Twelfth Night

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Deception, Disguise, and Performance 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.
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon

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 bring into question the extent to which these characters are just playing these roles, rather than truly feeling the emotions they claim to be experiencing.

Through the constant performance and role-playing of his characters, Shakespeare reminds us that we, like the characters, may play roles in our own lives and be susceptible to the role playing of others.

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Deception, Disguise, and Performance ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Twelfth Night related to the theme of Deception, Disguise, and Performance.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
Related Characters: Orsino (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.1-3
Explanation and Analysis:

The play opens with Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, listening to music and lamenting about love. Twelfth Night is a play about excess, as during Shakespeare's time, people would celebrate Christmas for twelve nights, partying and drinking. It is also a play about the overbearing nature of love and the madness that comes from it. From the very first line of the play, Orsino's language is over the top. He desires so much love that it makes him melancholy, even sick. As he sits in his court, he stops the music playing in the background, claiming it makes him too sad to listen to. Listening to music and spewing cliches of love, Orsino seems to be performing the act of the saddened lover. Yet the irony here is that he also seems to be enjoying it. We will see that Orsino's vision of "love" is both fickle and performative. He loves the idea of love but may not truly know what it feels like yet.


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So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
Related Characters: Orsino (speaker)
Related Symbols: Hallucination
Page Number: 1.1.14-15
Explanation and Analysis:

In his first speech, Orsino laments the melancholy nature of love. He notes that love can manifest itself in many different ways, making it magical. Thus, he argues, love "alone" is the only true form of imagination. This moment gives readers an insight into Orsino's views on love, and also foreshadows the "shapes" and disguises characters will take on throughout Twelfth Night. Orsino's speech is dramatic and excessive. While he enjoys talking about love,we will learn that his feelings are actually quite fickle. He loves the idea of love as well as performing the act of being melancholy and heartbroken. In this speech he also sets the stage for love to be seen as a magical and deceptive undertaking, something that will appear more clear as Viola and Olivia begin their own journeys in the play. 

Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
I would I had bestowed that time in the tongues, that I have in fencing, dancing and bear-baiting: O, had I but followed the arts!
Related Characters: Sir Andrew Aguecheek (speaker)
Page Number: 1.3.91-94
Explanation and Analysis:

After a failed attempt to woo Olivia, Sir Andrew tells Toby that he is going to leave Illyria. Toby asks him why, saying "Pourquoi," and Sir Andrew replies with this quote. Sir Andrew doesn't understand the meaning of the french word, and laments that he wished he had focused more on the arts. He has spent his time fencing and training dogs to kill bears for sport instead of learning the language of love or studying literature. Thus, he blames himself for his own inability to get Olivia to marry him.

Here art, flourishing language, and impressive creative gestures are seen as way to a woman's heart. We've seen it with Orsino and now with Sir Andrew. Yet these things are merely performative, and we will learn that grand gestures don't always woo the woman. It's also ironic that Sir Andrew says this line incredibly dramatically, noted by the exclamation point at the end, suggesting that while he laments his lack of creativity and his time spent in the arts, he is in fact performing. 

Act 1, scene 4 Quotes
Thy small pipe
Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman's part.
Related Characters: Orsino (speaker), Viola (Cesario)
Page Number: 1.4.35-37
Explanation and Analysis:

Viola has disguised herself as a young pageboy named Cesario, and now resides in Orsino's court. Orsino has begun to rely on Cesario for advice and information on Olivia. He asks her to go to Olivia's home and woo her for him using any means necessary. In this moment Orsino tells Cesario that she may be able to persuade Olivia because she resembles and sounds like a woman, suggesting that Olivia may be more comfortable in the presence of a prepubescent boy than Orsino himself. Here Shakespeare notes the confusing nature of Viola's disguise and how it plays to the advantage of Orsino. Olivia has sworn off the presence of men, so Orsino uses the femininity of Cesario (Viola) to his advantage. There is also a sense of freedom that comes for Viola-as-Cesario. As a man she can walk the court freely and be independent, and she can also have a friendship with Orsino as well as be his confidant. This allows her to see Orsino as he truly is from the start; something she never would have been able to do as a young woman.  

Act 1, scene 5 Quotes
He is very well-favored and he speaks very shrewishly; one would think his mother's milk were scarce out of him.
Related Characters: Malvolio (speaker), Viola (Cesario)
Related Symbols: Costumes
Page Number: 1.5.159-161
Explanation and Analysis:

Disguised as a man (Cesario), Viola visits Olivia in order to woo her for Duke Orsino. Olivia's steward, Malvolio, tells Olivia that there is a young man at the door. Olivia asks Malvolio to describe him and he responds with this quote. Here, he tells Olivia that her visitor (Viola) is "well-favored" or attractive, and speaks in a high-pitched voice ("shrewishly") as if he were a child. 

In this moment, Malvolio notes the gender ambiguity of Cesario without realizing he is in fact a woman. He writes off Cesario's femininity as a product of youth. This is a comedic moment for the audience; we know Cesario is actually Viola but no one else does. 

Lady, you are the cruell'st she alive
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy.
Related Characters: Viola (Cesario) (speaker), Olivia
Page Number: 1.5.240-242
Explanation and Analysis:

Viola enters Olivia's home dressed as Cesario, in order to attempt to woo her for Duke Orsino. The two begin a playful tete-a-tete. Here, Viola tries to appeal to Olivia by telling her how beautiful she is—so beautiful that it would be a disservice to the world not to produce an heir (and thus a new "copy" of her beauty).  In a grand performance, Viola compliments Olivia's physical beautify in order to gain her trust and influence her to fall for Orsino. She also speaks in the convention of "poetic blazon," a form often used in sonnets, where the speaker itemizes and examines different parts of the body. Her speech mimics that of Shakespeare's own sonnets, revealing the poetic and hyperbolic nature of love and lust. Furthermore, in doing so, Viola-as-Cesario demonstrates a certain level of mystery and intelligence to Olivia that Orsino doesn't possess. She speaks in a genuine and advanced poetic way, whereas Orsino is often cliched. 

Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo 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.
Related Characters: Viola (Cesario) (speaker), Orsino, Olivia
Page Number: 1.5.271-279
Explanation and Analysis:

In an attempt to get Olivia to fall in love with Orsino, Cesario (Viola) describes what he would do if he loved Olivia as much as Orsino. In a beautiful speech he tells her that he would write endless poems of his love, sing them through the night and scream her name so loudly that the air would echo the sound of "Olivia." In her speech, Viola-As-Cesario does something Orsino cannot; she says the right thing to make Olivia fall in love. Juxtaposed against Orsino's cliche speeches on love and lust, Viola's are much more creative and subtle. She performs less, and rather actually imagines what it means to be in love. She also uses natural imagery, suggesting that her love is simple and truthful. What is more, as a woman, Viola understands the needs and interests of other women.  Being of the same gender, she is able to find ways to appeal to Olivia that differ from Orsino's.

Act 2, scene 3 Quotes
My purpose, indeed, is a horse of that color.
Related Characters: Maria (speaker)
Page Number: 2.3.66
Explanation and Analysis:
Malvolio enters and berates Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew for drinking in Olivia's home. After Malvolio leaves, Maria tells them that she has discovered a way to trick him. She will mimic Olivia's handwriting and write Malvolio a love letter. Sir Toby is thrilled by this plot, and Maria responds with this line. She confirms the layout of the prank, by agreeing that her "horse" or "idea" is exactly of the kind ("color") Sir Toby is probably imagining. This moment brings reveals how deception and disguise can be used against an individual, to hurt instead of the help. The prank provides an important counterpoint to the disguises already happening in the play, i.e. Viola as Cesario.
Act 2, scene 4 Quotes
Let still the woman take
An elder than herself: so wears she to him,
So sways she level in her husband's heart:
For, boy, however we do praise ourselves,
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,
Than women's are.
Related Characters: Orsino (speaker), Viola (Cesario)
Page Number: 2.4.34-40
Explanation and Analysis:
 Cesario (Viola) and Orsino sit listening to music, and Orsino asks Casario if he has ever been in love. Cesario says yes. Not knowing that under the disguise Viola is confessing her love for him, Orsino tells Viola-as-Cesario that whoever this woman is, she is not worthy of his love because she is older than he is. Orsino encourages Cesario to instead marry someone younger than himelf. The reasoning he gives for this is that men are more wavering with love, they become less attracted to older women, and their feelings change and are "unfirm." Orsino points out that men long for more than women do and they fall out of love quickly. Orsino pauses in his excessive, cliched speech to have a truthful moment with Cesario, but he does not see the irony in it. He is, in fact discussing the wavering (but excessively powerful, he believes) nature of a man's love to Cesario, who is secretly a woman. He is blinded by Viola's disguise and speaks candidly and openly with her as Cesario, in a way that he never would if she were to appear as Viola.
Viola: My father had a daughter loved a man,
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.
Orsino: And what's her history?
Viola: A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
Related Characters: Viola (Cesario) (speaker), Orsino (speaker)
Related Symbols: Costumes
Page Number: 2.4.118-127
Explanation and Analysis:

The self-absorbed Orsino tells Cesario (Viola) that no woman could ever love a man as much as he loves Olivia. Cesario disagrees. She then tells him her own story (of the love she has for Orsino) in a roundabout way, pretending it is the story of her sister. Orsino is blinded once again by Viola's disguise, unaware of the irony of the situation. She is confessing her love for him, but is shielded by the mask of Cesario. Her own love also mimics Orsino's in its strength and melancholy—but it's also suggested that, contrary to Orsino's sexist declaration about women's capacity for love, Viola's love for Orsino is more enduring and powerful than his love for Olivia.

Act 2, scene 5 Quotes
Now is the woodcock near the gin.
Related Characters: Fabian (speaker), Malvolio
Related Symbols: Hunting
Page Number: 2.5.85
Explanation and Analysis:

Because of his self-righteous behavior towards the other servants, Maria decides to play a prank on Malvolio. She writes a love letter to him from an anonymous lover, but does so in Olivia's handwriting, and she riddles the letter with obvious clues that point toward Olivia as the author. Here Malvolio finds the letter, and Maria and the other servants hide in a tree to watch him read it. Fabian says then says this line in hiding, calling Malvolio a "woodcock." During Shakespeare's time the woodcock was known to be a particularly stupid breed of bird, and easy to catch in a "gin" or trap. Thus by calling him this, he is making fun of Malvolio's ignorance and stupidity. As with all disguises in Twelfth NIght, whether shielding themselves behind a tree or behind a letter, they help characters tell each other what they really feel and think.

I may command where I adore.
Related Characters: Malvolio (speaker)
Page Number: 2.5.107
Explanation and Analysis:

In an effort to embarass Malvolio, Maria writes a letter in Olivia's handwriting, telling him that she is in love with him. The letter is only signed with what seems to be the letters of an initial. Here, Malvolio reads lines of the letter aloud, which he will later deconstruct, in order to find out if it was Olivia that wrote it. This line is the first major hint that it could be Olivia. The person who wrote the letter both commands and loves the same person, suggesting that it is a master who loves her servant (Malvolio).

The love letter is a symbol of the performative nature of love seen throughout Twelfth Night. Characters feel that the only way to properly share their love or express it is through extreme and over-the-top behavior, whether that be song, poems, laments, or letters. So, while this letter comes at a surprise for Malvolio, he is not put off or shocked that someone would express their love in this way. This is also another moment of deception in the play, as Maria uses deception as a mechanism to embarrass and punish Malvolio for his mistreatment of other servants and his self-righteousness. 

Be not afraid of greatness: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em.
Related Characters: Olivia (speaker), Malvolio (speaker)
Page Number: 2.5.148-150
Explanation and Analysis:
Malvolio reads the love letter that he thinks is from Olivia, as Maria, its true author, hides in a tree with Sir Andrew and Sir Toby, watching Malvolio embarrass himself. This iconic quote happens toward the end of the letter as an attempt to reveal who the author could be. Malvolio interprets this section to mean that he is one who could "achieve" greatness by marrying the noble-born Olivia (one who was "born great"). Thus the joke being played on Malvolio isn't just getting him to think someone loves him, but also getting him to attempt to rise above his station—flattering his arrogance and sense of superiority. Maria is trying to lift Malvolio up in order to ultimately persuade him to embarrass himself in front of the whole court and Olivia herself. Here we see both the power of words and just how far the performance of love can go in Twelfth Night. Malvolio becomes smitten by his secret admirer simply from her hyperbolic and romantic words. 
Act 3, scene 1 Quotes
This fellow's wise enough to play the fool,
And to do that well craves a kind of wit.
Related Characters: Viola (Cesario) (speaker), Feste
Page Number: 3.1.61-62
Explanation and Analysis:

Viola, dressed as Cesario, arrives at Olivia's home to speak to her on behalf of Orsino once again. When she arrives she meets Feste, who mocks Orsino's love for Olivia. After he exits, Viola says this line. Here, Viola comments on Feste's performance as a fool. She sees his behavior as an act, and she explains that only wise and witty people can be true "fools," as they see things that others can't see, and they are intuitive and insightful. Thus, the fools are very much un-foolish, quite possibly making them the wisest people in the court (as is often the case in Shakespeare). Shakespeare suggests in this moment that the disguises we put on, i.e. the wise man as the fool, or Viola dressed as Cesario, allow us to have the freedom to both see and tell (or in Feste's case comment on) the truth. 

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. 

If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.
Related Characters: Fabian (speaker)
Page Number: 3.4.236-137
Explanation and Analysis:

After Malvolio tells the other servants that he is not of their "element," or is now above them in social class because he is supposedly worthy of Olivia's love, Fabian says this quote. Here he suggests that if this scene were a performance it would likely be considered fiction, as it is too ironic and unrealistic. Malvolio is chastising his fellow servants for being low class and stupid while he is dressed in the ridiculous clothing that the letter requested him to wear.

Once again, performance becomes an important theme in this moment. Many of the characters in Twelfth Night feel the need to perform or hyperbolize their emotions. In this case, Malvolio is so convinced that Olivia plans to marry him (thus making him a nobleman) that he already starts acting arrogant and overconfident towards other. He has gone mad with love and the love of power, and has thus lost all sense of rationality. His story at this point thus seems too fictional for the stage—a throwaway comment that is also Shakespeare commenting on his own work in a slyly ironic way.

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
Give me thy hand
And let me see thee in thy woman's weeds.
Related Characters: Orsino (speaker), Viola (Cesario)
Related Symbols: Costumes
Page Number: 5.1.285-286
Explanation and Analysis:

After finally identifying herself as a woman of noble blood to Orsino, Viola tells the court that she will return to the captain of her ship who will rightly identify her and return her clothes to her. Orsino then takes her hand and asks to see her in her "woman's weeds," or women's clothing.

Here we see how fickle or performative Orsino's love for Olivia truly is. The moment Viola reveals herself and identifies herself as not only a woman but a high class woman, he falls in love with her. This could simply be a result of the fact that Orsino's love for Olivia was merely a performance, or it could be that through her disguise, Orsino has begun to learn so much about Viola, and to love her deeply as an effeminate male comrade, that he is instantly smitten when he discovers that she is actually a woman. Of course, there are also complex issues of gender at work here (particularly as during Shakespeare's time, all the female characters would have been played by male actors), which Shakespeare uses to complicate the theme of love and (heterosexual) desire, and plays up for comic effect.

Why have you suffered me to be imprisoned,
Kept in a dark house, visited by the priest,
And made the most notorious geck and gull
That e'er invention played on? Tell me why.
Related Characters: Malvolio (speaker), Olivia
Page Number: 5.1.363-366
Explanation and Analysis:

Malvolio continues to be called mad and is mocked by the members of the court—even locked in a dark room (a traditional "treatment" for mental illness at the time). During this moment, Malvolio finally confronts Olivia about the writing of the love letter. After this speech, Olivia discovers that it was in fact Maria who wrote the letter, forging her handwriting, and the Fool who was in fact the "priest" visiting Malvolio.

Malvolio's plotline makes clear the connection between love and madness, and emphasizes the nature of revelry and wildness in the environment of Twelfth Night. At the same time, it also introduces some more troubling elements to the comedy—Malvolio is certainly arrogant, dull, and hates any kind of fun, but the punishment he suffers seems to far outweigh his "crimes," and the glee the other characters derive from his suffering often feels downright cruel. While the final revelation of the play's "disguises" is a cause for happiness among most of the characters, for Malvolio it only shows him how thoroughly he has been tricked and how cruelly he has been treated—and, as he says here, for seemingly no good reason.