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Twelfth Night

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English Literature

Every so often, you might run into someone who 'can't take a joke' and may be offended by it. Imagine if there was a day in which you could joke around, mock your boss, make funny but politically incorrect statements, and no one would judge you for it. Sounds like a comedic version of The Purge (2013), doesn't it? Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is kind of like that. Let's find out more about how much the characters get away with in this play.

Twelfth Night: Setting

The title of the play, Twelfth Night, is a reference to a festival celebrated on the twelfth night after Christmas, also known as the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany. The twelfth night was a night of revelry and merry-making, with servants imitating their masters and men imitating and dressing up as women, thus turning the established social order on its head. For this one night, the masters obeyed their servants and the men obeyed women.

The cross-dressing twist in Twelfth Night is not unusual for a Shakespearean play In fact, cross-dressing and disguised identities are a common theme in many of Shakespeare's plays, for example, As You Like It (1623) and The Merchant of Venice (1600). Cross-dressing on the Elizabethan stage during the Elizabethan Age was also an established convention. As women were not allowed to take the stage, the roles of female characters were played by boys and young men who would dress up as women. This would mean that the female characters in Twelfth Night were originally played by men dressing up as women who would then be dressing up as men, further enhancing the comedic element.

Another aspect to consider when looking at Shakespearean plays is the influence of Queen Elizabeth I. Numerous artists, writers and performers relied on the patronage of the Queen to continue their work. This meant they had to make sure their work would bring pleasure to the Queen, and they would do nothing to offend her. This was also the case for Shakespeare and his theatre company. In Twelfth Night, the leading female character, Viola, is confident, independent, and complex: characteristics that were mirrored in the Queen and, therefore, likely enjoyed by her. Furthermore, Queen Elizabeth would have likely sympathised with Orsino's quest for revenge against Antonio who had damaged his fleet of ships. This is because, during her reign, she reinforced the royal naval fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Like many other Shakespearean plays, like Julius Caesar (1599) or Hamlet (1603), Twelfth Night also draws inspiration from other texts, particularly Barnabe Riche's 'Apollonius and Silla' (1581) from the collection Riche, His Farewell to the Military Profession (1581) and another 16th-century Italian play titled Gl’Ingannati, which also features the trope of mistaken identities. The elements of cross-dressing and addressing established gender roles is what qualifies Twelfth Night as one of Shakespeare's transvestite comedies alongside As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice.1

Twelfth Night: summary

The play opens with the Duke of Illyria, Orsino, pining for a woman named Olivia. Olivia refuses to meet with anyone, including potential suitors, because of her vow to mourn her dead brother for 7 years. Meanwhile, as a result of a shipwreck, a noblewoman named Viola lands in Illyria and must now find a way to support herself as she tries to find news of her twin brother, Sebastian, who was lost at sea.

The captain of the ship tells Viola about Orsino and his love for Olivia, as well as her decision to mourn her dead brother. In a bid to support herself while mourning her brother, Viola expresses a wish to work for Olivia. Given that Olivia will not meet with let alone hire anyone new, Viola decides to disguise herself as a eunuch called Cesario to work for Orsino and win his favour. The captain decides to help her.

Eunuch: a castrated man.

The setting is now Olivia's household. Olivia's lady in waiting, Maria, reprimands Olivia's drunken uncle, Sir Toby, for bringing his friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, to court Olivia despite her wish not to meet with anyone. Sir Toby thinks Andrew is a good match for Olivia, as he is wealthy, despite the fact that he is a gambling drunk. Sir Andrew is discouraged by Olivia's disinterest and wonders if she should be left to Orsino.

Within mere days of working for Orsino, Cesario/Viola wins his confidence. Orsino believes that, if one as attractive as Cesario would court Olivia, she would be forced to take notice. While Viola (disguised as Cesario) agrees to Orsino's plan to court Olivia, she wishes to marry Orsino herself.

Olivia's jester, Feste, returns after an unexplained absence and attempts to cheer Olivia up. Olivia's steward, Malvolio, objects to Feste's employment in the household, which Olivia defends. Cesario arrives and, upon hearing how delicate and beautiful Cesario appears, Olivia agrees to see him. Cesario expresses Orsino's feelings for Olivia, however, Olivia becomes more interested in Cesario himself.

Olivia is impressed upon hearing that Cesario is of a noble upbringing. She sends Cesario back to Orsino with the message that she can not love Orsino, but bids Cesario to visit her again. To ensure this, Olivia sends Malvolio after Cesario with a ring she claims Cesario left behind.

Meanwhile, a man named Antonio has been caring for Sebastian on the coast. Sebastian believes that his twin sister, Viola, drowned during the shipwreck, and wants to wander around for a while and mourn her. Although Antonio wishes to accompany his friend, Antonio has enemies at Orsino's court due to doing damage to Orsino's ships in the past. Despite the danger, Antonio follows Sebastian into Illyria.

Malvolio catches up with Cesario and admonishes him for being careless and leaving the ring behind, ultimately demanding that he stays away from Olivia. Viola begins to realise the trouble her disguise as Cesario is causing, and she finds herself caught in a love triangle. In the meantime, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are engaged in drunken revelry, which Feste joins and Maria observes. Malvolio finds them and berates them loudly. This leads Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Feste and Maria to plan a prank on Malvolio for revenge.

Orsino senses that Cesario is in love. Upon listening to a love song sung by Feste, Orsino once again requests Cesario to go to Olivia and convince her of Orsino's love for her. Cesario tries to explain gently to him that Olivia does not reciprocate his love, but this does not dissuade Orsino. Instead, Orsino sends Cesario with a jewel to give to Olivia.

In Olivia's garden, Malvolio is wondering aloud what it would be like to be married to Olivia and have her wealth and status. As he does so, he finds letters that he thinks are from Olivia but were originally planted as a prank by Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and a servant named Fabian. In the letters, Olivia makes a veiled comment about being in love with someone she cannot name but provides a hint: 'MOAI' (act 2, scene 5). She wishes they would profess their love for her by dressing in a cross-garter and stockings and smiling incessantly. Malvolio believes that Olivia is in love with him and plans on doing as she requests in the letter.

Cross-garter and stockings: an accessory that includes stockings overlapped by a pair of garters that twist around the leg to look like crosses.

When Cesario visits Olivia once again, Olivia begs him to not bring any more declarations of love from Orsino, as she is in love with Cesario. Cesario answers that he does not love her or any other woman and that he can no longer return to visit Olivia. Olivia begs him to return, indicating either that she can persuade Cesario or that she can be persuaded to love Orsino – either way, she is desperate to see Cesario again.

Meanwhile, Sir Andrew is unhappy as Olivia has favoured Cesario over him, and he wants to leave. Sir Toby and Fabian persuade Sir Andrew to not leave but instead challenge Cesario to a duel. Sir Andrew agrees and Sir Toby promises to deliver the challenge. As Sir Andrew leaves to write the letter, Maria enters and explains that Malvolio is dressed as the letter instructed him to and is smiling away. Everyone leaves to go see Malvolio.

Antonio catches up with Sebastian and offers to accompany him. He gives his money to Sebastian to look after. Sebastian decides to go into town, and the two men agree to meet in an hour. Olivia once again sends a servant after Cesario to bring him back. She sends for Malvolio, and upon seeing him dressed oddly and smiling, she thinks he has gone mad. Sir Toby, Maria, and Fabian lock Malvolio in a dark room.

Although Sir Toby promised to deliver Sir Andrew's challenge to Cesario, he delivers his own oral version of the challenge instead. Both parties are reluctant to fight, but Sir Toby insinuates that the other is enraged and violent, and so they unwillingly fight. Antonio, believing Cesario is Sebastian, intervenes and is arrested for doing so. He asks 'Sebastian' for his money to pay bail. This visibly confuses Cesario, while Antonio is furious that 'Sebastian' is ungrateful to Antonio for caring for him. As Antonio is being taken away, Viola realises that she was mistaken for Sebastian and begins searching for him.

Outside Olivia's home, Feste mistakes Sebastian for Cesario and tries to take him into the house. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew show up, with the latter immediately attacking Sebastian, as he also thinks this is Cesario who fled the duel. Sebastian quickly gains the upper hand, and Sir Andrew begs him for mercy. Sir Toby then threatens Sebastian but, before they fight, Olivia shows up and apologises for Sir Toby and Sir Andrew's behaviour, ushering a confused Sebastian into her house.

Meanwhile, Feste disguises himself as a priest named 'Sir Topas' to further torment Malvolio, who claims he is sane. Sir Toby thinks the prank has gone too far and fears that Olivia will throw him out of the household if she finds out how they have treated Malvolio. Feste finally gets Malvolio the paper he requested to write to Olivia.

Further confusion ensues at Olivia's house when Orsino arrives with Cesario, and Antonio is also brought there with the duke's officers. Antonio claims Cesario, who he has mistaken for Sebastian, betrayed him despite the care Antonio gave him over the past weeks. Orsino dismisses Antonio's claim, as Cesario has been in his service for the past few months. Olivia arrives and spots Cesario, claiming that he is her new husband, which the priest attests to, although it is really Sebastian who was present at the ceremony. This greatly upsets Orsino, who is about to banish Cesario and Olivia in a rage, till Sir Andrew and Sir Toby arrive. Sir Andrew accuses Cesario of wounding him, despite Cesario's claims that he did no such thing. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew leave in search of a doctor.

Eventually, Sebastian enters, apologising for wounding Sir Andrew. He is overjoyed upon seeing Antonio, and everyone else looks from Cesario to Sebastian as the twins begin to recognise each other, too. All the pieces fall into place, as everyone realises that Cesario is Viola. Orsino also now understands that, in their past conversations, Viola has been telling him that she is in love with him. Olivia realises that she has been married to Sebastian, and not Cesario/Viola. The play finally ends with Sir Toby marrying Maria and a double wedding celebration of Orsino's marriage to Viola and Sebastian's marriage to Olivia.

Twelfth Night: characters

Orsino

Orsino is the duke of Illyria. He is lovesick for Olivia and relies heavily on Cesario to deliver declarations of love to Olivia on his behalf.

Viola/Cesario

Viola disguises herself as Cesario, a pageboy, to serve Orsino. She quickly wins Orsino's trust, and they have long, often stimulating conversations. Viola is in love with Orsino, and when it is revealed that she was disguised as Cesario, Orsino realises she loves him and the two are married.

Pageboy: a pageboy is an attendant to a nobleman or noblewoman.

Olivia

Olivia is a countess in Illyria who has vowed to mourn her dead brother for seven years and refuses to meet potential suitors during this time. She falls in love with Cesario and, mistaking Sebastian for Cesario, gets married to him. She comes across as, strong, passionate, and very emotional. She is not afraid to openly declare her love for Cesario. She is also compassionate and just.

Sebastian

Sebastian is Viola's twin brother who is rescued and cared for by Antonio. He is friendly and loyal, as shown by his relationship with Antonio and his decision to mourn Viola, who he thinks drowned at sea.

Antonio

A sea captain, Antonio rescues Sebastian and they become close friends.

Twelfth Night: quotes

Duke Orsino: If music be the food of love, play on,

Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.

(Act 1, Scene 1)

These lines are spoken by Duke Orsino who wants to overdose on love. He is in love with Olivia to the point of pain, and he does not want to feel any desire to be loved by her in return, as he cannot help his lovesickness.

Viola: Make me a willow cabin at your gate

And call upon my soul within the house,

Write loyal cantons of contemnèd love,

And sing them loud even in the dead of night;

Hallow your name to the reverberate hills,

And make the babbling gossip of the air

Cry out ’Olivia!’ O, you should not rest

Between the elements of air and earth

But you should pity me

(Act 1, Scene 5)

Uttered by Viola disguised as Cesario, these lines are significant as they mark the beginning of Olivia's infatuation with Cesario. Cesario deviates from the speech planned with Orsino to deliver his messages of love for Olivia, and instead passionately launches into these lines, which makes Olivia far more interested in the messenger than the message itself.

Viola: This fellow is wise enough to play the fool;

And to do that well craves a kind of wit:

He must observe their mood on whom he jests,

The quality of persons, and the time,

And, like the haggard, check at every feather

That comes before his eye. This is a practise

As full of labour as a wise man’s art

For folly that he wisely shows is fit;

But wise men, folly-fall’n, quite taint their wit.

(Act 3, Scene 1)

Viola takes note of Feste, noting how it takes a wise man to play the fool or the jester, as he must observe those around him and accordingly tailor his entertainment. As for 'wise men,' on the other hand – fooling them makes only them look foolish, unlike the deliberate foolishness of Feste.

Feste: [...] I say there is no darkness but ignorance.

(Act 4, Scene 2)

Feste says this when he is tricking Malvolio into thinking he has gone mad. These lines imply that man is unable to see the truth because of denial. This is perhaps because Malvolio is locked into a dark room and tricked into thinking he is mad, to which Feste says that it is not literal darkness, but man's ignorance that is responsible for being blinded.

Twelfth Night: themes

Most of the action and comic relief in Twelfth Night is a result of mistaken identities and increasing confusion amidst its characters, which finally unravels as all the characters come together at Olivia's home. Although the play was written approximately 400 years ago, the themes related to gender confusion and the fickleness of love are still relevant today.

The gender confusion stems from Viola's disguise. However, it is important to note that this disguise did not come with malign intent. Despite being in love with Orsino herself, Viola, dressed as Cesario, does speak to Olivia in favour of Orsino. Also, notably towards the end, Orsino expresses curiosity on seeing Cesario, whom he grew close to, dressed as a woman. This curiosity likely mirrors that of the audience, to whom also Viola has almost always appeared in disguise. It also indicates the play on gender in the drama.

The theme of love is layered in Twelfth Night. Some characters, such as Orsino and Olivia, express deep love but are fickle and change their mind about the objects of their affections, implying that they are more inclined towards the emotion of love rather than towards any specific person. On the other hand, Viola seems to harbour genuine love, as she is willing to sacrifice her own love for Orsino to see him happy and united with whom he loves. Sir Toby, on the other hand, doesn't marry for love, but he is enamoured by Maria's wit, which is in itself a reason for his affection towards her. The play also nods to love between siblings, as indicated by Olivia's vow to mourn for her brother, and the loss experienced by Viola and Sebastian when they thought the other twin had been lost at sea.

Twelfth Night - Key takeaways

  • Twelfth Night is a comedy written by William Shakespeare.
  • The main characters include Orsino, Viola, Sebastian, Olivia and Antonio.
  • The play is about a woman, who dresses up as a page and communicates messages of love from Duke Orsino to Countess Olivia. The disguise causes her to be caught up in a love triangle, and the arrival of her twin brother only builds up the confusion. At the end of the play, the disguise is revealed and things fall into place. The play ends with a double wedding celebration.
  • Gender confusion and love are the main themes of Twelfth Night


1 Heather Lynn Wright, '"Sit back down where you belong, in the corner of my bar with your high heels on": The use of crossdressing in order to achieve female agency in Shakespeare's transvestite comedies.' Gardner-Webb University, 2011.

Twelfth Night

The play Twelfth Night is mainly about the confusion and comedy that is caused by a woman who is disguised as a pageboy and delivers messages of love between two characters.

Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night to add to his repertoire of comedies, which were often performed for Queen Elizabeth I. He was inspired by numerous other texts, including 'Apollonius and Silla' (1581) and GI'Ingannati (1532).

The play is about a woman, who dresses up as a page and communicates messages of love from Duke Orsino to Countess Olivia. The disguise causes her to be caught up in a love triangle, and the arrival of her twin brother only builds up the confusion. At the end of the play, the disguise is revealed and things fall into place. The play ends with a double wedding celebration.

Orsino, one of the main characters in Twelfth Night is the Duke of Illyria.

The play is called Twelfth Night, which is a reference to the festival of the Eve of Feast of Epiphany, which is the twelfth night after Christmas, when people engage in revelry and merry-making.

Final Twelfth Night Quiz

Question

Who wrote the play Twelfth Night?

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Answer

William Shakespeare

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Question

What does the title of the play refer to?

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Answer

The twelfth night after Christmas

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Question

Who dresses up as a pageboy in Twelfth Night?

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Answer

Viola

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Question

Which of the following is a theme of Twelfth Night?

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Answer

Gender confusion

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Question

Who is the victim of an elaborate prank in Twelfth Night?

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Answer

Malvolio

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Question

Who does Sebastian marry in Twelfth Night?

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Answer

Olivia

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Question

What is the genre of the play Twelfth Night?

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Answer

Comedy

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Question

Which of the following plays is NOT a 'transvestite play' by Shakespeare?

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Answer

Julius Caesar

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Question

Which character entertains the citizens of Illyria in the play?

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Answer

Feste

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Question

Who does Sir Toby wish his niece, Olivia will marry?

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Answer

Sir Andrew

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