Title: What You Will
Author: Charlie Cochrane
Length: 38 pages
Publisher: MLR Press
Genre: m/m steampunk fantasy
They say there’s no fool like an old fool. Antonio didn’t count himself as old but he was more fool than any man ought to be who’d flown around the world and back again so often he might as well have just been going from Deptford to Dartford. There was a lad involved. There’s always a lad in the tale, for men like him.
And was there a happy ending? Now that depends on whether you believe what a certain playwright wrote, or whether you want the real story.
This story takes the play Twelfth Night by Shakespeare, places it in a steampunk setting (why hasn’t the National Shakespeare Company done this yet?) and shows us the play from the point of view of Antonio, the sea captain who rescues Sebastian from the shipwreck and brings him to Illyria where Sebastian is eventually reunited with his sister, Viola. Antonio only appears six times in the play and these form the chapters for the story as he and Sebastian become lovers and get involved in the mix up between Viola and Sebastian.
This story really engaged me, mainly because Twelfth Night is one of my favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies and a play I know very, very well. This meant that the twist on the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian worked for me. In the play they are close friends despite not knowing each other too well, and yet it is little speeches such as:
This youth that you see here
I snatch’d one half out of the jaws of death,
Relieved him with such sanctity of love,
And to his image, which methought did promise
Most venerable worth, did I devotion.
that Antonio makes in the play which made it so that I could entirely believe that instead of the love of Lady Olivia (which all happens far too quickly at the end of the play for my liking) Sebastian and Antonio are lovers. This meant that I read this story, rather interested to know whether Sebastian abandons Antonio for Olivia, or whether there were further twists to the story. I won’t spoil it for you, but I finished the story with a smile on my face.
So, the amusing thing for me was seeing the play from this slightly skewered point of view and I chortled a few times at the turning upside down of the play, and the references to some of the characters such as “The streak of water and his fat friend”. I liked seeing a relatively minor Shakespeare character being given an opportunity for his own story, and the parts that stepped outside the play for a while fitted well with the theme, and fleshed out the character of Antonio more.
Of course, this means that if you don’t know the play Twelfth Night, then you’re not going to have a clue about what’s happening in the story, or get the references to other characters or the overall story arc of Twelfth Night. For those who don’t know the play then I suggest watching this rather marvellous Trevor Nunn film version and then you can read this story and chortle at it, like I did.
My final niggle is that there is only the slightest nod to the steampunk setting, and that mostly occurs towards the beginning of the story. However, I was having so much fun with the rest of it that I didn’t mind that so much.
Overall, I enjoyed this short story. The humour of the situation shines through, and the character of Antonio is given a sympathetic new lease of life in this re-imagining of the Twelfth Night story. Despite the limitations of its audience this story is clever and amusing and I would recommend it.