The Image and Metaphor of "Drowning" in Twelfth Night

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William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night; Or, What You Will is a comedy rich in poetry and puns, a masque concerning masks, a romance with none of the required elements missing. Beyond this, it is a play about drowning: in love, in sorrow, in appetite. It is an intriguing statement about people who are so immersed in excesses of various sorts that they cannot see beyond their own immediate desires in order to act to obtain what they claim to want. The play is a bridge between the comedies that Shakespeare wrote previously and the tragedies to come; as such it has elements of both and is an echo and a prophecy.

The purpose of this essay is to explore the image and metaphor of "drowning" in this play as it relates to the central themes, and to examine some of the ways in which this image takes the play out of the realm of pure fun and farce into Shakespeare's usual realm of profound human truths.

Drowning in Twelfth Night is nearly always a metaphor for loss, usually a loss of perspective through submersion in excess. The theme is seen in the first speech of the play, as Orsino asks to be drowned in the music that feeds his melancholy love. Act I is primarily concerned with exposing the ways in which the central characters are caught up, as Orsino is, in the final stages of emotion. Scene ii gives us the first of the two literal scenes of drowning, which turn out to be counterfeit in two senses: Sebastian is not really drowned as Viola believes; and Viola does not drown, but comes out of the sea to Illyria and is thus the person who rescues the inhabitants of that land from inundation.

Sir Toby Belch's particular sea is that of drink; in Act I we find that he is "drunk nightly" in, as he puts it, "drinking healths to my neice." Feste is the first to seize upon this metaphor when speaking of Sir Toby, whom he likens to a "drowned man, a fool, a madman - in the third degree of drink - he's drowned." The image is picked up by others, including Viola, who speaks to Olivia of Orsino's love as being with "adorations, with fertile tears," here linking Orsino's tears to Olivia's, called by Valentine, "eye offending brine."

Act II moves back to the sea, where Sebastian becomes the second person to be saved from the deep; again the image of tears is linked to drowning, this time by Sebastian, speaking of his sister: "She is drowned already sir, with salt water, though I seem to drown her remembrance again with more." Two very different images associated with the sea occur later in the act in a dialogue between Feste and Orsino. Feste suggests to Orsino that men like him, with such changeable minds, should be "put to sea that their business might be everything, and their intent everywhere; for that's it that always makes a good voyage of nothing." Orsino answers with his own view: his love is "all as hungry as the sea and can digest as much."

In terms of the play's major theme, Antonio's sea imagery in Act V is the most important; the lines might have better been spoken by Viola:

That most ingrateful boy there by your side
From the rude sea's enraged and foamy mouth
Did I redeem. A wrack past hope he was.
His life I gave him, and did thereto add
My love without retention or restraint,
All his in dedication.

Later in the act it is Viola who is again, though mistakenly, linked to drowning and the sea. Sebastian speaks: "I had a sister, / Whom the blind waves and surges have devoured," and were she alive, "I should my tears let fall upon your cheek and say, 'Thrice welcome, drowned Viola!'".

Other characters are drowning in things other than tears or drink. Sir Andrew Aguecheek is absorbed in eating, Maria in troublemaking, Malvolio in his own self-importance. The one thing that the characters all have in common is boredom as the reason for their individual monomanias. What kind of place is this Illyria, which allows its inhabitants the freedom to indulge in such nonsensical excesses? Joseph H. Summers has noted that in this world,

the responsible older generation has been abolished, and there are no parents at all... in which young ladies, fatherless and motherless, embark on disguised actions, or rule, after a fashion, their own household, and in which the only individuals possible over thirty are drunkards, jokesters, and gulls, totally without authority. 1

If irresponsibility can reign supreme in this land at any time, imagine the scene on Twelfth Night, when the spirit of revelry is in complete control, and drunkenness and practical joking at their height. It would seem that, of all the characters, only Feste and Viola are interested in disturbing the revelry and games so that the real business of living can begin.

Viola is responsible for saving those similar spirits, Orsino and Olivia from their sea of tears; both are startled out of their sense of propriety by falling in love with her as Cesario. Olivia is distraught because she has fallen for a servant, Orsino because he is attracted to a boy. Viola manages the situation purely through verbal skill and a charming double-edged wit. We can see in Viola the one person who keeps her head above water for the length of the play; she is the only one with any strong inclination toward self-preservation. She is a realist in the company of complete sentimentalists, and with Feste, finds something to love in these weak Illyrians, and so saves them.

Feste, the sharpest wit of all Shakespearian clowns, attempts through mockery to pull the other characters out of their absurd moods; he sees the essential sanity in his cynicism, as opposed to the madness of the rest of the Illyrians: "I wear not motley in my brain." No one escapes Feste's cutting wit; there is no one whom he cannot outsmart or out talk, and yet he is also the only person to treat Malvolio humanely, with actions and not just words. Viola is the only one to see Feste's real accomplishments: "This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, / And to do that well craves a kind of wit. This is a practice as full of labor as a wise man's art." Feste's art is best put to use in his scene with Malvolio, in which he impersonates Sir Topas. Malvolio's prison is a sea of sorts, in which he is drowning in confusion and terror. Although Feste has been sent in to mock Malvolio, he perhaps sees the comic truth in Malvolio's assertion that he is "as well in my wits as any man in Illyria," and he promises to help him. The song with which Feste ends the play also serves to tie together some of the tear and drowning imagery, whether it be with a sexual pun, as Leslie Hotson has suggested, or through the references to drowning in the rain. 2

Shakespeare's most serious commentary on the evils of excess is contained in the subplot concerning the gulling of Malvolio. This is a perfect example of a joke that has gone too far and of the imposition of the neurotic compulsion towards "fun," that comes from boredom and drink, on another person. Malvolio’s humiliation comes close to marring the comic spirit of the play and yet, the incident is a necessary one in terms of portraying the limits of human cruelty. Malvolio alone remains untouched by Viola’s saving goodness; the most serious note in the play is sounded by Feste when he explains the situation and concludes: "And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.”

It is interesting to ask to what extent the excesses of the beginning of the play have given way to moderation at the conclusion. Olivia seems not to have changed much; the hasty marriage and then the easy acceptance of Sebastian hint that she is still more in love with the idea of love than with her husband. Orsino easily accepts Cesario-Viola as his bride, in place of Olivia, but any hope we have for the success of this match rests on Viola's talent for love. Maria and Sir Toby get what they deserve: each other, and they will probably cause more mischief as a team then they ever did alone. Malvolio does not seem to have learned very much, and swears to be "revenged on the whole pack of you!" Feste, of course, remains alone to comment on the coming follies of the Illyrians. All in all, however, no one has really been lost. There is no more cause for tears in Illyria, and this in itself is a salvation from drowning. Twelfth Night is the most festive of Shakespeare’s plays, and yet much of the humor and singing is ironic, with the mockery turned towards both characters and audience. One may, of course, choose to ignore the undercurrents and concentrate solely upon the fun. The poles of the play are quite clearly drawn in Orsino's first speech: one may be drowning in sentimentality and enjoy it; and yet there comes the time when one realizes that, "'Tis not so sweet now as it was before." Shakespeare gives us his play with a choice of perspectives: the festival of Twelfth Night or, what you will.


1. Summers, p. 25.

2. Hotson, p. 157.


Hotson, Leslie. The First Night or Twelfth Night. New York, 1955.

Summers, Joseph. "The Masks of Twelfth Night." The University Review. XXII, 1955.

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