Unpacking Shakespeare’s Great Comedy “Twelfth Night”

Lowell Bassi
15 min readNov 28, 2021


Image kindly borrowed from here.


Twelfth Night is one of William Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, and is estimated to have been written between the years 1601 and 1602. It involves many themes, such as love, homosexuality, and the way appearance can deceive us. Confusion is one of the main devices used in the play, and we also get to explore literary techniques that make the play interesting; you see, in Shakespeare’s time the words were interesting, they didn’t have a stage with the lighting.

Act 1 Scene 1 & 2

The first scene of Twelfth Night already establishes how characters simply rave for desires — in this play we see this emphasis and zeal for love. Orsino’s language indicates that he has little to no control over himself. This line from the first scene illustrates how Shakespeare uses language techniques to portray the personality of Orsino.

Orsino: “And my desires like fell and cruel hounds E’er since pursue me”

The opening line is also a testament of how language is powerful to describe Orsino. By stating the quote “if music be the food of love, play on”, Orsino attempts to describe that music may be something that may fulfill his appetite for love, just like how food fills the stomach, then music also shall fulfill Orsino. Twelfth Night Productions also take that effort to show that Orsino has a dreamy personality and restrain his love. The National Globe Theatre shows this by having Orsino pluck a leaf from over his head as he enters the stage, and he looks into the distance.

Characterisation extends more than off dialogue, the productions show this.

Other productions picture this differently, we see in the cinematic version that Orsino is sprawled on a couch with many lords gathered around him. The mood itself is tense with many lords having serious and mournful faces. It is also interesting to see how despite this scene may have language that is hard for the modern English student, productions help unpack this. Take for example the National Shakespeare Company, where Orsino is holding a bouquet of flowers when he says the line “…that breathes upon a bank of violets”.

Some interesting things to consider is how different productions organise Scene 1 and 2 of Act 1. Shakespeare began his play with Orsino’s palace to establish the context and his thoughts so we better understand how Viola’s plot line will soon come to meet in Scene 2. We can clearly see this when Olivia asserts how she will serve Orsino. Not having prior knowledge of Orsino and his palace from Scene 1 will be confusing if Twelfth Night had begun with Scene 2. Despite Shakespeare’s intentions, the cinematic 1996 version and “The National Shakespeare Company” are productions that begin with the shipwreck scene. The cinematic version is justifiable as in Orsino’s scene we see Viola herself playing music to Orsino, but as for The National Shakespeare Company, we are left to decide on that matter.

In Scene 2 we are introduced to Viola and her newfound misery, the death of her brother. The first few lines are confusing, especially when interpreting the definition of Elysium. Elysium could define to heaven or a good place. In Line 5, she immediately contradicts herself. This leaves us with a question, does Viola believe heaven is a good place for Sebastian, Viola’s brother. This question is speedily answered when the captain says, “I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves so long as I could see”.

I would like to conclude this with an important quote which Shakespeare makes use of, and it relates to theme of “Appearance Vs. Reality”. In lines 48–9, Viola states that her outside will be a barrier against a corrupt inside. By this, Viola refers to that she will be able to disguise herself. This is a very strong foreboding to the chaos that will ensue later in the play due to appearance. However, it is fair to admit that if Viola did not think of this hidden appearance, we wouldn’t have the same humour, comedies and disturbances that would happen in the play! Perhaps, Twelfth Nigh may not have even existed if you were to be frank!

Act 1 Scene 5

This scene begins with a clown entertaining Maria before Maria leaves and the clown is dismissed. Under Orsino’s instructions, Cesario/Viola makes an attendance to Olivia in order to express Orsino’s love for her. Olivia, being a solemn, lonesome figure at the time, takes a great deal of persuading before she agrees to talk to Cesario with a veil over her face. Despite Cesario attempting to drag Olivia to love Orsino, as per his master’s instructions, Olivia is stubborn in her non-loving opinion of him. After Cesario’s speech, she instead falls for Cesario, sending Malvolio after her with a ring.

This scene acts as a crucial part of the play, and as the final scene of act 1, draws together the overall scene and situation of the play for the audience. It clearly establishes Olivia’s position towards other main and supporting characters. Through this, her respect but non-loving attitude for Orsino and her love for Cesario are built as a foundation to escalate later in the play.

Olivia’s response to Orsino’s love also helps the audience understand the perspective on how difficult it would be for Orsino to get his way, and it is inferable through Olivia’s interests that a relationship between the two would be highly unlikely. Whilst she makes her respect be known calling him “virtuous” and “noble”, she repeats “I cannot love him,” each time after to solidify her stance. This one-sided love affair, with one party determined to get his way, is one of the main relationships developed by Shakespeare made to fog the plot of the play. With multiple relationship triangles founded in the story, Orsino’s and Olivia’s relationship stands in a dire state in this scene compared to Cesario’s.

In addition to this, Olivia’s general personality and her household is also introduced in this scene. The state of Olivia’s household can be attributed to the recent loss of her brother, leaving her in a state of depression. When Cesario first appeared at her gates, she was firm that “he shall not speak with [her]”. Therefore, it is evident that she was in a time where she wanted to isolate herself from the rest of the world, keeping herself and her emotions hidden. This is further exemplified when she only talks to Cesario with a veil on and after many tries of turning him away. Orsino, with clear knowledge of this, pursues his love life, damaging his chances and reputation with every action.

Furthermore, the scene also introduces the personality of Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, in contrast with Olivia. Their interactions with the clown, Feste, show that Malvolio openly presents a scornful attitude towards everyone but Olivia, often displaying his high self-image. Towards Feste, he tells “the pangs of death [to] shake him,” whilst also wishing sickness upon him. His actions and attitude in the scene also help convey to the audience that Malvolio is also in love with Olivia. This is despite during society at the time where larger social class gaps existed, a steward falling in love with his master would stir controversy. The idea of this being introduced early in the play can act to foreshadow future events. In contrast with Malvolio, Olivia shows more sympathy and takes Feste lighter and with humour even through her low state.

In the Globe version of the play, all fundamental lines are included. However, extra lines have also been included for the purpose of comedy, along with unnatural actions also used to draw humour for the audience.

Act 2 Scene 3 — The Start of a Cunning Affair

Shakespeare is notorious for frivolous, tragic, and entertaining plays which are studied and cherished dearly. Twelfth Night is a charming demonstration of Shakespeare’s abilities to incorporate subtle humour into a romance play, while having a clearly defined plot and character attributes. Scene 3 of the second act is quite interesting, being a quintessential aspect of later scenes.

Sir Toby: “Approach, Sir Andrew. Not to be abed after midnight is to be up betimes, and diluculo surgere, thou know’st, — ”

The ill-mannered drunken duo of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew opened the scene with very noticeably distinct drunkard language. Bodies being flung around with bottles of champaign clanging is a picture which can be reconstructed in one’s head, and this is precisely the intention of the scene. Sir Toby, being countess Olivia’s uncle, has a misconception that he possesses the power to do anything of his wish. This delusional behaviour can be seen throughout the play, with the character being intoxicated with no regard for his fellow housemates. This scene carries songs, laughter, and volume throughout it, with the three fools (Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste) acting in a raucous manner.

Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Feste, and Maria have been conspiring against Malvolio for his irrational behaviour against other men and women of the manor. Malvolio acts as a righteous steward whose sole purpose is to uphold the integrity of his lady’s house. Watching his fellow housemates make ruckus and desecrate his mistresses’ high-class residence unearths a feeling of ire and dissatisfaction within him. Serving directly under the Lady of the House (Olivia) Malvolio believes if any misdoings occur under his nose, he is to blame.

This lack of understanding between the two parties creates a tight tension and disparity, resulting in an entertaining feud. A mockery is to be made of Malvolio and his self-righteous characteristics as Maria raises a cunning solution to the quarrel between, she and Malvolio.

Maria: “I can write very like my lady your niece; on a forgotten matter, we can hardly make distinction of our hands.” (Sir Toby)

Maria’s plan to outwit the blind servant’s selfish interests was to write a letter of love to Malvolio in the hopes of making him believe Olivia loves him.

Themes of pitiful pranks and comedy resonate throughout the scene with a deep contrast to the elements of love, literature, poetry and high-class wooing which occurred in the remainder of the play. This scene acted as a barrier between the high-level humour acquired throughout the play and the childish bickering obtained from the irritated characters of this scene.

Sir Andrew has been portrayed as simpleton who lacks bravery, wit, and the courage to interact with his love, Olivia. Sir Andrew had been fooled at the end of play along with Malvolio. Slowly but surely, his comrade Sir Toby had been exploiting his stubbornness for financial gains.

Sir Toby: “Let’s to bed, knight. Thou hadst need send for more money.” (To Sir Andrew)

Sir Andrew: “If I cannot recover your niece, I am a foul way out.” — (To Sir Toby)

Sir Toby Belch has been conning money from Sir Andrew since the start of the play, convincing the poor night that he possessed the attributes to win over his niece. Sir Toby had been presumably asking for funds from Sir Andrew in order to continue his wooing of Olivia. The night Andrew’s only way of escaping this depth was to lend money or win Olivia’s love and wealth.

The Globe Theatre’s re-enactment (which can be watched here Twelfth Night — One of Shakespeare’s best-lov… — ClickView) of Twelfth Night stands as a benchmark for a compelling display of emotion, motion, character and storytelling. Act 2 Scene 3 is performed with a raw essence of realism and excitement. Scenes overcome with drunkard language and acting were handled delightfully with waving arms and wavering bodies. This scene was replicated in the same way as Shakespeare had once intended, with a cast consisting of merely men (even for female roles) and a crowded congregation of the audience at the actor’s feet.

Act 2 Scene 5

As we begin to approach the middle of the play, we start to see where the true problems and rising action unravel themselves. In Act 2, Scene 5 this is portrayed through the “gulling of Malvolio.” This scene is one of the most crucial within the whole of Twelfth Night, as it is one where a significant problem starts to occur. We see Malvolio enter with the confidence of assuming that Olivia has possibly fallen for him through his statements and fantasies of what he would do if he were in power. It is a great foreshadow into the misunderstandings that would eventually appear. Due to Malvolio’s arrogance and pompous attitude prior to Scene 5, Maria devises a stunt to lead Olivia’s steward down a hole filled with false hope and unreal speculations in the form of a letter. Right from the start, Malvolio is depicted as a hated man amongst many of Illyria’s royal personals.

Throughout all Malvolio’s mutterings, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian all hide behind some sort of ornament, varying depending on the production, and commenting on any remarks that relate to them or their interests. These range from the angered cry of “bolts and shackles” originating from Sir Toby after Malvolio refers to him as just “Toby.” From just this interaction, the haughtiness of Malvolio is revealed, as he thinks that he is superior to that of a knighted being. The Globe Theatre portrays this scene the best when looking at the 3 characters in the background. The fact that they are cramped in a small shrubbery provides some comic relief but not sacrificing any quality in the performance. Characters, such as Sir Andrew, are depicted well and in a unique way. Where most people would read his line: “I knew ’twas I, for many do call me a fool” with vexation, like Sir Toby, actor Roger Lloyd truly captures his naivety, vulnerability and, well, foolishness for lack of a better word throughout the whole scene.

This scene is not just important in terms of the whole play, but it questions the hierarchical and gender-based stereotypes that were so important in Shakespeare’s time. Many may argue that it continues to this day. What am I talking about? Well, it was the fact that it was Maria, who was looked at as just a servant, who cultivated the whole plan of tricking the likes of steward Malvolio. This brings the aspect of hierarchy under examining. Is the gap between the social levels of people just a title and nothing more? This leads to the gender-related side of things. Maria was a woman in Twelfth Night (woah, shocking surprise), yet in Shakespearean times, women were not even granted the privilege to act or doing many jobs in general. Not only does it challenge the thought that women can be just as smart and at times smarter than men within the play, but I believe Shakespeare was trying to prove this notion towards the audience. However, this might have not gotten across in his time due to the fact, well you know, that women were not allowed act, causing the viewers to overlook this potentially pivotal point.

Act 3 Scene 2 & 3

Act 3 Scene 2

This scene commences with Sir Andrew wanting to leave Olivia’s court after informing Sir Toby, ‘I saw your niece do more favours to the Count’s serving-man than ever she bestowed upon me. This quote expresses Sir Andrew’s woeful realisation that Olivia has more interest in Cesario (a serving-man) than him. Sir Toby and Fabian take this opportunity to convince Sir Andrew that Olivia wants to see whether he would fight for her love and tells Sir Andrew to write a letter to Cesario, challenging him to a duel. However, this is all just false affection, and Sir Toby’s real plan is to pilfer more money from Sir Andrew. Meanwhile, Maria arrives in a boisterous manner and fetches them as Malvolio has foolishly followed the contents of the letter and has changed into yellow stockings.

Surprisingly, the story that Fabian has conjured up to convince Sir Andrew that Olivia truly loves him does seem quite logical and convincing. In his story, he informs Sir Andrew that he is blinded by hope and is missing the vital information. The truth behind this is that events may be viewed from multiple perspectives, and consequently, the opinions and information received can differ depending on how the event is presented. Additionally, Fabian is aware that Sir Andrew is just a wealthy puppet for Sir Toby to take advantage of.

To take the play’s confusion to a greater extent, Sir Toby bids Sir Andrews to write a letter with “gall in thy ink; though thou write with a goose-pen”. The term “gall” refers to contempt and impudence and writing with a “goose-pen” is an indirect form of calling Sir Andrews a goose (a foolish person and coward). This letter associates closely with Maria’s letter as she appeared as Olivia (wealthy and upper-class) while being simply a servant (poor and lower-class). Similarly, Sir Andrew appears merciless and bold in his letter, although his character is more of a foolish coward. Overall, this entire scene is setting up imminent problems that will appear in later scenes with a humorous twist.

Act 3 Scene 3

In this scene, Shakespeare shifts the attention away from the love plot and the practical jokes being played on Malvolio and Sir Andrew to focus more on Sebastian and Antonio.

The scene commences with Sebastian requesting to head out and explorer the city. Antonio, reluctant to this plan, states, ‘I do not without danger walk these streets’, suggesting he has committed crimes against Count Orsino in the past and will likely be recognised for it. However, not wanting to deprive Sebastian of travel, Antonio hands over his purse to him, and they arrange to meet back here an hour later.

By Antonio confessing his crimes and handing over a valuable possession such as a purse containing wealth, it all suggests that not only does he love Sebastian (understood from Act 2 Scene 1), but he also trusts Sebastian sincerely. Additionally, as presented in this scene, Sebastian’s gratefulness and desire to travel strengthen his gentlemanliness.

Now with Sebastian wandering in the same town as his sister, Viola, imminent conflict and confusion are likely.

This image presents Act 3 Scene 3 from the Globe production in which only Antonio and Sebastian are present.
In this image from the National Theatre version, we see the same scene but with the addition of ninjas. This creates more tension in the scene and Antonio’s love for Sebastian is well illustrated with Antonio running in to scare of the ninjas and saving Sebastian.

Act 4 Scene 3

Although Act 4 Scene 3 is a small scene, it still plays an important role in the play that is Twelfth Night. To summarise what happens in this part of the story, Olivia is fetching a priest so that she can marry Sebastian (whom she thinks is Cesario) on the spot. Olivia is the one in control in this scene, with Sebastian just going along with her. This is evident in her body language and her dialogue with Sebastian.

In my opinion, it seems that Shakespeare was aiming to express some quite modern ideas, regarding how life should work during the Elizabethan time. The scene delves into important themes such as gender equality and the true meaning of marriage.

Twelfth Night was written during the Elizabethan Era. During this period of history, life was very different to life in the 21st century. Back then, women had little to no choice in choosing their husbands, and their families did most of the decision making regarding this aspect. Marriage was seen more as a business arrangement and was organised to increase the overall prestige and wealth of the families involved. This, of course, is very different to the marriage we know of today. Marriages today are driven by true love instead of wealth (mostly).

The way Lady Olivia arranged her marriage with Cesario (Sebastian) is obviously contradicting the norms of the time. Firstly, Olivia, who is a woman, is the one in control of the marriage. Secondly, Olivia is marrying Cesario (Sebastian) for true love, instead of for wealth or status. This is evident because Cesario (Sebastian) is of lower class to Olivia, so there would be no advantage (in terms of wealth) for Olivia to marry Cesario (Sebastian).

Perhaps, through this scene, Shakespeare was trying to express his views on the true meaning of marriage. A marriage not based on wealth, but love. True love. Love is also one of the main themes of the entire play, which further strengthens this claim of Shakespeare’s view on marriage. Other views on love that can be seen as modern for Shakespeare’s time was the same-sex attraction that occurred quite a few times throughout the play. This includes Cesario and Orsino’s relationship and Olivia’s attraction to Cesario.

This part of the play is not only important through its meaning, but also through the effect it has on the plot of Twelfth Night. Confusion is one of the main devices Shakespeare uses to generate humour and comedy within the play. And this scene certainly demonstrates that. In this scene, Lady Olivia believes that she is going to marry Cesario (the true identity she loves), rather than Sebastian (Viola’s brother). Because of this, during Act 5, the climax of the story, Olivia and Cesario (Viola) have a misunderstanding regarding their relationship. This also affects Orsino and the other characters in the scene, who would obviously feel quite confused. All of this is also building up for Sebastian’s grand entrance during all the commotion. Upon seeing Sebastian, the characters are utterly dumbfounded before realising what has happened. Seeing their reactions is certainly entertaining to watch.

It cannot be said that Twelfth Night would be complete without it. It conveys Shakespeare’s ideas on the true meaning of marriage, during a time where forced marriage was the norm. It also builds up the plot in preparation for the climax in Act 5. Act 4 Scene 3 certainly isn’t the biggest scene, however it is still a significant part of the play.

So .. to conclude

I hope by now you’ve understood how Twelfth Night really has that power to question you to your edges, whether it be did Malvolio deserve being locked up or is Orsino a “gold digger”? You decide. But regardless, Shakespeare has showed his flair in this play and it’s time to appreciate it.



Lowell Bassi

My stories aspire to change the way we perceive literature, from a scary forest into something that we can all appreciate through humour and insight.