How does Shakespeare portray love in Twelfth Night?

Love triumphs at the end of Twelfth Night, but not before it drives the play's characters nearly out of their minds, making them behave strangely and also making them miserable as they navigate both their passions and a series of mistaken identities.

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In Twelfth Night , Shakespeare portrays love as something wild and passionate, something that takes people almost out of their senses and makes them do things they normally would not do, something that comes upon them suddenly and often makes them miserable. Yet he also depicts the triumph of love...

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In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare portrays love as something wild and passionate, something that takes people almost out of their senses and makes them do things they normally would not do, something that comes upon them suddenly and often makes them miserable. Yet he also depicts the triumph of love in the end (when the characters finally find the right person to love).

As the play begins, Duke Orsino laments his unrequited love for Olivia. He is miserable but determined. Olivia has renounced all love as she grieves for her brother, but the Duke will not take no for an answer. He bothers Olivia unendingly with proposals, vowing not to leave her alone until she says yes to him. He sends messenger after messenger, but finally he sends one too many, and Olivia, too, falls in love, just not with the Duke!

The last messenger Orsino sends to Olivia is Viola, disguised as the young man Cesario. Olivia falls head over heals for Viola/Cesario, but Viola, of course, is not at all interested, for she has fallen in love with the Duke. Viola manages to control herself (she must to maintain her disguise), but Olivia does not. She chases “Cesario” shamelessly, behaving in a way that would normally be completely incompatible with her serious nature.

Somehow, though, Olivia fails to notice that Viola's brother, Sebastian, is not Cesario. Yes, the siblings look a lot alike, but the fact that Sebastian has no idea who she is or what she is talking about should have tipped her off that something is amiss. Olivia's love blinds her, however, and she gets a promise of marriage out of Sebastian and even a betrothal ceremony, for he has fallen in love with her as well, perhaps simply out of the fact that a beautiful woman is in love with him.

In the end, however, everything works out for the best. Cesario is unmasked as Viola, and the Duke decides he can love her just as well as he can love Olivia and maybe even better since she returns his love. Olivia and Sebastian remain deliriously happy, and love seems to have triumphed all around.

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Despite ending in three marriages, love seems to be portrayed more as a sickness or even a kind of madness in Twelfth Night rather than as a lasting source of joy and companionship.

Notice the amount of unrequited affections among the characters. Orsino wants Olivia, while Olivia pines for Cesario. Both Orsino and Olivia are not necessarily in love, but infatuated with the idea of the object of their affections. This latter idea is emphasized in Olivia's case, since Cesario is not even a real person, but the alter ego of Viola.

Forbidden love, particularly love with homoerotic overtones, makes its way into the play as well. The sailor Antonio's passion for Sebastian is often interpreted as romantic in nature, and it too is unrequited, as well as forbidden by the socio-religious context of the setting. Viola longs for Orsino, who can never be hers as long as she is disguised as his male servant. Her speech about Cesario's "sister" and her unrequited love sums up the pain of such longing:

She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
d with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed? (2.4.108–113)

While the play ends happily, love is never presented as devoid of complications and pain. Indeed, it seems to cause pain more than it does fulfillment in the play's world. The sad reality that love can cause pain is emphasized by the fact that neither Antonio nor Malvolio end the play in marital bliss.

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Love is a very common theme in Shakespeare's comedies.  The structure of a classical Comedy is such that, after a series of complications for at least one romantic couple, the play ends "happily" in at least one marriage.  Though not everyone actually says his/her vows before the play's end, Twelfth Night concludes in three marriages -- Viola and Orsino, Olivia and Sebastian, and Sir Toby and Maria.

Love is depicted in a number of ways.  First, there is the melancholy, unrequited "sickness" that is Orsino's love.  He opens the play mooning over Olivia and the fact that she will not return his love.  He seems to be the sort of lover that actually takes a sort of delight in his own misery.  Viola mirrors Orsino when she dresses as Cesario and takes on the role of a young man serving in Orsino's household.  She falls hopelessly in love with Orsino and describes herself this way:

...[S]he never told her love,

But let concealment like a worm i' th' bud

Feed on her damask cheek:  she pin'd in thought

And with a green and yellow melancholy

Sat like Patience on a monument,

Smiling at grief.

Olivia, unable to return Orsino's affections, falls in love with Cesario (Viola), and her love is a sort of unrequited sickness as well.  However, when Olivia mistakes Sebastian for Cesario, the two are wed, really even before Sebastian knows what has happened to him.  Sebastian's love is "love at first sight" in the extreme.

Then there is Malvolio, who fancies himself in love with Olivia, but seems, rather, to be very much in love with becoming the lord and master of her household. Sir Andrew also falls into the "unrequitedly in love with Olivia" category.  Shakespeare uses him to spoof the actions of a young courtly man -- pursuing her through making good friends with her male relative (Sir Toby) and challenging his rival (Cesario) to a duel.

And, though Sir Toby and Maria (Olivia's serving woman) never have any scene in which they confess their love for each other, it is reported at the end of the play that Toby was so grateful to Maria for the part she played in duping Malvolio that "'[i]n recompense. . .he hath married her."  Is there love between them?  Shakespeare doesn't answer this question.

The links below will connect you to essays that further investigate the topic of love in Twelfth Night.


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