It is not uncommon for Shakespeare characters to possess a rather haphazard philosophy regarding love. We are rarely shown concrete evidence for why certain characters claim to be so madly infatuated with others, and instead have to settle for simply being told about their passionate feelings. We’ve seen that trait in both of the plays we’ve read thus far, yet they’ve both also contained a certain commentary on the absurdity of these relationships. In the case of Twelfth Night, the deceit utilized by certain characters (particularly Viola) provides us with a glimpse at the hypocritical and arbitrary nature of the seemingly powerful feelings that many of the primary characters claim to possess.
Orsino is a prime example, as his affection for Olivia is one of the driving forces behind the play’s narrative. Yet when with Viola under the disguise of Cesario, he reveals a seemingly introspective philosophy about love: “For, boy, however we do praise ourselves,/Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,/More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,/Than women’s are.” (2.4 31-33). This statement is a direct acknowledgement, made in the confidence of someone he believed he could trust, of the fleeting nature of the love that Orsino and so many of Shakespeare’s characters tend to have, and forces one to doubt the legitimacy of his feelings for Olivia. Shortly after, we see another character whose romantic feelings are driven by insubstantial motivations, as Malvolio’s affection for Olivia is entirely driven by his desire for power (as demonstrated by his fantasies in Act II Scene 5 being entirely of the status and objects he would possess as her husband). In this case, his illogical feelings are exposed by the deceit of Maria and company rather than Viola, but the overall impact is the same. Later on, we see further examples of seemingly powerful feelings being exposed as little more than fleeting infatuations in Olivia and Antonio (whose interest in Sebastian is clearly far from platonic). Both meet a completely different person from the one they supposedly love, yet neither is able to tell the difference between the two. Viola’s act of deceit causes the true nature of Olivia and Antonio’s feelings to come to the surface, and those feelings are not nearly as meaningful as they would like to believe. All of these characters claim to have strong feelings for their respective objects of affection, and they do indeed take drastic actions in the name of pursuing those feelings, yet the various acts of deception from other characters allows us to see the fact that they are driven by illogical fantasies rather than anything truly resembling love.
When Olivia mistakes Sebastian for Cesario and makes advances towards him, he responds with happy bewilderment: “What relish is in this? How runs the stream?/Or I am mad, or else this is a dream./Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep./If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep.” (4.1 56-59). His response is indicative of the approach to love that Shakespeare’s characters tend to take, as they all seem to love the idea of their loved ones more than they love the actual person. The romantic relationships in Shakespeare’s plays are often lacking of any substance, but in this case that absence provides a substance in and of itself. The lies and deceit that define the narrative of the play wind up providing us with an essential truth about the fleeting and illusory nature of the feelings that drive the characters’ actions