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Major Themes in "Twelfth Night"

written by: Peter Boysen • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 7/12/2012

Read an overview of the themes at work in Shakespeare's gender-bending play. Review symbols and motifs in the play and get ideas for essays and writing assignments!

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    "Twelfth Night" and Nietzsche -- Existentialism

    Existentialism is as old as the Old Testament -- if you've done any reading of the book of Ecclesiastes, you can see that the notion that there's nothing lasting to be gained by hustling after earthly possessions or social standing is as old as time itself. The existentialist term for this is "absurdity" -- the term used by King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes is "vanity," but the idea is the same.

    Shakespeare uses the character of Malvolio to express this theme. He's the steward, and he's very good at his job. However, he has an extremely inflated sense of self, and he wants to leave the service class behind. Maria knows this, and is toying with him when she writes a letter in Olivia's hand that convinces Malvolio that Olivia loves her -- and wants to marry him, rescuing him from a life in service.

    Absurd Indeed...

    This is humorous to Sir Toby and the rest of the cast, because not only does Malvolio have a personality as abrasive as sandpaper, he also lacks nobility in his blood. In the day of Shakespeare, no woman of nobility would marry a man beneath her, because of the damage it would do to her reputation.

    Now, the "Twelfth Night" was a time when, at least temporarily, social structures ceased to exist. Maria marries Sir Toby because she throws herself into the chaotic, anarchic spirit of the feast. Malvolio, however, can't ever get himself into the mindset of the dissident; he only wants to bend the rules for his own benefit.

    Writing Prompt: In modern times, the rules of marriage and class are a lot more flexible than they were in the time of Shakespeare. What do you feel are the most important elements that a couple should look for when choosing a spouse? Write a letter that you would write to your own child, giving him or her advice about things to look for in a mate.

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    Love Has Always Hurt -- Even in the Time of Shakespeare

    While Shakespeare's romantic comedies generally end happily for just about everyone, a truth in these plays is that love can indeed hurt. Indeed, a lot of the characters in these comedies look at love as more of a curse than a blessing. If you're familiar with "Much Ado About Nothing," then you know how scornfully Benedick speaks of love -- until, of course, he comes to admit his love for Beatrice. Afterward, love is the most amazing experience of his life so far.

    In "Twelfth Night," Orsino complains about the "appetite" for love that he has but cannot fulfill (I.i.1-3). Olivia goes further, calling love a "plague" (I.v.265). Viola also finds herself distraught, because the love she feels for her master is unrequited.

    The consequences of unfulfilled love can turn violent (and not just on Jerry Springer!). Orsino threatens to take Cesario's life because he thinks that Cesario has taken on Olivia as a lover.

    Also, not everyone gets a happy ending in Shakespeare. Antonio and Malvolio never win the objects of their love. Malvolio faces the social barriers keeping him from the noblewoman Olivia, and Antonio is thwarted by the cultural mores that keep him apart from his male love, Sebastian.

    Writing Prompt: Take one of the love relationships in "Twelfth Night" and compare it with a relationship you have read about in another play or novel. Compare the personalities of the individuals involved, the barriers that keep them apart, and the resolution of their stories.

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    What Does Gender Mean in "Twelfth Night"?

    As I said earlier, the Twelfth Night feast represented a time when social structures temporarily ceased to exist. Shakespeare uses this occasion to turn cultural mores about gender in those days on their heads as well.

    Viola, of course, disguises herself as a man, and cannot tell Orsino that she loves him, because Orsino thinks that she is a man. However, Olivia falls in love with Viola -- because she thinks that Viola is really Cesario. If you add these yearnings to the love that Antonio feels for Sebastian, there are a lot of homoerotic undercurrents at work.

    Interestingly, even after the truth is revealed and all costumes are shed, Orsino continues to call Viola "Cesario." Does he love Viola, or did he love her as a man?

    Writing Prompt: What is it that attracts two people together? What are the essential elements that cause a person to feel attraction for another?

Study Guide for 'Twelfth Night'

Get the most out of Shakespeare's hilarious play with these study guides.
  1. Major Themes in "Twelfth Night"
  2. Exploring Comedic Themes in Twelfth Night: Gender, Love & Social Advancement

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