Twelfth Night

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Themes and Colors
Desire and Love Theme Icon
Melancholy Theme Icon
Madness Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Gender and Sexual Identity Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Twelfth Night, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Every major character in Twelfth Night experiences some form of desire or love. Duke Orsino is in love with Olivia. Viola falls in love with Orsino, while disguised as his pageboy, Cesario. Olivia falls in love with Cesario. This love triangle is only resolved when Olivia falls in love with Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, and, at the last minute, Orsino decides that he actually loves Viola. Twelfth Night derives much of its…

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During the Renaissance, melancholy was believed to be a sickness rather like modern depression, resulting from an imbalance in the fluids making up the human body. Melancholy was thought to arise from love: primarily narcissistic self-love or unrequited romantic love. Several characters in Twelfth Night suffer from some version of love-melancholy. Orsino exhibits many symptoms of the disease (including lethargy, inactivity, and interest in music and poetry). Dressed up as Cesario, Viola describes herself…

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The theme of madness in Twelfth Night often overlaps the themes of desire and love. Orsino talks about the faculty of love producing multiple changing images of the beloved, similar to hallucinations. Olivia remarks at certain points that desire for Cesario is making her mad. These examples of madness are mostly metaphorical: madness becomes a way for characters to express the intensity of their romantic feelings.

But the play also has multiple characters that seem…

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Characters in Twelfth Night constantly disguise themselves or play parts in order to trick those around them. Some of the most notable examples of trickery and role-playing in Twelfth Night are: Viola disguising herself as the page-boy Cesario; Maria and Sir Toby playing their prank on Malvolio; and Feste dressing up as the scholar, Sir Topas. More subtly, Orsino's rather clichéd lovesickness for Olivia and Olivia's just-as-clichéd response as the unattainable mourning woman…

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In connection with the themes of deception, disguise, and performance, Twelfth Night raises questions about the nature of gender and sexual identity. That Viola has disguised herself as a man, and that her disguise fools Olivia into falling in love with her, is genuinely funny. On a more serious note, however, Viola's transformation into Cesario, and Olivia's impossible love for him/her, also imply that, maybe, distinctions between male/female and heterosexual/homosexual are not as absolutely…

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In Twelfth Night, as in many Shakespearean comedies, there are many similarities between a "high" set of characters, the masters or nobles, and a "low" set of characters, the servants. These separate sets of characters and their parallel plots provide comic counterpoint and also reflect the nature of the Twelfth Night holiday, which was typically celebrated by inverting the ordinary social order—a commoner or fool would dress up and get to play the king…

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