Love and desire function as powerful drivers of plot because they seem to strike suddenly and unpredictably, and because they render characters helpless to change their feelings. Olivia is startled and somewhat dismayed to recognize the desire she feels in response to Cesario. Viola echoes this sentiment when, finding herself trapped in a love triangle with Olivia and Orsino, she says that “It is too hard a knot for me to untie” (2.2.). When Malvolio starts to believe that Olivia is in love with him, he reasons that “Tis but fortune, all is fortune” (2.5.). Even though it seems surprising that a high-ranking woman like Olivia would be romantically interested in her own employee, Malvolio believes that Olivia’s love for him is a step toward his true destiny. Likewise, Sebastian doesn’t seek a logical explanation for Olivia’s strange behavior, trusting that their relationship is an “accident and flood of fortune” (4.3.). For most of the characters, with the notable exception of Malvolio, this strategy works well, since by the end of the play, everyone has found a partner they are happy with.
When she first finds herself stranded in Ilyria, Viola decides to “conceal me what I am” (1.2.), entrusting only the Captain with her secret. As a young woman who could be vulnerable to attack or sexual assault, she is also much safer if she is disguised as a man. However, Viola quickly learns the cost of maintaining a disguise. Her intentions and actions are constantly misinterpreted, and she cannot correct these mistakes without betraying her secret. While disguise and deception cause serious difficulties for Viola, and even threaten her life when Orsino falsely believes that Cesario has stolen Olivia away from him, the play also suggests that disguise can serve a positive purpose as well. In a time when women were expected to follow strict rules of social decorum, Viola’s masculine disguise gives her the chance to speak her mind much more freely. This shift is most apparent in the scene where Orsino and the disguised Viola argue about how men and women behave in love. Viola stands up for women, arguing that “In faith, they are as true of heart as we” (2.4.).
In the play, gender and sexuality are portrayed as ambiguous, unstable, and sometimes fluid. When Viola disguises herself as a man, she stipulates that “thou shall present me as an eunuch to [the Duke]” (1.2.). In some cultures and historical periods, young men would be castrated in order to enter specific occupations, often as personal servants to high-ranking individuals, or in positions where they would have close contact with women. As a eunuch, Viola would be viewed as not quite a woman, and not quite a man. Both Orsino and Olivia recognize that Viola defies traditional binary gender conventions. Orsino comments about Cesario that “all is semblative a woman’s part” (1.4.) Interestingly, Viola’s ambivalent gender position seems to only make her more attractive. Other storylines also echo the idea of a fluid form of desire not rooted in gender. Orsino’s relationship with Cesario might simply be a close and affectionate friendship, but it also seems to hint at romantic elements, such as when he refers to Cesario as one “…whom, by heaven I swear, I tender dearly” (5.1.). However, while the play introduces elements of fluidity and ambiguity, it closes with a firmly heteronormative conclusion.