The opening lines of the play introduce us to the character of the love-sick Duke Orsino consumed by ardent and impetuous desire. Orsino is cast in the mould of a Petrarchan lover who pines for his unattainable beloved and focuses on the misery and pain of being in love. The entire cycle of falling in love, wooing the beloved and getting spurned by her is replicated in his love for the Countess Olivia. The emphasis here is not on the object of love, but on the ‘idea’ of love itself. Excess and melodrama is part of the very repertoire of love as several words in his speech such as ‘excess’, ‘surfeiting’, ‘sicken’, ‘dying’ indicate. Gareth Lloyd Evans characterizes the speech as carrying “all the languid self-indulgence of a man in an illusion of love”.
Orsino’s opening speech emphasizes on freedom from desire through over-indulgence. Music, for him, becomes the ‘appetite’ on which lovers feed their passion. He also employs the familiar Petrarchan convention of the lover as hunter and the beloved as hunted but overturns it. Here, his own desires pursue him and hunt his heart like fierce hounds. The reference here likens Orsino to Actaeon, a figure in Greek mythology who was turned into a stag for gazing at Diana bathing naked. Orsino however casts himself in both the image of the hunter and the hunted.
Idolizing Olivia’s love for her dead brother, Orsino even talks about replacing that with love for himself and getting crowned as ‘one selfsame king’ who will rule over all the thrones of her brain, liver and heart. .Orsino’s ramblings on love hardly focus on Olivia; rather the focus is on possession, ownership and fulfillment of his frustrated desire. Priding himself on his ability to love, Orsino believes that there can be no comparison between the love that a woman can bear him and that which he bears for Olivia.
If Orsino seems preoccupied with the ‘idea’ of love, Olivia is in love with ‘love as grief’ itself. While distinctly separate, both Orsino and Olivia delight in making a spectacle of love. If Orsino exhibits his love by surfeiting in food and music, Olivia embraces the idea of love as mourning. She walks veiled like a nun who has renounced herself from the world, refuses to meet anyone, and waters her chamber daily with tears. It is only the young and magnificent figure of Viola/Cesario that forces her out of the self-inflicted period of mourning. Like Orsino, she is hasty enough to ‘catch the plague’ of love while still being skeptical about the deceiving power of her senses. Viola is the only character in the play who is prudent enough to understand Olivia’s attraction while forewarning her all the time that ‘I am not what I am’. Caught in her disguise as a man, Viola clearly understands the double bind of being both a man and a woman who is forced to conceal her love for Orsino and unable to prevent Olivia from falling in love with her.
On the other end of the spectrum of lovers in Twelfth Night, we have Malvolio and Antonio. Malvolioharbours illusions of Olivia being in love with him and daydreams about his marriage with the mistress. It is both his narcissistic desire and his sexual desire for Olivia that prompts him to misread and misinterpret Maria’s letter written in Olivia’s handwriting. Antonio is another passionate lover who openly espouses his ‘willing love’ for Sebastian, ‘exposes’ himself to dangers in Illyria for the sake of his lover and is the only clear embodiment of same-sex love in the text.
Hyper romantic vascillating love is the norm in Twelfth Night with characters easily falling in and out of love, swiftly changing feelings and expressions, and transferring love from one to another. Love, for most of the characters, seems to be a magic potion quick to enchant one after another.