David Bruce: “William Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’: A Retelling in Prose”

On the shore of the Adriatic Sea on the coast of Illyria, the noblewoman Viola, as well as a sea captain and some sailors, had just landed after surviving a storm at sea that had sunk their ship.

Viola asked, “What country, friends, is this?”

The captain replied, “This is Illyria, lady.”

Viola said, “I wonder what I should do now. My twin brother has almost certainly drowned and is in Elysium, the good part of the afterworld. But perhaps my brother did not drown. What do you think, sailors?”

The captain replied, “It is only by great good fortune that you yourself did not drown.”

“And since I was saved, perhaps my poor brother was also saved.”

“True, madam,” the captain said. “Here is some comfort for you. I can assure you that when our ship split in two and sank and you and the few others here who survived held onto our drifting ship, I saw your brother acting bravely and resourcefully during such a dangerous time. He tied himself to a floating mast. I saw him keeping himself from drowning for as long as I could see him. He rode on the mast like Arion rode on the dolphin that had listened to his music and saved him when he was in danger of drowning after being captured by pirates. The dolphin carried Arion to land, and the mast may keep your brother alive until he can reach land.”

“Thank you for saying such reassuring words to me,” Viola said.

She handed him some money and said, “There is gold for you. My own escape from drowning gives me hope that my brother is still alive, and so do your words — words from someone who knows the sea well.”

She added, “Do you know this country of Illyria well?”

“Yes, madam, I do know it well,” the captain replied. “I was born and raised not three hours’ travel from this very place.”

“Who governs here?”

“A noble duke,” the captain said. “He is noble both in nature and in name.”

“What is his name?”


“Orsino!” Viola said. “I have heard my father talk about him. He was a bachelor at that time.”

“He is still a bachelor,” the captain said. “Or at least he was a bachelor until very recently — I have been gone from Illyria for a month. At that time, the gossip was — as you know, the common people gossip about the nobles — that he was seeking the love of fair Olivia.”

“Who is she?”

“She is a virtuous maiden, the daughter of a Count who died a year ago, leaving her in the protection of his son, her brother, who shortly afterward died. Because of her love for her brother and her grief over his death, people say that she has decided to shun the company and the sight of men.”

“I would like to be employed by that lady and not reveal who I am to the world until I know more certainly what my position and standing in life will be here. I must be cautious because I am a woman in a strange land.”

“It will be difficult or impossible to get a position with Countess Olivia,” the captain said, “because she has shut herself away and will not listen to any kind of request, not even Duke Orsino’s.”

“You seem to look and act like a good person, captain. Although some people have an appearance of goodness that hides evil, I believe that your mind suits your fair and outward character. Therefore, I ask you to — and I will pay you well — conceal my identity and aid me as I assume another identity for the time being. I intend to become an employee of Duke Orsino. You shall tell him that I am a eunuch — a castrated male. This will be a win-win-win situation for you, the Duke, and me. I will be a competent employee, and you will get the credit for bringing me to the Duke’s attention. I do have talents. I can sing and play musical instruments, and I will provide good value to the Duke. What happens after I enter his employ, only time will tell. But please keep quiet about my identity until I reveal who I really am.”

The captain replied, “Go ahead and pretend to be a eunuch, and I will pretend to be a man who is mute and unable to reveal your identity. If I should ever tell your secret, may I go blind.”

“Thank you. Now please lead me to Duke Orsino.”

Viola thought, Of course, I may need to alter my plan according to circumstances. If I pretend to be a eunuch, that will explain my lack of beard and my high voice as I sing songs. But if, for some reason, it is not a good idea to pretend to be a eunuch — for example, if Duke Orsino is tired of music — then I can pretend to be a youth who as of yet is incapable of growing a beard. As a young woman, I can manage to assume that identity.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

Note: This is an excerpt from my book William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: A Retelling in Prose, which is available here:








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