A complete guide to William Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night'

Hailey Bachrach
Hailey Bachrach

Mistaken identities. Disguises. Romance. It’s all a part of one of William Shakespeare’s most-beloved comedies, Twelfth Night. Learn more about the Shakespeare play below, and discover some of the best quotes from Twelfth Night.

What is Twelfth Night about?

The first known performance of Twelfth Night is commemorated on a plaque in London’s Middle Temple Hall — a building that’s still standing today. It took place in February 1602, as part of a holiday celebration. The title itself is a festive reference, as “twelfth night” is another name for the twelfth day of Christmas — traditionally, a day when the Lord of Misrule presided over a chaotic feast in which ordinary order and hierarchies were overturned for a day.

Similar topsy-turvy chaos ensues in the play itself, when the young lady Viola is shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria. She disguises herself as a boy, Cesario, and enters the service of Duke Orsino, with whom she promptly falls in love. Orsino sends Cesario to woo the object of his affections, Countess Olivia… who immediately falls in love with Cesario.

Meanwhile, the servants of Olivia’s household plot revenge against the pompous steward Malvolio, who dreams of marrying Olivia, by tricking him into thinking Olivia is in love with him. And then Viola’s twin brother Sebastian — completely identical to her, at least when she’s dressed like a man — turns up. In the end, all is revealed, Viola ends up with Orsino, Sebastian with Olivia, and order is restored.

Who are the main characters in Twelfth Night?

Twelfth Night features a host of colorful characters, from family and lovers to friends and countrymen. Learn more about the characters in Twelfth Night below.

  • Viola (called Cesario): A shipwrecked gentlewoman who disguises herself as a boy and becomes a servant in Count Orsino’s court. She quickly realizes that disguises and deceptions create unforeseen complications.
  • Duke Orsino: Love-struck (or so he thinks) and more than a little self-centered. Thinks no one can possibly understand how much he suffers for love.
  • Countess Olivia: Mourning the losses of her father and brother, Olivia keeps a tight hand on her household and her feelings… until she sees Cesario.
  • Maria: Olivia’s right-hand woman. Clever, snarky, and not above a bit of revenge when Malvolio threatens her position in the household.
  • Sir Toby Belch: Olivia’s frequently drunk uncle. He likes a good time, and isn’t above using Sir Andrew for his money.
  • Sir Andrew Aguecheek: A would-be suitor of Olivia’s. Not the brightest, but just happy to be included.
  • Feste: A clown and singer who travels between Orsino and Olivia’s households.
  • Malvolio: Olivia’s steward. Arrogant and unpopular, he loves lording his power over the other members of the household.
  • Sebastian: Viola’s brother, who she believes to be lost at sea. Identical to her.
  • Antonio: The sea captain who rescued Sebastian from the shipwreck. Absolutely devoted to him.

Top quotes from Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most-quotable works. With axioms about love and pontifications on life, here are some of Shakespeare’s top quotes from Twelfth Night.

“If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.”

The opening lines of the play. Duke Orsino seeks a cure for his lovesickness, and proposes music: if music feeds love, maybe he can quench his love’s appetite by playing it lots of music, and his feelings will recede.

“Methinks sometimes I have
no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man
has. But I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that
does harm to my wit.”

Sir Andrew contemplates that, shockingly, it sometimes occurs to him that he might not be any cleverer than other people. But the answer is surely that he eats too much beef – a reference to beliefs of the time about how different foods altered your bodily humors.

“I will give out divers schedules of my beauty. It shall be
inventoried and every particle and utensil labeled
to my will: as, item, two lips indifferent red; item,
two gray eyes with lids to them; item, one neck, one
chin, and so forth.”

Attempting to woo Olivia, Viola-as-Cesario throws out a classic Shakespeare line, one that recurs over and over in his sonnets: you’re too beautiful not to have any children! Olivia bats this back by insisting she will leave a detailed inventory of her beauty in her will when she dies.

“Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house,
Write loyal cantons of contemnèd love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night,
Hallow your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth
But you should pity me."

One of Viola’s most famous speeches. Olivia demands to know what Cesario would do if he was as in love as he claims Orsino to be – and Viola responds with this speech, explaining how she would build a cabin made of willow (a symbol of abandoned or thwarted love), write songs, shout her name, until the very air rang with Olivia’s name. This description seems to work, as by the end of this speech, Olivia has clearly fallen in love with Cesario.

“O Time, thou must untangle this, not I.
It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie.”

Viola expresses the feelings of many audience members by this point in the play: the complications are mounting and Viola has no idea how to resolve the fact that, as she’s just realized, Olivia has fallen in love with Cesario – while Viola herself is in love with Orsino.

“Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

After Malvolio interrupts some nighttime revels with scolding and sneering, Sir Toby shoots back with this line. First, he insults Malvolio’s rank, then asks whether Malvolio really expects that his moral beliefs should dictate the behavior of everyone else in the world.

“Be not afraid of greatness: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

To trick Malvolio into thinking Olivia loves him, Maria writes a letter imitating Olivia’s handwriting. This is one of the lines in it, and one that Malvolio quotes back to Olivia when he attempts to seduce her.

“If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.”

One of Sir Toby’s followers breaks the fourth wall a bit, marveling at how well their plan to trick Malvolio is working.

“He named Sebastian. I my brother know
Yet living in my glass. Even such and so
In favor was my brother, and he went
Still in this fashion, color, ornament,
For him I imitate. O, if it prove,
Tempests are kind, and salt waves fresh in love!”

Viola encounters Antonio, who mistakes her for Sebastian. Though Antonio is furious that “Sebastian” doesn’t seem to recognize him, Viola is elated; this means her brother might be alive. She also admits for the first time that her clothing and manner are deliberate imitations of her brother – a typically subtle hint at the currents of sadness that run beneath this outwardly sunny play. Has all this been a way to mourn her brother?

It also hints at the play’s upcoming odd resolution: Olivia can end up with Sebastian because in many ways, Cesario already was a version of Sebastian.

“This is the air; that is the glorious sun.
This pearl she gave me, I do feel ’t and see ’t.
And though ’tis wonder that enwraps me thus,
Yet ’tis not madness.”

Olivia encounters Sebastian and mistakes him for Cesario. But there’s a key difference: while Cesario resists her attentions, Sebastian is all in, and comes inside with her. Later, Sebastian stumbles back onstage in a daze, double-checking the validity of his senses by acknowledging the air, the sun, and a gift of a pearl Olivia gave him. Thus grounded, he concludes that though this sudden love is incredible, he isn’t losing his mind.

Originally published on

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