Love in Disguise: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night


A murderous guilt shows not itself more soon
Than love that would seem hid:
love’s night is noon.
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (Act III. Scene II) 

Love is a growing, or full constant light, 
And his first minute, after noon, is night.
John DonneA Lecture Upon the Shadow 

William Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night (1601-1602) begins with two twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated by shipwreck. Viola is rescued by a captain, who brings her to shore in a foreign land, Illyria. She believes her brother Sebastian is dead, but the Captain encourages her:

Assure yourself, after our ship did split,
When you and those poor number saved with you
Hung on our driving boat, I saw your brother,
Most provident in peril, bind himself,
Courage and hope both teaching him the practice,
To a strong mast that lived upon the sea;
Where, like Arion on the dolphin’s back,
I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves
So long as I could see.

The captain then tells Viola of the Duke of Illyria, Duke Orsino,

A noble duke, in nature as in name,

and helps Viola craft a plan to disguise herself in her brother’s likeness and, in doing so, gain access to the Duke by representing herself as a male eunuch (named ‘Cesario’) for his service. The plan is successful, and Viola (as Cesario) gains enough favor with the Duke to be appointed a special task: to send messages of love to Countess Olivia, the woman with whom the Duke is infatuated.

A tangled, comedic love-circle builds from this: Viola (as Cesario) develops affection for the Duke Orsino, who is attempting to woo Olivia; but Olivia falls in love with Cesario, whom the Duke sends to woo her on his behalf. Therefore, Olivia’s messages of rejection given to the Duke are good news to Viola-dressed-as-Cesario, who herself loves him. The Duke develops a deep appreciation for Cesario, his faithful courier of love messages, without knowing that his delivery of the messages actually hinders their desired effect: Olivia ignored the Duke and his messages in her attraction to the messenger.

Naturally, the cross-dressing and the affection between characters of the same sex (the Duke’s intense admiration for Viola-as-Cesario, Olivia’s attraction to Viola-as-Cesario), have led to many discussions of homo-eroticism, sexuality and gender identity in the scholarship surrounding Twelfth Night. I will steer clear of all of this, instead commenting on the role of disguise in the successful development of love by integrating  John Donne’s philosophy of love as depicted in his poem A Lecture Upon the Shadow.
For Donne, disguise is a natural and necessary aspect of the development of love. Using the image of two people walking together as a metaphor for a relationship’s progression, he writes:

Stand still, and I will read to thee
A lecture, love, in love’s philosophy.
         These three hours that we have spent,
         Walking here, two shadows went
Along with us, which we ourselves produc’d.

The two members of the relationship, Donne makes clear, are responsible for producing their own disguises; just as shadows are invariably produced on a sunny day, so are disguises in the beginning of relationship, as he says further on,

So whilst our infant loves did grow,
Disguises did, and shadows, flow
From us, and our cares;

There is a tendency for us to consider all disguise as total falsity, and therefore immoral or wrong; Donne would adamantly disagree. Disguise in the early stages of a relationship is natural, inevitable, and therefore good. We all present our best in attempting to find a romantic partner–or we try to, at least. My experience on dating apps suggests that perhaps some people may not be very skilled at presenting their best to romantic prospects. But they still try to, and rightfully so.

Disguises, however, only play a limited role: they must carry the lovers to the edge of the reality; at some point, in Donne’s philosophy of love, there must come a great unveiling. The lovers are then laid bare, disguises are permanently dropped, and they walk in brave clarity from then forward.

But, now the sun is just above our head,
         We do those shadows tread,
         And to brave clearness all things are reduc’d.

In Twelfth Night, this great unveiling comes at the very end of the play. The disguises, which comedically served love by severing it, are removed: Sebastian, Viola’s brother,  who survived the shipwreck after all, arrives in Illyria. Viola then takes off her Cesario disguise (which looks just like Sebastian), revealing her true identity. In a dramatic twist, the Duke then marries Viola; Olivia marries Sebastian (since she was so attracted to Cesario), and Maria marries Sir Toby. The disguises kindled the love between the characters, but the removal of the disguises consummated it. 

Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s play ends with the lovers’ weddings. We never learn what becomes of their marriages, what follows the dropping of disguises. We can, however,  continue with Donne.

Disguises, though necessary in the beginning of a relationship, destroy it if they enter in following the unveiling (when ‘to brave clearness all things are reduced‘):

If our loves faint, and westwardly decline,
         To me thou, falsely, thine,
         And I to thee mine actions shall disguise.
The morning shadows wear away,
But these grow longer all the day;
But oh, love’s day is short, if love decay.

Simultaneously romantic and realistic, Donne warns of the fleetingness of love. Following the infancy stages of love, even small shadows ‘grow longer all the day,’ and cause ‘love’s decay,’ for

Love is a growing, or full constant light,
And his first minute, after noon, is night.

And Olivia echoes,

Love’s night is noon.

Lessons from an Emperor


Marcus Aurelius was the ruler of the Roman Empire from 161 to 180 AD. His diary, Meditations, is an unprecedented glimpse into the private thoughts of the most public, powerful figure of the time. Influenced by Epictetus, Plato, and Socrates, Marcus Aurelius tries to expound his own philosophy of life: Man is a social and rational animal, and must act in accordance with his nature if he would live a virtuous, valuable life.

First, what would Marcus Aurelius say to John Marcher of Henry James‘s The Beast in the Jungle? (See previous post)

John Marcher, we recall, was consumed by his Fate. He and May Bartram speculated maddeningly about what it would be, and when they weren’t speculating, sat in watch for Fate’s unfolding, forsaking the present in waiting for the future. Then, when the special event came and passed without John Marcher realizing it, he spun around and traded the present for the past, speculating on what it could have been.

That Marcus Aurelius, too, believed in Fate is quite clear in his Meditations, and it is not surprising given the prevalence of the idea in ancient Greek and Roman thought. At one point he writes,

Has anything happened to you? Well, out of the universe from the beginning everything that happens has been apportioned and spun out to you.

and again,

that which happens to every man is fixed in a manner for him suitable to his destiny.

Marcus Aurelius, however, has a different perspective than Marcher (but maybe not Henry James) on how an individual should posture themselves in relation to their Fate. He would undoubtedly condemn John Marcher for sacrificing the present for the vaporous future and the past, trading reality for unreality.

Throughout his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius affirms that the present moment is all that, in truth, exists; therefore, he who dies young and he who dies old both lose the same thing: the present moment. They have nothing else to lose. Past and Future are only imaginary abstractions from the Present, and therefore should be subservient to it, not superior.

How then would Marcus Aurelius instruct John Marcher? He would likely tell him,

Do not let the future disturb you, for you will arrive there, if you arrive, with the same reason you now apply to the present.

And more,

Do not disturb yourself by thinking of the whole of your life. Do not let your thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles that you may expect to befall you: but on every occasion ask yourself, What is there in this that is intolerable and past bearing? For you will be ashamed to confess. In the next place remember that neither the future nor the past pains you, but only the present.

This, however, is only one of the lessons that Meditations offers. Here are a few more of note:

Humans are social and intellectual animals, and are obligated to act according to this dual nature. 

Marcus Aurelius is hyper-rational, and for him the intellect is absolutely supreme. He believed in a rational force that orders and governs the universe, and which has elevated humans among the animals by endowing them with their own spark of Reason, to be their guardian and guide, to enable them to pursue virtue; in other words, to

say and do everything in conformity with the soundest reason.

What, exactly, does he mean by that? For one, he proposes the importance of living by ruling principles.  These rational principles must be true, and they serve to stake your rational perspective into your lot, so that you are

like the promontory against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.

Pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, death and birth, honor and dishonor — nothing can harm a man who is directed by ruling principles on the pursuit of virtue.

Since all men share in Reason, Marcus Aurelius reasons, they all are kinsmen, for they

participate in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity.

In this, they share in something stronger than ties of flesh and blood. This shared nature is what binds them into a social body.

For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature, and it is acting against one another to be vexed and turn away.

He uses an analogy similar to that of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”

Therefore, since nature has fashioned mankind as an intelligent and social collective, it is contrary to nature to act otherwise.

The only things of your concern are those which you can control.

What other people think is out of your control; how they behave is out of your control; illness and disease are out of your control; economic swings are out of your control; geopolitical decisions are out of your control; the timing of a natural or accidental death is out of your control. The vicissitudes of life are inexorable: the tide comes in and the tide goes out, and you can either struggle against it or ride with it.

Therefore, Marcus Aurelius exhorts, it is foolish to waste time and effort by attempting to control what cannot be controlled. Instead we ought to focus on what we can control: We can control our own choices, our own opinions, our own behavior, and, in sum, our own character, for

Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.

For this reason, it is crucial to Marcus Aurelius to form habitual thoughts that are rational, true and social, that he might be a rational, true, and social man; and that he might be immovable in a world in constant flux. He continues,

Now a man should take away not only unnecessary acts, but also unnecessary thoughts so that superfluous acts will not follow after.

Nothing that is perceived comes into direct contact with the mind, but rather is filtered through opinions or judgment. These color the images of experience. As Aurelius writes,

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

We can reframe our opinions and judgments in such a way that

the mind converts and changes every hindrance to its activity into an aid; and so that which is a hindrance is made a furtherance to an act; and an obstacle on the road helps us along this road.

Attention is a limited resource, and its use should be guided by reason. 

Marcus Aurelius writes,

it is necessary to remember that the attention given to everything has its proper value and proportion.

Not all things are equally worthy of our attention. The marketing arms race is occurring between companies fighting to develop ways to capture more of our attention; as a result, much of our attention is stolen from us without our awareness. We check our phones 50 times a day, scroll through social media obsessively, play video games and watch Netflix for hours on end. The question Marcus Aurelius beckons us to ask in all activities is, What is the value of this? and to give it the amount of our attention proportional to the answer to that question.

The Beast in the Jungle: Significance defined is significance seen


The Beast in the Jungle is a novella published in 1903 by Henry James. John Marcher, the novella’s protagonist, lives a life of restless anticipation due to his conviction, ambiguous in nature but clear in its inevitability,

of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen,

occurring suddenly at some unexpected time,

amid the twists and the turns of the months and the years, like a crouching Beast in the Jungle.

What is the nature of the Beast John Marcher is watching for?

It isn’t anything to do, to achieve in the world, to be distinguished or admired for.

Rather, it is something that he will have

to meet, to face, to see suddenly break out in [his] life; possibly destroying all further consciousness, possibly annihilating [him]; possibly, on the other hand, only altering everything, striking at the root of all [his] world and leaving [him] to the consequences, however they shape themselves.

This fatalist conviction frames his fate.

Early in the novella, he re-encounters May Bartram, a woman whom he had met on a trip to Italy some ten years earlier. With a single question she reveals to him that she knows his secret and believes it,

Has it ever happened?

This conviction soon becomes shared between the two: May Bartram joins him in watching and waiting for the Beast’s appearance. She purchases a home nearby and meets with John Marcher regularly. Together they wait, and wait, and wait, and in time develop a special sort of relationship, united by their detachment from the commonplaces of daily life due to their perpetual suspense, and further drawn together by their shared secret. 

The Beast, however, makes no appearance until they’re late in life. Now aged and ill, May Bartram reveals that she knows what was fated to happen, and it has already happened; yet she refuses to tell John Marcher what it is.

What then has happened? 

He asks her, to which she answers coyly,

What was to.

John Marcher remains as blind to the Beast after its appearance as he was prior to it, and he is bewildered by the fact that it has happened without his knowledge of it. His unidentified future becomes his unidentified past.

Then, without sharing her knowledge, May Bartram dies. Marcher travels to Asia for a year, hoping for understanding; but for him, moments of understanding seem to come not from within, but rather from outside of himself. When he returns to visit May’s grave, he learns, by observing a man at the cemetery standing over a woman’s grave,

the way a woman was mourned when she had been loved for herself.

This understanding leads him to dismay, as he realizes that he had never loved May Bartram for herself, but only

in the chill of his egotism and the light of her use.

She is what he missed. She herself was not the Beast, but offered an escape from the Beast, an escape from his meaningless fate:

the escape would have been to love her; then, then he would have lived. She had lived–who could say now with what passion?–since she had loved him for himself.


The beautiful irony of the story is that John Marcher spends his life waiting for the thing to happen that never does happen, and that act of waiting for what’s never happening becomes the Beast that has colored his whole existence. As Henry James writes,

It was the truth, vivid and monstrous, that all the while he had waited the wait itself was his portion.

The man who was so obsessed with this moment of grand significance, had nothing of significance happen to him, precisely because of how he framed his fate. Marcher was always interpreting his experience in light of this unexpected expectation; he was a constant spectator of the spectacle; but in doing so, he passed by innumerable moments of life, with all of their possibilities, which fell short of his measure of momentousness. He could have loved May Bartram, were he selfless enough to see her as significant as she was.

My takeaway from this story is, Significance defined is significance seen. Don’t pass by moments and people and lessons of deep significance simply because of a future expectation of something of greater significance. Let significance be determined a posteriori rather than a priori. The future and the past only exist in our present perception of them; nothing is more grand than the significance within the present moment, because what exists inherently has more significance than what doesn’t. John Marcher wasted his early and middle life with his eyes fixated on the nebulous future, and then his late life on the disintegrating past; he would have escaped the Beast of an insignificant life had he destroyed his habitual detachment from the commonplace present, and instead developed a detached way of relating to the past and the future.



The Blog Blueprint

I am a pre-medical student who believes there is tremendous value in reading, thinking about, and discussing classic literature of all sorts.

This blog serves a few purposes: 

1) To catalyze my own thinking and learning about literature through the act of presentation.

2) To keep me motivated to regularly read non-science works amidst my studies. I would like to be multi-dimensional, and find artificial distinctions between types of knowledge, or disciplines, constricting; human interests are naturally broad and varied, and where curiosity is not yet tamed, it is beautiful. By way of example, Goethe was a German poet, playwright, novelist, scientist, statesman, theater director, critic, and amateur artist. Imagine meeting him and asking our favorite one-dimensional question, ‘What do you do?’

3) More generally, to learn what it means to embrace the human experience; to become a person who engages thoughtfully, openly, and consequently richly, with life and its vicissitudes; to cut back a path, using the pointed reflections of others, to what is fundamental in life. To discover, as Thoreau sought, how to:

Live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

4) Hopefully, to offer something of value to whoever happens to read my posts.