Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Types of Love in Twelfth Night

How many different kinds of love are in
Shakespeare's Twelfth Night?
I received an email today asking me about the different kinds of love in Twelfth Night. As I've already mentioned in another post, there is a lot of love going on, but is all that love created equal?

Love is timeless. It is the subject of so much literature and art, because of this very fact, and because it is such a tempestuous emotion that often leads us to do things we never imagined possible. This makes it ripe for drama.

Love is something that dominates Shakespeare's plays, but it's not always simple romantic love the Bard's dealing with.

I was asked about four different kinds of love that a very nice reader of the blog identified in Twelfth Night. What was Shakespeare trying to say about love, and about the period the play was written in?

Homoerotic Love Between Antonio and Sebastian


Shakespeare claims love for his
fair youth, but it's probably not homosexual
as we know it
You could call Antonio and Sebastian's love homoerotic. 

But it's a good idea to keep in mind that love between men was very different in Shakespeare's day. Take a look, for example, at the first 126 of his sonnets, which are all addressed to the 'fair youth'. 

Sebastian is the younger, 'pretty' boy. So, you could draw comparison between Shakespeare's relationship with his fair, young patron and the one portrayed between Antonio and Sebastian.

It boils down to the fact that men had closer bonds of friendship and 'love' without it being deemed homosexual in centuries past. 

Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice are another example of two men whose love could be deemed homosexual, but that was probably not Shakespeare's intention. I take a look at this very subject in the post: Was Shakespeare Gay?

Viola (while dressed as Cesario) and Orsino, on the other hand, do have a kind of simmering undercurrent of the homoerotic about them, though.

Love for Love Itself: Orsino's Love for Olivia


Shakespeare definitely has a penchant for poking fun at the grandiose, elevated love that you see in Petrarchan sonnets - he does it in his Sonnet 130

Woe is poor Orsino, but is it really love?
If we don't already know that Orsino's overegged 'love' for Olivia is not "hungry as the sea" as he claims, it's made plain by the very rapid transfer of his affections to Viola at the end of the play.

Why would he want to poke fun at this kind of love? Well, because it is ridiculous. 

It's not a difficult target, is it? Men (or women) who make such obviously exaggerated claims of love are funny, because we know it's not sincere. 

To borrow a phrase from another play, it's a case of protesting too much.

Interclass Love: Toby and Maria

Does Toby really marry
below his status?

Toby and Maria definitely have a cross-class relationship. 

I don't know whether Shakespeare is saying that it's always all right to marry out of your social standing, but it's definitely all right for a drunken, old layabout like Toby! 

The other thing to keep in mind when we're discussing this intersocial kind of love is that Twelfth Night (the festival) was all about misrule: turning things on their heads - the lowest were the highest and highest were the lowest. 

So, in those circumstances, your standing by birth doesn't really matter!

Feste's Love of Money


Feste does take money, but I'm not sure he's in love with it. When Orsino tries to give him money, he declines, saying "No pains, sir: I take pleasure in singing." In several instances he does take money, of course, but that's how he earns his living, so I don't see it as avarice.

And I would add one more important type of love that dominates a strand of the plot...

Malvolio's fall is all the sweeter for how far he's
come down

Self-love: Malvolio Only Has Eyes For...


Malvolio's love for himself probably is all as hungry as the sea and can digest as much. 

It's what causes him to duped; it's what allows him to be duped; and it's what ultimately makes his fall so much more catastrophic.

For more about Twelfth Night, take a look at my post on who loves whom, or an analysis of Malvolio, or a find out what Twelfth Night was and its relevance to the play.