"Antonio never yet was thief or pirate"
It’s Antonio August for real now, and it’s time for another Antonio with a mysterious ending: Antonio of Twelfth Night.
Sometimes called the gay pirate of Twelfth Night, Antonio is the sea captain who rescues Sebastian, leading lady Viola’s twin brother, from the shipwreck that sets the plot in motion. While Viola is disguised as a boy and serving in the court of Duke Orsino, Sebastian had been using the false name Roderigo as he traveled with Antonio. Arriving in Illyria, he reveals his true identity and tries to part ways with Antonio, but Antonio won’t hear of it:
The gentleness of all the gods go with thee!
I have many enemies in Orsino’s court,
Else would I very shortly see thee there.
But come what may, I do adore thee so
That danger shall seem sport, and I will go (2.1.43-7).
This is the origin of what most contemporary productions read as a queer bent to Antonio’s devotion to Sebastian. Shakespeare doesn’t lack for devoted servant characters— consider Adam— but Antonio doesn’t quite fit that mold. As a captain, there’s no inherent reason for him to position himself as a subordinate to Sebastian. Their ensuing scenes are packed with reminders that Antonio has money while Sebastian does not, so even if we do accept that Antonio is little better than a hired sailor and Sebastian a gentleman, Shakespeare takes pains to explicitly and repeatedly complicate this class dynamic.
And, his language is so much more personal and passionate. Not a scene goes by where he fails to reassert his ‘love’ for Sebastian, often in exactly those words. Here’s a sampling…
If you will not murder me for my love, let me
be your servant (2.1.35)
I could not stay behind you. My desire,
More sharp than filèd steel, did spur me forth;
And not all love to see you, though so much
As might have drawn one to a longer voyage,
But jealousy what might befall your travel,
Being skill-less in these parts, which to a stranger,
Unguided and unfriended, often prove
Rough and unhospitable. My willing love,
The rather by these arguments of fear,
Set forth in your pursuit (3.3.4-13)
TOBY: You, sir? Why, what are you?
ANTONIO: One, sir, that for his love dares yet do more
Than you have heard him brag to you he will (3.4.329-31)
A witchcraft drew me hither.
That most ingrateful boy there by your side
From the rude sea’s enraged and foamy mouth
Did I redeem; a wrack past hope he was.
His life I gave him and did thereto add
My love, without retention or restraint,
All his in dedication (5.1.74-80)
That’s one example from every scene Antonio appears in, and in most scenes, there are more lines I could have quoted.
This connects directly to Antonio’s strange position in the play’s final scene, where he stands silently watching the action for ages. To be more precise, for over 120 lines, and then for another 175 lines after that, at which point the play ends without his having been directly addressed by anyone but Sebastian. Performances have to find ways to shuffle him off to the side under guard, though when we imagine the space of the Globe stage, surrounded on almost all sides by spectators, we recall that there’s really nowhere he can go where he won’t be dominating someone’s view of the stage picture.
When Sebastian finally enters, he makes a beeline for Antonio, explicitly drawing our attention back to him at last. He and Olivia share in wonder at the sight of the twins— a compelling pairing, given Olivia is explicitly in love with the person she believes to be Cesario. Her guaranteed laugh line of delight at having two of them also contrasts with Antonio’s final line in the play: “Which is Sebastian?” (5.1.235). He has only ever had one goal, one focus. The resolution of the various comic subplots takes over, but while even the unnamed captain who rescued Viola is given acknowledgement and a gesture towards an ending, Antonio is never referenced again. Which is Sebastian? The one who is already married to Olivia. As thrilled as he seems to see Antonio, he just as quickly forgets he’s there.
Antonio is one of a few characters who are excluded from the play’s happy endings of heterosexual bliss—Sir Andrew, and infamously Malvolio—all people whose love (romantic or otherwise) and devotion has been misdirected, gone awry. As with last week’s Antonio, where Shakespeare couldn’t seem to find a way to smooth over fratricide, to reintegrate aristocratic usurpers into his remade society, he can’t find a way to acknowledge and thus see off Antonio’s love. So he waits.
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