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ENGL100A Lecture Notes - Sir Thopas, Tangled, Malvolio

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Diana Parry

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Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Love as a Cause of Suffering
Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy, and romantic love is the play’s main focus. Despite the fact that the
play offers a happy ending, in which the various lovers find one another and achieve wedded bliss,
Shakespeare shows that love can cause pain. Many of the characters seem to view love as a kind of
curse, a feeling that attacks its victims suddenly and disruptively. Various characters claim to suffer
painfully from being in love, or, rather, from the pangs of unrequited love. At one point, Orsino depicts
love dolefully as an “appetite” that he wants to satisfy and cannot (I.i.1–3); at another point, he calls his
desires “fell and cruel hounds” (I.i.21). Olivia more bluntly describes love as a “plague” from which she
suffers terribly (I.v.265). These metaphors contain an element of violence, further painting the love-
struck as victims of some random force in the universe. Even the less melodramatic Viola sighs
unhappily that “My state is desperate for my master’s love” (II.ii.35). This desperation has the potential
to result in violenceas in Act V, scene i, when Orsino threatens to kill Cesario because he thinks that -
Cesario has forsaken him to become Olivia’s lover.
Love is also exclusionary: some people achieve romantic happiness, while others do not. At the end of
the play, as the happy lovers rejoice, both Malvolio and Antonio are prevented from having the objects
of their desire. Malvolio, who has pursued Olivia, must ultimately face the realization that he is a fool,
socially unworthy of his noble mistress. Antonio is in a more difficult situation, as social norms do not
allow for the gratification of his apparently sexual attraction to Sebastian. Love, thus, cannot conquer all
obstacles, and those whose desires go unfulfilled remain no less in love but feel the sting of its absence
all the more severely.
The Uncertainty of Gender
Gender is one of the most obvious and much-discussed topics in the play. Twelfth Night is one of
Shakespeare’s so-called transvestite comedies, in which a female characterin this case, Viola
disguises herself as a man. This situation creates a sexual mess: Viola falls in love with Orsino but cannot
tell him, because he thinks she is a man, while Olivia, the object of Orsino’s affection, falls for Viola in
her guise as Cesario. There is a clear homoerotic subtext here: Olivia is in love with a woman, even if she
thinks he is a man, and Orsino often remarks on Cesario’s beauty, suggesting that he is attracted to Viola
even before her male disguise is removed. This latent homoeroticism finds an explicit echo in the minor
character of Antonio, who is clearly in love with his male friend, Sebastian. But Antonio’s desires cannot
be satisfied, while Orsino and Olivia both find tidy heterosexual gratification once the sexual ambiguities
and deceptions are straightened out.
Yet, even at the play’s close, Shakespeare leaves things somewhat murky, especially in the Orsino-Viola
relationship. Orsino’s declaration of love to Viola suggests that he enjoys prolonging the pretense of
Viola’s masculinity. Even after he knows that Viola is a woman, Orsino says to her, “Boy, thou hast said
to me a thousand times / Thou never should’st love woman like to me” (V.i.260–261). Similarly, in his
last lines, Orsino declares, “Cesario, come— / For so you shall be while you are a man; / But when in
other habits you are seen, / Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen” (V.i.372–375). Even once
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