Twelfth Night Significant Allusions
by William Shakespeare

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Significant Allusions

Allusions to Ancient Greece and Rome: The English Renaissance brought about a renewed interest in classical works, namely Greco-Roman mythology and history. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare uses allusions to mythological figures in order to characterize Orsino’s declarations of love as hyperbolic and inauthentic. Notable mythological allusions in Twelfth Night include the following:

  • In act 1, scene 1, Orsino hopes that Olivia will someday be struck by love’s “golden shaft,” an allusion to Cupid, the Greek god of love. Cupid’s golden arrows inspired insatiable love and desire in mortals. Orsino’s allusion to Cupid suggests that his love for Olivia is externally motivated and forced upon him, rather than founded on true affection. Cupid’s arrows were also often considered a source of misery, especially in cases of unrequited love. 
  • Also in act 1, scene 1, Orsino compares Olivia to Diana, the Roman goddess of chastity and the hunt, by alluding to the story of Diana and Actaeon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. After being caught watching Diana bathe, Actaeon is turned into a “hart,” or male deer, and hunted down by his own dogs. Through this allusion, Orsino implies that the “cruel hounds” that pursue him are his own desires. 
  • Orsino reuses this allusion when, in act 1, scene 4, he compares Cesario’s “smooth and rubious” lips to those of Diana. The repetition of this allusion serves two functions. First, Orsino’s commendation of Cesario’s beauty reminds the audience that Cesario is actually Viola, a woman. Second, this comparison highlights the hyperbolic nature of Orsino’s love and foreshadows the rapid transfer of his affections from Olivia to Viola. 
  • In act 5, scene 1, Orsino compares himself to an “Egyptian thief,” in reference to the character of Thyamis from the Aethiopica, a novel written by Greek writer Heliodorus of Emesa in the 3rd century CE. Thyamis, the leader of a band of Egyptian thieves, falls in love with Chariclea, the heroine of the story. When “faced with death,” Thyamis attempts to kill Chariclea to prevent any other man from having her. The implication of this allusion is that Orsino would rather kill Olivia than see her married to Cesario, highlighting the dangers of possessive, unbalanced love.