Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Twelfth Night- Attitudes Towards Love

In Twelfth Night, the situation into which Viola walks is a complex romantic relationship based on mutual posing, in which Orsino and Olivia, in their different ways, are equally committed to wallowing in a conventionally emotional language, to enjoying the delicious but self-absorbed feelings of selfish emotional excess.

This quality emerges most famously in the opening speech of the play, when Orsino calls for music, his "food of love," only to order it to stop when it fails to live up to his expectation. What's important to notice here is Orsino's language, particularly the way in which his vocabulary defines an attitude of self-indulgence. The speech is justly famous as expressing a fine poetical attitude, and it suggests there's a latent emotional intelligence in Orsino—for the image of love as the sea swallowing up everything and instantly dissolving it so that its value is destroyed is the obvious criticism of his attitude to love, which for him is an experience that transforms beautiful things into nothing, based, as it is, on his own appetite surfeiting on excess (in other words, Orsino is his own best critic, even if he is not intending that). The fact that Orsino himself delivers the strongest criticism of his own attitude is an endorsement of the notion that Orsino is intelligent enough to see the limitations of what he's doing (even if he's not about to abandon it).

The clearest visual evidence of Orsino's self-indulgent infatuation is the way in which his emotions, his love, de-energize him. He has no wish to engage with the world or, indeed, to do anything but luxuriate in his own feelings. Here the reactions of those standing around are important in any staging. We sense in the immediate reaction of Curio ("Will you go hunt, my lord") a certain impatience with all this languor, a desire to engage in some physical activity. Orsino's extremely hackneyed response, which turns the hunting metaphor into the most conventional of Petrarchan puns, the lover as a stricken deer, confirms the attitude first illustrated in his speech (as does his style of courtship, of course, which involves no active efforts on his part).

Olivia is in a situation somewhat similar. She has vowed to remain hidden from the world for seven years, living as a nun, weeping her way around her room once a day, all to keep her grief alive, as she puts it, "to season a brother's dead love". (Viola, we know, also has lost a brother). We learn this about her before we meet her, so in a sense we are set up to see her as wrapping herself up in an excess of her own emotionalism, just as Orsino is doing (the fact that he admires this trait in her drives home the comparison).

Once we meet Olivia, we can see immediately that this report of her is clearly false. She may be dressed in mourning attire, but unlike Orsino she is enjoying talking and interacting with others (particularly the Fool) and, significantly, she speaks prose. In various stage adaptations, Olivia's first entrance was preceded by an infectious merry laughter, a mood which contrasted with her formal mourning attire. It's difficult not to entertain the notion that she has concocted her "mourning," at least in part, as an excuse not to commit herself to marriage, to enjoy being an independent young woman in charge of her own properties: the formal grieving gives her a reason to deflect Orsino's romantic overtures.

In that sense, Olivia is clear much more emotionally intelligent at first than Orsino. That becomes evident by the speed with which she drops her adopted pose and commits herself to a new romantically charged experience. The first meeting with Viola arouses in her feelings which she recognizes as urgent and important—and rather than fighting them or denying them, she decides to act on them, in the full knowledge that she is taking an enormous chance.

"I do I know not what, and fear to find
Mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind."

Like Viola she decides to act and put her faith in time working things out.

This instant willingness to break out of her artificially imposed isolation and take a chance on her deepest feelings is a mark of Olivia's emotional courage. Unlike Orsino, she is not one to deny the chance to escape her self-imposed emotional isolation. The fact that she is wrong about the gender is no indication that she is wrong, although her sudden love for Viola raises important issues of love and gender.

Viola, unlike Orisno and Olivia, is forced to speak out of a complex emotional tension—confronting the man she truly loves and unable to speak directly of her feelings to him. But the fiction of her sister "like Patience on a monument,/ Smiling at grief" is an eloquent expression of her own feelings—and the intensity of the moment pulls Orsino momentarily out of his self-absorption, and he becomes, for the first time, genuinely interested in someone else. She forces him to listen to a voice of love which does not echo the conventional sentiments he uses to assess his own feelings for Olivia.

It seems clear in moments like this that Orsino, perhaps like Orlando (in As You Like It) falls in love—or at least is brought to a better understanding of what it means to be in love—by having his feelings engaged by a woman in disguise as a man. There may even be a sense here that such gender confusion is necessary to shake Orsino out of his gendered understanding of love which is so frozen in conventional sentiment that he is unable to deal with the reality of other people's feelings. Perhaps it takes the love for a man (or someone he thinks is a man) to teach him that love is not first and foremost an exercise in linguistic conventionality.

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