Essay On Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies and includes a lot of comic moments, mistaken gender identities and the changing nature of love. Although there are a number of characters in the play, it is the four characters of Cesario/Viola, Duke Orsino, Olivia and Malvolio who are responsible for the play’s many twists. Duke Orsino and Olivia are more in love with the idea of love and stay true to their characters till the end. This blind romantic belief of theirs undermines their love as it seems to be more about them and not about the object of their affection. Malvolio stays true to his nature of wanting to climb the social ladder and keeps at tit even when laughed at. These three characters in the play stay true to their script i.e, they do not change and mouth the dialogues that would be expected of them. Shakespeare brings out their folly, undermines their characters humorously and turns the play into a great comedy even when it has all the elements of a tragedy.
In the play Viola decides to disguise herself as a man after she is shipwrecked and have to live on her own in a new place. Her quick wit however earns a place in Duke Orsino’s palace as a pageboy. Orsino is in love with Olivia but trouble starts when Olivia rejects Orsino’s proposal. Olivia claims that she will not accept proposals or fall in love with anyone for seven years as she is mourning for her dead brother. She also refuses to show her face outside, especially to Duke Orsino. Orsino does not lose heart and sends Viola, disguised as Cesario to take his messages of love to Olivia. Cesario changes the original message that Duke Orsino sends Olivia and tells her what he/she would do for love. This change in script sets in motion the confusion in the play. Olivia falls for Cesario after listening to the message. Viola/Cesario is meanwhile in love with Orsino. Apart from the Orsino-Cesario-Olivia love triangle, there is also the love of Malvolio for Olivia. Viola/Cesario is not the only person on the play who drops the “script” and feels free to do what her heart wants her to do. Malvolio too duped into believing that Olivia is in love with him veers off the script and the expected behavior and comes across as a madman to others. But Shakespeare uses this veering of the script to undermine the characters who have ‘scripts’ to follow. This does have some positive effects on the people involves. The characters that are undermined involve Duke Orsino, Olivia and incidentally Malvolio himself. For Malvolio, although departing from his role as a strict servant of Olivia’s household surprisingly sticks to his original self. He thinks he is better than everyone, holds himself to high moral standards and seeks to move higher up the social ladder. Although his actions change, his original self remains, i.e. he sticks to the script. Orsino remains steadfast and follows the script until the end when he comes to know of Cesario’s true identity. Although Olivia falls in love with Cesario instead of Orsino, she too stays true to her role of being victim to the trappings of love. Orsino and Olivia are similar in it that they seem to be more in love with the idea of love than the person they purportedly are in love with. The positive outcome of this undermining of those who stay true to their ‘script’ is that in the end their follies are brought out and their falsities exposed. It is only by this undermining of these ‘serious’ characters that twelfth night manages to become a comedy as if taken seriously many of the instances in the play could easily make it a tragedy as Malvolio, Orsino and Olivia could easily become tragic heroes and heroines and are capable of inflicting harm on others.
When Orsino sends Viola disguised as Cesario to woo Lady Olivia, Viola changes the script and instead speaks her heart. Viola here is thinking of her love for Duke Orsino and says to Olivia as Cesario what she would have told Orsino as Viola. This frank declaration of love is a departure from the usual messages that Olivia receives from Orsino and she falls in love with the messenger instead.
“Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house,
Write loyal cantons of contemnèd love,
And sing them loud even in the dead of night (Shakespeare, Act I, Scene V, 237-240). When Cesario says these words while wooing Olivia for Orsino, there is a marked departure from the Original style that Orsino usually employs. Orsino is content to sing about his broken heart and love for Olivia sitting at home and not trying to meet Olivia in person. The fervor with which Cesario tells Olivia that he would stay outside her home day and night to profess his love is what makes Olivia take pity on him and let him inside the house. It is also this fervor that makes her all in love with him. While Viola freely talks about her love, albeit in disguise, Orsino stays true to himself. He is more in love with the idea of love than the actual act of loving a person.
“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 (Act I, Scene I, 1-4).
The play opens with these lines of Orsino, where he unhappy and lovesick asks his servants to play so much music that he will be overcome by it and desire it no longer. He tells them to drown in his music and if music be the food of love he needs to have it to his fill that he would no longer want to love and suffer more. Orsino’s love in these lines is a love that comes unbidden and a kind of love that cannot be avoided either. But Orsino also complicates his thoughts on love when he says, “So full of shapes is fancy / That it alone is high fantastical (14-15).” He equates love and romance to something akin to fantasy. He relates the idea of all-encompassing love to imagination-fantasy. When Orsino utters these lines, the readers are forced to wonder if the kind of love that Orsino has more to do with his imagination or with the reality of the person he is in love with. Given the fact that it takes Orsino less than a minute to change his object of affection; he declares his love for Viola when everything is resolved at the end, the idea of love seems more powerful than reality here. Orsino till the last scene in the play plays the role of the serious lover, more in love with love itself and not in love with Olivia. This is what makes him change his mind so easily. His character gets undermined but in a good way as it leads the way for Viola to have her object of desire. Orsino does not really change even in the end. He still is himself, only now he is more receptive to a love that is reciprocated. It is easy for him to change the object of his affection as it is love that is important to him and not the object of love. Viola loves him dearly and that makes it very easy for Orsino to shift his allegiances to Viola from Olivia. In Act II, Scene iv, Orsino when talking about his love for Olivia to Cesario tells him that,
There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much (Act II, Scene IV).”
It is clear here that Orsino loves his emotions and himself more than Olivia. He somehow feels that his love cannot be compared to that of Olivia’s love even he knows nothing about her feelings and his love is still unwarranted. Orsino claims that women’s love lack retention, although it is his love that is fickle. Even though Viola is the one who changes during the play it is her love that remains constant and Orsino comes across as an impostor. The same can be said of Olivia. She seems to fall more for the words of love than the person. It is Cesario’s words that move her heart than the person. If Orsino had said such things she might have probably been moved and been more receptive to his love. Given that Orsino changes his object of love in a moment and Olivia falls in love against her declarations of a secluded life, it seems clear that they both are more in love with idealized love than people. In a way, Shakespeare makes a dig at these characters; by making them stick to their original characteristics, he brings out their folly. It brings out positive outcomes for both Sebastian and Viola who get their objects of desire. However, the outcome for Olivia and Orsino are a little ambiguous as they still are more in love with romanticized love than the real people involved. Although they claim to be in love, it is a love that is fickle and shallow. Olivia likes Sebastian even though she knows nothing of him and Orsino loves Viola even if he has known her only as Cesario.
Malvolio is another character who stays true to his script. He does not like the rowdy drinking parties of Sir Toby and chastises him. To exact this revenge, Sir Toby plots with Maria, Olivia’s maid and dupe him into believing that Olivia is in love with him. Malvolio does stupid things for love, believing that Olivia wanted him to do so. He says, “She did commend my yellow stockings of late, she did praise my leg, being cross-gartered, and in this she manifests herself to my love, and with a kind of injunction drives to these habits of her liking (Act II, Scenev.146–150).” Malvolio’s actions are completely out of character. But by doing these stupid things his original self is revealed. His virtuous self is a veneer and his puritanical stance towards Sir Toby and others hides his true colors and ambition. Olivia’s make believe love for him does not incite passion for Olivia, but rather the deep seated desire to move up in his life. Although he knows he is sane, the others call him a madman and Olivia too does not bother about him. It is Malvolio’s refusal to change his character that leads to his downfall. He is so ambitious that he takes for granted that Olivia would be in love with him. In his desire to move up the societal ladder he does not stop to think that it is not possible. He stays true to his character and that makes him not only lose favor in the sight of Olivia but also leads him to be labelled as a madman. Although he is treated badly by others in the play he is the one who stays true to his beliefs. His love for Olivia remains intact till the end and his desire to become a nobleman through her also stays intact till the end. He is also the only one who does not reconcile to everything that happens at the end. Unlike Orsino and Olivia who happily change their mind and partners at the drop of a hat, Malvolio remains steadfast in his love and desire and leaves the places in a huff. In a story of happy endings his is the only sad outcome. Malvolio’s true dedication is made fun of and is undermined but it is brought about in a humorous way in the play. Maria, Feste and Sir Toby all make fun of the situation and the light hearted treatment of Malvolio and the situation brings humor to the play.
Thus in the play, the characters who consider themselves to be serious and remain steadfast in their notions are undermined. Although they remain in character and stay true to their scripts, they are the ones that come across as less serious. Orsino and Olivia come across as people more in love with their imaginations and notions of romantic love and Malvolio is branded a madman for staying true to his “script”
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. London: Simon &Schuster. 2004. Print.