May 14, 2020



Let us now try to understand the meaning and beauty of the play TWELFTH NIGHT and draw out its significance. Let us more deeply appreciate that great work of art, one of Shakespeare’s great comedies. 

Plot of Twelfth Night 

Place- Illyria 

Time- After Christmas 


Duke Orsino, Olivia, Viola (also Cesario, in male disguise) 

Seabstian, Olivia’s twin brother, Antonio, friend who helps Sebastian 

Malvolio, steward at Olivia’s household. Feste - clown 

Maria, Olivia’s maid, Sir Toby, uncle of Olivia and Sir Andrew, a Knight, hoping to marry Olivia. 


A ship gets wrecked at the island of illyria. In that ship, Viola and Sebastian, who are twins, get separated and, in fact, Viola thinks that Sebastian has died, as he is not seen anywhere after the wreck. 

She decides to work for the noblewoman Olivia who lives in the island. But Olivia is not taking anyone right now. She is in mourning due to her brother’s recent death and does not also want to marry. 

So, Viola decides to disguise herself as a man and goes to work for Duke Orsino who lives in the same island. She gets employment there. 

Orsino actually is in love with Olivia but, as she is not ready to marry, has to wait. 

This is the setting of the comedy. 

Now, Orsino finds Cesario( Viola) very charming and attractive and she(he) becomes his favorite. Soon, he sends Cesario, Viola in disguise, to Olivia, with a love message. 

But here is the first twist. Olivia finds Cesario attractive and falls in love with him. But there is no Cesario. Cesario is Viola, actually a woman!! 

In the meantime, the uncle of Olivia, Sir Toby, comes to the scene to get his friend, Andrew, a Knight to woo Olivia. Olivia is not interested. 

Malvolio is the steward in Olivia’s house and he is a very strict, stern and, according to others, a spoiler of fun. 

We have Maria, the maid of Olivia, who actually is very witty, intelligent and fun loving. We also have Feste who is a clown. 

Malvolio is very critical of too much fun that Feste And Maria make in the house. To teach him a lesson, Maria copies the handwriting of Olivia, and writes a love letter to Malvolio. 

Poor Malvolio thinks he has got a great chance now to marry Olivia, and he follows the instructions in the letter to wear yellow stockings and behave in a certain way. 

In the meantime, Sebastian with the help of a friend comes back. He had not died in the shipwreck. His friend is Andrew. Sebastian comes to Olivia’s house when Viola (Cesario) is not there. Now, since Sebastian is a twin of Viola, he looks like Cesario, Viola, disguised as a man!! 

So, thinking Sebastian is Viola, Olivia proposes to him!! Sebastian is obviously stunned but he accepts as he finds that prospect interesting and quite advantageous to him. He also finds Olivia attractive. 

In the meantime, Malvolio, starts behaving strangely in front of Olivia. But he is mereley following the instructions in the love letter, playfully given to him by Maria. 

Olivia thinks he has gone mad, and they all put him in a room. Also we have now Antonio, Sir Toby’s friend, who wants to marry Olivia. Not having any other way, he challenges Cesario, to a duel. But it is Sebastian that they challenge. They think Sebastian is Cesario!! 

Sebastian wins the duel. In the meantime, Andrew wants to meet Sebastian, and he is arrested, as there was some conflict with Olivia before. 

He appeals to Viola thinking that she is Sebastian and she does not help. Andrew feels he has been betrayed. 

All this drama finally is ended by Viola and she confesses that she is not a man, named Cesario, but actually Viola and that her brother is Sebastian and not Cesario. She also confesses that she loves Duke Orsino. 

Finally, Duke Orsino, who anyway was very fond of Viols even when she was disguised as a man, is delighted to marry Viola. 

Sebastian is delighted to marry Olivia. It is revealed that Sir Toby had secretly married Maria. 

Malvolio is released from the room, as Maria confesses that she had written that love letter. 

All ends well, except for Malvolio who gets very angry and gets out of the room. 

Themes in the Story 

Pure light heartedness but with no deeper significance – 

This is seen in the twists and turns of the story and fun elements including making fun of Malvolio’s seriousness and strictness by giving him a false love letter. 

Unbiased Gender roles 

This is striking in this play. Orsino is attracted to Viola, though she is a boy. Olivia is attracted to Viols dressed as a man, though she is a girl!! Also, the women characters, like in real life, are real, not slaves or having no mind of their own. This shows that Shakespeare could show women as real, and equal to men. 

No class divisions : People are shown as equally strong. Maria is witty and intelligent though a maid. Viola as a servant boy, in disguise, is given great love and respect by Duke Orsino. Overall, all people, arte REAL, Human and not slaves or masters. 

So, the themes that emerge are - human characters, not just stereotypes, light living, love and marriage given importance, unseriousness, and no gender bias. 

Also, the absence of any grandeur or deeper themes is clearly evident. The characters are the common people we meet, and the fun is the kind anybody would find funny, but the fun is NOT overlaid by deep satire or anything. 

The dialogues are a full demonstration of Shakespeare’s genius. He makes full use of witticisms, and makes full fun of all the situations that are in the play. But he beautifully gives REALITY to all characters, as he knew that men, women, noblemen and common man, all are same and each is fully human. His characters are NOT stereotypes and stock characters. That is his genius and also the modern element in him. 

The point is Shakespeare does a great job of that. He had a great sensibility, depth, and balance to write plays that could be experienced as stories, than as preaching. This is why he had to be such a great success. It is an out and out and very typical, brilliant and highly engaging and entertaining Shakespeare comedy.