Theme of Love in Much Ado and Twelfth Night

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AS English Literature – Unit 2 (Coursework)


Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is studied and his Much Ado About Nothing is used to explore the theme of love. Performances are referred to.

Shakespeare's romantic comedies explore love, the “divine passion”, in all its moods and intensities. Most characters in these two plays are in love, find love or seek it. Twelfth Night, reputedly the most mature of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, weaves several such love stories into an intricate collage to explore different types of love and its easy descent into pain or folly.

John Gross, in a 1991 review of Twelfth Night in the Sunday Telegraph, said “Twelfth Night is about true love and its egocentric counterfeits.” Orsino’s self-indulgent ‘love’ for Olivia is typical of deluded, ‘counterfeit’ love. His long-winded abstractions (“music be the food of love”, “love-thoughts... bowers”) tell us that he is actually in love with love and with the image of himself as rejected lover. Identifying the “sweet pangs” of rejection as as the melancholies of love, he conforms to Don Pedro’s definition of conventional aristocratic lovers, “tiring his hearers with a book of words” and spends less time building an actual relationship (he loves by proxy until the last scene).

Olivia’s deluded love for ‘Cesario’ is also an infatuation engendered at first sight rather than love based on understanding of character (she convicts herself when she readily substitutes Sebastian for ‘Cesario’). Her case illustrates the rashness that love often causes; she is ready to “bestow” on Cesario anything but her chastity (“...That honour saved upon asking give?”) and makes unabashed advances to a pageboy lower in status. The high-flown language and impetuosity of Orsino and Olivia convey a love that is exaggerated and unsound.

Sir Andrew’s pursuit of Olivia derives more from his wretched self-delusion and Toby’s craftiness than from any real attraction to Olivia. Malvolio too, is deluded in his love for her – he is actually more in love with the idea of himself as ‘Count Malvolio’, and Olivia is merely a means to self-aggrandisement. His wearing yellow stockings to woo her, and Andrew’s farcical challenge letter and ‘duel’ showcase how easily love can turn to folly. This type of deluded love and folly is not as deeply explored in Much Ado, save in the case of Beatrice and Benedick, deluded only to the extent that each thinks the other does not care; this generates all the comedy and tension of their professed scorn for love, marriage, and each other. In these characters Shakespeare explores love as an emotion susceptible to delusion: incidentally, both Beatrice and Orsino describe wooing as being “fantastical”.

In contrast, Viola’s love for Orsino is based on real knowledge of his character, folly and all. Selflessly, she is willing to woo another woman for him, and “to do you rest a thousand deaths would die”. The absurd Orsino of the first scenes shows himself capable of real love as he too, comes to love her sincerely, though unconsciously, even before her disguise is removed (he “unclasps ... the book even of his secret soul” to ‘Cesario’ and admires ‘his’ beauty: “Diana’s lip... rubious”). His wounded words (“lamb that I do love”, “whom I tender dearly”) at Cesario’s ‘betrayal’ of him – and their warm and intimate scenes in the 1996 Trevor Nunn version – reveal his capacity for truer love.

In Much Ado, the central romance is Beatrice and Benedick’s. Though there is evidence of a past relationship in “... he lent it me once” and the first person Beatrice ever mentions is Benedick and the one person Benedick ostentatiously pleads to ignore is Beatrice, each professes to hate the other and thus unwittingly inflicts pain (Benedick admits Beatrice’s words “stab”). But their love for each other is deep-rooted enough to endure this pain – Benedick’s love actually supersedes his love for his friends when he...
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