Twelfth Night Critical Commentary of Major Themes and An Analysis of Language

Twelfth Night - Critical Commentary of Major Themes and An Analysis of Language

The plays tittle refers to the carnivalesque spirit of abandon that surrounded renaissance Twelfth Night festivities. In which the normal rules and order of social life were suspended or else deliberately reversed, “serious issues and events mingled perplexingly with revelry and apparent madness.” Closer textual and language analysis provides a detailed demonstration of these ideas, the comedic elements of the play draw from the tensions created between common social restraints and the unruly, inspiring and irrational forces of love. Our leading heroine, Viola, embodies these ideas wholly and presents them continuously, particularly in the soliloquy she delivers upon picking up the ring of Olivia (II, ii, -17). Here she spells out the intricate tangles of the predominant plot and amidst this narrative of knots pulls the threads of the main ideas that run through the play.

Initially Viola ponders the inkling that Olivia may have mistakenly fallen in love with her:

Viola: I left no ring with her. What means this lady?

Fortune forbid my outside have not charmed her.

Viola refers to a moment earlier in Olivia’s court (I, v,), where the Duchess ran a critically praising eye from toe to head of Viola’s “outside” :

Viola: She made good view of me, indeed so much

That straight methought her eyes had lost her tongue,

Quickly, Viola, resigns herself to the knowledge that Olivia has fallen in love with her:
Viola: She loves me sure, the cunning of her passion

Invites me in this churlish messenger.

The mention of a “churlish” or rude messenger could take a duel meaning. Primarily, the delivery of a ring to symbolize Olivia’s affections delivered under the false pretences of it being jeered at. These false pretences are also evidence to “the cunning of her passion” Ironically, Olivia’s advance is just as deceitful as Viola’s mere presence. Secondly, this may be taken as a blazenly blunt description of the conceited steward, Malvolio.

Viola was initially delivered to the Adriatic coastal shores of Illyria by a violent tempest. The tempest perhaps symbolic to “the stormy passion of love” , leaves her stranded and fearful to the death of her brother, Sebastian. Viola dons the male disguise of Cesario, this transvestitism nurtures both employment and time to balance herself in an unfamiliar territory. The transvestitism serves as a beacon of the queer nature of Illyrian society, it also provides a wide base for confusion and subsequently for the comic element:
Viola: I am the man. If it be so-as ‘tis-

Gender identities between Viola and her fraternal twin, Sebastian, could nearly be perceived as interchangable in this play. Viola does not simply impersonate a man but a “Eunuch” . A character that provides an approach to the debatably attractive freedom of androgyny. As for many other elements of the play, belief needs to be suspended by the audience as the fraternal twins appear as identical.


Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness

Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.

The pregnant enemy is a reference to the “enemy of mankind” , the devil. It is true that it is active within the wicked disguises that exist throughout Twelfth Night. Aside the most obvious deception of Viola as Cesario there are several other social disguises that are presented and flawed. Malvolio in his conceited role presents the possibilities of a very bland and critical existence, however when drugged with the mere possibilities of love he becomes the most absurd of all . A near absurdity is that of Olivia. Her guise initially is that of a seven year mourning period and to spurn all notions of love. Love and perhaps the devil proves “a joyous dischord to this society” and pulls the characters from their disguises. It could be further pointed that the disguises, both physical and social provide a cloak for evil to exist under in this society.

How easy it is for the proper false

In women’s waxen hearts to set their forms!

Viola’s reference to the “proper false” suggests that things be not always as they seem, that forms of identity are alterable. Further she comments on the impressionability of women’s hearts, noting them as “waxen” and how easily a suitable counterfeit such as herself, can become appealing.

Another example of the ways in which standards are relaxed or social codes reversed during Twelfth Night is the permeation of class boundaries.
Just as Viola permeates gender boundaries, love interests lead the characters across class lines:
Viola: How will this fadge? My master loves her dearly,
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him,
And she, mistaken, seems to dote as much on me.

This unrequited love triangle provides the social knot that is the main action of the play. It is obviously cunfusing and intricate, the delicate tensions created within make Twelfth Night a superior example of Shakespearean comedy. Through the tangle, “love and desire participate in the process of social mobility.” Significantly, it is the upper-class individuals that are permitted to indulge in their socially illicit desire. Olivia marries Sebastian, Sir Toby weds Olivia’s waiting lady, Maria and Orsino takes on Viola as his mistress and “fancies Queen”. In this manner the social indiscretions made throughout the play are exonerated in the final scenes by the idealistic act of marriage.

Finally Time is left as the only remedy to untie complicated social knots.

O time, thou must untangle this, not I.

It is too hard a knot for me t’untie.

Viola’s experiences and thoughts prove representative of the nature of Twelfth Night festivities and questionable to the strength and appropriateness of social roles and masks. Also they are illustrative of the unpredictable and undirectable powers of love. This socially erratic Illyria transforms her from woman to man to Queen, and blissfully enables her to live out her life in an earthly Elysium.


1. Anne Barton, “Twelfth Night,” The Riverside Shakespeare, published by Houghton Mifflin Co.; Boston, 1974, p -404.

2. Cristina Malcolmson, “Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night,” published by Harvester Wheatsheat, New York, 1991, p -32.

3. Laurie E. Osborne (ed.), “Twelfe Night,” Shakespearean Originals, Prentice Hall International, 1995, p -111.

4. Peck, J. & Coyle, M., “How to study a Shakespeare Play,” published by Macmillan Publishers Ltd, 1985, p -97.

5. R.A. Holland, “Shakespearean Comedy,” published by R.A. Holland, 1993, p -93.