Twelfth Night, or What You Will
How we cite our quotes:
I'll do my best
To woo your lady:
yet, a barful strife!
Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife. (1.4.7)
For first-time readers or play-goers, Viola's sudden announcement that she's smitten with Duke Orsino may come as a shock. (We know we were surprised by this the first time we read Twelfth Night.) How could Viola fall for Orsino so quickly when she's only been working for him for three days? Also, what does Viola see in this guy anyway? After all, Orsino comes off as a moody, self-centered guy who lounges around and spouts off about deer hunting metaphors and flowers all day. It's easy to dismiss the question by saying that Viola's love for Orsino is totally unrealistic but is nevertheless important to the plot. But we think we can do much better than this. Does Viola fall for Orsino because he's a kind of passionate poet? Does this make her just as silly and foolish as Orsino, Olivia, and Malvolio? Viola's a sharp girl. Does the play seem to suggest that love and desire transform even the brightest and shrewdest people into sappy fools? What do you think?
Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions and spirit,
Do give thee five-fold blazon: not too fast:
Unless the master were the man. How now!
Even so quickly may one catch the plague? (1.5.48)
Olivia seems surprised that she has fallen in love with "Cesario," who has been sent to woo her on behalf of Duke Orsino. (Remember, she has sworn off men for seven years while she mourns for her dead brother.) Here, Olivia's comparison of falling in love to catching the bubonic "plague" (a serious problem in 16th-century England) is not unlike other passages we've seen that align desire with illness and injury. (There's also a bawdy reference to venereal disease, which was rampant in Shakespeare's London.)
Note: The Bubonic Plague is also associated with the theater in Twelfth Night, so be sure to check out "Quotes" for "Art and Culture" if you want to think about this some more.
I could not stay behind you: my desire,
More sharp than filed steel, did spur me forth;
And not all love to see you, though so much
As might have drawn one to a longer voyage,
But jealousy what might befall your travel,
Being skilless in these parts; which to a stranger,
Unguided and unfriended, often prove
Rough and unhospitable: my willing love,
The rather by these arguments of fear,
Set forth in your pursuit. (3.3.1)
There's no denying the intimacy of the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian, particularly when Antonio proclaims his devotion and willingness to risk his life to be with his beloved friend. Antonio says that he is driven by "desire," "jealousy," and "love" to follow Sebastian to Illyria, where Antonio is a wanted man. Just as Duke Orsino compares the experience of erotic love to a physically piercing "shaft" (see 1.1.4 above), Antonio suggests that his desire for Sebastian is "more sharp than filed steel" (an arrow, spear, sword – whatever). This language not only gets at the sense that Antonio's love causes him physical suffering and heartache, but it also consistent with the imagery of sexual penetration we see elsewhere.
While it's not clear if Antonio and Sebastian are lovers or just very close friends (though, one doesn't necessarily preclude the other), Antonio's affection is consistent with the kinds of erotic (both hetero- and homoerotic) desire we see throughout Twelfth Night. Note: "Homoerotic" just refers to erotic emotions that are directed toward a person of the same sex. It can be helpful to note that homoerotic relationships and strong male friendships are quite common in Shakespeare's work. See especially the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice and the relationship between the Poet and the young man in the Sonnets.
History Snack: Elizabethans didn't see sexual orientation in black and white terms. While plenty of people (especially 16th-century Puritans) were opposed to same-sex couplings, the concept of "homosexual" identity vs. "heterosexual" identity didn't even exist. Nor did it play a role in forming one's identity in the way that sexual orientation does today. In Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England, Stephen Orgel writes the following: "As proliferating studies in the history of sexuality have shown, the binary division between of sexual appetites into normative heterosexual and deviant homosexual is a very recent invention; neither homosexuality nor heterosexuality existed as categories for the Renaissance mind" (59).