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Love and Humanism in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

Updated on November 19, 2012

Natural Love

If you think about it logically, love at the beginning of humanity was most likely an instinct so that weaker members of our species like children and pregnant women can live and continue our race. Evolutionarily it makes sense as an advantage for a species, and we see animals protect their young in nature and die doing so. Is that love, though instinctual, any different? Today, love has come a long way and is considered as somewhat of an element. “Love is eternal.” “Love is blind, and lovers cannot see” and “All you need is love” young and old have heard the word and idealized it. A genius such as Shakespeare, with all of his twisting words, must have a take on the matter and in seeking his opinion, just as we read into any of Shakespeare’s work we must question, “what is he really saying?” at every passage and always be looking for a deeper layer. At the very end of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the object of Viola’s love, Orisino, asks for her hand in marriage.By this time Shakespeare has shaken the definition of a love and should the reader not be ready to accept the “happy ending” they would find a far more real story of opposing personalities and the illogical nature of love in reality. Shakespeare embraces the idea of focusing on the human and his or her relationships, not in relation to God, like the predominant trend in earlier literature, but compared to each other, past lovers, and those around them.

In act 5, scene 1, lines 258-266 of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Orisino proposes to Viola, asking her “Give me thy hand” .The statement would not give a clue to the journey, both literal and metaphorical, that Viola has been through to get to this point, her victory. A spurned lover of the same sex and a love triangle, a shipwreck and a job as a servant, Viola truly earns what she desires. It is here we must begin comparing the relationships that exist between characters because for the careful reader, while Viola’s love might be well earned it can be interpreted, along with the other relationships in the play, to be a demonstration of the foolish nature of love and the unlikely couples that may arise from such a complicate emotion. To Orisino, love is something you look for, but having never truly been in love he has no idea how to recognize it. The play begins with Orisino musing over his love for a lady, Olivia. The reader quickly learns that his “love” is based in fantasy and that Orisino never actually speaks to Olivia directly. Here the reader will draw a sharp contrast between Orisino’s personality and Viola’s and later as Viola expresses her love for Orisino the audience wonders, because of his only earlier relationship, whether Orisino’s love for Viola is as mature, developed, and true as Viola’s. Orisino, with a little wit and alliteration, highlights the irony of the situation telling Viola “Here is my hand. You shall from this time be Your master’s mistress.” (V.i.318-319) Viola, on the other hand, uses language of poetry and passion, she speaks of fire that severs day and night, “As doth that orbèd continent the fire/That severs day from night.”(V.i.260-261) To Viola love is comparable to the sun itself. While one speaks of her passion as an element and a heavenly body the other, even at the end of the play, has not proven his love to the reader. But such is the nature of love, and anyone who has been in love knows that a relationship cannot be ruled by reason. Shakespeare gives the reader a prince marries princess ending that appears perfect only on the surface, upon inspection Shakespeare is revealed to have created relationships that defy reason and perfection and show the real relationships that exist between humans

Going backwards, in Act 2 scene 4 lines 91 - 101, Orisino speaks with Cesario, Viola in disguise, about loving Olivia and in doing so, gives his definition of love. In true chauvinist fashion, Orisino makes a point of separating the love a man can have for a woman and the love women have for men, the latter he claims is somehow weaker, less deep. Orisino believes that a man’s love for a woman is in his “liver” meaning it is deep in our guts while he claims that a woman’s love for a man is in her “palate,”, how she feels at the moment. To Orisino the love of a woman is subject to “surfeit, cloyment, and revolt.”, it is temperamental and the words he uses create an image of a storm, and that is how Orisino describes a woman’s love, something moody and ultimately not to be trusted. Orisino while speaking about Olivia and his “love for her only” thinks only of himself and how his love must surpass hers to an extent that hers must not even compare. While the words he uses to describe a woman’s love are reminiscent of a storm, he describes his love as “all as hungry as the sea” (II.iv.97). Perhaps here Shakespeare is hinting, through language, at the true equality of love between the sexes, jibing men for their hypocritical views of women and prompting women to recognize their own equality. It is ironic that Orisino describes a woman’s love as a kind of storm and gives it a negative connotation because to the reader, Viola’s love is indeed live a storm, passionate and driven, while Orisino’s love is the more fleeting. The more the reader examines the relationship between the two main characters, the more we realize their inequalities, and because of that the more realistic and in line with the humanist movement, this supposed fairy tale marriage becomes. This comparison shows just how jaded Orisino’s view of love really is. In response to Orisino’s speech, Viola, disguised as Cesario, defends a woman’s love, but carefully so that the woman with a constant love that she speaks of is not revealed to be her. It is obvious to the reader and must have been obvious to those who had the benefit to watch live in Shakespeare’s day, that Orisino is severely misguided. While often somewhat foolish, Orisino’s language reminds the reader the protean nature of real love, no less powerful nor irrational than the storm that drove Viola to Illyria.

Back to the first Act, disguised as Cesario, Viola speaks to Olivia because Orisino has given her the task of letting Olivia know that Orisino loves her, Cesario is supposed to give a premeditated message. Cesario does not recite the speech that Orisino has made, Cesario (Viola) throws out Orisino’s message and in an act of improvisation, proclaims to Olivia what it would be like were Cesario in love with Olivia. What Cesario says is crucial to one of the central plots and conflicts in Twelfth Night. It begins Olivia’s love and passion for the person who she thinks is a man, Cesario. Because of Cesario’s speech to Olivia, she falls into a deep infatuation with the person sent to declare another person’s love. Cesario’s speech draws thoughts of undying and desperate love. We know from Shakespeare’s sonnets, that to Shakespeare, these are the qualities of true love and so Viola first demonstrates her knowledge of true love. Viola (Cesario) proclaims, while Orisino is at home, sending a servant, that she would “Write loyal cantons of contemnèd love,/And sing them loud even in the dead of night” until Olivia took “pity” on her. The reader will notice that Orisino has done and is doing the exact opposite of what Cesario claims love should look like, giving us further evidence of the mismatched nature of their later relationship. While Cesario says he will be at Olivia’s gate calling out for her day and night, Orisino lounges at home, musing about his supposedly passionate love but not actually doing anything himself. It is not hard to tell that Shakespeare has chosen Viola in direct contrast of Orisino to show love and he challenges us by matching them together in the end.

So the final elements are united in the beginning, “O, you should not rest /Between the elements of air and earth/But you should pity me.” (I.v.243–245) Viola says to Olivia. Shakespeare’s use of nature to show how powerful love really is is put in full circle, as all elements are different but mutually necessary, light as air, passionate as fire, constant as earth, and as liquid as the sea, all these describe love as well as the world around us. Shakespeare depicts true love and at the same time redefines it, Shakespeare demonstrates that true love is strange and a little dark but more than anything else it is real.

Works Cited

Maus, Katherine Eisaman. “Shakespearean Comedy” in The Norton (Oxford) Shakespeare: Comedies, 2nd ed., Greenblatt, 2011: 103-18. W.W.Norton & Co, New York & London.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Will In The World: How Shakespeare

Became Shakespeare. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.Print.

Abrams, M. H. Norton Anthology Of English Literature. 7. 1. New york, new york: w.w norton & company, inv, 2000. Print.

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