Character Analysis in Twelfth Night
Character Analysis Examples in Twelfth Night:
Act I - Scene I
"A brother's dead love, which she would keep fresh And lasting in her sad remembrance...." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Olivia’s sadness and ardent commitment to keeping that sadness “fresh” in her “remembrance” can be seen as a pose of melancholy. Like Orsino who affects the tropes of love-sickness, Olivia plays the role of melancholy. Together, these two characters represent the two sides of theatrical performance: tragedy and comedy.
"If music be the food of love, play on;..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Orsino opens the play in an overly melodramatic exclamation of love. Orsino claims that he wants to be so stuffed full with his own love that it exceeds his boundaries and he dies. This pose of love sets the play in a comedic sphere in which the characters are so hyperbolic and ridiculous that they are not meant to be taken seriously. With characters such as Orsino opening the play, the audience understands that they must suspend their disbelief about the comedic, slapstick situations that the characters get themselves into.
Act I - Scene II
"What else may hap to time I will commit; Only shape thou silence to my wit...." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Viola has decided to impersonate a male servant (a eunuch, no less) to Count Orsino, with the intention of helping him woo the grieving Olivia. Viola apparently desires to see true love fulfilled.
Act I - Scene III
"prodigal..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
The adjective “prodigal” means that someone is extravagant and recklessly wasteful with property or wealth. Maria is compounding her insult of Aguecheek by saying that he is not only foolish, but also he does not know how to responsibly use his wealth.
"fenc- ing, dancing, and bear-baiting..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Aguecheek’s chosen forms of entertainment—bear baiting, dancing, fencing— were considered low forms of pastime. That he engages in these forms of pleasure once again shows an inversion of the social order: he is behaving like a common person even though he is a nobleman.
"Pourquoi..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Pourquoi means “why” in French. In this time English was not an international language. Latin and French were taught so that nobles could communicate outside the borders of England. In using French, Toby asserts a certain level of education. However, notice that it occurs within a humorous drunken conversation rather than one of substance.
"Is that the meaning of ‘accost’..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
This exchange about the word “accost” reveals Aguecheek’s lack of knowledge. Aguecheek does not know the meaning of the word and mistakes it for Maria’s surname. This demonstrated lack of education is another way in which the play reveals a reversal of the social order: as a nobleman Aguecheek should be well educated but he is not.
" he's a very fool, and a prodigal...." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Though his status as a nobleman should mean that Aguecheek has outstanding qualities, Toby describes him as common and Maria remarks on his foolishness. Aguecheek’s prodigal and ordinary nature upsets the social order: his wealth and status do not distinguish him from the common rabble.
"these clothes are good enough to drink in; and so be these(10) boots too: ..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Sir Toby is introduced as a drunkard and a fool. This characterization contradicts Toby’s social status as a noble “Sir.” Toby seems to openly mock social conventions of dress when he states that his aristocratic clothes are “good enough” for a drunk.
Act I - Scene IV
"It shall become thee well to act my woes;..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Orsino’s command touches on the theme of performance, especially emotions as a type of performance. This further suggests that Orsino’s love for Olivia is more of a pose of love that anyone can assume. Viola is able to “act his woes” because he is also acting.
Act I - Scene V
"I have taken great pains to con it. ..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
“Con” means both to speak persuasively and to deceive or swindle. Both meanings come from the ability to know, to have power over others because of one’s knowledge. Viola’s use of this word demonstrates the power that her wit gives her over Olivia and the other characters in the play.
"MALVOLIO..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Malvolio cannot give a simple answer to this question. Instead he uses metaphors to talk in circles and demonstrate his abundance of education and knowledge. This shows that Malvolio likes to hear himself talk and show off his education. These qualities do not endear him to the audience.
"I wear not(50) motley in my brain...." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Though many other characters in the play rely on costumes and perceptions to shape their identities, Feste offers a counter example with a metaphor. Feste does not wear “motley” on his brain, meaning his jester costume does not characterize his witty mind. In other words, his clothing, or outward appearance, does not characterize his inner personality.
"‘Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.’..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Here, Feste claims that he would rather be seen as a witty fool than a “foolish wit,” meaning someone who acts foolish in trying to seem witty. This chiasmus underscores the theme of social inversion present throughout this play. Feste claims that “foolish wit” is more dangerous than a “witty fool” because a “foolish wit” falls from a privileged position and dishonors that position.
"Quinapalus..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
“Quinapalus” is an invented philosopher that Feste uses to comically demonstrate his learned nature and make fun of the tendency to reference “authorities” in elevated jargon. This jargon elevates the fool to the educational status of the nobility with whom he interacts. This wordplay shapes Feste’s character and signals to the audience that he is the smartest person in the play: he is able to play with social boundaries by manipulating the meaning of words.
"Doth he not mend?..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Feste has just told Olivia that since her brother is in heaven, she shouldn’t be in mourning. Olivia’s question here is directed at Malvolio, asking him if he thinks Feste is becoming a better fool. Feste’s jests have lifted Olivia’s spirits somewhat, but Malvolio’s reply reveals him to be humorless and self-absorbed.
" if Sir Toby would leave drinking, thou wert as witty a piece of Eve's flesh as any in Illyria...." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Here, Feste points out the disarray within the social order. He claims that Maria, a servant, is the cleverest woman in Illyria, and this makes her a suitable wife for Sir Toby, a nobleman. In the hierarchical social system of Early Modern England, a servant marrying a nobleman would have been prohibited. However, because these characters do not conform to the expectations of their social positions—Sir Toby is a drunk and Maria is witty—Feste can logically suggest this subversion of the social order.
"Between the elements of air and earth, But you should pity me...." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Viola, as Cesario, tells Olivia what she would do if she loved Olivia as much as Orsino: write poems of love, sing them through the night, and cry “Olivia” so loudly it would echo off the hills. Viola’s speech is beautiful and true compared to Orsino’s tired, clichéd speeches on love and lust, and it does the one thing that Orsino’s cannot: it makes Olivia fall in love. Viola appears to speak from the heart, using natural imagery, and since she is a woman, she appears able to find ways to appeal to what Olivia likes in a way that Orsino never could.
"The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
The fool is telling Olivia that if her brother really is in heaven she should not mourn him quite so much. He refers to her as a fool, revealing a more familiar relationship between the two characters.
Act II - Scene I
"If you will not murder me for my love, let me be(30) your servant...." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
While Sebastian and Antonio’s relationship could be read as a restoration of the social order, it could also be read through a romantic lens: Antonio’s devotion to Sebastian could be a sign of homoerotic love. This love would explain Antonio’s hyperbolic loyalty.
"though I seem to drown her remembrance again with more...." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Sebastian recognizes that his melancholy “drowns” the memory of his sister. Unlike Olivia, who cannot recognize that her excessive melancholy tarnishes the memory of her brother, Sebastian honors Viola by realizing that his tears will do her no good.
"she bore a mind that envy could not but call fair...." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Sebastian recalls many of his sister’s better qualities and begins to cry as he does so. In this line, we learn that Viola has always had a keen wit, which helps explain how good she is at deception. To emphasize how creative and powerful her mind is, Sebastian personifies the emotion Envy to say that even the essence of jealousy would consider Viola’s wit and cunning impressive.
"for some hours before you took me from the breach of the sea was my sister drowned...." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
This means that Antonio saved Sebastian from drowning. This might suggest that Sebastian would then be indebted to Antonio for saving his life. However, throughout the rest of the scene we will see Antonio’s extreme dedication to Sebastian. This marks a restoration of the social order: Sebastian's servant Antonio is devoted because Sebastian is his master.
"my determinate voyage is mere extravagancy...." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
The adjective “determinate” here refers to a voyage, or journey, that has a fixed destination or purpose. Since Sebastian says that such a voyage is mere extravagancy, meaning in this usage a wandering beyond bounds or out of one's course, he is saying that his goal is to wander without any particular location in mind. That Sebastian says this with such language reveals his education and pretentiousness.
"therefore it charges me in manners the rather to express myself...." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Sebastian reveals his identity and gives up deception, disguise, and performance in order to assert his aristocratic “manners.” In this way, Sebastian becomes a symbol of aristocratic order: his appearance in the play signals a return to order contrary to the social inversion that characterizes the rest of the relationships in the play.
Act II - Scene III
"on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause(140) to work...." See in text (Act II - Scene III)
Here, Maria claims that she will use Malvolio’s vanity to trick him into making a fool out of himself. Notice that while the other characters do not get punished for their socially subversive actions—public drunkenness, crossdressing, speaking casually with social superiors—Malvolio pays for his excessive vanity and social aspirations.
"Pigrogromitus, of the Vapians passing the equinoctial of Queubus..." See in text (Act II - Scene III)
This is another instance in which a character invents scholarly sounding names to sound more educated than he is. This also serves the purpose of making fun of the other characters on stage because they do not catch his fake reference.
Act II - Scene IV
"But mine is all as hungry as the sea, ..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Orsino’s final speech contradicts what he said earlier about men being fickle in their love. This is a sign of Orsino’s weak reasoning. When Viola offers a counter claim to his argument about women, Orsino changes his opinions in order to prove her wrong. This demonstrates that Orsino is not only fickle in love but in opinion, and it shows that he does not like to be proven wrong.
"Now the melancholy god protect thee;..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
By “melancholy god” Feste means Saturn the Roman god of sadness and melancholy. Notice that Feste remarks on Orsino’s sadness rather than his love as the dominant characteristic of his personality. This further reinforces Orsino’s investment in the pose of love rather than the feeling of love.
"wears she to him,..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Notice that Orsino’s description of a woman in love demonstrates his lack of consideration for her character or personality. He says that she “wears to him” meaning she adapts herself to suit him. Orsino imagines as wife who only lives to serve, which may explain his seemingly empty love for Olivia and the monetary metaphors he uses to describe her.
Act II - Scene V
"If I could make that resemble something in me,..." See in text (Act II - Scene V)
Notice that Malvolio interprets the words in this letter to match the fantasy in his head. This is another example of women’s with and power in this play. Like Viola, Maria knows exactly what to say to manipulate the mind of a man.
"M, O, A, I, doth sway my life.’..." See in text (Act II - Scene V)
All of the letters in Olivia’s fake letter are in Malvolio’s name. However, because they are out of order, it takes a leap of imagination on Malvolio’s part to make the letter explicitly about him. This reveals Malvolio’s ambition and the blindness it induces within him. Some scholars have looked at the random letters as an anagram for “I am Olivia.”
"overweening ..." See in text (Act II - Scene V)
“Overweening” means excessively arrogant. Toby’s insult here suggests that Malvolio’s chief crime is aspiring to a social class and future that his birth does not permit. Malvolio too readily believes that Olivia would be in love with him and that he will be able to achieve a higher social class.
"practising behavior to his own shadow this half hour..." See in text (Act II - Scene V)
One of the first insults that these men lodge against Malvolio is that he is “practicing” aristocratic behavior with his shadow. They take this as a sign that Malvolio has social ambitions and that he is refining his manners to get ahead. However, one could read these actions sympathetically and recognize that as a servant Malvolio may simply be practicing qualities that he needs to survive.
"be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some(130) achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em...." See in text (Act II - Scene V)
Malvolio reads Maria's letter believing his mistress Olivia has written it for him. The letter entreats him to do a number of ridiculous things in order to prove his love for her and uses this now famous phrase to convince him that his doubts are unfounded. Malvolio's readiness to accept the legitimacy of this letter and these requests demonstrates his ambitious and pretentious nature.
Act III - Scene I
"A murderous guilt shows not itself more soon Than love that would seem hid: love's night is noon..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
This line is ironic for two reasons. First, Olivia cannot see that she too is missing a big piece of the story because she is so in love; much like a “guilt of the murderer,” Viola’s disguise is better hid than Olivia’s feelings. Second, Viola’s love for Orsino is not “noon” or very easy to see. The irony in this line is that Olivia is quite right about her own love but misses all of the deeper meanings in her statement.
"Love sought is good, but given unsought is better..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Olivia believes that love that has been sought for is "good," but love given freely is superior. It is this freely-given love that she offers Cesario, even though Cesario (Viola) has scorned her.
Act III - Scene II
"so much blood in his liver as will clog the foot(55) of a flea..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
This insult suggests that there is very little blood in Andrew’s liver—only enough to “clog the foot of a [tiny] flea.” In Early Modern England, someone with a colorless liver was thought to be a coward. Toby suggests here that there will never actually be a fight between Cesario and Andrew because Andrew is a coward.
Act III - Scene III
"But jealousy what might befall your travel, ..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
In this context, “jealousy” means having anxiety for someone’s well being. However, it is generally used to mean apprehension over rivalry in love. In this way, Antonio’s use of the word “jealousy” both expresses his concern for Sebastian’s well being and suggests his pursuit is one of a lover, rather than just a friend.
"my desire, More sharp than filed steel, did spur me forth;..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Antonio’s claim that “filed steel,” meaning a military sword, was less coercive than his desire to get him to re-enter Illyria. As we will see later, Antonio is a wanted man in Illyria. This metaphor reveals why he would risk his life in order to help Sebastian with his quest: he is full of desire and in love with the man.
Act III - Scene IV
"A fiend like thee might bear my soul to hell...." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
By this Olivia means that Cesario’s behavior is similar to a demon or a hell hound. Notice that her grief over Cesario’s rejection is similar to Orsino’s melodramatic pose of love for Olivia.
Act IV - Scene II
"no way approve his opinion..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
Ironically, Malvolio’s reasoning here is what makes him seem insane. He says that he cannot believe Pythagoras’s theory of the transmigration of souls because there is no proof of it. Feste uses this need for rational thought against Malvolio taking it as a sign of lacking faith.
"old hermit of Prague..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
The “hermit of Prague” is a sage that the clown invents. This is another instance in which the clown is trying to sound like a wise man. It serves to mock Malvolio as well because he does not recognize that this is not a real person.
"Bonos dies..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
“Bonos dies” is a mispronunciation that mocks the Latin for "Good day." Feste poses as a curate, but his language would betray him to anyone else.
Act V - Scene I
"And I, most jocund, apt, and willingly, To do you rest, a thousand deaths would die...." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Viola’s flippant response to Orsino’s rage signals to the audience how we should hear him: his anger is as empty a performance as his melancholic love. Orsino is performing rage in much the same way he has been performing for the rest of the play. Therefore, this is an empty threat that shows Orsino is not to be taken seriously as a character.
"Come, boy, with me; my thoughts are ripe in mischief:(130) I'll sacrifice the lamb that I do love, To spite a raven's heart within a dove...." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Orsino creates a metaphor in which the “lamb that I do love” is Cesario while Olivia is the “dove” with the heart of a cruel raven. In his rage, Orsino threatens to kill Cesario in order to prevent Olivia from loving him. This speech might strike the audience as a strangely serious or violent moment within this play, that is uncharacteristic of Orsino.
"I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you...." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
In this last scene, the characters are revealing their deceptions and removing their disguises. While deception has worked positively for some characters, Malvolio realizes that he has been thoroughly and cruelly tricked. His claim for revenge here is the only thing that disrupts an otherwise traditional ending of a comedy. It is likely that Shakespeare used Malvolio, a generally unlikeable character, to show how love can be cruel and unforgiving and to remind his audience that the difficult realities of a class structure remain intact despite the happy ending for the nobles.
"Give me thy hand; And let me see thee in thy woman's weeds...." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Orsino immediately transfers his love from Olivia, who he has been doggedly pursuing for most of the play, to a woman he believed to be a male eunuch until moments ago. Thus the complicated love triangle has been untangled, and all parties involved are (presumably) happily paired off.