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Twelfth Night
William Shakespeare



Orsino, the duke of Illyria, is helplessly in love with the Countess Olivia. She, however, refuses to return his affections, preferring instead to mourn her dead brother. She will not even see the messengers he sends daily. Rejection only seems to increase Orsino's ardor. He spends his days listening to sad music and pining away for Olivia.

A shipwreck throws a stranger, Viola, a young woman of noble birth, onto the shore of Illyria and into the middle of this situation. She believes her brother was drowned in the same shipwreck. Needing some time to get her bearings in this strange country, she disguises herself as a boy, calls herself Cesario, and presents herself to Duke Orsino. He immediately takes a liking to this "boy" and sends "him" as a messenger to Olivia. Viola/Cesario does what Orsino asks, but she has a problem- she has fallen in love with Orsino herself!

Viola/Cesario proves to be an excellent messenger when she calls on Olivia. Her determination wins her an audience with the lady. She movingly pleads Orsino's case. Olivia resists the entreaties on Orsino's behalf. When Viola/Cesario leaves, however, you learn the truth. Olivia has now fallen hopelessly in love with Viola/Cesario! She sends her puritanical steward Malvolio after Viola/Cesario with a ring.

Malvolio rudely accosts Viola/Cesario and repeats the lie Olivia told him- that the ring was a gift from Orsino and that Olivia is returning it. Viola/Cesario knows that she gave the lady no ring. She quickly figures out the truth. Olivia is in love with somebody who doesn't exist.

Meanwhile, Olivia has another suitor, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a simpleton who fancies himself a ladies' man. The wealthy Aguecheek is being deceived by Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch, into believing he has a chance of winning Olivia's hand. Actually, Sir Toby is toying with Sir Andrew, milking him for his money. They live in Olivia's house and spend all night drinking and carousing.

Sir Toby and Malvolio are natural enemies. Toby hates propriety, while Malvolio always assumes a solemn manner. Actually, the self-righteous Malvolio harbors the mad hope that his lady Olivia will one day marry him and make him her equal. Olivia's maid Maria scolds Sir Toby for his rude ways, but she has a touch of mischief in her, too. It is she who invents the plot to get revenge on Malvolio.

The plot works like this: Maria forges a letter from Olivia to her "secret love." Then, she leaves it where Malvolio will find it. Malvolio, in his egotism, believes the letter is meant for him. He follows its ridiculous instructions- to wear yellow stockings, smile constantly and be "opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants." When he behaves that way in front of Olivia, she is convinced he has gone crazy and has him locked away.

Sir Andrew sees Olivia trying to woo "Cesario." Egged on by Sir Toby, he challenges Viola/Cesario to a duel. Viola/Cesario, who is in fact a girl, and Sir Andrew, who is really a coward, are both manipulated by Sir Toby. Sir Toby enjoys terrifying both of them by convincing each that the other is a great duelist who has killed many men.

Fate plays its own joke, however, when Viola/Cesario's twin brother Sebastian arrives in Illyria. Sebastian believes that his sister was drowned in the shipwreck. He's confused when Olivia accosts him and demands that he marry her (she thinks he is Cesario). Olivia is surprised herself when he agrees. She quickly gets him to repeat his promise in front of a priest.

The numerous confusions all come to a head and then unravel when Orsino calls upon Olivia. She says that Viola/Cesario has promised to marry her. Viola/Cesario denies it. The priest confirms Olivia's story. Both Orsino and Olivia believe they have been betrayed. Just then, Sir Andrew and Sir Toby come in, beaten and bleeding. Sir Andrew claims that they have been fighting with Viola/Cesario. He is surprised to see his enemy there before him.

It was Sebastian, of course, who gave them their beating. His entrance shocks Orsino, Olivia, and the others, who think they must be going crazy. Viola, however, is overjoyed to be reunited with the brother she thought was dead. She reveals that she is a woman.

The confusion dispelled, things quickly fall into their natural order. Orsino marries Viola. Olivia marries Sebastian. Sir Toby marries the witty Maria. Only Malvolio clings to his self-love, refuses to accept the apology he is offered, and stalks off, vowing revenge on everybody.

[Twelfth Night Contents]



    In the middle of the group of outrageous characters who inhabit the world of Twelfth Night stands one of Shakespeare's most level-headed creations. It may seem odd to us that circumstances should force Viola to disguise herself as a boy, but she reacts to people and situations in a way you can understand and identify with.

    Viola is young, beautiful, and nobly born. These qualities you hear about from the other characters. She is also extremely smart and deeply passionate. These qualities can be seen in what she does.

    Her intelligence takes two forms. First, see how skillfully she chooses her words when she wants to tell Orsino she loves him. Her passion drives her to tell him how she feels. Still, she must not let him guess that she is a girl. Therefore, her statements have to sound plausible coming from Cesario. Or look at her scenes with Olivia. In Act I, Scene v, Viola can play any word game Olivia wishes to indulge in. Viola displays as much skill with words as any lawyer or scholar.

    The other kind of intelligence Viola possesses is an instinctive sense of how to take care of herself. She knows the danger she could be in as a young girl alone in a strange place. That's why she adopts the disguise of a young boy. She puts herself in a position where she can rely on her own quick wits.

    Her passion is revealed in the way she expresses herself. Since she cannot simply turn to Orsino and say "I love you," the intensity of her feelings is reflected in the poetry of her speech. One of the best and most famous examples is the passage in Act II, Scene iv where she tells Orsino about the love her "sister" had to conceal. (Of course, Viola is really talking about her own feelings.) Another example is in Act I, Scene v. Disguised as Cesario, Viola tells what she would do to woo Olivia if she were Orsino. Olivia is moved so deeply that she falls in love with "Cesario"!

    The love Viola feels is sincere and mature. She puts Orsino's happiness before her own. He loves Olivia, so Viola woos the lady for him.

    Viola is patient and optimistic. She faces her impossible situation with relative calm. Time, she says, must sort out these problems. The other characters get into trouble by trying to provide their own answers. In the end, Viola's patience is rewarded.

    Although she wears a disguise, and in that sense is presenting a false face to the world, Viola can actually be considered the most honest character in the play.


    Like several other characters in this play, Orsino doesn't understand himself. He sees himself as a man smitten by a woman- Olivia. Of all the lovers who have ever lived, he thinks that he is the most sincere and ardent. In truth, he is in love with love. Olivia is the nominal object of his affections, but he is obsessed with love itself.

    Orsino's wooing of Olivia seems unreal. Until the very end of the play, he never tries to see the lady himself. Instead, he sends messengers. Also, Olivia has clearly and repeatedly stated that she does not love him. He has no reason to believe her attitude will ever change. He seems to admire his own emotions more than he admires Olivia.

    The play suggests that Orsino craves the melancholy feeling that comes from unrequited love. His favorite song tells the story of a man who suffered so terribly when his lady rejected him that he killed himself!

    As the wealthy and powerful duke of Illyria, Orsino can spend his time any way he chooses. What he chooses is to lie about, listen to music, and talk about how wonderful love is. Once Viola (disguised as Cesario) becomes part of his household, he talks with the "boy" about love. Olivia rarely gets mentioned. Love alone is "high fantastical," he says in Act I. Accordingly, he seems never to think about anything else.

    Some readers wonder how Viola could love such a self-indulgent person. Perhaps she sees that, though he is self-deceived, he is completely sincere. Orsino simply cannot see beyond his own obsession. And you know from what the sea captain says in Act I, Scene ii, that Orsino is regarded as a noble gentleman. He speaks like a man of charm and intelligence.

    In the end, Orsino comes to his senses. Once he discovers that "Cesario" is actually Viola, the fact that Olivia doesn't want him becomes unimportant. To his credit, he immediately realizes that Viola is the proper mate for him. The comic foolishness of his previous insistence on marrying Olivia is quickly forgiven and forgotten.

    Though Orsino's love-sick behavior is humorous, he is no silly caricature. In fact he is deeply human. Those who have ached with an intense longing for the love of some unattainable person can empathize with him. Have you ever nursed an unrealistic crush or infatuation for somebody who may not have even known you were alive? Later, you may look back and laugh, saying "I certainly was silly," but at the time the feeling was both painful and wonderful. Orsino's condition is a common one, and books, plays, and movies are filled with similar characters. Orsino's behavior is theatrically exaggerated, and therefore funny. At the same time it is recognizably human, and therefore touching.


    Olivia resembles Orsino in several ways. Like the duke, she is wealthy, attractive, and nobly born. She rules her large household firmly but kindly. Olivia and Orsino would seem to be a good match. But the lady's resoluteness in refusing Orsino's love equals his determination to have her.

    Her tendency toward excess is just as strong as Orsino's. Her wealth allows her to do whatever she wants. At the beginning of the play, she has announced that she intends to mourn her dead brother for no less than seven years. Then, after meeting Cesario (really Viola in disguise), she cannot think about anything but the boy and how much she wants to marry him.

    Some readers interpret her proposal to mourn her brother for seven years as a ploy to get attention. Compare her behavior with Viola's. Does Viola love her brother less? The play never says why Olivia has decided to mourn for so long. Perhaps she would like to think of herself as the kind of person who suffers greatly. It could be that the lady herself doesn't know. As Olivia says when she falls in love with Cesario, people frequently are driven by feelings and desires they do not understand. Most of the characters in the play don't understand themselves any better than Olivia does.

    Unlike Orsino, Olivia pursues the one she loves directly. She constantly tries to win the boy's heart. His refusal frustrates her. At times it makes her angry. She knows that what she does is neither wise nor dignified. Still, she never gives up.

    Olivia's nature is compassionate. Though Sir Toby Belch's rude ways must offend her sensibilities, she takes good care of him. She will not allow her steward Malvolio to make fun of Feste. Later, when Malvolio has been humiliated, she feels genuinely sorry for him.

    Olivia has a quick mind. She can trade quips with the fool and verbally spar with Viola. The verbal facility of both ladies makes their scenes (Act I, Scene v and Act III, Scene i) especially enjoyable.

    She is also a good judge of character. She knows that Malvolio is "sick of self love." She also knows that her uncle, Sir Toby, is a drunk. Olivia can even assess Orsino's character accurately. She says that he is noble, wealthy, smart, and brave, and that his only problem is he insists that he loves a lady who will not have him.

    Why does such a shrewd woman make a bad mistake when she falls in love? From what Olivia says at the end of Act I, Scene v, she doesn't know the reason herself. Many readers blame it on her impulsiveness. Cesario makes a strong impression on her, so she immediately gives him her heart. Other readers feel that Viola's passionate plea in her master's behalf wins the lady's heart. Whatever Olivia's motivation may be, her behavior helps to make clear that love can make otherwise rational people act in an irrational fashion.


    Malvolio belongs to the servant class. As Olivia's steward, he has a place near the seat of power in the household. He would like nothing better than to wield that power himself. In his heart, he firmly believes that he is better than those he serves. It seems to him that Olivia treats him with special respect. Perhaps he misunderstands her kindness because he himself would not be kind to those below him. His name suggests "ill will." When his lady is not around, Malvolio takes it upon himself to try to discipline others, even, at times, his social superiors, like Sir Toby. Most of the time, Olivia seems to appreciate the solemn dignity with which he carries out his duties. The others, however, sense his arrogant attitude and regard him as an enemy.

    Malvolio is actually in disguise. He pretends to be a Puritan. He dresses in black. Nothing amuses him. Nobody ever sees him smile. But this is merely a pose he assumes, one that allows him to criticize others.

    Under his black garments beats a heart filled with vanity. His daydreams all have to do with the time when Olivia will make him her equal by marrying him. He sees himself wearing fine clothes and jewelry. The household would then be his to command. He could get revenge on those who haven't treated him respectfully.

    It is ironic that Malvolio is much more successful at fooling himself than he is at deceiving others. The other members of the household all see that he is a prig and a hypocrite. Even Olivia, who seems to value him as a servant, says he is "sick of self love" (Act I, Scene i, line 92).

    Though others can see through him, Malvolio fools himself completely. As Maria says, he believes that "all that look on him love him" (Act II, Scene iii, line 152). He is sure that only some accident of luck caused such a fine man as himself to be born a servant rather than a master. Fortune, he thinks, will eventually correct its mistake.

    Malvolio's self deception makes him the perfect target for Maria and Sir Toby's joke. Maria's letter is only able to convince him that Olivia loves him because that's what he wants to believe. When the letter tells him to act proud and haughty, it only gives him permission to show how he already feels. His own pride causes him to act as foolishly as he does.

    But Malvolio's real downfall is not caused by foolishness. Nearly everybody in this play is foolish at one time or another. Unlike the others, however, Malvolio simply cannot laugh at himself, cannot recognize his own faults. Therefore, he has no part in the healing that occurs at the end of the play. While the others are all laughing at themselves and forgiving each other, Malvolio clings to his anger. When he makes his final exit, he vows to take revenge on everybody. Does he have an excuse? Did the joke go too far? Or were the others justified in trying to take him down a peg or two?


    Sir Toby Belch, like Malvolio, lives up to the sound of his name. He spends every night and most days getting drunk. As Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby has the run of the house. Taking advantage of her generosity, he concerns himself primarily with eating and drinking, and seems completely unconcerned with what anybody thinks of him. Even when he tries to behave properly around his niece, he usually fails. He cannot conceal how drunk he is.

    Sir Toby has a practical side. At least he watches out for his own interests. His main drinking companion is Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Though it's obvious Sir Andrew is a dim-witted fool, he has a value for Sir Toby. Sir Andrew is a rich fool, and Sir Toby manipulates him well. Whenever Sir Toby needs money, Sir Andrew sends home for some.

    In fact, Sir Toby is extremely clever. Look at his first scene with Maria (Act II, Scene iii). He plays with the meaning of everything she says in a very sophisticated manner. What he's doing is deflecting criticism that he does not want to hear.

    Sir Toby is also a shrewd judge of character. For example, he knows exactly how much Olivia will let him get away with. He can tell that Maria loves him from the way she treats him, though she has probably never told him so. He can predict what Sir Andrew will do with complete accuracy.

    All this adds up to a description of a thoroughly selfish character. But is that all there is to him? What most readers enjoy about Sir Toby is his sense of fun. His philosophy seems to be that life is to be lived and enjoyed. He doesn't mind what others do as long as they leave him alone to enjoy himself.

    Therefore, there is nobody Sir Toby hates more than a killjoy like Malvolio. His most famous line sums up his attitude. When Malvolio scolds Sir Toby and his friends for being up late drinking, Sir Toby responds, "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" (Act II, Scene iii, lines 117-118). Malvolio can be as much of a prig as he wants to be, for all Sir Toby cares. He just should not try to interfere with other people's pleasures.

    By the end of the play, Sir Toby has been both punished and rewarded. For carrying one of his practical jokes too far, he gets a good beating. That humiliation is enough to make up for his sins, however. Fabian reports later (Act V, Scene i, line 391) that Maria and Sir Toby have been married. Though Sir Toby clearly has not "reformed," he is allowed to share in the happy ending.


    In Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Shakespeare creates a "natural" fool. Unlike Feste, who is a wise fool, Sir Andrew is entertaining in spite of himself. Though he is vain and often arrogant, you cannot hate him. Unlike Malvolio, he is not malicious. He causes no real harm. If you stop laughing at his antics for a moment, you are likely to pity him. He never quite catches on to what is going on around him. He places his trust in Sir Toby who befriends him only because he is rich. Sir Toby deceives him into thinking that he has a chance of winning Olivia's hand. In Sir Andrew, Sir Toby has a willing dupe.

    Poor Sir Andrew spends his energy trying to live up to the false picture he has of himself. As a knight, he believes he should be skilled in all the courtly virtues. He claims to be a good dancer, but his attempts to execute even the simplest steps are laughable. A courtier should speak different languages. Sir Andrew only makes a fool of himself when he tries to use the few phrases of French he has managed to learn.

    Sir Andrew is easily led by others, especially by Sir Toby. Sir Andrew adores Sir Toby, who helps him believe he really is what he would like to be. It's amusing to watch Sir Toby manipulate the knight. No resolution of Sir Andrew's is so strong that Sir Toby cannot completely turn him around in short order. When Sir Andrew loses track of what's going on, he just repeats everything that Sir Toby says. Sir Toby has even convinced the knight that he has a chance of marrying Olivia.

    Skill with a sword is another courtier's ability that Sir Andrew would like to have. As Maria says, he loves to start a quarrel. Since he can't fight, he has to talk or buy his way out of trouble. We see evidence of this when he offers "Cesario" his horse if the boy will agree not to fight him.

    Sir Andrew is too much of a simpleton to be blamed for his actions. Most readers regard him with amused sympathy. He knows that others call him a fool. He even admits that he worries on occasion that he may be no smarter than anybody else! Still, he cannot or will not see himself as he is. At the end of the play, this upstart knight has been punished for his vanity by being beaten by Sebastian and rejected by Sir Toby. Shakespeare never tells us whether he learns anything from his ordeal. Do you think he would? Did he deserve his punishment?


    Though she is Olivia's servant, Maria has most of her scenes with Sir Toby. She represents a balanced middle ground between Malvolio's insistence on decorum and Sir Toby's total disregard for manners.

    We see Maria make several attempts to reform Sir Toby, or at least keep him out of trouble. She warns him that Olivia will not stand for much more of his drunkenness. Later, she tries to quiet Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste before they wake Malvolio.

    Once Malvolio threatens her, however, Maria becomes the chief troublemaker. Malvolio has barely left the room before she has invented the plan to make a fool of him. Then she carries out her practical joke like a veteran prankster.

    Maria is as clever with words as Sir Toby is. Look at Act I, Scene iii. She does not let Sir Toby confuse her with his word games. She makes sure he hears exactly what she has to say to him. Then, when Sir Andrew comes in, she puts him down so skillfully that at first he doesn't even realize that she's done it. No wonder Sir Toby admires her.

    Shakespeare must approve of Maria's blend of manners and mischief. By the play's end she has been rewarded twice. She has gotten her revenge on Malvolio, and Sir Toby has married her. She has achieved exactly the change in class by marriage that Malvolio wanted for himself. Do you think she deserves her "reward"?


    Feste is Olivia's "allowed fool," or clown. He entertains the other characters with songs, jokes, and puns. While he has access to all the various groups, he belongs to none. Therefore, he has a perspective that the others all lack. (For more about the role of the fool in Elizabethan society, see "The Author and His Times" section of this book.)

    Under the guise of making jokes, Feste accurately evaluates the behavior of those around him. It's interesting to observe how the different characters react to him. Olivia knows what Feste is doing and appreciates his skill. She even lets him instruct her. Malvolio doesn't want to hear the truth about himself, so he is uncomfortable around Feste. Sir Andrew makes a big show of admiring the fool's skill, but he can't tell when Feste is just making up nonsense. Sir Toby and Maria both match wits with Feste, quip for quip. Although Orsino has no interest in anything Feste has to say, he values the fool's ability to sing melancholy songs. Can you see any advantage to having the fool be the one in the play who sees the truth?


    Viola's brother Sebastian serves an important plot function. She looks just like him when she disguises herself as a man. Therefore, she is taken for him and he for her. That confusion serves to bring several plot strands together.

    In his nature as well as his appearance, Sebastian is like Viola. Brother and sister care about each other deeply. At the beginning, neither can rejoice at being rescued from the sea, because each thinks the other is dead. Because of their love for each other, their reunion at the end of the play becomes more than just a resolution of the plot. It is a touching and magical moment.

[Twelfth Night Contents]



When Viola crawls out of the sea after the shipwreck, the Sea Captain tells her they are in Illyria. Though there was an actual Illyria on the coast of the Adriatic, you need not bother looking on a map. Shakespeare made sure that his audience could learn all it needed to know about the settings of his plays from listening to the text.

Shakespeare's Illyria is a fairy-tale land populated with dukes, ladies, knights, and jesters. You never meet any "average" citizens. All the characters are either nobles or servants, plus a few seamen (or pirates, depending on whom you ask).

Illyria's coast allows Viola and Sebastian to be washed ashore. Since the story has elements of fantasy, that unusual method of arrival is appropriate.

When the sea washes Viola ashore in Illyria, it is as if she is newly born. She acquires a new name, a new sex, and enters into a whole new world of fantasy.

This is the world of the Twelfth Night, the twelfth day of the Christmas season, a traditional time for masquerades and revels. In the play, practically everyone wears a mask or is disguised. Not all the characters realize this, however! Some of them are deceived about themselves as well as about others. As you read the play, try to see how reality and appearance are being confused.

Illyria is also an idyllic kingdom, suitable for romance. The scenes take place in palaces and gardens, music fills the air, and almost everyone is in love.


Here are some of the major themes in Twelfth Night. Notice how they interweave and affect each other, much as the different plot lines do.


    This theme could also be called "What we are versus what we think we are." Several of the characters cling to false ideas about themselves. Much of the humor and also the pathos and sadness in the play derive from this fact. For example, Sir Andrew thinks he is a courtly gentleman. Actually, he is a clumsy simpleton. When he tries to live up to his self-image, he behaves foolishly. Malvolio has convinced himself that he is superior to those around him. Orsino thinks he loves Olivia, when, in fact, he is in love with love. Examine the characters to determine whether they see themselves as they are or as they would like to be.

    Even when the characters are deceived by others, they are really victims of self-deception. Maria's letter only confirms what Malvolio has been telling himself already. Sir Toby takes advantage of Sir Andrew by telling him what he wants to hear.


    Most of the characters are in love, but that word means something different to each one.

    Orsino's hopeless passion for Olivia is a perfect example of Romantic, or Courtly, Love. Obstacles are the essence of Romantic Love. The beloved must be unobtainable. The lover must remain chaste and pine for the woman he cannot have. Olivia actually helps Orsino by refusing his suit. She gives him an excuse to spend all day enjoying the pangs of unrequited love.

    Romantic love is also sudden and inexplicable. So it is that Olivia falls in love with Cesario. There is no reason for it- it is just a sudden, blind passion.

    Though Viola's love for Orsino has a romantic obstacle (her disguise as a boy), her feeling is genuine. In his romantic haze, Orsino worries only about himself and his own feelings. Viola's mature love unselfishly puts Orsino's feelings before her own. If Olivia is what he wants, Viola will try to win her for him.

    Sebastian and Antonio share a deep feeling for each other, which they call love. This love is not sexual. Today we would probably call this feeling friendship. It is a feeling of trust and a concern for the other person's well-being born out of the difficult experiences they have shared. Sebastian also knows that Antonio risked death for his sake.

    Viola and Sebastian's deep sadness when each thinks the other has drowned is evidence of their love for each other. They are the only surviving members of their family. At the end of the play, Viola is as happy about finding her brother alive as she is about marrying Orsino.


    Vanity is really yet another kind of love- self love. The play suggests that vanity frequently causes people to make fools of themselves. Malvolio, for example, loves nobody but himself. He wants to marry Olivia only to raise his social status. He loves himself so blindly that he never stops to question the content of Maria's letter. As you read Twelfth Night, look for the ways the characters' self love gets them into trouble.


    Laughter in this play has a healing effect. Revenge is achieved not by fighting (not by serious fighting, anyway), but by practical jokes. Nobody is really hurt. Even Sir Andrew and Sir Toby's "bloody coxcombs" aren't serious injuries. Pride and jealousy do not lead to bloodshed. They provoke laughter. When the laughter dies down in Act V, many of the characters' problems are resolved happily. Olivia and Orsino forget their mistakes and joyfully accept their appropriate mates. Pride and deception are forgiven. Malvolio helps clarify this theme by refusing to see the humor in the joke that was played on him. Since he cannot laugh at his punishment, as one critic points out, he is prevented from accepting his reward. In honor of Malvolio we could also call this theme "the danger of taking yourself too seriously."


    This is one of the major themes of literature, a serious theme even in a comedy like this. We know from real life that appearances are often deceiving. In this play, deception is everywhere. The young boy may really be a girl. Or he may be her brother. That severe Puritan may be a vain social-climber. A letter that promises your fortune may be assuring your destruction. That fearsome swordsman challenging you to a duel may actually be a cowardly dolt. Or that coward you attack may be a brave young man who will give you a beating! You will notice as you read that in practically every scene, something (or someone) is not what it appears to be.

    Some of the characters seem to have a better grasp of reality than others, and the more obvious disguises are least intended as deceptions. Viola's clothing may disguise her sex, but not her honest and virtuous nature. The fool, Feste, is the one who keeps pointing out that words can be as misleading as physical appearances.


    Driven by love, the characters lose control. Olivia embarks on what any objective viewer would have to call a humiliating pursuit of a boy who is many ranks below her in social status. Orsino lies about all day listening to music. These two are not ordinary fools. They act foolishly because love overrides their saner judgment.


The characters in Twelfth Night speak the language of love-poetry. They seem less concerned with what they have to say than with how beautifully they express it. Even the characters who speak in prose try to choose the most beautiful image or the perfect metaphor. Orsino, of course, spends all day making up love rhymes. But even Olivia's maid Maria has the skill to forge a properly poetic love letter. Let's examine briefly how Shakespeare uses language in this play.

Rarely is a statement made in a simple, declarative sentence. Instead, the characters communicate mainly through the use of the poetic techniques of metaphor and simile. Technically, a metaphor is a comparison made without using "like" or "as." For example, Orsino says in Act I, Scene i, that after seeing Olivia he was turned into a hart (a deer). Of course he was not literally transformed into an animal. He uses the image of a hunted animal to describe how he feels. A simile uses imagery in the same way, except that the speaker does use "like" or "as." When Viola says her sister "sat like Patience on a monument," she's using a simile.

Orsino's excessively flowery speech lets you know that he is in love with love. Viola's poise is revealed in her precise choice of words while she is carrying off her disguise. The poetic beauty of her speech when she talks about love demonstrates the depth of her passion. You know that Andrew is a fool because he tries so hard to speak beautifully and fails so miserably.

As you read each scene, ask yourself two questions. First, how are the characters using imagery to communicate? Second, what are you learning about the characters from the way they speak?


The way we use language changes. Differences in pronunciation and word choice are apparent even between parents and their children. If language differences can appear in one generation, it is only to be expected that the English used by Shakespeare four hundred years ago will diverge markedly from the English that is used today. The following information on Shakespeare's language will help a modern reader to a fuller understanding of Twelfth Night.


Adjectives, nouns and verbs were less rigidly confined to particular classes in Shakespeare's day.

Adjectives could be used as adverbs, as when "loud" occurs where today we would require "loudly":

I speak too loud

(III, iv, 4)

Adjectives could be used as nouns. In lines 90-91 of the same scene, Malvolio tells Fabian:

Go off, I discard you: let me enjoy my private

where "privacy" would be used today. Nouns often functioned as verbs. In Act IV, Scene ii, line 94 "property" is used to mean "confine":

They have here propertied me; keep me in darkness

and verbs could be used as nouns as in:

...Make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me,
And that I owe Olivia

(II, iv, 102)

where "compare" is equivalent to "comparison."


The meanings of all words undergo change, a process that can be illustrated by the fact that "nice" used to mean "wanton" and "small" meant "slender." Many of the words in Shakespeare still exist today but their meanings have changed. The change may be small, as in the case of "cars" meaning "carriages/chariots" in:

Though our silence be drawn from us with cars,
yet peace

(II, v, 60)

or more fundamental, so that "complexion" (II, iv, 26) meant "general appearance," "silly" (II, iv, 46) meant "innocent," "admire" (III, iv, 152) meant "be amazed by," and "perspective" (V, i, 209) meant "distorting glass."


Words not only change their meanings, but are frequently discarded from the language. In the past, "leman" meant "sweetheart" and "sooth" meant "truth." The following words used in Twelfth Night are no longer common in English but their meanings can usually be gauged from the contexts in which they occur.

COISTREL (I, iii, 40)
fellow of low repute

KICKSHAWSES (I, iii, 113)
insignificant trifles (from QUELQUE (CHOSES)

BARFUL (I, iv, 41)
very difficult

GASKINS (I, v, 24)
trousers, stockings for men

BOTCHER (I, v, 52)

CANTONS (I, v, 294)

MAUGRE (II, i, 753)
despite, in spite of

TESTRIL (II, iii, 34)
small coin

COZIER (II, iii, 91)

CHAMPAIGN (II, v, 160)
open countryside

exactly, precisely

WELKIN (III, i, 59)
sky, heavens

HAGGARD (III, i, 65)
wild hawk

strong ropes used to tie oxen or horses to a cart

BAWCOCK (III, iv, 114)
handsome man, dandy

TUCK (III, iv, 226)

YARE (III, iv, 226)
quick, ready

DUELLO (III, iv, 314)

MALAPERT (IV, i, 43)
pert, rude

SHENT (IV, ii, 108)

BAWBLING (V, i, 52)
insignificant, of little value

SCATHFUL (V, i, 54)

BRABBLE (V, i, 63)
fight, quarrel

PERPEND (V, i, 298)
listen attentively, evaluate

GECK (V, i, 342)
fool, idiot


Shakespearean verb forms differ from modern usage in three main ways:

  1. Questions and negatives could be formed without using "do/did," as when the Duke asks Viola:

    Died thy sister of her love?

    (II, iv, 120)

    where today we would say "Did your sister die of love?" or where Sir Andrew Aguecheek insists:

    ...I know not

    (II, iii, 4)

    where modern usage demands: "I do not know." Shakespeare had the option of using forms a. and b. where contemporary usage generally permits only the a. forms:

            a.                    b. 
    What are you saying?    What say you?  
    What did you say?       What said you? 
    I do not love you.      I love you not.  
    I did not love you.     I loved you not.  

  2. A number of past participles and past tense forms are used which would be ungrammatical today. Among these are: "hid" for "hidden" in:

    Wherefore are these things hid?

    (I, iii, 122)

    "spoke" for "spoken" in:

    As it is spoke

    (I, iv, 20)

    "took" for "taken" in:

    He might have took his answer long ago

    (I, v, 267)

    "writ" for "written" in:

    'Twas well writ

    (III, iv, 38)

    "forgot" for "forgotten" in:

    Hast thou forgot thyself?

    (V, i, 139)

    and "broke" for "broken" in:

    He has broke my head across

    (V, i, 173)

  3. Archaic verb forms sometimes occur with 'thou' and with third person singular subjects:

    Knowest thou this country?

    (I, ii, 21)

    Present mirth hath present laughter

    (II, iii, 47)

    He hath better bethought him

    (III, iv, 302)


Shakespeare and his contemporaries had one extra pronoun, "thou," which could be used in addressing a person who was one's equal or social inferior. "You" was obligatory if more than one person was addressed:

My masters, are you mad?

(II, iii, 87)

but it could also be used to indicate respect, as when Antonio and Sebastian address each other:

Antonio: If you will not murder me for my
love, let me be your servant.

Sebastian: If you will not undo what you have

(II, i, 34ff)

Frequently, a person in power used "thou" to a child or a subordinate but was addressed as "you" in return. Thus the Duke addresses Cesario:

Thou knowest no less but all

(I, iv, 13)

whereas all the Duke's servants address him as "you":

Will you go hunt, my lord?

(I, i, 16)

If "thou" was used inappropriately, however, it could cause grave offence. Sir Toby knows this when he persuades Sir Andrew to use "thou" in his challenge to Cesario:

...taunt him with the licence of ink: if thou thou'st
him some thrice, it shall not be amiss.

(III, ii, 42-3)

One further pronominal reference warrants a comment: "he/she" and "it" were often interchangeable:

...'tis a fair young man

(I, v, 102)


What kind of woman is it?

(II, iv, 26)


Prepositions were less standardized in Elizabethan English than they are today and so we find several uses in Twelfth Night which would have to be modified in contemporary speech. Among these are: 'of' for 'by' in:

A lady, sir, though it was said she much resembled me,
was yet of many accounted beautiful

(II, i, 24-5)

'on' for 'from' in:

There's a testril of me too

(II, iii, 34)

'on' for 'at' in:

Even now, sir, on a moderate pace

(II, ii, 2)

'on' for 'of' in:

What should I think on it?

(II, v, 28)

and 'to' for 'with' in:

No man hath any quarrel to me

(III, iv, 228)


Contemporary English requires only one negative per statement and regards such utterances as:

I haven't none

as nonstandard. Shakespeare often used two or more negatives for emphasis, as when Antonio asks Sebastian:

Will you stay no longer; nor will you not that
I go with you?

(II, i, 1-2)

or when Sir Andrew asserts:

Nor I neither

(II, v, 186)


In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare takes a common-sense look at some of the foolishness inherent in human nature. He exposes the ways in which we fall prey to pride, vanity, and self-deception. Then, with a broad and tolerant smile, he forgives those faults.

This comedy never denies that life is full of problems. It acknowledges the fact that people cause each other pain. But, as we talked about in the "Themes" section, the wages of sin are not death, but embarrassment. Characters are exposed in all their foolishness before they can do real harm to themselves or anybody else.

The one sin Shakespeare cannot forgive is Malvolio's. The steward wants to stamp out all good humor. He remains a killjoy to the end. Unable to laugh at his own foolishness, he rejects Olivia's offer to make amends. Yet Shakespeare still has Orsino send a messenger to "make peace" with Malvolio as the play ends.


Several different plot lines weave their way through Twelfth Night. At first they develop separately. Then, the various threads of the plot get tangled up. Finally, all the conflicts are resolved in quick succession.

The story lines may be grouped into what could be called the Romantic Plot and the Low Comic Plot. The lovers- Orsino, Olivia and Viola- are the principal participants in the Romantic Plot. This story deals with the complications arising out of Orsino's fixation on Olivia, and Viola's disguise. The Low Comic Plot involves the servants- Maria, Malvolio, Fabian- and the drunken knights- Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. The main action of this plot deals with the practical joke played on Malvolio. A second practical joke played on Sir Andrew draws the Romantic and the Low Comic plots together.

The play is shaped by the way these two plots are developed through the five-act structure.

    ACT I introduces the Romantic Plot. Its conflicts can be summed up like this: Orsino loves Olivia, who loves Viola, who loves Orsino. Thus, we have a comic version of the classic triangle made possible by the fact that Viola is disguised as a boy. Most of the characters involved in the Low Comic Plot are also introduced in Act I.

    As ACT II starts, we learn that Viola's brother Sebastian is on his way to Illyria. Then, Malvolio offends Maria and the others. The practical joke is planned. By the end of the act, Malvolio has been "set up." Meanwhile, the situation with Viola, Olivia, and Orsino gets more complicated.

    In ACT III, the practical joke pays off- Malvolio makes a fool of himself. Viola becomes entangled with the Low Comic characters. A case of mistaken identity draws Sebastian into the action too.

    ACT IV sets up the resolution. Sebastian and Olivia are thrown together. A promise of marriage is made. Malvolio's punishment continues.

    In ACT V, the conflicts are resolved when all the main characters are paired off with their proper mates. The comedy ends happily in marriage.


Most of Shakespeare's plots were borrowed from popular stories or actual histories. Twelfth Night was no exception. Plays about identical twins who are mistaken for one another had been popular since the time of the ancient Greeks. Shakespeare used the device himself in The Comedy of Errors, based on the Menaechmi by the Roman playwright Plautus. In that play, Shakespeare's first, the comic confusion is caused by twin boys. But the male/female variation was not original with Shakespeare. When John Manningham saw Twelfth Night on February 2, 1602, he noted in his diary the similarity between Shakespeare's play and an Italian comedy by Nicolo Secchi called Gl'Ingannati. That play also used disguised twins to further comic confusions among lovers. Most scholars believe that the romantic lovers' plot was based on a story by Barnabe Rich called "Of Apolonius and Silla." However, the story of how the arrogant Malvolio gets his comeuppance was, as far as we know, created by Shakespeare.


One of the most famous theaters of all time is the Globe Theatre. It was one of several Shakespeare worked in during his career and many of the greatest plays of English literature were performed there. Built in 1599 for L600 just across the River Thames from London, it burned down in 1613 when a spark from one of the cannons in a battle scene in Henry VIII set fire to the thatched roof. The theater was quickly rebuilt and survived until 1644. No one knows exactly what the Globe looked like but some scholarly detective work has given us a pretty good idea. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., has a full scale re-creation of the Globe.

When it was built, the Globe was the latest thing in theater design. It was a three story octagon, with covered galleries surrounding an open yard some 50 feet across. Three sides of the octagon were devoted to the stage and backstage areas. The main stage was a raised platform that jutted into the center of the yard or pit. Behind the stage was the tiring house- the backstage area where the actors dressed and waited for their cues. It was flanked by two doors and contained an inner stage with a curtain used when the script called for a scene to be discovered. (Some scholars think the inner stage was actually a tent or pavilion that could be moved about the stage.) Above the inner stage was the upper stage, a curtained balcony that could serve as the battlements in Hamlet or for the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. Most of the action of the play took place on the main and upper stages.

The third story held the musicians' gallery and machinery for sound effects and pyrotechnics. Above all was a turret from which a flag was flown to announce, "Performance today." A roof (the shadow) covered much of the stage and not only protected the players from sudden showers but also contained machinery needed for some special effects. More machinery was under the stage, where several trap doors permitted the sudden appearance in a play of ghosts and allowed actors to leap into rivers or graves, as the script required.

For a penny (a day's wages for an apprentice), you could stand with the "groundlings" in the yard to watch the play; another penny would buy you a seat in the upper galleries, and a third would get you a cushioned seat in the lower gallery- the best seats in the house. The audience would be a mixed crowd- sedate scholars, gallant courtiers, and respectable merchants and their families in the galleries; rowdy apprentices and young men looking for excitement in the yard; and pickpockets and prostitutes taking advantage of the crowds to ply their trades. And crowds there would be- the Globe could probably hold 2000 to 3000 people, and even an ordinary performance would attract a crowd of 1200.

The play you came to see would be performed in broad daylight during the warmer months. In colder weather, Shakespeare's troupe appeared indoors at Court or in one of London's private theaters. There was no scenery as we know it but there are indications that the Elizabethans used simple set pieces such as trees, bowers, or battle tents to indicate location. Any props needed were readied in the tiring house by the book keeper (we'd call him the stage manager) and carried on and off by actors. If time or location were important, the characters usually said something about it. Trumpet flourishes told the audience an important character was about to enter, rather like a modern spotlight, and a scene ended when all the characters left the stage. (Bodies of dead characters were carried off stage.) Little attention was paid to historical accuracy in plays such as Julius Caesar or Macbeth and actors wore contemporary clothing. One major difference from the modern theater was that all female parts were played by young boys; Elizabethan custom did not permit women to act.

If the scenery was minimal, the performance made up for it in costumes and spectacle. English actors were famous throughout Europe for their skill as dancers and performances ended with a dance (or jig). Blood, in the form of animal blood or red paint, was lavished about in the tragedies; ghosts made sudden appearances amidst swirling fog; thunder was simulated by rolling a cannon ball along the wooden floor of the turret or by rattling a metal sheet. The costumes were gorgeous- and expensive! One "robe of estate" alone cost L19, a year's wages for a skilled workman of the time. But the costumes were a large part of the spectacle that the audience came to see, and they had to look impressive in broad daylight, with the audience right up close.

You've learned some of the conventions of the Globe Theatre, a theater much simpler than many of ours but nevertheless offering Shakespeare a wide range of possibilities for staging his plays. Now let's see how specific aspects of Twelfth Night might have been presented at the Globe.

Shakespeare wrote his plays for a repertory company, and often you can tell something about the actors from the way the characters in the plays are described. For example, at the time Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night, there must have been a small, dark boy in the company. Several of the plays Shakespeare wrote around this time have female characters (played by boys) who are described as particularly short and dark, like Maria. Actors in Shakespeare's day specialized in certain kinds of parts. The comic actor Thomas Pope created the role of Sir Toby Belch and was also the first Falstaff. At this time, Robert Armin had joined the company as the "clown," replacing the hilarious but unreliable Will Kempe. He was apparently a good all-round actor as well as a comedian, because Shakespeare began to use the clown as a character in plays such as Twelfth Night, and not merely as a bit of comic relief.

Twelfth Night also provides a good illustration of the Elizabethan love of music. The play is filled with songs, dance, and instrumental music that must have kept the musicians in the Globe's third-story gallery busy. Plays like this made the playhouse popular with foreign visitors, who could enjoy the costumes and the music, and the slapstick comedy of scenes like the duel between Sir Andrew and Viola, even when they couldn't understand English.



ECC [Twelfth Night Contents] []

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