Variety of love in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"

Term Paper, 2014

10 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Orsino as a Petrarchan: enacted feelings

3. Melancholic love: Olivia in a mood of de-pression

4. Congeniality: union of souls between Orsino and Cesario

5. Conclusion

List of Works Cited

1. Introduction

Many modern critics, among them T.S. Eliot and Hugh Grady, focus on Shakespeare´s role as avant-gardist and precursor of modern literature. Thus, most of their critical notices are concerned with Shakespeare´s influence on literature, theatre, and language. One particularly frequently chosen subject is the assessment of his various contributions to English culture and, concomitantly, the examination of new standards Shakespeare has set. Last but not least, they elucidate his role as a preeminent model, when dissecting the effect his works had on authors like Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf.

What these contemporary critics often do not emphasize strongly enough is the extent to which Shakespeare draws from tradition to compose his plays. In fact, Shakespeare does apply two main methods in order to integrate traditional elements into his texts: firstly, he looks into the past and writes many of his plays—for example Julius Caesar —in commemoration of historic figures. Secondly, Shakespeare takes up many of the controversial issues existent in Elizabethan society and discusses them in his plays. A quote from Zweig´s short story “Confusion” illustrates this: “Shakespeare was merely the strongest manifestation, the psychic message of a whole generation, expressing through the senses, a time turned passionately enthusiastic” (n. p.).

This term paper will show the ascendancy of history in Twelfth Night, where Shakespeare analyzes the various considerations of love present at that time, weighs up good and bad aspects, and, subsequently, develops an own theory on true love. In a first step, I will reveal the presence of Elizabethan love concepts in the relationships between the main characters. In doing so, I rely on the main dispositions of love described in Pearson´s Elizabethan Love Conventions:

- Petrarchism and restrained adoration
- melancholic love
- congeniality and spiritual love

At the same time, I am going to point out how Shakespeare evaluates these various concepts. Finally, I will make a supposition on his understanding of true love.

2. Orsino as a Petrarchan: enacted feelings

Orsino as a tragic figure stands for the predominant attitude towards love in Twelfth Night: Petrarchism. The importance of this concept becomes apparent from the fact that it is introduced exceptionally early in the play—during Orsino´s exposition—and re-occurs in many subsequent scenes, for example in Act I Scene V, where Cesario has to court Olivia on Orsino´s behalf.

In preparation for the actual analysis, it is important to define the term “Petrarchism”. For this purpose, I will revert to Pearson´s Elizabethan Love Conventions. Therein, she writes, “The most essential characteristic of Petrarchism is adoration of the loved one, an adoration which makes her the center of all earthly beauty and relates all creation to her” (252). This quote indicates aspects of passion, exalted expression of emotion, and worship of beauty.

At first sight, Orsino seems to comply with all three of these indicators. Concealed behind a curtain of melancholic reflections about love, however, the attentive reader soon detects a number of more disputable intentions with Orsino. He, apparently, does not entertain real feelings towards Olivia—the alleged object of his desires—but rather emotes his sentiments.

De facto, Orsino tries to maintain a self-imposed image of himself as a lover devoured by the fire of passion. Whenever the topic of love is addressed, he emphasizes the strength of his feelings—either by himself or via Cesario as his messenger. Consequently, he compares them simultaneously to “hunger” (2.4.100) and to “sighs of fire” (1.5.48). Because his entire behavior is targeted to his desideratum to be perceived as an ideal devotee, it is no wonder that we only encounter him in intimate gatherings with his servants, to whom he overtly expresses his “innermost” feelings, or—to use Orsino´s own words— “[unclasps] . . . the book even of [his] secret soul” (1.4.13-14). Each time Orsino enters the stage, we see him indulging in long daydreams and “wallowing in the rhetoric of amorous surfeit, displaced into images of auditory and gustatory consumption” (Slights 341).Drawing on his master´s words, Cesario describes the pain adherent to Orsino´s manner of love, “If I did love you in my master`s flame, With such a suffering, such a deadly life, In your denial I would find no sense, I would not understand it” (1.5.256-58).

There are however, a number of inconsistencies inherent in his self-advertising exclamations, which provide evidence of the falseness of his love:

Firstly, he does not fulfill his own demands on true love. This becomes apparent, when he claims that “all true lovers are . . . Unstaid and skittish in all motions else Save in the constant image of the creature That is beloved” (2.4.15-20. In fact, it is often rather Cesario than Olivia who occupies his mind. Even when he assigns Cesario to entice Olivia out from her abstinent mourning, his thoughts drift off towards Cesario, whose qualities he praises profoundly: “Thy small pipe Is as the maiden´s organ, shrill and sound, And all is semblative a woman´s part. I know thy constellation is right apt For this affair” (1.4.32-36).

The foregoing quotation also illustrates that Orsino´s courtship behavior is merely enacted. Instead of actively courting Olivia and trying to convince her that he is her ideal mate, he sends his servants to romance her, even though he knows that they are incapable of convincingly delivering a love message (1.54.28).

The reason for this is conveyed within his opening monologue, where “Orsino describes his love for Olivia as a violent appetite and demands more music in order to feed it or rather, to glut it, so that ‘by surfeiting’ it may die” (Massai 140). But this is a fallacy: if love assembles an “appetite” and Orsino really wants to “recompense” (1.5.47) it, he should rather try to starve it out than to further nourish it. Therefore, we can assume that he does actually want to remain in this state of constant “wooing”.

On top of that, there are two main conditions which need to be fulfilled, if one wants to call a demeanour of love truly Petrarchan: for one thing the “adoration of the loved one . . . which makes her the centre of all earthly beauty” (Pearson 252), and, for another thing, the “idealization of love of woman” (Pearson 297. The duke does not satisfy these prescriptions: while he does admire Olivia´s “sweet perfections” (1.1.38) and states that “liver, brain, and heart, These sovereign thrones, are all supplied” with her (1.1.36-37), he later claims men´s love to be superior (2.4.93-102) and even illustrates this by use of this comparison: “For women are as roses, whose fair flower Being once displayed doth fall that very hour” (1.2.38-39). In short, we observe “Orsino´s simultaneous idealisation and degradation of women” (Massai 161). And it is this dismissive attitude towards women, where Orsino most clearly contradicts the established picture of a true Petrarchan.

Together, these inconsistencies “[make it clear], rather than what he tells us of the motions of his heart and liver, that he does not love Olivia” (Schalkwyk 95). Correspondingly, Orsino fulfills the criteria of Petrarchism only on the surface: whereas his behavior—that is the exalted expression of emotions—resembles that of a Petrarchan lover, his adoration for Olivia is insufficient and, thus, he only represents a distorted image of Petrarchism.

So, how does Shakespeare evaluate Petrarchism? Basically, he exposes it as a mode of behavior rather than true love (Schalkwyk 82). In opposition to Orsino´s reflections on his superiority, Petrarchism is denounced as a malignant variety of love. Henze elaborates this claim: “Like all false lovers Orsino considers himself like all true lovers, but in his demands on Olivia, his desire for solitude, his selfish submersion in melancholy, he is neither truly loving nor truly generous.” (271-72). Beyond that, Shakespeare even ridicules Petrarchism—or rather its beauty cult—in 1.5.236-41, when Olivia “catalogues her physiognomy”. He also suggests that Petrarchan love is both unrealistic and irrational: state affairs suffer when Orsino “is busily transforming his court into a setting for Ovidian myth of divine but unrequited love” (Henze 340) and, therefore, fails to provide for a successor. Ergo, Orsino´s major flow is his passivity.

All in all, Shakespeare highlights the negative aspects of Petrarchism only. Orsino as a Petrarchian serves as a discouraging example and can by no means be called a “true lover”.


Excerpt out of 10 pages


Variety of love in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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ISBN (Book)
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Love, Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Drama, Theatre, Congeniality, Self love, Petrach, Orsino, Viola
Quote paper
Ann-Kathrin Latter (Author), 2014, Variety of love in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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