TWELFTH NIGHT develops its theme on two levels. The main plot, written mostly in blank verse, shows the nobility in pursuit of love. The subplot features lower characters, who speak in prose and pursue drunkenness and mischief.
In the main plot, the twins Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked on the Illyrian coast and separated; each presumes the other dead. Disguised as a young man, Viola joins the court of Duke Orsino, falls in love with him, and becomes his favorite. Orsino loves the lady Olivia, who refuses his attentions because she still mourns her dead brother. When Orsino sends Viola to woo Olivia for him, Olivia falls in love with Viola.
In the subplot, Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a ridiculous suitor to Olivia, fall out with Malvolio, Olivia’s puritanical steward, who condemns their revels. With the help of Maria and Fabian, Olivia’s servants, they trick the self-serving Malvolio into thinking Olivia loves him, then they confine him for insanity. Sir Toby also persuades Sir Andrew to challenge Viola to a duel.
These plots untangle when Sebastian appears, marries Olivia, and whips Sir Andrew and Sir Toby. Viola throws off her disguise and accepts Orsino’s proposal of marriage. Freed, Malvolio stomps out vowing revenge on them all.
Symbolically opposed to Malvolio is Feste, the wise clown. He fools Olivia out of her mourning and Orsino out of his lovesickness--both self-indulgent, sterile behaviors, like Malvolio’s self-love. Shakespeare implies that people should open themselves to celebration and love, even if it makes them appear foolish, since it is truly foolish to deny these life forces.
Berry, Ralph. Shakespeare’s Comedies: Explorations in Form. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972. A discussion of Shakespeare’s comedies in which each chapter is devoted to a specific play. In the chapter “The Messages of Twelfth Night,” Barry discusses the deceits and illusions in the play and concludes that it calls the very nature of reality into question.
Levin, Richard A. Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985. A critical study of three of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. Two chapters deal with Twelfth Night: “Household Politics in Illyria” discusses the acceptance of the various characters into society, while “Feste and the Antiromantic Twelfth Night” focuses on the discordant elements of the play.
Lloyd Evans, Gareth. The Upstart Crow: An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Plays. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1982. Focuses mainly on critical reviews of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as discussing sources and historical context and background.
Muir, Kenneth, ed. Shakespeare—The Comedies: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965. An anthology of essays that discuss Shakespeare’s comedies from various points of view. Harold Jenkins compares Twelfth Night with earlier plays by Shakespeare and others and concludes that it is the greatest of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies.
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Edited by J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik. London: Methuen, 1975. Includes more than eighty pages of introductory material and critical analysis, as well as the text of the play itself.