Saturday, August 02, 2014

Complexities of Love and Desire

Twelfth NightTwelfth Night 
by William Shakespeare

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
Act 1, 1.1-15

Every major character in Twelfth Night experiences some form of desire or love. Duke Orsino is in love with Olivia. Viola falls in love with Orsino, while disguised as his pageboy, Cesario. Olivia falls in love with Cesario. This love triangle is only resolved when Olivia falls in love with Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, and, at the last minute, Orsino decides that he actually loves Viola. Twelfth Night derives much of its comic force by satirizing these lovers. In the lines that open the play (above), Shakespeare pokes fun at Orsino's flowery love poetry, making it clear that Orsino is more in love with being in love than with his supposed beloveds. At the same time, by showing the details of the intricate rules that govern how nobles engage in courtship, Shakespeare examines how characters play the "game" of love. Viola (as Cesario) has the following lines in Act 1, scene 5:
Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out 'Olivia!' O, You should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth
But you should pity me. (251-259)

Twelfth Night further mocks the main characters' romantic ideas about love through the escapades of the servants. Malvolio's idiotic behavior, which he believes will win Olivia's heart, serves to underline Orsino's own only-slightly-less silly romantic ideas. Meanwhile, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby Belch, and Maria, are always cracking crass double entendres that make it clear that while the nobles may spout flowery poetry about romantic love, that love is at least partly motivated by desire and sex. Shakespeare further makes fun of romantic love by showing how the devotion that connects siblings (Viola and Sebastian) and servants to masters (Antonio to Sebastian and Maria to Olivia) actually prove more constant than any of the romantic bonds in the play.

But there is more than love and desire in this amazing comedy. At the opening when Viola is shipwrecked in Illyria she bemoans that she cannot join her lost twin brother Sebastian in Elysium. Illyria is not Elysium however it reminds those familiar with As You Like It of the Arcadian forest of Arden. In both plays the setting is otherworldly--a place apart from the rest of civilization.

There is also melancholy,  for several characters in Twelfth Night suffer from some version of love-melancholy. Orsino exhibits many symptoms of the disease (including lethargy, inactivity, and interest in music and poetry). Dressed up as Cesario, Viola describes herself as dying of melancholy, because she is unable to act on her love for Orsino. Olivia also describes Malvolio as melancholy and blames it on his narcissism. It is this melancholy that represents the painful side of love.

Perhaps more central to this play in particular are the themes of deception, disguise, and performance. With these themes Twelfth Night raises questions about the nature of gender and sexual identity. That Viola has disguised herself as a man, and that her disguise fools Olivia into falling in love with her, is genuinely funny. On a more serious note, however, Viola's transformation into Cesario, and Olivia's impossible love for him/her, also imply that, maybe, distinctions between male/female and heterosexual/homosexual are not as absolutely firm as you might think. When you recall that the players in Shakespeare's Globe were all men and boys these issues become both more humorous and serious at the same time. You may get a more vivid idea of this theme by viewing clips of the recent all-male production of Twelfth Night starring Mark Rylance.*

This play rivals As You Like It for the title of the best of Shakespeare's comedies. While I prefer the former,  there are complexities of love and desire mixed with questions of sexual identity that make this comedy a fine way to experience and enjoy Shakespeare.

*Available on YouTube.

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Brian Joseph said...

I love this one too.

Thanks for delving into the way that Shakespeare delved into the themes of love and desire. I am working on a post about similar themes in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

As You Like It may be my favorite comedy too. The character of Rosalind really is incomparable.

James said...


We seem to share a love of Shakespeare. Both As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream are among my favorites. I'll look forward to your comments on the latter....