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66 Cards in this Set

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Orsino—the Duke of Illyria, who is madly in love with Olivia.
Olivia—the countess with whom Orsino is in love and who rejects him.
Curio—one of the Duke’s attendants.
Valentine—another gentlemen attending the Duke.
Viola—the female of a brother–sister pair of twins who enters Illyria disguised as Cesario and finds love.
A Sea Captain—a friend to Viola who comes ashore with her.
Sir Toby Belch—Olivia’s uncle who drinks a lot and marries Maria.
Maria—Olivia’s lady-in-waiting.
Sir Andrew Aguecheek—Sir Toby’s friend who thinks he is a potential suitor for Olivia.
Feste the Clown—servant to Olivia who sings and provides entertainment.
Malvolio—steward to Olivia.
Fabian—another servant to Olivia.
Antonio—another sea captain who is friend to Viola and who comes ashore with Sebastian.
Sebastian—Viola’s twin brother.
First Officer—officer in the service of the Duke.
Second Officer—also in the service of the Duke.
A Priest—marries Sebastian and Olivia.
Musicians—playing for Duke.
Twelfth Night Themes

Love as a Cause of Suffering
Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy, and romantic love is the play’s main focus. Despite the fact that the play offers a happy ending, in which the various lovers find one another and achieve wedded bliss, Shakespeare shows that love can cause pain. Many of the characters seem to view love as a kind of curse, a feeling that attacks its victims suddenly and disruptively. Various characters claim to suffer painfully from being in love, or, rather, from the pangs of unrequited love. At one point, Orsino depicts love dolefully as an “appetite” that he wants to satisfy and cannot (I.i.1–3); at another point, he calls his desires “fell and cruel hounds” (I.i.21). Olivia more bluntly describes love as a “plague” from which she suffers terribly (I.v.265). These metaphors contain an element of violence, further painting the love-struck as victims of some random force in the universe. Even the less melodramatic Viola sighs unhappily that “My state is desperate for my master’s love” (II.ii.35).
Twelfth Night Themes

Love as a Cause of Suffering part 2
This desperation has the potential to result in violence—as in Act V, scene i, when Orsino threatens to kill Cesario because he thinks that -Cesario has forsaken him to become Olivia’s lover.

Love is also exclusionary: some people achieve romantic happiness, while others do not. At the end of the play, as the happy lovers rejoice, both Malvolio and Antonio are prevented from having the objects of their desire. Malvolio, who has pursued Olivia, must ultimately face the realization that he is a fool, socially unworthy of his noble mistress. Antonio is in a more difficult situation, as social norms do not allow for the gratification of his apparently sexual attraction to Sebastian. Love, thus, cannot conquer all obstacles, and those whose desires go unfulfilled remain no less in love but feel the sting of its absence all the more severely.
Twelfth Night Themes

The Uncertainty of Gender
Gender is one of the most obvious and much-discussed topics in the play. Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s so-called transvestite comedies, in which a female character—in this case, Viola—disguises herself as a man. This situation creates a sexual mess: Viola falls in love with Orsino but cannot tell him, because he thinks she is a man, while Olivia, the object of Orsino’s affection, falls for Viola in her guise as Cesario. There is a clear homoerotic subtext here: Olivia is in love with a woman, even if she thinks he is a man, and Orsino often remarks on Cesario’s beauty, suggesting that he is attracted to Viola even before her male disguise is removed. This latent homoeroticism finds an explicit echo in the minor character of Antonio, who is clearly in love with his male friend, Sebastian. But Antonio’s desires cannot be satisfied, while Orsino and Olivia both find tidy heterosexual gratification once the sexual ambiguities and deceptions are straightened out.
Twelfth Night Themes

The Uncertainty of Gender part 2
Yet, even at the play’s close, Shakespeare leaves things somewhat murky, especially in the Orsino-Viola relationship. Orsino’s declaration of love to Viola suggests that he enjoys prolonging the pretense of Viola’s masculinity. Even after he knows that Viola is a woman, Orsino says to her, “Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times / Thou never should’st love woman like to me” (V.i.260–261). Similarly, in his last lines, Orsino declares, “Cesario, come— / For so you shall be while you are a man; / But when in other habits you are seen, / Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen” (V.i.372–375). Even once everything is revealed, Orsino continues to address Viola by her male name. We can thus only wonder whether Orsino is truly in love with Viola, or if he is more enamoured of her male persona.
Twelfth Night Themes

The Folly of Ambition
The problem of social ambition works itself out largely through the character of Malvolio, the steward, who seems to be a competent servant, if prudish and dour, but proves to be, in fact, a supreme egotist, with tremendous ambitions to rise out of his social class. Maria plays on these ambitions when she forges a letter from Olivia that makes Malvolio believe that Olivia is in love with him and wishes to marry him. Sir Toby and the others find this fantasy hysterically funny, of course—not only because of Malvolio’s unattractive personality but also because Malvolio is not of noble blood. In the class system of Shakespeare’s time, a noblewoman would generally not sully her reputation by marrying a man of lower social status.
Twelfth Night Themes

The Folly of Ambition part 2
Yet the atmosphere of the play may render Malvolio’s aspirations less unreasonable than they initially seem. The feast of Twelfth Night, from which the play takes its name, was a time when social hierarchies were turned upside down. That same spirit is alive in Illyria: indeed, Malvolio’s antagonist, Maria, is able to increase her social standing by marrying Sir Toby. But it seems that Maria’s success may be due to her willingness to accept and promote the anarchy that Sir Toby and the others embrace. This Twelfth Night spirit, then, seems to pass by Malvolio, who doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace the upending of order and decorum but rather wants to blur class lines for himself alone.
Twelfth Night Themes

Celebration and Festivity
Twelfth Night's light-hearted gaiety is fitting for a play named for the Epiphany, the last night in the twelve days of Christmas. While the Christian tradition celebrated January 6 as the Feast of the Magi, the celebrations of the Renaissance era were a time for plays, banquets, and disguises, when cultural roles were reversed and normal customs playfully subverted. The historical precedent to this celebration is the Roman Saturnalia, which took place during the winter solstice and included the practices of gift-giving and showing mock hostility to those authority figures normally associated with dampening celebration. While the action of Twelfth Night occurs in the spring, and no mention of Epiphany is made, the joyful spirit of the play reflects the Saturnalian release and carnival pursuits generally associated with the holiday. The youthful lovers engage in courtship rituals, and the one figure who rebukes festivity, Malvolio, is mocked for his commitment to order. The Saturnalian
Twelfth Night Themes

Celebration and Festivity part 2
tradition of disguise is also a major theme in Twelfth Night, with Viola donning the uniform of a pageboy, Olivia hiding behind a veil of mourning, Malvolio appearing in cross-gartered yellow stockings, and the wisest of all characters, Feste, in the costume of a clown. However, some critics argue that, as Feste reminds the audience, that nothing is as it seems, underneath the festival atmosphere of Illyria lies a darker side, which is revealed in brief episodes such as the gulling of Malvolio. While the merrymakers contribute to the high comedy of the play through their practical joke, its conception lies in their desire for revenge.
Twelfth Night Themes

Role Playing and Problems of Identity
Nearly every character in Twelfth Night adopts a role or otherwise disguises his or her identity. Viola disguises herself as a man upon her arrival in Illyria, setting the plot in motion. Feste disguises himself as a priest and visits the imprisoned Malvolio. The deliberate deception of these consciously adopted disguises provides a contrast to the subtle self-deception practiced by Olivia and Orsino: when the play opens Olivia is clinging to the role of grieving sister long after the time for such behavior has passed, while Orsino stubbornly hangs on to the role of persistent suitor despite Olivia's lack of interest in him. Yet another example of role playing can be seen in the duping of Malvolio, which involves outlining a role for him to play before Olivia—that of a secretly loved servant.
Twelfth Night Themes

Role Playing and Problems of Identity part 2
Critics have attempted to show how these disguises and adopted roles relate to the various themes of the play. Their overall effect is to make Illyria a place where appearances cannot be trusted, and the discrepancy between appearances and reality is a central issue in Twelfth Night. The appearance of a woman as a man, a fool as a priest, and a servant as the suitor of a noblewoman evoke the festivities and revelry of the Christmas holidays when the everyday social order of the period was temporarily abandoned. On a deeper level, the roles and disguises influence the major characters' ability to find love and happiness.
Twelfth Night Themes

Language and Communication
Wordplay is one of the most notable features of Twelfth Night. Feste's wittiness is an obvious example: words that seem to mean one thing are twisted around to mean another. He states that words cannot be trusted, that they are "grown so false I am loath to prove reason with;" yet he skillfully uses words for his own purposes. Viola, too, demonstrates a talent for wordplay in her conversations with Orsino, when she hints at her feelings for him, and with Olivia, when she makes veiled references to her disguise. In these instances, the listener must look beneath the surface meaning of the words being used to discover their true import. Thus, language contributes to the contrast of illusion and reality in the play.
Twelfth Night Themes

Language and Communication part 2
Commentators have also examined how the written messages in Twelfth Night also contribute to the theme of language and communication. When the play begins, Orsino and Olivia are engaged in a continuing exchange of messages that state and restate their stubbornly held positions which lack any real emotion to back them up. Another formal message, in the form of a letter, dupes Malvolio into believing that Olivia loves him. In these instances, formal messages convey no truth, but serve only to perpetuate the fantasies of the characters in the play. Malvolio's message to Olivia is an exception: while he is imprisoned, Malvolio pleads his case passionately to her in a letter. This instance of true communication provides a contrast to the self-indulgent fantasizing of Olivia and Orsino.
Twelfth Night Themes

Art & Culture
In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare explores the workings of the theater and other related forms of artistic performance – licensed "Fooling," music, and singing, which also happen to be forms of revelry associated with the Twelfth Night festivities for which the play is named. The play also meditates on the relationship between performance art and other forms of entertainment like bear-baiting, a popular Elizabethan blood-sport that was often lumped into the same "low-brow" category as the theater. It's important to note that Twelfth Night's self-referential (or "meta-theatrical") portrayals of the transvestite stage (all actors were male in Elizabethan theater) allow Shakespeare to address (and mostly mock) concerns raised by Puritan theater critics. As in all of Shakespeare's work, Twelfth Night's interest in performance allows him to critique traditional notions of gender, sexuality, class identity, and morality.
Twelfth Night Themes

"Love" is a term that characters in Twelfth Night like to bandy about, and the play takes them to task for it as it exposes and explores the folly of misdirected desire. Characters that claim to be in the throes of passion are often exposed as self-absorbed, foolish, and/or misguided, as they fall victim to the trappings found in bad love poetry. Twelfth Night, of course, is famous for its consideration of the relationship between erotic desire and gender, as both male and female characters find themselves drawn to the androgynous "Cesario." Even as it steadily works its way toward an ending of sanctioned heterosexual couplings and marriage, the play also examines more overt same-sex desire in the Sebastian/Antonio sub-plot.
Twelfth Night Themes

Gender is a biggie in Twelfth Night, and the play brilliantly demonstrates how gender, a socially constructed identity, can be "performed" and impersonated with the use of voice, costume, and mannerisms. The theme is largely explored in relation to Shakespeare's profession as an actor and writer for a transvestite stage (in Elizabethan times, all-male acting companies performed the roles of women). The relationship between gender and performance is particularly complex in Twelfth Night because the part of Viola is played by a boy actor, who is cross-dressed as a female character, who disguises herself as a young man. Of course, the text also meditates on the relationship between gender and desire as it explores the erotics of androgyny.
Twelfth Night Themes

Language and communication
Letters and love poetry circulate throughout Twelfth Night as the play reflects on the value and hidden dangers of written words. Shakespeare exposes the way poetry can lose all meaning and credibility when it follows formulaic patterns. There are plenty of self-conscious moments where Shakespeare reminds us of his position as a writer, especially when he draws our attention to the follies of conventional poetry even as he participates in the tradition. Yet, at various moments, Twelfth Night reminds us that, when verse is composed spontaneously and sincerely, poetry can have more power over human beings than anything else. Letters, too, can be both deceptive and freeing, depending on the writer. Even when words are "corrupted" by figures like Feste, they very often prove to be the best tools for revealing truth and wisdom.
Twelfth Night Themes

Society and class
For modern audiences, it's easy to forget about issues of "class" in Shakespeare's famously gender-bending play. Yet, crossing gender boundaries is not the only kind of social transgression at work in Twelfth Night. The play is very much concerned with social ambition, especially as it relates to marrying above or below one's "estate" (rank). The issue is largely explored in the Malvolio plot, where the play takes particular pleasure in ridiculing Malvolio's social-climbing fantasies. Of course, Shakespeare himself was not born into a noble or even wealthy family, and famously purchased his "Gentleman" title after a lucrative theater career, which may be of interest in relation to Feste's status. While drunken fools like Sir Toby Belch eat, drink, and spend their way through life, the brilliant performer and "licensed fool," Feste, works for spare change and is often treated like a common servant.
Twelfth Night Themes

Rule and Order
Twelfth Night takes its name from the Carnival-like festivities surrounding the Christian feast of the Epiphany. (Go to "What's Up with the Title?" for more on this.) Like the Mardi Gras festival, Twelfth Night is a religious holiday and an opportunity to invert social order while indulging in unruly and riotous behavior. The play is also chock-full of drinking, carousing, eating, over-indulging, and other spirited activity. Yet, the rebellious spirit of Twelfth Night is not limited to overt "partying." Gender-bending, misguided pursuits of love, clowning, and the humiliation of the play's resident "Puritan" figure also embody the spirit of festival in the play.
Twelfth Night Themes

Lies and Deceit
The theme of deception is an important component of Twelfth Night. Physical disguises, forged documents, and blatant lies allow the play to think about the relationship between appearances and reality. In the case of physical disguises, costume, voice, and demeanor all forge one's social identity, but don't necessarily reveal one's inner nature. Words (both spoken and written) are also associated with deception, and leave characters vulnerable to trickery, especially when gullible figures already suffer from self-delusion.
Twelfth Night Themes

Foolishness and Folly
Twelfth Night goes to great lengths to expose the folly of human behavior. It takes shots at love-sickness, mourning, social ambition, and even moral propriety. Throughout the play, foolish behavior is often confused with "madness" or "lunacy." Yet, it would be a mistake to call the mostly light-hearted play mean spirited, perhaps because it makes fun of its own status as a "foolish" play. Because it reveals how theatrical performance can both expose and participate in foolery, the theme is closely related to "Art and Culture." Of course, "Foolishness and Folly" is a major part of the play's festive and subversive spirit, so be sure to think about the theme's relationship to "Rules and Order" as well.
Twelfth Night Motifs

Letters, Messages, and Tokens
Twelfth Night features a great variety of messages sent from one character to another—sometimes as letters and other times in the form of tokens. Such messages are used both for purposes of communication and miscommunication—sometimes deliberate and sometimes accidental. Maria’s letter to Malvolio, which purports to be from Olivia, is a deliberate (and successful) attempt to trick the steward. Sir Andrew’s letter demanding a duel with Cesario, meanwhile, is meant seriously, but because it is so appallingly stupid, Sir Toby does not deliver it, rendering it extraneous. Malvolio’s missive, sent by way of Feste from the dark room in which he is imprisoned, ultimately works to undo the confusion caused by Maria’s forged letter and to free Malvolio from his imprisonment.
Twelfth Night Motifs

Letters, Messages, and Tokens part 2
But letters are not the only kind of messages that characters employ to communicate with one another. Individuals can be employed in the place of written communication—Orsino repeatedly sends Cesario, for instance, to deliver messages to Olivia. Objects can function as messages between people as well: Olivia sends Malvolio after Cesario with a ring, to tell the page that she loves him, and follows the ring up with further gifts, which symbolize her romantic attachment. Messages can convey important information, but they also create the potential for miscommunication and confusion—especially with characters like Maria and Sir Toby manipulating the information.
Twelfth Night Motifs

No one is truly insane in Twelfth Night, yet a number of characters are accused of being mad, and a current of insanity or zaniness runs through the action of the play. After Sir Toby and Maria dupe Malvolio into believing that Olivia loves him, Malvolio behaves so bizarrely that he is assumed to be mad and is locked away in a dark room. Malvolio himself knows that he is sane, and he accuses everyone around him of being mad. Meanwhile, when Antonio encounters Viola (disguised as Cesario), he mistakes her for Sebastian, and his angry insistence that she recognize him leads people to assume that he is mad. All of these incidents feed into the general atmosphere of the play, in which normal life is thrown topsy-turvy, and everyone must confront a reality that is somehow fractured.
Twelfth Night Motifs

Many characters in Twelfth Night assume disguises, beginning with Viola, who puts on male attire and makes everyone else believe that she is a man. By dressing his protagonist in male garments, Shakespeare creates endless sexual confusion with the Olivia-Viola--Orsino love triangle. Other characters in disguise include Malvolio, who puts on crossed garters and yellow stockings in the hope of winning Olivia, and Feste, who dresses up as a priest—Sir Topas—when he speaks to Malvolio after the steward has been locked in a dark room. Feste puts on the disguise even though Malvolio will not be able to see him, since the room is so dark, suggesting that the importance of clothing is not just in the eye of the beholder. For Feste, the disguise completes his assumption of a new identity—in order to be Sir Topas, he must look like Sir Topas. Viola puts on new clothes and changes her gender, while Feste and Malvolio put on new garments either to impersonate a nobleman (Feste) or in the hopes of
Twelfth Night Motifs

Disguises part 2
becoming a nobleman (Malvolio). Through these disguises, the play raises questions about what makes us who we are, compelling the audience to wonder if things like gender and class are set in stone, or if they can be altered with a change of clothing.
Twelfth Night Motifs

Mistaken Identity
The instances of mistaken identity are related to the prevalence of disguises in the play, as Viola’s male clothing leads to her being mistaken for her brother, Sebastian, and vice versa. Sebastian is mistaken for Viola (or rather, Cesario) by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and then by Olivia, who promptly marries him. Meanwhile, Antonio mistakes Viola for Sebastian, and thinks that his friend has betrayed him when Viola claims to not know him. These cases of mistaken identity, common in Shakespeare’s comedies, create the tangled situation that can be resolved only when Viola and Sebastian appear together, helping everyone to understand what has happened.
Twelfth Night Symbols

Olivia’s Gifts
When Olivia wants to let Cesario know that she loves him, she sends him a ring by way of Malvolio. Later, when she mistakes Sebastian for Cesario, she gives him a precious pearl. In each case, the jewel serves as a token of her love—a physical symbol of her romantic attachment to a man who is really a woman. The gifts are more than symbols, though. “Youth is bought more oft than begged or borrowed,” Olivia says at one point, suggesting that the jewels are intended almost as bribes—that she means to buy Cesario’s love if she cannot win it (III.iv.3).
Twelfth Night Symbols

The Darkness of Malvolio’s Prison
When Sir Toby and Maria pretend that Malvolio is mad, they confine him in a pitch-black chamber. Darkness becomes a symbol of his supposed insanity, as they tell him that the room is filled with light and his inability to see is a sign of his madness. Malvolio reverses the symbolism. “I say this house is as dark as ignorance, though ignorance were as dark as hell; and I say there was never man thus abused” (IV.ii.40–42). In other words, the darkness—meaning madness—is not in the room with him, but outside, with Sir Toby and Feste and Maria, who have unjustly imprisoned him.
Twelfth Night Symbols

Changes of Clothing
Clothes are powerful in Twelfth Night. They can symbolize changes in gender—Viola puts on male clothes to be taken for a male— as well as class distinctions. When Malvolio fantasizes about becoming a nobleman, he imagines the new clothes that he will have. When Feste impersonates Sir Topas, he puts on a nobleman’s garb, even though Malvolio, whom he is fooling, cannot see him, suggesting that clothes have a power that transcends their physical function.
Act I, scenes i–ii
Viola’s plan for disguising herself in Act I, scene ii introduces one of the central motifs of the play: disguise and the identity confusion related to it. Similarly, Orsino’s mournful speech in Act I, scene i lets us know that the play will also concern matters of love: emotion, desire, and rejection. Put together, the two scenes suggest the extra twist that is the hallmark of Twelfth Night: mistaken gender identity. Twelfth Night is one of the plays referred to as Shakespeare’s “transvestite comedies,” and Viola’s gender deception leads to all kinds of romantic complications.
Act I, scenes i–ii part 2
The opening lines of Twelfth Night, in which a moping Orsino, attended by his servants and musicians, says, “If music be the food of love, play on,” establish how love has conquered Orsino (I.i.1). His speech on this subject is rather complicated, as he employs a metaphor to try to establish some control over love. He asks for the musicians to give him so much music—the “food of love”—that he will overdose (“surfeit” [I.i.2]) and not be hungry for love any longer. Orsino’s trick proves too simple, however; while it makes him tire of the music, it fails to stop him from thinking about love.
Act I, scenes i–ii part 3
Orsino also makes a pertinent comment about the relationship between romance and imagination: “So full of shapes is fancy / That it alone is high fantastical” (I.i.14–15). This comment relates the idea of overpowering love (“fancy”) to that of imagination (that which is “fantastical”), a connection that is appropriate for both Orsino and Twelfth Night as a whole. Beginning in this scene, the play repeatedly raises the question of whether romantic love has more to do with the person who is loved or with the lover’s own imagination—whether love is real or merely something that the human mind creates for the sake of entertainment and delight. In the case of Orsino, the latter seems to be true, as he is less in love with Olivia herself than he is with the idea of being in love with Olivia. He claims to be devastated because she will not have him, but as the audience watches him wallow in his seeming misery, it is difficult to escape the impression that he is enjoying himself—flopping about
Act I, scenes i–ii part 4
t on rose-covered beds, listening to music, and waxing eloquent about Olivia’s beauty to his servants. The genuineness of Orsino’s emotions comes into question even further when he later switches his affections from Olivia to Viola without a second thought; the audience then suspects that he does not care whom he is in love with, as long as he can be in love.

Meanwhile, Viola’s decision to disguise herself as a young man in order to find a job seems somewhat improbable. Surely this elaborate ploy isn’t necessary; even if Orsino only hires young men, there must be ladies other than Olivia in Illyria who are hiring servants. But Viola’s act of disguising herself generates an endless number of interesting situations to advance the plot. Shakespeare’s comedies frequently rely on similar improbabilities, ranging from absurd coincidences to identical twins. We can interpret Viola’s disguise as something that makes the unprotected young woman feel safer in the strange land into which she
Act I, scenes i–ii part 5
wandered. When she first describes her plan in this scene, she asks the ship’s captain to disguise her as a eunuch—a castrated man. This part of the plan is never mentioned again, and Shakespeare seems to have changed his mind or forgotten about it: Viola later presents herself as simply a delicate young man. Still, the idea of a eunuch is important to the play, since it stands as yet another symbol of gender uncertainty.
Act I, scenes i–ii part 6
In noting the gender confusion that pervades Twelfth Night, it is important to realize that, for Shakespeare’s audiences, the idea of a girl successfully disguising herself as a boy wasn’t as ludicrous as it might seem to us. In Shakespeare’s day, all the parts in a play were acted by men: women weren’t allowed to perform on the English stage until the late 1600S, more than half a century after Shakespeare flourished. Thus, every acting company included several delicate young boys, who played the female characters. Renaissance audiences were open to the idea that a young man could convincingly disguise himself as a woman, and vice versa. Such fluidity in portraying characters of either gender adds an extra dimension to the complexity of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing characters.
Act I, scenes iii-iv
Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria are Twelfth Night’s most explicitly comic characters, since they take themselves less seriously than the play’s romantic leads. (Furthermore, the two noblemen’s very names—“Belch” and “Aguecheek”—seem comically out of place.) These three provide amusement in different ways, however: Sir Toby seems to be an intelligent man and makes witty puns, to which the equally clever Maria is quick to respond. Sir Andrew Aguecheek, however, appears to be a fool. He doesn’t understand Toby and Maria’s wit, as we see when he is forced to ask Maria, “What’s your metaphor?” and “[W]hat’s your jest?” (I.iii.60–64). He is also easily flattered and doesn’t realize certain painful truths—that he is not very witty, that Toby and Maria are making fun of him, and that he does not stand a chance with Olivia.
Act I, scenes iii-iv part 2
Act I, scene iv shows us the developing relationship between Orsino and Cesario. In another useful improbability, we find that, after only three days, Cesario has become a great favorite of the duke. As Orsino’s servant Valentine tells Cesario, “If the Duke continues these favours towards you, . . . you are like to be much advanced” (I.iv.1–2). In the same conversation, Valentine assures Cesario that Orsino isn’t fickle—that he remains steady and constant in his love. Since we have heard Orsino’s flowery speeches about Olivia in Act I, scene i, we may question how sincere or steady his love really is, an uncertainty that grows as the play progresses.

Regardless, the way Orsino talks to Cesario makes it clear that Orsino likes Cesario very much—and his language is closer to that of romantic love than that of ordinary friendship. “Cesario,” he tells him, “Thou know’st no less but all. I have unclasped / To thee the book even of my secret soul” (I.iv.11–13). Clearly, Orsino already seems
Act I, scenes iii-iv part 3
to be attracted to Cesario in a way that defies our expectations of how male friends interact with one another.

This peculiar attraction is further developed when Orsino tells Cesario why he plans to send him to woo Olivia. Orsino explains that Olivia is more likely to listen to Cesario: “She will attend [Orsino’s repeated messages of love] better in thy youth / Than in a nuncio’s [i.e., messenger’s] of more grave aspect” (I.iv.26-–27). Cesario denies Orsino’s claim, but Orsino tells him that he should believe it, because, in his youthfulness, Cesario is as pretty as a young woman. “Diana’s lip / Is not more smooth and rubious [i.e., rosy]” than Cesario’s, Orsino tells him, comparing him favorably to the goddess Diana; and Cesario’s voice, Orsino claims, “[i]s as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound, / And all is semblative a woman’s part” (I.iv.30–33).
Act I, scenes iii-iv part 4
This series of compliments is both intriguing and complicated. In praising Cesario’s attractiveness, Orsino tells Cesario that he looks like a woman. His interest in having Cesario go to Olivia suggests his belief that Cesario’s womanly beauty will somehow entice Olivia. At the same time, it is difficult not to read in -Orsino’s words the suggestion that he too finds Cesario attractive: after all, Cesario reminds him strongly of a beautiful young woman.
Act I, scene v
At the beginning of Act I, scene v, we first meet Olivia’s clown, Feste. (Feste’s name is mentioned only once in the play; the stage directions usually refer to him simply as “Clown,” while other characters call him “clown” or “fool.”) Many noble households in the Renaissance kept a clown, and Shakespeare’s comedies usually feature at least one. The fool’s purpose was to amuse his noble masters and to tell the truth when no one else would think of telling it. The dual nature of the job meant that fools often pretended to be simpleminded when, in fact, most of them were skilled professionals and were highly intelligent.
Act I, scene v part 2
Feste embodies this duality: he spends much of his time making witty puns, as is expected, but he also has a sense of professionalism and of his own worth. As Feste says to Olivia when she orders him to be taken away, “Lady, ‘Cucullus non facit monachum’—that’s as much to say as I wear not motley in my brain” (I.v.48–50). Feste means that his brightly colored clown’s uniform—his “motley”—doesn’t imply that he is any less intelligent than she is. Moreover, his ability to quote a Latin proverb on behalf of his argument reveals the depth of his learning. The Latin phrase means “The hood doesn’t make the monk”—that is, what appears to be true is not always in harmony with what is true. Like Viola, then, Feste wears a kind of disguise: hers disguises her identity as a woman, while his conceals his true intelligence.
Act I, scene v part 3
In this scene, we also meet both Olivia and her steward, Malvolio, for the first time. Malvolio has become, over time, perhaps the most famous character in Twelfth Night. He plays a small role in this scene, but he immediately attracts our attention because of how out of place he seems. In a comic play filled with ridiculous characters, Malvolio is serious and sour, with a distaste for amusement and laughter of any kind, as we see in his reaction to Feste. As the play goes on, the conflict between his temperament and that of the other characters—especially Sir Toby and Sir Andrew—comes out into the open, with extreme consequences.
Act I, scene v part 4
Malvolio seems oddly matched with his mistress, given Olivia’s emotionalism and her wild mood swings. When we first meet her, she is deep in mourning, but by the end of the scene, her grief gives way to a powerful infatuation with Cesario. In part, Shakespeare uses Olivia to portray romantic love as a kind of sickness that strikes people without warning. Love cannot be controlled; instead, it controls people. Olivia’s sudden attraction to Cesario recalls the way Orsino talks about his love for Olivia in Act I, scene i. There, Orsino speaks of love as if it were a sickness that has overcome him, and then says that he has turned into a deer and “my desires, like fell and cruel hounds / E’er since pursue me” (I.i.21–22). In the same way, Olivia describes her sudden love for the handsome, young Cesario as a disease that has overwhelmed her.
Act I, scene v part 5
Olivia’s language, like Orsino’s, reflects Renaissance ideas of courtly or romantic love: Olivia’s and Orsino’s descriptions of love—as a hunter, disease, or something willed by fate—echo ideas about romance that were common in Shakespeare’s day. The same can be said of the language that Viola uses to describe Orsino’s love for Olivia. For instance, Viola tells Olivia that Orsino loves her “[w]ith adorations, fertile tears, / With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire” (I.v.274–275). Courtly ideals are also reflected in Viola’s “willow cabin” speech in Act I, scene v (lines 237–245), in which she tells Olivia what she would do if she were the one trying to court Olivia. Viola says that she would build herself a house outside Olivia’s gate, write Olivia love songs and sing them in the middle of the night, and call out Olivia’s name until the hills and air echoed. This kind of romantic exaggeration was the kind of language often used by lovers and poets in Shakespeare’s time.
Act I, scene v part 6
Yet even as the play operates within the bounds of this tradition of courtly love, it also subverts it by showing how ridiculous it can be. After all, Viola’s pretty speeches do not reflect her own thoughts but instead those of Orsino—and Orsino is really more in love with himself and his own inner life than he is with Olivia, as later scenes make clear. Furthermore, Olivia falls in love with Cesario after a few pretty speeches—but Cesario is really a woman who has herself fallen in love with Orsino in a matter of days! Thus, the play suggests that we should not take the various characters’ romantic obsessions too seriously—they seem to come and go quickly and to be based less on real attraction than on self-indulgent emotionalism.
Act II, scenes i–ii
It comes as no surprise to any reader of Shakespeare’s -comedies that Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother, has turned up alive. His reappearance and resemblance to his sister (who, as we know, is currently disguised as a man) sets the stage for later mix-ups and mistaken identities, common elements in Shakespeare’s comic plays.

The relationship between Antonio and Sebastian, meanwhile, though it is a minor part of the play, offers fertile ground for critical attention. Antonio and Sebastian are clearly close, dear friends. Yet the language Antonio uses, along with his behavior, suggests something even stronger. Antonio appears willing to sacrifice everything for his friend, giving up his time, money, and safety to follow and protect him. He begs Sebastian to let him be his servant and travel into danger with him, and Antonio decides to go even when he learns that Sebastian is headed for a dangerous place filled with Antonio’s enemies. Moreover, Antonio’s language carries a strong emotional charge.
Act II, scenes i–ii part 2
His implication that separation from Sebastian would be equivalent to a violent death demonstrates how deeply important to him his relationship with Sebastian is.

Powerful male friendships were more the norm in Shakespeare’s day than in our own, and Antonio’s language can be seen as simply the expression of a purely platonic passion. However, Antonio’s words can also be seen as carrying an obvious homoerotic charge. It seems safe to say here that if Antonio were a woman, we would read her speech and actions as an unambiguous expression of her love for Sebastian and hope that he would return this love. In a play so concerned with bending gender roles—a play in which Orsino can seem to be attracted to Viola, for instance, even before she reveals herself to be a woman and not a man, and in which Olivia can fall for a man who is really a woman—Antonio’s passion for Sebastian is erotic rather than platonic.
Act II, scenes i–ii part 3
Leaving Antonio and Sebastian, the play returns to Viola, who is the central character in the action, and thus the only one who understands the entirety of the complicated love triangle. Orsino loves Olivia, who loves Viola, who in turn loves Orsino—but matters are hardly this simple, because both Orsino and Olivia are mistaken about Viola’s real gender. Viola knows that romantic love, ideally, should lead to marriage. But in this particular triangle, there seems to be no hope of a resolution anywhere. Calling herself a “poor monster”—implying not that she is ugly but rather something not quite human, halfway between man and woman—Viola puts her finger on the problem (II.ii.32). Homoerotic love is not a real or final option in Shakespeare’s comedies: as a man, Viola cannot win Orsino’s love, but as a woman, she cannot return Olivia’s. Finally giving herself up into the hands of fate, she says despairingly, “O time, thou must untangle this, not I. / It is too hard a knot for me t’untie” (II.ii.38–39). But fate—or, more accurately, the playwright—has already set the untangling forces in motion.
Act II, scenes iii–iv
These scenes give us the first of the play’s many songs. Twelfth Night is full of music, which is linked to romance from Orsino’s command in the play’s very first line: “If music be the food of love, play on” (I.i.1). Most of the songs are sung either by the drunken Sir Toby and Sir Andrew or by Feste the clown, who is a professional singer and entertainer as well as a joker. In Shakespeare’s time, love was often associated with the emotional expressiveness of music, so the love songs in this comedy are quite appropriate.

The clash between Malvolio on the one hand and Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria on the other is a central conflict in Twelfth Night. On the face of things, it does not seem to be Malvolio’s fault that he has to break up their party. After all, the men’s drunken singing in their host’s house in the middle of the night is unquestionably rude. But Twelfth Night is a play that ultimately celebrates chaos—whether it is brought on by romantic ardor, by alcohol, or simply by general enthusiasm—over the straitlaced order that Malvolio represents
Act II, scenes iii–iv part 2
The puritanical, order-loving, and pleasure-hating spirit of Malvolio contrasts greatly with this anarchic spirit that flows through Sir Toby and Maria, Feste, and Sir Andrew. Malvolio, we realize, does not merely object to the circumstances of Sir Toby’s revelry—he objects to revelry, music, and alcohol entirely. His sharp questions—“Do ye make an ale-house of my lady’s house?” (II.iii.80–81)—prompt a bitter retort from Sir Toby, who asks. “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (II.iii.103–104). Sir Toby seems to understand Malvolio’s attitude: because Malvolio himself detests merrymaking, he thinks that no one should be allowed to make merry. His very name consists of elements—“Mal” and “volio”—that essentially mean, in Italian, “ill will,” suggesting his profound contempt for others’ pleasures.

The dialogue between Orsino and the disguised Viola in Act II, scene iv further develops the curious relationship between Orsino and his seemingly male servant. Their discussion of the relative power of men’s and women’s love is one of the most often-quoted passages in the play. The complicated ironies built into the scene—in which the audience knows that Cesario is really a woman in love with Orsino but Orsino remains unaware—add both a rich complexity and a sense of teasing to the discussions, even as the seeming hopelessness of Viola’s position adds a hint of pathos.
Act II, scenes iii–iv part 3
Still, one cannot find her plight too pathetic—the audience knows that the play is a comedy, in which romantic love must lead to married happiness. Moreover, we have already heard Orsino’s comments to Cesario in Act I, scene iv, praising Cesario’s female-like beauty, so we know that Viola’s disguise has not entirely prevented Orsino from being attracted to her.

Orsino’s claim that men love more strongly than women was a commonplace one in Shakespeare’s day, but Viola eloquently refutes it. In a very famous passage, she tells Orsino about how her fictional sister
Act II, scenes iii–iv part 4
Patience on a monument” refers to statues of the allegorical figure of Patience, which often adorned Renaissance tombstones. By comparing her imaginary sister to this stone figure, Viola subtly contrasts her own passion with the self-indulgent and grandiose lovesickness from which Orsino claims to suffer. She depicts herself as bearing a love that is, unlike the duke’s, patient, silent, and eternally enduring. Of course, the image of a tombstone suggests that such a love is ultimately fatal, leading to Orsino’s question—“But died thy sister of her love, my boy?” (I.iv.118). This question is appropriately left open: we do not know yet whether Viola will die (literally or metaphorically) of her love for Orsino, and so she can only respond, ambiguously yet cleverly, “I am all the daughters of my father’s house, / And all the brothers too; and yet I know not” (I.iv.119–120). We, like Viola (and like Orsino), must wait to see how this tangle of desires and disguises will unravel.
Act II, scene v
The practical joke played on Malvolio raises themes which, by now, are familiar: the instability of identity, the importance of clothing in establishing one’s identity and position, and the illusions and delusions that we let ourselves fall into in the name of love. Like everyone else, from Orsino to Viola, Malvolio falls victim to the allure of romance. Despite his outward puritanism, he is as much a romantic as anyone—although his fantasy of marrying Olivia has as much to do with class-related ambition as it does with infatuation. Malvolio’s desire to rise above his class spurs his self-delusion, but it also explains why Sir Toby and the others find his fantasy so ludicrous. Malvolio is an unsuitable match for Olivia not only because of his unattractive personality but also because he is not of noble blood. He is a commoner, while Olivia is a gentlewoman. As such, that Malvolio would imagine Olivia marrying him seems obscene to them. We may recall how interested Olivia is earlier to find out from young Cesario, on whom she has a crush, that he is a “gentleman”—meaning that he is of noble birth (I.v.249). In the class system of Shakespeare’s time, it would have seemed very strange for a noblewoman to marry below her rank.
Act II, scene v part 2
Significantly, Malvolio’s fantasy of becoming Olivia’s husband involves changing his clothing: he imagines himself “in my branched velvet gown”—the garb of a wealthy noblemen, not of a steward (II.v.42–43). The letter also asks him to alter his clothing at the same time that he changes his personality. Just as the cross-dressing habits of Viola, the play’s central character, suggest a link between clothes and gender roles, so Malvolio’s ideas about what he will wear as an aristocrat suggest a connection between wardrobes and social hierarchies. Outward appearances, it seems, can shape reality—or so Malvolio imagines. Of course, just as Viola remains a woman beneath her clothes, Malvolio’s fantasies of velvet gowns and yellow stockings will do nothing to change his place in society.

Maria’s riddle, in which she plays with the letters of Malvolio’s name, is meant to be both obvious and ambiguous. Clearly, Malvolio is supposed to decide that it refers to him, but it also allows us to watch him wrench the evidence around to arrive at the conclusion at which he so desperately wants to arrive. Various critics have wondered whether there is any further meaning in the letters M.O.A.I., other than their obvious status as letters pulled out of Malvolio’s name, but no widely accepted answers have been put forward.
Malvolio’s comments upon recognizing what seems to be Olivia’s handwriting, however, do contain an obscene pun—about which Malvolio is evidently not supposed to be aware. Examining her handwriting, he notes, “[T]hese be her very C’s, her U’s, and her T’s, and thus makes she her great P’s” (II.v.78–79). C-U-T, or “cut,” was a Renaissance slang term for the vagina, and “thus makes she her great P’s” strongly suggests a reference to penises.
Act III, scenes i–iii
Once again we meet Feste the clown, and once again we notice that beneath his nonsense, he is obviously intelligent. In fact, Viola is inspired to comment on this after her conversation with Feste: “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, / And to do that well, craves a kind of wit,” she notes (III.i.53–54). She realizes that a good clown must be able to judge the personalities and moods of all the people with whom he interacts, and to know when to talk, what to say, and when to keep quiet. Her remark that “[t]his is a practice / As full of labour as a wise man’s art” (III.i.58–59) reminds us of Feste’s earlier comments about his own professionalism: “Well, God give them wisdom that have it; and those that are fools, let them use their talents” (I.v.13–14). There is an irony here—Feste is skilled as a fool, yet he is also one of the play’s most intelligent characters.

Olivia’s character, meanwhile, has undergone a startling shift. When we first meet her, she is deep in mourning, dismissive of romantic love, and somewhat close in spirit to the dour Malvolio. Indeed, her early grief seems as self-indulgent as Orsino’s lovesickness. But Viola has won Olivia over; she has replaced her grief with infatuation, and Olivia now willingly gives herself over to the zany shamelessness that fills the play. She behaves in a remarkably forward fashion in these scenes: when they are speaking alone, for instance, she takes Cesario’s hand—a very unusual action for a noblewoman to perform. By the end of the scene, Olivia is reduced to begging Cesario to come back again, saying that perhaps she will change her mind about Orsino after all. Passion has conquered dignity and order, at least in Olivia’s heart.
Act III, scenes i–iii part 2
Of course, while Viola has broken the spell of grief and has convinced Olivia to give herself over to romantic desire, she herself cannot fulfill Olivia’s yearnings. She can only reply “I pity you” (III.i.115) to the noblewoman’s pleadings, and offer vague explanations for her rejection of Olivia—“I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth, / And that no woman has, nor never none / Shall mistress be of it save I alone” (III.i.148–151). Her reliance on rather abstract terms (“one heart,” “one truth”) reflects the emotional distance that she maintains from Olivia.

Antonio’s love for Sebastian, meanwhile, remains as strong as ever, as he risks his life to pursue Sebastian. His remark that he follows Sebastian out of his “desire, / More sharp than filèd steel” (III.iii.4–5) has the same violently passionate twinge as his earlier comparison of separation from Sebastian with “murder” (II.i.30). He seeks also to protect Sebastian, owing to his “jealousy [i.e., worry] what might befall your travel, / . . . in these parts . . . / . . . / Rough and unhospitable” (III.iii.8–11).

Antonio’s attachment to Sebastian comprises not only concern for his safety but also a willingness to spend money on him (he even entrusts his purse to him). “[Y]our store / I think is not for idle markets, sir,” Antonio tells Sebastian, a statement with a double meaning (III.iii.45–46). The more apparent meaning is that Sebastian doesn’t have enough money to spend on trivial things, but the words also suggest that Sebastian is too good to spend time with just anyone and deserves the best. Once again, Antonio’s passion for his male friend—and the words he uses, like “jealousy” and “desire”—strongly suggest that he feels an erotic attraction to Sebastian.
Act III, scene iv
The plot speeds up in this scene, and the cases of mistaken identity and deception become increasingly complicated. First, we see the hilarious results of Maria’s deception, which bears fruit in Malvolio’s alleged madness. Because he thinks that he shares a secret understanding with Olivia, Malvolio expects her to understand the bizarre things he does and says. Olivia, of course, is bewildered by the change in her normally somber steward, and his apparently illogical responses to her questions make her assume, naturally enough, that he must be out of his mind. She interprets his quotations from the letter as simple insanity: “Why, this is very midsummer madness,” she says after listening to a string of them (III.iv.52). But Malvolio, cut off from reality, willfully ignores these signs that all may not be as he thinks. He fits Olivia’s words to his mistaken understanding of the situation. When she refers to him as “fellow,” for instance, he takes the term to mean that she now thinks more highly of him than she has before (III.iv.57). His earlier egotism and self-regard has become pure, self-centered delusion, in which everything that happens can be interpreted as being favorable to him. As he puts it, “[N]othing that can be can come between me and the full prospect of my hopes” (III.iv.74–75). Malvolio makes a simple mistake—he twists facts to suit his beliefs rather than adapting his beliefs to the facts.
Act III, scene iv part 2
At this point, we realize why Maria’s letter was such a work of genius: in ordering Malvolio to be rude to Sir Toby and the servants, she makes certain that Malvolio will refrain from explaining himself to anyone. Thus, Maria has orchestrated matters such that Malvolio’s behavior will be the justification for the others’ treatment of him as if he were possessed. Sir Toby, with mock-bravery, says that if “Legion himself possessed [Malvolio], yet I’ll speak to him” (III.iv.78–79). Later, Sir Toby and the servants decide to treat Malvolio “gently, gently,” a recommended manner of dealing with people thought to be possessed. Once Malvolio leaves, the three plot to “have him in a dark room and bound”—another common treatment for madmen (III.iv.121). As Sir Toby notes, Olivia already thinks that Malvolio is mad, so they can torture him until they grow tired of it. It is here that we begin to feel pity for Malvolio. His humiliation may be richly deserved, but there is a kind of overkill in Sir Toby and Maria’s decision to lock him away. He seems to be punished cruelly for what are, after all, minor sins, and our sense that Malvolio is being wronged only increases in Act IV. Sir Toby’s trickery in frightening Cesario and Sir Andrew with fearsome tales about each other’s prowess sets the stage for yet another wrinkle in the web of deception. Viola, who has been in disguise throughout the play, is now mistaken for yet a third person—her own brother, Sebastian. Antonio’s mistake is made much more poignant by his badly timed arrest and his grief and anger at thinking that Sebastian has stolen his money and betrayed him.
Act III, scene iv part 3
He tells Viola, who is disguised as Cesario but who he thinks is Sebastian, that her beautiful features conceal a wickedness of soul: “In nature there’s no blemish but the mind. / None can be called deformed but the unkind” (III.iv.331–332). His anguish here is touching—far more touching than the flowery grief of Olivia, say, or the lovesick posturings of Orsino. It moves us because we know that for Antonio there can be no happy endings. A comedy like Twelfth Night ends, inevitably, with marriages—but there is no one for Antonio to marry, since he loves only Sebastian.

Meanwhile, Antonio’s mistaken insistence that Sebastian knows him and owes him money causes his arresting officers to think that Antonio, in turn, is insane. The disguises, secret identities, and crossed lines of communication lead to humorous circumstances, but they also tinge the action with hints of insanity and tragedy. Antonio is arrested, and Malvolio is confined as a madman—and the audience begins to feel that things are going too far. In the world of Twelfth Night, disorder and the gentle madness of romantic infatuation are celebrated, but there is a limit to how much anarchy can dominate the stage before comedy gives way to tragedy. As in a tragedy, everything in Twelfth Night falls into disorder as the play moves toward the conclusion; because the play is a comedy, however, we know that matters will be put right in the end.
Act IV, scenes i–iii
Sebastian briefly takes center stage in these scenes, but he fails to make much of an impression as a character in his own right: his principal role is to serve as a male substitute for his resourceful and attractive twin sister, Viola. Sebastian’s primary state of mind in these scenes is total confusion, which is understandable. Having arrived in a country that he has never seen before, he is suddenly surrounded by people who seem to think they know him and who have extreme attitudes toward him: some want to kill him, while others appear to be in love with him. It is not surprising that, after trying to fend off the insistent Feste and being abruptly attacked by Sir Andrew, Sebastian asks in bewilderment, “Are all the people mad?” (IV.i.24). Olivia’s approach forces him to wonder about his own state of mind: “Or I am mad, or else this is a dream” (IV.i.57). These references to insanity are significant. As he does with Antonio and Malvolio, Shakespeare suggests here that madness and the chaos associated with comedy are closely linked.

By Act IV, scene iii, however, Sebastian begins to come to terms with his situation. He decides that the sun that he sees is real, as are the air that he breathes and the pearl that Olivia has given him. “[T]hough ’tis wonder that enwraps me thus, / Yet ’tis not madness,” he decides (IV.iii.3–4). He even reasons out the situation with the beautiful woman who claims to love him. If Olivia were mad, he figures, surely her servants wouldn’t obey her—so she must be sane. All the same, he realizes, “There’s something in’t / That is deceivable” (IV.iii.20–21). He is right, of course; he just hasn’t figured out yet exactly what the deception is.
Act IV, scenes i–iii part 2
Meanwhile, issues of madness and identity are addressed in a different way in the dialogue between Feste and the unfortunate Malvolio. In this scene, Feste proves himself a master of disguise by imitating the curate’s voice and speech patterns. But there is something very strange in his disguise: there seems no reason for Feste to dress up in a priest’s robes if Malvolio, locked in the darkness as he is, cannot even see him. Again, as with Viola’s male clothes and Malvolio’s fantasies about wearing a nobleman’s garments, Shakespeare seems to suggest a link between garments and identity.To impersonate Sir Topas, Feste must dress like him, so closely are clothes and public personae bound together.

Feste also uses tactics of confusion on poor Malvolio, telling him outright lies to make him think his senses deceive him and, thus, trying to make Malvolio himself believe that he is insane. He adds the final insult after Malvolio angrily claims that he is as sane as Feste himself, telling Malvolio, “Then you are mad indeed, if you be no better in your wits than a fool” (IV.ii.82–83). Again, we are impressed with Feste’s cleverness; yet, as he torments Malvolio, we begin to wonder if he is employing his talents to a good end. The steward, whose earlier humiliation is perhaps well deserved, now seems a helpless victim. It is as if Malvolio, as the embodiment of order and sobriety, must be sacrificed so that the rest of the characters can indulge in the topsy-turvy spirit of the Feast of the Twelfth Night that suffuses the play.
Act IV, scenes i–iii part 3
Malvolio is hardly a tragic figure. After all, he is only being asked to endure a single night in darkness. But he earns our respect, nevertheless, as he stubbornly clings to his sanity, even in the face of Feste’s insistence that he is mad. Malvolio, perhaps more than anyone else in this frenetic, zany play, knows that he is sane, and he will not allow the madness swirling in the air of Olivia’s home to destroy his sense of his own sanity. One cannot help pitying him, in spite of his flaws. He seems to be punished for not being as mad as everyone else, more than he is for any real sin. He cries, “I say this house is as dark as ignorance, though ignorance were as dark as hell; and I say there was never man thus abused,” making the darkness of his prison a powerful symbol for the madness that seems to have taken over the world of the play (IV.ii.40–42). Malvolio is right—but being right avails him nothing. Twelfth Night is a play filled with absurdity and madcap fun, and Malvolio suffers his unhappy fate because he is unable to put his scruples, his puritanism, and his pride aside to join in the revelry.
Act V, scene i
This long scene concludes the action of the play. A few at a time, the play’s main characters enter until they are all in the same place at the same time, and the various confusions and deceptions can finally be resolved. Of course, the ultimate climax is the reunion of Sebastian and Viola—their meeting unravels the major deceptions and conflicts of the play.

The moment before the climax, significantly, is the most complicated moment in the entire play for Viola, at least in terms of how everyone understands her identity. Just before Sebastian’s entrance, Viola, in her disguise as Cesario, is surrounded by many people, each of whom has a different idea of who she is and none of whom knows who she actually is. Sebastian’s entrance at this point effectively saves Viola from her identity crisis. We might think of the scene as showing Sebastian taking over the aspects of Viola’s disguise that she no longer needs to wear. It is Sebastian whom Antonio has really been seeking, Sebastian who has really married Olivia, and, in the end, Sebastian who is actually male. Thanks to her brother’s assumption of these roles, Viola is free to cast off her masculine disguise. First she casts it off through speech, as she lets everyone know that she is really a woman, and then through deed, as she talks about putting back on her women’s clothing, or “maiden weeds” (V.i.248).
Act V, scene i part 2
But even once the truth about Viola’s womanhood comes out, the uncertainty that her disguise has raised remains. For instance, Orsino’s declaration of love to Viola is strangely phrased. Continuing to address Viola as if she were male, he says, “Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times / Thou never shouldst love woman like to me” (V.i.260–261).
Orsino continues to address his future wife by her assumed male name, which hints at his ongoing attachment to Viola’s masculine potential. Though he knows Viola is a woman, he continues to recognize Cesario as a legitimate identity for Viola. His statement that in female garb Viola will be his queen does not make it clear that he is asking Viola to renounce her assumed male identity forever; nor is it clear whether Orsino is truly in love with Cesario or Viola.

Equally puzzling, but in a different way, is Orsino’s earlier threat to kill Cesario when he thinks his servant has betrayed him. “I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love,” he says, and Viola acquiesces meekly (V.i.128). “And I, most jocund, apt, and willingly, / To do you rest, a thousand deaths would die,” she declaims (V.i.130–131). These bizarre speeches—articulating Orsino’s strange violence and Viola’s apparent death wish—recede into the background amid the general rejoicing that follows, but they leave critics baffled. Perhaps Shakespeare is suggesting that love is so close to madness that both Orsino and Viola can easily tip over the edge into blood-drenched insanity, where one lover becomes a killer and the other a sacrificial lamb.
Act V, scene i part 3
Meanwhile, the general happiness that prevails is marred by the reemergence of Malvolio from his dark prison. When the trick is revealed, no one else seems to be quite as upset about it as the steward. “Alas, poor fool, how have they baffled thee!” Olivia says to him, calling the resolutely unfoolish Malvolio a “fool” (V.i.358). This barb, at once, adds insult to injury and shows how the spirit of the play has upended even the steadfast, puritanical steward. The unamused Malvolio’s parting remark—“I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”—sounds a jarring note in the supposedly tranquil, joyful concluding scene (V.i.365). Malvolio’s anger injects a hint of pathos or realism into the otherwise idyllic ending: someone must suffer while everyone else is happy. Antonio is likewise sacrificed to the anarchic spirit of the play, although less noticeably: his homosexual ardor for Sebastian must go unsatisfied in a play where heterosexual marriage is the logical endpoint.
For those who feel a sense of disquiet and ambivalence amid the joy of the conclusion, Feste’s closing song seems to provide some support. The song is the last of many musical numbers in the play, and it is also one of the most melancholy, recounting a story of growing up to discover the harshness and unkindness of life. Comedy and romantic bliss triumph in Twelfth Night, but through characters like Malvolio and Feste, Shakespeare leaves us with a feeling of unease. Like the feast that gives the play its name, Twelfth Night is festive and joyful—but all feast days must come to an end, the concluding song suggests, and give way to the “wind and the rain” of life (V.i.387).