How does Shakespeare portray love in "Twelfth Night" and how relevant are the various portrayals?

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malenig's profile pic

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Typically in Shakespeare's comedies, the transforming and redemptive power of genuine (selfless) love is contrasted with the stagnant nature of self-seeking love. This contrast is vividly dramatized in "Twelfth Night," as the plot is entirely driven by the search for love.

False love is reduced to absurdity in order to elevate more dramatically the significant power of true love. We recognize immediately the shallow views of love in the following characters, all of whom are easily fooled. Thus, self-love is seen as folly.

Duke Orsino is infatuated only with the idea of love itself and views Olivia as merely the object of his infatuation. Sir Andrew Aguecheek is so absorbed in self-pity that it is impossible for him to initiate love toward Olivia. Because Malvolio is blinded by extreme vanity, his "love" for Olivia is depicted as utter buffoonery. Olivia, likewise, is motivated by pride in the search for love. Even the love between Sir Toby and Maria is self-seeking.

On the other hand, true love is elevated to the status of heroism in the characters of Antonio, who sacrifices his life to save Sebastian, and in Viola, who selflessly loves Duke Orsino. In the end, Viola's love transforms Olivia and Orsino, who repent of their foolishness.

suman1983's profile pic

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The predominant theme of ‘Twelfth Night’ is love and its various attitudes. The different characters of ‘Twelfth Night’ present different attitudes to love. For example, Orsino is presented as a character who is love-sick. At the end of the play therefore he can easily transfer his love from Olivia to Viola. On the other hand Olivia is presented as a character who loves Cesario, but his love is not reciprocated because it is Viola who has disguised as Cesario. Finally Viola presents patience in love. She resists her love for Orsino till the end of the story. At the end of the play all the characters come to know the original identities of the other characters of the play and the audience come to know their different attitudes to love.

pinquo's profile pic

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different forms with different intentions.

The most consistent and obvious form of love is sincere love which will endure any ordeal and still stand strong. Viola is this type of love in living form. She puts herself out there for the Duke and does his will. Even though she acknowledges the fact that “Whoe’er she woos herself would be his wife.” (1:4). This aside shows her pure love for the Duke as she is willing “To do him rest, a thousand deaths would die” (5:1)  but in this case not die a thousand deaths but go as far as wooing another woman for him. Such extreme hyperboles can only mean honest and true love. However this wooing is returned with love for Viola herself as opposed to the Duke. Dramatic irony is a keystone at this point due to the fact the Olivia is affectionate for “Cesario” who in fact is Viola. Nonetheless, it a sincere love because though Viola plainly discloses “I pity you” (3:1) Olivia ignores it and tries to win over Cesario. Though Viola endured many hardships throughout the play, she eventually won the Duke showing that sincere love is adamant and rewarding.


Another form of love is the bond shown between siblings, which is be everlasting and though sometimes painful during the course, it is living proof of there being light at the end of the tunnel. Olivia expresses this love very clearly and rather hyperbolic as well because she wants to keep “A brother’s dead love, … fresh till seven years’ heat” (1,1). She is willing to mourn and bar herself from the rest of the world for seven years purely for a dead brother. This grief is disorderly and confused since she breaks this hyperbolic vow almost instantly upon meeting Cesario. Another pair of siblings in “Twelfth Night” are Sebastian and Viola who both think that the other is dead but “For saying so, there's gold” (1:4) clearly symbolises Viola yearning for the slightest ray of hope for her brother’s survival. While Viola wishes he was alive, Sebastian hyperbolically wishes that “they would had so ended”(2:1). He loves his sister so much that he wants to die to spare himself the pain. The bond between siblings is so strong it causes people to go to new extremes, whether it is to mourn for seven years or to wish yourself dead.


Finally, there is self, narcissistic love which, driven by one’s proud and arrogant demeanour, can be one’s ultimate downfall. Malvolio, deluded and oblivious, is a perfect illustration of this. Malvolio is bloated with ego and thinks of himself highly, as in the standards of Lady Olivia. He wants “To be Count Malvolio” (2:5) and “Having three months married to her” (2:5). Such hyperbolic expressions clearly show that he is full of himself and imprisoned in his own little world which he can never escape clearly shown when he is put through his ordeal and still wants to “be revenged on the whole pack of you!” (5:1). Further proof of him being locked for eternity is the fact that others, namely Olivia, plainly discloses that he is “sick of self-love”, a clear sign of revulsion, yet he thinks his Lady loves upon a reading a love letter, which is addressed to an unknown recipient. All in all he is taken down thanks to Maria but he still doesn’t learn his lesson, unmistakably showing self-love is a mere illusion.


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