Something that struck me when reading Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was the dynamic push and pull between solemnity and comedy. Although humorous and full of wit, trickery, and cross-dressing, Twelfth Night gives us characters, Sebastian, Olivia, and Viola who have rather tragic backstories. Each has lost a sibling – they are put through the pain of mourning a deceased relative.
Sebastian is saved from the shipwreck by Antonio, yet believes that his sister is dead. “Stars shine darkly over him” as he sees Viola as “drowned already…with salt water, though [he] seems to drown her remembrance again with more.” He sees Viola as lost to the sea and brings forth the salt-water of his tears, saying his crying will drown Viola again. However it is as though he drowns in his mourning of her – choosing to deny Antonio’s help since the other man “will not undo what [he has] done, that is, kill [Sebastian] whom [he has] recovered. Sebastian would have rather died than have been saved, knowing his sister is dead.
Similarly at the start of the play, audiences learn that Olivia’s brother has recently deceased. In her pain, she vows to “pay this debt of love…to a brother” – she will veil her face “like a cloistress…and water once a day her chamber round/with eye-offending brine…to season/a brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh/And lasting in her sad remembrance.” She gives herself over completely to her mourning and makes a promise that seems absolutely absurd for a woman of her status, fortune, and situation.
Viola, however, treats her mourning differently than the other two characters. She allows herself a moment of sadness, crying out “O my poor brother!” and even feeling rather destitute about being stuck in Illyria when her brother “is in Elysium” – the afterworld for heroes. What differentiates her, though, is that she makes no claim to infinite sorrow. Instead, she mourns and moves on, finding that her “own escape [of the shipwreck] unfoldeth to [her] hope.” Viola recognizes the immediate push forward required. She cannot stop to mourn indefinitely. Life is calling for action.
I had a hard time finding some real world application for this reading. I couldn’t really find ridiculous love-triangles (or love webs) that relative to my life. It was only when I went back and reread Viola’s conversation with the ship’s captain that it hit me how much she toughened up despite her pain. While most of the characters wallowed in their struggles – ranging from serious issues such as death to Duke Orsino’s repetitive, ridiculous “unrequited love” – Viola never stopped because life required her to move forward. Even with the loss of her brother and her own feelings for the Duke, Viola didn’t let the hardships overrun her.
Handling death – handling pain – is never easy. There is such a pull to wallow in it, to let it win us over and run our lives. During my freshman year at Loyola, only a month into my first semester, my grandfather passed away. I woke up from a nap to five missed calls and a somber voice message from an out-of-country number – my mother’s. I called her back. She was supposed to have been visiting relatives in Cyprus, so I was shocked when it was my father who picked up my phone. His voice hurt. All he said was “Hi, Marilena” and I knew that both my parents were together, not in Cyprus, but in Greece, because my grandfather did not make it through the surgery. I was promised that my pappou would be home for Thanksgiving. I didn’t wait for my dad to say anything. I hung up the phone and called my brother. All I said to him was “no….no….no.”
According to my roommates, I went missing after that. In all honesty, I just went for a long run. I needed to let myself mourn. When I got back to my dorm, I went to bed feeling hollow. The next day, I got back to business with “college life” – after all, it was the start of my freshman year. Like Viola, I was in a new place, and I needed to set aside my grief, so I could establish a foothold in this foreign environment. I didn’t go cross-dress and serve some Duke, but I threw myself into the Loyola community. I tried, joined, left, and finally decided on a few clubs. I met new friends – let people in – and I apologized for shutting old friends out from when I needed them. I worked hard academically. I volunteered my time.
I didn’t want to forget about life just because I was hurt. I didn’t want to be Duke Orsino sighing at his poor luck, listening to sad songs because they matched his sad mood, and I didn’t want to be Olivia who shut herself off in such a ridiculous manner that life laughed and changed her plans. I wanted to be like Viola – strong enough to push past pain and live.