Love Letters and Messengers

Twelfth Night presents a number of themes and motifs that add to the excitement, not to mention confusion, among the characters throughout the play. I feel it is important to discuss the motif of letters and messages. During Shakespeare’s time, the most common way to communicate was by hand written letters. It was considered formal, and it was also a romantic gesture to send love letters to people you were interested in courting. Within the first two acts we already see this method of communication in effect, and we see how it can be deliberately and accidentally used as a form of miscommunication. I found this motif to be very intriguing. It draws the question, does Shakespeare encourage the audience to create their own scenarios as a result of indirect communication?

The answer to this question is, yes. Shakespeare utilized every opportunity to create confusion as a method of engaging his audience and stir up a range of human emotions. This makes Twelfth Night a timeless work because it is relatable to situations we are faced with today. An example of this motif is the letter from Maria to Malvolio. The letter reads,“To the unknown beloved, this, and my good wishes”—Her very phrases! By your leave, wax. Soft! And the impressure her Lucrece, with which she uses to seal. ‘Tis my lady. To whom should this be?” (2.5.1816) Maria writes this letter to make him look like a fool, a task in which she succeeds. Sir Toby and Fabian mock Malvolio from behind the bushes as he goes on an ego trip. As he reads the letter, he claims that it must have been written by Olivia, to him. Clearly this letter could be meant for anyone, and because it is so vague, it allows the audience to decide for themselves what it means. Especially the initials M.O.A.I. Malvolio stretches the meaning of the initials and concludes that since his name is made up of these letters, it is meant for him. There are no actual names mentioned, including that of the writer. This further emphasizes the meaning of the play’s title “What You Will,” and Shakespeare’s intentions to trick the characters via letters and underlying meaning.

One thing that also grabbed my attention was how Orsino used Cesario as a messenger in order to communicate with Olivia.

Like the letter, this is another example of an indirect form of communication between two characters. Olivia makes it clear that she is not interested in marrying Orsino because of his less than impressive attempts to “woo” her. Realizing this, Orsino sends Cesario to Olivia to express his passionate love for her, on his behalf. This is foolish of the Duke because by not seeing Olivia in person, his words mean nothing. He loses all credibility. Since Cesario is actually Viola, and the Duke is unaware of this, it puts Viola (Cesario) in an uncomfortable position. She tries several times to convince Orsino that Olivia will not let anyone speak to her. She says “If she be so abandoned to her sorrow, as it is spoke, she never will admit me.” (1.5.1799). Orsino is so determined, he demands Cesario not to leave Olivia’s doorstep until they allow him to speak with her. Since the audience is aware that Cesario is Viola in disguise, they might assume she would take advantage of her power in this situation, and convince Olivia not to marry the Duke even though she becomes stuck in this love triangle herself when Olivia begins to develop feelings for Cesario. Nevertheless, she is a good friend to the Duke. “I’ll do my best to woo your lady—(aside) Yet, a barful strife—Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.” (1.5.1799)

These examples above tell us that Shakespeare enjoyed using these motifs as elements of confusion in order to add comedic effect to this romantic play. In addition to this, he emphasizes all of the crazy things we do for love and how even at the risk of embarrassment, we still give in to its power. If the characters had been wise enough to be up front and honest about their feelings, would the play be as intriguing to us as an audience? Shakespeare would probably disagree.


One thought on “Love Letters and Messengers

  1. pamsutherland

    I thought Cesario should convince Olivia that Orsino is a pain-in-the-neck and not marry him so Viola could move in on him. But you’re right, she/he was a good friend and did such a good job at wooing Olivia that Olivia fell for her/him. That makes us appreciate Viola’s character even more.

    The love letter was sent to cause intentional confusion. The messenger was sent to try to avoid confusion/to spell out the Duke’s love. Both caused love to grow and hormones to run amuck adding to the chaos of the already tangled love triangle plot.


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