Shakespeare enjoyed theatricality. I’m quite sure of that. One of the ways he shows his love for the colorful is in his choice of places – places quite foreign to the playgoers of his time – much more foreign than any part of the world is now to a culture that has film, photography, and airplanes. And he was interested in mythology and fable – in raising images, free associations in the minds of his listeners through the evocation of what was far away, long ago, dimly remembered.
Twelfth Night takes place in Illyria – which was indeed a real place in the ancient world. The coast of the Adriatic Sea – the Balkan peninsula – the Dalmation coast. An Eastern world, a seascape with a history of warfare and pirates, a part of the world that 200 years before Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night had been adopted by the Romani people, that travelling culture we call gypsies. (On a side note, gypsies and artists have a long association, share a common history of itinerant wandering, of being outside the bounds of established society – the French even dubbed the artist world Bohemia because of its gypsy affinities.)
And into this Illyrian world, a pair of twins are dropped, borne there upon a terrible storm against their will. Viola and Sebastian are from Messaline, which I cannot find anywhere in the world or even in mythology. They are well born, well educated, and orphaned since they were thirteen years old. They are not Illyrian – they are strangers in a strange land.
One of the ongoing puzzles of Twelfth Night is this: why can’t anyone tell Viola and Sebastian apart? Being brother and sister, they are fraternal twins, so not identical. Not identical. Yet no Illyrian can tell them apart. What prevents the Illyrians from seeing clearly?
Twelfth Night is filled with a kind of blindness. People project images of what they want to see on to others, longing makes them see what they want to see rather than what is true. Orsino is mistaken in Olivia, Olivia mistaken in Viola, Malvolio unable to see the truth, Andrew relies on the unreliable Toby to tell him what lies beyond the surface. And no one can tell those twins apart.
Blindness takes hold for different reasons, I think. Love and infatuation deliver it, longing and ambition give it a handhold for sure, but there is another cause as well. Difference. Culture, our own culture, can make it hard for us to see and understand people from another. We can be so struck by their difference, their external difference, that we cannot see clearly into the true nature of their minds and hearts. It’s my feeling that Shakespeare wanted to create a deep clash of cultures when he landed Viola and Sebastian into Illyria. Wanted them to be very different, apparently different… attractive to the Illyrians in their exotic difference, so attractive in their newness that they rouse passionate devotion from several Illyrians, but… also so different that the Illyrians cannot read them clearly, cannot see far beyond their clothing and manner, cannot distinguish them from each other.
Viola and Sebastian are not identical twins. They are however new. They are different. They dress in their own way, speak with their own language. And in order to see them, distinguish them, in order perceive the individual in each, we have to build our capacity to see beyond the assumptions of our own world, beyond the blindnesses of culture and habit, we have to look carefully, thoughtfully, with all the capacities of our mind and heart.