Twelfth Night

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#Summary of the play

The Twelfth night is classed as a comedy play, which see Orsino, the Duke of lllyria, falling in love with the Countess Olivia, he is rejected by her due to her mourning the death of her brother. A ship carrying a young woman called Viola who had been picked up by a group of sailors, after surviving a shipwreck, she believes her twin brother Sebastian had be killed in the wreck.

Viola decided she wants to work in the Duke of lllyria household and the only way to do so is to dress as man called Cesario, gaining her a job as a page boy for Duke Orsino, who she quickly falls in love with but knows she cannot do anything about her feeling due to the Duke believing that she is a male.

Orsino, who think that by sending his new page boy Cesario (Viola) to woo Olivia on his behalf, but this then backfires as it only makes Olivia fall in love with the page boy, making her want to marry him and sends her stewart Malvolio after “him” with a ring.

Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch, her servant Maria, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who is Sir Toby Belch friend, and also is looking to make Oliva fall in love with him, they decided together to expose Olivia stewart Malvolio who is always looking to woo Olivia, they do this by tricking him into believing that she is falling in love with him by sending love letter to him asking him to dress in certain clothes, which he does, leaving the Countess horrified and demand Malvolio to be lock away as a madman.

Then the play take a turn which sees Viola twin brother Sebastian who has survived the wreck turning up in lllyria, this leads to confusion between the characters due to the fact that Viola and Sebastian look-a-like, which leads to Cesario being challenged to a dual by jealous Sir Andrew, but Sebastian’s sea capital and friend Antonio steps in to help and lands up being arrested.

The play ends with all being revealed that Cesario is in fact Viola dressed as a male, then the attraction grows between Olivia and Sebastian, and also with Duke Orsino falling in love with Viola, and both agree that when she starts dressing like a female again they will get married.

The significance of Words

We compared words that are linked to gender. We focused on this due to the nature of the play, where Viola dresses as a man to work for Duke Orsino’s household. AntConc reported the following results:

  • The word “sir”

  • The word “madman”
  • The word “he”
  • The word “she”

There is a relevant difference in use of words like Sir/Madam and he/she that is directly linked to the events taking place in the play. As Viola dresses as a man, we can clearly spot the difference between the use of male words over the use of female words.

  • The word “love”
  • The word “Mad”

Seemingly, no one in the play is truly mad yet everyone is accused of madness throughout the duration. This adds to the turbulent atmosphere of the play which is brought about by the pursuit of love. It seems from the plotted graphs that the words “Love” and “Mad” are used more frequently in absence of one another which suggests that the madness occurs when searching for love and not from the emotion itself. This adds to the idea that Orsino and Olivia’s “love” isn’t real but is just a product of their search for love as Orsino changes his love interest rather quickly from Olivia to Viola and Olivia changes her love interest from Cesario to Sebastian.

Character interaction

The interaction between characters plays a central role in this play.

Information about the structure of the play and insight into its plot itself can be extracted by computing when main characters meet each other on stage.

Using a tagged version of the play and, we parsed events like Enters and Exits and computed which characters were on stage at any given time. In this chart characters appear as columns and time goes by vertically downwards:

Character interactions

With this information and a basic understanding of the play, we can see how the interaction between characters highlights different characteristics of the play.

One example are the appearances of Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch. Sir Andrew, with a single exception, always appears on stage with Sir Toby, and often enters after or leaves before him. Sir Toby is more dominant as a character in terms of driving the action forward, while Sir Andrew is more of a counterpoint to Sir Toby.

It is noticeable too how Duke Orsino, decisive to the play’s argument, doesn’t appear very often.

We can also see how the appearances of Viola and Toby, each on a different subplot, interleave prior to Act 3, when both subplots meet.


Clothing is an important part of the play of Twelfth Nights, due to the main themes in the play is the fact that Viola is changing her identity to be a male Cesario, to gain access to the Duke household, which then turns into her nightmare as she falls in love with the Duke, but this love cannot be perused due to her male identity, also the character of the Malvolio and why the words were use to describe his clothing.

Colour of clothing in Elizabethan times was important in showing your station, in accordance with English Law, known as the Sumptuary Laws. Failure to comply with the Sumptuary Laws could result in fines, confiscation of lands, titles and property, imprisonment and even death.

Purple clothing was worn only by royalty to instantly show their class. Colours like gold, crimson, bright white etc. were reserved for the highest nobility. Yellow, however, was a colour for the lower classes in Elizabethan society as it was the most common dye as it was easy to produce and could be made in England without shipping foreign plants. This shows yellow as a symbol of lower-class and that Malvolio is unintentionally displaying his true position in his society.Clothing



Part of Malvolio’s character is the scene in which he dresses “silly” to try and win Olivia’s heart; one of the words that is overused in Twelfth Night compared to other Shakespeare’s plays is the word “cross-gartered”: this refers to the yellow stocking with the criss-cross ribbon that is part of Malvolio’s costume. As you can see from the above table generated by Vocabalance, the words ‘cross’, ‘yellow’, ‘stockings’ and ‘gartered’ are in the higher range of words that are relevant to the character of Malvolio.

Yellow as a Symbol

One of the most relevant words used in Twelfth Night when compared to other Shakespeare works is “Yellow”, as shown by the Twelfth night Word-Cloud.

The main use of yellow in the play is for Malvolio’s cross-gartered stockings. Yellow is a key symbol in the play and important as a symbol for Malvolio’s character. Malvolio dons bright yellow stockings in order to attract Olivia and move up in station.

As early as 1270, Anti-Semitism was gaining popularity in England and people viewed the Jewish community as a threat. In response, King Edward I decreed that Jews would need to identify themselves by wearing a yellow star on their clothing to identify them as the lowest class in society and ostracize them from other English people. Marvolio’s yellow socks would have been viewed as a symbol of his lower class by the Elizabethan audience and would have accentuated the ridiculousness of his endeavour of courting Olivia in order to rise above his caste. Yellow has also been recognised in Christianity as a symbol of hope, rebirth and renewal, and would have been worn by priests around Easter to symbolise the return of Christ. These religious connotations could have been applied to Marvolio as a symbol of his hope to reimagine himself as a worthy suitor for Olivia and advance into high-class society. Yellow also has connotations of boundless joy and excitement which would have made Malvolio very unattractive to Olivia as she is mourning the death of her brother and the stockings would have seemed very opposite and insensitive to her melancholy.

At the time of Shakespeare writing Twelfth Night, medical science surrounded the idea of The Four Humours in a human body. The Four Humours were thought to be the 4 liquids in the body that determined a person’s health by the balance or imbalance of the liquids. The humours were: Yellow Bile, Black Bile, Blood and Phlegm. Shakespeare appears to subscribe to this idea as he thinks that blood is held solely in the liver, “…If he were opened and you find so much blood in his liver as will clog the foot of a flea”. It was commonly believed that cowards had white livers which were drained of blood as blood was the humour of passion and courage. An example from Shakespeare’s Macbeth shows Shakespeare’s understanding of the humours.

“And take my milk for gall (1.5.53)”. Gall comes from an excess of yellow bile. An imbalance of yellow bile in the body turns one ruthless and ambitious. The replacement of milk in a woman, seen as a symbol of maternity and feminine gentleness, for yellow bile shows that Lady Macbeth wants to abandon any emotions in order to help kill King Duncan.

Romeo in Romeo and Juliet would be considered a textbook example of a person with “too much blood.” He is extremely “warm and moist” in his characterization as being amorous, hopeful, courageous, optimistic, and loving. This is seen in his interactions with Juliet, he is very loving and amorous towards her, and he is also hopeful and optimistic that their relationship/marriage will be able to overcome the feud of their families.

It was believed that an excess of yellow bile in a person could make them angry and irritable which is personality traits that can be seen in Malvolio. ‘I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal… I protest, I take these wise men that crow so at these set kind of fools, no better than the fools’ zanies.’ (Act 1, Scene 5). Lines like this show that Malvolio doesn’t see much value in fun and humor. And he thinks this puts him above all the other characters: here’s another quote from Act 3, Scene 4:

‘Go, hang yourselves all! You are idle shallow things: I am not of your element: you shall know more hereafter.’ When Malvolio accuses the other characters of being idle and shallow, he’s setting himself above them. He thinks he’s better than everyone else, and he fantasizes about having power over them so he can make them follow his rules (one example is in Act 2, Scene 4, when he imagines having the authority to scold Sir Toby for drinking too much).

This makes him the perfect target for the prank of the false letter, because he’s only too happy to believe it, and it takes him a long time to figure it out while the other characters get to have fun at his expense.