Vocabulary in Twelfth Night

Vocabulary Examples in Twelfth Night:

Act I - Scene I 1

"surfeiting..."   (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.

"When my tongue blabs, then let mine eyes not see...."   (Act I - Scene II)

The Captain has agreed to introduce Viola as a eunuch to Orsino, and in this line he makes an oath to demonstrate his willingness to keep her secret. The verb “to blab” means to chatter or reveal something indiscreetly. In other words, the Captain is saying “if I tell anyone your secret, then may I be blinded for not keeping my promise to you.”

"abjured..."   (Act I - Scene II)

In this context, the verb “to abjure” means that Olivia has withdrawn, or left, the company of possible suitors because of her grief.

"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.

"eunuch..."   (Act I - Scene II)

An “eunuch” is a man who has been castrated. Historically, this has been done for a variety of reasons: to young boys to preserve a soprano voice or to employ men as guards for women’s living quarters. Eunuchs were symbolic of sexually innocuous or effeminate men.

"prodigal..."   (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.

"it hangs like flax on a distaff; and I hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs and spin(95) it off...."   (Act I - Scene III)

Sir Toby and Maria have been teasing Aguecheek throughout this scene. Here, Aguecheek asks about his hair, and Sir Toby responds by saying it “hangs like flax on a distaff,” meaning that it is like flax thread from a spindle (which is not a compliment). Sir Toby then engages in a sexual pun, but Aguecheek does not understand the reference to syphilis (“spin it off”), a disease which causes hair loss, among other far worse things.

"kickshawses..."   (Act I - Scene III)

A “kickshaw” can refer to something that is dainty or elegant, but unsubstantial or comparatively valueless. In this context, Sir Toby uses it here to ask Aguecheek if he is good at these kinds of “kickshawses,” or “things.”

"Pourquoi..."   (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.

"coystrill..."   (Act I - Scene III)

“Coystrill” is an archaic spelling of “custrel,” a term used to call someone a worthless or contemptible person. By “he” Toby means anyone who is unwilling to drink to his niece, not Aguecheek

"there thy fixed foot shall grow Till thou have audience...."   (Act I - Scene IV)

By “fixed foot” Orsino means that Cesario will not move until he has an audience; his foot will grow heavier and more “fixed” until Olivia grants him an audience. A “foot’ is also a unit of measurement in poetry used to determine meter. A poetic foot contains one stressed syllable and one unstressed syllable. In more metaphorical terms, “foot” could be used to refer to the feet of a mathematical compass, as it does in John Donne’s “Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” In this metaphor, one foot remains fixed and the other moves around it. All three meanings emphasize that Orsino means for Cesario to root himself to one spot until he is able to speak to Olivia.

"nuncio's..."   (Act I - Scene IV)

A “nuncio” is someone who bears a message. It also signifies an ambassador for the pope who bears his will to foreign courts. Although Orsino is not saying that he is an ambassador for the pope, his use of the word “nuncio” adds a level of gravity, or emphasis, to the message he is sending.

"I have taken great pains to con it. ..."   (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.

"mouse of virtue..."   (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.

"madonna..."   (Act I - Scene V)

“Madonna” is a contronym, a word with two opposing meanings. It referred to both an extremely flirtatious and sexually loose woman or an extremely chaste woman, akin to the Virgin Mary. It was used as a respectful, or mock-respectful, form of address.

"syllogism..."   (Act I - Scene V)

A syllogism is a type of argument that applies logical reasoning to come to a conclusion based on two or more propositions that are assumed true. In Feste’s example, he’s simply using this word to ask if his logic makes sense to Olivia.

"I must catechize you for it, madonna...."   (Act I - Scene V)

The verb “to catechize” means to question or interrogate someone systematically with a particular goal in mind. For Feste, he is asking permission of Olivia to ask her a series of questions in order to prove the veracity of his claim.

"one of thy kin, has a most weak pia mater...."   (Act I - Scene V)

Feste is pleased to hear Olivia speak well of fools, saying that if she were to have a son, he hopes that son would be a very clever fool full of wit. He sharply contrasts this hypothetical son with Olivia’s kin, or relation, Sir Toby, saying that he has a weak pia mater, or “brain.”

"colours..."   (Act I - Scene V)

This is a pun on “collars” which would sound similar to the British pronunciation of “colours.” A collar, also called a “ruff,” was a piece of folded fabric that lined the top of a shirt and kept one’s doublet from becoming dirty. It was a potent symbol of wealth in the Renaissance. Here, Feste claims that he who dies does not need to fear those with wealth and power.

"my determinate voyage is mere extravagancy...."   (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.

"the malignancy of my fate might perhaps distemper yours;..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Sebastian has just said that his “stars shine darkly,” and this line further indicates that he feels as if his destiny were cursed. Here, the noun “malignancy” means baleful, unpropitious, or unfavorable; the verb “to distemper,” to disturb, to disorder, or to trouble. Sebastian worries that his ill fate will affect Antonio negatively.

"Cataian..."   (Act II - Scene III)

This phrase could refer to a name given to Northern China by medieval Europeans that signified untrustworthiness. It could also refer to European travelers who went to China and lied about the riches they found there. Toby uses this phrase to mean Malvolio is lying, and that he will not throw them out.

"I'll go burn some sack;..."   (Act II - Scene III)

The word “sack” is an old word for a particular variety of fortified wine from Spain and the Canary Islands. The most popular variety was the Sherris sack, which in England became simply known as “sherry.” The verb “to burn” here likely means “to warm up.” So, rather than going to sleep, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew decide to warm up several glasses of sherry and continue their drunken adventures.

"breast...."   (Act II - Scene III)

“Breast” in this context means a wonderful singing voice. Sir Andrew means that the fool is good at singing.

"I know my physic will work with him..."   (Act II - Scene III)

Although now an archaic definition, at the time the play was written the word “physic” was used to figuratively refer to a mental, moral, or spiritual remedy. So, Maria is saying that her prank will work to “fix” Malvolio. Although, considering he is simply trying to do his job and keep order in Olivia’s home, one might wonder how Malvolio is deserving of such treatment.

"Now let's have a catch...."   (Act II - Scene III)

A “catch” in this context is a popular tune sun in multiple parts, similar to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Toby suggests that they sing together so that they continue to party instead of going to bed.

"Marian, I say! a stoup of wine!..."   (Act II - Scene III)

Having thoroughly chided Malvolio, Sir Toby calls for “a stoup of wine.” Considering the festive atmosphere, one would assume a stoup to be a rather large amount of wine, which would be correct: a stoup is a drinking vessel approximately the size of a pail or bucket.

"Sophy...."   (Act II - Scene V)

A “sophy” was a Shah of Persia. Fabian uses this metaphor to hyperbolically assert that he delights in the trick they they are playing on Malvolio. It is similar to saying “I would not give this up for all the money in the world.”

"Now is the woodcock near the gin...."   (Act II - Scene V)

This is a saying that means “Now the bird is near the engine”; in other words, it’s about to fall into our trap. A “woodcock” was known as a bird bred to be particularly stupid and therefore easy to catch. In this insult, Fabian is making fun of not only Malvolio’s gullible foolishness but also his parentage.

"'Slight..."   (Act II - Scene V)

“‘Slight” is an abbreviation of “God’s light,” which was a common curse in Shakespeare’s time. Use of these curses shows that these characters are base in their manners.

"overweening ..."   (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.

"That you do think you are not what you are...."   (Act III - Scene I)

This line has two meanings. Olivia hears it as “you are not actually in love with me.” But what Viola actually means is “you do not know that you are a woman in love with a woman.” Viola’s disguise causes her speech to have multiple meanings.

"SIR ANDREW: Dieu vous garde, monsieur. VIOLA: Et vous aussi; votre serviteur...."   (Act III - Scene I)

These lines mean “God save you, sir” “And you as well. I am your servant!” in French. These characters slip into French as a sign of their aristocratic class.

"Let there be gall enough in thy ink, though thou write with a goose-pen..."   (Act III - Scene II)

Sir Toby is punning on the word "gall," which in this context refers to the substance used in the making of ink. However, the word "gall" also means bitterness or disagreeableness. Sir Toby makes another joke on the term goose-pen. A goose-pen was a quill used for writing. However, Toby uses the term to insult Andrew—the goose was symbolic of foolishness.

"manakin..."   (Act III - Scene II)

By “manakin” Fabian means a dear puppet. After Sir Andrew has left the stage Toby and Fabian make it very clear that they are using Andrew for his money.

"cubiculo..."   (Act III - Scene II)

This is an archaic way to say “bedchamber” or refer to one’s sleeping quarters. It was primarily used in ancient Rome to refer to the quarters of high-status families.

"If you desire the spleen, and will laugh yourselves into(60) stitches, follow me. ..."   (Act III - Scene II)

"Stitch" in this context means to stab, as with a sharp implement or sharp feeling of pain. This meaning spawned most of our understanding of the word now including stitching in sewing, and stitching in medicine. Maria uses this metaphor to suggest that the sight they are about to see is so funny that it will make them laugh so hard they will be in pain as if they have been stabbed. Laughter was thought to be caused by the spleen, the organ thought to generate passion.

"uncurrent pay:..."   (Act III - Scene III)

“Uncurrent pay” is worthless pay. Sebastian is saying that he can only thank Antonio, he cannot pay him. He calls his thanks a worthless type of pay because a simple “thanks” is not good enough for Antonio’s devotion.

"But jealousy what might befall your travel, ..."   (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;..."   (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.

"'Slid, ..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

Similar to the common curse ‘Slight (meaning “God’s Light), this is an abbreviation for “By God’s eyelid.” These curses, while common at the time, show the base manners these characters have.

"virago..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

“Virago” is a term that is applied to women who act like men. It means to be virile. Sir Toby calls Cesario a virago in order to mock his masculinity and mock Sir Andrew for not knowing the meaning of the word. However, he does not realize that he is speaking to an actual virago since Viola is a woman dressed like a man.

"More matter for a May morning.(135)..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

This was a colloquial way of saying, “here is someone else that we can play with.” By this he means Sir Andrew.

"Go, hang yourselves all! you are idle shallow things: I am not of your element. ..."   (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.

"bawcock..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

A “bawcock” was a type of handsome rooster. Toby mocks Malvolio with this term of endearment because he compares him to a barnyard animal.

"midsummer madness..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

“Midsummer madness” is a sudden and unexplainable fit of insanity. It was believed that the midsummer moon would cause sudden madness.

"To bed? ‘Ay, sweetheart, and I'll come to thee.’..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

Malvolio misinterprets Olivia’s suggestion that he “go to bed.” She means he should lie down because he is sick, but he thinks she has asked him to go to bed with her. Notice that the multiple meanings of words here allow these two characters to drastically misinterpret each other.

"Hob, nob is his word; give't or take't...."   (Act III - Scene IV)

"Hob, nob" is Sir Toby's adaptation of the then popular phrase "hab nab." "Hab" was a shortened and colloquial way to say have, while "nab" meant not. Thus "Hab nab" was a way to say "have not," much like we might say "willy nilly" ("will I, nill I"). By this line, Sir Toby means, "have or don't have" a fight with him; give a stab or take a stab. Shakespeare's take on this saying replaced the original form and eventually came to mean to fraternize, as it does today.

"What relish is in this?..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

This is a saying that meant “what is the meaning of this?” Sebastian is confused by Olivia’s familiarity with him because he does not know that his sister has been posing as a man

"Rudesby,..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

“Rudesby” means ruffian or someone of violent and base actions. Olivia insults Sir Andrew and Sir Toby by calling them base, which is insulting because they are both noblemen.

" malapert..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

“Malapert” means insolent or lacking respect. In this insult, Toby remarks on what he believes is Sebastian’s low class, as he believes Sebastian is Cesario and a servant.

"I'll have an action of battery against him,..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

By an “action of battery,” Sir Andrew is saying that since he has had an unlawful attack upon him, he’ll likely take Sebastian (who he believes to be Cesario) to court for justice, “if there by any law in Illyria.”

"foolish Greek..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Since calling Feste a foolish fool would have been perhaps too redundant, Shakespeare employs the word “Greek” with a different meaning. In this context, a “Greek” refers to a merry person who has silly habits. When compared to the phrase "it's all Greek to me," which means that a language or idea is difficult to understand, it is easier to see how it can be used to call a person foolish or nonsensical.

"I cannot pursue with any safety this sport to the upshot...."   (Act IV - Scene II)

“Upshot” is the final shot that decides an archery match. Sir Toby argues that this should be their final prank because Olivia is so angry with him. He cannot carry this practical joke on Malvolio to its conclusion because it might get him in further trouble.

"Bonos dies..."   (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.

"mistress..."   (Act V - Scene I)

“Mistress” means both wife and superior. In Orsino’s final line he gives Viola incredible power: she is allowed to decide which performance she would like to act —Cesario or wife—and she is given full control over Orsino’s heart.

"geck and gull..."   (Act V - Scene I)

“Geck and gull” means dupe and fool. Malvolio is angry because this trick has made him look like a fool.

"You are betroth'd both to a maid and man...."   (Act V - Scene I)

“Maid and a man” means that the man is a virgin. However, this line takes on a double meaning because of the disguises and mistaken identity within this play. Because Olivia first fell in love with Viola and the twins are so similar, she is essentially betrothed to both siblings.

"But, had it been the brother of my blood, I must have done no less with wit and safety...."   (Act V - Scene I)

“Wit and safety” means care for my own well being. Sebastian’s excuse for harming Sir Andrew is that he did it for self-defense.

" coxcomb..."   (Act V - Scene I)

A “coxcomb” was a type of cap that looked like the plume of a rooster, or cock. Metaphorically, it was considered a ludicrous ornament for the head that signaled someone was a fool. Sebastian gave Sir Toby a “coxcomb” because he humiliated him in the street.

"sirrah?..."   (Act V - Scene I)

“Sirrah” is a term of address that was used to express contempt or a reprimand from a speaker with authority to his boy. Orsino’s use of the term here to show that he is displeased with Cesario’s actions.

"serviceable..."   (Act V - Scene I)

“Serviceable” means “to be of use.” Here, Olivia asks Orsino what he wants other than her love that she could help him with. Notice that Olivia will grant Orsino audience now that she is no longer available to be married.

"but he's the very devil incardinate...."   (Act V - Scene I)

Since we have seen Sir Andrew and Sir Toby drinking a lot during the course of this play, this is probably an example of Sir Andrew drunkenly mispronouncing the word “incarnate,” which means that something is a physical representation of something else.

"and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges...."   (Act V - Scene I)

By this phrase, Feste means that one must face the consequences of their actions. A "whirligig" is a rotary device that spins in circles, like a pinwheel or merry-go-round. It symbolizes something that is ever changing and revolving. Feste excuses his own actions by using this metaphor to bring attention to Malvolio's own misdeeds.