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.
Melancholy Theme Icon

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 as dying of melancholy, because she is unable to act on her love for Orsino. Olivia also describes Malvolio as melancholy and blames it on his narcissism.

Through its emphasis on melancholy, Twelfth Night reveals the painfulness of love. At the same time, just as the play satirizes the way in which its more excessive characters act in proclaiming their love, it also satirizes some instances of melancholy and mourning that are exaggerated or insincere. For instance, while Viola seems to experience profound pain at her inability to be with Orsino, Orsino is cured of the intense lovesickness he experienced for Olivia as soon as he learns that Viola is available.

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Melancholy Quotes in Twelfth Night

Below you will find the important quotes in Twelfth Night related to the theme of Melancholy.
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 am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit.
Related Characters: Sir Andrew Aguecheek (speaker)
Page Number: 1.3.85-86
Explanation and Analysis:

Act 1 Scene 3 introduces us to Maria, a clever lady-in-waiting of Olivia's, Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's uncle and a drunkard, and Sir Andrew, a rich, foolish man who hopes to marry Olivia. During this scene Sir Andrew and Maria enter into a verbal warfare, teasing and taunting each other's sexual appeal. After being outmatched by Maria's wit, Sir Andrew has a moment alone with Toby. Toby is shocked that Maria has outsmarted them both and Sir Andrew replies with this line.

Calling himself an "eater of beef" is Sir Andrew's way of calling himself dimwitted. During Shakespeare's time it was believed that eating too much meat made an individual stupid or foolish. Twelfth Night reflects on how the excess of anything, particularly love, can make an individual behave foolishly. Similar to the meat Sir Andrew consumes, love can be all consuming, causing a person to behave uncharacteristically. 

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 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. 

Act 2, scene 4 Quotes
Now the melancholy god protect thee, and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is a very opal.
Related Characters: Feste (speaker), Orsino
Page Number: 2.4.80-82
Explanation and Analysis:
Feste sings a song to Orsino, and when Orsino asks him to leave, Feste sings this final segment, in which he mocks Orsino's melancholy nature. He calls upon Saturn, the Roman god associated with "melancholy," o protect him. He tells Orsino that he hopes he can find a tailor that can make him clothing that changes color, because his mind is "opal," an iridescent, cloudy stone, and he never seems to know what he wants. Because of his position as the fool, Feste has the ultimate freedom to poke fun at the masters without getting in trouble. Here he comments on the foolishness of Orsino's performative melancholy and sad, over-the-top musings on love. Yet Orsino is so involved in the song and his love that he doesn't notice the sarcasm. Love is all consuming for him. We also see here that Orsino's childish lamenting of love doesn't go unnoticed by members of the court, as well as his own fool. 
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.