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.
Gender and Sexual Identity Theme Icon

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 firm as you might think.

The play stresses the potential ambiguity of gender: there are many instances in which characters refer to Cesario as an effeminate man. Even more radically than this, however, it also suggests that gender is something you can influence, based on how you act, rather than something that you are, based on the sexual organs you were born with. Twelfth Night also shows how gender-switches make the characters' sexual identities unstable. For instance, at times, Olivia seems to be attracted to Cesario because "he" is such a womanly-looking man, while Orsino at the end of the play seems as attracted to Cesario as he is to Viola.

Gender and Sexual Identity ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Twelfth Night related to the theme of Gender and Sexual Identity.
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.  

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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 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
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 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.