Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.
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.
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.
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:
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.
It's like if I found something that said ELSH and I concluded that it must be 'Elspeth' - it's just like ugh, no; you're an idiot. But he's convinced that she's in love with him, and he reads on that in order to please her, he should 'be opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants,' and it also says the he should wear 'yellow stockings' and be 'ever cross-gartered,' which essentially means that he should have crisscrosses of garters on his man-tights, which they wore back then. The letter also tells him to smile all the time.
It should be clear, but these are things that are calculated to really annoy Olivia. They've put those things in the letter on purpose. She hates yellow, she hates cross-garters and she hates it when Malvolio smiles.
Acts III and IV
Now we're in Act III, and we've got Cesario back at Olivia's delivering yet another message of love from Orsino. We've had like three in this play alone, so you can imagine how often this guy would do this. It's getting a little creepy. But Olivia is actually going to start to out-creep Orsino by cutting Cesario off in the middle of this message and saying that she really loves him. Cesario/Viola tries to let her down gently and can't really say, 'I'm a woman,' but kind of comes as close as she can to saying that. But still, Olivia really wants him to come back and see her again.
Now, things start to get really crazy because one of Toby's friends who has been hanging around this whole time, his name is Sir Andrew, is also in love with Olivia. This woman must really be something because it seems like everyone falls in love with her. Now that he knows that she likes Cesario, Sir Andrew is going to challenge Cesario to a duel. Sir Andrew is one of Sir Toby's friends, so he's totally absurd and is probably not really going to be dangerous, but he's going to do it. Sir Toby encourages it because he thinks it's going to be hilarious.
Then, Olivia runs into yellow-stockinged, cross-gartered Malviolio and thinks he's actually genuinely insane. She thinks he's gone around the bend. The rest of the servants take this opportunity to lock him in a dark room (because that was apparently what you did to insane people back then), and now their revenge on him is totally complete. Everyone thinks he's nuts and he's locked in the cellar. It's kind of mean, actually. They might have gone a little too far.
At this point, Cesario comes back and he runs into Sir Andrew, who challenges him to the duel. Now, if you'll remember that throwaway scene that Shakespeare put in to tell us that Sebastian is still alive, he had him talking to this dude named Antonio. Antonio suddenly turns up, and he thinks that he's recognized Sebastian because he sees Cesario (aka Viola, who's Sebastian's twin), and he offers to fight in her place. But then, he gets arrested. Some people turn up and arrest him for… we don't know what. He gets carted away, and he's yelling out for Viola to pay his bail, but she has no idea who this guy is, so she's like, 'no, I'm not going to pay your bail. I don't know who you are!'
Antonio feels totally betrayed because he doesn't understand why Sebastian won't pay his bail. It's a huge mess. So Viola has no idea who this guy is, but she's heartened by the mention of a guy named Sebastian who she thinks might be her twin. She starts to think that maybe he's alive. Of course, he is alive, and now he comes by Olivia's house and is immediately brought into the fight against Sir Andrew, who thinks that he's Viola. Sebastian is pretty confused that everybody seems to know him because he doesn't know any of them. Then Olivia comes out and brings him into the house, and he's really confused. He has no idea who she is, but she's hot, so he'll go with it. They head off to get married. She's like, 'Come on, Cesario, let's get married,' and Sebastian's like, 'OK, I'll do that. No problem.'
That brings us into Act V. Orsino and Viola head off to Olivia's house, which seems to be where the action is today. Olivia runs into them and thinks that Viola is Sebastian, who she's just gotten married to. Orsino's upset because Olivia's like, 'we're married,' and Orsino's like, 'come on dude, my servant - why did you marry the woman I love?' Olivia's upset because Cesario is saying, 'I actually love Orsino,' but she thinks that Cesario/Viola is the guy that she just married. Viola is freaking out because she does not understand what's going on. Then Sebastian turns up and they figure out what it all was. Viola can finally reveal that she's actually a woman; Olivia and Sebastian are married, which Olivia is totally fine with because she gets to marry someone who looks like Viola/Cesario, and then Orsonio now wants to marry Viola. So it's a big happy ending for everybody. It's all fine.
That's how it ends, and you can see that it's really gender-bending comedy at its absolute best. It's all about deception and disguises and good stuff like that. There's the main plot, with Viola dressed up as Cesario, looking like Sebastian, and Olivia falling in love with 'man' Viola, and Viola falling in love with Orsino, but even the subplot with Malvolio falls along the same deception/disguise lines. Maria imitates Olivia in order to convince him to do all this crazy stuff, and he actually goes and changes his appearance to make Olivia love him. There's a lot of back-and-forth about appearances, deception and surface-level stuff.
Love seems inextricably tied to deception in this play, reinforced by finding out, at the very end, that Toby Belch and Maria get married because her skill in tricking Malvolio was really attractive to Sir Toby. Her being deceptive and crazy is what made them get married in the end. Orsino and Olivia also seem weirdly unperturbed at finding out that they're marrying people whose true identities are unknown - they aren't who their new spouses thought they were. Orsino and Olivia don't seem to care that much about it.
It seems to be the accepted state of things, that you're going to be deceived a little bit when you're in love, and that's just kind of the way it is, so it might as well be someone pretending to be a guy because you're going to be deceived by something anyway. That seems to sort of be the message of the play, or at least it's a theme that gets explored. So, that's Twelfth Night, and I hope you enjoyed.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to explain the themes and describe the basic plot of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
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