Love at Play with Deception in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

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Shakespeare’s plays tend to revolve around certain themes. As a comedy, Twelfth Night is no exception as it centers around relationships that end in marriage. Shakespeare considers the theme of love through the various relationships he sets up. Throughout the play, these relationships are ever-changing as characters reveal their truths and dishonesties. Through the development of love between the characters of Olivia, Orsino, Viola/Cesario, and Sebastian, the theme of deception makes itself known as these characters are fooled by appearances. As some characters fall for deception while others are actively participating in it, each love is influenced by it, causing it to either crumble or continue, changing the couplings around. As Shakespeare creates this interweaving connection of love and deception, he makes deliberate choices for the character’s fate in the world of love and marriage.

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Since their fictional fate is at his hands, by doing so, he is suggesting that certain relationships are necessary to end for others to begin. In Twelfth Night, with the use of deception, Shakespeare swayed his characters into their appropriately matched relationships and out of the ones that were wrong or mismatched for them. In this play, Shakespeare created a storyline that illuminated the mismatched nature of the relationships in Illyria. This can be seen clearly through Duke Orsino’s love for Olivia. While they are similar in nature and in status, they are clearly not meant for one another as Shakespeare displays the unanswered nature of Orsino’s love. Orsino is blinded by his own love for her as she refuses to give in to his sentiments. This is a clear mismatch of people considering Orsino’s inability to fully recognize and respect her period of mourning after the loss of her father and brother. Both Orsino and Olivia seem to thoroughly enjoy creating a bubble of drama around oneself. As Orsino is fully committed to wasting away in his pursuit of Olivia’s heart, Olivia feels like same in her mourning. This relationship lacks the element of deception that Shakespeare plays with in others, possibly hinting at the necessity for some sort of deceit in order for romance to blossom. Though Orsino and Olivia fail to be connected by love’s deceptive grasp, there are some very misleading loves at play in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, such as the unrequited love Olivia has for Cesario/Viola.

The use of deception can be seen clearly in this instance as Viola transforms herself into a male under the name of Cesario. This disguise causes Olivia to fall for him/her, but Olivia’s love is not returned. Shakespeare’s use of deception through disguise allows Cesario/Viola’s kind and introspective nature to attract Olivia’s attention. Cesario/Viola says: 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; Hallow 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. (I.v.237“245) In this moment, Cesario is showing his/her Viola side as he/she tells Olivia what his/her course of action would be if he/she were in Orsino’s place. In this way, Shakespeare furthers the deceit in his/her disguise as Olivia falls for his/her womanly nature when in contrast to Orsino’s approach. In some lights, Olivia also has a deceptive role as she uses her interactions with Cesario/Viola to step away from mourning in order to better experience her lustful feelings. This deception ultimately attracts Olivia out of her protective shell in order to put her in a better place for her actual fated lover, Sebastian.

Viola/Cesario is involved in the love of both Olivia and Orsino, making her a key character in Shakespeare’s use of deceptive play in order to thwart the relationships that aren’t working or see no end. His/her appearance disguises his/her true self from the two of them. As Cesario/Viola attempts to evade Olivia’s growing love, he/she is becoming closer to Duke Orsino who is also being deceived, causing he too to be tricked by her guise. Orsino and Viola begin displaying signs of love even before Viola’s true identity is revealed. Orsino himself shows interest in Viola through conversation with Cesario. In a slightly flirtatious tone, he asks about Viola’s age and nature, though it is unclear if the flirting is directed at Cesario or Viola (I.iv). At one point, Viola, so caught up with Orsino says to herself, My state is desperate for my master’s love as she too is experiencing a love unable to be returned in her current state (II.ii.35). This allows the reader to notice and compare this relationship to that of Orsino’s love for Olivia. As Orsino grows closer to Cesario/Viola, it is made clear that they are better suited for one another. Shakespeare makes Cesario/Viola the character who is actively participating in the deception of both Olivia and Orsino, giving her the choice.

While it is unlikely in Shakespeare’s time to give a character the choice of a homosexual relationship, it is possible Shakespeare used it for dramatic effect or to better show off the ill-fated nature of Olivia’s love for Cesario/Viola and Orsino for he/she as well. Either way, both the relationship between Olivia and Cesario/Viola and Orsino and Cesario/Viola creates a sometimes confusing mix of love and sexual attraction towards a member of the same sex. Though Olivia immediately falls for Viola as she is disguised as Cesario, she ultimately ends up marrying a person she knows nothing about, Sebastian. Shakespeare illuminates the positive match between these two as Sebastion is willing and ready to accept Olivia’s love, unlike his disguised sister. He recognizes the deception at play yet still remains ready to marry (IV.iii.20-21). This is the one relationship that doesn’t display a deep amount of thought in the pairing and seems to be fairly convenient for the happy ending. But Olivia was unsatisfied with love until she met the female version of Sebastian. While their appearance is interestingly similar, her unrequited love for one turns into requited love from the other. Through Viola’s disguise and their strange likeness, they almost become one, making the pairing of Sebastion and Olivia fatefully satisfying. In the end, the mess of relationships Shakespeare intertwined throughout the story is all beautifully untangled as each of the relationships ends in marriage and they all end up seemingly happy.

While this may seem like a fairy tale ending or a quick plot convenience, each couple is now adequately matched according to the master of this play’s fate. Shakespeare reconciles the imbalance of love in these relationships to show that through the use of deception and some trickery, requited love can be found for all four characters. Through the similarities of the brother and sister, Sebastian and Viola become the perfect lovers for Olivia and Orsino. Once their guise is down, the love is free to enter. Perhaps this is to say that sometimes people do not know what is best for them and love deceives in order to be right by fate, if one believes in such things. It is possible Shakespeare is hinting that deception in love as a good thing for relationships. Is he making a case against love itself or merely recognizing the subtle ways it intertwines with the act of lying? It’s possible he’s suggesting that love cannot be formed without a bit of trickery in order to convince one to fall in love. For is there any real love without at least a little falsehood? The roles of deceit and deception quite possibly play into the idea that humans are never satisfied with good and sometimes create dramatic situations in order for their life to be more fulfilling. Perhaps Shakespeare is commenting on how it is human nature to make things more exciting or emotional in order to better one’s human experience.

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Love at Play with Deception in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. (2019, Oct 30). Retrieved September 25, 2022 , from

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