In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, King Lear, and Hamlet, there is a theme of loyalty between a central character and another. This loyalty transcends what the other characters belief; they help them no matter the burden it bears on them. It also reveals itself in many different forms, through love, service, and friendship. As seen throughout countless Shakespeare plays, women are typically depicted as disloyal, but characters such as Viola and Cordelia stick out amongst the rest because of the loyalty they display.
Throughout these three plays, the characters Viola, Kent, Cordelia, and Horatio are loyal to their respective person because their actions are not for personal gain, but to aid the character in need. A prime example of loyalty in Shakespeare is Viola’s dedication to helping Orsino. She is in love with him and wants nothing more than to be married, but she is faking her identity. She pretends to be a male and becomes a servant of Orsino. She quickly falls in love with him, but Orsino’s love is for the beautiful Olivia. Viola does not sabotage or avoid helping Orsino’s relationship with Olivia; in fact, she tries her best to make Olivia fall for Orsino. It is already difficult enough to love unreciprocated but to have that person love another, and then help them try to gain the affection of another, demonstrates true loyalty.
When Viola’s said, “I’ll do my best to woo your lady: yet a barful strife! Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife” (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 1.4.44-46), she recognizes how hard this is going to be for her. She will try to make Olivia fall in love with Orsino, but that is such a challenging task because she wishes that she could marry him. She puts aside her feelings and just genuinely wants to see Orsino happy. In talking about Olivia, Viola says, “She loves me, sure!” (Twelfth Night 2.2.22), she reveals that Olivia has fallen for herself, not Orsino. This complication creates a love triangle between Orsino, Viola, and Olivia. Nevertheless, Viola still remains loyal to Orsino and still attempts to redirect Olivia’s affections towards Orsino. Obviously, Viola being a heterosexual woman does not have an interest in pursuing Olivia. However, Olivia’s persistence in trying to make Viola fall for her does not stop Viola having Orsino’s best interests at heart.
Shakespeare thus has created a character that is loyal through love. She puts Orsino’s happiness above her own because of her love. She is depicted as loyal in this play, which is not a trait typically associated with women. Thus, she fakes her identity as a man in order to play into the typical male loyalty role. Moreover, there is an aspect of loyalty through service. Because Viola is a servant of Orsino, she fulfills the duties asked of her by the Duke. Even though it comes at the cost of her own happiness, she is a loyal servant who does as the Duke asks. Another example of loyalty through service is Kent to Lear. Almost immediately, Kent is banished from Lear’s kingdom, but Kent does not stop completely dedicating himself to protecting Lear. After Kent tells Lear to be easier on Cordelia, and Lear angrily shouts at him, he says, “Royal Lear, whom I have ever honored as my king, loved as my father; as my master followed, as my great patron thought on in my prayers” (King Lear 1.1.156-159).
After being at the beck and call of the mad Lear for most of his life, which must have been extremely frustrating considering how crazy Lear is, he gets banished from the kingdom. Kent doesn’t doesn’t reply angrily or with all of the pent of frustration that he definitely has accumulated. Lear’s angry condescending words and tone do not affect Kent, instead he responds respectfully. He praises him even as a father figure and respects his wishes. This loyalty is unparalleled in any of the other Shakespeare plays. Furthermore, he spends the rest of the play disguising himself in order to continue helping and protecting Lear. He is truly the ideal servant, and he dedicates his life to the protection of his king. Even though the king no longer wants or requests his help, Kent is the only character, besides Cordelia, that always remains loyal to him. This is the ultimate loyalty through service because he is helping Lear despite it having absolutely no personal gain for him because his identity is disguised. He genuinely only wants to keep Lear safe and out of harm’s way. He demonstrates this loyalty and dedication when he says to Lear, “My life I never held but as a pawn to wage against thine enemies, nor fear to lose it, thy safety being motive” (King Lear 1.1.175-178). He reinforces that he is merely a pawn of Lear’s who is only concerned about his safety and wellbeing. Kent feels that he is responsible for protecting against Lear’s ignorance towards Goneril and Regan.
He speaks out against Lear, saying, “Be Kent unmannerly when Lear is mad” (King Lear 1.1.162-163). He realizes that Lear is going crazy and that he cannot see that Goneril and Regan are tricking him. Thus, he says, “Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least” (King Lear 1.1.171), trying to enlighten Lear that his other daughters are using him. When this doesn’t work, and he is banished, he still remains loyal to Lear. Cordelia embodies the ultimate aspect of loyalty through service and love towards her father, Lear. After Goneril and Regan spit lies about their love for Lear, manipulating him for personal gain, Cordelia comes in and does the opposite. She is loyal, honest, and faithful to her father and won’t lie to him to further her own personal interests. When Lear asks how much Cordelia loves him, she responds honestly, “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty according to my bond, no more nor less” (King Lear 1.1.100-102).
Lear, being narcissistic and only wanting to hear how much people adore him, responds angrily towards Cordelia and banishes her. Her honesty and truth caused her to gain no part of Lear’s kingdom, but Cordelia wasn’t going to lie to Lear for personal gain. Thus, her loyalty to being honest with Lear transcended her personal interests. When she returns from being banished, leading an invasion into England, she tells her father, “O dear father, it is thy business that I go about…No blown ambition doth our arms incite, but love, dear love, and our aged father’s right. Soon may I hear and see him” (King Lear 4.4.26-32). She makes it clear to her father that she is not invading England out of revenge because Lear banished her, but out of love for Lear’s right to his kingdom. She is still extremely loyal to Lear, even as he progresses further into insanity. She realizes that the Lear that she speaks to now is no longer her father, but she states that she hopes he comes back soon. This relates to his mental state; he is not himself currently. Even though Lear is not entirely present mentally, Cordelia still remains loyal to her father through her love for him and her service as a daughter. Also, Cordelia’s loyalty through service relates to Kent’s as well. They are both concerned about the safety and health of Lear, and despite Cordelia’s familial bond with Lear, their loyalty through service is similar. They both feel a need to help Lear because of their honor and desire for the king’s safety. The final type of loyalty that is exhibited in Shakespeare is Horatio’s loyalty of friendship towards Hamlet.
Through Hamlet’s progression into insanity, Horatio stayed by his side the entire time. This friendship is a strange aspect in Hamlet because most of the other characters are continually attempting to betray each other, and their actions are all for personal gain. However, Horatio is different. He truly cares about Hamlet and his well being. For example, when Hamlet returns to Denmark, Horatio could have ratted him out to Claudius for personal gain, but his loyalty shines bright. Horatio would never betray his friend for personal gain. After Horatio reads Hamlet’s letter, he orders, “Come, I will give you way for these your letters and do ‘t the speedier that you may direct me to him from whom you brought them” (Hamlet 4.7.246-248). The speed in which he wants to aid Hamlet demonstrates how loyal he is to him. He doesn’t waste a second, he wants to find and save him quickly. Moreover, when Laertes challenges Hamlet to a duel, Horatio steps in and tries to protect Hamlet because of how much he cares for him. Horatio argues with Hamlet, saying, “You will lose, my lord” (Hamlet 5.2.223), desperately trying to convince Hamlet to stay safe. He is worried about Hamlet losing his life as any caring friend should. Horatio’s loyalty further shines when Hamlet explains his plan to reveal if Claudius committed regicide. After explaining his plan, he tells Horatio that he must watch Claudius closely in order to see his reaction.
Horatio agrees without argument, saying, “If he steal aught the whilst this play is playing and ‘scape detecting, I will pay the theft” (Hamlet 3.2.94-95). Horatio knows how much this means to Hamlet and how it is eating him up inside, thinking that Claudius killed his father. Horatio, being the loyal friend he is, graciously helps him in order to make Hamlet happy. Once again, he could have told Claudius about his plans, and probably would have been rewarded, but Horatio is not concerned with personal gain. Furthermore, Hamlet commends Horatio in regards to his loyalty of friendship when he says, “For thou hast been as one in suffering all that suffers nothing, a man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards Hast ta’en with equal thanks” (Hamlet 3.2.69-72). Horatio is a man that is grateful for both the good and bad and has an overall good character. Horatio is someone whom Hamlet trusts and willingly chooses to be friends with because he knows he can count on him; he is loyal.
The Shakespeare plays Hamlet, King Lear, and Twelfth Night cumulatively demonstrate loyalty through love, service, and friendship. Whether it be love through romance or family, service through profession or relatives, or friendship through trust, these three plays demonstrate loyalty in all these respects. In Shakespeare, there is a present stereotype regarding women and how they are represented as less loyal than men. These works play with this idea in that Cordelia is the only woman who is truly loyal, and she is barely included in King Lear because loyalty in women was not something typical in Shakespeare’s time. Viola is also loyal, but Shakespeare changes her gender to male in order to reinforce this stereotype. She fakes being a man almost the entire play in order to demonstrate loyalty, because if she were a woman, then she could not be loyal. Overall, these three plays demonstrate a theme of loyalty between characters, and further delineate the differences of loyalty between men and women.