Critically analyse the love triangle among the characters Viola, Orsino and Olivia in the play Twelfth Night.

Expert Answers

Want to remove ads?

Get ad-free questions with an eNotes 48-hour free trial.

Try It Free No Thanks
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The renowed Shakespearean critic Harold Bloom describes Orsino as touching "the sublime of male fatuity."  Certainly, his penchant for hyperbole adds greatly to the hilarity of scenes in Twelfth Night. On the other hand, Orsino's attraction to women is somewhat complicated by his attention to Viola as Cesario before her identity is revealed. Even after he learns that Viola is a woman, Orsino enjoys his disguise:

Cesario, come:
For so you shall be, while you are a man;
But when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino's mistress, and his fancy's queen. (5.1.398-401)

While this confusion of sexual attraction has been interpreted as quixotic High Romanticism, for modern readers it may be complicated by the shifting in sexual roles in this age in which Shakespeare's play is considered by some as a transvestite play.

However, since there are other Shakespearean comedies that have the motif of mistaken identities, and since readers should avoid criticisms of works that judge them by standards outside of the time period in which they are written, it may be best to see the love triangle among Orsino, Olivia, and Viola and the other "erotic lunacy," as Bloom terms it, as simply as part of the festive comedy of the setting of the last night of the Christmas season. In addition, the reader must consider that Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night in comedic rivalry with Ben Johnson as this play satirizes Johnson's comedy of humors.

With the perspective, then, that the love triangle of Shakespeare's characters is meant to satirize the "humors" of choler and blood, the choleric humor, or temperament, results in anger and fury, while the sanguine humor manifests itself in "obsessive lust, frequently perverted"[Bloom]  Thus, Shakespeare parodies these humors in Orsino, especially. For example, he speaks of love in several different terms. First, it is an unsatiated appetite (1.1.1-3); then, he finds his desires like a "hart" [deer] that is chased by "fell and cruel hounds" (1.1.17). Later, he decides to indulge his love by enjoying the redolence of flowers,

These sovereign thrones, are all supplied, and fill'd
Her sweet perfections with one self king!
Away before me to sweet beds of flowers:
Love-thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers. (1.1.40-43)

Filled with the sanguine humor, Duke Orsino experiences "obsessive lust" for Olivia and some perverted attraction for Cesario.

That Olivia can so quickly redirect her affections from her dead brother to Cesario is also satiric:

I do I know not what, and fear to find
Mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind.
Fate, show thy force: ourselves we do not owe;
What is decreed must be, and be this so.(1.5.297-300)

Like Orsino, Olivia, too, is victimized by her humors, which she perceives as the workings of fate. In Act III, Olivia describes Viola/Cesario of being scornful and proud, much as Orsino has described her, 

A murderous guilt shows not itself more soon
Than love that would seem hid: love's night is noon.
Cesario, by the roses of the spring,
By maidhood, honour, truth, and everything,
I love thee so, that, maugre all thy pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide. (3.1.146-153)

Viola, too, becomes of victim of her humors as shortly after she is in the employ of the Duke, she falls in love with him. In an aside which reveals her tumultuous humors she cries,

Yet a barful strife!

Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife. (I.4.42)

Viola does not encourage Olivia, who later falls in love with her twin brother.

Read the study guide:
Twelfth Night

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question