Over the years, the reception of Twelfth Night has changed significantly. Whereas some 50 years ago the vast majority of readers would agree that it has a “prevailing atmosphere of happiness” (Salingar 117), contemporary critics consider the play a “disturbing and cynical affair” (Lindheim 679). Far from depicting a romantic idyll, Twelfth Night is now being read almost exclusively in terms of its “underlining subtexts of unfulfilled homosexual longing and unappeasable class conflict” (ibid.). But issues of gender and class, however fruitful as a background for criticism, should not be overestimated in their importance: By focusing on terms like “power” and “desire”, modern critics run the risk of “distorting a concept [i.e. love] dear to Shakespeare” (Schalkwyk 76). Building on this argument, I want to examine the contrasting character of love in Twelfth Night. In this play, love is presented as a highly ambiguous affair, eventually bringing about the romantic happiness of a triple wedding as well as the bleakness of Malvolio’s and Antonio’s bitter rejection.
Thinking of love in such binary terms was commonplace in Elizabethan times. As Salingar points out, “Shakespeare could take in his audience for granted not simply a readiness to be interested in romance, but a sense of the opposition between romance and reason“ (120). This distinction sets the framework for the way in which love is pictured in Twelfth Night. Here, the pursuit of true love, which is a major theme of all of Shakespeare’s comedies (Biewer 508), is not straightforward and logical, but rather discontinuous and fragmented. In the course of the play, the four main characters “all reverse their desires or break their vows before the comedy is over” (Salingar 118-119). In Twelfth Night, Cupid does not approach his prey with prudence, he is “clamorous and leap[s] all civil bounds”, in the same way as Orsino prompts Cesario to seduce Olivia on his behalf (1.4.21). In sharp contrast to the overly joyful resolution of the last scene, the process of falling in love is repeatedly equated with falling ill. In Olivia’s words, losing one’s heart equals coming down with a cold: ”Even so quickly may one catch the plague?” (1.5.289). Similarly, Orsino’s desires pursue him like a disease, disguised as “fell and cruel hounds” (1.1.22). Carolin
Biewers argues that this symbolism is more than a metaphorical description of falling in love (506). Elizabethans believed that love entered the body through the eyes in form of vapours and infected the body with love-sickness. Tellingly, the part of the body by which Cesario’s beauty creeps into Olivia are her eyes (1.5.292). But Shakespeare pushes his portrayal of lovesickness to an almost comical extreme. Right at the beginning of the play, Orsino prefers passing away to a prolongation of his agony: “Give me excess of [love], that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die“ (1.1.2). This seems hypocritical as, instead of acting on his infatuation, he stays in his court to dramatize his own feelings and pretends to suffer from the melancholy proper to courtly and “heroical” love (Salingar 123). The duke seems so fascinated by being in love that Olivia fades into the background, or as Jami Ake puts it, “his excessive speeches betray his desire not for Olivia, but for love itself and for the poetry conventionally used to profess it” (376). His longing mimics the Petrarchan model of love as an “unattainable ideal”, where the lover is usually rejected by the beloved (Biewer 516). Ironically, his grief appears self-imposed, because he readily admits that his appetite for love is impossible to satisfy: “But mine is hungry as the sea, and can digest as much” (2.4.101). The real nature of Orsino’s adoration is then revealed when he turns his love onto Cesario with no hesitation in the final scene. And as Salingar argues, this emotional superficiality is not exclusive to Orsino, since Olivia displays a similar “tinge of aristocratic extravagance” in her mourning (125). Apparently, idolization of love is prevalent among the higher social classes of Illyria.