To be in Love or To be in Lurve

What picture of love/lurve is presented in the opening scene of 12th Night. How is this picture reflected in the language choices Shakespeare makes.


The opening scene of 12th Night presents Duke Orsino expressing his infatuation towards Countess Olivia.  Throughout his introductory lines, Orsino talks about love in a paradoxical way since he contrasts how it is a lovely feeling yet so sickening in the lines:

“If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.”

In those three lines, he is essentially stating that if love is this sweet thing, continue giving it to him even if he feels sick to the point of death.  As he continues on with his lines, he expresses curiosity at love and how it does its affairs along with the effects of what it has done when he first saw Olivia.  The strong use of musical and floral imagery when describing love such as “…like the sweet sound, that breathes upon a bank of violets” and his introductory lines talking about how if music was the food of love, play on, gives Orsino a rather swooning picture of love/lurve.  A swooning infatuation that you would expect from someone who was either experiencing their first love or simply has been a bachelor/bachelorette for so many years and is just lonely.

Orsino though muses about love and how it works in the following lines:

“O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical”

In these lines, Orsino observes the strange effects of love and its own bizarre contrasting.  How it can be so powerful and endless as seen with him comparing it to the sea, but it can also be fleeting and disappear in only a minute as seen in the line “But falls into abatement and low price,/Even in a minute” where love’s effects become cheapened by the shortness of time.  Yet despite the short time, the finishing line notes still of its greatness by describing the feelings as “fantastical” which can mean bizarre, odd and remarkable, or fanciful and capricious.  All words describing love/lurve in Orsino’s perspective quite well.

When Curio starts talking, there is a play on words with the word “hart”.  Curio is talking about hunting for a hart (a stag) while Orsino, still in his lovestruck gaze, thought he was talking about a heart.  He then continues on with his tirade about love, except this time, we get to know who he’s so in love/lurve with as Olivia is finally mentioned by name.  This gives off the impression that Orsino, though infatuated with Olivia, is also very infatuated with the idea of love and how strong and wonderful yet crushing it can be.

Likewise, as the scene draws to a close with the introduction of Valentine, Orsino continues to express his infatuations.  For instance, he uses the play on words to his advantage by talking about how he has turned into a hart while his feelings and desires were the hounds pursuing him.  Once Valentine enters and reports how Olivia refuses to see a man after the death of her brother, Orsino continues painting his picture of how love was a strange thing: so fantastic yet also so punishing.  It can make him sick and restless but it is something so bizarre with its contrasting he wouldn’t mind revelling in it.

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