Shakespeare thinks people in love are silly. However, he does not punish them for their folly. Shakespeare sympathizes with lovers, even while laughing at them.
In Twelfth Night, Orsino is love-sick and fickle in the opening dialogue, as he pines after Olivia. “If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken and so die.” (1.1.1-3) He seems to want to encourage his appetite so it will go away, which makes little sense initially, as it seems he will only end up encouraging his appetite. Perhaps Orsino really wants to make himself sick of love, or perhaps he wants only to enjoy his own feelings. Either way, Orsino is fickle in his opening dialogue. “Enough, no more,” he says, “tis not so sweet as it was before.” (1.1.7-8) After asking the music to be played more, he asks for it to be cut off completely. Here Shakespeare is portraying love as a capricious thing. Furthermore, Orsino is tormented by his own romantic feelings. “And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds…pursue me,” he says. (1.1.20-21) The play opens with love seeming like a ridiculous thing, which distorts the emotions and takes a person captive.
Shortly after his childish antics with music, we find out that Orsino has a ridiculous view of what love is. He says, “How will she love when the rich golden shaft hath killed the affections of all else that live in her —when liver, brain and heart, these sovereign thrones are supplied, and filled her sweet perfections with one self king!” (1.1.38) Here Orsino is fantasizing about how much Olivia will love him, prideful almost to delusion in his belief that her love for him would be so strong that it will take over all else.
Orsino gets away with his folly in the play (but not with the audience) because he is upper-class, but Malvolio acts as a parallel and the other servants find his infatuation hilarious. Maria and Sir Toby leave Malvolio a false letter from Olivia, telling him to wear yellow tights, have his garters crossed, and smile all the time. Malvolio promptly obeys, causing him (in one of the funniest scenes of the play) to put in a dark room where Feste the clown visits him disguised as a priest.
We are supposed to laugh at Orsino, and especially at Malvolio. What makes them so laughable though, is that they are a little bit realistic. People in love are sort of like Orsino, Shakespeare seems to be saying: fickle, sometimes prideful, tormented and altogether a bit disconnected from reality.
People in love are also a bit like Feste, the mournful clown. Feste has gone away and come back, and sings sad songs about love. “O Mistress mine, where are you roaming? O, stay and hear! Your true love’s coming…What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter, present mirth hath present laughter… Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty. Youth’s a stuff will not endure.” (2.3.38-51) The song is a happy melancholy, for Feste recognizes that youth and being in love do not last long, even while he seems to praise them. Later he sings, “Come away, come away death, and in sad cypress let me be laid. Fie away, fie away breath, I am slain by a cruel maid….Sad true lover never find my grave, to weep there.” (2.4.50-65) Feste believes the end of love is death at best and age at worst, and this is why he is so sad. Even while Shakespeare rejoices in the folly of erotic love, he takes a somber view of its end. Love is like laughter, a thing of the moment. Love does not last.
The ending of Twelfth Night is seemingly optimistic: everyone is paired up and living happily ever after. Shakespeare amidst melancholy rejoices. But the true ending of the play does not come until Feste sings his sad song, about how rain never ends, and how he went “wiving” and things did not go so well. (5.1.385-404) Why does everything work out in the end for the characters if Shakespeare takes a melancholy view of love?
The ending is perhaps more realistic than it seems on the surface. The majority of people who want to find a spouse do, in fact. There will always be the outliers, the characters who do not find spouses by the end, but in real life most people who want to be married end up married.
But perhaps there is more to it. Perhaps because Shakespeare is sympathetic with his characters the play ends well. Shakespeare, like any good author, stands with his characters in the story, experiencing their joy and their pain alongside them.There would naturally be something in him that wanted his work to end happily.
And in Twelfth Night, perhaps more than in any other play, we get a glimpse into why Shakespeare might be especially sympathetic towards his characters. Hearkening of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” is Viola’s own pithy philosophizing, “For such as we are made of, such we be.” (2.2.30)
Viola’s words come after having just received a ring from Lady Olivia, who is falling for Viola’s disguise and for Viola herself. “How easy is it,” exclaims Viola, “for the proper false in women’s waxen hearts to set their forms! Alas, our frailty’s the cause, not we,” she continues, “for such as we are made of, such we be.” (2.2.27-30) In the first half of her words, the sort of frailty Viola is talking about is directly tied to being in love. We (especially women, she is saying) are weak, and so we fall in love with things which are not true. We fall in love with ideals instead of people; we fall in love with disguises instead of truths. The second half of what she is saying is hard to interpret as anything other than some sort of determinism. Human nature is taking the weight of individual responsibility here, leaving little room for freewill.
Surprisingly, the play reflects this determinism. It is not a play about how stupid and weak people get what’s coming to them, but a play about how things work out in the end (mostly) for even foolish people. Orsino with his laughable fantasies ends up happily with Viola, who was already in love with him. And the apparent problem that Olivia has —that of Viola being a woman— is resolved as she marries Viola’s brother Sebastian. Olivia’s frailty and foolishness in falling for a disguise doesn’t harm her in the end. If the play were about human responsibility and consequences, we might expect it to end badly for the silly human beings. But Shakespeare is gracious in the portions he deals out, perhaps because he really believes the characters’ foolishness isn’t their own fault.