'What Country Friends Is This?' -- Shakespeare and Twelfth Night

It is the turn of the year, the end of the festivities, the return to work, and it is Twelfth Night. This reminds us that it is also the start of the glorious 2016 Shakespeare quartercentenary commemoration year.
01/07/2016 08:29 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2017

It is the turn of the year, the end of the festivities, the return to work, and it is Twelfth Night. This reminds us that it is also the start of the glorious 2016 Shakespeare quartercentenary commemoration year. For 12 months, from this Twelfth Night, those who love Shakespeare will celebrate the world's most popular writer and dramatist, with his home country launching worldwide programs through the UK government's GREAT campaign - Shakespeare Lives - and through the work of the British Council, like the Play Your Part Twelfth Night initiative, across 120 countries.

How appropriate that the first Shakespearean masterpiece that draws our attention in 2016 is Twelfth Night, itself so conscious of a turn-of-year transition and the uncertainties of what lies ahead. "What country, friends, is this?" are the haunting first words of the young woman Viola, soon to be the young man Cesario, as she drags herself ashore on a Mediterranean coastline after the capsizing of her vessel, and as she stoically determines on her new life as a refugee in Eastern Europe ("This is Illyria, lady"). The palpable modern relevance of Shakespeare again astonishes as this is but one of a clutch of great Shakespeare dramas that cast people adrift in alien ships and ashore on Mediterranean beaches, from shipwrecked servants and masters in The Comedy of Errors to the Neapolitan court lost en route from Tunis in The Tempest; from a bereaved Pericles to an the outcast Perdita, from Viola's brother and crew-mates even to a Hamlet rescued from a ship of doom by passing pirates.

As commentators have already well-noted, Shakespeare, in his short contribution to the play Sir Thomas More, was outraged by the plight and treatment of the banished, the "spurned," the refugee -

"Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation
...would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth...
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you?...This is the stranger' case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity".

Twelfth Night is Shakespeare's great turn-of-the-year play, a play poised between hope and despair, courage and calamity, where the scene may turn sweet or sour according, not to the deliberations of the gods or the fickleness of fate, but to the behaviors of "kind" and "unkind" individual people struggling to make their way in life and love. At Twelfth Night the seasonal fun is over and, as Feste the clown reminds, "the rain it raineth every day." Life is on the cusp between a society that might work and a society that won't, and at the tipping point of one year and the next. "A great while ago and the world begun" but "what's to come is still unsure." What will emerge in Illyria? And what will the "whirligig of time" bring to 2016?

If there's one resounding plea from a Twelfth Night alive with 21st century modernity, it is a plea for tolerance.

"Does thou think , because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?"

Here the fool and the madman, the countess and the servant, the braggart and the drunkard, the sailor and the police officer, the chief of staff and the refugee must find their means of understanding , cohabiting and making their society, their community, their defining culture work. And the panoply of diversity must be accommodated including, in this play, those who are transgender, the matter of sexuality, foreigners, damaged mentalities and "enemies" condemned and forgiven.

Shakespeare gave Twelfth Night a second title -Twelfth Night, or What You Will. That is a classic Shakespearean throwaway phrase (like As You Like It or Much Ado About Nothing), which masks a potent call to values. A successful society has to be "willed" into being by its inhabitants and the word "will" is beloved of the Bard, joining the "will" of the future tense ("what's to come"), the "will" of human choice and responsibility, the "will" an audience must summon to turn a play from make-believe to belief and, so neatly, the "Will" that is Shakespeare himself.

So, as we all enter a deeply fractured and uncertain 2016, we might all ask with Cesario, the person of change, "what country friends is this?" Aren't we all fleeing something? Aren't we all seeking something? Aren't we all refugees from 2015?