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Themes in Twelfth Night
Themes Examples in Twelfth Night:
Act I - Scene I
"so full of shapes is fancy That it alone is high fantastical...." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Orsino muses on love in this opening speech, lamenting its melancholy nature while noting that it manifests itself in different ways, which makes it magical. While dramatic and excessive, this speech not only gives the audience insight into Orsino’s views on love, but it also foreshadows the many "shapes" and disguises that the characters wear during the events of Twelfth Night.
"surfeiting..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
This archaic noun refers to excessive indulgence in things like food or drink in an effort to gratify one’s appetite or senses. By wanting to surfeit himself, Orsino wishes to be overwhelmed with pleasurable things so he can distract himself from thoughts of his love, Olivia. This touches on the theme of love that runs through the play and how desire and love can be so overwhelming that he feels as if he were drowning in it.
Act I - Scene II
"Conceal me what I am, and be my aid For such disguise as haply shall become The form of my intent. ..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Viola establishes a major theme in this play when she describes how she will dress as a man: tension between one’s external and internal identity suggests that a pose can shape one’s actual identity. Her “disguise,” or external male appearance, will “form [her] intent,” or shape her interior goals.
"That were hard to compass; Because she will admit no kind of suit, No, not the Duke's...." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
The audience may wonder why Shakespeare chose to begin his play in Orsino’s court when this shipwreck is the main event that sparks the conflict in the play. When the Captain repeats the plot that was revealed in the first scene, this makes Shakespeare’s beginning more odd. One explanation for this may be the thematic importance of Orsino’s hyperbolic love. Orsino sets the tone and subject of the play on love and the effects of love. Had he begun the play with the shipwreck the audience might believe that the play was going to be about survival and grief.
Act I - Scene III
"great eater of beef..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
“Great eater” signifies a gluttony. Aguecheek eats beef excessively, so much so that it causes him to be an “ordinary man.” This comment about his eating habits touches on the theme of dangerous excess in this play.
"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.
Act I - Scene IV
"Yet, a barful strife! Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife...." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Viola’s instant love could come from Orsino’s poetic allusions in his previous speech. His use of the poetic blazon to describe Cesario invokes the motif of poetry and shows that there is no stronger power over human emotions than poetry and writing.
"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
"Methinks I feel this youth's perfections With an invisible and subtle stealth..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Notice that Olivia claims her attraction to the youth comes from his “invisible” stealth and mystery. This could be read as a comment on disguise or costuming. Because Cesario wears a costume and does not speak about his past, his “perfections” come from Olivia’s perception. She can read any of her own expectations into his appearance and background and therefore invent the perfect man.
"Unless, perchance, you come to me again,..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Notice that Olivia seems to fall in love with Cesario after he describes her using poetic metaphors, just as Viola fell in love with Orsino after he used a poetic blazon to describe her. Both instances of love underscore the theme of writing and poetry in this play.
"Give me my veil..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Before she will allow Cesario to see her, Viola has to put on her costume of mourning, the dark veil that covers her face. This underscores the importance of acting throughout the play: characters cannot simply feel an emotion, they must hyperbolically act out the emotion in order to convince all onlookers of their feeling.
"mouse of virtue..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
“Mouse” was a common term of endearment for women in this time. Feste uses this term in order to show an unusual level of closeness with Olivia, who should be his superior. This demonstrates the theme of social inversion.
"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.
" 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.
"you are now out of your text: but we will draw the curtain and show you the picture...." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Much of this scene has involved performances on the parts of all characters present. Olivia’s lifting the veil is yet another love performance, a part of Orsino’s courtship ritual. Notice how she jokes that she is lifting her veil because they are out of “text,” suggesting that her actions are not scripted. This is, however, a highly theatrical, clichéd moment. It’s as if Shakespeare were using these traditional clichés to simultaneously talk about love while satirizing them.
"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.
Act II - Scene I
"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.
"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 II
"Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we!..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Here, Viola separates women’s “frailty,” which she suggests is inherent, from an individual’s actual identity. She claims that Olivia’s love comes from her frailty, which is out of her control, rather than her person. This ability to separate individuals from their sex suggests that gender expectations are faulty: one’s actions depend more on their identity than their sex.
"I am the man: if it be so, as 'tis, Poor lady, she were better love a dream.(25) Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness,..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Here, Viola realizes that she is the object of Olivia’s desire. She is “the man.” Notice that Olivia’s love and assumptions about Viola’s identity create her manliness: her gender is constructed by the perceptions of it.
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.
"‘Hold thy peace, thou knave’ knight? I shall be constrained in't to call thee knave, knight...." See in text (Act II - Scene III)
A “knave” is a dishonest or unscrupulous man. Knights were supposed to be characterized by their chivalry and honor; however, here Feste characterizes Sir Toby as the exact opposite of these expectations. This demonstrates the inversion of the social order within this play.
"My purpose is, indeed, a horse of that colour...." See in text (Act II - Scene III)
Malvolio has just left after berating Sir Toby and Sir Andrew for excessive partying. After he leaves, Maria tells the others of a way they can trick him: she will write a love letter to Malvolio in Olivia’s handwriting. Sir Toby loves the idea, and Maria confirms the plan with this expression, agreeing that her “horse,” or “idea,” is the same “color,” or “kind,” that Sir Toby is thinking of. This plan demonstrates how deception and disguise can be used to hurt instead of to help, providing a valuable counterpoint to the disguises already in the play.
Act II - Scene IV
"Our shows are more than will; for still we prove Much in our vows, but little in our love...." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Viola refers to her love as a “show.” This metaphor further emphasizes the idea that her love is a type performance: it depends on its audience’ perception to “prove” its worthiness.
Act II - Scene V
"Why, thou hast put him in such a dream..." See in text (Act II - Scene V)
Remember that Viola claimed Olivia “had better loved a dream” when she realized that the poor woman was in love with her. Malvolio too seems lost in a dream, but unlike Olivia there are consequences to his unrealistic love. While Malvolio’s love of his superior will cause his downfall, there will be no consequences for Olivia’s misplaced love because she is an aristocrat.
"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.
"To be Count Malvolio!..." See in text (Act II - Scene V)
Malvolio’s desire to marry Olivia is an example of dangerous social ambition. While the play’s theme of social inversion shows multiple characters enact social inversion—women dressed as men, aristocrats acting like drunkards, fools being too familiar with their masters—Malvolio’s is the only one that is punished. The other instances of social inversion in this play are not lasting changes, but Malvolio marrying into a better social class would permanently change his status and the status of his children. This is a form of social inversion that was unacceptable in Elizabethan England.
Act III - Scene I
"I am not what I am...." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
This confession and its reception underscore the theme of performance in this play. Viola insists that she is not what she appears to be, but Olivia refuses to accept this reality. Olivia so believes in the performance that she mistakes Viola’s acting for reality.
"This fellow's wise enough to play the fool; And to do that well craves a kind of wit:..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Notice how the line between fool and wise man is blurred once again. Viola claims that a fool needs wisdom to successfully carry out his art. However, she characterizes this life as a type of “play,” meaning the fool is constantly performing his identity. This realization about the fool touches on the theme of performance in this play.
Act III - Scene III
"I'll be your purse-bearer,..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
The relationship between Antonio and Sebastian is a type of social reversal. Antonio, who is not of a noble class, is giving Sebastian, who is of noble blood, money to spend in the town. Antonio becomes Sebastian’s benefactor.
Act III - Scene IV
"Virtue is beauty, but the beauteous evil Are empty trunks, o'erflourished by the devil...." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Here, Antonio remarks on the cruelty in beauty. It looks like virtue, but it can give a false impression of an evil interior. The theme of performance and disguise resurfaces here to show that love based on looks is folly: looks can be deceiving.
"knight..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Toby tells Cesario that Sir Andrew is a knight in order to scare him. The audience knows that Sir Andrew is an innocuous fool. However, his title is enough to scare Cesario. This reinforces the importance of titles and social positions in this play.
"Go, hang yourselves all! you are idle shallow things: I am not of your element. ..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
By “element” Malvolio suggests that he is made of better stuff than these people. Malvolio again transgresses the social order: he believes his actions and the substance of his character elevates him above Toby, Fabian, and Maria. However, the social caste system of Early Modern England was determined by birth, not character. Thus, Malvolio is punished for trying to subvert the social order.
"how hollow the fiend speaks within him! did not I tell you? Sir Toby, my lady prays you to have a care of him...." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Though Maria wrote the letter that convinced Malvolio to act like a fool, Fabian, and Maria all perform ignorance in this scene. Their performance is a type of deception that causes Malvolio to appear possessed.
"Good Maria, let this fellow be looked to. ..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Olivia tells Maria to lock Malvolio up because of his madness and forward advances. Malvolio is punished because he overtly tries to subvert the social order. He gives a “bad performance” of love and his audience punishes him for it.
"the man is tainted in his wits...." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Notice again that there is a fine line between foolishness and wittiness. Maria suggests in this line that Malvolio’s wits have spoiled his mind and driven him mad.
Act IV - Scene I
"Nothing that is so is so...." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
The fool unwittingly states the major theme of the play in this line: disguise and performance change the inherent nature of people and feelings. Feste’s statement serves two purposes. First, it reminds the audience that they are watching a play and that everything performed is not real. Second, the actual characters within the play are constantly performing and therefore never who they appear to be.
Act IV - Scene III
"That they may fairly note this act of mine!..." See in text (Act IV - Scene III)
Notice that Olivia’s performance of marriage must be witnessed in order to be valid. She notes that the heavens are watching because it is an otherwise secret marriage.
"For though my soul disputes well with my sense, ..." See in text (Act IV - Scene III)
The strange predicament that Sebastian finds himself in demonstrates one of the main themes of the play. His reality, what he perceives, disagrees with what he knows to be true.
Act V - Scene I
"queen...." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Notice that Viola never changes back into her “woman’s weeds” in this play. She remains Cesario in attire. However, Orsino’s final lines can be read as breaking the fourth wall: the audience can decide whether or not they want to see Viola as Cesario or as Orsino’s wife at the end of the play. The audience can decide how important external dress and performance is.
"Cesario, come: For so you shall be, while you are a man; But when in other habits you are seen,(400) Orsino's mistress, and his fancy's queen...." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Here, Orsino claims that Viola will be defined by the perception of her: when in men’s clothes she will be Cesario and when in women’s clothes she will be Orsino’s wife and the master of his love. He essentially claims that she will perform forever: identity is a performance that is solidified by the perception of others.
"laughter than revenge; If that the injuries be justly weigh'd(380) That have on both sides past...." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Fabian rewrites the history of the abuses they have brought against Malvolio. He claims that their performance was meant to induce laughter not hatred; it was merely the performance of abuse rather than actual abuse. This claim resembles a theme of the play in which something’s essence, in this case the hatred of Malvolio, is disguised as something else, in this case a funny joke or prank.
"But this my masculine usurp'd attire, Do not embrace me till each circumstance(260) Of place, time, fortune, do cohere and jump That I am Viola: ..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Notice that reclaiming her identity involves changing her clothes. She re-establishes her character by taking off her “masculine attire” and putting on her “woman's weeds,” meaning women’s clothing. Though her conversation with Sebastian moved identification from exterior performance to interior identity, this speech again focuses on the importance of perception in one’s identity: she cannot be Viola unless people see her as Viola.
"O, that record is lively in my soul!(255) ..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Sebastian and Viola’s collective memories begin to restore order in the play. They tell intimate stories to each other in order to recognize their identities. This recognition is based on their interior knowledge rather than their outward show; therefore it is able to combat the disguise and performance that has clouded identity throughout the play.
"One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons; A natural perspective, that is, and is not...." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
“Natural perspective” here means an optical illusion created by nature. Orsino realizes that he cannot trust his perspective because what “is,” what he can see, “is not,” is not what it actually is. Orsino’s lines reiterate the main theme of this play: disguises distort reality and prevent the characters from truly knowing each other.
"After him I love More than I love these eyes, more than my life, More, by all mores, than e'er I shall love wife...." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Viola’s lines here demonstrate the blindness caused by her disguise and the other character’s gullible nature. Orsino is blind to what loves him and Olivia is blind to what she loves. Neither sees through Viola’s disguise and therefore they do not hear her.
"When your young nephew Titus lost his leg: Here in the streets, desperate of shame and state,(60) In private brabble did we apprehend him..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
The First Officer reminds Orsino that this “skilled fighter” has humiliated noblemen. His nephew Titus not only lost the fight but lost his leg, and Andrew lost a fight with him in the streets. Antonio’s chief crime is usurping his class.
"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.