Twelfth Night: What’s Love Got to Do, Got to Do with It?

Ask the person on the street what type of play Twelfth Night is, and you’ll most likely get something along the lines of “romantic comedy” (granted that street might need to be Broadway, but I’m talking a person with a reasonable level of cultural literacy). And I’d agree with that assessment.

Twelfth Night does have a lot of love-talk in it. By my rough count, the word “love” is used nearly 100 times in the play (well, 95, but I’m a-roundin’ up!). It should come as no surprise whatsoever that the three characters who make up our love-triangle have the most usages, accounting for over a half of the total: Viola/Cesario uses the word 28 times, Orsino 21, and Olivia 11. After that there’s not much… Feste has six usages (but given the fool’s an entertainer/singer, I almost want to discount him. Also with six is Antonio, and hot on his heels is Malvolio with four.

In the average, typical, run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, we’re usually talking about a heterosexual love where the male pursues the female, and occasionally vice versa.

Twelfth Night is not average, typical, or run-of-the-mill. Remember a while back, when we looked at the concept of title, and I discussed the idea of the social order in the world of the play being turned upside-down?

Well, consider romance as part of that social order.

Yes, male Orsino pursues female Olivia, but before this play is over, he will have another love that “screws (him) from (his) true place in (Olivia’s) favor” (V.i.120). That person is the object of his “love” (V.i.116), whom Orsino “tender(s) dearly” (V.i.123) and “do(es) love” (V.i.127). But as far as Orsino knows, this object of love is not a woman but a young man, albeit one with a more effeminate appearance:

                            Diana’s lip
Is not more smooth and rubious, thy small pipe
Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman’s part.
  • I.iv.31-4

These are Orsino’s own words, and Malvolio’s description is no more manly:

’Tis with him in standing water, between boy and man. He is very well-favored, and he speaks very shrewishly. One would think his mother’s milk were scarce out of him.
  • I.v.153-6

Regardless, it doesn’t take much convincing for Orsino to move on from loving Olivia, the fully grown woman, to loving Viola, the girl would would be boy. Of course, Orsino says that he wishes to “see (Viola) in (her) woman’s weeds” (V.i.268), he is also more than willing to refer to her as Cesario until “in other habits (she is) seen” (V.i.380)

And of course Olivia will end the play married to the young man Sebastian, but the version of him with whom she “so quickly … catch(es) the plague” (I.v.284) of love is actually a woman. Cesario has “perfections” (I.v.285), a quality that can be seen as a “ condition of being completed” (“perfection, n.; 1a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 2 February 2015.), a fully realized combination of both male and female (think hermaphroditic here). After all, remember that Sebastian describes himself as “much resembl(ing)” (II.i.23-4) Viola, a “beautiful” (II.i.24) girl. Viola as Cesario looks like Sebastian, who in turn looks like a girl. Olivia may wed the male, but only one who looks like a beautiful girl. In both these cases, there is a layer of homosexuality and possibly transvestism that skews the view of traditional romance.

And what of Sebastian? He’s beautiful, but more than that, he’s effeminate, continuing to cry over the loss of his sister (“drown her remembrance with more [salt water]” [II.i.29]), and “so near the manners of (his) mother” (II.i.37). If Sebastian weds Olivia, it’s only because she mistakes him for Cesario. Who does Sebastian pursue? No one. And yet he is pursued. In a wonderfully ambiguous bit of sexual identity, Antonio harbors “love” (II.i.32) for Sebastian, and “adore(s him) so” (II.i.43) that he will follow him into danger. The love is so obvious and “willing” (III.iii.11), that even Sebastian makes note of it (“your love” [II.i.7]). I don’t want to tip my hand too much for a later blog entry, but their conversation after reaching Orsino and Olivia’s town has many bawdy implications (Sebastian wanting to go out sightseeing while Antonio wants to get Sebastian into his lodging; there is the possible attempt by Antonio to impress Sebastian with his martial prowess, and I don’t even want to get into the idea of of Sebastian holding Antonio’s purse… yet).

The final variety of love in the play is Malvolio’s “self-love” (I.v.86). Maria describes the steward as being

the best persuaded of himself, so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him.
  • II.iii.139-41

And of course, it’s that egotism that she uses against him.

So the romantic world of Twelfth Night is like its social order: at times, seemingly normal, but also upside-down and side-ways (homosexual with a hint of transvestism thrown in) and inside-out (self-love).

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

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