Love and Madness in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”

The tone of drama is usually dictated by its beginning so that the reader can anticipate the ending reading the first scenes of the play. This tendency seems inapplicable to Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”, in which the atmosphere of chaos, spontaneous love, and madness is established in the introductory scenes, which acquaint the reader to the major characters, so that plot is to great extent unpredictable. Taking into consideration the facts that the writing is dedicated first and foremost to love (brotherly as well as erotic) and the motifs of travesty and extravagant prank are leading the reader throughout the play, it is possible to assume that love and madness (or “peculiarity”) have many similarities in “Twelfth Night”. They are emphasized by placing the scenes in a specific sequence (e.g., in the beginning, Orsino is pining away for love of Olivia, but later realizes he has similarly strong feelings for Viola), through the behavior of Malvolio, Sir Toby, Maria, Olivia, Orsino as well as through the dialogues and monologues in the play. The present paper is designed to discuss these aspects of similarity in detail.

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The first scenes of the play are defining in terms of asserting lovesickness as a major theme and approaching this feeling to madness. In the first chapter, which depicts Duke Orsino’s dreams and desires, one can diagnose obsession in this character, i.e. disorder, associated with the fixation on the single object, Olivia. This feeling substantially impairs human psychological and social functioning, as one can see from the first scene: “Why, so I do, the noblest that I have:/ O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,/Methought she purged the air of pestilence!/That instant was I turn’d into a hart;/And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,/E’er since pursue me” (Shakespeare, Act I, Scene I, at http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~rgs/12night.html#I-I, 2001). Orsino is not able to act as a worthy city leader unless he gets rid of this complex of feelings, as his love, similarly to the mental illness, weakens his reasoning and does not allow him to concentrate and fill his life with social interactions, entertainment as well as work. Orsino spends days dreaming and dictating messages to be conveyed to Olivia, so from the position of a sober and rational person these actions can be attributed to a psychologically disturbed person.

Ironically, at the end of the play, he develops the same feelings for Viola. His love, however, is much more mature and lacks the component of obsession, but it nevertheless originates from trust and mutual understanding Orsino and Viola, disguised as Cesario had in their relationship, therefore, Duke says to Viola the following:” Meantime, sweet sister,/ We will not part from hence. Cesario, come; / For so you shall be, while you are a man; / But when in other habits you are seen, / Orsino’s mistress and his fancy queen” ( Act V, Scene I). Because Orsino’s feelings alter dramatically in the very ending of the play (in the first lines of the same scene he still begs Olivia to become his wife), it is possible to identify him as a truly “peculiar” person with unstable nature. Imagining the hypothetical situation, in which the person offers his hand and heart to two different women in a thirty-minute interval, one can conclude that both love and madness result in frequent mood changes and cause psychological insecurity. Furthermore, both love and madness result in the development of vulnerability, i.e. Orsino decides to marry Viola, as he feels extremely attached to Cesario in terms of firm friendship and trust, so his proposition to the young lady is probably associated with the fear of losing the close friend, who understands him, supports in the stressful situations and brings relief. Vulnerability and psychological instability could be integrated into the second aspect of similarity between love and madness.

Another example of strong love, which turns into madness, is the allegoric story, told by Viola (as “Cesario”) to Orsino in the fourth scene of the second act. Viola narrates about a young lady, who dies of her feeling for a man. The reader can also perceive this complex of emotions as madness, as they love, resulting in depression; nervous emaciation refers to the weak mental health: “She never told her love, / But let concealment, like a worm I’ the bud/, Feed on her damask cheek: She pined in thought,/ And with a green and yellow melancholy/ She sat like patience on a monument,/Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed ?” (Act II, Scene IV). Viola cues at her feelings for Orsino and probably realizes that her love is turning into an obsession so that she is likely to die of the nervous tension, associated with love, combined with the impossibility of attracting the object. In this sense, the author perceives love as a sequence or set of quite unhealthy emotions, which can be interpreted by a reasonable and sober person as slight insanity.

Lady Olivia also demonstrates the features of both love and madness, so that it is even unclear which emotion she experiences at the beginning of the writing when she firmly decides to isolate herself from the environment because of her grief for the deceased brother. Bereavement and sharp grief are those psychological states, which are characterized as having only a slight and conditional boundary between normalcy and madness. Therefore, it is not clear whether the young lady is becoming insane because of sorrow or merely needs some time to put her thoughts in order because of her love for the dead person. She is extremely irritable: “Have you any commission from your lord to negotiate/ with my face? You are now out of your text: but/ we will draw the curtain and show you the picture./” (Act I, Scene V). In addition, she becomes excessively suspicious and demonstrates her arrogance to everyone, who comes to her mansion, i.e. in fact Olivia doesn’t wish to see anyone, living in the darkroom with a veil on her face: “Take the fool away”; “Good madonna, why mournest thou?/ Good fool, for my brother’s death./I think his soul is in hell, madonna./I know his soul is in heaven, fool” (Act I, Scene V). Therefore, the reader realizes that the similarity between love and madness lies also in the dramatic change of personality it causes. Olivia behaves unnaturally concerning her age and social position, which allows noblewomen to socialize and entertain themselves. Both love and madness thus might resolve in the dissolution of one’s genuine self in the complex of emotions being encountered as well as in the disappearance of numerous personality traits, as the presence of a clown and the overall joyful environment in Olivia’s house demonstrate that before her brother’s death she was a typical young girl with considerable heritage, i.e. smart and socially interested. Again, the reader learns about the darker sides of love, as in the present case the feelings for the person, who has already passed away, create excessively intense strain in Olivia.

On the other hand, love and madness are compared in much more optimistic and humorous tones, as the author intentionally creates comic situations, in which the characters’ behavior could be interpreted as the result of either strong love or serious insanity.

The fourth point of likeness between love and madness is that both force individuals to the behavior, which appears incongruent with their gender role or social position. The most prominent instance, illustrating this statement, is the behavior of Malvolio, who receives a very warm and cheerful letter allegedly from Olivia and consequently dresses and behaves extravagantly: ” Not black in my mind, though yellow in my legs. It / did come to his hands, and commands shall be/ executed: I think we do know the sweet Roman hand / -Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio? / – To bed! Ay, sweet-heart, and I’ll come to thee” (Act III, Scene IV). This behavior is supposed to prove the servant’s love for Olivia, even though he in reality needs only to begin a family relationship with a woman of higher social status to quit his job as a steward. Therefore, Malvolio believes his acts will convince the young lady of his affections, whereas Olivia herself labels him as mad and seeks to send him away so that he can organize himself. To demonstrate his admiration, the character denies his position in Olivia’s house and takes the clown’s role, surprising Olivia’s court and the mistress in particular.

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Interestingly, Olivia, to demonstrate her love and serious intentions concerning the relationship with Viola (wearing Cesario’s “mask”), asks the person, whom she recognizes as Viola, to marry her. She is conversing with Sebastian, who feels bewildered by such strange behavior of the girl he sees the first time. While Sebastian is trying to comprehend the situation, Olivia is planning their ceremony: “What time we will our celebration keep/ According to my birth. What do you say? “( Act II, Scene IV). Fortunately, Sebastian doesn’t seem a prejudiced young man, so he quickly understands he should find the actual reason for Olivia’s “peculiar” behavior, yet the person of a different nature would probably regard the lady as insane, even though she seeks to confirm that her love is not a temporary wave and she wishes to have a family with Cesario. In this sense, she sacrifices her gender role, her femininity, to demonstrate her passions, as an offering and planning marriage is normally viewed as male responsibility, moreover, the contemporary society definitely did not expect such acts of a woman.

Finally, both love and madness, as the play proves, both love and madness combine incongruous persons. The striking ending of the play, beyond the successful resolution of situations with Orsino and Viola as well as Sebastian and Olivia, includes also the sudden marriage of Maria and Sir Toby. It is clear to the reader that Maria as a clever lady-in-waiting seeks a successful party for marriage, but the atmosphere of delight and excitement, created by the author in the final scene, first leaves the reader puzzled whether love or madness has united the intelligent girl and the careless drunkard. After a deeper analysis, it is possible to explain Maria’s behavior logically, but the festive tone of the final scene denies the very idea of materialistic interests. Therefore, the author’s decision to place the information about their marriage in the final scene demonstrates that Maria and Sir Toby also might vacillate between love and madness.

To sum up, the sequence of scenes and plot development strengthen the aspects, shared by both love and insanity, as depicted in “Twelfth Night”, as the first part of the play reveal rather negative aspects of love as a serious psychological problem, whereas the second part puts them in an ironic and humorous context. Characters’ behavior, the roles of concealment, and practical joke in the interactions between characters particularly emphasize that both love and madness make individuals behave weirdly and abandon their gender roles, outlook, and even job-related responsibilities.

Works cited

Shakespeare, W (ed. J.Ockerbloom). Twelfth Night. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, September 8). Love and Madness in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/love-and-madness-in-shakespeares-twelfth-night/

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StudyCorgi. "Love and Madness in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”." September 8, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/love-and-madness-in-shakespeares-twelfth-night/.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "Love and Madness in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”." September 8, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/love-and-madness-in-shakespeares-twelfth-night/.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Love and Madness in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”'. 8 September.

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