Twelfth Night: Not What it Appears

As the name suggests, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has to do with the day of Epiphany, or the twelfth day after Christmas. Whether this lands on January 5th or 6th is up to debate. But while this play is named after this Holiday, very little in the play has to do with what we might think. There are no three wise men, though there are three fools,  and there is only one mention in the entire play of the phrase “twelfth night”. No, this play has less to do with religiosity and much more with the festival, a time of carnival, that came to surround this time.

Indeed, the festival had much more to with people pretending to be who they are not. Sometimes, this tradition took the form of the King Cake with a bean, coin, or other object put into the cake for someone to find. The person who had the object in their slice of cake would be king for the evening. This tradition was common across most of Europe. But a similar tradition that developed out of, or perhaps from, this was that the nobility would pretend to peasants and visa versa. Sometimes, masques were held at this time. During the Renaissance and onward, nobles and peasants alike took time to celebrate the end of the Christmas season by coming together with feasts, festivities, and even pretending to be someone that you are not. The practice of plays and mumming, however, had already been well established by the common folk.  These are the sort of ideas and themes that should be kept in mind while reading Twelfth Night, for while the King Cakes down hearken back to the “three kings” or magi that visited the Christ child, the majority of the play has to do with people pretending to be who they are not, even if it is not precisely a masque.

So who are these people and who are they not? While there are a whole host of characters, there a few crucial ones: Orsino, Olivia, Sir Andrew, Malvolio, Feste, and Viola, she perhaps being the main character.

Orsino is rather clear-cut and does not really, or at least intentionally, pretend to be someone he is not. He does, however, act in a way not fitting for his station. He is a Duke and his name means bear yet he is a lovesick, soft-hearted man who acts more womanly that even Viola at points. Besides Viola, however, he is the most self-aware and recognizes the dual-nature of men:

For such as I am, all true lovers are,

Unstaid and skittish in all motions else

Save in the constant image of the creature

That is beloved. …

For, boy, however we do praise ourselves,

Our fancies are mode giddy and unfirm,

More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,

Than women’s are.

Act 2, scene 4, ll. 17-20 & 32-35

And in the end, he reveals his boyish tendencies. Though the sole heart of his affection was for Olivia, and he passionately sought her, in the end he changed his love for Viola.

Olivia is false in the way that she leads people to believe she feels about love. She makes it appear throughout the play that she is incapable of love because of the death of her father and brother. But with the first chance that she is offered at a different love, she jumps on it and pursues it passionately, even to the point of marrying the “wrong” person because she wanted that love so much. But in truth, though she deceives herself with the veil she put over her heart, it is really she who is deceived by others, including Viola, Feste, Maria, and her kinsman.

Sir Andrew and Sir Toby only pretend to be someone in this way: they think they better than they are. While they are nobility, have names conveying strength, and status implying wisdom and knowledge, they are embody none of these things, most especially Sir Andrew. He is said to be brave, but in the face of danger in a lily livered coward. He frequently refers to himself as a knight, yet he has not the bearing or chivalry of one. He is a silly looking, stupid-minded, drunk spend-thrift. But in his case, the only one he fools is himself, for all those around him recognize his failings as a knight. Sir Toby is much the same, though he is clearly more mature and more wise than Sir Andrew, though not by much.

Two characters that are clearly underestimated by most of the others in the play, save by each other, are Maria and Feste. It is because of the underestimation that they are able to be something other than what their status defines for them. They never pretend to be someone other than they are, but because people assume something of them, they expect them to be that way. This is the way Maria and Feste inadvertently deceive others.

Maria may best be described by this phrase: though she be little, she is fierce. And though that phrase is never used in the play, she is often referred to by her diminutive stature, called a beagle, a wren, a “queen of the Amazons”, a shrew, and a mouse throughout the play, especially by Sir Toby. Yet in spite of this, she is the mastermind behind the downfall of Malvolio, who does not suspect her at first. Additionally, in spite of her name, Maria is no saint. And yet, she is the mother of many plots that happen throughout the play.

Like Maria, Feste also does not match his name nor his role as fool. He is rather melancholy for someone who is to bring entertainment. He also fits the phrase “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit”, the latte of which better fits Sir Andrew. In truth, Feste is a wise fool. He recognizes Olivia’s foolishness for mourning for her brother if she believes him to be in heaven. He takes advantage of wordplay and the lack of wit in Sir Andrew. Though he does sometimes talk gibberish, more often than not he plainly says what the audience is likely thinking while they watch, and typically says truth. He is possibly the first to recognize that “Nothing that is so is so”. But the only times he pretends to be someone he is not, for he could clearly be explained as a wise fool, is when he pretends to be a priest who comes to visit Malvolio. He does this so well, in fact, that he is able to switch between characters flawlessly. Even so, he makes the more “biblical” references throughout the whole play, even if they are not all the most respectful.

Malvolio only pretends to be someone he is not insofar as he is convinced to. Malvolio is a conceited, narcissistic, bringer of ill-news. He is one who constantly frowns and brings nothing but the opposite of merriment. He he is the one made to look the fool, not Feste, when he is convinced that Olivia is secretly in love with him. He dresses in a hideous way, is made to smile like a fool, and act in such a way that is contrary to his nature.

Finally, there is the lovely Viola. She is the crux of the play and the unifier of them all. Though Sebastian, her twin brother, and Olivia are the first to get married, it is she that brought it to happen. She is the one who actually becomes someone who she is not to woo for someone not loved in return and then be sought after in such a way that her brother finds love. It is quite a twist of events, but all are brought together in the end. She is the character that makes this a comedy, a unifier. She is the reason why Sebastian and Olivia find love. She is the reason why Orsino finds love in her. Yet this all came about with some deception and much confusion, for she pretends to be a boy, one who sings and delivers messages. This is why Olivia first falls in love with her and then mistakes Sebastian for “Cesario”. Because of her disguise, she is saved from harm by Antonio who think she is Sebastian.

Despite her being a woman, she is more noble than the two ‘sirs’, more gentlemanly than Malvolio, more lordly than Orsino. And despite pretending to be a man, she is more true to love than Olivia, more virtuous than Maria. In truth, she is the most self-aware of the group and more true to her nature and virtues than those around her, even in her deception. And perhaps in her pretending to be someone she was not, Viola was able to get a glimpse into the world and minds of others in a way she otherwise would not have. Perhaps her chater is to make us ponder how one gets to the truth? Throughout the whole play, everyone is deceving everyone else and never saying thr truth until she reveals it all at the end. Perhaps being straightforward initially would have been better. But, that makes for a much less interesting comedy, now doesn’t it?

The ironic thing is that when this play first came out, the actor would have been a man playing a woman pretending to be a man. Her whole character is a mind twister for you, and she is possibly the most interesting, perhaps after Feste, in my opinion.

Thus, the play of Twelfth Night perhaps should be more commonly referred to as What You Will, for in this play people are who you will them to be, even if they are not. If people think you are one thing, they will perceive you as such and be surprised when you are not. For example, Sir Toby marries Maria, probably because of her wit. Olivia marries Sebastian because she assumes he is Cesario. And yet, this play reflects the Twelfth Night traditions: people pretending to be someone they are not. Those who were not nobility became so, and those who were became as though they were not. Furthermore, Orsino’s finally words proclaim that Viola will be “his mistress” and “his fancy’s queen” since he was her’s for a times, and thus the roles are reversed once more, as might perchance happen on a Twelfth Night celebration.

It is a play of confusion and playacting on a night when playacting was celebrated. And though the play wasn’t first published on Twelfth Night, the theme and gist of the story revolves around the traditions of that night. And more can be said about each of these characters on whether they are who they claim to be or are claimed to be, but that is for another day. In short, my point is that whether you read it or not before, remember that this is a comedy and there will be at least a marriage; that this play both is and is not about Twelfth Night, which I wish I would have known; and that perhaps it is better not to deceive in the matters of love. Everything could have been cleared up much sooner.



Fun Fact:

If you are looking for some names to study, look up the names of Olivia, Viola, and Malvolio. It is no wonder why these three interact with each other so often, regardless of the plot. They are reflections or inverses of each other, most notably in their names, which are anagrams of each other (though Malvolio has “mal” added to his).



Works Referenced

Shakespeare, William. “Twelfth Night; Or What You Will.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare. edited by David Bevington. 5th ed., New York: Pearson. 2004. pp. 337-69.

Twelfth Night: Its Definition and History

A More In-depth look at Twelfth Night and its Sources

Wikipedia: Twelfth Night

Wikipedia: Twelfth Night


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