English Literature
Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night

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What if there was a day when you could mock your boss, make politically incorrect statements, and face no judgment? In Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night, that day becomes a reality. Let's explore how this comedic version of The Purge unfolds and the characters that make it happen.Twelfth Night is set during a festival known as the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany, also called Twelfth Night. This night was a time of revelry and merrymaking, where social norms were turned upside down. Servants acted as masters, and men dressed as women, disrupting the established social hierarchy. Chaos and fun reigned as masters obeyed their servants and men obeyed women.The concept of cross-dressing in Twelfth Night was not uncommon in Shakespeare's plays. This theme is also present in works like As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice. During Elizabethan times, female roles were typically played by young boys and men. This meant that in Twelfth Night, male actors dressed as women, adding to the comedic element of the play.In addition to the influence of cross-dressing, it is essential to consider Queen Elizabeth I's impact on Shakespeare's works. Artists, writers, and performers depended on her patronage to continue their work. This meant that their creations had to please the Queen and avoid offending her. Shakespeare and his theatre company were no exception. The character of Viola, strong, independent, and complex, reflects the Queen's traits and would have been enjoyed by her. Queen Elizabeth would also have connected with Orsino's quest for revenge against Antonio, who harmed his fleet of ships. During her reign, she strengthened the royal naval fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588.As with other Shakespearean plays like Julius Caesar and Hamlet, Twelfth Night finds inspiration from other literary works. Specifically, it draws from Barnabe Riche's 'Apollonius and Silla' and 'Gl'Ingannati,' a 16th-century Italian play that also deals with mistaken identities. The elements of cross-dressing and challenging traditional gender roles make Twelfth Night one of Shakespeare's transvestite comedies, alongside As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice.The play begins with the Duke of Illyria, Orsino, hopelessly in love with a woman named Olivia. However, Olivia is not receiving anyone, including potential suitors, due to her vow to mourn her brother's death for seven years. Meanwhile, a noblewoman named Viola arrives in Illyria after a shipwreck and searches for her twin brother, Sebastian, who was also on board.The captain of the ship informs Viola about Orsino's love for Olivia and her decision to mourn her brother. To support herself while mourning her own brother, Viola disguises herself as a eunuch named Cesario and starts working for Orsino, aiming to win his favor. The captain helps her with this plan.Viola's new job is at Olivia's household, where her lady-in-waiting, Maria, scolds her uncle, Sir Toby, for bringing his friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, to court Olivia. Sir Toby believes that Sir Andrew, despite being a gambling drunk, is a suitable match for Olivia because of his wealth. However, Sir Andrew is discouraged by Olivia's lack of interest and considers pursuing Orsino instead.Within a few days, Cesario/Viola gains the trust of Orsino and becomes an essential part of their lives.In Illyria, Orsino is convinced that Olivia, known for her beauty, will not be able to resist Cesario's charms, as attractive as he is. Disguised as Cesario, Viola agrees to Orsino's plan to court Olivia but secretly hopes to marry him instead.Meanwhile, Feste, Olivia's jester, returns from an unexplained absence and tries to cheer her up. Unfortunately, Malvolio, Olivia's steward, objects to Feste's presence, which Olivia defends. When Cesario arrives, Olivia is immediately captivated by his delicate and handsome appearance. Cesario then conveys Orsino's feelings for Olivia, but she becomes more interested in Cesario than Orsino. Olivia is even more impressed when she discovers that Cesario comes from a noble background.

Twelfth Night: A Story of Disguises and Misinterpreted Love

The play Twelfth Night follows the love triangle between Olivia, Viola, and Orsino, all while their lives are intertwined with pranks, mistaken identities, and playful tricks.

Olivia, feeling conflicted after sending Cesario (Viola in disguise) away with a message that she cannot love him, sends Malvolio to retrieve him by any means necessary, even giving him a ring that she claims Cesario left behind as a ploy to ensure his return.

Across the coast, a man named Antonio has been taking care of Sebastian, thinking his twin sister Viola has drowned in a shipwreck. Sebastian wants to mourn her death by wandering, but Antonio is wanted at Orsino's court for past actions, making it dangerous for him to accompany Sebastian. Despite the risk, Antonio follows Sebastian to Illyria.

Malvolio finally catches up with Cesario and reprimands him for carelessly leaving the ring behind and demands that he stay away from Olivia. With the complications of her disguise as Cesario becoming clear, Viola finds herself caught in a love triangle while trying to keep her true identity a secret. Meanwhile, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste indulge in heavy drinking, witnessed by Maria, who then joins in on their plan to seek revenge on Malvolio.

Orsino senses that Cesario has fallen in love and after listening to a love song from Feste, he once again sends Cesario to Olivia to persuade her of his love. Cesario gently explains that Olivia does not return Orsino's feelings, but Orsino is determined to win her over and sends him with a jewel as a token of love.

In Olivia's garden, Malvolio is daydreaming about being married to Olivia and enjoying her wealth and status. As he speaks aloud, he stumbles upon letters that he believes are from Olivia, but in reality, they were planted by Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian as part of their prank. The letters hint at Olivia being in love with someone whose name starts with the letters "MOAI." These letters also instruct the recipient to wear crossed garters and stockings and to smile continuously as a way to show their love. Malvolio, convinced that Olivia is in love with him, eagerly follows these instructions.

While wearing the fashion accessory of crossed garters and stockings, Cesario visits Olivia and she pleads with him not to bring any more declarations of love from Orsino, confessing her love for him instead. However, Cesario reveals that he does not love her or any other woman and cannot return to see her. Olivia desperately begs for him to reconsider, showing her true feelings for him.

Meanwhile, Sir Andrew is upset that Olivia has chosen Cesario over him and wants to leave. Sir Toby and Fabian convince him to stay and challenge Cesario to a duel. However, Maria reveals that Malvolio is dressed in the manner described in the letters and is smiling, causing everyone to go and see him.

Antonio finally catches up with Sebastian and offers to accompany him. He entrusts his money to Sebastian and they agree to meet in an hour. Olivia sends a servant to fetch Cesario once again and also summons Malvolio. However, upon seeing Malvolio dressed oddly and smiling, she believes he has gone mad. Sir Toby, Maria, and Fabian lock him in a dark room.

Even though Sir Toby promised to deliver Sir Andrew's challenge to Cesario, he instead gives his own version, leading to an unwilling duel between Sir Andrew and Cesario. Meanwhile, Feste, disguised as a priest, continues to play pranks on Malvolio, who claims to be sane despite the cruel game being played on him by Sir Toby and company.

Throughout the chaos, Feste mistakenly thinks Sebastian is Cesario and tries to bring him inside Olivia's house. Eventually, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew show up, with Sir Andrew immediately attacking Sebastian. However, Sebastian quickly takes control of the situation and Sir Andrew begs for mercy. Sir Toby then tries to intimidate Sebastian, but Olivia arrives and apologizes for her friends' behavior, bringing a confused Sebastian into her house.

The play Twelfth Night is a tale of misunderstanding, manipulation, and mistaken identities, all leading to a tangled web of love, pranks, and chaotic events.

The Complexities of Love and Identity in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

As Sir Toby fears consequences for his prank on Malvolio, the confusion only deepens with the arrival of Orsino, Cesario, and Antonio at Olivia's house. The characters' tangled relationships and mistaken identities create a web of comedic chaos that ultimately leads to a happy ending in the beloved play, Twelfth Night.

A Cast of Colorful Characters

At the heart of the story are Orsino, the lovesick Duke of Illyria, who enlists Cesario to convey his feelings to the strong-willed Countess Olivia. Viola, disguised as Cesario, wins over Orsino's heart while also falling for him. Olivia, mistakenly believing Cesario is a man, marries Viola's twin brother Sebastian. The play also features loyal and friendly Sebastian, who is rescued by Antonio, a helpful sea captain.

With its clever wordplay and memorable lines, Twelfth Night is a treasure trove of quotes, including Orsino's famous words: "If music be the food of love, play on, Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die" (Act 1, Scene 1). This line captures Orsino's unrequited love for Olivia and his desperate attempt to distract himself with music.

The Power of Disguise

In Twelfth Night, disguise is not only essential to the plot but also a tool for characters to reveal their true selves. Viola's disguise as Cesario allows her to understand and connect with Orsino and Olivia on a deeper level. Meanwhile, Feste uses disguise to make a fool of Malvolio and challenge the idea that ignorance can prevent one from seeing the truth.

Exploring Love and Gender

Love is a central theme in Twelfth Night, portrayed through the ever-changing emotions of the characters. Viola's deep love for Orsino leads her to sacrifice her own feelings to bring him happiness. The play also touches on the love between siblings, exemplified by the strong bond between Viola and Sebastian.

The concept of gender confusion is also prevalent, as Viola and Sebastian's identical appearance leads to misunderstandings and reveals the fluidity of identity and societal expectations.

A Timeless Comedy

In conclusion, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night continues to entertain and delight audiences with its humorous plot, memorable characters, and exploration of love and identity. As Viola proclaims in the opening scene, "I'll do my best to woo your lady," this delightful play promises to captivate audiences for generations to come.

The Intriguing Tale of Disguise and Love in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, a classic play written by William Shakespeare, follows the lives of characters in the kingdom of Illyria, including Viola, Orsino, Sebastian, Olivia, and Antonio. As the story unfolds, themes of love and gender are cleverly woven in through the use of disguise. The play concludes with a double wedding celebration, as everything falls into place.

Despite being written over 400 years ago, the themes of love and gender in Twelfth Night are still relevant today. Shakespeare's masterful use of language and storytelling continues to captivate audiences and solidify this play as a timeless classic.

Historical Context and Inspiration

  • Twelfth Night was written as part of Shakespeare's collection of comedies, which were often performed for Queen Elizabeth I. However, Shakespeare also drew inspiration from other texts such as 'Apollonius and Silla' (1581) and GI'Ingannati (1532), to craft a unique and entertaining storyline.

The Plot of Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night opens with a shipwreck that separates Viola from her twin brother Sebastian. To survive, Viola disguises herself as a page and enters the service of Duke Orsino. As she becomes more involved in Orsino's affairs, she becomes the messenger of love between him and Countess Olivia. However, things become complicated when Olivia falls for Viola, thinking she is a man, while Viola herself is falling for Orsino.

The confusion only intensifies when Sebastian, who was believed to be dead, arrives in Illyria. Mistaken identities and miscommunication lead to chaos until the truth is finally revealed. The play ends with the characters united and a joyous double wedding celebration.

The Role of Orsino in Twelfth Night

Duke Orsino is a prominent character in Twelfth Night. He is deeply in love with Olivia and sends Cesario (Viola in disguise) to court her on his behalf. However, his love for Olivia is shallow and superficial, based solely on her beauty and wealth. As the events unfold, Orsino's feelings are put to the test as he realizes his true feelings for Cesario.

Uncovering the Meaning Behind the Title

The title of the play, Twelfth Night, is a reference to the festive 'Eve of Feast of Epiphany' that is traditionally celebrated on the twelfth night after Christmas. This celebration is known for its raucous revelry and merrymaking, which mirrors the chaos and confusion that takes place in the play.

Relevance in Modern Society

Twelfth Night may have been written in the 17th century, but its themes of love, gender, and identity remain applicable in today's society. The play's exploration of these topics through clever disguises and mistaken assumptions continues to intrigue and entertain audiences, making it a timeless masterpiece.


  • Wright, Heather Lynn. '"Sit back down where you belong, in the corner of my bar with your high heels on": The use of crossdressing in order to achieve female agency in Shakespeare's transvestite comedies.' Gardner-Webb University, 2011.

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