Twelfth Night

1 January 2017

Characters and events are important factors in plays as their interactions throughout the plot develop the central ideas or themes that the author wishes to communicate to the audience. Some common themes are investigations into common human experiences that may involve complex moral issues or questions the integrity of relationships. A play which uses characters and events to explore such important themes is Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. The dominant themes Shakespeare introduces in Twelfth Night are love and deception.

Love and deception are critical in that they embody the values for humans in today’s society since love comforts humans and bring them together while deception is the betrayal of truth and honesty which causes separation and anguish. Shakespeare uses these themes in order to demonstrate a rich variety of relationships. Shakespeare presents love throughout the play to provide the audience with his perspective on love as it exists in human society including self-love, selfless love and true love.

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Shakespeare illustrates the different aspects of love throughout the play by the language used including soliloquies, metaphors, motifs and symbols. Self-love is one’s self indulgence disguised as love in order to fulfill or satisfy one’s egotism. In Twelfth Night, self-love is represented by the characters of Olivia, Orsino and Malvolio. Olivia embodies self-love which is clearly depicted in the scene where she mourns for her dead brother and she locks herself in her own world, refusing to speak to any guests until Viola comes along to deliver Orsino’s message of love.

After delivering her message, Olivia approaches Viola by sending her a diamond ring (Act I Scene V). This indicates the Olivia was indulging herself in the thought of love for her brother since she completely forgets about him at the first appearance of Viola disguised as Cesario. Also, in this scene, two motifs are shown in delivering messages – Viola and the diamond ring. They both represent the message of love by the two characters Olivia and Orsino.

Likewise, Orsino indulges in only the thought of love which leads him to suffer in the play as he does not communicate or have interest in the outside world and only a love obsession on Olivia: ‘If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it, that surfeiting, The appetite may so sicken and so die,’ . This is both an imagery and metaphor as he refers music as the food of love and it can be seen that he is self-indulging in the idea of love since he imagines being fulfilled with the idea of love but becomes sick of it; that is, love as a form of gluttony.

Malvolio, on the other hand, represents a different kind of self-love. Although Malvolio dresses in crossed garters and yellow stockings for Olivia, he only does it for his fortune and status (Act III Scene IV). This is demonstrated to the audience in his soliloquy, ‘I will be proud, I will read politic authors, I will baffle Sir Toby, I will wash off gross acquaintance, I will be point-device the very man. I do not now fool myself, to let imagination jade me; for every reason excites to this, that my lady loves me. ‘

By contrast, true love is a strong affection that one has for another which is constant, while selfless love is when one truly loves another but does not show it and has the courage to sacrifice for their love. The characters Viola and Antonio express true and selfless love in Twelfth Night. In the love triangle between Viola, Orsino and Olivia, Viola is the only character who is truly in love. She loves Orsino and wants to send the message across to him but realises she has to suffer for the consequences of being in disguise as a man.

Her selfless and passionate love can be seen when she describes herself as someone else, ‘She pined in thought, And with a green and yellow melancholy, She sat like Patience on a monument, Smiling at grief. Was this not love? ‘ This interprets that although she had to suffer from a forced silence in her passionate feelings for Orsino, she patiently accepted and waited in grief. Similarly, Antonio’s love for Sebastian is known as powerful as he cannot be separated from Sebastian and says, ‘If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant’.

This indicates that Antonio is in love with Sebastian which brings a little humour into the play as well as the aspect of homosexuality. It is therefore clear that Shakespeare demonstrates self-indulging love and true love in order to exhibit the many facets of love. Also, another major theme Shakespeare explores in Twelfth Night is deception which often causes emotional sufferings and unexpected events, situations or effects. Shakespeare demonstrates his thoughts and ideas on deception through language techniques such as the characterisation, motifs and oliloquies. Deception that is tragic is a serious and unwanted deceit or trickery by others. An example of tragic deception includes the disguise of the love triangle between Olivia, Viola and Orsino. While Viola is disguised as Cesario she realises that Olivia has fallen in love with her while she has fallen in love with Orsino, who is in love with Olivia. However, because Viola is in disguise as a man, she breaks down as she cannot express her love for Orsino and cannot deny Olivia’s love.

Shakespeare uses soliloquies to express Viola’s inner thoughts: ‘O time, thou must untangle this, not I; It is too hard a knot for me t’untie. ‘ As a result, her twin brother Sebastian must save the tangled love triangle by starting a relationship with Olivia and making Orsino turn to Viola. Shakespeare’s characterisation of Sebastian Viola’s twin brother is used in order to have a resolution to the tragic deception in the play.

Also, deception that is in jest is the act of deceiving or tricking another in a humourous or mocking way which is the kind of deception that is delved out to Malvolio. Shakespeare’s characterisation is used by choosing Malvolio as the character to mock since he is targeted as the selfish, ambitious antagonist in the play. He also uses deception that is in jest to create dramatic irony in the play which is created in the play when Malvolio is tricked to dress up in crossed garters and yellow stocking and act absurdly in order to please Olivia (Act III Scene IV).

Further, mistaken identity is the state of being mistaken for someone else because of the appearance similarity which can cause disasters such as a tangled situation. Mistaken identities are seen in the events that unfold such as when Viola is mistaken as Sebastian while Sebastian is mistaken as Viola. This resulted in Antonio emotionally suffering as he thought he was betrayed by Sebastian destroying the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian (Act III Scene IV).

Shakespeare’s characterisation in choosing Viola and Sebastian to be twins was to bring together Viola and Sebastian together to resolve the confused and tangled situations such as the love triangle. This is why deception is unwanted and is often thought as a negative aspect of relationships between loved ones. Thus, themes are shaped by the characters, the relationship between them and the events that surround the characters. This is clearly demonstrated in Twelfth Night through mistaken identities, disguise, true love and self-indulging love.

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Twelfth Night. (2017, Jan 21). Retrieved May 22, 2019, from
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