Love and Disguise in the Twelfth Night Essay

The art of love suggests that this complex emotion cannot be easily defined; it must instead be conceptualized within the confines of language and images.  One writer that mastered this presentation of love is William Shakespeare. Through his sonnets and plays, he immortalized the concept of love for readers of all generations.  His comedy Twelfth Night in particular presents love as an elusive object which throws out many tricks along its path.  Through the artful use of language and disguise, this play presents love as a comic yet sentimental quest.

            The first words in this play are spoken by a man in love – “If music be the food of love, play on:/Give me excess of it, that surfeiting, /The appetite may sicken and so die” (I,i,1-3).  Duke Orsino is lovesick for Lady Olivia, who, unfortunately, has gone to great lengths to avoid his pursuit.  He uses a metaphor comparing himself to a hart hunted by love’s “cruel hounds” (I, i,  22).  This use of negatively connoted language reveals to the reader how much pain and suffering the Duke feels due to this unrequited love.

            The plot becomes ironic when the shipwrecked Viola chooses to disguise herself as a eunuch, a serving boy, in the house of Orsino in order to quietly pass the time until she can find out if her twin brother has survived the same disaster at sea.  In doing so, she finds that she has fallen in love with him but cannot express it because she is masquerading as a man.  Her job is to woo Olivia, who is continuing to disguise herself in her mourning garb to thwart Orsino, which creates a further complication in that Olivia herself falls for the man that she thinks Viola is – Cesario.  Thus, a triangle forms:  Viola loves Orsino who loves Olivia who loves Viola (as Cesario).  Clearly the point that love is confusing is well-taken.

            Yet, this play has more to say about the complexities of love.  Olivia marvels at the quick onset of her feelings: “How now!/Even so quickly may one catch the plague?” (I, v, 206-207).  Again, love is presented here as an illness to be avoided.  TO make matters worse, Malvolio, Olivia’s grumpy servant, carries a secret love for his mistress.  When Olivia’s uncle and his friend, who also loves Olivia, find out, they set him up for embarrassment.  The love letter he ‘finds’ compels him to make romantic gestures toward Olivia, who has him banished for madness.

            The further irony is that the choices of love interests in this play defy reason.  Orsino emphatically asserts that nothing and nobody can “bide the beating of so strong a passion/ as love doth give my heart;” (II, iv, 72-73) for a woman that has constantly spurned him.  Olivia, on the other hand, has fallen in love with a disguised woman: “I love thee so, that maugre all thy pride,/Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide/” (III, i, 121-122).  Viola, disguised as a man, loves a man, and Malvolio has made the unfortunate mistake of loving a woman out of his class.  Of course Andrew has been convinced to love Olivia as well, out of Toby’s malevolent and usurious needs.

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            The role that disguises play in the love situations above cannot be ignored.  With the possible exception of the Duke, nobody is who they seem to be on the outside.  Typically, Olivia would not fall for another female, but the traits in the person she perceives to be a male jive with her own desire for independence and autonomy.  Likewise, Viola knows that she cannot formally announce her love for the Duke because she is disguised as a male.  However, he is drawn to her because he must somehow sense her femininity.

  Olivia is pretending to still be in mourning for her brother’s death by hiding herself under a veil, though the period for mourning has long since passed.        Further, when Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother enters the picture, Olivia naturally gravitates to him, resulting in hilarious results.  Oddly, he accepts her proposal of marriage only minutes after coming in contact with her.

This just goes to show that the characters in this play are not serious about love while they are disguised.  It is characterized as a painful, cancerous emotion, yet they still seek it.  When the characters finally are able to express their emotions as their true selves, the love seems more substantial. The marriage of Sebastian and Olivia is false until she realize that she hasn’t married Cesario, but really Sebastian.  Likewise, the moment that the Duke discovers that Cesario is really the woman Viola, he offers his hand to her.

            What appears to be a happy ending is itself disguised.  The reader must wonder what has compelled these individuals to profess their undying love then change their minds so quickly.  If love is as painful as they might suggest, why pursue it in the first place?   The idea of the happy ending is shadowed in the forced marriage by bet of Toby and Maria, and the angry outburst of the wronged Malvolio.  The marriages of the play are reduced to a farce, which the clown can only sum up with a song.


Shakespeare, William.  Twelfth Night.  Mineola, NY:  Dover, 1996.

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