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Twelfth Night, or What You Will

Twelfth Night, or What You Will

Love Theme

"Love" is a term that characters in Twelfth Night like to bandy about, and the play takes them to task for it as it exposes and explores the folly of misdirected desire. Characters that claim to be in the throes of passion are often exposed as self-absorbed, foolish, and/or misguided, as they fall victim to the trappings found in bad love poetry. Twelfth Night, of course, is famous for its consideration of the relationship between erotic desire and gender, as both male and female characters find themselves drawn to the androgynous "Cesario." Even as it steadily works its way toward an ending of sanctioned heterosexual couplings and marriage, the play also examines more overt same-sex desire in the Sebastian/Antonio sub-plot.

Questions About Love

  1. Orsino spends a whole lot of time and energy professing his "love" for Olivia. Is he really as smitten with her as he says he is? Why or why not?
  2. Olivia falls head over heels for "Cesario." What is it about "Cesario" that Olivia finds so attractive? What textual evidence would you use to back up your claim? Does the play ever reconcile Olivia's desire for "Cesario"? If so, how? If not, why not?
  3. At the play's end, Viola reveals her true identity, which frees her up to marry Duke Orsino. But, Viola remains in her "Cesario" disguise because the sea captain is keeping her "maiden weeds" for her. What is Orsino's response to this? How does the situation influence our interpretation of their relationship?
  4. How does the play treat same-sex desire? Does same-sex desire preclude attraction for members of the opposite sex? Why or why not? What evidence would you use to support your ideas?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

In Twelfth Night, love is often aligned with foolishness, injury, and disease, which suggests that the pursuit of romantic relationships is more harmful than good.

Olivia and Orsino's responses to "Cesario" show that men and women can both be attracted to androgynous ("masculine" and "feminine") features in a romantic partner.

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