A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Twelfth Night and a Katrina Story


The shipwreck at the start of Twelfth Night separates Sebastian and Viola, brother and sister, leaving each thinking that the other is dead. Viola must now make her way along Shakespeare's imagined coastal land of Illyria. Without protection, she dresses as a man and attaches herself to the court of Duke Orsino. But before doing so, she asks the captain of her ship, who has also survived, about her brother (Elysium is the place of the Greek afterlife):

Viola: "What country, friends, is this?"

Captain: "This is Illyria, lady."

Viola: "And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium.
Perchance he is not drowned. What think you, sailors?"

Captain: "It is perchance that you yourself were saved."

It is perchance also that six children and their diabetic mother and grandmother were saved on the day the floodwaters poured into their New Orleans home. Ronald Miller, who is unrelated to the family by blood, but who had lived with and supported them for the three years prior to the day the levees broke, led the entire family to the attic. Miller then tore the grills out of the oven and emptied the freezer, so that when the children became hungry he could feed them by cooking the meat over a furniture-fed fire.

Mr. Miller then held acquaintance with the floodwaters, diving into the drink to recover enough floating pieces of wood to fashion a makeshift raft. And not just any makeshift raft, but a makeshift raft capable of holding nine people. This concluded, and before conducting his own makeshift family to the helicopter pickup area, Captain Ronald ferried a few dozen neighbors there. Here's the captain of Viola's shipwrecked ship, describing the fate of some merely fictional characters who were cast upon the waves:

Captain: "True, madam, and to comfort you with chance,
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."

Once Ronald and his adoptive family arrived in Ilyrium, that is, in Houston, Ronald realized that the Astrodome was too crowded and began negotiating with the local government, charities and the FEMA bureaucracy, in time securing an apartment for the family. Viola, too, had to negotiate her way in her new land – dressed as a man at the court of Count Orsino – all the while carrying with her the presumed loss of her brother.

As it turns out, Ronald Miller was carrying with him a similar loss. Mr. Miller had a son, a five-year old boy who had been living with his mother at the time of the flood. In Houston, even as Ronald spent his days providing for the six other children whose care he had taken on, his initial inquiries into the fate of his own son met without success. Here is Viola's brother Sebastian, speaking for both Ronald and for his son during their separation:

Seb: "….But you sir, altered that, for some
hour before you took me from the breach
of the sea was my sister drowned.

Ant: "Alas the day."

Seb: "A lady, sir, though it was said she
much resembled me, was yet of many
accounted beautiful. But though I could
not with such estimable wonder overfar
believe that, yet thus I will boldly publish
her: she bore a mind that envy could not
but call fair. She is drowned already, sir,
with salt water, though I seem to drown
her remembrance again with more."

Mr. Miller's fortune turned out to be a happy one, as his son was discovered in the Astrodome, where he had been asking for his father. But the qualities Ronald Miller exhibited prior to his reunion with his son are worth recalling. We are left with the image of a man struggling manfully to mend the lives of others even as his own is rent. And who among us can imagine ourselves his equal in grace, or strength?

Here's a related and recommendable post by Michelle Malkin, the hardest working blogger in the blogosphere.

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