzag movement between the two estates.  Combined with her charm, the hard work eventually enables a satisfying resolution to the paralysis of the Ilyrian high society.
  • That she does it amid grave sorrow over the loss of a dear family member – another commonality with refugees – is all the more remarkable. It is one of the reasons that Viola is my greatest Shakespearean heroine.
  • In the first scene of Act III, Viola runs into Feste during one of those trips between the households.  After their conversation, she says that Feste must have possessed a kind of wit [i.e., intelligence] and

He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, check at every feather
That comes before his eye.

  • With the possible exception of the haggard (tamed hawk), the above easily applies to Viola.  She is a sharp observer, and sharp observation is a key to success in a new land.  It helps to make her the primary solvent of complications in the main plot in the end.
  • Speaking of animals, I now wonder which animal imagery applies best to Viola.
  • Refugee studies.  A couple of thoughts to round up… A lot can be said about the country that receives refugees, including criticism of that country.  As illustrated by Twelfth Night, a number of criticism could be made about the Illyrian society. At the same time, an over-emphasis will miss out on the vitality and resourcefulness of Viola.  Critical refugee studies of Vietnamese Americans, which I know best, has been overwhelmingly American-centric.  There is too much on the “critical” part and not enough on “refugees,” the main actors as the case here.  If Viola is any guide, it is due time to reverse the trend so to bring balance to our understanding.
  • Shakespeare & Austen.  A completely different thought to finish this post… If Rosalind in As You Like It is a prototype to Elizabeth Bennett – both are very witty and charming – then Viola could be seen as a model for Emma Woodhouse.  But this is an entirely different topic for another post and another time.