Although renowned for many other reasons, one of Shakespeare’s greatest talents was being able to accurately display human experience and emotion through his plays. In his comedies, love is most often the experience in question. Generally, young characters in love are very poor at expressing their emotions, thus causing much confusion for themselves and others. Throughout the course of the play, miscommunications are resolved, allowing the lovers to find their appropriate matches. The plays usually end in a relatively abrupt marriage or marriages and one forgotten loner, who gives the otherwise playful plot a twist of the tragic. Twelfth Night, though one of Shakespeare’s most complex comedies, is no exception to this general outline.
As is traditional in Shakespearian comedies, and in life, physical attractiveness is the first element of falling in love, but without proper eloquence of emotion, the relationship cannot move on. Although Olivia may very well find Orsino physically appealing, as we are told by Viola that he is an attractive man, she does not love him because she believes that his words are rehearsed. The are written to please and flatter rather than to honestly convey deep feelings of love. This is the primary reason that Olivia finds Viola, disguised as Cesario, to be far more intriguing than Orsino. Viola, as a woman, recognizes what Olivia is looking for a man to say to her. Along with Viola’s beautiful command of the language, Olivia values her honesty, which is ironic in that she is lying about her entire identity.
Although Cesario is actually a woman in disguise, Olivia falls in love because she is able to make a human connection with Viola. Instead of simply replaying clichés of the unrequited lover, Viola effectively communicates with Olivia in a way that she is not accustomed to. Although Olivia has no idea who Cesario actually is, her love is genuine because it is based upon true communication and not flattery.
This love, however, is exactly why this play has been banned in schools and libraries. Though Olivia does not know it, but Viola and the audience know that Olivia is falling in love with a woman far more readily than she did with Orsino. Frankly, I had to look up why this play had been banned at all. Although she believes Viola to be a man, the natural attraction that Olivia feels towards her could be seen as obscene to those intolerant of homosexuality. There are certainly homosexual undertones to the interactions between Viola and Olivia, but I believe that the feelings that Olivia has for Viola do more to value of female friendship than to “promote” homosexuality. This is mostly because both Viola and Olivia explicitly say that they are attracted to men. If nothing else, Olivia is lonely and Viola, in more ways than one, appeals to Olivia as a suitable companion.
For most people it is not difficult to find friends, but finding very close friends is can be far more trying. This is why I find Shakespeare’s depiction of Olivia and Viola’s first interaction to be so relatable. Although Viola is made slightly uncomfortable by Olivia’s misplaced advances, it is clear that these two people click. In my experience, this level of comfort is most often found in a close female friend. Between close female friends, conversation flows easily and honesty, without fear of judgment or rejection. Therefore, some of my most meaningful conversations have been in the company of female friends as opposed to a male friend or boyfriend. In trying to woo (though halfheartedly) Olivia for Orsino, Viola speaks as she wishes Orsino would speak to her. The female insight she has allows her to gain Olivia’s affection and trust within the first few minutes of even knowing each other. Although I love the idea of this reading and the praise of the value of female friends, the importance of this scene is somewhat downplayed in the end of the play when Olivia’s love interest immediately shifts to Sebastian because he bears some physical resemblance to Viola. As in college life, the dedicated roommates are so easily left for the new and exciting boyfriend.