Twelfth Night: Themes, Quotes and Cross-Dressing Characters

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

In this lesson, we'll outline the interplay between love and deception in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. We'll go over plot, characters, and figure out what Shakespeare's cross-dressing heroine Viola means in the context of love. Updated: 12/13/2019

Themes and Characters in Twelfth Night

So, we're talking about Twelfth Night, which is a Shakespeare comedy. It's actually pretty funny. Some of Shakespeare's comedies… meh. Twelfth Night is pretty funny; I enjoy it. It's got cross-dressing, drunk people, practical jokes - it's really got it all. It's been adapted and used in lots of modern things, including the wonderful adaptation called She's the Man, starring Amanda Bynes, in which she dresses up as her twin brother in order to play soccer. It's also referenced in Shakespeare in Love - Gwyneth Paltrow's character's name is Viola, and it's implied that she's the inspiration for the main character in Twelfth Night, whose name is also Viola, and who also dresses up as a guy. There are a lot of modern adaptations based on it.

Women dressing up as men is actually one of Shakspeare's favorite comedy tropes. It comes up over and over again: Portia in Merchant of Venice does it, Rosalind in As You Like It does it. It's especially weird when you remember that women actually weren't allowed on the stage, so what you really had is men who are dressing up as women who are dressing up as men, which is a very strange thing to have onstage - it creates all sorts of weird dynamics that you wouldn't otherwise have.

So, I've talked a lot of about cross-dressing. Other things happen in the play, but first, we should go over the main characters so you can have a sense of who's who in Twelfth Night. We've got Viola, a woman who gets shipwrecked while traveling with her twin brother, Sebastian, and she's pretty sure that he's dead. She thinks she might be the only survivor of the shipwreck. We've got Orsino, who is the Duke of Illyria, which is the country where Viola washes up; he is in love with Olivia, who is a noblewoman who is in mourning because her brother just died. She is just not really into being wooed at all, and she doesn't want anything to do with Orsino.

Malvolio is Olivia's servant. He's kind of pompous and superior - no fun at all. Then we have Maria, who is a fun-loving lady in waiting to Olivia, and Sir Toby Belch, who is a fun-loving uncle of Olivia's. He's always, always, always drunk. They are fun to hang out with when we get to do that, which is a lot in this play. So, you put all these people together, and you're bound to get something funny, right? We do. That sure happens.

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  • 0:05 Twelfth Night
  • 2:53 Act I
  • 6:46 Act II
  • 11:13 Acts III & IV
  • 14:37 Act V
  • 15:38 Lesson Summary
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Act I

So, in Act I, right off, we're introduced to Orsino. He's listening to some music and is kind of blathering on about how much he loves Olivia. Some of the blather is actually pretty famous. The opening lines are:

'If music be the food of love, play on;

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.'

He's hoping that music will over-satisfy his appetite for love and make it so he can't love Olivia anymore, because it's so heartbreaking to do so since she wants nothing to do with him. Remember that her brother recently died, so she has to wear a veil of mourning for seven years, and she's not going to marry anybody until she takes it off. It does not sound like a percentage play for Orsino to pursue her, but he just can't give it up, so he keeps trying to get her to marry him.

So, as we mentioned before, Viola gets shipwrecked and is rescued and brought to Illyria (if you remember, again, in Shakespeare in Love, that end scene where she walks up on the beach - that's sort of supposed to be this). She was traveling with her twin, Sebastian, but she thinks he's probably dead because nobody else was rescued with her. The captain of the boat that rescued Viola is telling her all about Orsino and Olivia, and Viola thinks, 'hmm… I would really like to go and be a servant in Olivia's house - that would be a fun thing to do.'

The captain tells her that that's probably not a good idea because Olivia doesn't want to meet with strangers because she's so depressed. Instead, Viola decides she's going to dress up as a guy and go be a page, or servant, in Orsino's house. So she does this - this is how the cross-dressing happens - she dresses up as a guy and calls herself Cesario. She ends up, inevitably, falling in love with Orsino, which is not totally OK because she's supposed to be a guy, she's supposed to be a servant. All he wants her to do is go to Olivia's house and deliver these messages of love. It's sort of like befriending the hot guy that you have a huge crush on, but then all he talks about is, 'oh, do you think she likes me' about some other girl. It's kind of depressing, but she does it because she's madly in love with him.

Meanwhile, at Olivia's house, we're meeting Maria and Toby Belch, who are really the comic relief in this comedy. They're the funniest ones. We also meet Malvolio, Olivia's humorless steward, which is another kind of servant. Cesario, who is Viola in disguise, turns up with a message from Orsino. Olivia has no interest at all in hearing this message because she's heard like ten billion of them and she does not want anything to do with Orsino, but she gets very interested in hearing a little bit more about Cesario. So she tells him to go back to Orsino and tell him no, but she also says that Cesario should come back and let her know how it went with Orsino.

She sends Cesario away and then sends Malviolio after him with a ring that he 'left behind' - but he didn't really leave it behind; it's actually a love token from Olivia to Cesario because she has fallen in love with Viola dressed up as a guy. So, it's nuts because Viola is a woman who is dressed up as a guy, but she's in love with the guy she's a servant for, Orsino, who's in love with Olivia, who's in love with Cesario, who she thinks is a guy but is not really a guy. It's a mess, and we'll see how it all works out.

Act II

We get a little hint as to how it might work out because in the beginning of Act II, Shakespeare writes a little scene to tell us that Sebastian is actually alive - remember, Sebastian is Viola's twin brother. So he washes up and is chatting with this other dude named Antonio, and Sebastian is sure that his sister is dead. Each twin thinks that the other is dead, but now we know that both Sebastian and Viola are alive.

Meanwhile, Malvolio is caught up with Cesario and has given him the ring. Viola figures out pretty quickly what's going on and insists that Malvolio take the ring back to Olivia - she knows that it's meant to be a love token for her, and she's really not happy about this. She thinks the whole thing is absurd because, again, Olivia loves her, and she loves Orsino, and Orsino loves Olivia. It's the definition of a love triangle; it's horrible.

Viola gets back to Orsino, and he's still moaning about Olivia, but Orsino can also tell that Cesario (Viola) is also feeling a little bit mopey and in love him/herself. He convinces Viola to tell him all about the one that she loves, and she says, 'oh, it's someone who's very much like you, Orsino,' which Orsino takes to mean an older woman, which he finds very funny. But, clearly, it's not - it's actually Orsino.

He decides to send Cesario to go talk to Olivia again even though Viola tells him, 'you need to get over this - she's not into you at all.' This time, Orsino gives Cesario a little jewel to take to Olivia. And now, it's time for the real comic relief of the whole play. Toby Belch, Maria and some of their compadres hanging around, drinking and making noise. Fun-hating Malvolio comes down and is like, 'stop, you guys are awful and I hate you. You're having too much fun.' So, they're upset, and they decide to play a trick on Malviolo to get back at him. What they do is have Maria write a note because she can mock Olivia's handwriting pretty well - she's going to write a note that's seemingly from Olivia that's going to suggest that Olivia's actually in love with Malvolio. It's sort of like the ancient-day equivalent of hacking into your friend's Facebook and sending declarations of love to that weird friend-of-a-friend on the math team, or something like that. (I was on the math team, so love to everyone there.) So they carry out this plan, and at first, they watch Malvolio wander around being a pompous jerk even without reading the letter. He's acting out a fantasy in a scene in which he can tell Toby Belch to stop drinking:

Malvolio: …Toby

approaches; courtesies there to me, -

Sir Toby Belch: Shall this fellow live?

Malvolio: I extend my hand to him thus, quenching my familiar

Smile with an austere regard of control, -

Sir Toby Belch: And does not Toby take you a blow o' the lips then?

Malvolio: Saying, 'Cousin Toby, my fortunes having cast me on

your niece give me this prerogative of speech,'

Sir Toby Belch: What, what?

Malvolio: 'You must amend your drunkenness.'

Sir Toby Belch: Out, scab!

So then, he finds the letter - they left it on the ground - and he makes an even bigger fool of himself. Maria has left a little bit of mystery in the letter. She has Olivia say that she loves MAOI, and Malvolio concludes that this definitely has to do with him. He says:

yet, to crush this a little, it would bow to me, for

every one of these letters are in my name.

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