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The Parody of Sonnet Love in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

by Robert Russell

The concept of “sonnet love” is one that pervades many of Shakespeare’s plays. Marked by themes of desire and unattainability, the blazoning of the female form, and a prevalence of hyperbole and oxymoron, “sonnet love” encompasses a plethora of themes, many of which Shakespeare could not help but to satirize. Not only in his sonnets can this parodying of “sonnet love” be found but also in his plays. In his famous comedy, Twelfth Night, Shakespeare parodies this concept of “sonnet love.” It is in his use of hyperbole and contradiction, idolatry and the blazoning of the female form, and the paradoxical clash between reality and fantasy that these parodies are displayed so prominently.

        Hyperbole is one of the greatest and most accessible of the techniques of parody and Shakespeare’s employment of such a tactic comes early in the play. In Act 1, Scene 1, the audience is introduced to Orsino, the nobleman of Illyria who is desperately in love with Olivia, the grieving countess who spurns Orsino’s love. Within the first opening lines, the exaggeration of Orsino’s character is revealed. He states:

“O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou, that, notwithstanding thy capacity, receiveth as the sea, naught enters there, of what validity and pitch soe’er, but falls into abatement and low price even in minute! So full of shapes is fancy that it alone is high fantastical.” (TN 1.1. 9-15).

Orsino not only alludes to his own infatuation with the idea of love rather than the actual object of his love, namely Olivia, but he also compares this “love” with the size of the sea. Such a comparison illustrates the grandiosity of his apparent love and how he views it, as something as large and full as the ocean. However, further displaying the dramatic air of his personality, Orsino suddenly realizes how his love is actually unlike the sea in terms of its overall size, “notwithstanding thy capacity.” Barry Adams in his article Orsino and the Spirit of Love states that Orsino “is awed by the idea that his spirit, whose capacity–that is, power of containing and hence by implication size–is so much smaller than that of the sea, can still contain as much as the sea.” This is the basis for Orsino’s dramatic exaltation, his own realization of this contradiction borne out of an exaggerated comparison of his love and the sea.  

        In addition, Shakespeare’s parodying of “sonnet love” is evident again through allusions to idolatry as well as exaggerated descriptions of the female form. When Viola as Cesario first approaches Olivia with the intention of persuading her to love Orsino, Olivia is reluctant to accept the proposition. Eventually, she acquiesces and Viola begins with the first line of Orsino’s speech:

“The rudeness that hath appeared in me have I learned from my entertainment. What I am and what I would are as secret as maidenhead–to your ears, divinity; to any other’s, profanation.” (TN 1.5. 209-212).

There is a hint of “sonnet love” in this first statement from Orsino’s speech in the exclusivity of Orsino’s words “as secret as a maidenhead” and “to your ears, divinity” which allude to an idolatry towards Olivia. Olivia is the idol of Orsino’s affection. However, this scintillation of “sonnet love” is immediately extinguished with Olivia sarcastically responding with “Oh, I have read it. It is heresy. Have you no more to say?” (TN. 1.5. 223-224). Viola is forced off-script, but after convincing the countess to remove her veil, she states:

“‘Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white / nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on. / Lady, you are the cruel’st she alive / If you will lead these graces to the grave / And leave the world no copy.” (TN 1.5. 234-238).

Viola as Cesario is attempting to persuade Olivia to love Orsino by arguing that because she is so beautiful, there is no greater shame than not having children. One of the more famous themes of Shakespeare’s sonnets is this notion of one’s duty to have children in order to keep beauty alive in the world such as in Sonnet 10 which ends in the couplet: “Make thee another self for love of me, / That beauty still may live in thine or thee.” (Son. 10. 13-14). There is a hopeful tinge to Viola’s words, a glimpse of reasoning that seems as if it may sway Olivia. However, it is her response to Viola’s pleading that Shakespeare’s satirical humor is then pronounced. Olivia responds:

“Oh, sir, I will not be so hardhearted. I will give out divers schedules of my beauty. It shall be inventoried, and every particle and utensil labeled to my will: as, item, two lips, indifferent red; item, two gray eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth. Were you sent hither to praise me?” (TN 1.5. 239-244).

In an odd, even slightly disturbing image, Olivia’s response serves as yet another parody of “sonnet love” not only in the immediately dismissal and subsequent making fun of Viola’s proposal, but also in the satirical blazoning of the female form. To list body parts, specifically the lips, eyes, neck, and chin, parts considered to be erogenous zones, as “items” completely reverses the intended effect of Viola’s speech. This inversion of the conventional description of female form is also found in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 where he writes:

            “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

            Coral is far more red than lips’ red;

            If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

            If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

            I have seen roses damasked, red and white,

            But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

            And in some perfumes is there more delight

            Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks” (Son 130. 1-8).

Furthermore, in Viola’s plea to Olivia, the line “‘Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white,” is an allusion to fifth line of Sonnet 130: “I have seen roses damasked, red and white.” Sonnet 130 itself is a satirical sonnet, a playful take on the blazoning of the female form. To follow a reference to the sonnet with a satirical response, as in the exchange between Viola and Olivia in Act 1 Scene 5, is to reference a parody with a parody and respond to such a parody with another parody: Viola’s plea is a reference to a parody (Sonnet 130) with a parody (one’s duty to further beauty) to which Olivia responds with another parody (the blazoning of the female parts in an ironic manner).

            Lastly, the paradoxical clash between reality and fantasy plays a large role in Twelfth Night and further contributes to the satirizing of “sonnet love.” After Olivia’s rejection of Viola’s plea, she declares that she cannot love Orsino, explaining the reality of the situation: “Your lord does know my mind; I cannot love him” (TN 1.5. 252). To this, Viola, in a last attempt to convince Olivia of Orsino’s love, mistakenly responds to Olivia’s question of “Why, what would you?” (263) with another plea tinged with “sonnet love.” She says:

“Make me a willow cabin at your gate and call upon my soul within the house; write loyal cantons of contemnèd love and sing them loud even in the dead of night; hallow your name to the reverberate hills, and make the babbling gossip of the air cry out “Olivia!” Oh, you should not rest between the elements of air and earth but you should pity me!” (TN 1.5. 263-271).

Viola’s invocation of love in the depictions of idolatry in the “loyal cantons…of love…sing them loud…hallow your name…cry out” as well as the imagery of nature in “willow cabin…dead of night…reverberate hills…babbling…elements of air and earth” all contribute to the embodiment of “sonnet love.” The parody that Shakespeare makes, however, is that, again, Viola’s speech has the opposite effect: Viola tries to persuade Olivia to love Orsino, but instead incidentally persuades Olivia to love Viola as Cesario. Such is the power of “sonnet love”: no one is impervious to its strength, including Olivia, as she states in yet another parody of the blazoning of the male (actually female) form:

“Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions, and spirit, do give thee fivefold blazon. Not too fast! Soft, soft!...Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections with an invisible and subtle stealth to creep in at mine eyes” (TN 1.5. 287-292).

This quick turn of events highlights the paradox of love, the notion that two opposites can exist simultaneously which is a theme inherent to “sonnet love.” One moment Olivia is making fun of Viola and Orsino’s pleas of love, and the next moment, Olivia has fallen in love with Viola, having succumbed to the powerful forces of her sonnet-like speech. Moreover, paradoxical nature is further exemplified simply in Viola’s character as for most of the play she is presenting as Cesario. In Act 2, Scene 2, Viola recognizes the conundrums that have risen out of her disguise as a man. She states:

“How will this fadge? My master loves her dearly, and I, poor monster, fond as much on him; And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me. What will become of this? As I am man, my state is desperate for my master’s love; as I am woman–now, alas the day!–what thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe! O Time, thou must untangle this, not I; it is too hard a knot for me t’untie” (TN 2.2. 33-41).   

Viola’s recognition of her own paradoxical presentation is revealed in a parody of “sonnet love.” Viola acknowledges both her genders at once, within itself an interpretation of disguise. Furthermore, the last two lines of her short soliloquy are a couplet: “O Time, thou must untangle this, not I; / It is too hard a knot for me t’untie” (40-41). The couplet ending her speech alludes to the conclusion of a sonnet with Viola acquiescing and surrendering herself to time. In his analysis, The Design of Twelfth Night, L.G. Salingar claims, “While the first half of Shakespeare dwells on self-deception in love, the second half stresses the benevolent irony of fate.” Fate opposes control, the idea that each character conducts their own life and has a say in what happens. The paradox of fate and control is what drives the characters of the play farther and farther into a messy state of affairs.

        “Sonnet love” is like a character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but one whose sole purpose is the comedic respite and source of satire for the audience. Shakespeare, through his undeniable creativity and literary acumen, draws upon the elements crucial to “sonnet love” and distorts them, bending these aspects to his will so as to create a comedy totally unique. It is in his artistic twisting of hyperbole and contradiction, idolatry and blazoning, and paradox as a unique literary form that not only elevates Twelfth Night in the echelons of literary mastery, but enables the play to endure through the centuries as an incredibly entertaining work of art.







Works Cited

Adams, Barry B. “Orsino and the Spirit of Love: Text, Syntax, and Sense in Twelfth Night, I. i.   1-15.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1, 1978, pp. 52–59., Accessed 16 Feb. 2020.

L. G. Salingar. “The Design of Twelfth Night.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 2, 1958, pp. 117–139. JSTOR, Accessed 16 Feb. 2020.

Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 10. The Necessary Shakespeare. Third Ed. David Bevington. The University of Chicago. Pearson Education, Inc.  Pp. 887.

Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 130. The Necessary Shakespeare. Third Ed. David Bevington. The University of Chicago. Pearson Education, Inc. Pp. 911.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. The Necessary Shakespeare. Third Ed. David Bevington. The University of Chicago. Pearson Education, Inc. Pp. 194-226.

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