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Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is studied and his Much Ado About Nothing is used to explore the
theme of love. Performances are referred to.

Shakespeare's romantic comedies explore love, the “divine passion”, in all its moods and
intensities. Most characters in these two plays are in love, find love or seek it. Twelfth Night,
reputedly the most mature of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, weaves several such love stories
into an intricate collage to explore different types of love and its easy descent into pain or folly.

John Gross, in a 1991 review of Twelfth Night in the Sunday Telegraph, said “Twelfth Night is about
true love and its egocentric counterfeits.” Orsino’s self-indulgent ‘love’ for Olivia is typical of
deluded, ‘counterfeit’ love. His long-winded abstractions (“music be the food of love”, “love-
thoughts... bowers”) tell us that he is actually in love with love and with the image of himself as
rejected lover. Identifying the “sweet pangs” of rejection as as the melancholies of love, he
conforms to Don Pedro’s definition of conventional aristocratic lovers, “tiring his hearers with a
book of words” and spends less time building an actual relationship (he loves by proxy until the last

Olivia’s deluded love for ‘Cesario’ is also an infatuation engendered at first sight rather than love
based on understanding of character (she convicts herself when she readily substitutes Sebastian
for ‘Cesario’). Her case illustrates the rashness that love often causes; she is ready to “bestow” on
Cesario anything but her chastity (“...That honour saved upon asking give?”) and makes
unabashed advances to a pageboy lower in status. The high-flown language and impetuosity of
Orsino and Olivia convey a love that is exaggerated and unsound.

Sir Andrew’s pursuit of Olivia derives more from his wretched self-delusion and Toby’s craftiness
than from any real attraction to Olivia. Malvolio too, is deluded in his love for her – he is actually
more in love with the idea of himself as ‘Count Malvolio’, and Olivia is merely a means to self-
aggrandisement. His wearing yellow stockings to woo her, and Andrew’s farcical challenge letter
and ‘duel’ showcase how easily love can turn to folly. This type of deluded love and folly is not as
deeply explored in Much Ado, save in the case of Beatrice and Benedick, deluded only to the
extent that each thinks the other does not care; this generates all the comedy and tension of their
professed scorn for love, marriage, and each other. In these characters Shakespeare explores love
as an emotion susceptible to delusion: incidentally, both Beatrice and Orsino describe wooing as
being “fantastical”.

In contrast, Viola’s love for Orsino is based on real knowledge of his character, folly and all.
Selflessly, she is willing to woo another woman for him, and “to do you rest a thousand deaths
would die”. The absurd Orsino of the first scenes shows himself capable of real love as he too,
comes to love her sincerely, though unconsciously, even before her disguise is removed (he
“unclasps ... the book even of his secret soul” to ‘Cesario’ and admires ‘his’ beauty: “Diana’s lip...
rubious”). His wounded words (“lamb that I do love”, “whom I tender dearly”) at Cesario’s ‘betrayal’
of him – and their warm and intimate scenes in the 1996 Trevor Nunn version – reveal his capacity
for truer love.

In Much Ado, the central romance is Beatrice and Benedick’s. Though there is evidence of a past
relationship in “... he lent it me once” and the first person Beatrice ever mentions is Benedick and
the one person Benedick ostentatiously pleads to ignore is Beatrice, each professes to hate the
other and thus unwittingly inflicts pain (Benedick admits Beatrice’s words “stab”). But their love for
each other is deep-rooted enough to endure this pain – Benedick’s love actually supersedes his
love for his friends when he dissociates himself from them after the church scene and even
promises to “Kill Claudio”; Beatrice is ready to tame her “wild heart to thy loving hand”. The Viola-
Orsino and Benedick-Beatrice loves are comparable, since both are constant, clear-eyed, and
more based on a weathered and thorough understanding of each other than on mere physical
attraction – theirs is the ‘marriage of true minds’. Even true love could be silly though, as Kenneth
Branagh, playing Benedick in his 1993 version, displays in his antics when bitten by the lovebug;
Newsweek, in a 1993 review of this adaptation, aptly judged it as portraying “the absolute absurdity
and absurd absoluteness of love.”

In comparison, though Claudio is genuinely attracted to Hero, his love seems fickle, jealous and
immature. Claudio, a ‘sensible’ conventional wooer, first verifies Hero’s social and financial
compatibility (“Hath Leonato any son...?”), but their relationship lacks trust and instinctive
understanding of each other. This is the reason Claudio believes Don John’s intrigue, though Hero,
being sweet and submissive, remains true to him regardless of his treatment of her. Their union
therefore seems less sound than Beatrice and Benedick’s and less acceptable to a modern
audience, which is probably why, in the 2005 Shakespeare Retold version of Much Ado, Hero
declines Claude’s second offer.

Sebastian and Olivia’s love too, though true, doesn’t seem on par with the Viola-Orsino and
Beatrice-Benedick loves in terms of depth and appreciation of each other. Despite falling in love in
a flash and being united only by a “flood of fortune”, Sebastian does make a commitment to Olivia
(“...ever will be true”) and shows genuine affection.

The subplot romance of Twelfth Night features Sir Toby in an earthy (“come by and by to my
chamber”), self-satisfied (“... one that adores me”) and condescending (“I could marry this
wench...dowry”) relationship with Maria. For all this, and although their love is not as deeply
explored as the premier lovers’, theirs is a true love based on real mutual understanding. In Much
Ado, Margaret and Borachio are also lowlife lovers in a physical premarital relationship. These
affairs highlight the strict codes of honour and premarital chastity expected of the ‘higher’ lovers.
Despite their looser sexual morals though, each finally remains true to his lover (Borachio denies
that Margaret was “pack’d in all this wrong”, and Toby marries Maria despite this being
unrewarding socially and financially).

Shakespeare also explores self-love; being “sick of self-love” is Malvolio’s ‘tragic flaw’, and this
becomes the target of Maria’s plot, eventually causing him pain and mortification. Sir Toby and
Olivia too, show slight self-love: Toby smugly accepts Maria’s adoration; Olivia’s mourning for her
brother is mere egotistical self-dramatisation that is abandoned the moment she meets ‘Cesario’.
While these characters’ (and also the foolish Sir Andrew’s, Verges’ and Dogberry’s) flattering self-
images also add to the comedy, Malvolio’s egotistical self-love is sternly condemned as a serious
human flaw as well.

Shakespeare also looks critically at fraternal and parental love. Viola’s deep fraternal love for
Sebastian contrasts with Olivia’s theatrics. By contrasting Olivia and Viola’s response to the same
circumstances – (in the Nunn version, Olivia has a picture of her brother in a candlelit shrine; Viola,
whose love is more genuine and deeply-moving uses one of hers more realistically to help her in
her disguise) – Shakespeare depicts how any kind of love can be foolish and pretentious at times.
The friendship between Antonio and Sebastian is an intense brotherly love, especially on Antonio’s
part (“I do adore thee so/ That danger shall seem sport”). Beatrice’s deep fraternal love for Hero is
also explored: even her love for Benedick is sealed by his reaction to Claudio’s treatment of her
cousin. Leonato’s love for Hero, in contrast, is shown to be secondary to his love of his honour and
self-image (“these hands shall tear her...”).


The two plays thus explore many varieties and intensities of love – deluded love, genuine love,
self-love, high-principled love, earthy love, and fraternal and parental love. Love as a source of
folly, pain and fulfilment is more thoroughly explored in Twelfth Night. Both its main plot and subplot
reveal the folly and pain of love: in the main plot, we see the deluded poses of Orsino and Olivia,
Malvolio’s and Andrew’s antics, and the hopeless lose-lose love triangle; the lowlife love affairs
give the play’s study of love-behaviour more variety and completeness. Orsino speaks of love as
an insatiable “appetite”, and its desires as “cruel hounds”, Olivia, as a “plague” and even the more
realistic and gallant Viola admits that she’s “desperate... for love”. Claudio and Beatrice too, deeply
hurt in their experience of love, inflict pain on their partners. Both plays also show us that though
the course of true love never does run smooth, as lovers have to battle misunderstanding and self-
delusion, ultimately, “journeys end in lovers meeting” (Orsino-Viola, Beatrice-Benedick), while this
is not, or may not be, the case for the self-conceited or insecure lovers (Malvolio, Sir Andrew and

Although both plays end with the ringing of wedding bells, they both have deeper and darker
undertones that are poignantly brought out in Nunn’s Twelfth Night, where we are shown Malvolio
the sore loser and the dejected exits of Andrew and Antonio; and in Much Ado, we see Claudio’s
violent anger, Hero’s consequent suffering and Benedick and Beatrice’s hidden hurt. This
comprehensive exploration of both the dark and light sides of love and people makes the plays
more mature and dramatically satisfying than typical ‘happily-ever-after’ fairytales. Also, both plays,
in their explorations of love, address issues that still apply to real life, hence the success of both
the modern interpretation of Twelfth Night, She’s the Man, and Shakespeare Retold version of
Much Ado.

Though Twelfth Night explores a larger range in the love-spectrum, Much Ado’s Benedick-Beatrice
affair is more deeply and subtly explored as a balance between true love and realism and delusion,
than any one love in Twelfth Night. But Twelfth Night’s owes its greater popularity to its more
sparkling comedy, the greater dramatic tension generated by the unworkable love triangle and
gender-confusions, and its variety of love-derived emotions. Both the plays challenge our notions
of love and desire, and explore the silliness, fickleness and sometimes, cruelty, of the human heart
and this explains their universal and timeless appeal.