Twelfth Night

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Desire and Love Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Desire and Love Theme Icon
Melancholy Theme Icon
Madness Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Gender and Sexual Identity Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Twelfth Night, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Desire and Love Theme Icon

Every major character in Twelfth Night experiences some form of desire or love. Duke Orsino is in love with Olivia. Viola falls in love with Orsino, while disguised as his pageboy, Cesario. Olivia falls in love with Cesario. This love triangle is only resolved when Olivia falls in love with Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, and, at the last minute, Orsino decides that he actually loves Viola. Twelfth Night derives much of its comic force by satirizing these lovers. For instance, Shakespeare pokes fun at Orsino's flowery love poetry, making it clear that Orsino is more in love with being in love than with his supposed beloveds. At the same time, by showing the details of the intricate rules that govern how nobles engage in courtship, Shakespeare examines how characters play the "game" of love.

Twelfth Night further mocks the main characters' romantic ideas about love through the escapades of the servants. Malvolio's idiotic behavior, which he believes will win Olivia's heart, serves to underline Orsino's own only-slightly-less silly romantic ideas. Meanwhile, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby Belch, and Maria, are always cracking crass double entendres that make it clear that while the nobles may spout flowery poetry about romantic love, that love is at least partly motivated by desire and sex. Shakespeare further makes fun of romantic love by showing how the devotion that connects siblings (Viola and Sebastian) and servants to masters (Antonio to Sebastian and Maria to Olivia) actually prove more constant than any of the romantic bonds in the play.

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Desire and Love ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Desire and Love appears in each scene of Twelfth Night. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Desire and Love Quotes in Twelfth Night

Below you will find the important quotes in Twelfth Night related to the theme of Desire and Love.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
Related Characters: Orsino (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.1-3
Explanation and Analysis:

The play opens with Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, listening to music and lamenting about love. Twelfth Night is a play about excess, as during Shakespeare's time, people would celebrate Christmas for twelve nights, partying and drinking. It is also a play about the overbearing nature of love and the madness that comes from it. From the very first line of the play, Orsino's language is over the top. He desires so much love that it makes him melancholy, even sick. As he sits in his court, he stops the music playing in the background, claiming it makes him too sad to listen to. Listening to music and spewing cliches of love, Orsino seems to be performing the act of the saddened lover. Yet the irony here is that he also seems to be enjoying it. We will see that Orsino's vision of "love" is both fickle and performative. He loves the idea of love but may not truly know what it feels like yet.


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So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
Related Characters: Orsino (speaker)
Related Symbols: Hallucination
Page Number: 1.1.14-15
Explanation and Analysis:

In his first speech, Orsino laments the melancholy nature of love. He notes that love can manifest itself in many different ways, making it magical. Thus, he argues, love "alone" is the only true form of imagination. This moment gives readers an insight into Orsino's views on love, and also foreshadows the "shapes" and disguises characters will take on throughout Twelfth Night. Orsino's speech is dramatic and excessive. While he enjoys talking about love,we will learn that his feelings are actually quite fickle. He loves the idea of love as well as performing the act of being melancholy and heartbroken. In this speech he also sets the stage for love to be seen as a magical and deceptive undertaking, something that will appear more clear as Viola and Olivia begin their own journeys in the play. 

Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit.
Related Characters: Sir Andrew Aguecheek (speaker)
Page Number: 1.3.85-86
Explanation and Analysis:

Act 1 Scene 3 introduces us to Maria, a clever lady-in-waiting of Olivia's, Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's uncle and a drunkard, and Sir Andrew, a rich, foolish man who hopes to marry Olivia. During this scene Sir Andrew and Maria enter into a verbal warfare, teasing and taunting each other's sexual appeal. After being outmatched by Maria's wit, Sir Andrew has a moment alone with Toby. Toby is shocked that Maria has outsmarted them both and Sir Andrew replies with this line.

Calling himself an "eater of beef" is Sir Andrew's way of calling himself dimwitted. During Shakespeare's time it was believed that eating too much meat made an individual stupid or foolish. Twelfth Night reflects on how the excess of anything, particularly love, can make an individual behave foolishly. Similar to the meat Sir Andrew consumes, love can be all consuming, causing a person to behave uncharacteristically. 

I would I had bestowed that time in the tongues, that I have in fencing, dancing and bear-baiting: O, had I but followed the arts!
Related Characters: Sir Andrew Aguecheek (speaker)
Page Number: 1.3.91-94
Explanation and Analysis:

After a failed attempt to woo Olivia, Sir Andrew tells Toby that he is going to leave Illyria. Toby asks him why, saying "Pourquoi," and Sir Andrew replies with this quote. Sir Andrew doesn't understand the meaning of the french word, and laments that he wished he had focused more on the arts. He has spent his time fencing and training dogs to kill bears for sport instead of learning the language of love or studying literature. Thus, he blames himself for his own inability to get Olivia to marry him.

Here art, flourishing language, and impressive creative gestures are seen as way to a woman's heart. We've seen it with Orsino and now with Sir Andrew. Yet these things are merely performative, and we will learn that grand gestures don't always woo the woman. It's also ironic that Sir Andrew says this line incredibly dramatically, noted by the exclamation point at the end, suggesting that while he laments his lack of creativity and his time spent in the arts, he is in fact performing. 

Act 1, scene 5 Quotes
Lady, you are the cruell'st she alive
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy.
Related Characters: Viola (Cesario) (speaker), Olivia
Page Number: 1.5.240-242
Explanation and Analysis:

Viola enters Olivia's home dressed as Cesario, in order to attempt to woo her for Duke Orsino. The two begin a playful tete-a-tete. Here, Viola tries to appeal to Olivia by telling her how beautiful she is—so beautiful that it would be a disservice to the world not to produce an heir (and thus a new "copy" of her beauty).  In a grand performance, Viola compliments Olivia's physical beautify in order to gain her trust and influence her to fall for Orsino. She also speaks in the convention of "poetic blazon," a form often used in sonnets, where the speaker itemizes and examines different parts of the body. Her speech mimics that of Shakespeare's own sonnets, revealing the poetic and hyperbolic nature of love and lust. Furthermore, in doing so, Viola-as-Cesario demonstrates a certain level of mystery and intelligence to Olivia that Orsino doesn't possess. She speaks in a genuine and advanced poetic way, whereas Orsino is often cliched. 

Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out 'Olivia!' O, You should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth
But you should pity me.
Related Characters: Viola (Cesario) (speaker), Orsino, Olivia
Page Number: 1.5.271-279
Explanation and Analysis:

In an attempt to get Olivia to fall in love with Orsino, Cesario (Viola) describes what he would do if he loved Olivia as much as Orsino. In a beautiful speech he tells her that he would write endless poems of his love, sing them through the night and scream her name so loudly that the air would echo the sound of "Olivia." In her speech, Viola-As-Cesario does something Orsino cannot; she says the right thing to make Olivia fall in love. Juxtaposed against Orsino's cliche speeches on love and lust, Viola's are much more creative and subtle. She performs less, and rather actually imagines what it means to be in love. She also uses natural imagery, suggesting that her love is simple and truthful. What is more, as a woman, Viola understands the needs and interests of other women.  Being of the same gender, she is able to find ways to appeal to Olivia that differ from Orsino's.

Act 2, scene 3 Quotes
What is love? Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter:
What's to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty:
Youth's a stuff will not endure.
Related Characters: Feste (speaker)
Page Number: 2.3.48-53
Explanation and Analysis:

Feste, Sir Toby Belch, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are drinking and singing together, and Feste begins to sing a song about love. He sings about how love must be taken advantage of in the moment, as it is a youthful and passionate game. Feste's song on love is another example of the performative nature of love and desire in Twelfth Night. It also examines the difference in behavior between members of the court and the servants. Orsino performs his feelings of love through his flourishing, over the top, cliched language, and Viola does so with beautiful poetry. Here, Feste, a court fool, examines love through drunken song, viewing it as something natural and even funny, not such a serious, melancholy matter as Orsino seems to think.

Act 2, scene 4 Quotes
Let still the woman take
An elder than herself: so wears she to him,
So sways she level in her husband's heart:
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.
Related Characters: Orsino (speaker), Viola (Cesario)
Page Number: 2.4.34-40
Explanation and Analysis:
 Cesario (Viola) and Orsino sit listening to music, and Orsino asks Casario if he has ever been in love. Cesario says yes. Not knowing that under the disguise Viola is confessing her love for him, Orsino tells Viola-as-Cesario that whoever this woman is, she is not worthy of his love because she is older than he is. Orsino encourages Cesario to instead marry someone younger than himelf. The reasoning he gives for this is that men are more wavering with love, they become less attracted to older women, and their feelings change and are "unfirm." Orsino points out that men long for more than women do and they fall out of love quickly. Orsino pauses in his excessive, cliched speech to have a truthful moment with Cesario, but he does not see the irony in it. He is, in fact discussing the wavering (but excessively powerful, he believes) nature of a man's love to Cesario, who is secretly a woman. He is blinded by Viola's disguise and speaks candidly and openly with her as Cesario, in a way that he never would if she were to appear as Viola.
Now the melancholy god protect thee, and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is a very opal.
Related Characters: Feste (speaker), Orsino
Page Number: 2.4.80-82
Explanation and Analysis:
Feste sings a song to Orsino, and when Orsino asks him to leave, Feste sings this final segment, in which he mocks Orsino's melancholy nature. He calls upon Saturn, the Roman god associated with "melancholy," o protect him. He tells Orsino that he hopes he can find a tailor that can make him clothing that changes color, because his mind is "opal," an iridescent, cloudy stone, and he never seems to know what he wants. Because of his position as the fool, Feste has the ultimate freedom to poke fun at the masters without getting in trouble. Here he comments on the foolishness of Orsino's performative melancholy and sad, over-the-top musings on love. Yet Orsino is so involved in the song and his love that he doesn't notice the sarcasm. Love is all consuming for him. We also see here that Orsino's childish lamenting of love doesn't go unnoticed by members of the court, as well as his own fool. 
Viola: My father had a daughter loved a man,
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.
Orsino: And what's her history?
Viola: A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
Related Characters: Viola (Cesario) (speaker), Orsino (speaker)
Related Symbols: Costumes
Page Number: 2.4.118-127
Explanation and Analysis:

The self-absorbed Orsino tells Cesario (Viola) that no woman could ever love a man as much as he loves Olivia. Cesario disagrees. She then tells him her own story (of the love she has for Orsino) in a roundabout way, pretending it is the story of her sister. Orsino is blinded once again by Viola's disguise, unaware of the irony of the situation. She is confessing her love for him, but is shielded by the mask of Cesario. Her own love also mimics Orsino's in its strength and melancholy—but it's also suggested that, contrary to Orsino's sexist declaration about women's capacity for love, Viola's love for Orsino is more enduring and powerful than his love for Olivia.

Act 2, scene 5 Quotes
I may command where I adore.
Related Characters: Malvolio (speaker)
Page Number: 2.5.107
Explanation and Analysis:

In an effort to embarass Malvolio, Maria writes a letter in Olivia's handwriting, telling him that she is in love with him. The letter is only signed with what seems to be the letters of an initial. Here, Malvolio reads lines of the letter aloud, which he will later deconstruct, in order to find out if it was Olivia that wrote it. This line is the first major hint that it could be Olivia. The person who wrote the letter both commands and loves the same person, suggesting that it is a master who loves her servant (Malvolio).

The love letter is a symbol of the performative nature of love seen throughout Twelfth Night. Characters feel that the only way to properly share their love or express it is through extreme and over-the-top behavior, whether that be song, poems, laments, or letters. So, while this letter comes at a surprise for Malvolio, he is not put off or shocked that someone would express their love in this way. This is also another moment of deception in the play, as Maria uses deception as a mechanism to embarrass and punish Malvolio for his mistreatment of other servants and his self-righteousness. 

Be not afraid of greatness: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em.
Related Characters: Olivia (speaker), Malvolio (speaker)
Page Number: 2.5.148-150
Explanation and Analysis:
Malvolio reads the love letter that he thinks is from Olivia, as Maria, its true author, hides in a tree with Sir Andrew and Sir Toby, watching Malvolio embarrass himself. This iconic quote happens toward the end of the letter as an attempt to reveal who the author could be. Malvolio interprets this section to mean that he is one who could "achieve" greatness by marrying the noble-born Olivia (one who was "born great"). Thus the joke being played on Malvolio isn't just getting him to think someone loves him, but also getting him to attempt to rise above his station—flattering his arrogance and sense of superiority. Maria is trying to lift Malvolio up in order to ultimately persuade him to embarrass himself in front of the whole court and Olivia herself. Here we see both the power of words and just how far the performance of love can go in Twelfth Night. Malvolio becomes smitten by his secret admirer simply from her hyperbolic and romantic words. 
Act 3, scene 4 Quotes
Why, this is very midsummer madness.
Related Characters: Olivia (speaker), Malvolio
Page Number: 3.4.61
Explanation and Analysis:

Malvolio is love stricken with Olivia, and thinks that she has written him a love letter with instructions for how he should dress and comport himself (the letter was actually written by Maria). Here Malvolio enters, wearing yellow cross-gartered stockings and grinning from ear to ear (as the letter told him to do). Olivia, confused, asks Malvolio to stop, but he won't. Convinced her steward has gone mad, she then says this line. During Shakespeare's time the summer moon was thought to be a major influence on madness and insanity. Thus, having a "midsummer madness" was considered a kind of temporary insanity. Here Shakespeare shows us how easy it is to confuse love and desire with lunacy, as well as how easy it is for an individual to become a fool in the name of love. 

Go hang yourselves all! You are idle shallow things; I am not of your element.
Related Characters: Malvolio (speaker), Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Feste, Fabian
Page Number: 3.4.132-133
Explanation and Analysis:

Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian have entered the scene, all pretending to be concerned about Malvolio's state of mind (although they all know that he has in fact become the subject of a cruel joke). They express their concerns and Malvolio responds with this quote, telling them that they don't understand what he is going through. This shows that Malvolio is still as rude and arrogant as he was at the beginning of the play, and now even more so because of his sense of confidence in Olivia's love, and the letter's instructions to look down upon and criticize the other servants. The word "element" denotes social class, and as it is used here, Malvolio suggests that the other staff members are shallow and lazy, and that he is above them in both social and intellectual rank. The irony is that while he is behaving this way, he has also succumbed to Maria's trick and is currently dressed outrageously in his yellow stockings. He looks like a fool, and yet lectures the other servants on their own foolishness. 

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
Give me thy hand
And let me see thee in thy woman's weeds.
Related Characters: Orsino (speaker), Viola (Cesario)
Related Symbols: Costumes
Page Number: 5.1.285-286
Explanation and Analysis:

After finally identifying herself as a woman of noble blood to Orsino, Viola tells the court that she will return to the captain of her ship who will rightly identify her and return her clothes to her. Orsino then takes her hand and asks to see her in her "woman's weeds," or women's clothing.

Here we see how fickle or performative Orsino's love for Olivia truly is. The moment Viola reveals herself and identifies herself as not only a woman but a high class woman, he falls in love with her. This could simply be a result of the fact that Orsino's love for Olivia was merely a performance, or it could be that through her disguise, Orsino has begun to learn so much about Viola, and to love her deeply as an effeminate male comrade, that he is instantly smitten when he discovers that she is actually a woman. Of course, there are also complex issues of gender at work here (particularly as during Shakespeare's time, all the female characters would have been played by male actors), which Shakespeare uses to complicate the theme of love and (heterosexual) desire, and plays up for comic effect.

Why have you suffered me to be imprisoned,
Kept in a dark house, visited by the priest,
And made the most notorious geck and gull
That e'er invention played on? Tell me why.
Related Characters: Malvolio (speaker), Olivia
Page Number: 5.1.363-366
Explanation and Analysis:

Malvolio continues to be called mad and is mocked by the members of the court—even locked in a dark room (a traditional "treatment" for mental illness at the time). During this moment, Malvolio finally confronts Olivia about the writing of the love letter. After this speech, Olivia discovers that it was in fact Maria who wrote the letter, forging her handwriting, and the Fool who was in fact the "priest" visiting Malvolio.

Malvolio's plotline makes clear the connection between love and madness, and emphasizes the nature of revelry and wildness in the environment of Twelfth Night. At the same time, it also introduces some more troubling elements to the comedy—Malvolio is certainly arrogant, dull, and hates any kind of fun, but the punishment he suffers seems to far outweigh his "crimes," and the glee the other characters derive from his suffering often feels downright cruel. While the final revelation of the play's "disguises" is a cause for happiness among most of the characters, for Malvolio it only shows him how thoroughly he has been tricked and how cruelly he has been treated—and, as he says here, for seemingly no good reason.