Throughout ‘Twelfth Night’, Shakespeare demonstrates both folly and greed through the characters in the play. Greed is a theme which has an impact on the characters in different ways and primarily centres around a need and desire or either love and consumption. Within the subplot, human folly is heavily interlinked with excessive behaviours as Feste, Sir Toby, and Maria in particular feel the need to gull others for their own comedic purposes.
From the outset, Orsino is characterised by excess. Orsino is Shakespeare’s presentation of the melancholy lover as he is in love with the idea of being in love and is unable to distinguish between appearance and reality. He seems to think that his love is stronger than anybody else’s which is very ironic as he doesn’t actually fall in love with people, but falls in love with their appearance or superiority, or perhaps the concept of love itself. An example of how Orsino carelessly claims to be in love is when he describes seeing Olivia for the first time as he says “my desires like fell and turned into cruel hounds”. Even though Orsino has not yet spoke to Olivia, he is saying that he fell in love with her after laying eyes on her and presents a romanticised view of her even though he barely knows her which indicates a running theme throughout the play of foolishness. Furthermore, Orsino claims “That instant was I turned into a hart” when he talks about seeing Olivia for the first time. Shakespeare uses a play on word “heart” when Orsino says that he was turned into a “hart” which is a male deer, giving the impression that he was chased and hunted by his own desires, which were like “hounds”; or perhaps he is referring to his hunt for love. This suggests that Orsino doesn’t imagine his pursuit of Olivia so much as he fixates on his pursuit of himself in a fantasy that is all about him. The repeated use of personal pronouns such as “me”, “my”, and “I” shows how Orsino is only thinking about himself and not Olivia. An unknown critic stated “Orsino’s initial passion for Olivia seems based more on an idea of himself as a lover than on her acknowledgement of her separateness as a loved one.” In addition to this, Orsino only talks about how strong his desires for Olivia are, rather than stating the things that he loves about her which reinforces his shallowness and the theme of folly.
At the end of the play when Orsino realises that Cesario is really Viola, he instantly falls in love with her and proposes, showing his fickleness as he has quickly forgotten about the love that he claimed he had for Olivia. Furthermore, he proposes in a way that reinforces the patriarchal society as he says “you shall from this time be your master’s mistress”. The fact that Orsino comments on how Viola will become her ‘master’s mistress’ shows how she is like a belonging of Orsino, again, indicating his greed and tendency to fall in love with the idea of a person rather than the actual person themselves. It also shows his folly as he just assumes that Viola will accept his proposal and do as he says.
Similarly to the character of Orsino, Shakespeare presents Malvolio as being a very arrogant character that is full of self pride. In Elia’s Essays (1823) George Lamb questioned the function of Malvolio saying “Malvolio is not essentially ludicrous...he becomes comedic by accident...his pride for gravity is inherent and native to the man, not mock or affected, which latter only are the fit objects to exate laughter”. Malvolio’s negative characteristics inevitably prove harmful to him as he is tricked through a forged note that he believes Olivia has written to him declaring her love for him. The fact that Malvolio’s arrogance leads him to fall for this trick highlights the ongoing theme of foolishness throughout the play. The jest on Malvolio shows human folly as the prank that Sir Andrew, Sir Toby, Maria and Feste play is