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Twelfth Night: Varieties of Love and Characterization
Shakespeare's comedy plays with a number of different types of love and their potential for excess and/or illusion:  Orsino (Petrachean, idealistic love), Olivia (bereavement and intuitive desire), Viola (true, but undisclosed love), Sir Toby (revelry), Sir Andrew (love of station), Malvolio (self-love), Sebastian (sudden love) and Antonio (friendship).  As we read through some of the following passages, ask yourself, "What is Shakespeare saying about the nature of love?   Is his message contradictory?  Is it convincing?"

Orsino:

  • 1.1 (111-12): How does Orsino react to the music of love?  Does his use of Petrachean language for his infatuation seem convincing?
  • 2.4 (132, 134): How does Orsino view the state of his love?   What does this say about his understanding of himself and his desires?
  • 5.1 (165):  What does Orsino's anger reveal about his desire?   (170):  Why is it so easy for Orsino to marry Viola?

Olivia:

  • 1.5 (119-120): How does Feste prove Olivia to be a fool?
  • 3.1 (143): How would you describe Olivia's attraction to Cesario (Viola)?  Is it justified?
  • 4.1 (157b-58): What does her pledge to Cesario (Sebastian) show about her emotional state?
  • 4.3 (162): Why does Olivia justify her haste to marry Cesario (Sebastian)?
  • 5.1 (169): According to Sebastian, why is Olivia justified in marrying him?  Do you find his reasoning convincing?

Viola:

  • 1.2 (113): Why is Viola's initial situation in Illyria dangerous?   Why does she trust the captain?
  • 1.5 (122, 124): Compare and contrast Cesario's (Viola's) courtier greeting of Olivia with her own admission of honest love.
  • 2.2 (127): How does Viola react to Olivia's desire?
  • 2.4 (135): What does Viola's cloaked revelation of her own desire reveal about her love?
  • 5.1 (168): How would characterize the tone and language of Viola's meeting with Sebastian?  What does it reveal about their relationship?

Malvolio:

  • 1.5 (120): How would you describe Malvolio's self-love?  What is dangerous about it?
  • 2.3 (131): What is Maria's view of Malvolio?
  • 2.5 (138-139): What do we learn of Malvolio by his reading of the letter?
  • 4.2 (158ff.): Is this scene making fun of or torturing Malvolio?   Is he a comic or tragic figure?
  • 5.1 (170-71): Is Malvolio's rage justified?

Feste:

  • 3.1 (141): What is Viola's assessment of Feste?
  • 2.4 (133) & 5.1 (172): What is the purpose of Feste's songs?   Do they contribute to the message of the play in any way?

Sebastian:

  • 4.3 (161): How does Sebastian describe his amazement at Olivia's actions?  How are we, then, to assess him?

Sir Toby, Maria, and Sir Andrew:

  • What role do these characters play in the comedy?  Are they essential to the overall meaning? [cf. 1.3, 2.3, 2.5, 3.2, 3.4, 4.2]

Other Questions

  1. What is the meaning of the title? (Twelfth Night is the two week Christmas season leading up to Epiphany.)  What is the meaning of the subtitle, "What You Will"?

  2. How serious is the play's theme?  Is this play a simple farce, a comedy of manners, and/or a romantic comedy?

  3. What is the role of mistakes and mistaken identity in the play?  How essential is it to the humor of the work?

  4. Are the main plot (Orsino, Olivia, Viola) and the subplot (Sir Toby, Maria, Malvolio) related in a meaningful or incidental way?

  5. Is it significant that this is a play without parents?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding