A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2010, 2011, 2013
How to Cite This Study Guide.......
.......Twelfth Night, or What You Will is a stage play in the form of a comedy. It was written in the festive spirit of the Twelfth Night of the Christmas season, January 6, as part of events celebrating the holiday season.
Date Written: 1601.
.......The probable main source of Twelfth Night is Apolonious and Silla, by Barnabie Riche. The story was included in Riche's Farewell to the Military Profession, published in 1581. Riche based his work on a story in Matteo Bandello's Novelle. The latter was based on an anonymous Sienese comedy, Gl'Ingannati (The Deceived), published in 1537.
.......The action of the play is set in Illyria, in the northwestern Balkans along the Adriatic Coast. Illyrians were ancestors of modern-day Albanians. However, Shakespeare may have intended Illyria as an imaginary country free of time or borders, like Shangri-La, Oz, Avalon, or Prospero's island in The Tempest.
O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,Olivia, however, busy mourning a recently deceased brother, cannot bother her pretty head with the duke’s importunities. Consequently, the duke needs help to press his suit. Help arrives in the form of a gentlewoman named Viola, who washed onto the shores of Illyria after a shipwreck. Her twin brother, Sebastian, drowned in the shipwreck—or so Viola thinks. To make her way in a world of men, she dons male clothing, calls herself Cesario, and gains employment as the duke’s page. Her first job, the duke tells her, is to persuade Olivia, who lives nearby, to pay attention to him.
.......Residing with Olivia in her household are her quick-witted jester, Feste, and her uncle, Sir Toby Belch, a merry tub of lard. Belch promotes Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a bumbling knight, as Olivia’s rightful suitor, claiming that Sir Andrew has an income of three thousand ducats a year, plays the viol da gamba (a stringed instrument), and can speak three or four languages. In reality Belch just wants Aguecheeck around so that he can freeload on him. The steward of the household is the conceited Malvolio, who has a talent for irritating people with his haughty demeanor. He, too, has an eye for Olivia even though he is only her servant.
.......When Viola presents herself (as Cesario) at the door of Olivia’s house, Malvolio attempts to turn her away. He is under orders from Olivia to refuse to receive the visitor, for Olivia suspects the “gentleman” is a messenger charged with pressing the cause of Orsino. However, Malvolio says the gentleman—whom he describes as “Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy” (1.5.75)—refuses to leave. Olivia gives in and receives the visitor. Viola (Cesario) then makes her pitch on Orsino’s behalf, praising Olivia’s beauty.
.......Olivia asks, “How does he loves me?” (1.5.126)
.......“With adorations, fertile tears / With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire” (1. 5. 127-128), answers Viola.
.......Olivia says she does not love Orsino even though he may be “virtuous” and “noble” (1. 5. 130), “valiant” (1.5.132) and “gracious” (1.5.134). When Viola heaps further praise on Olivia on Orsino’s behalf, Olivia begins to warm to the idea of love. But it is not Orsino who has stirred her; it is his messenger, the young gentleman Cesario (Viola). Suddenly, Olivia realizes Cesario is the man of her dreams, come to rescue her from her doldrums. She tells Cesario that even though she does not love Orsino, he (Cesario/Viola) may be admitted to her house whenever he has other messages to deliver. Viola then returns to Orsino’s estate without having accomplished her mission. However, Orsino does have an admirer—Viola. She reveals her love for him, without directly saying so, when he asks her whether she loves someone:
ORSINO: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Thine eye.......Sebastian, meanwhile, is quite alive and well, having been rescued by a sea captain, Antonio. But Sebastian is sad, for he believes his twin sister has drowned. The kindly Antonio gives him money to get along in Illyria but remains behind for the time being because the Illyrians think him a pirate. He says he will meet up with Sebastian later.
.......Meanwhile, after nightfall at Olivia’s home, Belch, Aguecheek and the jester, Feste, are drinking and singing, as they are wont to do. As the evening wears on, they become drunker and noisier. Feste sings a song that is a testament to carpe diem:
What is love? ’tis not hereafter;.......Olivia’s handmaiden, Maria, attempts to quiet the caterwauling revelers, to no avail. Then the self-righteous Malvolio comes a-scolding. He says, “Do ye make an alehouse of my lady’s house, that ye squeak out your coziers’ catches1 without any mitigation or remorse of voice? Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?” (2.3.44).
.......Malvolio then upbraids Maria for failing to end the raucous merrymaking. Fed up with Malvolio’s bossy arrogance, Maria and the revelers decide to play a prank to bruise his ego. Maria, who can imitate Olivia’s handwriting, is to pen a letter in which Olivia professes her love for Malvolio. Upon reading it, Malvolio will no doubt puff with pride to think himself the object of Olivia’s affection, then proceed to make an ass of himself in front of Olivia.
.......When Cesario (Viola) returns to Olivia’s house to renew her pleas on Orsino’s behalf, Olivia declares her love for him. Aguecheek, jealous, then challenges Cesario to a duel. Out on a walkway on Olivia’s property, Malvolio happens upon the forged letter, placed in his path by Maria. Though it does not mention Malvolio by name, he realizes it is clearly meant for him and vows to follow its instructions: to smile constantly and to wear yellow stockings with crossed garters. When Malvolio next sees Olivia, he beams broadly and prances about as he displays his wonderful yellow stockings. Then he calls her “sweetheart” (3.4.25) and quotes phrases from the forged letter. Olivia thinks him mad and commits him to the care of Belch, who promptly locks Malvolio in a dark room.
.......Antonio the sea captain now ventures onto the scene. Thinking Viola (Cesario) is her lookalike brother Sebastian, he tries to fight on her behalf as the duel commences, but the duke’s officers arrest him for piracy. When Antonio asks Viola for the money he gave her (still believing she is Sebastian), she appears dumfounded and says she does not know him. Before the officers lead him away, Antonio addresses Viola as Sebastian. Viola then realizes this stranger may have seen her brother. Could Sebastian have survived the shipwreck?
.......Shortly after Viola leaves, Sebastian arrives and Aguecheek—unable to tell Sebastian from his twin sister, who remains in the guise of a male—takes him for Viola (Cesario) and strikes him. Sebastian strikes back. Shocked, Aguecheek threatens to sue him. Sebastian then challenges him to draw his sword. Happily for Aguecheek, Olivia hears the commotion and intervenes, chasing everyone away except Sebastian. Like Aguecheek, she mistakes him for Cesario (Viola). When she invites him to her house, the glow of love evident in her eyes, Sebastian trails along. In an instant he is in love. While he is in the garden, Olivia enters with a priest and proposes to him:
Blame not this haste of mine. If you mean well,Sebastian swears he will always be true to her, and they marry.
.......Later Orsino and Viola (still disguised as Cesario) come to Olivia’s house just as the duke’s officers arrive with Antonio. Poor Viola. First, the sea captain who believes she is Sebastian accuses her of ingratitude for refusing to return his purse. Then Olivia, who arrives on the scene with attendants, announces that she has just married Sebastian (still believing that he is Viola/Cesario). When Sebastian enters, he is amazed that Viola resembles him, but notes that he never had a brother. How could this “man” look so much like him? Is he a relative? Viola tells him her father had a mole on his brow. Sebastian says his father also had such a mole. Then Viola doffs her disguise and the confusion ends.
.......The duke realizes he has loved Viola all along. When he begs her hand, she agrees to marry him. Sir Toby Belch and Maria also decide to tie the knot. Everyone is happy. Everyone except Malvolio. Though he has gained his freedom, he remains a slave to his ego and declares, “I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you” (5. 1. 339). He storms out and the duke sends an attendant to “pursue him and entreat him to a peace” (5. 1. 341). Feste sings a song to end the play.
True love sees the soul. True love requires
recognition of the noble inner qualities of the beloved as well as the
outward qualities. Duke Orsino thinks he loves Olivia. But it soon
becomes apparent that he loves her primarily for her beauty, not her
nobility of soul. In other words, he is infatuated with her looks and
charm. However, he gradually falls in love with Viola after her inner
qualities emerge while she is disguised as a man. His love for her is
not complete until she doffs her disguise and reveals that she is a
beautiful woman. Orsino then loves her heart, soul, and body—that is,
spiritually and physically. Olivia's love for Sebastian evolves in a
similar way. She begins by admiring Sebastian's noble qualities as
mirrored by his twin sister Viola, disguised as the male messenger
Cesario. But her love is incomplete until Sebastian arrives with the
same noble qualities of Viola—but in a male body.
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,
Youth's a stuff will not endure. (2.3.23)
.......Priggish Malvolio becomes the brunt of a practical joke after he attempts to interdict the merriment of Feste, Aguecheek, and Sir Toby Belch. It appears that Shakespeare intended to use Malvolio to satirize the somber spirit of Puritanism during the Elizabethan era. In fact, the characters in the play openly refer to him as a Puritan, as in this dialogue:
SIR ANDREW O, if I thought that I'ld beat him like a dog!
SIR TOBY BELCH What, for being a Puritan? thy exquisite reason, dear knight?
SIR ANDREW I have no exquisite reason for't, but I have reason good enough.
MARIA The devil a Puritan that he is, or any thing constantly,
but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass, that cons state without book
and utters it by great swarths: the best persuaded of himself,
so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his grounds
of faith that all that look on him love him; and on that vice in him
will my revenge find notable cause to work. (2.3.151-160)
.......Shakespeare mixes Twelfth Night with a potpourri of ingredients to achieve his comic effect—a set of twins, some situation comedy, a dash of dramatic irony, a dollop of romance, three boisterous merrymakers, and a puritanical sourpuss. Following is an explanation of how Shakespeare uses these ingredients:
Viola and her brother, Sebastian, are twins—born about an hour apart—who survive a shipwreck. When they cannot find each other, each thinks the other may be dead. Then they go their separate ways, establishing two story lines that undergird plot surprises later involving mistaken identities.
Viola complicates the plot after she disguises herself as a young man, calling herself Cesario, and obtains employment as a page with Duke Orsino. When she acts as a go-between to help the duke woo Olivia, Viola begins to fall in love with the duke while Olivia begins to fall in love with Viola, thinking “him” a handsome young fellow. Thus, the play takes on the characteristics of a modern situation comedy. Realizing her predicament, Viola says that
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him;
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master's love;
As I am woman,—now alas the day!—
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!
O time! thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me to untie! (2.2.24-32)
.......Dramatic irony occurs when a character in a play, novel, film, or any other work is unaware of plot developments or background information known to the audience. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare uses dramatic irony numerous times. A memorable example it begins with Line 22 in Act I, Scene II, when Duke Orsino notices that Viola (disguised as Cesario) seems preoccupied. It is, of course, budding love for the duke that preoccupies her. Although she comes close to giving away her feelings, Orsino remains dumb to the cause of her distraction. Here is the dialogue in which they engage:
Hath stay'd upon some favour that it loves:
Hath it not, boy?
VIOLA. ..A little, by your favour.
DUKE ORSINO...What kind of woman is't?
VIOLA... Of your complexion.
DUKE ORSINO...She is not worth thee, then. What years, i' faith?
VIOLA... About your years, my lord. (2.4.23-30)
By maidhood, honour, truth and every thing,
I love thee so, that, maugre3 all thy pride, .
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.
Do not extort thy reasons from this clause,
For that I woo, thou therefore hast no cause,
But rather reason thus with reason fetter,
Love sought is good, but given unsought better. (3.1.115-122)
.......The love bug bites not only Viola, Orsino, and Olivia but also Viola’s brother, Sebastian, along with Sir Toby Belch and Maria—and even priggish Malvolio. However, Malvolio is more in love with himself than with Olivia.
The Merrymakers and Malvolio
.......The adventures of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Feste the Fool provide rousing comic interludes between the other parts of the play. Especially delightful is the trick the threesome play on dour Malvolio—with the help of Maria—in which they convince him that Viola loves him. Malvolio helps make the play work; he is the gray cloud that blocks the sunlight and evokes cheers when he passes.
.......As in most of his plays, Shakespeare frequently uses allusions (indirect references to mythical, biblical, or historical persons, events, things, or ideas). Twelfth Night provides an excellent opportunity for instructors to teach allusions, for the play abounds in them. Following are examples of allusions in the play, as well as direct references to persons, places, things, or ideas.
Arion (1.2.17-19): Greek musician rescued by a dolphin after sailors stole his money and ordered him to jump overboard.Imagery of Love
.......Because the plot of Twelfth Night centers on the theme of love, so does much of its imagery. But, of course, as Shakespeare has demonstrated in other plays—tragedies and histories as well as comedies—it is not always easy to discover whom one truly loves, let alone woo him or her successfully. Moreover, although love is pleasurable, it is often painfully pleasurable. In addition, although the object of one’s affection may be within earshot, he or she may be a world away emotionally. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s imagery chronicles the blissful anguish of love, the ways which love conceals or reveals itself, and the giddy joy of capturing it heart and soul. Following are examples of imagery on the theme of love:
The Painful Pleasure of Love.
Other Figures of Speech
.......Following are examples of other figures of speech in the play. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
she that hath a heart of that fine frame (1.1.32)Anaphora
I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth. (3.1.124)Hyperbole
He does smile his face into more lines than are in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies. (3.2.30)Irony (Dramatic)
Good night, Penthesilea. (2.3.177)Metaphor
If music be the food of love, play on;Oxymoron
This letter, being so excellently ignorant, will breed no terror in the youth. (3.4.99).Paradox
Love’s night is noon. (3.1.114-115)Simile
[M]y desire,Meaning of Character Names
.......The names of
several characters appear to be metaphors or symbols. For example, Malvolio
means bad desires or bad intentions. (The prefix Mal
means bad or evil, as in malicious; volio
means I wish or I desire, from the Latin
volo.) Sir Toby Belch is a mug of beer given to burping. (A toby
is a jug or mug resembling a fat man; a belch is an expulsion
of gas from the mouth.) Feste is jolly, festive, celebrating the joy of
the moment. Viola, who disguises herself as a man, is the name of a
musical instrument with a deeper tone than a violin's—in other words, a
more masculine tone.
.......The climax of a play or another narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Twelfth Night occurs, according to the first definition, when Olivia claims to love Cesario (Olivia). According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act when twins Viola and Sebastian establish their true identities.
Shakespeare's Use of Disguises
.......Time and again,
Shakespeare disguises women as men to further a plot. For example, In All's
Ends Well, Helena wears the attire of a pilgrim to get
close to Bertram. In Cymbeline, Imogen becomes a page boy to
win back Posthumous. Julia also becomes a page boy in The Two
Gentlemen of Verona, as does Viola in Twelfth Night. In The
Venice, Portia disguises herself as a male judge to
save the friend of her lover in a court of law. Rosalind, in As You
Like It, dons the garb of a man to become a shepherd as she seeks
out her love, Orlando. In each of these plays, the women disguised as
men eventually reveal their true female identities All of this could
have been quite confusing to playgoers in Shakespeare's day, for only
men played women's roles. Thus, in the above-mentioned plays, men
played women disguised as men who at some point doffed their male
identities to reveal themselves as females.
1. Viola dons a male disguise to get a job. Do people today
sometimes disguise themselves—figuratively or literally—to gain
employment? What other extra measures do women sometimes take to
succeed in male-dominated workplaces?
1. coziers’ catches: Alcohol-induced singing.