Worm i'the bud: The Games of Love in Twelfth Night

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According to Patrick Swinden in his book, An Introduction to Shakespeare's Comedies, a comedy does not demand "the degree of concentration and belief" required by tragedy. As a result, an audience of a play "is amusedly aware that it's all a play, a game that they are sharing with the actors". 1 In Twelfth Night, it is the characters, almost without exception, who, in varying degrees, are involved in deception. Swinden says, "Whether we look in the plot that Shakespeare took (indirectly) from the Italian, or the plot he made up to put beside it, we shall discover deceit piled on deceit." 2 Cesario/Viola deceives Olivia, Orsino, Sir Andrew, and Sir Toby, while Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste deceive Malvolio.

In an intricate pattern of "concealment" and "revealment" the play spins dizzily toward its happy resolution with all the deceptions that had, and had been, concealed revealed. Is the end of the play really a happy ending? What dynamic in the process of deception could cause Sir Andrew to disappear or force Malvolio to declare, "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you!" (V.i.380)? Are the characters bettered or changed by their experiences when they arrive at the end of Act V than when they started at the beginning of Act I? Whether it be a practical joke or a clever disguise, the games being played in Illyria simultaneously result from and protect each character's deception not only of others but also, more importantly of themselves. The clearest examples are Duke Orsino and Olivia.

The games begin with Orsino's opening lines to the play:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and die (I.i.1-4).

As Orsino continues to wax rhetorical and hysterical about being in love, it rapidly becomes apparent that he is playing a game with himself, which he will continue throughout the play. He is not in love, but in love with love. Olivia is unattainable and she has told him so repeatedly. Yet Orsino persists in making himself suffer, listening to sad love songs, writing to her, staying awake at night and crying into his pillow because he believes that this is the way someone in love acts. We almost want to shout at him "Get over it. Move on." It is part of the game that while it may appear that Orsino is rhapsodizing about Olivia, he is actually concentrating on himself. The words "I," "me," and "mine" occur ten times in the opening passage, culminating with:

How will she love...
... when live, brain, and heart,
Those sovereign thrones, are all supplied and filled
Her sweet perfections with one selfsame king! (35-39).

Shakespeare's use of "selfsame" intensifies not only Orsino's description of Olivia, but also his focus on himself. Throughout these lines there is a sense that Orsino's sexual identity, encased in a male body, has not yet been clearly defined, hence his necessity for adopting what he thinks are the affectations of a successful lover.

Orsino begins Act II, scene iv in the same way he begins Act I: "Give me some music" (II.iv.1). Here, however, Orsino requests a specific song, one overheard just the night before, as Feste, Olivia's fool, sang it. How Orsino managed to overhear Feste's performance is one of the mysteries of the play, but its effect on Orsino is unquestionable "it did relieve my passion much" (II.iv.4). The song's lyrics are most depressing:

Come away, come away, Death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fie away, fie away, breath,
I am slain by a fair cruel maid;
My shroud of white, all stuck with yew,
O prepare it.
My part of death no one so true
Did share it.
Not a flower, not a flower sweet
On my black coffin let there be strown;
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.
A thousand thousand sighs to save
Lay me, O where
Sad lover never find my grave
To weep there (II.iv.49-64).

Although Orsino says that he heard only a "piece of song" (II.iv.2), he also notes that it is an "old and antique song" (II.iv.3), indicating that he knows it in its entirety. Its tune and sentiment are so powerful that it remains with him the next morning. It is possible that the song reminds Orsino that he is no longer young enough to pursue an amorous campaign, and that there will be neither lover nor child to mourn him as Olivia mourns her brother. In modern pop-psychology terminology, Orsino appears to be having a mid-life crisis.

Orsino's game reaches a breaking point when Cesario interrupts his rhetoric with, "Ay, but I know" (II.iv.99). Orsino is shocked that this young man may have love experiences to which he has not been privy. He questions what Cesario knows about love and women and is eager to hear the boy's "blank" (II.iv.106) story. Yet, Orsino remains oblivious to Cesario's confession: "I am all the daughters of my father's house, And all the brothers, too" (II.iv.116-117). Orsino seems to be uncomfortable with this very personal, very intense revelation from another man since his "Ay, that's the theme" (II.iv.119) appears to restore his concentration to the safety and comfort of the pursuit of Olivia.

Orsino decides to discard his affectations and goes to speak directly with Olivia. Whatever has transpired between him and Cesario in their "three months" (V.i.88) silence of Acts III and IV has given him the strength to declare that he "will be so much a sinner to be a double-dealer" (V.i.27).

Many productions have offered Orsino actually falling in love with Cesario, such as the 1994 Royal Shakespeare Company version which had the events of Act II scene iv take place in Orsino's bed. Orsino and Cesario share a passionate kiss that surprises them both, but the kiss also seems to flow from the action and its location. Trevor Nunn's 1996 film moves the moment of passion to the scene during which Feste sings a love madrigal in a stable. Feste who coughs at the critical moment of their lips almost touching breaks the momentum. The interpretation is a valid one based on Orsino's customarily rhetorical proclamations of love for Cesario:

Why should I not ... Kill what I love. (V.i.106, 108)
...This your minion ... whom, by heaven I swear I tender dearly (V.i.114-115)
... the lamb that I do love (V.i.119).

Has Orsino fallen out of love with love and in love with Cesario? His proclamations arise from his anger at Olivia's very public rejection of them as "fat and fulsome to mine ear / As howling music" (V.i.98-99), the same music that he has found so soothing. This anger is not generated by some newfound awareness. Swinden comments: "He is talking about Cesario, not Olivia... The presence on stage of both partners during the tirade brings out very delicately the ambiguity of Orsino's shift in feeling. He fails to distinguish the object of his anger from the object of his love." 3

Even when Cesario is revealed to be Viola, his acceptance of a "share in this most happy wrack" (V.i.250) seems to be dependent on his seeing her in "woman's weeds" (V.i.257). Yet it is to Viola still dressed as Cesario to whom Orsino offers his hand, not once but twice. That Orsino will not accept Viola unless she looks like a proper woman and yet offers his hand to the male vision suggests that Orsino has not surrendered completely his comfortable sexual cocoon into which he has only admitted Cesario and then only with restraint. This reticence is confirmed at the play's end when Orsino admits:

... 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 (V.i.362-365).

In his essay, "The two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice," Joseph Pequigney explains that, "[Orsino's] attraction to Olivia, where he is heterosexually straight, like the other would-be wooers Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Malvolio, is a disaster. The love Cesario could not have changed instantaneously with the revelation of his femaleness; if it is erotic, then it would have been erotic before; what does change is that marriage suddenly becomes possible, hence the immediate proposal." 4 This proposal is followed by a mournful song from Feste on the stages of a love life, which brings the play back to the beginning. Clearly, Orsino has not changed from the man he was: he will still have his "fancy." He is as he was at the beginning of the play: he cannot totally abandon his own sexual game. In all likelihood, Viola will now become an Olivia substitute, "his fancy's queen."

As Orsino hides behind the game of love, Olivia hides behind the game of grief cut off from love, adopting an Orsino version of mourning behaviour. Her entire household is in mourning and she daily goes to her brother's grave. As long as she grieves for her dead bother, her sexual desires can be put on hold. Grieving gives her the perfect excuse for rejecting Orsino's suit and relieves her of making a sexual investment in any man until she chooses "the sight / And company of men" (I.ii.40-41). Unlike Orsino, Olivia has put a seven-year limit on her mourning for her father and brother of which "twelvemonth" has already elapsed when Viola lands in Illyria.

In addition, Olivia differs from Orsino significantly since she can:

sway her house, command her followers,
Take and give back affairs and them dispatch
With such a smooth, discreet and stable bearing (IV.iii.17-19).

She is generous and tolerant, boarding Sir Toby and his guest, Sir Andrew, and positive in her view of the repressed Malvolio. With Feste's logical and systematic stripping away of her facade, with Olivia's consent, Olivia is free in a way that eludes Orsino. She demonstrates keen judgment about the affectations of love: "'Tis not that time of the moon with me to make one in so skipping a dialogue" (I.v.164-165). She has an agile mind and is able to counter Cesario's metaphors as quickly as he issues them. She is inquisitive and only asks Cesario the necessary questions. She seems to be a realist, offering "divers schedules of my beauty" (I.v.200-201) in response to Cesario's lyricism. These qualities refuse to be submerged even as she finds herself falling in love with Cesario:

... Not too fast! Soft, soft!
... 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. Well, let it be. (I.v.248, 250-253)

Olivia thus chooses to abandon the safety of her game and pursue Cesario with complete abandon and confidence in her womanhood. In her pursuit, free from her facade, Olivia is naively honest with herself and Cesario. She confesses in Act III scene i that she sent "a ring in chase of" him (III.i.98). She asks him honestly, "I prithee tell me what thou think'st of me" (III.i.123). Cesario attempts to repay this honesty, "That you do think you are not what you are" (III.i.124). Because of her naïveté, Olivia takes the phrase literally and assures Cesario that she is not mad. However, the line also points out that Olivia, the noblewoman, has fallen in love with a manservant, though a "gentleman," and that that gentleman is actually a gentlewoman. Even so, Olivia is rational enough to realise that, "wit nor reason can my passion hide" (III.i.137). Unlike Orsino, Olivia embraces the opportunity for sexual fulfilment with such enthusiasm that she will attempt to overcome every obstacle with actions, not moaning and words. She is quite lucid on love, "Love sought is good, but giv'n unsought is better" (III.i.141). In this sense, she is the sexual positive to Orsino's negative.

Olivia's views will be challenged, however, when confronted by Sebastian. Since fraternal identical twins are a biological impossibility, it would seem that Olivia would note some difference between Cesario and Sebastian. But in the throes of sacrificing love, she would rather soothe her beloved's ire with tales of "how many fruitless pranks" have been instigated by Sir Toby than launch an investigation into any differences that may exist between the sister and brother.

For his part, Sebastian seems to think that nature caused Olivia's consistency in being sexually attracted to a woman who looks just like him. But like Orsino, Olivia is eager for the sexual experience promised by marriage. Olivia is actually very much steeped in Orsino's "selfsame" deception. She was in love with the image of a man, not a man, admitting she was suffering from "a most extracting frenzy of mine own" (V.i.265). With this admission, Olivia too returns to being as she was at the beginning, involved in a self-deceiving sexual game, as Cesario had lamented: "Poor lady, she were better love a dream" (II.ii.23).

Although Sebastian notes that he sees the reality and thinks it a dream, Olivia's relationship with Sebastian will ostensibly have to be redefined, as will Orsino's with Viola. Pequigney observes:

Like Orsino, Olivia goes through a homoerotic phase that lasts through and beyond betrothal; both have experiences that evince their bisexuality. Nor do they ever pass beyond it, for the sine qua non of their psychological development - his away from fruitless doting on her, hers away from fixation on a dead brother - and it has a crucial, integral, and unerasable part in both their love stories, that of Orsino with Cesario/Viola and that of Olivia with Cesario/Sebastian. 5

Twelfth Night not only asks the comic question, "How does an individual get out of tune with society?" But also the tragic question, "Why does the individual behave this way, and why does society insists upon its standards." 6 This play is unique in that it asks these questions simultaneously, and within the context of the sexual games of the play, the answers can be found in the most basic and defining activity of human kind: sex.


1. Swinden, p. 13.

2. Swinden, p. 127.

3. Swinden, p. 136.

4. Pequigney, p. 180.

5. Pequigney, p. 184.

6. Markels, p. 78.


Markels, Julian. "Shakespeare's Confluence of Tragedy and Comedy: Twelfth Night and King Lear." Shakespeare Quarterly. no. 15, 1964.

Pequigney, Joseph. "The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare and Gender: A History. Deborah Barker and Ivo Kamps, eds. London: Verso, 1995.

Swinden, Patrick. An Introduction to Shakespeare's Comedies. London: Macmillan, 1973.

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