LOVE may be the biggest theme in Twelfth Night.
Duke Orsino’s famous lines “If music be the food of love, play on” open the play and set the tone. Every character is in love in some way, and this shapes who they are and the choices they make.
Orisino’s unrequited love for Olivia is desperate, and he fuels his own affections with music. When he speaks of love, it is usually abstract and not directly about Olivia, suggesting he is in love with love and not Olivia. Viola also suffers unrequited love for Orsino, but she still acts selflessly by helping him woo Olivia.
At the end of the play, Orsino and Viola are pledged to be married, but Orsino specifically says that he’ll only love Viola when she is again dressed like a woman (5.1.381-384), again suggesting that he also is only in love to be in love.
Director Robert Richmond says that love and grief are “close emotionally, and they both lead us to behave in irrational ways.” Both Viola and Olivia are grieving. Viola is grieving the loss of her brother and Olivia the loss of her father and brother, forcing some perhaps unanswerable questions. Do Olivia and Viola see characteristics of their lost family members in their love interests? Is Olivia truly in love, or is she missing a male authority figure and is looking to fill that gap in her life? This would explain her easy transition of affections from Cesario to Sebastian.
Other kinds of non-romantic love are sprinkled throughout Twelfth Night. Malvolio, while desperately in love with Olivia, is full of “self love,” and looks down upon his fellow servants and even occasionally Olivia (1.5.89). Because of Antonio’s loyalty to Sebastian, he follows Sebastian into a land where he is a wanted criminal. Feste has an ironic love for truth, allowing him to see through others’ facades. Fabian just loves having fun, as does Maria. Perhaps not so innocent is Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby’s love of alcohol, which could best be described as destructive.
The many different forms of love in the play come together to show how important love was to Shakespeare and how expertly and beautifully he could express this theme through his characters.