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Shakespeare's Twelfth Night - An Envelope of Sacrifice, or An Embodiment of Self Indulgence?

Updated on May 12, 2011

It would not stir one out of countenance to presume that characters from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night show exuberant, yet divergent, presentations of love. This can be discerned within the love triangle of Viola, Olivia and Orsino. On the one hand, there is the strong willed strife of Olivia’s love for a disguised Viola, on the other, there is the sheltered and reserved exhibition of love from Orsino, and in the middle, there is the devout love for Orsino through acquiescence from Viola. From these actions fueled by presumptions of true love, Olivia and Orsino’s aspect on affection substantiate itself to be ostentatious in its pursuits, while Viola’s intents are more benevolent and pure in its motives. Their ideas and actions on love can be summarized in two instances throughout the play: The end of Act II Scene IV, that involved a conversation on love between Viola disguised as Cesario and Orsino, and at the end of Act III Scene I, that involved the same conversation of love, but between Viola disguised as Cesario, and Olivia. These conversations reveal the true nature of their intents of love, but with different motives, thus showing how love can be felt by an individual for a variety of reasons: Orsino for the idea of love, Olivia for the want of a husband, and Viola for the love of Orsino. But it is through action that love is truly measured, and it is through the medium of action, that only one character is elevated above the rest. 

Orsino begins by describing his plight to Viola with the vast description of his love for her. “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. They lack retention.” (2.4.91-94). Retention come from the Latin word retentio(n-), from retinere which means to “hold back”. The text defines the word as “constancy”, which comes from the latin constania, meaning “standing firm”. Thus all other women lack the power, will, or strength to measure up to his feelings of love for Olivia. Shakespeare then gives Orsino the use of a metaphor:

“Alas, their love may be called appetite, 

No motion of the liver, but the palate,

That suffer surfeit, cloyment, and revolt,

But mine is all as hungry as the sea, 

And digest as much. Make no compare

Between that love a woman can bear me

And that I owe Olivia.”                                                               (2.4.95-101)

Orsino openly states that if the love of a woman was compared to his own love, that it would be like that of women’s appetite, superficial and easily satisfied. This is done by comparing women’s love to the palate, which is located near the roof of the mouth, separating the cavities of the nose and mouth. It is near the surface, and unlike the liver, which has depth and complexity within the inner workings of the body, it is on the surface and thin. Likewise, women’s love is superficial and pale in comparison to Orsino’s love, so much that he refers to his love as “hungry as the sea”. Orsino fails however, to tell the disguised Viola why he feels such love, but is instead too infatuated by the idea that his love is so vast and impressive, an ostentatious approach. He makes this more apparent in his initial request to the disguised Viola before this when he says:

“Get thee to yon same sovereign cruelty.

Tell her my love, more noble than the world,

Prizes not quantity of dirty lands.

The parts that fortune hath bestowed upon her

Tell her hold as giddily as fortune;

But ‘tis that miracle and queen of gems

That nature pranks her in attracts my soul.”                                (2.4.78-84)

Through this command Orsino reveals many things. First he refers to Olivia as a “sovereign cruelty”, sovereign meaning a monarch or tyrant. Thus Orsino remarks of her rejection by calling Olivia a cruel tyrant shielding and captivating her love. He then tries to say that he is in total love with her and not with her material possessions, or wealth, and is simply captivated by her beauty. However he has nothing else to base it on, and sends the disguised Viola to do the dirty work of going to Olivia as a messenger and retorting to her all the frivolous detailed descriptions of Orsino’s love for her. 

Olivia also contributes her own ornate descriptive accounts of love, but to the disguised Viola. When Viola confronts her, as Cesario, she ignores his pleas for Orsino’s love and simply makes her own pleas for Cesario’s love. Olivia says, “O, what a deal of scorn looks beautiful / In the contempt and anger of his lip! / A murd’rous guilt shows not itself more soon / Than love that would seem hid. Love’s night is noon.” (3.1.136-139). The scorn she is referring to is Viola’s rejection of her love. She says that he basically looks beautiful regardless of Viola’s attempts to negate her affection. Olivia also uses the metaphor technique when she describes the murderer. A murderer is presumed to have a sense of guilt, revealed through when she says “murd’rous guilt”, and therefore a need or want to reveal their sin to relieve the guilt. She says then that likewise, it is impossible to keep the love a lover feels in for long and must express it somehow. It is interesting to note how she uses a murderer to compare her love, because it is a juxtaposed comparison and therefore shows that she is clouded by her own wants. She continues on to say to Viola:

“Cesario, by the roses of the spring, 

By maidhood, honour, truth, and everything,

I love thee so that, maugre all thy pride,

Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide. 

Do not extort thy reasons from this clause,

For that I woo, thou therefore hast no cause.

But rather reason thus with reason fetter.

Love sought is good, but given unsought, is better.”            (3.1.140-147)

The rose, as used here, is a prickly bush or shrub that typically bears red, yellow, or white fragrant flowers. It is a symbolic representation of love, but appropriate in that is it beautiful on the outside, but dangerous to the touch. Likewise, her claims of love are rash and unthought, and therefore, while beautiful and pure, her love could end up hurting her. She swears her love by everything that she owns virtuously, being her virginity, honor, and truth. She then eggs Viola on through her words, “Love sought is good, but given unsought, is better.” (3.1.147), basically claiming that to pursue love is a good thing, but here I am giving up my love to you freely, so that you don’t have to pursue a thing. This pursuit, while perceived as kindhearted and true to love, has the thorny problem that Cesario is in fact a woman, and thus is doomed to failure. the phrase “love is blind” is appropriate in this case, as Olivia is impervious to Viola’s hint of womanhood when she retorts, “By innocence I swear, and by my youth, / I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth, / And no woman has, nor never none / Shall mistress be of it save I alone.” (3.1.148-151). It is a blatant response to her cries of love with rejection and hint that not everything is what it seems to be. Olivia ignores this, as does Orsino continuously, and pursues their goals even more. This is seen when Olivia responds to Viola’s response with, “Yet come again, for thou perhaps mayst move / That heart which now abhors, to like his love.” (3.1.154-155). This give Viola an invitation to love in return if her heart were to change return said love. Earlier in their conversation, Viola on her pity of Olivia yet she mistook it as a sign of affection. When the disguised Viola replies that even enemies have pity for one another, Olivia dismisses this with her reply:   

Why then, methinks ‘tis time to strike smile again.

Oh world, how apt the poor are to be proud!

If one should be prey, how much better 

To fall before the lion than the wolf

The clock upbraids me with the waste of time.

Be not afraid, good youth, I will not have you; 

Your wife is like to reap a proper man.

There lies your way, due west.                                                 (3.1.118-126)

The comparison she uses of the lion and the wolf rely on the symbolic representation of these animals through literature. The lion is often perceived as a noble and brave creature, representing truth and justice by the English. While the wolf is perceived as sly and deceitful. Thus she is saying that even though pity is taken upon enemies, it is better to have pity taken upon by a noble and true enemy such as Cesario, unlike the sly and deceitful wolf that could be seen as Orsino. She says toward the end of the passage that Viola has no reason to be afraid of her anymore because she will not pursue him. Yet the following conversations are obvious attempts at confessing love and therefore she pursues him again. Thus, her attempts at love are self-indulgent in nature. Olivia was looking for a suitor, yet she denies what custom commands and gave her love to a young man, virtually a youth in comparison to her, as it points out in the text. Thus Olivia’s pursuits are for love, but misguided, forceful love that is also uneducated in its truths. 

Viola is different in her attempts in that she is neither forceful nor infatuated with her love for Orsino. This is read when in the same conversation that Orsino confesses his presumptions of his love for Olivia, Viola responds in kind by indirectly confessing her love to him. Orsino ask if she, disguised as Cesario, has ever felt love, and she replies yes and one with his very complexion and age, hinting that she is in love with him, yet comically he replies on how she is too old and of a poor complexion for such a handsome young man. Using the issue that Orsino should drop his love for Olivia, she uses her own example indirectly toward him when she says:

“Sooth, but you must.

Say that some lady, perhaps there is,

Hath for your love as great a pang of heart

As you have for Olivia. You cannot love her.

You must tell her so. Must she not then be answered?”              (2.4.86-90)

Pang refers to the sudden sharp pain or painful emotion, a shooting pain, twinge, stab or spasm. Her heart is in pain because of her concealment, she wants to reveal her love to him yet cannot because she must contain her identity. She consuls him to remove his love for Olivia because it falls on unforgiving hands. Viola uses the example of her, and how since she truly love Orsino, she would give anything for him, including giving up her love for him since he might not give it in return. She then tells a story of herself in third person, and how the sorrow of her forbidden love drive her to a life of ill will and broken dreams. “She never told her love, / But let concealment, like a worm i’th’ bud, / Feed on her damask cheek” (2.4.109-111). This is a very touching and intimate moment in the play, in that Viola goes on to tell the story of a girl who died waiting for her love to share the same feelings she felt, and said not a word to stop it. One can certainly be filled with vicarious melancholy at the imagery said here. Viola overtures concealment analogy through the symbol of a worm. Small, fragile, yet vile and elusive, the worm is the manifestation of her weakness. She cannot bear to bring herself to tell Orsino the burning desires that rage within her young heart. Viola wants nothing but to be with Orsino, but recognizes her duty to him before anything else, and resorts to hints and puns, that only the audience and herself catch on.

“She sat like patience on a monument,

Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?

We men say more, swear more, but indeed

Our shows are more than will; for still we prove

Much our vows, but little in our love.”                                       (2.4.113-117)

The figure here is beautiful, a lone woman standing in the rain, by the statue of patient fortitude. Waiting, for the man that might never come. Love to some, is the embodiment of self indulgence: looking for ways to satisfy the flesh, as is the case for Olivia, mesmerized by the beauty and fairness of the youth Cesario, or satisfying the mind’s desire for love with the gluttony of ideological visions of love, as is present in Orsino. But some choose to conceal their love, some for fear, and others to give another a chance. Viola loved Orsino to the point that she did his every wish including trying to woo Olivia for him. This is the envelope of self sacrifice that is mailed to a revered object of love. These three takes on the meaning and behavior of love in people is amazing in that it captivates everyone’s approach toward love. Twelfth Night marks the end of the celebration of Christ’s birth, and is the festival of Epiphany. Epiphany can be described as “a moment of sudden revelation or insight”, which can play on the moment that Viola’s true identity is revealed. Thus Viola is the manifestation of true love and no matter how difficult it may seem to fight said true love, it will always prevail.


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