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A Study Guide
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Table of Contents
Type of Work and Full Title Composition and First Performance Publication Source Setting Tone Characters Plot Summary
Conflicts Climax and Conclusion Themes Comic Ingredients Figures of Speech Love Imagery Allusions Meanings of Names
Writing Format Study Questions and Essay Topics Complete Text
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2016
William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy written for the Elizabethan stage. The full title is Twelfth Night, or What You Will. Shakespeare wrote the play in the festive spirit of the Twelfth Night of the Christmas season, January 6, as part of events celebrating the holiday season. The play uses mix-ups, pranks, and comic dialogue to achieve its effect.
Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night between 1600 and 1602. Its first documented performance was on February 2, 1602, at the hall of London's Middle Temple, a facility that housed and educated aspiring lawyers. February 2 was considered the last day of the Christmas season, Candlemas Day, which celebrated the presentation of the child Jesus in the temple of Jerusalem and the purification of the Virgin Mary. It was also a day set aside for the blessing of candles.
Friends of Shakespeare published Twelfth Night in 1623, seven years after the author's death, in a collection that included thirty-five other Shakespeare plays. This collection was carefully edited and proofread, then printed in folio format. A folio was a large sheet of paper folded to create four pages. Because the folio book was the first publication containing a collection of Shakespeare's plays, it came to be known as the First Folio after other folio editions were published in 1632, 1663, and 1685.
The probable main source of plot material for Twelfth Night is "Apolonious and Silla," a story included in Barnabe Riche's Farewell to the Military Profession, published in 1581. Riche (circa 1540-1617) based his work on a story in Novelle, by Matteo Bandello (circa 1480-1562).The latter work 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 intended Illyria as an imaginary country free of time or borders, like Shangri-La, Oz, Avalon, or Prospero's island in Shakespeare's The Tempest.
The tone of the play is lighthearted and comic. There are no tragic developments and no deaths.
Orsino: Duke of Illyria, who is also referred to as a count. He thinks he is in love with his neighbor, Olivia, but has trouble gaining her attention. His so-called love for her is fickle and frivolous, however. Later, he realizes that he loves Viola, who has been working as a page for him in the disguise of a male.
Viola: Shipwreck survivor who disguises herself as a male to get work as a page to Duke Orsino. She calls herself Cesario. Viola is the main character, or protagonist. She is smart, resourceful, kind, and loving.
Olivia: Neighbor of Duke Orsino who ignores his proposals of marriage and who continues to mourn the death of a brother long after he goes to his grave. However, she becomes enamored of the disguised Viola, thinking he is a man, and begins to emerge from her shell of sadness and sorrow.
Sebastian: Twin brother of Viola who also survives the shipwreck, although Viola thinks he has drowned.
Valentine, Curio: Gentlemen attending Duke Orsino.
Sir Toby Belch: Merrymaking uncle of Olivia.
Sir Andrew Aguecheek: (pronounced uh GUE cheek): Bumbling knight who hopes to marry Olivia.
Malvolio: Pompous steward of Olivia who is led to believe that she loves him. He wears yellow stockings to impress her.
Feste: Fool (jester) and servant of Olivia. He is highly intelligent and given to clever wordplay that often centers on the folly of human beings.
Fabian: Servant of Olivia.
Maria: Olivia's handmaiden and author of a letter that ensnares Malvolio in a prank that pokes fun at his haughty demeanor.
Antonio: Sea captain and friend of Sebastian.
Another Sea Captain: Friend of Viola.
Minor Characters: Lords, priests, sailors, officers, musicians, attendants.
Duke Orsino of Illyria rules all that he sees except his beautiful neighbor, Olivia. He will not rest until he wins her heart and her hand. Early in the first scene of Act 1, at his palace in a locale on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, Orsino is pining for Olivia as musicians play for him and other lords of his realm. When the sweet sound of the music evokes in him the bittersweet longings of love, he orders the musicians to stop playing. Curio, a gentleman in his service, asks him whether he plans to join a deer-hunting party. Orsino answers with a pun in which he compares himself to a hart (male deer with antlers) and his feelings of love to the hunting dogs that pursue it:
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. She assumes that her twin brother, Sebastian, drowned in the shipwreck. 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 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 love me?” (1.5.126) “With adorations, fertile tears / With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire?” (1.5.127-128).
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 accomplishing 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 eyeViola's brother, Sebastian, meanwhile, is quite alive and well, having been rescued during the shipwreck 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 he is a pirate. He says he will meet up with Sebastian later.
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’ catches [stupid cobblers' songs] 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, which Maria placed on the walkway earlier. 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, act surly to servants and house guests, and 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 dumbfounded 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.
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 pledged to marry 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 they realize to their great joy that they both survived the shipwreck, and the confusion ends.
Meanwhile, the duke becomes aware that he has loved Viola all along. When he begs her hand, she agrees to marry him in the same ceremony that will unite Sebastian and Olivia. 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.
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The main character,
Viola, suffers an internal conflict during most of the
play. After disguising herself as a male and calling
herself Cesario, she accepts employment as a servant
of Duke Orsino and falls in love with him. However,
because of her assumed identity, she cannot reveal her
love for Orsino. Orsino, meanwhile, has a conflict of
his own. He thinks he is in love with Olivia, but she
continually rejects his attempts to woo her. Olivia,
in turn, thinks she is in love Cesario (Viola), but
Cesario rejects all of her overtures. Sir Andrew
Aguecheek further complicates matters. He wants to
marry Olivia but becomes jealous of Cesario/Viola when
he mistakenly believes that Cesario's frequent visits
to Olivia's indicate that the youth is a rival for
Olivia's affections. Aguecheek challenges Cesario to a
duel. Into this mix is thrown the conflict between
stodgy Malvolio and Olivia's other employees—Maria,
Feste, and Fabian—as well as Sir Toby Belch and Sir
Andrew Aguecheek. They join forces to play an
elaborate trick on the haughty steward that makes him
The climax of Twelfth
Night occurs when Viola and Sebastian reunite
and their true identities become known to everyone.
Their reunion sets up the conclusion (or denouement),
in which preparations are made for the marriage of
Viola to Orsino and Sebastian to Olivia. The
conclusion also explains how the plotters against
Malvolio carried out the prank that caused him to
True Love Perceives the
What is love? 'tis not hereafter;The Somber Spirit of Puritanism
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:
MARIA: Marry, sir, sometimes he is a kind of Puritan.Olivia's servant Fabian also bemoans Malvolio as a killjoy. After Sir Toby Belch asks Fabian whether he would enjoy shaming Malvolio in some way, Fabian replies, "I would exult, man: you know, he brought me out o'/ favour with my lady about a bear-baiting here" (2.5.6-7). (Bear-baiting—in which dogs attacked a bear tethered to a post—was a popular bloodsport in Shakespeare's London.) Aguecheek denounces Puritanism in general when he says, "I had as lief be a Brownist as a politician" (3.2.28). A Brownist was a follower of Robert Browne (1550-1633), a Puritan leader.
Deceit drives the plot of Twelfth Night, causing many mix-ups and much mischief before the curtain falls on the final act. Ironically, the most likable and upright character in the play, Viola, is also the chief dissembler. She foreshadows her own deceitful behavior when she tells a ship captain,
There is a fair behaviour in thee, captain;The key words here are "that nature with a beauteous wall / Doth oft close in pollution." In other words, a person with a beautiful face and body often harbors unvirtuous thoughts and intentions. Not long after making this observation, she decides to wear men's clothes to get a job and make her way in a man's world. When she accepts work as a page for Duke Orsino, she sets in motion a chain of events that mislead and confuse other characters. She is a good person at heart, of course, and does no serious harm to anyone. Nevertheless, she does wrong when continuing her deception and, to her credit, admits her wrongdoing--at least to herself--when she says, "Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness" (2.2.18). Fortunately for the play's audience and readers, her deceit sets up a delightful play with twists and turns that continue all the way into the final act.
Other characters are also deceitful in one way or another as the play progresses. The duke, for example, deceives himself into believing that he loves Olivia just because she is beautiful. We learn at the end of the play that he loved Viola all along, not only because of her beauty but also because of her appealing inner qualities.
Malvolio deceives himself into believing that he is superior to others in intelligence, manners, and importance. His haughtiness prompts Maria and other servants, as well as Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, to hatch a plot designed to expose his faults and embarrass him. Their snare is a deceitful letter that Maria writes. In it, she imitates the handwriting of Olivia, making it appear as if Olivia herself wrote it. Sir Toby tells her to pack the letter with "as many lies as will lie in thy sheet of paper." The co-conspirators place the letter on a walkway where Malvolio will find it. After he finds and reads it, it leads the proud steward to believe that Olivia is in love with him and urges him to take certain actions that will enable him to win her. These actions turn Malvolio into a laughingstock and brand him as a madman. Feste pretends to be a priest, Sir Topas, who has come to rid him of demons possessing him.
In another episode, Olivia sends Cesario/Viola a ring, pretending that the page left it behind after a visit. Olivia, smitten with love for Cesario, uses this little deception to make sure that Cesario will visit her again to return the ring.
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 goodly dollop of
romance, three boisterous merrymakers, and a
puritanical sourpuss. Following is an explanation of
how Shakespeare uses these ingredients:
DUKE ORSINO: My life upon't, young though thou art, thine eyeAnother example of dramatic irony occurs when Olivia declares her love for the disguised Viola:
Cesario, by the roses of the spring,Romance
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.
examples of figures of speech in the play.
She that hath a heart of that fine frame (1.1.32)Anaphora: Repetition of a word or group of words at the beginning of a phrase, clause, or sentence
I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth. (3.1.124)
Hyperbole: A gross exaggeration
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: See Above
Irony, Verbal: Saying the opposite of what is meant
Good night, Penthesilea. (2.3.177)
If music be the food of love, play on;Oxymoron: Use of words side by side that are contrary or opposite in meaning
This letter, being so excellently ignorant, will breed no terror in the youth. (3.4.99).Paradox: Use of words that are contrary or opposite in meaning but not placed side by side
'Tis thought among the prudent he would quickly have the gift of a grave. (1.3.15)Simile: Comparison of unlike things using like, as, or than
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
If music be the food of love, play on;The Transparency of the Emotions
A murderous guilt shows not itself more soonLove Poem Foreshadowing a Happy Ending
O mistress mine! where are you roaming?
As in his other
plays, Shakespeare uses direct references and
allusions (indirect references to mythical, biblical,
or historical persons, events, things, or ideas) in Twelfth
Night. Following are examples of allusions and
direct references in the play, as well as direct
references to persons, places, things, or ideas.
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; the suffix -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.
Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night
partly in prose, partly in unrhyming verse, and partly
in rhyming verse.
MALVOLIO: My masters, are you mad? or what are you? Have you no wit, manners, nor honesty, but to gabble like tinkers at this time of night? Do ye make an alehouse of my lady’s house, that ye squeak out your coziers’ catches without any mitigation or remorse of voice? Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time, in you?Comment: Notice that the lines are casual, like an everyday conversation, and that the line length varies considerably. For example, the first line of the passage has sixty words; the last line has four.
If music be the food of love, play on;Comment: Notice that the lines are of limited length. They contain a rhythmic pattern in which an unstressed syllable precedes a stressed syllable. Here is a graphic illustration of the pattern:
If MU sic BE the FOOD of LOVE, play ON;Rhyming Verse
Cesario, by the roses of the spring,Rhyming Poem
What is love? ’tis not hereafter;Comment: Notice the rhyming lines: 1 and 2, 3 and 6, and 4 and 5. Notice too that these lines, recited by Feste, constitute a unit that can stand alone as a poem.
Prose was used to present everyday conversation. In some instances, it suggested that the characters speaking it were of lesser rank than the characters speaking verse. However, occasionally, high-ranking characters also spoke in prose. Verse was an elegant, measured mode of communication usually used to express the thoughts of educated, high-ranking characters. Sometimes, though, low-ranking characters also spoke in verse. Poetry and rhyming verse were used to convey a profound truth or to enliven the dialogue, whether recited by a person of low or high rank.