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Twelfth Night | Shakespeare and love | Birmingham City Council

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Twelfth Night

In Shakespeare’s time there was a view that youth, beauty and love are short lived so they should be enjoyed while they last. And this is what the clown’s song suggests in Twelfth Night:

What is love? ‘tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Them come kiss me, sweet and twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

Just like in the other comedies, love in Twelfth Night is a game. It is never constant, is subject to suggestions, works its magic and not always results in a marriage. It makes characters love-sick and carries them through a labyrinth of confusing circumstances. Shakespeare pokes gentle fun around them and their attitude to love. Viola falls in love with Orsino at first sight, as well as Olivia with Cesario, Sebastian with Olivia. Only Sir Toby and Maria really get to know each other. Viola’s love is genuine. But like most women:

She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm I’the’ bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pin’d in thought;

In contrast, Duke Orsino is in love with the idea of love. It was fashionable at the time that noble men should admire women’s beauty from a distance and without really getting to know the objects of their desires ( ‘If music be the food of love, play on….’.), making them appear sick and melancholic.

Love in Shakespeare’s plays, just like in real life, makes sometimes a fool of us. Malvolio develops a ‘very strange manner’ in his belief that Olivia has fallen for him. Servant Maria reports that he has been seen in yellow stockings cross gartered with a silly smile. Life enhancing qualities of love are captured by Shakespeare in another of the clown’s song:

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.