For a play that is supposed to be a comedy of errors, Twelfth Night renders a rather depressing view on love. No one really, truly, or directly gets what they want. And the seemingly neat ending is rather complicated and messy in my opinion.
To start with the central love triangle, Viola (disguised as a man) is in love with Orsino who in turn is in love with Olivia who refuses his advances. But rather than trying to woo Olivia in person, Orsino sends his messenger (Viola in disguise) to profess his love to her and Olivia falls in love with Viola (who she believes to be a man named Cesario).
The first troubling factor is that Orsino is “in love” with Olivia and they seemingly never meet one another. Is he really in love with her or the idea of her? She is a young, pretty noble woman; but she rightly argues that he cannot be in love with her because he doesn’t really know her. She has a sharp wit and is an interesting character, but he doesn’t know any of these things because he never leaves the house to greet her in person. If he loved her so much, he wouldn’t have a messenger do the dirty work.
In turn, I can sympathize with Olivia’s love for the fictional Cesario because there is a great meeting of the minds between them. Her love is more soulful and bound to personality and in my mind is much deeper than any professions of heartache associated with Orsino.
A second problem occurs to me with the love Viola has for Orsino. Especially in their conversation where he tells her that a man’s love is deeper than a woman and then he gives Cesario romantic advice. The lines that really trouble me are when he tells Cesario to marry a younger woman. Orsino says:
Too old, by heaven. Let still the woman take
An elder than herself. So wears she to him;
So sways she level in her husband’s heart.
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,
Than women’s are.
Orsino essentially says that a woman should marry an older man so that she can better accommodate herself to his whims. In order for her husband to love her she should do whatever he wants. And Viola doesn’t argue against this! She is a very bright woman and yet she completely agrees with the male-dominant marriage model.
The happy ending is even more puzzling to me. When it is revealed that Viola is a woman, and that Olivia has married her twin (Sebastian, a man she really does not know), everything supposedly falls into place. Olivia is married to a man who looks just like her beloved Cesario but Sebastian is completely different from Viola. Is she just going to settle for someone who looks like the one she loves whilst really loving the personality of her sister-in-law? Also, Orsino just has this immediate epiphany that he is in love with Viola when all this time she was his male friend? Does this suggest some strange homoeroticism?
That last question may not be truly answerable but it seems that the only person who really loved someone was Antonio and his probable homosexual love for Sebastian. Not only does he save Sebastian’s life but he also risks and then later faces arrest all for Sebastian. He professes his love, he feels genuine betrayal when he thinks that Sebastian has turned his back on him (really it is Viola as Cesario) and more importantly he does what he says he will and he is very loyal. If the best image of romantic love is between two men than perhaps this is why Twelfth Night was banned. Unfortunately we live in a very homophobic world and being that this story is full of homoeroticism both symbolic and real perhaps that is why this is considered controversial.
I haven’t heard of Hamlet being banned and that is all about a suicidal, murdering young madman, it seems that love is more threatening than violence to those who request a ban.