Twelfth Night

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Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Analysis

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.
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon

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. The clown Feste's constant mocking of his "betters" further reinforces this idea of upsetting the social order.

Class and social standing is also a recurring theme in Twelfth Night. The priggish Malvolio is obsessed with status, always condescending to the other servants for their lowliness and dreaming of marrying Olivia and becoming a Count. Sir Andrew Aguecheek also wants to marry Olivia, but stands no chance because of his vulgarity and crassness. In marrying Olivia, even the noble Sebastian is moved in part by her wealth and social standing. Viola, at the beginning of the play, has lost her wealth in a shipwreck and in disguising herself as a page-boy is impersonating a different class from her own. Viola's disguise suggests that class, like gender identity, is to some extent a changeable role that you play by adopting a certain set of clothing and behaviors.

Class, Masters, and Servants ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Class, Masters, and Servants appears in each scene of Twelfth Night. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Class, Masters, and Servants Quotes in Twelfth Night

Below you will find the important quotes in Twelfth Night related to the theme of Class, Masters, and Servants.
Act 1, scene 5 Quotes
Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.
Related Characters: Feste (speaker)
Page Number: 1.5.34
Explanation and Analysis:

Maria and Feste the fool have just finished speaking with each other. He pokes fun at her, and she calls him a troublemaker and exits. Feste is left alone on stage and tries to think up more funny, witty things to say. He then reflects on the made-up philosopher Quinapulus, saying that it is better to be witty and a fool than to simply be a foolish person. 

Feste is a crucial character in Twelfth Night. As the fool in the court, he has privileged information about and access to both the masters and the servants. He is allowed to poke fun at those in higher social ranks without punishment, making him an important source of information and even a voice of reason throughout the play (as "fools" often are in Shakespeare's plays). Here he touches on the notion of the maddening aspects of love. Throughout the play, we will see the lovers behave foolishly in the name of love. In Feste's perspective, he would much rather be the Fool than be the foolish lover. 

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Act 3, scene 1 Quotes
O world! how apt the poor are to be proud.
Related Characters: Olivia (speaker)
Page Number: 3.1.134
Explanation and Analysis:

Cesario and Olivia are alone. When Olivia asks him to introduce himself once again, he says he is a humble "servant." This leads Olivia into a series of wordplays on the idea of servitude, as she uses Cesario's own position as a servant as a mode of flirtation. Olivia admits her love for Cesario (not knowing he is actually Viola) and Cesario tries to politely turn her down. Olivia replies with this line, suggesting that the poor, or in this case, a servant, should not be too proud to accept the sexual advances of a noble lady like herself.

Here, Olivia uses her higher social position as a device to woo Cesario. She tries to convince him to be with her by claiming that it is better to fall before the "lion" than the "wolf"; to fall in love with the noble beast (Olivia) over the wild forest animal (a fellow servant). Here Cesario and Olivia use class to their own advantages. On one side, Cesario tries to use his place as a servant as a way to fight off Olivia, while Olivia uses it as a way to convince him, suggesting that he take advantage of her nobility.  

Act 3, scene 4 Quotes
Go hang yourselves all! You are idle shallow things; I am not of your element.
Related Characters: Malvolio (speaker), Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Feste, Fabian
Page Number: 3.4.132-133
Explanation and Analysis:

Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian have entered the scene, all pretending to be concerned about Malvolio's state of mind (although they all know that he has in fact become the subject of a cruel joke). They express their concerns and Malvolio responds with this quote, telling them that they don't understand what he is going through. This shows that Malvolio is still as rude and arrogant as he was at the beginning of the play, and now even more so because of his sense of confidence in Olivia's love, and the letter's instructions to look down upon and criticize the other servants. The word "element" denotes social class, and as it is used here, Malvolio suggests that the other staff members are shallow and lazy, and that he is above them in both social and intellectual rank. The irony is that while he is behaving this way, he has also succumbed to Maria's trick and is currently dressed outrageously in his yellow stockings. He looks like a fool, and yet lectures the other servants on their own foolishness. 

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you.
Related Characters: Malvolio (speaker), Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Feste, Fabian
Page Number: 5.1.401
Explanation and Analysis:

By the end of the play all of the disguises have been taken off and the deception has been revealed. While disguising oneself has worked in favor for Viola and even Olivia (who marries Sebastian), Malvolio realizes how thoroughly and cruelly he has been tricked, and remains a single negative voice among the happy lovers. In his last moments on stage, Malvolio says this line to the others and storms off, threatening to take revenge on those who embarrassed him.

Malvolio's unresolved plot-line is the only thing disrupting the otherwise traditional comic ending to the play (i.e., everyone is happy, and everyone gets married). While love has worked out well for all the other main characters, Malvolio's love for Olivia ends up wholly unrequited, and his attempts to better his class situation are presented as foolish and laughable. He is undeniably an unlikeable character, but Shakespeare also uses his story to show how love can be cruel as well as pleasurable, and to remind the audience that the harsher realities of class and station remain in place in spite of the happy ending.