Love as Comedic Energy: Viola and Orsino, Twelfth Night Ii.iv

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

In Twelfth Night, it is love’s revolutionary potential to inspire awareness, question authority, and disrupt the anti-comic balance that makes love so powerful allows it to be such an agent of change. Robert Maslen, in Shakespeare and Comedy, describes this as love’s “energy”, comparing love to comedy in terms of their shared links with irrationality, disorder, and the bridging of social barriers – all concepts inherently dangerous to the values of the “old age” in which these characters seem to be entrenched. Viola’s relationship with Orsino, and the realization of mutual love after her identity is revealed, epitomizes this sense of love as, like comedy, something unruly and irrational but possessing great power for facilitating growth and change. Yet before the revelation of Viola’s true identity and the play’s resolution, she and Orsino have only one scene onstage together in which the audience is allowed a glimpse into their relationship and the powerful bond between them. Because of this, the audience’s understanding of the relationship between Viola (“Cesario”) and Orsino rests heavily upon II.4, making the scene vital in order to discern the nature of the bond between the pair.

Love, in Shakespearean comedy, is often the key force driving the play to its “comic” resolution. Using Frye’s three-stage model, one can argue that love in these plays is necessary to transform the “anti-comic” society of the first stage, and the attitudes of those who inhabit it, and bring the play to a harmonious ending. A comic resolution generally includes marriages among the characters, representing the creation of harmony in an ideal union between lovers. In the early Acts of Twelfth Night, the anti-comic mood is inherent in the very actions and mindsets of the inhabitants of Illyria. Olivia’s excessive mourning for her father and brother, as well as Orsino’s self-indulgent woe over his “high fantastical”, imagined love for Olivia (I.1.15, Twelfth Night) are both indicative of self-deception and lack of awareness of the feelings of others. Both these mindsets, as well as the rigid conservatism of Olivia’s Puritan steward, Malvolio, can also be interpreted as evidence of the characters’ adherence to values of an old world of rigid traditions and conventional ideas. Orsino’s praise of the song of love in II.4 alludes to this conservatism, as he describes the song as “old and antique…dallies with the innocence of love,/Like the old age” , connecting a traditional past with his own sorrow.

The presence of the bond between the Duke and his page, which will lay the foundation for Orsino to love Cesario as a woman when “he” turns out to be Viola and for the audience to accept this change in sentiment, is emphasized in the scene through particular features of narrative technique, language and stagecraft.

Possibly the most distinctive feature of the scene is the tone of balanced tension which Shakespeare creates by offsetting the contrary emotional responses of the audience toward the two different characters. Orsino’s complete lack of awareness as to either the gender of his confidant or the strength of her feelings for him is laughable, as is his affectedness in savoring his “lovesick” condition. Early in the scene, the irony of the exchanges between Orsino and Viola only serve to increase how ridiculous Orsino looks in his oblivion.

ORSINO Thou dost speak masterly.

My life upon’t, young though thou art, thine eye

Hath stayed upon some favor that it loves.

Hath it not, boy?

VIOLA A little, by your favor.

ORSINO What kind of woman is’t?

VIOLA Of your complexion.

ORSINO She is not worth thee then. What years, i’ faith?

VIOLA About your years, my lord

Orsino’s appropriately comic ignorance, however, only serves to make Viola’s pain more palatable. The audience inevitably feels great sympathy for her, as her consciousness of the irrationality and apparent hopelessness of her situation is matched only by Orsino’s corresponding lack of awareness. The exchanges between Viola and Orsino offer a tantalizing morsel of hope to both the audience and their heroine. Combined with the audience’s expectations of genre and the convenient dramatic irony of Sebastian’s presence on Illyria, this hope foreshadows a happy resolution. At the same time, Viola’s ignorance of the very facts that would lessen her sorrow only deepens the audience’s sympathy for her. This delicate blend of the absurdly comic and pitiably pathetic ensures that the audience is held in emotional suspension until the play’s resolution – an appropriate state, perhaps, as it is only mutual love which can bring about comic harmony.

Not only does Viola exhibit the kind of conscious understanding of her own feelings and situation that is persistently lacking in Olivia and Orsino, but she is able to rationally accept her inability to change either her feelings or her situation and the pain that this inability may cause her.

VIOLA But if she cannot love you, sir?

ORSINO I cannot be so answer’d.

VIOLA Sooth, but you must.

Say that some lady, as perhaps there is.

Hath for your love a great pang of heart

As you have for Olivia: you cannot love her;

You tell her so; must she not be answered?

What is perhaps most pathetically endearing about Viola in this example is her own belief that Orsino cannot love her. She seeks to prevent him from being hurt in the only context she understands – that of her own apparently bleak situation. While Orsino thinks he is entitled to Olivia’s love because of his persistence (and therefore what he would consider his passion), Viola understands the reality, and pain, of unrequited love. She knows first-hand that love is not rational in any way, and it matters not to the emotion (or perhaps the personified deity of “where Love is throned” 23) whether or not love is mutual, or how resolute the unwanted suitor may be in his or her ways. Olivia cannot love the Duke; though she “were better love a dream” , she is infatuated with Viola’s male persona. Despite the indicated resolution, the audience is still able to feel fear and sympathy for Viola’s state of enclosed sorrow.

Ironically, for all her insight, Viola too is shown to be blind in love, for she does not see, as the audience does, that Orsino’s love for Olivia is “giddy and unfirm” , and that he is more in love with the concept of love than with the woman herself. In her previous scene, the audience learns that Viola believes Orsino’s love is much like her own, as she says “My master loves her Olivia dearly,/And I (poor monster) fond as much on him.” The experience of loving someone who does not return the sentiment is universally painful and powerful, and yet Viola’s honest sensibility and wit in discussing the subject with the man she loves shows remarkable resilience and an objective, almost naïve acceptance of a complex emotional situation, heightening the audience’s sympathies and the tense emotional suspension which can only be resolved through the comic force of love.

Such an understanding of the irrationality of love yet again fits in with both Frye’s structure of Shakespearean comedy, and with Maslen’s description of love as a comedic “energy”. Although love is undeniably a powerful force of change in Twelfth Night, it is not the concealed grief of Viola which is active in crossing the barriers of gender, closed mindsets and convention in her relationship with Orsino. The passions which the characters of Viola, Orsino and Olivia cling to at this time in the play enforce a climate of disorder and confusion, one which seems to concur with Frye’s model. The love Viola has for Orsino is illogical because he believes that she is a boy, yet, ironically, the only way that she can express her true feelings and self is through Cesario’s confessions to Orsino and the closeness of a homosocial relationship between two men. Only in this situation of confusion can a love such as that which Orsino and Viola develop be realized. The scene in Act II is therefore crucial, not just to establish the closeness which has developed between the two characters, but also to establish this sense of disorder – the necessary first stage.

Not only is Orsino still intoxicated at this point with the idea of wooing Olivia, but the descriptions with which he and Viola describe constant love are very different; there is a sense that although the two certainly connect on a certain level, it is Orsino’s own mindset and perception of an artificial, mythical love that keep him from fully connecting with Viola, even more so than the perceived gender issues. The wry irony created by the audience’s knowledge of Viola’s disguise – consider in particular the jests about “What kind of woman isn’t?” – as well as the tension between the audience’s conflicting feelings of sympathy and amusement, have great effect in adding to the sense of disorder, further underlined by the adjacent scenes of misrule in the plot against Malvolio. One of the most significant emblems of anarchy is that of the objectivity of truth which Viola embodies in her disguise. Through this falsity, she is able to show her true feelings, as if her love itself were a blend of truth and imagination, like the loves of Orsino and Olivia. Only in this environment of confused gender, identity and genre can this love be conveyed. Joseph H. Summers suggests that it is only through disorder that love can create change and growth, because in “a completely rational world, Shakespeare never tires of pointing out, what we know as love could not exist. We have never seen such a world.”

Yet within the scene, this “lady” with “great pang of heart” will indeed be answered. It is Orsino’s hint of sympathy for the story of her “sister” that suggests a deeper capacity for true emotion than his pretentious descriptions of love have indicated. The scene marks the first time in the play the Duke shows real sympathy for the suffering of someone other than himself, although he is unaware that it is actually Viola with whom he is sympathizing. Almost unbeknownst to one another, the interaction between Viola and Orsino as they discuss a love that transcends gender suggests that a bond has formed between them that is inherently separate from both their relationship as master and servant and the passion which Viola feels for Orsino as a man. This growing bond proves more powerful than the old myths of love to which the Duke adheres, and the result is a connection of the mind between emotional equals.

In addition to the element of dramatic irony created by the audience’s knowledge of Sebastian’s arrival in Illyria, deeper layers of dramatic irony emphasize Viola and Orsino’s bond despite the apparent impossibility of Viola’s situation. While Viola rationally accepts her plight and describes her feminine self – the one that could live as Orsino’s wife, yet can take no action due to her present situation – as “Patience on a monument…with a green and yellow melancholy” , the bond growing between Orsino and ‘Cesario’ is one facilitated by the ease of an equal masculine relationship, without the formality and pretension of a courtship. The irony is that such a relationship would not have been possible had she been free to be his wife – that is, free to be a woman.

Shakespeare’s use of shared and split pentameter for Orsino and Viola, so that the characters literally finish each others sentences in a union of lyric verse, further suggests the connection:

VIOLA Ay, but I know –

ORSINO What dost thou know??

VIOLA Too well what love women to men may owe…

The effect is that of a duet, with love formally expressed as the connection grows and as Orsino becomes increasingly absorbed in Viola’s story.

From the early lines of the scene, Orsino distinguishes Viola from his retinue as particularly favored. The audience is already told in Act I, Scene iii that “he hath known you but three days and already you are no stranger” , and in , Viola is again visually aligned with Orsino onstage as he separates her from the rest of his retinue with the command of “Come hither, boy”, leaving him and her in one another’s company for the rest of the scene. In particular, Orsino wants his page to share in his experience of the song, a medium which he uses in order to further indulge his romantic sorrows. It is Viola, however, who can truly understand the meaning of constant, impossible love; for her it “gives a very echo to the seat / Where Love is throned.”

Depicting the relationship (and lack thereof) between Viola and Orsino in such depth and intensity, the scene I have discussed is one of the most powerful in the play. It is particularly effective in its method of using language and narrative techniques to portray the bond between the two characters as well as the barriers which separate them. The love Viola feels for her master is illogical and irrepressible, but it exemplifies the qualities of love as a powerful force in Shakespearean comedy, clearly displaying the revolutionary “energy” which Maslen assigns to it. The mutual bond between the two characters is similarly powerful, representing a connection of common sympathy and emotional exchange which transcends barriers of convention and perceptions of reality. More than any other section of the play, this scene excels at conveying the precarious potential for love to evoke both pain and happiness, and demonstrates that love, like comedy, can ultimately serve as catalyst for transformation, thereby creating harmony out of chaos.


  1. William Shakespeare. Signet Classic: Twelfth Night. Penguin Books Ltd. New York 1986.
  2. Stanley Wells (Ed.) Twelfth Night Critical Essays. Garland Publishing, INC. New York 1986.
  3. Joseph H. Summers. The Masks of Twelfth Night. University of Kansas City Review, XXII. Kansas City 1955.
  4. Michael Billington (Ed.) RSC Director’s Shakespeare, Twelfth Night. Nick Hern Books. London 1990.
  5. T. Hawkes. “Comedy, Orality and Duplicity: Twelfth Night.” Shakespeare’s Comedies. Ed. Gary Waller. London, New York. Longman 1991. 168-174
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