“My brother he is in Elysium”
Although the play is a comedy, death and loss are central themes of Twelfth Night. Count Orsino is unable to court Olivia because she is in such deep mourning for her brother. Viola begins the play mourning for her brother, whom she assumes was killed in the shipwreck that lands her in Ilyria.
The notion of death, particularly the death of a twin, might have special meaning for Shakespeare. His son, who was a twin, died in August of 1596, about five years before the likely date of Twelfth Night.
The deaths of these brothers haunt the characters throughout the play. However, the nature of the response changes by the end. Although Olivia says she is unwilling to listen to Orsino’s plea because she is in mourning, she seems quite willing to fall in love with Cesario. This new relationship helps her overcome her sadness and move beyond the loss. Eventually, her brother is left in the past.
Viola’s loss expands as the play goes on. As the action unfolds, she experiences a further loss—the loss of her real self. She disguises herself so she can become a servant in Orsino’s court. Although she rapidly develops feelings for Orsino, she loses her role as woman and cannot express them. She has no one in whom to confide, so she must keep her identity hidden from others and lost to herself.
Viola is able to recover what is lost. Her brother Sebastian is not dead. Their reunion resolves the confusion and loss of identity: Cesario becomes Viola and is restored to her brother; Olivia is married to Sebastian instead of Cesario; Orsino and Viola are married. It is as if Shakespeare is thinking of the final lines of Sonnet 30: “Are losses are restored and sorrows end.”
How do Olivia and Viola’s reactions to their own grief differ? How are they similar?
Think about mourning in today’s society. What are some of the traditions that are observed? How are they similar to or different from those in Twelfth Night?