At a Glance

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.

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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...

(The entire section is 1,936 words.)