One of the most powerful forms of love is the love of someone that one cannot be with. This could be for many different reasons – perhaps the love is unrequited, the object of that love is committed to someone else, or there may even be aspects of the object’s behaviour that makes living with him or her impossible. This form of self-sacrificial love, of love that spites hopelessness, is captured in the character of Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
She begins the play a victim of a shipwreck in which she believes that she has lost her last living relative, her twin brother. Washed ashore in a strange land, she remains tempest-tossed throughout the action of the play. She disguises herself as a man (Cesario) to serve the Count Orsino. Orsino is in love with the lady Olivia, who refuses to respond to his advances.
In serving the Count, and hearing him speak of his passion, Viola rapidly falls in love with him, though can say nothing without revealing her disguise. In a cruel twist of irony, the Count sends her to woo Olivia on his behalf. Viola describes the Count as loving her:
“With adorations, fertile tears,
With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire.”
Later, as Orsino again asks her to return to Olivia and press his case, Viola cryptically describes her fruitless love for him in one of Shakespeare’s most beautifully tragic passages:
“My father had a daughter loved a man,
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship…
…She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?”
To any who have known this form of love, I send you my heart’s sympathy, but remember that you have tasted true love in its purest and most noble form, and felt its agonising splendour and rapturous torture. In short, you have lived.