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Love in Twelfth Night by Shakespeare

Love in Twelfth Night by Shakespeare
Coming up next: Important Quotes from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

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  • 0:02 Introduction to…
  • 0:48 The Main Love Triangle
  • 3:02 Lovers' Pranks
  • 4:06 Friendship and Family Love
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Leslie McMurtry
''Twelfth Night'' is one of Shakespeare's romantic comedies. It revolves around mistaken identities, gender politics, bonds of friendship, and the themes of music and love. There are several love triangles, but they all resolve by the end of the play.

Introduction to Twelfth Night

We don't know exactly when Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night, though we do know it was performed in 1602 and perhaps written for the Twelfth Night celebrations at Queen Elizabeth I's court in 1601. Twelfth Night was a popular holiday in Elizabethan times, traditionally marking the end of the Christmas celebrations that had begun on December 24th, and a time for watching plays.

The play's plot has nothing to do with the Twelfth Night holiday, and its subtitle, As You Will, is a better indication of the play's light and romantic subject matter. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare invites you to enjoy the romantic comedy and also encourages you to look beyond the obvious.

The Main Love Triangle

The main love triangle of Twelfth Night is between the characters Viola, Countess Olivia, and Count Orsino. In the kingdom of Illyria, where the play is set, Count Orsino has been pursuing Countess Olivia for some time. She has refused his suit as she has made a seven-year vow not to marry to mourn her recently deceased brother.

Viola, a young noblewoman, and her twin, Sebastian, are shipwrecked and separated, with Viola landing in Illyria. Fearing her brother is dead, and finding herself alone in a strange country, she disguises herself as a man, Cesario, and volunteers to be part of Count Orsino's household. Orsino quickly begins to value the 'young man,' but Viola falls in love with Orsino.

Orsino is completely unaware of Viola's true identity and passion for him, so he enlists 'Cesario' to help him woo Olivia. Olivia is moved by Cesario's way with words, and not realizing that Cesario is Viola, she falls in love with him--her. As Viola says in Act II, scene ii, 'O time, thou must untangle this, not I, / It is too hard a knot for me t'untie.'

Eventually, Sebastian, Viola's twin brother, arrives in Illyria. Everyone naturally mistakes him for Cesario/Viola, to the point that Olivia quickly convinces him to marry her. By the time all the mistaken identities are revealed, Olivia is happy to be married to Viola's double, and Orsino, realizing that Cesario is actually a woman, forgets his pursuit of Olivia to return Viola's love.

Orsino speaks the first lines in the play, and they set the tone for the play both in subject matter and attitude: 'If music be the food of love, play on' (I.i). Orsino is a man who likes earthly pleasures, and at the beginning of the play, he has his heart set on marrying the lovely, aristocratic Olivia. Viola is an extraordinary young woman: brave, sympathetic, quick-witted, and her way with words attracts both Orsino and Olivia. She also feels pity for Olivia when she realizes the other woman has fallen in love with her.

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