The Most Romantic Moment in Shakespeare?

Helena Bonham Carter, Imogen Stubbs, and Toby Stephens in Trevor Nunn's 1996 Twelfth Night

When asked to choose the most romantic moment in Shakespeare, many Bardophiles will likely choose a moment in Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene or the scene in its entirety. That's a fine choice, but when I was asked this question for the Bell Shakespeare blog, the moment that popped into my head was from the last scene of Twelfth Night–the climax of Viola's agonizing, unrequited love. 

We first hear of her agony at the end of her first appearance as a boy, after Orsino asks her to woo Olivia: " a barful strife! / Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife." Shakespeare had used this situation—a disguised woman forced to woo a rival—in one of his earliest plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Verona's Julia woos her rival for her beloved, but the rival doesn't fall in love with her disguised self, as Olivia falls in love with Viola/Cesario. That twist increases Twelfth Night's comic possibilities, as well as Viola's emotional range. Her pity for her rival helps make her one of Shakespeare's most sympathetic comic heroines.

Like Rosalind in As You Like It and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Viola entertains us with her quick wit, but she moves us when she uses that wit to tell Orsino, in coded language, how she suffers for his love:

     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. 

Her suffering reaches a climax in the last scene, when Orsino, believing that Viola/Cesario has betrayed him with Olivia, says, "Come, boy, with me. My thoughts are ripe in mischief. / I'll sacrifice the lamb that I do love, / To spite a raven's heart within a dove." Could he say anything more painful? He loves Viola/Cesario, but that love is inconsequential compared to Olivia's rejection; Viola (his lamb) now matters to him only as a way of striking back at Olivia (the raven-hearted dove).   

Viola responds to this cruelty with two lines: "And I, most jocund, apt and willingly, / To do you rest, a thousand deaths would die."   

The lines are quintessentially Shakespearean because they operate on multiple levels. As we might expect in play named after and first performed on Epiphany Eve, there is a religious level: Viola, who has just been called a lamb, will sacrifice herself for someone who doesn't deserve that sacrifice. And there's a double entendre, with dying as a synonym for orgasm: Viola will happily have multiple orgasms to ease Orsino's pain.   

On the emotional level, Viola's response is one the most powerful expressions of love in Shakespeare, rivaled only by Desdemona's dying attempt at hiding her own murder. Viola's declaration is far more powerful than Romeo or Juliet's suicides, which do nothing for their loved ones. 

She loves Orsino so much that she is willing to die simply to ease his pain–it's hard to get more romantic than that.

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