One of the first lines in the play Twelfth Night reveals the main theme of the play. Curio asks, "Will you go hunt, my lord?" And Duke Orsino replies, "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 turned into a hart, and my desires, like fell and cruel hounds, e'er since pursue me." The Twelfth Night is all about hunting the "heart," and seeking love. Love and relationships rule in Illyria, and are the focus of each of the characters in Twelfth Night. There are four types of love in Twelfth Night: Romantic love, friendly love, brotherly love, and self love. Shakespeare also portrays all of the aspects of love: Love is painful, love is mad, love is foolish, and love is sincere.
The first character in the play is Duke Orsino. He seems to be madly, passionately in love with Olivia, who does not return his love. He claims to be terribly heart-sick and wrought with grief over Olivia. He mopes around his house, wallowing in sorrow. He does this until the end of the play, where he quickly shifts affections when he learns that Cesario is really a woman. Orsino is not truly in love, but instead he is in love with the idea of being in love. He enjoys indulging in his misery, and complaining of his aching heart. He likes that melancholy feeling that comes from unrequited love. His love for Olivia is only superficial, and he comes across as being very emotionally shallow. Orsino is only a likeable character because he relates in a much different way to Viola. She brings out his real personality, showing that perhaps he is not quite as self-indulgent as he seems. He only speaks to Olivia through a messenger, and he is afraid to truly get close to a woman. It is only through Viola's disguise that he gets to know her, which wouldn't have been possible if he thought she was a female.
Olivia's character is very similar to Orsino's. In the beginning, she is in love with grief, locking herself away from the world to suffer from supposed sorrow. Olivia is as fickle as Orsino, and she quickly sets aside her terrible grief when she meets Cesario. She falls instantly in love with Viola as Cesario, and begins pining away for him, just like Orsino pines away for her. She compares love to a plague, which is an excellent description of the love in Twelfth Night. It strikes without warning, and infects everyone, leaving pain and madness in its wake. Olivia also quickly shifts allegiance in the end from Viola to Sebastian. She doesn't even notice that her dearly beloved husband is a different man than the one she fell in love with. Throughout the play, Olivia enjoys wallowing in her grief, first over her brother and then over Cesario. She likes feeling sorry for herself. Like Orsino, it is clear that Olivia's romantic emotions do not run deep.
Viola, disguised as Cesario, falls in love with Orsino. This presents a conflict, because she is dressed as a man, and Orsino is unaware that she is a woman. Olivia is also in love with Viola as Cesario, which deepens her conflict. She can't tell Orsino how she feels about him, and she can't give Olivia a reason why she can't love her. Viola's love is the purest in the story. She sincerely loves Orsino, and does so throughout the play. Where the rest of the characters love is fickle, hers is steadfast. She is the only one who seems to be genuinely in love. She also loves her brother deeply, and he reciprocates the same love. Her brother's character, Sebastian, does not have much development, and seems to only take on the qualities that she casts off when she is ready to get rid of her disguise. Sebastian seems only to be the male aspect of Viola's personality. Orsino and Olivia essentially end up marrying male and female versions of the same person.
Malvolio, Olivia's steward, fantasizes about marrying her. He does not love her though; he loves her position of power. He has a strong desire to rise above his social status, and sees Olivia as the way to do it. Malvolio is stuffy, serious, and obviously in love with himself. He is very proud, and though he is only a steward, sets himself high above the rest of the people in the household. He daydreams about running the house, and ordering everyone else around. His dour, prideful attitude earns him the scorn of the rest of Olivia's household. His pride causes him to be extremely gullible, because he never doubts for a second that Olivia is in love with him. Malvolio is attempting to rise above his place in society, which was almost unacceptable in Shakespeare's time, and he is thoroughly punished for it. Malvolio deserves the humiliation that he gets, but his punishment is excessive and does not fit with the crime. He is locked in a dark room and everyone tries to convince him that he is mad. The audience feels sorry for him, because he is thoroughly mistreated. Even when he is released, no one apologizes to him for what they did, and he exits claiming, "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you." This is very unsettling compared to the happy ending of the rest of the play, because there is no closure for Malvolio. Malvolio seems to be the character in the play that has to suffer so that everyone else can be joyous; telling us that even fantasy worlds like Illyria are not perfect because there is still someone suffering.
The comedians in the play, Maria and Sir Toby strike up a relationship built upon friendly love. During the play, Sir Toby often admires Maria, who is his partner in crime. They are both very clever, so they make a perfect match. Maria's quick thinking and sharp wit allow her to succeed at rising above her social class while Malvolio failed. Her friend, Sir Toby, was continually impressed with her mastery of mischief. They are close cohorts throughout the play, so it is no surprise when they elope at the end. Sir Toby and Maria do express a bit of remorse about their joke on Malvolio going too far, so they are forgiven and allowed to share in the happy ending.
There is also a very close friendship between Sebastian, and his rescuer, Antonio. Antonio professes his love for Sebastian, and foolishly gives away all of his money. He follows Sebastian into a town where he will surely face danger, because he cannot stand to be away from Sebastian. Unfortunately, it is made clear that this kind of homosexual love is not welcome in the world of Illyria, where everyone pairs off in traditional marriages. Antonio is abandoned by Sebastian at the end of the play, and like Malvolio, there is no happy ending or resolution for him. Shakespeare makes it clear that this sort of love, like self-love, does not have a place in Illyria.
William Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night has a timeless quality, which is why it continues to be one of his most popular comedies even today. Shakespeare explores every facet of love, which is a universal emotion. It is an integral part of human life, and it is something that everyone can relate to. Although the play seems to end on a high note, Feste's final song is quite serious. It is a song about growing up and discovering the harshness of life. We learn from Shakespeare that love does not conquer all obstacles, and not everyone gets a happy, fairy tale ending. All joyful things come to and end, and eventually we must face the more serious aspects of life.