It is telling, the words Olivia uses in Twelfth Night in soliloquy after meeting the young gentleman who is not as he seems:
“Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions and spirit,
Do give thee five-fold blazon: not too fast:
Unless the master were the man. How now!
Even so quickly may one catch the plague?
Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections
With an invisible and subtle stealth
To creep in at mine eyes. Well, let it be.”
Haas there ever been in literature a better description of the internal turmoil of a woman falling reluctantly in love?
The plague is not an epidemic across a population but a malady very specific to the lady herself, deep within, and it well describes the fever and disorientation and helplessness in the face of it as if this were indeed a deadly disease. It is not wanted and may be resented, and the imbalance of the humours is like a sickness indeed, and the subject begs for it to be gone, but the fever deepens. However while a disease revolts, the fever of unexpected love intrigues and is grasped for again even
It seems too modern in the hidden suggested themes for Shakespeare to have woven those ideas into his text, but we read him with modern eyes and understandings, and it is a genius in Shakespeare that a play written at one definite time can speak to each generation in the understandings of that generation, where no such meanings were originally there as written.
As we know, the young gentleman is actually a girl, Viola. She has disguised herself out of necessity. Modern sentiment would infer that Olivia is prey to Sapphic impulses subconsciously, but not really: the weirdnesses of the heart are not so logical nor so simply categorised. The modern mind might also think of gender-fluidity and that seems compelling. There is something to that, but not the way we might think: throughout the play, Viola is very much a young woman, putting on male guise and airs with it, but never more than as a cloak. On the other hand, she is consciously trying to be her twin brother Sebastian. She lost Sebastian in the shipwreck and this way she can try to have him back with her. She makes herself look like her brother and imitates his aits as she remembers them, and it is this reflection of Sebastian, imitated by Viola, with which Olivia falls in love.
Shakespeare did this sort of thing a lot; women disguised as men and occasionally vice versa as on his stage all would be played by boys, so it was more of an in-joke. He may have seen fluidity in the behaviour of each sex (which is common enough in the theatre) and so knew there is much to play for in the imitation and subversion of them; expected roles and behaviour are oversimplified in the expectations of society, and so many a man or woman in matching up to the expectations may be playacting. As he would write elsewhere, all the world’s a stage and the men and women simply players.
What of Olivia though, the victim of deception? Who is she?
Olivia is a wealthy spinster, with an estate and servants, and she is often portrayed as past the first flush of youth. The play suggests otherwise though: she has been orphaned and mourns also the death of her brother, who was her guardian. She hides from society and from men in particular because she knows herself to be vulnerable and a target for adventurers. She has a natural, unconscious bond with Viola, who is also mourning a brother. Though she does not know this connection, the psychological connection is there.
Olivia and Viola are mirrors of each other in different circumstances, as their almost anagrammatical names suggest.
She is pursued: Orsino loves her, but is shunned. In the cold light of practicality they would seem the perfect match: he is wealthy, with a title and privilege, the most eligible bachelor upon the coast of Illyria, while she meets him as an equal, and she needs a strong protector. Olivia will not entertain his suit though, claiming that she must mourn her brother for seven years. Perhaps it is as well; Orsino has loved her face and his words suggest his love would fade when her face does. She is pursued too by a fortune-hunter, the awful Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who has no encouragement, and accidentally by her own servant, but that is another sub-plot.
There is no hiding though from the secret workings of the heart, and this similitude of the lost Sebastian grips her all against her will.
It is deeply uncomfortable though: she is deceived, deeply. It is Shakespeare’s original ‘catfish’ deception. (He understood social media terms 400 years ago: Viola says being washed ashore that she is “unfriended”.) It is not Viola’s fault: she never wanted to be loved, but she has created the fictional persona which reels Olivia in. The whole play revolves around making a virtue of the deception. It does not sit easily, and were it not for the happy ending, Olivia would be one of Shakespeare’s most tragically abused characters.
The point though is that the abuse is within Olivia herself, not a fault of the phantom Sebastian; hers is a tale of illogical, all-consuming love.
Orsino will be all right. He too has been captured by something he did not understand or even perceive: his servant, Cesario, is a girl and that invisible girl captures him, though he is not aware of it as it happens:
That old and antique song we heard last night:
Methought it did relieve my passion much,
More than light airs and recollected terms
Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times:
Come, but one verse.
Twelfth night by tradition is the end of Christmas and of all the revelry that provides a pause in the harsh reality of the rest of the year. Eventually then the masks and pretending must end and on twelfth night the real world reasserts itself. Acts have permanent consequences.
In the final collision of worlds, Sebastian is found to be alive and proves himself by nature better at being a man than the surface similitude conjured by his sister, and he is swiftly betrothed to Olivia, when she is still in confusion about it. Strangely, when she discovers the truth she does not explode in anger but seems delighted with it. She can do well: Sebastian is portrayed as the very soul of constant manhood.
In all the plays in which Shakespeare included cross-dressing characters, Twelfth Night has the most complicated mix-up, and (whether he knew it or not) the most philosophical exploration of what it is to be a woman or a man, the difference between appearance and substance, and the relations between men and women which engender friendship and love.