Rejection of Traditional Social Norms in Twelfth Night
William Shakespeare once said, “Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm, More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn, Than women’s are”. This quote, taken from none other than his play Twelfth Night Twelfth Night; Or what you Will captures the essence of this play where from the very first glimpse this is a play set upon the basis which relies upon the concept of personal interpretation. Twelfth Night presents an excellent example of how fluid gender and sexuality were during Shakespear’s time, where the characters he established capture the unpredictable nature of desire, sexuality and gender all of which appear in the most minor places, but continuously develop and change repeatedly throughout the play. Along with changing constantly, Shakespear also demonstrates a general notion of suffering which can accompany desire, especially when it is not fulfilled specifically seen in Orsino’s pursuance of Olivia.
Consistently seen from scene to scene is the presence of desire as a recurring theme between the many different combinations of characters, some of which manifests itself in what could be considered “non traditional” circumstances during Shakespear’s time. Despite whether or not the desire portrayed in the characters actions during the play is “traditional” or “nontraditional”, the theme of desire presented prompts the reader to consider the emotional reactions and message Shakespear sends through the love triangles established by the characters. Starting with an example of what would be considered a “traditional relationship”, Duke Orsino’s love for Olivia certainly can be examined for the boundaries which are presented against Orsino in his multiple failed attempts to win her heart. Orsino expresses his undying love for Olivia in one of his opening lines of the first act in which he states;
Why, so I do, the noblest that I have.
Oh, 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.
This is a prime example of many different advances Orsino makes towards Olivia, and due to the fact that Olivia constantly rejects his advances, this appears to cause Orsino a sense of emotional pain demonstrated by the previous passage, where he describes a wave of sickness over taking him due to the eminence love he feels for Olivia, that she also does not return. This “illness” which consumes Orsino, causes him to have a sense of overwhelming helplessness directly derived from his desire for Olivia.
Transitioning from the main characters, Shakespeare creates a subplot using the servants and family who linger around Olivia’s household. One very notable relationship that becomes a pivotal point is focused on Malvolio. Maria, along with Sir Tobey, and Sir Andrew play a prank on Malvolio, where they are able to make him think Olivia who he serves has fallen in love with him by writing a note, making careful note that it has the appearance of Olivia’s handwriting. And as he is walking through the garden and finds it, he can hardly contain himself where he starts imagining it would be like to marry Olivia, upon which point he says “Daylight and champaign discovers not more. This is open. I will be proud, I will read politic authors, I will baffle Sir Toby, I will wash off gross acquaintance, I will be point- devise the very man.” This cruel yet albeit cleverly played joke on Malvolio first reflects the divided class system in Europe, with Malviolio being a servant and Olivia being a noble woman, their relationship or even Malvolio’s fantasy of being with Olivia would have been a comedic joke to the audience. However, this demonstrates the unpredictability of desire that can be felt by anyone at anytime, especially someone as morally decent and “puritan like” of a person as Malvolio is portrayed to be. Furthermore, this one sided relationship Malvolio develops appears to also drive him to the brink of insanity during act 4 scene 2 when he is locked in a dark chamber, where he contemplates his relationship with Olivia, that at this point he deems to be underlyingly abusive because of the lack of appreciation he is shown on her behalf. Therefore backing the additional prospect that desire can spark pain and suffering, particularly in someone who believes they have been rejected, and rendering them powerless over their emotions, eventually in some cases driving them mad like Malvolio who serves a dual purpose, connecting the suffering which appears with desire to the added notion that it can appear in the most unlikely of places.
Expressing an “untraditional level” of desire, there is an evident and not so subtle hint that Orsino has a mild desire for Cesario as the friendship between the two develops in most of their interactions in the first act as well. While attempting another run at Olivia, this time using Cesario as the messenger, Orsino’s justification for this is he believes Olivia will susceptible to Cesario’s youth, of which Orsino states “Dear lad, believe it; For they shall yet belie thy happy years, That say thou art a man. Diana’s lip is not more smooth and rubious, thy small pipe is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound, And all is semblative woman’s part.” The interaction between Orsino and Cesario during this scene indicates a little bit more than the friendship that was established earlier in the act. Despite how these femine characteristics are both Cesario’s and Viola’s since they are the same person, it does not change the fact that they are being viewed by Orsino as qualities belonging to Cesario, therefore suggesting that Orsino by this point in the play is exhibiting desire for both Olivia and his new friend Cesario making his sexuality fluid between male and female depending on the point in the play. Viola’s disguise nonetheless also reflects a sort of gender confusion as well with her revealing her true identity in the conclusion of the play, giving a subtle wink to gender fluidity as well as demonstrating a common theater practice where men would dress to assume the roles of women characters since no females were allowed to perform. performances.
Similarly, the same concept of a changing sxuality can be seen between Viola and Olivia as well. It is said at the beginning of the play, that Olivia has sworn off men since her brother died, creating an absence of a male figure in her life despite Orsino’s constant attempts to court her. In these constant attempts, Orsino prompts Viola as Cesario to relay messages to Olivia. However, this plan backfires when Viola goes to deliver a message to Olivia where she then confesses her love for Viola still dressed as Cesario and states,
“By maidhood, honor, truth, and everything,
I love thee so, that, maugre all thy pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.
Do not extort thy reasons from this clause,
For that I woo, thou therefore hast no cause.”
Olivia at this moment can be said to desire both men and women, considering how Viola’s feminine qualities which obviously shown through her disguise and were visible to Orsino would also be evident to Olivia, making her attracted to women and men, portrayed by Viola disguised as Cesario. Likewise, within the sub plot, a second and unsuspecting relationship begins to develop, taking place between none other than Maria and Toby when it is revealed in Act 5 that the two have been married. Their marriage in the concluding act of the play is surprising taking into account the earlier interactions between the two, most notably how Maria is constantly looking down on Toby for his obnoxious and ungentlemanly behavior that comes to light when he has had too much to drink, which also happens to be the majority of the times he is present. Specifically in the first Act where Maria is arguing with Toby about keeping himself contained for Olivia’s sake when she says “That quaffing and drinking will undo you: I heard my lady talk of it yesterday, and of a foolish knight that you brought in one night here to be her wooer.” While Maria is not being hostile towards Toby in any sense, this still makes her appear as though she is being hard on him for his drinking habits, essentially portraying her as constantly nagging Toby throughout many of their interactions. However, the play concludes with these two getting married further feeding into Shakespeare’s established theme of desire by fabricating yet another relationship in a most unlikely place, between two characters from different classes in society too.
In conclusion, it is evident that through the relationships established in the play Twelfth Night, that these relationships demonstrate a rejection by Shakespear of traditional social norms during his period through themes of of desire and love which are prevalent throughout several different acts of the play. Each relationship demonstrates something different regarding these concepts. Starting with Orsino’s desire for Olivia, his love and her ultimate rejection of him causes him clear emotional distress that borders on pain, which is described in such greatness that he is unable to go hunt, beginning a consistent pattern in the play where the strong feeling of love or desire causes suffering within said character. This can also be seen in the figurative relationship Malvolio develops in his head with Olivia, which eventually drives him to the brink of insanity. Furthermore, along with the pain and suffering which accompany the powerful notion of desire in Twelfth Night, Shakespear also employs confusion and the fluidness of gender and or sexuality through both Orsino and Olivia’s apparent attraction to the same sex depending upon the specific way Cesario and Violas characters ae viewed. This unpredictability also works its way into the sub plot, where Sir Toby Belcher uncle to Olivia ends up being married in the concluding act of the play to her maid and confidant, Maria further demonstrating how desire and nature are innately unpredictable and can emerge in the most unexpected of circumstances.
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