The presentation of love throughout Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is as a concept that brings a lot of upset and hurt to the characters. As a romantic comedy, this plot is immediately juxtaposed with the genre as you would expect there to be a greater amount of joy and happiness in a comedy. Many of the characters consider love to be something which is imposed upon them; something that they do not wish to have to endure because of its inevitable heartbreak.
It is Orsino’s opening line, “If music be the food of love, play on” (Twelfth Night 1. 1. 1) that sets the tone of the play. However, it is a poor metaphor which does not accurately describe how love is procured throughout the play. It is suggestible that pain is the food of love as the characters all feel their suffering so acutely. Orsino seems to enjoy wallowing in his feelings and the pain he feels still represents Olivia and he seems content to ‘enjoy’ the pain in lieu of anything else.
Orsino is presented as being addicted to the power that love holds over him and as such, he wishes to overdose on it. It is as if the “appetite” which he refers to is an insatiable one, cured only by the touch of his desired. He later describes his reaction to first encountering Olivia and describes how his desires “like fell and cruel hounds” (Twelfth Night 1. 1. 21) pursue him. Orsino is unable to break free and the only way to escape is to give in to his desires: his lust for Olivia. Olivia is more direct in her attitude to love and describes it as a “plague”. (Twelfth Night 1. 5. 265) Orsino’s melodramatic pain is comical to the audience.
He is focused entirely on curing his pains by gaining Olivia’s love, although he seems to be enjoying his pain in an almost perverse way. It is not until Act 5, that Orsino visits Olivia to again declare his love. He declares: “Here comes the countess: now heaven walks on earth.” (Twelfth Night 5. 1. 95) After Olivia’s second rejection of him, Orsino’s behaviour turns around again which further demonstrates his unreliable and unpredictable nature. His behaviour becomes quite wild and erratic and he claims he will “sacrifice the lamb that I do love” (Twelfth Night 5. 1. 129) In doing this, he is saying that he will kill Viola, who is loved by Olivia or ‘Cesario’ who she has disguised herself as and who Olivia thinks she is married to. However, the audience are aware that Viola is actually a woman, masquerading as a man and are therefore aware of the pain Olivia will inevitably feel.
It is this paradox of the audience’s humour and the character’s pain which makes this play one Shakespeare’s most intriguing. It is clear that pain is the food of love, not music. Orsino thrives on the pain he feels as a replacement for the love he wishes to receive from Olivia. Pain is the bedfellow of love throughout the play and as such, it is the food of love: the driving force, the raison d’etre for the character’s behaviors and actions.