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    The Theme of Love in Twelfth Night

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    Despite the genre of the play, and the supposedly happy ending, Shakespeare is quite ambiguous with his thoughts on the subjects of love and infatuation. Love is generally represented as something that is irresistible, spontaneous and overpowering. It is portrayed as being dangerous and something that can destroy a person, and is very difficult to get rid of. Shakespeare compares it to disease and suffering, and shows that it can cause pain. Orsino describes love dolefully as an ‘appetite’ that he needs to satisfy, but is unable to and Olivia more bluntly describes it as a ‘plague’.

    Even Viola who is less melodramatic sighs that ‘My state is desperate for my master’s love’. Because those who suffer from it are consumed by it and become desperate, they resort to violence to secure the love of another. For example, Sir Andrew challenges Viola to fight to the death for Olivia’s hand, and Orsino threatens to kill Viola, the subject of Olivia’s affections, in order to keep her for himself, ‘But this your minion, whom I know you love, And whom, by heaven I swear, I tender dearly, Him will I tear out of that cruel eye, Where he sits crowned in his master’s spite.

    Although the play is a comedy, it can also be the beginning of a tragedy, as at this point in the play, Viola’s love for Orsino almost costs her her life. However, I think that at the same time Shakespeare is trying to tell us that love is not always as serious as that. The characters of Orsino and Olivia are overdramatic and very self absorbed. They seem to be more obsessed with the thought of love than with love itself. Olivia is more than happy to exchange her ‘love’ for a fake man, Viola, for that of a real one in Sebastian, whom she has known for mere minutes.

    She fell in love with Viola’s personality, but settles for Sebastian because of their similar appearance. I think that Shakespeare is trying to tell us to treat love like everything else in ‘Twelfth Night’ and not to take it so seriously; even the subtitle of the play suggests so: ‘What You Will’. This implies that we can think what we want of Illyria as it is simply a fantasy land, and the play is frankly a ridiculous notion of happiness.

    Shakespeare uses characters to explore many different types of love throughout the play, such as unrequited and platonic love; however, essentially he uses them to say the same thing: that love is not fickle, but is about the personality and disposition of someone rather than their physical attributes. Shakespeare depicts unrequited love through the relationships of Orsino and Olivia, Olivia and Cesario, and Sir Andrew and Olivia. Unrequited love is an important aspect of the play because the relationship between the characters adds to the comical effect as one of them is madly in love with another, but their feelings are not reciprocated.

    This builds tension between the two characters and we are often exposed to an alternate side of the character that we would not normally get the chance see. For example Sir Andrew’s love for Olivia is unreciprocated, and when Sir Toby convinces him to challenge Cesario to a duel we see an aggressive side of his character as opposed to the pathetic, gullible fool that he is usually depicted as, ‘a thin-faced knave, a gull’. I think that Shakespeare uses these characters to show that love can bring out a certain characteristic that would not ordinarily be apparent.

    Another type of love that Shakespeare explores is the love between members of the same family; characters such as Viola and Sebastian, and Olivia and her brother are used to depict this kind of love. This love is one of the purest types, because it is not altered by appearances; however it is not as strong as romantic/physical love. Olivia is willing to suffer for her dead brother’s love by refusing the company of men and cloistering herself for seven years in mourning for the loss of her brother, ‘The element itself, till seven years’ heat, shall not behold her face at ample view; But like a cloistress she will veiled walk…. ll this to season a brother’s dead love’. However as soon as she meets Cesario she seems to forget about her brother and attempts to win Cesario’s love.

    This shows that she does not value her love for her brother as highly as her love for Cesario. We are shown that the relationship between brother and sister can also be extremely strong, as when Viola and Sebastian are separated, they don’t seem to forget about each other, and when they are finally re-united, we see how deep their love for each other really is. Shakespeare uses these characters to show the audience that love varies depending on the individual.

    A further kind of love that Shakespeare explores, using the characters of Viola and Orsino, and Sebastian and Olivia, is romantic or physical love. This is the strongest type of love that Shakespeare explores, as it seems to carry more significance than any of the other kinds of love, and the characters pay more attention to it. Olivia’s love for Sebastian is physical, as she only marries him because she thinks he is Cesario. Similarly, Sebastian’s love for Olivia is also physical. This is because he does not know her at all, but still agrees to marry her, because he can see that she is beautiful and rich.

    Orsino’s love for Viola is romantic as he falls in love with her character before he knows that she is a woman. However, we are shown that he also likes her appearance as the first time he sends her to Olivia’s court, he admires her shape, ‘Diana’s lip is not more rubious; they small pipe is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound, I know thy constellation is right apt for this affair’. Shakespeare shows us that romantic love is important as it incorporates the main constitution of love and attraction. Shakespeare uses the characters of Antonio and Sebastian, and Orsino and Cesario to depict platonic love.

    Platonic love is very similar to family love, except the characters are not related. This means that they are extremely close out of choice, and we are shown this through their friendship. Platonic love between two characters is when they have a very close affectionate relationship, but are not attracted to each other, ‘For his love did I expose myself, pure for his love, into the danger of this adverse town’. Different directors have interpreted this love differently and demonstrate this through Sebastian and Antonio’s relationship.

    In some productions they are simply very close friends, however in others, Antonio’s feelings for Sebastian are much stronger. In one particular production, that I have seen, which was directed by Neil Bartlett, the relationship between these two characters was clearly shown to be more than that of two close friends. This particular director also emphasised the way that an Elizabethan audience would have viewed the play, by exaggerating the cross-dressing. He had many of the male parts being performed by female actors, and many of the female parts being played by male actors.

    Shakespeare includes this type of love to show that not all love is about physical attributes, but is mainly about personality and character. Love across social boundaries is another type of love that Shakespeare explores. This love is represented by the characters of Malvolio and Olivia and Sir Toby and Maria. This type of love is socially not accepted and is often rejected. Malvolio’s love for Olivia is not true love, as when he thinks that it is reciprocated, he imagines using it for his own personal gain, ‘Toby approaches; curtsies there to me….

    I extend my hand to him thus…. saying ‘You must amend you drunkenness”. This shows that he only wants to marry Olivia to better himself so that he can throw Sir Toby out of Olivia’s house. Shakespeare explores this love, to show that love should be selfless, but is not always so. False Love is also explored by Shakespeare through his use of characters; Olivia and Sebastian portray this type of love, as Olivia does not really love Sebastian, but is in fact in love with his sister, but settles for him because of their similar appearance, ‘So comes it, lady, you have been mistook’.

    Sebastian also marries Olivia without really loving her. He had known her for mere minutes when he agreed to marry her. This shows that he is only interested in her because she is beautiful and wealthy. Shakespeare uses this love to show us that people pretend to love another to advance themselves, or to stop themselves from looking stupid. Shakespeare explores courtly love through the characters of Orsino and Olivia. This love is a historical way of courting someone, and involves putting them on a pedestal and worshipping them from a far.

    Orsino’s love for Olivia is courtly. He sends his servants to woo her and ‘unfold the passions’ of his love to her. In the end though, it turns out that he does not actually love her. Shakespeare introduces this love to show us that worshipping someone does not always mean that you are in love with them Self love is the final type of love that Shakespeare explores. This is represented by Malvolio, who is so pompous that he cannot see what is really going on when he finds the letter. He is so self absorbed that he does not realise that it is a trick.

    He assumes that just because that letters M, O, A, and I are all in his name, even though they are not in that order, the letter must be for him, and Olivia must love him, ‘for every one of these letters are in my name’. He later appears wearing yellow stockings and cross-gartered, a fashion which Olivia detests. He thinks that he knows her extremely well, as he has served her for many years, but he does not know that she does not like that particular fashion. Shakespeare uses this love to show us that people will go to extremes to secure the love of another.

    Shakespeare uses imagery to explore the theme of love in ‘Twelfth Night’. One of the main images that Shakespeare uses is music. The opening speech is centred around the idea that music and love are somehow connected, ‘If music be the food of love, play on’. In a similar way, the play is ended with a song from Feste, the fool. Another image that is used is the sea. It is the only way to get to Illyria, and in Orsino’s first speech, he likens love to the sea, ‘O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou, that, notwithstanding thy capacity, receiveth as the sea’.

    Things such as precious stones and flowers are used to represent the traditional image of love: flowers are often given as gifts on Valentine’s Day, and precious stones were sent from admirers. For example, Olivia sends a ring after Cesario the first time that he visits her, ‘Run after that same peevish messenger, he left this ring behind him’. The final image is that of hunting. This relates to courting, and Orsino likens his feelings for Olivia to hounds that he cannot escape from, ‘that instant was I turned into a hart, and my desires like fell and cruel hounds e’er since pursue me’.

    I think that when Shakespeare is exploring the theme of love through imagery, he is trying to tell us that love, like many things in ‘Twelfth Night’, is not always what it seems to be. Dramatic devices are another way that Shakespeare explores the theme of love in ‘Twelfth Night’. One of the main techniques he uses is dramatic irony. This puts the audience in a privileged position, as we know things that the characters do not. This allows us to judge them and make informed decisions throughout the play at times when we have more information than the character.

    Dramatic irony can also make a situation humorous, for example when Olivia is chasing after Cesario, is constantly being rejected, but is persistent none the less, ‘Viola : I pity you, Olivia: That’s a degree to love’; we know that Cesario is really Viola and that Olivia should just give up. Another technique that Shakespeare uses is word play. He takes everyday words, and changes them so that they refer to love as well as the intended meaning. For example, in the first scene, Curio asks Orsino if he will hunt ‘the hart’. Curio meant a male deer, but we interpret it to mean a heart.

    Orsino then extends this and compares himself to the hart. We judge the characters by the type of language that they use. Certain characters such as Orsino and Olivia speak in iambic pentameter, or blank verse; this is because they are important characters and we assume that what they have to say is more significant than the less important characters such as Sir Andrew and Sir Toby. Shakespeare uses several different methods to explore the theme of love in ‘Twelfth Night’ but the most important one is through his characters. He turns each idea into a character and the drama and relationships between them help us to understand his thoughts.

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    The Theme of Love in Twelfth Night. (2017, Oct 29). Retrieved from

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