Twelfth Night ends in a terrible rush – things are sorted in a matter of pages, and everybody runs off to get married. In a way, it is unsatisfying – but only because so many things remain unanswered.
No matter the play, I am always most focused on the characters. That is where my analytical prowess lies – I can always articulate a reason for why characters do what they do, and for why they say what they say. So now I must put my abilities to the test, because some of the things that happen at the end of Twelfth Night have the potential to be absolutely baffling.
Maria marrying Sir Toby Belch – I think we can all agree that Maria is a genius. She is truly this play’s queen of trickery. Toby helps her carry out her plan, of course, but he is not nearly as clever as she is. He likes a good time, and Maria’s elaborate trick pretty much guaranteed a good time. They are married off-stage, and it’s such a disappointment that we hear about it from boring, irrelevant Fabian, of all people. But any reader would wonder why Maria and Toby would get married. Maria is far too clever, Toby likes a good time too much to be tied down by a wife. But consider this: perhaps Maria needs someone who will bow down to her genius, like Toby would. And for him, Maria guarantees good times through her hilarious plots and inclination for trickery. They are both comedic characters, though they exhibit different brands of humor. Perhaps, despite their obvious differences, they’re the dynamic, comedic duo that Illyria has been lacking.
Orsino’s quick acceptance of Viola – Ah, Duke Orsino. How you have tormented me lately. I have found myself more interested in his character than usual, because he truly does remind me of an over-dramatic romantic heroine. I love how, in live productions, he’s always lounging around with his shirt unbuttoned as if he belongs on the cover of a trashy romance novel. But Orsino truly does belong in a trashy romance novel, doesn’t he? He’s all about love that consumes the entire body. His liver is constantly active, his loins are forever aflame!
If you’ll recall, Orsino has a strange debate with Viola/Cesario in the middle of the play. He insists that men love deeply, and that women are only capable of shallow love. He’s an idiot, of course. His words are just a reflection of his own inner turmoil – the reason Olivia doesn’t love him back is because women just can’t love the way he does! It’s not because he’s incredibly annoying, or has an obnoxious flair for the dramatic. It’s because women are just like that. And yet for all his whining about it, he contradicts himself when he transfers his affections from Olivia to Viola before our very eyes.
I think a normal person would have freaked out – “Cesario, you were a woman this entire time?! You tricked me?!” But Orsino sees the following:
a. Olivia is married, and therefore officially off the table
b. This means that he has nobody to pine for, and nobody to suffocate with his undying love
So when Cesario is revealed to be Viola, Orsino jumps on that train without any argument. It allows him to remain in his comfort zone – that is, it allows him to continue to be the kind of person who lives their life in the frame of love. There just isn’t any time for Orsino to undergo some kind of intense personal change. We’re five acts in for God’s sake.
Orsino’s defining trait is that he loves love. He loves being in love. And that never changes, and it doesn’t have to – because despite being one of the most intelligent characters in the play, Viola loves him back. In a sense, this is uncharted territory for Orsino – I mean, when has a woman ever loved him back? It’s something new, and yet allows him to remain partially in his role as the passionate, love-obsessed Duke of Illyria.
This begs the question – would I have been more satisfied if Orsino had undergone some severe character development? The answer, surprisingly, is no. For all my complaints about Orsino as a character, I still need him to remain as he is. I don’t think I could do Twelfth Night without the inclusion of a trashy romance novel-esque Duke. He annoys me, yes, but he also manages to entertain a very small part of me. For shame!
Sebastian marrying Olivia – This happens so fast. So much so, that even Sebastian is like, “Wow, this must be some kind of insane dream!” And he’s absolutely right – it’s totally insane. But why would Sebastian just get married to Olivia?
There is no correct answer. In fact, none of my answers are technically correct because of the nature of Shakespeare. But hear me out: Sebastian is an idiot. Not in the way Orsino is an idiot, no, but an idiot nonetheless.
“But how can you say that?” you cry. “We barely know him!”
Exactly. We’ve had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with Viola. We spend a lot less time with Sebastian. So when I say he’s an idiot, it’s because Shakespeare hasn’t given me reason to think otherwise. He speaks well, and seems to have a good temperament, but having those qualities doesn’t mean that he isn’t a thirsty fool.
That’s all I have for you about Sebastian. He’s a character of very little substance to me, unfortunately. But speaking of Sebastian…
Olivia’s acceptance of Sebastian – Now, if I were Olivia, I would be pissed. She thought she’d married Cesario, the love of her life! Who the hell is Sebastian, am I right?
Olivia never gets to grapple with the realization that Cesario was never real – not as she knew him. I could of course go into themes of sexuality in this play, but I don’t think I’m clever enough to do such a discussion justice. Instead, I’ll say this: much like Orsino, who is happy to suddenly love Viola instead because it allows him to remain somewhat in his comfort zone, Olivia accepts Sebastian because it’s easier to take a Cesario lookalike to her bed than to mourn the loss of her true love. Again, we’re five acts in. There’s no time for such nonsense.
It’s funny – Olivia hates Orsino (same, girl), but at the end of the day, they share a lot of similar qualities.
The ending of Twelfth Night is truly mystifying. Where do I see these characters in the future, you ask? Strangely enough, I see them living happily. I can see Viola enjoying Orsino’s flair for the dramatic, and I can see Orsino enjoying this new thing called being loved back. I can see Sebastian being intrigued by Olivia’s intensity, and I can see Olivia develop an adoration for good-natured, soft-hearted Sebastian, who would likely never do anything to hurt her.
I’ve woven a complicated web, to be sure. But it’s one that has to be woven, because otherwise, characters are simply getting married off to close the play, and for no other reason.
What more can I say? If music be the food of love, play on…!