Love is arguably the most popular theme for writers and readers alike throughout the entire history of literature. It provides the fundamental framework around which spawn the many other conspiracies and sub-stories that make up an entertaining read. Twelfth Night is no exception to this theory, with love being the focal point, right the way through. Every person in the play undergoes his or her own encounter with love in some form, with each character’s experience differing from the next. A multitude of different manners of love are explored in this work, with all having their own consequences and provoking a variety of reactions in the reader.Order now
The play is mainly concentrated on the difference between selfish and selfless love. Probably the best example of the former is Malvolio, Olivia’s respectable yet conceited steward. In his very first appearance in the play he is accused of being ‘sick of self-love’ after condemning Feste’s attempts to cheer up Olivia. He does not enjoy light-heartedness and is constantly criticising Sir Toby’s ‘misdemeanours’ and Feste’s humour with disapproval, cold and cutting. Throughout the play his language is pompous and superior, even when addressing Olivia. He does not speak in the same manner as the other servants and his expression is more like that of an aristocrat. He seems almost unaware of his inferior social status but the others take some delight in reminding him of it: ‘Go, sir, rub your chain with crumbs’ (II.3.101).
Malvolio often oversteps his position by rebuking the other members of Olivia’s house, even though both Sir Andrew and Sir Toby are of a higher social status than himself. Led by Maria, a trap is set for Malvolio to uncover him as the ‘overweening rogue’ they believe him to be. Prior to his discovery of the letter he is overheard by Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Feste and Fabian (who are in hiding so as to witness Maria ‘gull him into an ayword’ with her letter) speaking his own graces. He has delusions of grandeur and fantasises about one day becoming ‘Count Malvolio’, meaning he has intentions on his mistress. He includes in his speech sexual references towards Olivia that anger those watching: ‘Having come from a day-bed, where I have left Olivia sleeping’ (II.5.41).
He has aspirations far above his rank, which seem to justify what the other characters have planned for him: ‘Now he’s deeply in. Look how imagination blows him’ (II.5.37). He relishes the power this would give him over Sir Toby in particular and he imagines giving Toby ‘an austere regard of control’ whilst instructing him to amend his drunkenness. He manages to personally offend each of the people hiding there in the bushes, which only go to spur them on the more.
Upon discovering the letter Malvolio is immediately drawn in. He recognises Olivia’s handwriting on the front of the letter saying, ‘her very c’s, her u’s, and her t’s’. In Elizabethan times, ‘cut’ was slang for the female genitals; so, once again he associates Olivia with sex. His readiness to believe that she loves him is conceited and this, along with the fact that he has overstepped his position on several occasions, only goes to make the joke funnier. When he appears before Olivia, smiling maniacally, wearing yellow stockings and being cross-gartered you realise how out of character the letter has compelled him to be. However, he does this because he believes Olivia loves him and he goes through with the instructions out of care for her.
To begin with, Malvolio’s punishment seems well justified but as the play goes on there is a much darker ring to it and you feel terribly sorry for him. He is kept in a dark cell, treated like an object and made to think that he really is mad: ‘They have here propertied me: keep me in darkness, send ministers to me, asses, and do all they can to face me out of my wits’ (IV.2.77-79).
I feel that the truth should have been known long before the end as Malvolio exits determined to be ‘revenged on the whole pack of you’. Throughout his torment, however, Olivia remains concerned for him and her affection for her steward is probably the truest she feels in the whole play. I feel that Malvolio has taken up the role of brother and father for Olivia and this is why she is so anxious for his welfare: ‘I would not have him miscarry for half of my dowry’ (III.4.56-57).
Another character wishing to command Olivia’s affections is Orsino. He opens the play with a famous declaration of love: ‘If music be the food of love, play on’ (I.1.1). He is consequently established as a lover of profligate proportions, indulging his hyperbolic passion for a woman who has made it obvious she is not interested. It is apparent that he does not know Olivia as an individual: instead his language is full of amorous clichï¿½s and preoccupied with the wonderful masochism of unrequited love: ‘And my desires like fell and cruel hounds, / E’er since pursue me’ (I.1.22-23). His love is utterly self-absorbed as he is more concerned with himself as a lover than with the alleged object of his love, thus suggesting he is narcissistic. In the opening scene he envisages that he will ultimately be ‘one self king’ of Olivia’s affections, signifying a marital hierarchy rather than mutuality.
It is from this self-centredness that Viola is able to nudge him. Telling the story of her ‘sister’, she draws his thoughts from his own preoccupations and alerts his attention from his love for Olivia to the possibility of female love. After this intimate discussion with Viola, Orsino does not appear again until the end of the play and by this time, his emotional reliance on Cesario has obscured his love for Olivia. It is for this reason that when he believes Olivia and Cesario to be married, his hurt and sense of betrayal falls not on his worshipped mistress but on his ‘page’: ‘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’ (V.1.114-117). The proposed marriage between Olivia and Cesario shocks Orsino into a declaration of love. However, this time not the usual and self-indulgent idioms of his love for Olivia but a dynamic, fervent, violent desire for Cesario: ‘I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love’ (V.1.119).
Through Viola’s disguise, she and Orsino have discussed many subjects and they have got to know one another well before acknowledging each other as lovers: ‘Thou know’st no less but all: I have unclasped / To thee the book even of my secret soul’ (I.4.12-13). There is, however, a lingering sense that it was the boy Cesario who Orsino fell in love with. His final words to his bride stress the homoerotic foundations of their relationship: ‘Cesario, come- / For so you shall be while you are a man’ (V.1.362-363). However, in this scene he shows how he has been educated out of narcissistic infatuation and into a relationship based on mutual intimacy.
The former object of Orsino’s affections, Olivia, is a portrayal of self-denying and self-deceiving love. A great deal is heard about Olivia before her first arrival in the play and this comprehensive introduction is wholly appropriate for a character who is the hub of so many different people’s desires and perceptions: the romanticizing love of Orsino and Sir Andrew, the self serving aspirations of Malvolio, the freeloading of Sir Toby and the satiric wit of Feste.
When we are introduced to her she is mourning the loss of her brother and has vowed to deny the love of any man for seven years: ‘like a cloistress she will veiled walk’. The veil she wears is a fitting symbol: perhaps we never really know what motivates this woman who first shuns love and then quickly falls in love with Cesario.
When Olivia first meets Cesario in I.5, her language changes from being standoffish to warm. They speak in prose, suggesting a relaxed kind of intimacy, and this is stressed when Olivia dismisses Maria and her attendants to be alone with ‘him’. Cesario speaks to Olivia as if she was an equal and ‘he’ even accuses her of being ‘too proud’. This freshness, however, only seems to attract Olivia’s affections all the more.
She clearly thinks highly of her own good looks (‘Is’t not well done?’) and Orsino is getting nowhere in telling her of them continuously. She relishes the thought of Orsino loving her ‘with adorations, fertile tears, with groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire’, as this feeds her vanity but she dismisses him. All the men she has been close to have died and I think this is why she dismisses Orsino’s advances and is so warm to Viola-Cesario: they speak as two women although Olivia has not yet realised this.
Her urgent desire for Cesario deflected her into an unintended marriage with Sebastian but she does not seem perturbed by her new husband’s revelation that she is ‘betrothed both to a maid and a man’. I believe that this accidental marriage is a kind of punishment for Olivia’s excessive behaviour earlier on in the play. This is also evidence that Olivia really is driven by external appearances.
There are some parallels between Olivia and Orsino, the principal one being that they both fall in love with Viola. They both equate love with sickness: Orsino talks of his appetite for love sickening and dying and Olivia likens the rapidity of her love for Cesario to catching the ‘plague’. They are both sentimental and where Olivia sends Malvolio to ‘run after that same peevish messenger’ so as to give ‘him’ a ring, Orsino sends Cesario with a ring for Olivia. Such trinkets can only be seen as sentimental.
The manifestation of love evident in Viola’s character is arguably the only form of ‘true love’ in the play. Our first encounter with Viola is on the shores of Illyria, believing her beloved twin brother lost in the shipwreck. Throughout the play she is a stranger in a potentially hostile land but in the midst of all her sorrow she demonstrates immense bravery and ingenuity in resolving to dress as a boy and enter the service of Orsino. It appears that she has also lost her father but unlike Olivia she does not respond to the loss by retreating into herself.
Viola could be described as the catalyst of the play: she is the go-between for Orsino to Olivia and moves between their households, she has individual conversations with Olivia, Orsino, Malvolio, Feste and Sebastian and, as such, is the major connective energy between the different characters and plot strands. Her arrival breaks up the stalemate of Orsino’s excessive and unrequited love for Olivia and helps Olivia break out of her self-imposed mourning.
Very early on in the play, Viola falls in love with Orsino but she still carries his messages of love to Olivia: this is evidence of her immense tenacity. She is not self-seeking but self-sacrificing and her language is always sincere. She speaks the most moving and heartfelt lines about love in the whole play and it is by this that she is able to steer Orsino and Olivia away from their selfishness.
Viola tackles Olivia’s advances as honestly as she can and was Olivia less blinded by her infatuation, she would recognize Viola’s hints: ‘I am not what I am’ (III.1.126) and ‘Shall mistress be of it, save I alone’ (III.1.145). However, Olivia fails to identify Viola’s double meaning and therefore shames herself at the end of the play. Orsino too does not pick up on Viola’s subtle insinuations yet he too falls in love with Viola even though he believes her to be a man.
The strongest and truest love Viola possesses is that for her brother, Sebastian. When they finally find each other at the end there is an emotional reunion and they seem to completely forget their company. It becomes obvious just how alike they are when Antonio comments they are like a ‘division’ of one another, ‘an apple cleft in two’. It is not until V.1.225 that Viola is addressed by her real name (‘Thrice welcome, drowned Viola’) and thereafter she speaks her own name twice in ten lines. There is a sense, therefore, in which she is not a complete person until she is reunited with her twin. It is interesting that Orsino continues to call her Cesario to the end.
Sebastian’s close friend, Antonio, also demonstrates unwavering and devoted affection for Sebastian. He is the only character in the play who knows who he loves, expresses that love and acts selflessly because of it. He saves Sebastian from the wreck and risks imprisonment by following him into Illyria, he freely gives him money and he offers to take ‘Sebastian’s’ place in the duel with Sir Andrew. His actions are all prompted by his affection, expressed in brief soliloquy: ‘I do adore thee so’ (II.2.35).
However, despite all of Antonio’s devotion, there is no conclusion for him at the end of the play. Sebastian, in the midst of all the celebrations, doesn’t spare a single word for this man who has protected and aided him. I think it is fair to speculate that Antonio’s love may not have been entirely platonic as his feelings carry a vehement undertone unusual between friends. Ultimately, though, Antonio is a victim at the end: Sebastian scarcely seems to register, let alone earn, the self-sacrificing devotion he receives from Antonio.
A different form of love we have not yet encountered is that between Sir Toby and Maria. When Sir Toby speaks of Maria, his language is full of sexual references but Maria deflects these remarks fondly with her coy wit. In II.3.149 he calls her ‘Penthesilea’ and he describes her as ‘one that adores me’. They seem to have an understanding of one another and where most women would take offence, Maria takes part in the jovial repartee. Sir Toby seems highly impressed by Maria’s devising of the trick against Malvolio, so much so that he talks of marriage: ‘I could marry this wench for this device…..And ask no other dowry with her but such another jest’ (II.5.150-152). The true extent of Sir Toby and Maria’s relationship is not apparent until the final scene where Fabian announces their marriage. Much of their courtship went on off stage but this ending after all of Sir Toby’s continuous merry making and over indulgence in alcohol is the perfect conclusion.
Sir Andrew Aguecheek is portrayed in the play as a fool. His words almost always echo Sir Toby’s: he seems to have no voice or an opinion of his own and is merely a shadow of Sir Toby. He is also a shadow of Orsino in that his absurdly unreciprocated pursuit of Olivia is a fainter version of Orsino’s passion. He is characterised as a blundering fool who does not understand Sir Toby’s French, who misinterprets words and uses them incorrectly, who must borrow wooing terms from a page and whose masculinity is questioned by Maria: ‘A dry jest, sir’ (I.3.63), suggesting impotence. Despite this, Sir Andrew Aguecheek is an endearing character and you cannot help feeling sorry for him as there is a hint of a past life lost in his wistful words ‘I was adored once, too’ (II.3.153).
There is a multitude of different manners of love explored in Twelfth Night, all of which bind the characters to its storyline. I feel that in conclusion, Shakespeare wanted to put forward his own version of that romantic clichï¿½ ‘true love conquers all’, with Viola being true love incarnate. She helps both Olivia and Orsino realise the true nature of love and she, the heroine, is the only character to find complete happiness at the end.