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

(Shakespeare for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 2,455 words.)