Twelfth Night is one of the greatest plays ever written about love. Many of the characters do gain new insights through losing their hearts. And while Shakespeare certainly doesn’t set out to be didactic, audiences listening to his words may also learn some very human truths. Are these “lessons” positive or negative? That depends on your perspective. There’s a lot to be said on this topic. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Viola: The first thing we learn about Viola is that she and her brother Sebastian have just been shipwrecked. Viola has been miraculously rescued, but she’s in anguish at the thought that her beloved brother may have drowned. Because she cares so much, she must struggle with this terrible dread until almost the end of the play.
Viola hatches a scheme to disguise herself as a young man (“Cesario”) and join the court of Duke Orsino, the ruler of Illyria. In her very first scene, Shakespeare foreshadows the fact that she is going to fall in love with her new employer. When she hears the duke’s name, Viola recalls her father mentioning it to her long ago:
Orsino! I have heard my father name him:
He was a bachelor then.
In what context, we wonder, did Sebastian Senior mention Orsino to his young daughter, and inform her that the duke was unmarried? Could it be that he was considering Orsino as a possible husband for Viola?
Viola does fall for the duke, and finds herself trapped in a dilemma: she can only serve him as long as she maintains her disguise, but as long as Orsino believes she’s a boy, he will never see her as a woman. Even worse, Orsino is infatuated with Olivia, and sends “Cesario” off to woo the beautiful countess on his behalf. The devoted Viola finds herself using all her eloquence to persuade Olivia to marry the man whom Viola herself loves.
If Viola didn’t know it before, her experiences in Illyria teach her that deep love makes us vulnerable to pain. One reason her character is so appealing is that, despite all the suffering that she experiences, she continues to love Sebastian and Orsino with absolute devotion.
Olivia: Olivia, too, is already grieving at the start of the play. She’s in mourning for her father and her brother, who have both died recently. While we may suspect that she’s using her bereavement as an excuse to keep Orsino at arm’s length, there’s no reason to think that her grief isn’t real:
The element itself, till seven years' heat,
Shall not behold her face at ample view;
But, like a cloistress, she will veiled walk
And water once a day her chamber round
With eye-offending brine: all this to season
A brother's dead love, which she would keep fresh
And lasting in her sad remembrance.
Olivia herself has never been in love. She finds Orsino’s suit irritating, and she has no real empathy for him. Viola finds Olivia’s coolness infuriating:
Love make his heart of flint that you shall love;
And let your fervor, like my master's, be
Placed in contempt! Farewell, fair cruelty.
Little does Viola realize that Olivia has just fallen in love with “Cesario,” believing him to be a man. (It’s interesting to note that Olivia speaks in prose — that is, ordinary language rhythms rather than iambic pentameter — up until halfway through her first scene with Cesario. There, she switches into blank verse, and continues that way until the end of the play. This is Shakespeare telling the actor (and us), “Here is the moment when Olivia falls in love and everything changes.”)
Olivia now discovers what love really feels like, and she’s amazed:
Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions and spirit,
Do give thee five-fold blazon: not too fast:
Unless the master were the man. How now!
Even so quickly may one catch the plague?
Methinks I feel this youth's perfections
With an invisible and subtle stealth
To creep in at mine eyes.
Olivia suffers less for love than some of the other characters do. Luckily for her, Viola’s twin Sebastian is available to step in and change places with his sister, giving Olivia a genuine “Cesario” to marry.
Orsino: Does Orsino truly love Olivia? He tells us that he loves her for her beauty:
Get thee to yond same sovereign cruelty:
Tell her, my love, more noble than the world,
Prizes not quantity of dirty lands;
The parts that fortune hath bestow'd upon her,
Tell her, I hold as giddily as fortune;
But 'tis that miracle and queen of gems
That nature pranks her in [i.e., her looks] attracts my soul.
Orsino’s relationship with “Cesario” is very different. The two of them spend time together, talking about life and love and their families. Because she is disguised as a boy, Viola is allowed to develop a type of relationship with Orsino that he would never ordinarily have with any woman. When he discovers at last who she truly is, Orsino is in no doubt that he loves her:
If this be so, as yet the glass seems true,
I shall have share in this most happy wreck.
[ To VIOLA]
Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times
Thou never shouldst love woman like to me.
. . .
Give me thy hand;
And let me see thee in thy woman's weeds.
Thanks to those early discussions (and arguments) with “Cesario,” Orsino has learned how to love her in a way that he never loved the remote and lovely Olivia.
Oh, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio . . .
Malvolio’s real love is his own vision of himself as a great and powerful gentleman. Like Narcissus, he falls for an insubstantial reflection of himself: a fantasy which Maria plays on to bring about his downfall. Because of his ambition, all of his personal relationships in the play are determined by status. He is not interested in Olivia for herself, but for the power and authority that marriage to her would bring him. By the end of the play, having been tricked and humiliated and terrified, Malvolio is bent on revenge. Has he learned anything? I see no evidence that he has. What do you think?