Sunday, 24 October 2021

Twelfth Night revisited

The first time I read Twelfth Night was several years ago, at University of Oslo. Let’s see if this time I can see anything new. 

1/ See this line from Feste, Olivia’s jester:  

“CLOWN Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage…” 

(Act 1 scene 5) 

That makes me think of the end of Measure for Measure: Lucio escapes hanging but he is forced to marry a prostitute (who has a child with him); Angelo violates the law and would be sentenced to death, but instead, is ordered to marry the woman he abandoned many years ago. Both marriages would be bad, and the same may be said about the marriage between the Duke and Isabella.

I personally also have doubts about the marriages in Twelfth Night, but we will get to that later. 

2/ Sir Toby says to Maria about Sir Andrew Aguecheek: 

“TOBY Why, he has three thousand ducats a year.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

3000 ducats is the amount of Shylock’s loan to Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice

That is not the only echo: in Twelfth Night, Antonio seems to be gay and in love with Sebastian, like Antonio in The Merchant of Venice loves Bassanio. In Twelfth Night, Viola’s disguise as a man is reminiscent of Portia in The Merchant of Venice, though if Portia solves everything and outsmarts all the men, Viola needs time to untangle the knot. Viola is passive, she is Patience on a monument. 

Here’s a mad idea: you know in King Lear, the Gloucester plot is like the literal, more physically brutal version of the Lear plot; perhaps in Twelfth Night, the Antonio-Sebastian subplot is meant to echo Orsino adoring, though he doesn’t quite know it, Cesario (Viola), whom he believes to be male. At the same time, Olivia is in love with Cesario—it’s resolved in the end, of course, but she does fall in love with Viola as Cesario—to use a reddit term, she’s accidentally lesbian. 

Disguise and cross-dressing are common in Shakespeare’s plays (perhaps almost every single play has some sort of disguise or pretence), but Viola’s case, unless I forget something else, may be the only one that causes lots of mishaps and troubles. 

“VIOLA […] Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness

Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.

How easy is it for the proper false

In women’s waxen hearts to set their forms!

Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we,

For much as we are made of, such we be…”

(Act 2 scene 2) 

All the mix-ups in the play make me think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One wonders why Viola falls in love with the narcissistic, unaware Orsino—perhaps it’s like Titania falls in love with an ass. 

3/ The conversation between Orsino and Viola about the passion and faithfulness of men and women in love must have been a direct inspiration for the conversation between Anne Elliot and Captain Harville, which Captain Wentworth overhears, near the end of Persuasion.

This scene in Twelfth Night has one of the best passages about love in all of Shakespeare: 

“VIOLA […] She never told her love,

But let concealment, like a worm i’ th’ bud,

Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought;

And, with a green and mellow melancholy,

She sat like Patience on a monument,

Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?

We men may say more, swear more; but indeed

Our shows are more than will; for still we prove

Much in our vows but little in our love.” 

(Act 2 scene 4) 

4/ In Act 3 scene 1, Viola says to Olivia “I am not what I am”, the exact line Iago says in Act 1 scene 1 of Othello.

5/ Antonio follows Sebastian into the city, despite having enemies at Orsino’s court, and gives him his purse: 

“ANTONIO Haply your eye shall light upon some toy

You have desire to purchase, and your store

I think is not for idle markets, sir.”

(Act 3 scene 3) 

Why does he give him the purse? Isn’t that kinda weird?

Shakespeare seems to hint it in the next scene: 

“OLIVIA I have sent after him. He says he’ll come:

How shall I feast him? What bestow of him?

For youth is bought more oft than begged or borrowed…” 

(Act 3 scene 4) 

Look at that last line! 

Now if we look back at the exchange between Antonio and Sebastian, it’s even weirder that Sebastian just takes the purse. 


6/ Twelfth Night is a darker play than I remembered. Some readers or theatregoers might argue that we shouldn’t forget it is a comedy, and that from the modern perspective, we may perceive certain things as dark that Elizabethans didn’t necessarily view so, but I’d say that Shakespeare’s comedies from the beginning have always had something dark in them, even the whimsical fairytale A Midsummer Night’s Dream—at the start, Hermia’s father forces her to marry Demetrius, or she has to face death. 

Moreover, Twelfth Night came after Hamlet, and Shakespeare’s vision at this point had visibly darkened. According to Tony Tanner, the play is known as the last of Shakespeare’s “happy comedies”. 

First of all, the trick that Maria, Sir Toby, Fabian, and Sir Andrew play on Malvolio may be initially intended as a harmless prank, but after a while it’s no longer harmless:

“TOBY Come, we’ll have him in a dark room and bound. My niece is already in the belief that he’s mad. We may carry it thus, for our pleasure and his penance, till our very pastime, tired out of breath, prompt us to have mercy on him; at which time we will bring the device to the bar and crown thee for a finder of madmen. But see, but see.”

(Act 3 scene 4)

It reminds me of the exorcism of Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors, though that results from mix-ups and misunderstanding, whereas this is a deliberate plot. Would Sir Toby go further and physically torture Malvolio? I cannot say. 

“TOBY […] I would we were well rid of this knavery. If he may be conveniently delivered, I would he were; for I am now so far in offense with my niece that I cannot pursue with any safety this sport to the upshot…”

(Act 4 scene 2)

Later on, when the truth is out, Olivia says Malvolio has been “most notoriously abused”. 

Secondly, Sir Toby provokes a duel between Viola (as Cesario) and Sir Andrew, which could lead to injury or even death. Because this is comedy, it is resolved, but it doesn’t change the fact that Sir Toby incites them to have a duel for his own amusement. Whilst it is true that he tells each one that the other will not hurt them, he exaggerates the other’s strength, skill, and anger. It is again more than a harmless prank.

Whatever Shakespeare’s intentions are, Sir Toby is a sadist, and I myself don’t think Shakespeare didn’t see that callousness and cruelty just because he was living in the 16th century. 

Tony Tanner also points out that in the final scene, when Sir Andrew and Sir Toby enter and both have been wounded by Sebastian:

“… Sir Andrew, rather sweetly, says ‘I’ll help you, Sir Toby, because we’ll be dressed together’. Sir Toby’s very unsweet response is:

Will you help—an ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull?

(V, I, 205-7)

These are his last words to Sir Andrew, who is not heard from again. Not nice.” (Introduction) 

7/ As a comedy, Twelfth Night has a happy ending, but how happy is it really?

The most jarring note is Malvolio’s line “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”, but I think the only undeniable happiness in the ending is the reunion of Viola and Sebastian, 3 months after the shipwreck (contrast that with the reunion of Isabella and Claudio at the end of Measure for Measure). 

Olivia gladly accepts Sebastian, whom she barely knows—she must realise that her love for Cesario (Viola) is only skin-deep. And in marrying her, Sebastian breaks Antonio’s heart. 

Much more troubling is the marriage between Viola and Orsino.

First of all, she has been watching him pine for Olivia, and not long before Sebastian arrives and untangles the knots, Orsino threatens to kill her (as Cesario) to spite Olivia.  

“DUKE Why should I not, had I the heart to do it,

Like to th’ Egyptian thief at point of death,

Kill what I love?—a savage jealousy

That sometimes savors nobly. But hear me this:

Since you to non-regardance cast my faith, 

And that I partly know the instrument

That screws me from my true place in your favor,

Like 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 out of that cruel eye

Where he sits crownèd 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 5 scene 1) 

That’s not a reasonable reaction, is it? Viola’s reaction is even more disturbing.

“VIOLA And I, most jocund, apt, and willingly,

To do you rest a thousand deaths would die.” 



“VIOLA After him I love

More than I love these eyes, more than my life…”


Her love for Orsino is much more irrational than the love of Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well. One can tell that Portia would be the dominant partner in her marriage with Bassanio, Beatrice and Benedick would be equal, and Viola would be completely, irrationally submissive to Orsino.

Secondly, Orsino says he will marry Viola, without asking her, and she says nothing for the rest of the play. Tony Tanner mentions Jonathan Bate’s idea that Viola is reminiscent of Ovid’s Echo (whilst Orsino is Narcissus), and says:

“… after this moment when she is accepted by the Duke, she never says another word throughout the remaining one hundred and thirty-five lines of the play—as if faithful Echo has finally, fully, faded away. (Rosalind, of course, had the last word—lots of them—in a masterly, confident epilogue).” (Introduction)  

There’s something else worth noting.

“DUKE […] [to Viola] Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times

Thou never shouldst love a woman like to me.”

(Act 5 scene 1) 

He continues calling her a boy after she reveals that she is a woman. 


“DUKE […] 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.”


Orsino clearly likes Viola as Cesario.  

8/ In his essay, Tony Tanner writes at length about Feste. Feste is perhaps my second favourite jester in Shakespeare’s plays, after Lear’s fool.

Feste has the last word in Twelfth Night.

Clown sings

When that I was and a little tiny boy,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, 

A foolish thing was but a toy,

For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,

But the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas, to wive,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

By swaggering could I never thrive,

For the rain it raineth every day. 

But when I came unto my beds, 

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

With tosspots still had drunken heads, 

For the rain it raineth every day. 

A great while ago the world begun, 

Hey, ho, the wind and the rain;

But that’s all one, our play is done,

And we’ll strive to please you every day.” 


I recognised that. See Lear’s fool:

“FOOL [Singing

He that has and a little tiny wit,

With heigh-ho, the wind and the rain,

Must make content with his fortunes fit,

Though the rain it raineth every day.” 

(King Lear, Act 3 scene 2) 


  1. I didn't notice Sebastian's greed as much as you've pointed out : indeed, he accepts Antonio's purse quite easily, as well as his hasty marriage with Olivia which, retrospectively, sounds very financially motivated, since he notices her madness but decides to marry her anyway. Apart from his love for his sister, he doesn't seem quite sympathetic at the end... I feel a bit for Antonio, who was first falsely betrayed by Viola he mistook for Sebastian, and then the marriage of the latter (though we don't have a glimpse of his reaction, but we can imagine it as not very different of the one he had with Viola). Didn't Sebastian suspect Antonio's love for him? I think he did, but didn't care much as long as he got the money.
    I find it interesting, on second thought, that Olivia is the opposite of Viola : she is quite active in her pursuit of her love, first with the ring she gave to Viola, then her hasty marriage with Sebastian. She is much more like Orsino, never giving up her love for Viola and harassing her though it was a hopeless cause. Retrospectively, her reproach to Orsino of harassing her continuously sounds a little ironic as she is doing the exact same thing with Viola/Cesario...
    Anyway, we could discuss endlessly of this play, which makes it so fascinating.

    1. I think Sebastian isn't as bad as Bassanio. He doesn't necessarily accept Olivia only because she's rich, it's more likely that he's in a state of wonder, everything happens so fast, and she's both rich and beautiful so why not.
      I do feel bad for Antonio though.
      I haven't thought of it that way, but you have a point about Olivia being more active and aggressive than Viola. She and Orsino are more similar than they realise, both are self-centred and lacking in self-awareness, he plays the role of a man in love, she plays the role of a sister in mourning.


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