Sunday, October 4, 2009

Love vs. A Good Life

That Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has been included in a course on Banned Books is not surprising. The play critiques nearly every member of its society and, in particular, the nobility. The Duke is so lovesick that he cannot, apparently, do anything besides obsess over his beloved and demand that his court “give [him] some music” (25) to remind him of her. Olivia, the beloved, has made an absurdly dramatic vow to wear a veil and accept no marriage offers for seven years following her brother’s death. Her uncle, Sir Toby, is a drunk, and her steward, a Puritan called Malvolio, is portrayed as particularly uptight. More than any of these, however, the character Viola causes perhaps the most cause for concern. First, she, a woman, outwits all of the men in the play. Second, because she poses as a boy for the majority of the action, she raises several controversial questions regarding the nature of human love and sexuality.

Viola is not a particularly strong heroine. Though she manages to deceive everyone by disguising herself as a boy, she too becomes entangled in the play’s dramatic web when she falls for Orsino, declaring, “Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife” (9). This web is rather risqué for Shakespeare’s time. Over the course of the play, Olivia falls in love with Viola (disguised as Cesario) but then transfers her feelings onto Sebastian as soon as he appears. Similarly, once Viola is revealed to be a girl, Orsino has no problem viewing her romantically, despite that they were first introduced as two men. That Olivia was initially “in love” with a girl, and that Orsino fondly recalls Viola-as-Cesario’s confessions of love is somewhat disturbing. Their fickleness implies that, perhaps, they are not choosing their partners because of who they are, but simply because of their genders and outward appearances. For example, Orsino asks Viola: “let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds” (67) before actually committing to her. The emphasis is placed on the superficial rather than the genuine. Orsino and Olivia are attracted to their partners because they are "acceptable" by society's standards.

At one point in the play, the clown asks Sir Toby and Sir Andrew if they would “have a love-song, or a song of good life?” (21) Sir Toby responds that he wants a love song and Sir Andrew agrees, stating “Ay, ay: I care not for good life” (21). Through these characters, Shakespeare suggests that love and a good life are mutually exclusive: if one is in love, one cannot have a good life. Perhaps this was true in Shakespeare’s time, considering the shallow and insubstantial nature of the relationships portrayed in Twelfth Night. If these characters had taken the time to examine their true motivations, maybe then they could have found relationships that were ultimately fulfilling.

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