Twelfth Night Themes

The main themes in Twelfth Night are the joys and perils of revelry, the consequences of deception, and love versus infatuation.

  • The joys and perils of revelry: The play shows how revelry and humor can be amusing or, when taken too far, dangerous.  
  • The consequences of deception: The narrative grows increasingly complex and tangled as Viola's initial act of deception leads to ever greater confusion. 
  • Love versus infatuation: Although many of the characters profess to be in love, their actions often show that they are driven more by infatuation than by genuine love.

Themes

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Last Updated on September 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1217

The Joys and Perils of Revelry

The theme of revelry is introduced by the play’s title, Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night refers to the twelfth day after Christmas. This was originally a religious holiday that celebrated the Epiphany, but by Shakespeare’s era, the holiday had taken on a new role as a night of revelry. On the Twelfth Night, the world was turned upside down: chaos reigned, and costumed merrymakers filled the streets, drinking, singing, and playing pranks.

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True to its title, Twelfth Night is filled with festivities and antics, which range from harmless fun to cruel trickery. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian are the prime revelers, committed to drink, song, dance, and pranks. They are joined by Maria, who provides the intelligence and organization of the group, and sometimes by Feste, whose wisdom does not prevent his participation but does provide him with a more ironic view of revelry. Feste knows how foolish the behavior is, but that does not stop him from joining in.

The group’s primary prank is on Malvolio, who is the enemy of revelry. If the rigid and self-righteous Malvolio had his way, Sir Toby and his companions would be deprived of their “cakes and ale” and all their fun. To get even with the grim and scolding steward, Sir Toby, Maria, and the others devise their prank. Maria writes a fraudulent love letter, purportedly from Olivia, whose instructions are designed to make Malvolio look like a fool.

The prank, however, does not end there, for the pranksters move beyond harmless taunting and mere silly embarrassment to actually locking Malvolio up in a dark house as a madman. Revelry, the play implies, can become dark and dangerous if unchecked. Malvolio is no longer taunted but rather tortured, and he might truly have gone mad if the prank had not been exposed. Indeed, the play shows that revelry has its limits and its consequences, some of which are highly unpleasant.

The Consequences of Deception

Disguise and deception abound throughout Twelfth Night. The characters who disguise themselves and deceive others each have their own motives and designs, but the result is nearly always confusion.

Viola’s motives for disguising herself as Cesario remain unclear. Perhaps she feels safer in a strange country disguised as a young man, but her deception leads to a long line of confusion as Olivia actually falls in love with Viola—or, rather, she falls in love with Viola’s disguise. Viola herself has feelings for the Duke but cannot express them. When Sebastian arrives in Illyria, the bewilderment deepens as several characters mistake Sebastian for Cesario. This error even leads to injury when Sir Andrew challenges Viola (as Cesario) but actually strikes Sebastian, who fights back without hesitation. Olivia, too, thinks that Sebastian is Cesario and goes through a betrothal ceremony with the wrong person. Even Antonio feels the sting of Viola’s deception when he mistakes Cesario for Sebastian and believes that his friend has betrayed him.

Olivia carries on her own deception when she sends her ring after Cesario at their first meeting, claiming that she is returning it to him. Her motive is to draw him back, because she is attracted to him, yet she does not realize that she is being caught up in Viola’s deception and fooled by her disguise.

Even Feste disguises himself as the priest Sir Topas when he participates in the prank on Malvolio. As Sir Topas, Feste tries to convince Malvolio that he is indeed mad or even possessed and that he is not in a dark house but in a bright room filled with windows. The deception here is cruel, and Feste violates the limits of propriety by pretending to be a priest, for a priest’s role is to care for a person’s spiritual needs, not try to drive him insane. Only Malvolio’s stubborn perseverance saves him from descending from confusion into true madness. 

Throughout the play, these various forms of deception result in layers of confusion. While these confusions are often experienced by the characters as causes for alarm, they drive the play’s comedic arc and amuse the audience, who can appreciate the dramatic irony that underlies much of the action.

Love Versus Infatuation

Twelfth Night explores the nature of love by reflecting primarily on what love is not. Although the play contains numerous expressions of love and desire, many of these expressions appear to arise from infatuation rather than from genuine love. Duke Orsino claims to be passionately in love with Olivia. He sighs and moans and sends Viola to woo her, yet he never once considers Olivia’s opinion on the matter. He does not respect Olivia’s choice to mourn for her brother. He continues to push and insist, to plead and complain. The Duke’s actions can be viewed as more about lust, control, and self-gratification than true love that respects the beloved and wills the best for her.

Olivia, too, declares that she is in love—not with the Duke but with his young messenger, Cesario, who is really Viola in disguise. Olivia, however, fails to notice that her beloved is actually a woman, even though Viola drops several hints that she is not who she seems to be. In a sense, Olivia imitates the Duke in disregarding Viola’s position. Viola is clear that her heart will never belong to Olivia, but Olivia does not seem to care. She pursues the relationship anyway, focusing on her own feelings rather than the desires of her beloved.

Furthermore, Olivia is so caught up in her infatuation that she does not even realize that she mistakes Sebastian for Cesario. Certainly the two look alike in most respects, but the confusion suggests a lack of genuine attentiveness on Olivia’s part. She would recognize his mannerisms, habits of speech, and character traits. She would distinguish the tone of his voice and his typical posture and gestures. Olivia simply does not know Cesario well enough to catch all those little indications that would have told her that Sebastian was not her “beloved.”

Sebastian, for his part, knows nothing at all about Olivia, yet he claims to love her. He is not even sure that she is sane after she unexpectedly brings him into her house and then to the altar for their betrothal ceremony. Yet Sebastian fails to ask what is going on and follows meekly. He is arguably not in love but rather completely infatuated by the attentions of a beautiful woman.

Finally, Viola says she is in love with the Duke, and her feelings are arguably the deepest of all the characters. She remains faithful to him even though he showers his attention and passion on another woman. She even serves as his messenger, putting his desires before her own. She works to protect his honor and trust, faithfully relaying his pleas of love to Olivia and her responses to him instead of trying to sabotage the affair. She gently debates with him about the nature of love and the strength and constancy of a woman’s love. In these exchanges, she is speaking of herself and her own feelings, even though the Duke fails to understand. Indeed, Viola may be the only character who is truly in love.

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