THEMES OF TWELFTH NIGHT
THEME #1: CAPRICE
The notion of frivolity and playfulness pervade Shakespeare’s work and overlap with many of the other themes referenced on this page. For starters, here are a few places where the theme of capriciousness is evident in the text.
I.i: From the very beginning of the play, love is portrayed as capricious. The fact
that Orsino wants the one woman who is unattainable emphasizes from the start
that he is a Petrarchan lover—completely unrealistic in his affections.
IV.i: (lines 5-9): “No, I do not know you; nor I am not sent to you by my lady, to bid
you come speak with her; nor your name is not Master Cesario; nor this is not my
nose neither. Nothing that is so is so.”
These lines, spoken by Feste when Sebastian honestly denies knowing him,
epitomize the theme of capriciousness, particularly the final line. Note the copious
use of double negatives.
(lines 60-63): “What relish is in this? How runs the stream? / Or I am mad, or else
this is a dream. / Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep; / If it be thus to dream,
still let me sleep!”
These lines of Sebastian’s also reinforce the notion of caprice and fantasy,
especially when it comes to love. He declares that if he’s dreaming, he hopes to
remain so as long as Olivia is doting on him.
What does Shakespeare seem to be saying about romantic love by
portraying it so ironically? Compare to other Shakespearean lovers (i.e.
Romeo and Roslyn, Petrucchio and Kate, Benedick and Beatrice).
IV.ii: The theme of capriciousness and fluid identity continues in this scene as we see
yet another character donning a disguise: Feste becomes Sir Topas and even goes
so far as to speak as both himself and Sir Topas in the same breath.
At the same time that we witness Feste’s playfulness through disguise, we also
see the wisdom behind his foolishness. Up to this point, Malvolio has looked down on Feste as a fool, but in this scene it becomes apparent that Feste may be the only person who can help him out of his predicament. Rather suddenly,
Malvolio’s attitude toward this “fool” changes dramatically, and Feste clearly has
the upper hand in the relationship at this point (indeed, it seems that Feste has
always had the upper hand).
IV.iii: Much of Sebastian’s soliloquy revolves around the notion of dream and fantasy
versus observable reality. He states, “For though my soul disputes well with my
sense / That this may be some error, but no madness, / Yet doth this accident and
flood of fortune / So far exceed all instance, all discourse, / That I am ready to
distrust mine eyes / And wrangle with my reason that persuades me / To any other
trust but that I am mad, / Or else the lady’s mad…there’s something in’t / That is
deceivable.” (9-16; 20-21).
How do these lines further the theme of caprice in the play? Also, what might
Shakespeare be saying about love in this instance? How good do we feel about their relationship, considering that she is actually mistaking him for the person she actually fell in love with—his sister? And considering that Sebastian has reason to believe Olivia (or he) may be crazy? What exactly is this relationship
V.i: Orsino loses his love, but now seeks romance with his best friend. Sebastian realizes that he has promised marriage to a woman who is in love with his sister. Olivia has promised marriage to a stranger who thinks she is possibly crazy. Has Shakespeare illustrated caprice in the human attitude toward romantic love?
THEME #2: DICHOTOMY OF POLAR OPPOSITES
I.v: As soon as Malvolio enters, he questions all that Feste stands for as being
frivolous. Remember that this play venerates frivolity from the very start. In this way, Malvolio sets himself up in enmity with Feste from the very beginning, and he forces Feste to justify his very existence. Malvolio tries to humble a person who is already in the humblest of circumstances. Because of his arrogance, Malvolio is a character the audience wishes to see humiliated. No one likes a bully, and Malvolio is a bully from the start. Watch how this characterization
develops throughout the story, particularly in relation to the characterization of Feste.
II.iii: In what ways are Malvolio and Maria—both servants to Olivia—diametrically
opposed? What qualities does Maria possess? What qualities does she value?
Consider why Maria dislikes Malvolio so much that she would play a cruel
practical joke on him. He is technically her superior in station, but she is more
well-liked by the nobles whom she serves.
THEME #3: ABILITY TO RECOGNIZE ONE’S OWN FOLLY
I.i: From the very first scene of the play, we are introduced to a nobleman who takes himself and his romantic pursuits far too seriously. Orsino is introduced as a Petrarchan lover, pining away for the one woman in Illyria whom he cannot woo—presumably not the most serious of problems that a man of his importance might have to face. Wallowing in sappy self-pity, Orsino beckons his musicians to
play the most heartrending song they can muster, declaring in a famous line, “If
music be the food of love, play on.” Orsino is the first of many characters we
meet who amuse and entertain us mainly because they take themselves far too
seriously and are blind to their own foolishness.
II.v: Once again, we see a character taking himself far too seriously in this scene. Malvolio can’t get enough of his own shadow, and when he wanders into the garden (and right into Maria’s trap), his own self-important musings blind him to the joke being played on him. He actually believes that Olivia might have feelings for him and considers marrying her…even becoming Count Malvolio! It is this self-aggrandizing attitude that allows Malvolio to believe the contents of Maria’s forged love note and ultimately leads to his humiliation. He sees what he wants to see because he is blinded by pride, and he is a ripe target for the prank because he is utterly unable to recognize his folly, let alone laugh at himself.
THEME #4: POTENTIAL FOR TRAGEDY WITHIN A COMEDY
I.ii: Discuss the elements of a tragedy and how the characters introduced in this scene,
although we know they are players in a comedy, could just as easily be set up for
How does Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony (the audience knowing something
that the characters don’t) shift Sebastian’s story from a tragic to a comic one?
IV.ii: At this point in the play, the trick being played on Malvolio may begin to seem a
bit cruel, particularly depending on the director’s choice of staging. He is
imprisoned in a cramped, dark cell and being told that he is mad when he is clearly not. Even Sir Toby suggests that the conspirators cut short their gag.
Discuss the line between a funny joke and a cruel one. Do you think this prank
has crossed the line? Might the audience’s contempt for Malvolio now turn to
THEME #5: LEVELS OF LOVE
I.ii: How would you characterize Antonio’s professed “love” for Sebastian? Is it
friendly? Romantic? Brotherly? Something else? Why do you think so?
II.ii: How does the love triangle at the center of the play work? Is there hope for it ever to work out? If so, how? What might Shakespeare be suggesting about love by
incorporating this love triangle?
II.iii: How would you characterize Maria and Sir Toby’s relationship? Is it love?
Flirtation? Friendship? Playful banter? What makes them “work” as a couple?
What might not work in their relationship?
II.v: We see a couple instances of this theme in Act two, scene five. First, we have
Malvolio musing on marrying Olivia, quite above his own station, and
rationalizing the match with reference to “the Lady of the Strachy [marrying] the
yeoman of the wardrobe” (39-40).
Later, we hear Sir Toby exclaim of Maria, “I could marry this wench for this
device…And ask no other dowry with her but such another jest” (lines 183, 185-
6). He also refers to her as “thou most excellent devil of wit” (207-8).
Considering these two couples—Malvolio and Olivia / Sir Toby and Maria—
which seems the better match and why? Does Sir Toby’s admiration for Maria
seem enough to base a marriage upon, or is he being facetious? Can you picture
the two married? How would such a relationship play out?
Which seems to be more important in making a good match: two people who are
equal on a social scale or on an intellectual level? What are the merits of each of
these types of pairings? Does one work better than the other with certain people or
in certain situations?
V.i: Let’s take a closer look at the couples who come together at the end of the play:
Sebastian & Olivia: Sebastian meets a pretty girl who might possibly be seriously insane. But she is pretty and rich, so why not marry her?
Olivia marries a man who she believes is:
merely a boy
not in love with her
guilty of greatly deceiving his employer and friend
Then Olivia discovers that she did not marry the object of her infatuation;
rather, she married a stranger. Nonetheless, she hopes for happiness.
Toby & Maria: Maria’s motivation is problematic. Although marriage to Toby will apparently raise her social standing (he is Sir Toby Belch after all), life with Toby will probably mean always trying to keep him from overindulging in liquor, as we are told by Feste early in the play:
“If Sir Toby would leave drinking, thou wert as witty a piece of Eve’s flesh as any
in Illyria.” (Act I, sc. 5, lines 27 & 28)
Toby marries Maria apparently merely because she is highly skilled in playing practical jokes. “Maria writ the letter, at Sir Toby’s great importance, in
recompense whereof he hath married her.” (Act V, sc. 1, lines 364-366)
Orsino & Viola: Orsino has all along treated Viola/Caesario as an underling,
although a trusted servant and a confidant. But it is hard to forget that in the final
scene, less than 300 lines before the end of the play, Orsino intends to kill
Caesario. Some friendship!
But hear me this:
Since you to nonregardance cast my faith,
And that I partly know the instrument
That screws me from my true place in your favor,
Live you the marble-breasted tyrant still.
But this your minion, whom I know you love,
And whom by heaven I swear, I tender dearly,
Him will I tear our of that cruel eye
Where he sits crowned in his master’s spite.
Come, boy with me. My thoughts are ripe in mischief
I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love,
To spite a raven’s heart within a dove. (Act V, sc. 1, 120-131)
Viola at least knows her prospective spouse since she has been his confidant for the past three months, but during that time she has watched him mindlessly dote on a woman who disdains his regard. Not only is she willing to catch Orsino on
the rebound, but she is willing to forgive or forget that he was ready to kill her moments earlier.
THEME #6: GENDER ROLES
This theme works generally throughout the play, especially with all of the gender-bending that would have occurred in an Elizabethan production of Twelfth Night. Recall that women were not allowed onstage, so all roles would be played by males. The fact that this play revolves around a woman mistakenly falling in love with another woman, dressed as a man the entire time, would only have been compounded by the fact that men were playing all of these roles!
Look at the characterization of Viola. Consider why she fears for her future as a single woman alone in Illyria, and why she ultimately decides to pose as a man. Does this
choice make sense? Why or why not? Would you say that it works out well for her in the
end? How would the story be different if Viola had not chose to adopt the identity of
Also look at the development of Olivia’s character, particularly as she rebuffs Orsino’s
advances in favor of his messenger, who is really Viola in disguise. What does Olivia see in Cesario (Viola) that she doesn’t see in Orsino? In what ways does Viola’s being a
woman allow her to court Olivia more successfully than Orsino—even without trying to?
Consider the implications of Olivia’s vow of chastity in the first act of the play; why does
her remaining unmarried and childless create conflict in the world of the play (remember
the Aristotelian definition of comedy!)? Notice that once she gives up her vow of chastity
to pursue a romantic relationship—something we want her to do as a young, available,
and beautiful woman—she falls in love with the one person she shouldn’t. Is this a
comment on women’s judgment, or the capriciousness of love in general?
Finally, compare Maria to the other female characters in the play. Why do you suppose
Maria hangs around with two men—Sir Toby and Sir Andrew—who are clearly drunk
and silly most of the time? What could she possibly get out of this association? Also,
what does it say about Maria that she is the one to come up with the plan to trick
Malvolio, while the men are merely her accessories?
THEME #7: SONGS OF THE PLAY
The play begins in music and ends in music. Contrast the songs:
Act I, sc. 1, before the spoken play begins: there is a melancholy song played
allowing Orsino to indulge further in self-pity. He takes his position, his
unrequited love, and even himself far too seriously.
Act V, the concluding song indicates that life continues regardless of the fate of
the individual. Duke Orsino, the most powerful and therefore the most important
man in the play, begins the play with his diatribe asserting his distorted sense of
self-importance. It completes the irony of Twelfth Night that the play ends with
the lowly jester, the character whose purpose is questioned and criticized from the
very beginning, is the one who concludes the play with wisdom. That wisdom, simply stated, is that none of us matters as an individuals – we are all part of the
great scheme of Nature – the circle of life.