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Twelfth Night | Themes

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Topsy-Turvy World

Shakespeare develops the theme of the world turned upside down in Twelfth Night through several characters and situations as well as through the title's reference to the celebration of Twelfth Night. In England, Twelfth Nightthe last night of the Christmas period—is a holiday celebrated before the feast of the Epiphany (the Christian holy day commemorating Christ's appearance to the Magi). According to tradition, communities choose a "Lord of Misrule" to lead the activities on Twelfth Night. Various kinds of pandemonium, often involving cross-dressing, playing practical jokes, and performing other antics to temporarily disrupt social order, ensue; these also figure prominently in Shakespeare's play. Twelfth Night's alternate title, What You Will, also evokes the atmosphere of a free-for-all. While there is no historical evidence that the play takes place during the winter holidays, the play's title does suggest an overall theme that problems happen when the world goes topsy-turvy.

Viola's disguise is a key element in depicting the upside-down world of the play. She herself describes disguise as a "wickedness" (Act 2, Scene 2), and at the end of the play she is very anxious to delay embracing Sebastian and Orsino until she is dressed as a woman again. Viola clearly sees her disguise as a last resort when she finds herself shipwrecked and alone in Illyria, but she engages in it skillfully, even (accidentally) getting Olivia to fall in love with her. Her disguise causes further problems when her identity is mistaken with that of her twin, Sebastian, and vice versa.

Orsino may be viewed as the "Lord of Misrule" in some ways. His pursuit of Olivia and dispatch of Cesario to speak for him sets the plot in motion and leads to further twists. Throughout the play, the audience never sees Orsino engaged in any actual activities a duke might have to perform. He spends all of his time feeling sorry for himself and wallowing in his unrequited love for Olivia. If Orsino were not so distracted, he might have realized Cesario was a woman sooner, thus avoiding many of the complications in the play.

Olivia's behavior is also upside down by Elizabethan standards. Her vow for a lengthy and severe mourning period for her brother's death is unreasonable and out of keeping with social custom. Her refusal to even see Orsino's messengers is disrespectful to one who is theoretically her sovereign (the captain states that Orsino "governs" the region). Olivia's active pursuit of Cesario and her stooping to trickery to bring him back is also highly inappropriate to her station. Olivia asking Sebastian (who she thinks is Cesario) to marry her and keeping a priest on hand for just that purpose are also unexpected. By Elizabethan standards, the woman is supposed to be wooed by the man, not the other way around. Shakespeare uses this reversal of roles in several of his plays. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, Helena chasing after Demetrius causes much humor and chaos.

In the mixed-up world of the play, the Fool, Feste, proves himself to be one of the wisest characters. He points out to Olivia that she is mourning too much, and he shows Orsino that he is making a mistake in pursuing Olivia. The Fool even jokes with Viola (as Cesario) about her lack of a beard, suggesting he may have seen through her disguise. He is also wise and compassionate enough to recognize Malvolio's genuine suffering in his dark room. He comforts Malvolio with a song and helps him get out of his prison.

Love and Madness

Shakespeare often ties love and madness in his plays, and Twelfth Night is no exception. The world-turned-upside-down theme is echoed on the individual level by various characters' madnesses and the ensuing havoc. Pining for Olivia, Orsino talks about the "fantastical" qualities of love in Act 1, suggesting that lovers imagine things that are not there. In fact Orsino barely knows Olivia and his madness consists of imagining that she has all sorts of qualities she may, in reality, lack. He has built her up into an idealized figure—a kind of passive, easily manipulated, mourning saint, who needs to be saved by his attentions toward her—and he is surprised and annoyed by any divergence from this image on her part. He is frustrated by her steadfast refusal to receive his messengers during her mourning period, therefore viewing Cesario as a possibly useful tool in this regard. Later in the play Orsino is genuinely shocked at the level of Olivia's passion for Sebastian (who Orsino and Olivia think is Cesario) and even more so by Olivia's actively seeking marriage to him. Another aspect of Orsino's madness is that he has no clue Cesario is a woman, despite a number of verbal and physical hints a more alert and sane man might have noticed.

Certainly Orsino's behavior as the play goes on suggests something is wrong with him. He is frequently referred to as "changeable," and in one scene (Act 2, Scene 4), he contradicts himself repeatedly. First, he tells Viola that men are not as constant in their affection as women; then, he insists no woman could love him as much as he loves Olivia. He develops very strong feelings for Viola even though he believes her to be a boy, Cesario. In the last act he has come to woo Olivia in person; yet before the scene is over, he has expressed his love for Viola and vowed to marry her. Orsino is a one-man personification of Twelfth Night's theme of love as madness.

When Olivia first falls for Cesario, in Act 1, Scene 5, she says, "Even so quickly may one catch the plague?" She is surprised by the strength and suddenness of her feelings for Cesario, and she stoops to using the trick (one she is later ashamed to admit) of returning a ring he supposedly gave her just so she can get him to come back. Sebastian also brings up the idea of madness when Olivia finds him. She is so loving toward him—a man she has not met before, from his point of view—that he literally questions her sanity, even as he acknowledges no one else at her house behaves as if she were crazy. Olivia's actions are crazier than she knows. She marries Sebastian (thinking he is Cesario), a man she literally does not know. Sebastian wonders for a second if he is mad to marry Olivia under these circumstances, but then he just accepts his good fortune.

Malvolio is proclaimed mad because of his feelings for Olivia. His desire for her, however, has more to do with gaining power and wealth than with loving Olivia herself. When he attempts to woo her in the ridiculous manner (smiling and wearing yellow stockings cross-gartered) indicated by the letter he finds, Olivia can only think that he has gone mad. His madness, however, has the concrete effect of keeping him bound and confined in a dark room until he is rescued.

Folly of Grief

In Twelfth Night, grief comes in two forms: serious and trivial. Yet the play argues that all grief is, to some extent, foolish or a waste of time. Olivia has suffered real loss: both her father and her brother have recently died. But she turns mourning into an overly dramatic, morose, and public demonstration of her private suffering, making the over-the-top vow to receive no visitors for seven years and covering herself up in a dark mourning veil. The Fool aptly reminds her that if she believes her brother is in heaven, she has no need to grieve for him (Act 1, Scene 5).

Malvolio only makes himself an object of scorn and ridicule as he tries to enforce a funereal atmosphere appropriate to mourning at Olivia's house. Viola believes she has lost Sebastian, and Sebastian thinks Viola is dead. Each grieves for the other, but both turn out to be wrong. Their grief was unnecessary. Orsino grieves because Olivia will not see him, but his perfect woman turns out to be someone else entirely—Viola.

The Fool, as is typical in Shakespeare's plays, is one of the wisest characters. Early on, Shakespeare connects suffering and folly in Twelfth Night. Malvolio says, "Infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the better Fool," and the Fool responds, "God send you, sir, a speedy infirmity, for the better increasing your folly!" (Act 1, Scene 5). Infirmity, illness, and death may cause grief, but here they increase folly. Throughout Twelfth Night, the Fool reminds the characters—and the audience—of the need for perspective, levity, and consolation. He has the last word in the play. After all the characters have left the stage in Act 5, Scene 1, the Fool sings, "the rain it raineth every day." There are always problems and reasons to grieve, his song suggests, but people go on and live their lives anyway.

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