Twelfth Night | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Twelfth Night | Symbols



Act 1 of Twelfth Night opens with music playing and Orsino's first line ("If music be the food of love, play on") directly connecting music to love. Music serves as a symbol of love throughout the play. Orsino describes it as a way to nourish love. When Viola hatches her plan to become Orsino's page (Act 1, Scene 2), she is aware one of her qualifications is "I can sing / And speak to him in many sorts of music / That will allow me very worth his service." When Viola (as Cesario) first meets Olivia (Act 1, Scene 5), she says if she loved Olivia, she would "write loyal cantons of contemnèd love"—in other words, love songs. In Act 2, Scene 4, Orsino and Viola (as Cesario) have a love scene in which Viola confesses her love for Orsino (even though he doesn't recognize it). As Orsino requests, music is playing quietly throughout the scene. Orsino and Viola listen to the Fool sing a song about a "sad true lover" (Act 2, Scene 4). They are true lovers, but Orsino doesn't realize it yet. When Viola (as Cesario) returns to Olivia's house to speak again for Orsino, she says if Cesario were instead to speak of another suit (i.e., his own), "I had rather hear you to solicit that / Than music from the spheres" (Act 3, Scene 1).


In Twelfth Night, jewelry serves as a concrete symbol of desire and affection. After Olivia first meets Cesario, she sends Malvolio after him to deliver a ring Cesario supposedly left behind. Viola knows the ring represents Olivia's love for Cesario. In Act 3, Scene 4, Olivia gives Viola (as Cesario) a "jewel" with her picture. In Act 4, Scene 3, Sebastian mentions Olivia gave him a pearl as a token of her affection.

In the Elizabethan era, jewelry was also used to reward servants or to mark their rank. When Malvolio fantasizes about being married to Olivia (Act 2, Scene 5), his fantasies include possession of a watch and valuable jewels. As her steward, he would probably already be wearing a heavy gold chain. In Act 1, Scene 4, Valentine speaks of the "favors" Orsino has given to Viola. While the play does not specify what the favors are, they likely included a jewel or chain to indicate Cesario's status as a favorite servant.


Clothing is a major symbol in Twelfth Night, serving as a guide to the wearer's character or—in the case of Viola, Olivia, Malvolio, and the Fool—as a disguise of real character. The play's plot turns on Viola's successful impersonation of a male page, Cesario, when she arrives at Orsino's court. Even though cross-dressing is helpful to her at first, it becomes a burden when she falls in love with Orsino and when Olivia falls in love with her (as Cesario). In Act 5, Scene 1, after all of the mistaken identities are finally cleared up, Viola makes a point of waiting to change into women's clothes before embracing her brother, Sebastian, and her beloved, Orsino.

Viola is not the only character who dresses purposefully inTwelfth Night. When Olivia first meets Cesario, she puts on her heavy mourning veil, immediately creating a barrier between her and Cesario—but a barrier she will happily discard when she falls in love with him. The trick played on Malvolio by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria is dependent upon his greeting Olivia dressed in ridiculous, cross-gartered, yellow stockings (rather than his usual somber attire). In his case clothing serves to show him up for the fool he really is. Even the Fool puts on a disguise, dressing as the hermit Sir Topas when he comes to visit Malvolio in his dark room.

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