How does Shakespeare use the theme of love to create a comedy?

Category: Comedy, Love
Last Updated: 19 Apr 2023
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"Twelfth Night" is a romantic comedy with true love at its heart. The play does have occasional dark undertones but generally the genuine love and the misunderstanding make it a comic play. It was written originally for the Twelfth Night celebrations after Christmas in 1602. These celebrations were light hearted and a time for revelry. It was sometimes known as the "Feast of Fools" and normal behaviour and sensible acts were suspended at this time. Authority was turned up side down. In most universities, private houses and the law schools, a Lord of Misrule was elected. Usually a servant became Master of the Household for a short period of time. He organised dances, masques and make-believe activities. Everything was allowed; pranks, deception, etc., ruled this period between 25th December and 6th January. Afterwards, everything goes back to normal and the original hierarchy is once more obeyed.

Even though comedy is a large part of the play, love is most definitely the main theme. There are love triangles, love based on disguise and true love al involved in the lives of the characters. The play transforms one type of love for another, for example, selfish self-love is transformed to genuine love. This aspect shows that true love wins through in the end. Shakespeare uses all of the different types of love to create comedy towards the audience. For example, the self-love is so masochistic that the audience looks on with humour with the over-exaggeration. Unrequited love also makes quite a big romantic impact because the character is seen making a fool of themselves. Twelfth Night is a mixture of all emotions; an audience will laugh, cry and fume at the characters that Shakespeare creates.

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There are three characters at the heart of the play involved in a love triangle. Orsino is the first that we are introduced to. Shakespeare represents Orsino as a parody of the romantic lover, in love with the idea of love. He is comic at times because of his obsession and the exaggerated language he uses to talk about love:


"If music be the food of love, play on

Give me the excess of it, that surfeiting

The appetite may sicken and so die"

This quotation shows how melodramatic Shakespeare makes Orsino. It is so exaggerated that the audience would find him comical as he is portrayed as thinking that no other experience is as good as his intense feeling for love. He is obsessed by Olivia and is comical because of his obsessive nature. He also frequently seems quite fickle in his feelings which adds to his comic nature:


"Enough; no more.

'Tis not so sweet now as it was before"

This quotation is an example of how Orsino changes his feelings in an instant.

Later Orsino is talking to Viola/Cesario about men and women in love. He claims to be the model lover, talking about his love for Olivia:


"For such as I am, all true loves are

Unstaid and skittish in all motions else"

His lines are made particularly funny and he seems unperceptive because the audience is aware that Cesario is of course a woman and that despite what Orsino says about women having less capacity for love than men, Viola/Cesario in fact loves him a lot and much more constantly than he loves Olivia. This is a good example of dramatic irony. Shakespeare satirises Orsino's exaggerated obsessive form of love.

The second character involved in the love triangle is Olivia. Orsino and Olivia are quite similar in a number of ways but their main similarity is in their characters. They both provide comedy in the play because of their obsessive love and their fickleness. Examples of this for Olivia are her obsessive love for her dead brother and Cesario and how she changes from seven years mourning to loving Cesario and then changing from Cesario to Sebastian. A quotation for her obsessive nature is:


"Have you not set mine honour at the stake

And baited it all with th'unmuzzled thoughts

That tyrannous heart can think"

Here, Olivia is openly expressing her love for Cesario which ends up being comical because it is unrequited. She pours her heart out which adds to the nature of the scene. Olivia criticises Orsino's stereotypical view of love because it doesn't sound real to her. Her actions towards love are actually much the same but she does not realise this, making her hypocritical and therefore criticising her own way of thinking. Also, she claims that she will never love again but that all changes when Cesario comes into the picture. Shakespeare creates her character to be an unrealistic and vain, top-class person which shows through in her language. Orsino praises her for her looks, not for her as a person and this once more accentuates their similarities and comic personal lives. This act depicts how shallow Orsino is.

One of the most comical parts of the play to do with Olivia is when she falls in love with Cesario, or who the audience knows is Cesario. This is highly amusing for the audience as they know the truth and they watch Olivia make a fool of herself. Shakespeare uses love from Olivia to Viola to create a high point of comedy throughout the play. He uses over-exaggerated language once more to really highlight the shallow feelings of Olivia:


"Let him send no more

Unless (perchance) you come to me again

To tell me now he takes it"

This quotation is Olivia talking seductively to Cesario, once more openly expressing her feelings for "him". Again, comical to the audience, for seeing a woman flirt with another was a very amusing but unheard of thing at the time when this play was performed. When Sebastian appears on stage a comical effect takes place because we can imagine the blank looks on the characters' faces as an identical twin becomes part of the plot. Sebastian becomes a love interest to the fickle Olivia, once more creating comedy because of her changeability. By making Olivia so fickle and over-exaggerated Shakespeare creates a large amount of comedy based around her and the people she is involved with.

The third and final part of the love triangle is Viola. She disguises herself as a man and serves Orsino which is comic first-off because of how she changes herself. The audience sees the change and therefore can compare the different reactions and feelings between the characters of Viola and Cesario. The audience would be used to this kind of dramatic behaviour, as a long tradition of plays at this time had these kind of comic complications. They would find it excessively funny seeing a beautiful woman able to disguise herself as a man yet no other characters able to notice. This is dramatic irony for the audience is let in on the secret but still can watch everyone not in the know create a jolly and comic atmosphere.

Viola is sometimes witty and is involved in a range of comic situations most of them involved with the love complications in the play. The funniest single scene involving Viola has to be her comic duel with Sir Andrew which is set up by Sir Toby because both men are rivals for Olivia though of course neither does actually love her. There are several comic moments involving Viola where she gets herself caught up in situations that accentuate the comic nature of the play.

Ironically Orsino fails to realise that his wonderful new servant is actually a woman despite the hinting conversations they have:


"Thy small pipe is as the maiden's organ"

Here Orsino is speaking and commenting on Viola's unnatural high, shrill female voice yet he still does not catch on that she is actually a woman. This also has a slightly bawdy tone to it which was very popular at that time and would definitely have made the audience laugh. At the end of the scene the audience realises the romantic comedy is underway as Viola reveals her true feelings for Orsino:


"I'll so my best to woo your lady

(Aside) Yet a barful strife

Whoe'er I woo myself would be his wife"

The language here is romantic and wistful for Viola has to assist someone else, who she perceives not worthy of his love, to love Orsino although underneath she has true romantic feelings for him. Then Orsino sends Cesario to woo Olivia who falls in love with Viola! This is ironic and what starts off the love triangle. Shakespeare writes a speech for Viola to say to Olivia which is romantic, lyrical and paints vivid romantic pictures. It is also quite comical for the audience as they realise Olivia is in love with Viola.

Viola can actually be quite witty and we can see this in her conversation with Maria:


"Some mollification for your giant

Sweet lady"

Viola is being rude and sarcastic to Maria referring to her as a "giant", therefore commenting on her lack of height. This is a small indication of what the real Viola is like underneath her male costume. By the end of the Act, Viola realises that Olivia has fallen in love with her, creating yet more amusement among the audience.

Comedy is also involved when Orsino fails to realise Viola's feelings despite some heavy hints:


"Of your completion.....About your years, my Lord"

These are just two of the lines or hints that Viola says when she is in Orsino's company. Viola says a long speech about the sincerity of her love. Shakespeare really goes all-out on the imagery in this section which reflects how Viola is feeling. It is a powerful insight into her life and feelings which is then cast into a shadow by Orsino's weak and misunderstood response.


"But died thy sister of his love, my boy?"

This is comic because even though Viola is her heart out for him, he is too bound up in his love affairs to notice.

The duel is a very comic moment because Viola and Sir Andrew are both terrified of each other thanks to of the crafty ways of Sir Toby. He also urges them both on to the fight. Viola's aside line would make the audience laugh:


"Pray God defend me! A little thing would

make me tell them how much I love of a man"

This would be very comical for the audience for it reveals Viola's fright and nervousness towards the fight. Also she is supposed to be a man but everyone thinks that her slightly feeble attitude towards the fight is cowardly, and they would probably also doubt her masculinity therefore resulting it into and ironic and comic situation.

In the final scene there is a mounting sense of comic confusion, particularly when Olivia thinks she has married Viola then Sebastian himself enters. You could see what confusion this would amount to on stage - everyone looking from Viola to Sebastian and back again. Shakespeare creates a huge amount of confusion with Viola because of her mistaken identity. Comically, everything turns out more or less well for her and Shakespeare successfully uses love to create comedy.

Shakespeare creates characters primarily for comic effect in this play and each of them are in some way involved in the theme of love. Sir Andrew is one of these. He is a figure of fun, but can also be seen as a sad person. The audience feels sympathy for him while laughing at his antics. He has been tricked by Sir Toby into believing he is in love with Olivia, which shows how easily he can be manipulated. Therefore he is constructed as a comic character. Sir Toby tells him to do stupid things like dance wildly, his appearance is comical to the audience (long, lanky figure, rather dim expression) and most comical of all he repeats Sir Toby's words but misunderstands them:


"Good Mistress Accost

I desire better acquaintance"

He gets confused with what people say and this puts a very comical and stupid air about his character. Shakespeare always portrays him as foolish. But he also has speeches which make you feel slightly sorry for him:


"I knew t'was I for many do call me fool"

Even Sir Andrew is aware that people call him a fool which is a funny, yet heartfelt feeling put across by Shakespeare. Another poignant yet comic line is:


"I was adored once too"

A famous line for you can tell his sorrow at being unloved yet you can laugh at his pathetic view on love. The main comic scene for Sir Andrew is the duel in Act 3, Scene 4. Shakespeare uses Sir Andrew for a key element of plot development in Act 4after fighting. Sir Andrew is terrified at the prospect of fighting someone and proceeds to do cowardly actions and act pathetically. This would seem hilarious to the audience because of how Shakespeare portrays Sir Andrew leading up to the fight and during it. Sir Andrew is left unhappy and alone at the end for everyone is married and have a happy ending. He does not but still his false love and stupidity casts him to be an important part of the play.

Malvolio is another character who Shakespeare uses to create comedy in relation to love. He is a Puritan, satirised by Shakespeare, and filled to the brim with self love. Malvolio is not a sincere Puritan because of the letter plot in the box tree scene. This cleverly arranged plot reveals what a hypocrite Malvolio is about lusting after Olivia, as he frowned upon Sir Toby and Maria before, but when it relates to him he doesn't care. This scene is the first comic element of Malvolio; the letter tricks him into smiling inappropriately and wearing awful clothes to impress Olivia, obviously all of this failing dismally in winning her affections, dramatically increasing the comedy of Malvolios character. In Act 3, Scene 4, the trick is revealed and Malvolio appears very ridiculous as he realises what a fool he has been. Sir Toby is very rude and cruel to him which makes him realise how unhappy his life is and how much disrespect people have for him. These elements do put a damper on the comic play but Malvolio does contribute with his comedy and love based antics.

Although Shakespeare uses the theme of love primarily to create the comedy, the play also has much darker undertones. Feste is an ironic commentator on human nature and on the way in which people behave when they are in love. He has a very different perspective on love to the aristocratic figures in the play. Shakespeare ends the comedy with an epilogue from Feste, telling some very bitter thoughts about human nature, love and life. It ends with:


"But that's all one, our play is done

And we'll strive to please you every day

This is an acceptance of the sad conditions of life. A very unexpected end to a comedy. Feste is philosophical in all of his bitter songs and they all have poignant lines in them:


"Youth's a stuff will not endure

This is a saying that youth, love and beauty will not last forever. Another sad line is:


"Sad true lover, never find my grave

This tells us about how people hide away and die for love. Feste provides us with comedy about love but his main role in this play is to make the audience come back to their senses and realise the reality of life.

Overall, this play has many ways to show how love and comedy combine to make a

story of passion and heartbreak, love and unhappiness. Every character I have analysed here contributes towards the intense tone of the play, giving comedy and love to the audience. Yes, there are a few who reveal the darker undertones but these characters are essential in making the play as provoking, passionate and realistic that it is.


"A great while ago the world begun

With hey, ho the wind and the rain

But that's all one, our play is done,

And we'll strive to please you every day"

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How does Shakespeare use the theme of love to create a comedy?. (2017, Aug 27). Retrieved from

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