Of all Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night is perhaps the most perfect: the most technically and structurally accomplished, the most unified in terms of its wordplay and themes and characters, and the most profound. Beneath all of the cross-dressing and mistaken identities, Twelfth Night probes some deep truths about the nature of love. When Olivia falls in love with Viola at first sight, when Viola is disguised as Cesario, whom does she fall in love with, exactly? And when she marries Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother, in the mistaken belief that Sebastian is actually Cesario, does this suggest that her love is only skin deep? This is why Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most continually popular comedies. It invites us to ask such questions about the nature of love and deception: questions which resist easy answers or analysis. Nevertheless, let’s try to analyse some of Twelfth Night’s most salient themes and features.
Plot summary of Twelfth Night
The play opens with the Duke of Illyria, Orsino, pining away with love for Olivia, a countess whose father died a year ago and whose brother has recently died. Olivia has vowed to shut herself away from society for seven years as a result of these deaths. Meanwhile, a lady named Viola is shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria, and fears her twin brother, Sebastian, with whom she was travelling, may have died during the wreck. Viola, keen to establish herself in this new place, decides that she will serve Orsino, disguising herself as a male youth named Cesario.
Olivia’s uncle, a drunken aristocrat named Sir Toby Belch, is chastised by Olivia’s gentlewoman and chambermaid, Maria, for coming home late, drunk. Sir Toby’s friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, arrives; Sir Toby is trying to put in a good word for his friend, who is trying to woo Olivia (unsuccessfully). Sir Andrew, convinced Olivia will never agree to see him, is intent on giving up the chase, but Sir Toby persuades him to stay a little longer, convincing him that he has a chance with the countess.
Viola has only been serving Orsino for three days, but – disguised as a boy, Cesario – she has already made an impression on the Duke. Orsino tasks Viola-Cesario with securing an audience with Olivia and telling Olivia about the Duke’s affection for her. Meanwhile, Maria chides Feste, Olivia’s Fool, for being late. Feste tries to cheer up Olivia, much to the disapproval of Malvolio, Olivia’s humourless steward. Viola (as Cesario) arrives at the gate, and Olivia grants ‘him’ an audience after Viola-Cesario refuses to go away until she sees ‘him’. Olivia is smitten with ‘Cesario’, but tells ‘him’ that she cannot return Orsino’s affection. However, she tells Cesario that ‘he’ may call upon her again. When Cesario leaves, Olivia takes a ring from her finger and gives it to Malvolio, claiming that Cesario left it behind by accident, and that Malvolio should go after the youth and give it back.
Meanwhile, Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, has also survived their shipwreck, but like Viola he believes his sibling has been drowned at sea. And, like Viola, he decides to head for Orsino’s court. Antonio, who has enemies at Orsino’s court, nevertheless resolves to follow his master there.
Malvolio catches up with Cesario, and presents the ring to ‘him’, which Cesario denies having dropped at Olivia’s. When Malvolio has gone, Viola wonders why Olivia sent Malvolio after her with the ring. She realises that Olivia loves her as Cesario. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste drunkenly sing at Olivia’s, rousing both Maria and Malvolio, who tells Sir Toby that Olivia is getting tired of his behaviour and would be glad to see him gone from her house. When Malvolio has gone, Maria tells Sir Toby and Sir Andrew how she dislikes Malvolio’s vanity and self-regard, and that she plans to bring him down a peg or two. She hatches a plot to leave love letters in Malvolio’s chamber, written in what looks to be Olivia’s handwriting (but is really Maria’s).
As Orsino and Cesario listen to music, it becomes obvious that Cesario – i.e. Viola – loves Orsino. Orsino sends Cesario to Olivia again, with a jewel for a gift. Meanwhile, Maria’s plan to make a fool of Malvolio begins to come to fruition: Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian (another member of Olivia’s household) conceal themselves in a box-tree while Malvolio prances about, talking to himself, convinced that Olivia loves him. Malvolio imagines what it would be like to be married to Olivia and thus be able to lord it over her uncle, Sir Toby Belch; from their concealment in the tree, Sir Toby and his friends take exception to Malvolio’s arrogance. Malvolio then discovers a letter, forged by Maria, but purporting to be in Olivia’s handwriting; the letter makes Malvolio think that Olivia wants him to be cross-gartered and wear yellow stockings, so he resolves to get kitted out in such clothes to impress her. The letter also suggests that Malvolio smile in Olivia’s presence, so that she might discreetly know he returns her affections. When Malvolio is gone, Sir Toby and the others laugh at Malvolio’s gullibility.
Viola, as Cesario, has another audience with Olivia, during which Olivia confesses her love for ‘him’. Cesario rebuffs her, and leaves. Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who walked in on them, complains to Sir Toby and Fabian that Olivia, who spurns his advances, was bestowing her affection upon a mere servant. Sir Toby and Fabian persuade Sir Andrew to write a letter challenging Cesario to a duel: they say that Olivia is bound to be impressed by his valour. When he’s gone, Maria arrives to tell Sir Toby and Fabian that Malvolio has acted upon the advice in the forged letter, and is cross-gartered and wearing yellow stockings.
Olivia speaks with Malvolio, and is shocked by his attire and his perpetual smiling. She leaves to welcome Cesario back, and Sir Toby, Maria, and Fabian confront Malvolio, pretending to think him mad. Malvolio leaves, and Sir Andrew appears with his letter of challenge drafted for Cesario, challenging ‘him’ to a duel over Olivia. Once Sir Andrew has left to await Cesario, Sir Toby reveals that he will not deliver the letter to Cesario, but instead goes and tells ‘him’ about Sir Andrew’s challenge in person. Cesario retreats into the house, but Sir Andrew pursues him. They go to duel, but just as they are drawing their swords, Antonio shows up, thinking he’s found Sebastian – because ‘Cesario’ looks exactly the same! Antonio is arrested for piracy, leaving Viola hoping that her brother really is alive.
Olivia, mistaking Sebastian for Cesario, is overjoyed when Sebastian agrees to marry her. Meanwhile, Feste, disguised as Sir Topas the curate, visits Malvolio where he has been incarcerated because of his strange behaviour, with everyone thinking he’s gone mad. Olivia and Sebastian marry, with Olivia still thinking she is marrying Cesario.
Orsino confronts Antonio for his crimes, and when Olivia arrives and rejects Orsino’s advances again, he denounces her. Olivia, believing she is speaking to her newlywed husband Sebastian, is amazed when Viola (as Cesario) professes her love for Orsino. Olivia demands Cesario remains behind when ‘he’ goes to follow Orsino, and calls upon the priest who married her to Sebastian to confirm that they are married. Orsino believes that Cesario has betrayed him and married the woman he loves, and flies into a rage again. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, having been beaten up by Sebastian, turn up and accuse Cesario of having done it. Thankfully, Sebastian then arrives and when everyone sees him and Cesario/Viola in the same place, the confusion is cleared up. Malvolio is brought out of his cell, and confronts Olivia about the letter he thinks she wrote to him, professing her love and asking him to dress cross-gartered in yellow stockings. Olivia, seeing the letter, recognises it is Maria’s handwriting, made to look like her own. Malvolio, realising he’s been duped and that his mistress does not love him, storms off, announcing he will have his revenge on them all. With Viola’s true identity now revealed, she and Orsino agree to be married. Twelfth Night ends with Feste singing a song, ‘When that I was and a little tiny boy’.
Analysis: the background to Twelfth Night
Samuel Pepys went to see Twelfth Night three times – despite thinking it ‘a silly play’. In January 1663, he saw the play performed, and thought it was ‘acted well, though it be but a silly play, and not related at all to the name or day’. This is true enough: despite featuring a Fool named Feste and being named after the festival of Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s play does not make much of this day in the calendar beyond the carnivalesque feel to the comedy, whereby roles are reversed and swapped, and the world is comically turned on its head (Malvolio being tricked into making a fool of himself, for instance).
The first recorded performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was on Candlemas, 1602. Candlemas is 2 February – better-known in the United States as Groundhog Day – and was the date on which Christmas decorations were often traditionally taken down in Shakespeare’s time – unlike these days, when it’s traditional to take them down by, oddly enough, Twelfth Night or 5 January, the eve of Epiphany. Perhaps that provides a clue to how we should analyse Twelfth Night: it was first performed (as far as we know) at the end of the (the far longer) Christmas season, and is named for the end of the shorter ‘Twelve Days’ of Christian feasting. Twelfth Night is ultimately about having to relinquish such carnivalesque japing and return to a world stripped of illusion and topsy-turviness.
Shakespeare’s classic comedy of cross-dressing, separated siblings, love, puritanism, and yellow stockings was, then, quite possibly first performed in February 1602, though it’s possible there was an earlier (unrecorded) performance, perhaps a year earlier. (Some critics believe the play was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I for Twelfth Night 1601, when an Italian nobleman, Don Virginio Orsino, Duke of Bracciano, was a guest at court. However, it’s more likely that Shakespeare simply borrowed the name from the real Duke, rather than that he wrote the part specially for the Duke’s visit.)
Themes of Twelfth Night
Disguise plays a vital role in this play, and Viola’s disguising of herself as Cesario is only the most prominent example. In a sense, the forged letter to Malvolio, proclaiming itself to be from Olivia herself, is a form of ‘disguise’, while Malvolio’s comical dressing-up, cross-gartered and in yellow stockings, is what we might call an inadvertent disguise, since he believes he is turning himself into the man his mistress will fancy. Twelfth Night is a play where people are often not what they seem: Viola is not really a boy, Sebastian is not Cesario though is mistaken for ‘him’, Olivia does not really fancy Malvolio, the letter purporting to be from Olivia was actually her chambermaid Maria doing an impersonation of her mistress’ handwriting, and so on. As Viola (disguised as Cesario) tells Olivia at a couple of points, ‘I am not that I play’ (I.5) and ‘I am not what I am’ (III.1).
The relationship between love and disguise – and, by extension, love and illusion – is a key one for the play, as Viola herself acknowledges in II.2:
Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness,
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
How easy is it for the proper-false
In women’s waxen hearts to set their forms!
Many of Shakespeare’s comedies use actual masks and disguises to hint at something which actually runs far deeper, especially in the field of romantic love: the capacity to fall in love with a shadow, for looks to be deceiving, and for lovers to get the wrong end of the stick (so, for instance, in Much Ado about Nothing Claudio is tricked into thinking he’s ‘seen’ his betrothed, Hero, being unfaithful). Olivia falls in love with a ‘youth’ who doesn’t really exist. The fact that Sebastian looks identical to Viola-Cesario is surely of only superficial significance: they are, nevertheless, different people. Perhaps the truest love, viewed this way, in the whole of Twelfth Night is the steadfast loyalty shown by Antonio to his master, young Sebastian: he follows him to Orsino’s court out of devotion, and the youth he serves is who he says he is. By contrast, Malvolio’s designs on Olivia stem from his own self-regard, and a desire to lord it over Sir Toby Belch and chastise him for his drunkenness, rather than from any deep love for Olivia herself. It’s her title and status he covets, not her personality. In this respect, in being tricked into putting on a false ‘costume’ – those yellow stockings – Maria succeeds in revealing the real Malvolio, in all his self-important ugliness, rather than concealing him behind a disguise. But the case of Malvolio obviously stands apart from the other disguises and dressing-up in Twelfth Night, most notably Viola’s adoption of the ‘Cesario’ persona.
Twelfth Night is a play about doubles, and not just because it has a set of identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, at its centre. Olivia is in double mourning (she’s lost both her father and brother), she has two aristocratic suitors (Duke Orsino and the hapless Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Sebastian has two admirers (Olivia, thinking him Cesario; and Antonio, who is suffering from no such delusion), Viola plays two parts, and so on. Even the role of music finds itself doubled in the two plots, with Orsino finding that music echoes the deep pangs of love he feels for Olivia, while the songs that Feste, Sir Toby Belch, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek sing also reflect love, albeit in a different register. The two meet in Feste, who sings for both Sir Toby and Sir Andrew (‘O mistress mine’) and Orsino (‘Come away, come away, death’). This shows just how structurally well worked-out this is: perhaps of all of Shakespeare’s comedies it is the most cleverly assembled, in that ‘doubling’ goes beyond simple dressing-up and the adopting of a handy disguise. Like the theme of disguise itself, doubling is ingrained within the fabric of the play at many levels.
In the last analysis, Twelfth Night endures as one of Shakespeare’s most structurally effective comedies, but its japes involving cross-dressing and mistaken identity aren’t merely there for comic effect, as they tend to be in his earlier ‘double’ play, The Comedy of Errors. Shakespeare is making some profound observations about love and deception, especially self-deception. Malvolio is deluded into thinking he can become a great man. Olivia is deceived by Viola’s disguise. There is a vein of potential tragedy in all this, even while the play is celebratory and comic.
Some final trivia about Twelfth Night
The play has been turned into a musical on numerous occasions. These include Your Own Thing (1968), Music Is (1977), the Elvis Presley jukebox musical All Shook Up (2005), and the Duke Ellington jukebox musical Play On! (1997). The first film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was as early as 1910. This predated the advent of talking pictures by nearly two decades, and was only a short film. You can watch the film here.