Allusion in Twelfth Night

Allusion Examples in Twelfth Night:

Act I - Scene I 2

"when the rich golden shaft..."   (Act I - Scene I)

The wooden length of an arrow is called a shaft, and since Orsino includes the adjective "golden" in this speech about love, this is clearly a reference to the golden arrow of Cupid, the Roman god of love.

"I turn'd into a hart;..."   (Act I - Scene I)

Orsino compares himself to a stag being hunted to allude to the Diana Actaeon myth. In the myth, Actaeon comes across Diana, the goddess of chastity, bathing naked in a pool. He watches her for too long and she punishes him by turning him into a stag. He is then torn apart by his own hunting dogs.

"Arion..."   (Act I - Scene II)

In mythology, Arion was an islander from Lesbos who won a musical composition in Sicily. On his return trip home, the sailors navigating his boat plotted to kill him in order to steal the prizes he had won at the competition. Arion could either commit suicide or be thrown overboard. In his final act, he sang to Apollo and summoned dolphins. He dove into the sea and was carried to Poseidon’s sanctuary by one of the dolphins.

"Elysium..."   (Act I - Scene II)

Elysium is a conception of the afterlife from antiquity. It was different from Hades, the underworld where all mortal souls retired, because it was reserved for mortals related to gods, heroes, and poets. It was a reward for the righteous few chosen by the gods to lead a happy, indulgent afterlife.

"red and white..."   (Act I - Scene V)

Red and white are colors used throughout Petrarchan love poetry to symbolize love and chastity. They were particularly poignant colors in the English sonnet tradition because the flag of St. George, the patron saint of England, is a red cross on a white background. Viola’s use of “red and white” in this speech references this poetic tradition and elevates Olivia’s beauty to the level of these paragons from famous love poems.

"In delay there lies no plenty; Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty..."   (Act II - Scene III)

This song draws on themes of carpe diem poetry. Carpe diem poetry was a type of love poetry in Elizabethan England in which a speaker would tell his beloved about the ephemerality of life and beauty in order to convince her to “seize the day”—generally meaning to engage in a romantic relationship with the speaker.

"For women are as roses, whose fair flower Being once display'd, doth fall that very hour...."   (Act II - Scene IV)

In love poetry, women are frequently compared to roses and flowers in order to demonstrate their delicate beauty and tragically ephemeral youth. Most love poetry uses this comparison in order to show that beauty is only precious and revered because it is fleeting. However, Orsino seems to miss this point in this metaphor. He sees the ephemerality of female beauty as a negative quality of loving women.

"Lucrece..."   (Act II - Scene V)

Malvolio recognizes the wax seal of Lucrece, a woman who was raped in Rome after her husband boasted of her chastity. Lucrece committed suicide after the rape in order to prevent other unchaste women from using her story as an excuse for their bad behavior. Because Lucrece is a symbol of chastity and feminine repression of desire, Malvolio perpetrates a type of violation in breaking this seal.

"a Cressida to this Troilus...."   (Act III - Scene I)

Troilus and Cressida is a medieval story told about the Trojan War that Shakespeare turned into a play in 1602. The play tells the story of two Trojan lovers, Troilus and Cressida, who are separated when the Trojan army trades Cressida to the Greeks for one of their soldiers. Cressida is taken by a Greek soldier as a lover, and Troilus is sent into battle with a broken heart.

"Lord Pandarus of Phrygia..."   (Act III - Scene I)

Lord Pandarus is a character from Homer’s Iliad. While he was only portrayed as an impetuous warrior in the original story, medieval writers transformed his character into a depraved man who scandalously facilitates the affair between Troilus and Cressida.

"Egyptians in their fog...."   (Act IV - Scene II)

This is a Biblical allusion to the Book of Exodus. In the story, Pharaoh refuses to let the people of Israel go. So Moses sends a dark thick fog over Egypt that blocks out the sun for three days. All the Israelites had lights in their homes.

" Belzebub at the stave's end ..."   (Act V - Scene I)

Belzebub is one of Satan’s chief demons in Christian theology. Feste uses this reference to say that Malvolio has kept the devil at some distance.