On Christmas morning this year, I walked out onto a stormy beach in North Cornwall. This Cornish Christmas reminded me of the many summer holidays that my brother, my sister and I had been lucky enough to spend with family friends on a farm in Cornwall. These holidays included regular visits to the beach, many epic sandcastle builds, and chilly swims. Following the release of Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film of Twelfth Night, when I was eight, another of our seaside games became pretending to be Viola. We thought Imogen Stubbs was the bee’s knees and, much to our parents’ consternation, we enjoyed flinging ourselves down on the shore line, covering our hair in sand, and croaking, “What country, friends, is this?”
This winter the United Kingdom was plagued by violent storms, causing flooding, power cuts, and the destruction of property and livelihoods. At Tintagel, thought to be the home of the mythic King Arthur, the waves crashed against the jagged cliff faces so wildly and so high, that the spray overtopped the lofty castle ruins. We had no signal in our little cottage, so my father (devoted as he is to Strictly Come Dancing) was forced to stagger against the wind and the rain, up a coastal path, with a sheer drop into the sea on one side, and an unlit road on the other, to vote for his favourites, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Susannah Reid! The awful power of the sea (and perhaps even my Dad's passion for Strictly Come Dancing) could bring to mind many an episode from Shakespeare, such as the storms in The Tempest, or The Winter’s Tale, King Lear raging in the storm, or perhaps Laurence Olivier’s cliff-top “to be or not to be”. However, on the beach this Christmas, Twelfth Night was foremost in my mind.
As I stood on the Cornish coast, wondering whether or not I would brave a Christmas swim, my brother was on another beach, on another continent. Unlike Viola and Sebastian, my brother and I were separated for entirely happy reasons: he had got married and moved to Kenya with his lovely, new wife. They spent their first Christmas together on Diani beach, and despite the illusion of proximity created by the internet, it was still strange not to have all the family together at Christmas. While we were swimming in the freezing water of Port Gaverne, I imagined he might be standing on a sunny, white beach, paddling into a much warmer sea. Perhaps the two were as different as Illyria and Elysium?
After her separation from her brother, Viola must disguise herself in order to survive. Viola is told about Olivia and Orsino. Olivia, like Viola, has lost her brother and protector, but her household is closed and in mourning, so Viola cannot seek employment or protection there. Viola’s only choice is to head to the Count Orsino’s household. However, Viola cannot do so as a woman alone, without her brother’s protection. And so, Viola masquerades that role of protector, as she dresses herself as a boy, Cesario. She does not replace her brother (she doesn't seek employment as Sebastian), but in many ways, including her role as protector of Viola’s honour, she embodies her lost brother. Shakespeare heightens this idea of embodiment, by making the siblings twins. Dressed as Cesario, Viola is indistinguishable from Sebastian.
Viola’s survival masquerade reveals a more universal truth about family dynamics. In a family, each person plays their role, and when someone is away, something goes awry for everyone, and some masquerade becomes necessary. For example, my younger sister and I had always been a double act: I came up with the schemes, but she had the ebullience to pull them off. When I left home for university, without my sister, I was shocked by my lack of gumption. It was as if I had never developed that aspect of my personality, because I had never needed to. I faked the vivacity and bravura my sister used to supply to our duo. Soon this masquerade became part of me. If the peace-maker of the family is away, someone else must masquerade in that role, although it may not be natural to them. If the clown of the group is absent, someone finds a way to compensate. Of course, no member of a family can be replaced, but an interesting type of masquerade occurs to smooth over the cracks.
We all had a wonderful Christmas, my big brother and his new wife on a beautiful Kenyan beach, and the rest of us on the brindled, tempestuous Cornish coast, but one could not miss the countless, small masquerades performed to compensate for his being on another beach, over 4595 miles away. Viola’s masquerade causes much confusion, and she declares “Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness”, but her pretence also preserves her. Disguise and masquerade are necessary for the perfect family Christmas. It is essential to disguise your disgust at an overcooked mince pie, to pretend joy at unwanted gifts, and to understudy any key players who are absent but made past Christmases so fun.