Class Notes

Love the One You’re With

Sometimes we must settle for approximations

By Paula Marantz Cohen | May 7, 2013


Discussing Act V of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, my class arrived at the point in the play where the mistaken and disguised identities of the characters fall away and there follows a last-minute pairing off into couples. Students questioned the quickness with which the main characters agreed to transfer their love to others in place of their original preferences.

One student noted: “It’s weird that Olivia agrees to be married to Sebastian, Viola’s brother, when she’s been in love with Viola all the time. Even if Viola was dressed as a man, it’s not like Sebastian is the same person.”

“It’s a very random idea of love,” agreed another student.

“It might be Shakespeare is saying we can adjust to loving who we need to love, if we have to.”

“But Sebastian is Viola’s brother. The play makes a big point of saying how they come from the same father.”

“But sisters and brothers can be very different,” observed someone else.

There was a general murmur of assent.

“But she probably copied her brother in playing the role of the boy, Caesario, so maybe she acted even more like him than she acted like herself.”

“If she was playing at being him, then Olivia sort of fell in love with Sebastian more than she fell in love with Olivia.”

“Or maybe Sebastian was enough like Viola for Olivia to be satisfied. He wasn’t exactly what she wanted, but close enough.”

Then an Indian student raised his hand. He didn’t usually talk much, but on this subject he shared an insight: the marriage of Olivia and Sebastian was like an arranged marriage, he said. Indian parents sometimes attempt to match their children with the sort of person the child has been interested in in the past. My student acknowledged that the practice is not prevalent—especially since many Indian children try to hide premarital relationships from their parents for fear of displeasing them—but it does happen and, indeed, had occurred within his own family.

What an interesting way to understand the union of Sebastian and Olivia. In life, after all, we don’t get just what we want and often have to settle for an approximation.

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