Important Quotes from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

Instructor: Leslie McMurtry
Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's romantic comedies. Like all Shakespeare's works, it is full of remarkable and memorable language and meaningful quotes that are still effective today.

About the Author

Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the most important authors in the English language, and it's easy to see why. His plays in particular have remained relevant for over 400 years. Each new production discovers some new way of interpreting his characters and language, and even reading his plays (aloud in groups or quietly to yourself) gives you a golden key to some truly amazing writing.

As a comedy, Twelfth Night is somewhat shorter than some of Shakespeare's plays. Nevertheless, there are many examples to choose from of important quotes. The play's collection of characters is rich, characters who use language both hilarious and beautifully restrained to paint pictures of a world as relevant to us today as it was to Shakespeare's first audiences. We don't know exactly when Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night, though likely around 1601. It is a romantic comedy of mistaken identities and love triangles.

Keys to Orsino's Character

Twelfth Night's main romantic lead is Count Orsino of Illyria who starts the play in love with Countess Olivia and ends it with shipwrecked aristocrat Viola, who has posed as a man for most of the play. Orsino is introduced--and speaks the very first, and memorable, words of the play: 'If music be the food of love, play on.' Firstly, this phrase is key to his character, as a man who enjoys the sensual pleasures of life, including music, food, and love. He encourages his courtiers--and us--to enjoy life through the medium of music. Ever since this line was written, musicians everywhere have agreed with Orsino's assessment of the importance of music to the good life.

In Act I, Scene 4, Orsino has continued to display his open, passionate nature. Speaking to Cesario--who is Viola in disguise--he says, 'I have unclasp'd / To thee the book even of my secret soul.' Cesario/Viola has only been employed as Orsino's page for a matter of months, yet Orsino feels he can intuitively trust him/her. The phrase is also important for the beautiful metaphor of comparing the soul to a book. This quote seems to say that our soul is an open book that can be shared with others, and read openly by them, if we wish.

Keys to Viola's Character

Viola is one of the most interesting characters in Twelfth Night. Viola is disguised as a man for most of the play; she is in love with Orsino but unable to tell him so and pursued by Olivia (who thinks Viola's a man). In their first meeting, Viola is trying to win Olivia's love for Orsino. Her beautiful and witty speeches are so successful that Olivia becomes interested in 'Cesario.' One of Viola's most important quotes is the 'willow cabin' speech of Act I, Scene 5, in which she tells Olivia, 'Make me a willow cabin at your gate / And call upon my soul within the house.' Willow branches were the symbol of sorrowful love, and, in this case, double as both Orsino's pining love for Olivia and Viola's impossible love for Orsino.

By Act III, Olivia is in love with Cesario/Viola, and Viola, not wanting to hurt the Countess' feelings, tries to extricate herself. 'I am not what I am' she tells Olivia in Scene 1. When Olivia replies with 'I would you were as I would have you be,' these lines speak to our notions of both identity and the ways of love. The obvious way to understand Viola is that she isn't what she seems, i.e., a man, and that the subtext of Olivia's reply sets the stage for her wanting the impossible to be true. However, to interpret more broadly, Shakespeare says here that in some sense, identity is malleable and love is a fantasy.

Malvolio's Conceitedness

Malvolio, wearing his cross-gartered yellow stockings, from Twelfth Night
Image of Malvolio, a character from Twelfth Night

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