Twelfth Night Themes

Twelfth Night key themes:

  • In Twelfth Night, despite the festive spirit of the play, Shakespeare invites his audience to notice certain problematic aspects of the story.

  • The comic elements in this play include moments of mistaken identity, comic wordplay, and the prank played on the pompous Malvolio.

  • Love in Twelfth Night is irrational and fickle, as shown in the Duke’s quick transition from fervently wooing Olivia to falling in love with Viola.

  • Love is also associated with madness: Malvolio’s love for Olivia leads to his imprisonment for lunacy.


The essential spirit of Twelfth Night is captured in its title. It refers to the "Twelfth Night" of Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrating the gift of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Believed by the Elizabethans to also be the day of Jesus' baptism, the Twelfth Night was an even more important holiday in Shakespeare's time than Christmas itself. In (partial) contrast to our own domesticated Christmas, this was not only a festive season for the Elizabethans but a time when excess and license were expected to run rampant. It was a time of merry-making, of hard drinking, and of romantic (or lusty) pursuits. The play is unique among Shakespeare's works in having a second or subtitle, "What You Will." This second part to the play's title is an open-ended invitation by Shakespeare to his audiences. They can choose to enjoy the play as a simple, romantic comedy with a happy ending, but they are also free to take note of certain negative or problematic aspects woven into the general revelry by the mature Bard.

The world of Twelfth Night is one of comedy and comic excess; and among all of the characters in the play, it is the drunken, misbehaving and prankish Sir Toby Belch who epitomizes its humorous nature. The plot against Malvolio is, to an extent, a jocular undoing of a negative character, an authority figure without power intent upon silencing Sir Toby. The humor here is amplified by the degree to which Malvolio comes to see himself as Olivia's equal. Thus, in the phony letter he receives, Malvolio emphasizes the words, "Some are (born) great, some (achieve) greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em" (II.v.144-145). No matter how he slices it, Malvolio comes to the opinion that he, a mere steward, is somehow great or deserves to become great by virtue of his pomposity. The audience is in on the joke from the start, so that Malvolio's reading of the letter is entertaining in itself and magnifies the humor of his ultimate demise when Olivia's behavior makes it plain that Malvolio is not great, but deluded.

In addition to the comic moments of mistaken identity that arise in the course of Twelfth Night, there are many funny bits in the play that stand on their own. In the first scene of Act III, the clown Feste is asked by Cesario if he is a musician who "lives by" playing the tabor. He replies that he "lives by the church." When the disguised Viola then asks "Art thou a churchman?" Feste answers: "No such matter, sir: I do live by the church; for I do live at my house, and my house doth stand by a church" (III.i.1-5). Along with Sir Toby, Andrew, and Maria, Feste is one of several characters in Twelfth Night who engages in comic wordplay, some of it on purpose and some of it unwittingly. After learning of Olivia's love for Cesario, the disguised Viola says to the countess at the end of Act III, scene ii:

I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth,
And that no woman has; nor never none
Shall mistress be of it, save I alone.
And so adieu, good madam; never more
Will I my master's tears to you deplore.

This speech is, of course, ironic, since the speaker is, in fact, a woman. But above this, Viola's response to Olivia's overture highlights the primary subject of the play: romantic love. In her coupling of "one heart, one bosom, and one truth," Viola gives expression to an idealized conception of "true" love as being an all-consuming passion for a single "authentic" lover that will overcome any and all obstacles.

Twelfth Night validates this idea of love, but with some disconcerting qualifications. Love is true in Twelfth Night, but it is also irrational, excessive and fickle; it wanes over time, as does its chief cause, physical beauty. Duke Orsino opens the play with the lines: If music be the food of love, play on, / Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken and so die (I.i.1-4).

But after hearing strands of the same tune being played in the background, Orsino commands "Enough; no more; / 'Tis not so sweet now as it was before" (I.i.10-11). In Twelfth Night, Orsino is irrational in his pursuit of the lovely Olivia, but he cedes her readily to Sebastian and then falls instantly in love with "Cesario" when he reveals himself to be Viola. Love is powerful, but its constancy is certainly in question. In Act II, scene iv, the Duke says to Cesario that "For women are as roses, whose fair flower, / Being once display'd, doth fall that very hour" (ll.38-39). Love at first sight is rampant in Shakespeare's Illyria, but he will not vouchsafe its permanence.

Worse, in Twelfth Night, love is consistently associated with madness. After seeing Cesario for the first time, the love struck Olivia says at the end of Act I, "Mine eye [is] too great a flatterer for my mind" (I.v.309). Love is a form of insanity, in which one's senses deceive and overcome one's reason. In Act IV, scene iii, Sebastian waxes about his instantaneous love for Olivia:

This is the air, that is the glorious sun;
This pearl she gave to me, I do feel't and see't:
And though 'tis wonder that enrapts me thus,
Yet 'tis not madness. …

Sebastian's denial that his love for Olivia is madness only underscores the connection between unbounded passion and an unbalanced mind. Shortly thereafter, Sebastian says that because of his love for Olivia, he is willing to "distrust mine eyes" and "wrangle with my reason" (IV.iii.13-14). In a play in which many references are made to being possessed by the devil and being victimized by witchcraft, love is of necessity equated with being mad.

There is one character in Twelfth Night for whom love (co-mingled with self-infatuation) is madness—the steward Malvolio, whose professions of love to Olivia lead to his being restrained as a lunatic. Over the centuries, Shakespearean critics have discussed the so-called "Malvolio problem." On the one hand, Malvolio is basically a stock comic figure who deserves the comeuppance that he receives. But on the other, his imprisonment is excessive, and he excludes himself from the closing marriage ceremony with good cause. Indeed, when he speaks finally of exacting revenge in Act V, Malvolio evokes a certain sympathetic understanding. Malvolio has been abused as the target of a trick perpetrated by the parasitical, self-serving Uncle Toby. For his part, Uncle Toby, Malvolio's chief tormentor, is a merry soul, but he is also a rouge who is scheming to marry his fair niece to the absurdly non-heroic, non-romantic figure of Sir Andrew. If we view the play as a standard romantic comedy, Malvolio warrants the comedown that he undergoes; but as a matter of justice, Malvolio has done very little to earn a humiliating payback.