Twelfth Night

by

William Shakespeare

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Twelfth Night: Allusions 8 key examples

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Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Act 1, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Classical Allusions:

Although Twelfth Night takes its title from a Chistian holiday, the play contains numerous allusions to Greek and Roman mythology. At multiple points throughout the play, for example, characters make references to Jove, which is another name for the Roman god Jupiter.

In Act 1, Scene 1, Orsino fantasizes that his love for Olivia will one day be requited:

Orsino: How will she love when the rich golden shaft

Hath killed the flock of all affections else

That live in her

"Rich golden shaft" is a reference to Cupid, the Roman god of desire, who is depicted in art as a winged youth with a bow and arrow. Cupid is the son of the love goddess Venus and the war god Mars, and Cupid himself was the god of desire and lust. According to Ovid's Metamorphoses, Cupid's quiver contains two types of arrows: one with a sharp golden tip, and one with a blunt tip of lead. A wound from the golden arrow fills a target with uncontrollable desire, while a lead arrow produces an aversion to love. Orsino, of course, hopes that the former will strike Olivia.

Earlier in the same scene, Orsino makes a subtle reference to the myth of Diana and Actaeon:

Orsino: That instant was I turned into a hart,

And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,

E’er since pursue me.

Diana, in Roman mythology, was the virgin goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon was a mortal hunter who happened upon the goddess while she was bathing in the woods. Angry at the affront to her virginal modesty, Diana transformed Actaeon into a stag, and he was devoured by his own hounds. With this hunting metaphor, Orsino is ironically admitting that his desire for Olivia, who wishes to remain chaste, is unwanted.

Orsino makes another reference to Diana in Act 1, Scene 4:

Orsino: Diana's lip

Is not more smooth and rubious

This time, Cesario is the one being compared to the virginal goddess of the hunt. Orsino, who fully believes Cesario to be a man and not a maiden, is unaware of the accuracy of his description.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Feste makes a reference to another Roman God:

Fool: Now Mercury endue thee with leasing, for thou

speak’st well of Fools!

Mercury was the patron god of messengers, tricksters, and thieves. In this scene, Feste characterizes him as also being the patron god of professional fools. This characterization is apt, since although Apollo was the god of music, Mercury is credited with the invention of the lyre and associated with eloquence. Feste, who is known for both his wit and his singing voice, would have made an excellent follower of Mercury.

Other allusions in Twelfth Night refer to specific Classical myths and legends. In Act 1, Scene 2, the captain of Viola and Sebastian's ill-fated ship makes a reference to the ancient Greek poet Arion:

Captain: I saw your brother,

Most provident in peril, bind himself

(Courage and hope both teaching him the practice)

To a strong mast that lived upon the sea,

Where, like Arion on the dolphin’s back,

I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves

As a poet, Arion is credited with inventing a type of hymn known as a dithyram and was, according to some legends, the son of Poseidon. An account by Herodotus describes Arion's kidnapping by pirates and subsequent rescue at sea by dolphins. With this allusion, the ship captain suggests that Sebastian may have been saved in a similarly miraculous way.

Finally, Orsino's passionate monologue in Act 5, Scene 1 contains a reference to an ancient Greek novel:

Orsino: Why should I not, had I the heart to do it,

Like to th’ Egyptian thief at point of death,

Kill what I love?

The "Egyptian thief" is Thyamis, a character in the Aethiopica by Heliodorus of Emesa. Thyamis is the leader of a band of thieves who falls in love with the beautiful Greek maiden Cariclia, whom he is holding captive. During an attack by a rival band, Thyamis fears that he will lose the battle and resolves to kill Cariclia so that she will not be captured by the enemy thieves.

Act 1, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—The Afterlife:

For a play that on its surface seems all about the joys of living, Twelfth Night contains a substantial number of references to the afterlife. 

In Act 1, Scene 2, Viola alludes to Greek mythology when she speaks about her brother's supposed death:

Viola: My brother he is in Elysium.

The majority of souls in the Greek underworld are lifeless and miserable, while some notable inhabitants, like the legendary Tantalus and Sisyphus, endure never-ending punishment. Demigods and heroes, on the other hand, enjoyed a blessed existence in Elysium. This afterlife, which is also referred to as the Elysian Fields or the Isles of the Blessed, is separate from the rest of the underworld and somewhat akin to Christian paradise. Despite knowing that her brother has entered this paradisiacal afterlife, Viola nonetheless grieves for his death.

The conversation between Olivia and Feste in Act 1, Scene 5 contains a similar allusion:

Fool: Good madonna, why mourn’st thou?

Olivia: Good Fool, for my brother’s death.

Fool: I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

Olivia: I know his soul is in heaven, Fool.

Fool: The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your

brother’s soul, being in heaven.

Although the reference here is to the Christian afterlife, the situation is fundamentally the same: Olivia continues to mourn her brother's death despite knowing with confidence that his soul is in heaven. When Feste calls Olivia a fool for mourning her brother, he is observing that, at least for Christians, grief is inherently ironic. His finding humor in what is usually regarded as tragic echoes the absurdity characteristic of the Feast of Misrule.

Sir Toby Belch's mention of Tartarus in Act 2, Scene 5 is another allusion to the Greek afterlife:

Toby: To the gates of Tartar, thou most excellent devil

of wit!

While heroes in Greek mythology await a blessed afterlife in Elysium, the souls of the wicked endure endless torment in the abyss of Tartarus. This line emphasizes just how impressed Toby is by Maria's cunning—he is willing to follow her to the equivalent of Christian Hell. This line also foreshadows Malvolio's later imprisonment as a result of Maria's scheme: in addition to containing the souls of wicked mortals, Tartarus also serves as a prison for the mythical Titans.

Another notable reference to the afterlife comes in Act 4, Scene 1:

Sebastian: Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep

In Greek mythology, Lethe was one of five rivers that ran through the underworld. The other four were Acheron (the river of sorrow), Cocytus (the river of lamentation), Phlegethon (the river of fire), and the Styx (the river that separates the underworld from the mortal realm). In Classical Greek, the word lethe means "forgetfulness" or "oblivion," and the shades of the dead were required to drink the waters of Lethe in order to erase all memories of their earthly lives.

Sebastian is so confused by his situation with Olivia that he thinks he must be imagining it. But this apparent hallucination, in which a wealthy and beautiful woman has fallen in love with him, is so incredibly pleasant that he prefers to forget his sense of reality and have his "fancy" wash away his "sense" in the river of oblivion.

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Explanation and Analysis—Classical Allusions:

Although Twelfth Night takes its title from a Chistian holiday, the play contains numerous allusions to Greek and Roman mythology. At multiple points throughout the play, for example, characters make references to Jove, which is another name for the Roman god Jupiter.

In Act 1, Scene 1, Orsino fantasizes that his love for Olivia will one day be requited:

Orsino: How will she love when the rich golden shaft

Hath killed the flock of all affections else

That live in her

"Rich golden shaft" is a reference to Cupid, the Roman god of desire, who is depicted in art as a winged youth with a bow and arrow. Cupid is the son of the love goddess Venus and the war god Mars, and Cupid himself was the god of desire and lust. According to Ovid's Metamorphoses, Cupid's quiver contains two types of arrows: one with a sharp golden tip, and one with a blunt tip of lead. A wound from the golden arrow fills a target with uncontrollable desire, while a lead arrow produces an aversion to love. Orsino, of course, hopes that the former will strike Olivia.

Earlier in the same scene, Orsino makes a subtle reference to the myth of Diana and Actaeon:

Orsino: That instant was I turned into a hart,

And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,

E’er since pursue me.

Diana, in Roman mythology, was the virgin goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon was a mortal hunter who happened upon the goddess while she was bathing in the woods. Angry at the affront to her virginal modesty, Diana transformed Actaeon into a stag, and he was devoured by his own hounds. With this hunting metaphor, Orsino is ironically admitting that his desire for Olivia, who wishes to remain chaste, is unwanted.

Orsino makes another reference to Diana in Act 1, Scene 4:

Orsino: Diana's lip

Is not more smooth and rubious

This time, Cesario is the one being compared to the virginal goddess of the hunt. Orsino, who fully believes Cesario to be a man and not a maiden, is unaware of the accuracy of his description.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Feste makes a reference to another Roman God:

Fool: Now Mercury endue thee with leasing, for thou

speak’st well of Fools!

Mercury was the patron god of messengers, tricksters, and thieves. In this scene, Feste characterizes him as also being the patron god of professional fools. This characterization is apt, since although Apollo was the god of music, Mercury is credited with the invention of the lyre and associated with eloquence. Feste, who is known for both his wit and his singing voice, would have made an excellent follower of Mercury.

Other allusions in Twelfth Night refer to specific Classical myths and legends. In Act 1, Scene 2, the captain of Viola and Sebastian's ill-fated ship makes a reference to the ancient Greek poet Arion:

Captain: I saw your brother,

Most provident in peril, bind himself

(Courage and hope both teaching him the practice)

To a strong mast that lived upon the sea,

Where, like Arion on the dolphin’s back,

I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves

As a poet, Arion is credited with inventing a type of hymn known as a dithyram and was, according to some legends, the son of Poseidon. An account by Herodotus describes Arion's kidnapping by pirates and subsequent rescue at sea by dolphins. With this allusion, the ship captain suggests that Sebastian may have been saved in a similarly miraculous way.

Finally, Orsino's passionate monologue in Act 5, Scene 1 contains a reference to an ancient Greek novel:

Orsino: Why should I not, had I the heart to do it,

Like to th’ Egyptian thief at point of death,

Kill what I love?

The "Egyptian thief" is Thyamis, a character in the Aethiopica by Heliodorus of Emesa. Thyamis is the leader of a band of thieves who falls in love with the beautiful Greek maiden Cariclia, whom he is holding captive. During an attack by a rival band, Thyamis fears that he will lose the battle and resolves to kill Cariclia so that she will not be captured by the enemy thieves.

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Act 1, scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Classical Allusions:

Although Twelfth Night takes its title from a Chistian holiday, the play contains numerous allusions to Greek and Roman mythology. At multiple points throughout the play, for example, characters make references to Jove, which is another name for the Roman god Jupiter.

In Act 1, Scene 1, Orsino fantasizes that his love for Olivia will one day be requited:

Orsino: How will she love when the rich golden shaft

Hath killed the flock of all affections else

That live in her

"Rich golden shaft" is a reference to Cupid, the Roman god of desire, who is depicted in art as a winged youth with a bow and arrow. Cupid is the son of the love goddess Venus and the war god Mars, and Cupid himself was the god of desire and lust. According to Ovid's Metamorphoses, Cupid's quiver contains two types of arrows: one with a sharp golden tip, and one with a blunt tip of lead. A wound from the golden arrow fills a target with uncontrollable desire, while a lead arrow produces an aversion to love. Orsino, of course, hopes that the former will strike Olivia.

Earlier in the same scene, Orsino makes a subtle reference to the myth of Diana and Actaeon:

Orsino: That instant was I turned into a hart,

And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,

E’er since pursue me.

Diana, in Roman mythology, was the virgin goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon was a mortal hunter who happened upon the goddess while she was bathing in the woods. Angry at the affront to her virginal modesty, Diana transformed Actaeon into a stag, and he was devoured by his own hounds. With this hunting metaphor, Orsino is ironically admitting that his desire for Olivia, who wishes to remain chaste, is unwanted.

Orsino makes another reference to Diana in Act 1, Scene 4:

Orsino: Diana's lip

Is not more smooth and rubious

This time, Cesario is the one being compared to the virginal goddess of the hunt. Orsino, who fully believes Cesario to be a man and not a maiden, is unaware of the accuracy of his description.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Feste makes a reference to another Roman God:

Fool: Now Mercury endue thee with leasing, for thou

speak’st well of Fools!

Mercury was the patron god of messengers, tricksters, and thieves. In this scene, Feste characterizes him as also being the patron god of professional fools. This characterization is apt, since although Apollo was the god of music, Mercury is credited with the invention of the lyre and associated with eloquence. Feste, who is known for both his wit and his singing voice, would have made an excellent follower of Mercury.

Other allusions in Twelfth Night refer to specific Classical myths and legends. In Act 1, Scene 2, the captain of Viola and Sebastian's ill-fated ship makes a reference to the ancient Greek poet Arion:

Captain: I saw your brother,

Most provident in peril, bind himself

(Courage and hope both teaching him the practice)

To a strong mast that lived upon the sea,

Where, like Arion on the dolphin’s back,

I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves

As a poet, Arion is credited with inventing a type of hymn known as a dithyram and was, according to some legends, the son of Poseidon. An account by Herodotus describes Arion's kidnapping by pirates and subsequent rescue at sea by dolphins. With this allusion, the ship captain suggests that Sebastian may have been saved in a similarly miraculous way.

Finally, Orsino's passionate monologue in Act 5, Scene 1 contains a reference to an ancient Greek novel:

Orsino: Why should I not, had I the heart to do it,

Like to th’ Egyptian thief at point of death,

Kill what I love?

The "Egyptian thief" is Thyamis, a character in the Aethiopica by Heliodorus of Emesa. Thyamis is the leader of a band of thieves who falls in love with the beautiful Greek maiden Cariclia, whom he is holding captive. During an attack by a rival band, Thyamis fears that he will lose the battle and resolves to kill Cariclia so that she will not be captured by the enemy thieves.

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Act 1, scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—The Afterlife:

For a play that on its surface seems all about the joys of living, Twelfth Night contains a substantial number of references to the afterlife. 

In Act 1, Scene 2, Viola alludes to Greek mythology when she speaks about her brother's supposed death:

Viola: My brother he is in Elysium.

The majority of souls in the Greek underworld are lifeless and miserable, while some notable inhabitants, like the legendary Tantalus and Sisyphus, endure never-ending punishment. Demigods and heroes, on the other hand, enjoyed a blessed existence in Elysium. This afterlife, which is also referred to as the Elysian Fields or the Isles of the Blessed, is separate from the rest of the underworld and somewhat akin to Christian paradise. Despite knowing that her brother has entered this paradisiacal afterlife, Viola nonetheless grieves for his death.

The conversation between Olivia and Feste in Act 1, Scene 5 contains a similar allusion:

Fool: Good madonna, why mourn’st thou?

Olivia: Good Fool, for my brother’s death.

Fool: I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

Olivia: I know his soul is in heaven, Fool.

Fool: The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your

brother’s soul, being in heaven.

Although the reference here is to the Christian afterlife, the situation is fundamentally the same: Olivia continues to mourn her brother's death despite knowing with confidence that his soul is in heaven. When Feste calls Olivia a fool for mourning her brother, he is observing that, at least for Christians, grief is inherently ironic. His finding humor in what is usually regarded as tragic echoes the absurdity characteristic of the Feast of Misrule.

Sir Toby Belch's mention of Tartarus in Act 2, Scene 5 is another allusion to the Greek afterlife:

Toby: To the gates of Tartar, thou most excellent devil

of wit!

While heroes in Greek mythology await a blessed afterlife in Elysium, the souls of the wicked endure endless torment in the abyss of Tartarus. This line emphasizes just how impressed Toby is by Maria's cunning—he is willing to follow her to the equivalent of Christian Hell. This line also foreshadows Malvolio's later imprisonment as a result of Maria's scheme: in addition to containing the souls of wicked mortals, Tartarus also serves as a prison for the mythical Titans.

Another notable reference to the afterlife comes in Act 4, Scene 1:

Sebastian: Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep

In Greek mythology, Lethe was one of five rivers that ran through the underworld. The other four were Acheron (the river of sorrow), Cocytus (the river of lamentation), Phlegethon (the river of fire), and the Styx (the river that separates the underworld from the mortal realm). In Classical Greek, the word lethe means "forgetfulness" or "oblivion," and the shades of the dead were required to drink the waters of Lethe in order to erase all memories of their earthly lives.

Sebastian is so confused by his situation with Olivia that he thinks he must be imagining it. But this apparent hallucination, in which a wealthy and beautiful woman has fallen in love with him, is so incredibly pleasant that he prefers to forget his sense of reality and have his "fancy" wash away his "sense" in the river of oblivion.

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Explanation and Analysis—Classical Allusions:

Although Twelfth Night takes its title from a Chistian holiday, the play contains numerous allusions to Greek and Roman mythology. At multiple points throughout the play, for example, characters make references to Jove, which is another name for the Roman god Jupiter.

In Act 1, Scene 1, Orsino fantasizes that his love for Olivia will one day be requited:

Orsino: How will she love when the rich golden shaft

Hath killed the flock of all affections else

That live in her

"Rich golden shaft" is a reference to Cupid, the Roman god of desire, who is depicted in art as a winged youth with a bow and arrow. Cupid is the son of the love goddess Venus and the war god Mars, and Cupid himself was the god of desire and lust. According to Ovid's Metamorphoses, Cupid's quiver contains two types of arrows: one with a sharp golden tip, and one with a blunt tip of lead. A wound from the golden arrow fills a target with uncontrollable desire, while a lead arrow produces an aversion to love. Orsino, of course, hopes that the former will strike Olivia.

Earlier in the same scene, Orsino makes a subtle reference to the myth of Diana and Actaeon:

Orsino: That instant was I turned into a hart,

And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,

E’er since pursue me.

Diana, in Roman mythology, was the virgin goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon was a mortal hunter who happened upon the goddess while she was bathing in the woods. Angry at the affront to her virginal modesty, Diana transformed Actaeon into a stag, and he was devoured by his own hounds. With this hunting metaphor, Orsino is ironically admitting that his desire for Olivia, who wishes to remain chaste, is unwanted.

Orsino makes another reference to Diana in Act 1, Scene 4:

Orsino: Diana's lip

Is not more smooth and rubious

This time, Cesario is the one being compared to the virginal goddess of the hunt. Orsino, who fully believes Cesario to be a man and not a maiden, is unaware of the accuracy of his description.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Feste makes a reference to another Roman God:

Fool: Now Mercury endue thee with leasing, for thou

speak’st well of Fools!

Mercury was the patron god of messengers, tricksters, and thieves. In this scene, Feste characterizes him as also being the patron god of professional fools. This characterization is apt, since although Apollo was the god of music, Mercury is credited with the invention of the lyre and associated with eloquence. Feste, who is known for both his wit and his singing voice, would have made an excellent follower of Mercury.

Other allusions in Twelfth Night refer to specific Classical myths and legends. In Act 1, Scene 2, the captain of Viola and Sebastian's ill-fated ship makes a reference to the ancient Greek poet Arion:

Captain: I saw your brother,

Most provident in peril, bind himself

(Courage and hope both teaching him the practice)

To a strong mast that lived upon the sea,

Where, like Arion on the dolphin’s back,

I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves

As a poet, Arion is credited with inventing a type of hymn known as a dithyram and was, according to some legends, the son of Poseidon. An account by Herodotus describes Arion's kidnapping by pirates and subsequent rescue at sea by dolphins. With this allusion, the ship captain suggests that Sebastian may have been saved in a similarly miraculous way.

Finally, Orsino's passionate monologue in Act 5, Scene 1 contains a reference to an ancient Greek novel:

Orsino: Why should I not, had I the heart to do it,

Like to th’ Egyptian thief at point of death,

Kill what I love?

The "Egyptian thief" is Thyamis, a character in the Aethiopica by Heliodorus of Emesa. Thyamis is the leader of a band of thieves who falls in love with the beautiful Greek maiden Cariclia, whom he is holding captive. During an attack by a rival band, Thyamis fears that he will lose the battle and resolves to kill Cariclia so that she will not be captured by the enemy thieves.

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Explanation and Analysis—Trees and Flowers:

Throughout Twelfth Night, several different characters make use of natural imagery. The twin motifs of trees and flowers are used at different points throughout the play to symbolize beauty, love, and death.

In Act 2, Scene 4, Orsino introduces flowers as a symbol of inconstant love:

Orsino: For women are as roses, whose fair flower,

Being once displayed, doth fall that very hour.

A woman's beauty, Orsino argues, is as short-lived as a rose that blooms and dies in a single season. As a result, men's love is likewise ephemeral. This floral motif continues in Act 3, Scene 1, when Olivia swears her love to Cesario "by the roses of the spring." Since both the flower and the season are temporary, the image of springtime roses is especially fleeting, and Olivia's imagery implies that her feelings are not as enduring as she claims. This implication proves true later in the play, when her love is easily transferred from Cesario to Sebastian.

Feste's song in Act 2, Scene 4 contrasts the ephemeral nature of flowers with the eternity of death:

Fool: Not a flower, not a flower sweet

    On my black coffin let there be strown

In this song, Feste also makes reference to "sad cypress" and a "shroud of white, stuck all with yew." Cypress and yew trees have historically been associated with death due to their use in burial and funerary rites, but since they are evergreens, they also symbolize eternal life.

Viola's speech to Olivia In Act 1, Scene 5 associates the image of trees with devotion:

Viola: Make me a willow cabin at your gate

This image of the "willow cabin," which succeeds where Orsino's flowery love poetry failed in winning Olivia's love, may actually be a political allusion. When the Spanish Armada invaded England in 1588, Queen Elizabeth I traveled to West Tilbury, Essex, to deliver an address to the troops assembled there. In her speech, Elizabeth proclaimed her eternal devotion to the English people and pledged to take up arms herself against the armada. According to author James Aske, the fields of Tilbury, where Elizabeth delivered this famous address, were filled with willow trees.

Considering the notable similarities between Elizabeth I and the character of Olivia, it's quite possible that the image of the willow cabin is meant to evoke the queen's devotion to her country. This line, paired with Feste's song, establishes trees as a symbol of steadfast, eternal love, which sharply contrasts with the inconstant love represented by flowers.

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Act 2, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—I Am the Man:

In Act 2, Scene 2, Viola realizes that Olivia has fallen in love with her masculine disguise and delivers a soliloquy lamenting the absurdity of her situation. This complicated soliloquy is rich with literary devices, including allusion, personification, and metaphor.

Having understood the meaning of Olivia's ring, Viola bemoans the impossibility of Olivia's love for her, which can be read as a lament about the impossibility of same-sex attraction as a whole:

Viola: Poor lady, she were better love a dream.

The relationship between Olivia and Viola can be read as an allusion to the myth of Iphis and Ianthe, which is recounted in Ovid's Metamorphoses. According to Ovid, Iphis was born in Crete to parents Telethusa and Ligdus. While Telethusa was pregnant, Ligdus resolved to kill the child if it was a girl, since he would be too poor to afford her dowry. The child was indeed born a girl, but Telethusa, with the aid of the goddess Isis, successfully concealed the baby's sex from her husband and raised her as a boy. When Iphis reached adulthood, Ligdus arranged for her to be married to a young woman named Ianthe. The two women fell deeply in love with each other, but Iphis despaired that a marriage between two women was impossible. The goddess Isis, taking pity on the two lovers, transformed Iphis into a man.

Just as Ianthe falls in love with Iphis, not knowing that she is a woman in disguise, Olivia falls in love with Cesario, unaware that she is actually Viola. And Viola, like Iphis, is symbolically "transformed" into a man when her identical brother Sebastian takes her place as Olivia's beloved.

Following this classical allusion is a reference to Christianity:

Viola: Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness

Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.

By alluding to the Devil, Viola is possibly referencing the fact that Eve, the first woman, was deceived by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Viola may view herself in the role of the deceiving serpent, a comparison that is made more fitting by the fact that serpents are viewed as phallic symbols in some cultures.

Later in the monologue, Viola also alludes to the myth of Hermaphroditus:

Viola: And I, poor monster, fond as much on him,

And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.

In Shakespeare's time, individuals of ambiguous sex and gender were viewed as monsters. This view comes in part from the myth of Hermaphroditus. According to Ovid's Metamorphoses, Hermaphroditus was the remarkably handsome son of the love goddess Aphrodite and the trickster god Hermes. A licentious nymph named Salmacis fell in love with Hermaphroditus, and when he rebuffed her advances, she attempted to rape him. During the assault, she begged the gods to unite the two of them forever. In response, the gods merged their bodies into one, creating the first hermaphrodite.

This myth is unusual because it depicts a woman as the lover/aggressor and the man as the beloved/victim. In Twelfth Night, Olivia actively pursues Cesario, who does not return her affections, inverting the usual gender roles of courtship.

In addition to classical and biblical allusions, Viola's soliloquy contains several instances of metaphor and personification. At one point, Viola compares women's hearts to wax, which deceitful men can easily mold:

How easy is it for the proper false

In women’s waxen hearts to set their forms!

Lamenting her predicament, which she compares to a complicated knot, she personifies Time and calls upon them for aid:

Viola: O Time, thou must untangle this, not I.

It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie.

This soliloquy also contains one important line that has been persistently misprinted:

Viola: Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we,

For such as we are made of, such we be.

In most modern versions of Twelfth Night, Viola says "OUR frailty," but in the original version of the play published in the 1623 First Folio, the line instead reads "O frailty." In the original version, Viola seems to be making a comment on the frailty of humankind as a whole, but when the line is changed to "our," she is suddenly making a comment on the frailty of women specifically. Considering the fact that Twelfth Night is populated by a number of assertive, dynamic women, it seems especially unfair that Shakespeare's words have been twisted in this manner.

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Act 2, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—The Trojan War:

Although Twelfth Night is a comedy all about romance and merriment, it contains numerous allusions to the Trojan War—a long and bloody conflict from Greek myth that came about as a result of the doomed love story between Paris and Helen.

In Act 2, Scene 3, Feste uses a classical allusion to imply that he has expensive taste in alcohol and therefore requires additional payment from Sir Toby and Sir Andrew:

Feste: [A]nd the

Myrmidons are no bottle-ale houses.

In the Iliad, the Myrmidons are a tribe of Thessalian warriors commanded by the hero Achilles. They were so known for their loyalty to their leaders that the word "myrmidon" has become a synonym for a subordinate or follower, usually one that carries out orders without question. Feste could sarcastically be referring to himself as a myrmidon who blindly grants Toby and Andrew's requests, or he could be referring to a particularly high-class tavern that has soldiers on its sign.

Later in the same scene, Sir Toby makes another reference to the warriors who were involved in the Trojan War:

Toby: Good night, Penthesilia.

According to the Epic Cycle on the Trojan WarPenthesilia was the Queen of the Amazons and the daughter of the war god Ares. She fought on the side of the Trojans and distinguished herself on the battlefield before being killed in battle by Achilles. In Virgil's Aeneid, Penthesilia is a tragic figure who arrives too late to save Troy from the Greeks. Sir Toby uses the name Penthesilia as an honorific for Maria, indicating the deep respect he has for her.

Act 3, Scene 1 contains several references to another famous story of the Trojan War:

Feste: I would play Lord Pandarus of Phrygia, sir, to bring a Cressida to this Troilus.

The story of the ill-fated lovers Troilus and Cressida was not part of original Greek mythology but appears in several Medieval and Renaissance retellings. Shakespeare's own take on the story, the play Troilus and Cressida, is drawn from a version by Geoffrey Chaucer. In all versions of the tale, Troilus is a Trojan warrior in love with Cressida, another Trojan. Cressida's uncle Pandarus helps bring the lovers together, but Cressida is sent to the Greek camp as part of a hostage exchange. There, she forms a liaison with the Greek warrior Diomedes. In later culture, Cressida came to be viewed as an archetype of the faithless lover.

With this allusion, Feste likens Cesario to Troilus and Olivia to Cressida. The comparison is quite apt, since, at the end of the play, Olivia is easily able to transfer her love from Cesario to Sebastian.

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Act 2, scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Queen Elizabeth:

Twelfth Night contains numerous allusions to early 17th century English politics, and the play can be interpreted as either an homage to or a parody of the Elizabethan court.

The most obvious reference to English royalty is the character of Olivia, whose resemblance to Queen Elizabeth I has been noted by numerous scholars. After the execution of her mother, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth was declared illegitimate and removed from the line of succession. But following the deaths of her father, half-brother, and half-sister, she ascended to the English throne. In Twelfth Night, Olivia likewise only becomes mistress of her household after her father and brother have both died.

Shakespeare also appears to have partially based the plot of Twelfth Night on Elizabeth's relationship with the Duke of Alençon. Alençon, who was the son of Catherine de' Medici and King Henry II of France, began attempts to negotiate a marriage to Elizabeth in 1596. The duke enlisted Jean de Simier, his most trusted courtier, to woo Elizabeth on his behalf. If court gossip of the time is to be believed, this tactic worked a bit too well, and Elizabeth grew so fond of de Simier that Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester and another of Elizabeth's suitors, attempted to have the courtier assassinated in a fit of jealousy. Shakespeare parodies this scandalous love affair in Twelfth Night, with Orsino as Alençon, Viola/Cesario as de Simier, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek in the role of Dudley, the scorned suitor. 

The character of Feste also appears to be an homage to the jester Will Sommers, who originally served King Henry VIII and retired during the reign of Elizabeth. Feste, likewise, was originally an employee of Olivia's father, according to this line in Act 2, Scene 4:

Curio: Feste the jester, my lord, a Fool that the Lady

Olivia’s father took much delight in.

Court jesters of the time were permitted a certain familiarity with royalty not available to other citizens, and like Feste, Sommers was not afraid to poke fun at his employers. But while Feste only goes so far as to call Olivia a "fool," Sommers once narrowly avoided a death sentence when he referred to Queen Elizabeth as a "bastard."

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Explanation and Analysis—Trees and Flowers:

Throughout Twelfth Night, several different characters make use of natural imagery. The twin motifs of trees and flowers are used at different points throughout the play to symbolize beauty, love, and death.

In Act 2, Scene 4, Orsino introduces flowers as a symbol of inconstant love:

Orsino: For women are as roses, whose fair flower,

Being once displayed, doth fall that very hour.

A woman's beauty, Orsino argues, is as short-lived as a rose that blooms and dies in a single season. As a result, men's love is likewise ephemeral. This floral motif continues in Act 3, Scene 1, when Olivia swears her love to Cesario "by the roses of the spring." Since both the flower and the season are temporary, the image of springtime roses is especially fleeting, and Olivia's imagery implies that her feelings are not as enduring as she claims. This implication proves true later in the play, when her love is easily transferred from Cesario to Sebastian.

Feste's song in Act 2, Scene 4 contrasts the ephemeral nature of flowers with the eternity of death:

Fool: Not a flower, not a flower sweet

    On my black coffin let there be strown

In this song, Feste also makes reference to "sad cypress" and a "shroud of white, stuck all with yew." Cypress and yew trees have historically been associated with death due to their use in burial and funerary rites, but since they are evergreens, they also symbolize eternal life.

Viola's speech to Olivia In Act 1, Scene 5 associates the image of trees with devotion:

Viola: Make me a willow cabin at your gate

This image of the "willow cabin," which succeeds where Orsino's flowery love poetry failed in winning Olivia's love, may actually be a political allusion. When the Spanish Armada invaded England in 1588, Queen Elizabeth I traveled to West Tilbury, Essex, to deliver an address to the troops assembled there. In her speech, Elizabeth proclaimed her eternal devotion to the English people and pledged to take up arms herself against the armada. According to author James Aske, the fields of Tilbury, where Elizabeth delivered this famous address, were filled with willow trees.

Considering the notable similarities between Elizabeth I and the character of Olivia, it's quite possible that the image of the willow cabin is meant to evoke the queen's devotion to her country. This line, paired with Feste's song, establishes trees as a symbol of steadfast, eternal love, which sharply contrasts with the inconstant love represented by flowers.

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Act 2, scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—The Afterlife:

For a play that on its surface seems all about the joys of living, Twelfth Night contains a substantial number of references to the afterlife. 

In Act 1, Scene 2, Viola alludes to Greek mythology when she speaks about her brother's supposed death:

Viola: My brother he is in Elysium.

The majority of souls in the Greek underworld are lifeless and miserable, while some notable inhabitants, like the legendary Tantalus and Sisyphus, endure never-ending punishment. Demigods and heroes, on the other hand, enjoyed a blessed existence in Elysium. This afterlife, which is also referred to as the Elysian Fields or the Isles of the Blessed, is separate from the rest of the underworld and somewhat akin to Christian paradise. Despite knowing that her brother has entered this paradisiacal afterlife, Viola nonetheless grieves for his death.

The conversation between Olivia and Feste in Act 1, Scene 5 contains a similar allusion:

Fool: Good madonna, why mourn’st thou?

Olivia: Good Fool, for my brother’s death.

Fool: I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

Olivia: I know his soul is in heaven, Fool.

Fool: The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your

brother’s soul, being in heaven.

Although the reference here is to the Christian afterlife, the situation is fundamentally the same: Olivia continues to mourn her brother's death despite knowing with confidence that his soul is in heaven. When Feste calls Olivia a fool for mourning her brother, he is observing that, at least for Christians, grief is inherently ironic. His finding humor in what is usually regarded as tragic echoes the absurdity characteristic of the Feast of Misrule.

Sir Toby Belch's mention of Tartarus in Act 2, Scene 5 is another allusion to the Greek afterlife:

Toby: To the gates of Tartar, thou most excellent devil

of wit!

While heroes in Greek mythology await a blessed afterlife in Elysium, the souls of the wicked endure endless torment in the abyss of Tartarus. This line emphasizes just how impressed Toby is by Maria's cunning—he is willing to follow her to the equivalent of Christian Hell. This line also foreshadows Malvolio's later imprisonment as a result of Maria's scheme: in addition to containing the souls of wicked mortals, Tartarus also serves as a prison for the mythical Titans.

Another notable reference to the afterlife comes in Act 4, Scene 1:

Sebastian: Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep

In Greek mythology, Lethe was one of five rivers that ran through the underworld. The other four were Acheron (the river of sorrow), Cocytus (the river of lamentation), Phlegethon (the river of fire), and the Styx (the river that separates the underworld from the mortal realm). In Classical Greek, the word lethe means "forgetfulness" or "oblivion," and the shades of the dead were required to drink the waters of Lethe in order to erase all memories of their earthly lives.

Sebastian is so confused by his situation with Olivia that he thinks he must be imagining it. But this apparent hallucination, in which a wealthy and beautiful woman has fallen in love with him, is so incredibly pleasant that he prefers to forget his sense of reality and have his "fancy" wash away his "sense" in the river of oblivion.

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Explanation and Analysis—Christianity:

The title of Twelfth Night is a reference to a Christian holiday—the Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany—and the play is accordingly filled with Biblical allusions.

In Act 2, Scene 5, Sir Andrew Aguecheek compares Malvolio to a villain from the Hebrew Bible:

Andrew: [aside] Fie on him, Jezebel!

Jezebel was a Phoenician princess and a worshiper of the god Baal. After becoming the queen of Samaria, the northern kingdom of Israel, she was responsible for the violent purging of the prophets of Yahweh. Her dynasty was later annihilated, and she herself was thrown from a window by her own servants. Over the centuries, Christian lore came to associate her name with false prophets as well as sexual immorality and promiscuity. Sir Andrew may deliberately be calling Malvolio a whore, but it's more likely that he doesn't know who Jezebel was, only that her name is used as an insult.

Act 3, Scene 4, in which Maria and Sir Toby Belch pretend to believe that Malvolio has gone mad, contains several references to the Christian devil. When Malvolio rebuffs them, Maria takes this as further evidence of his insanity:

Maria: [to Toby] La you, an you speak ill of the devil,

how he takes it at heart! Pray God he be not bewitched!

In Elizabethan times, if someone reacted negatively to people speaking ill of the devil, this was taken as a sign that they were at best under the effect of witchcraft and at worst a Satan worshipper.

Later, in Act 5, Scene 1, Feste carries on the charade with another reference to the devil:

Fool: Truly, madam, he holds Beelzebub at the stave’s

end as well as a man in his case may do.

In Christian sources, Beelzebub is another name for Satan, and he is known in demonology as one of the seven princes of Hell. The name Beelzebub appears in the Hebrew Bible, where it refers to a deity worshipped by the Philistines, and is mentioned numerous times in the Christian Bible.

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Act 3, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—The Trojan War:

Although Twelfth Night is a comedy all about romance and merriment, it contains numerous allusions to the Trojan War—a long and bloody conflict from Greek myth that came about as a result of the doomed love story between Paris and Helen.

In Act 2, Scene 3, Feste uses a classical allusion to imply that he has expensive taste in alcohol and therefore requires additional payment from Sir Toby and Sir Andrew:

Feste: [A]nd the

Myrmidons are no bottle-ale houses.

In the Iliad, the Myrmidons are a tribe of Thessalian warriors commanded by the hero Achilles. They were so known for their loyalty to their leaders that the word "myrmidon" has become a synonym for a subordinate or follower, usually one that carries out orders without question. Feste could sarcastically be referring to himself as a myrmidon who blindly grants Toby and Andrew's requests, or he could be referring to a particularly high-class tavern that has soldiers on its sign.

Later in the same scene, Sir Toby makes another reference to the warriors who were involved in the Trojan War:

Toby: Good night, Penthesilia.

According to the Epic Cycle on the Trojan WarPenthesilia was the Queen of the Amazons and the daughter of the war god Ares. She fought on the side of the Trojans and distinguished herself on the battlefield before being killed in battle by Achilles. In Virgil's Aeneid, Penthesilia is a tragic figure who arrives too late to save Troy from the Greeks. Sir Toby uses the name Penthesilia as an honorific for Maria, indicating the deep respect he has for her.

Act 3, Scene 1 contains several references to another famous story of the Trojan War:

Feste: I would play Lord Pandarus of Phrygia, sir, to bring a Cressida to this Troilus.

The story of the ill-fated lovers Troilus and Cressida was not part of original Greek mythology but appears in several Medieval and Renaissance retellings. Shakespeare's own take on the story, the play Troilus and Cressida, is drawn from a version by Geoffrey Chaucer. In all versions of the tale, Troilus is a Trojan warrior in love with Cressida, another Trojan. Cressida's uncle Pandarus helps bring the lovers together, but Cressida is sent to the Greek camp as part of a hostage exchange. There, she forms a liaison with the Greek warrior Diomedes. In later culture, Cressida came to be viewed as an archetype of the faithless lover.

With this allusion, Feste likens Cesario to Troilus and Olivia to Cressida. The comparison is quite apt, since, at the end of the play, Olivia is easily able to transfer her love from Cesario to Sebastian.

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Explanation and Analysis—Contemporary England:

Twelfth Night, although ostensibly set in the fictional, Italian-inspired nation of Illyria, contains numerous references to 17th century England.

In Act 3, Scene 1, Viola uses slang that would have been familiar to audiences in Shakespeare's London:

Viola: Then westward ho!

"Westward ho!" was a traditional call used by boatmen on the River Thames, who would shout "Eastward ho!" or "Westward ho!" to announce their intended destination to customers.

In Act 3, Scene 2, Sir Andrew Aguecheek makes a reference to a contemporary English religious movement:

Andrew: I had as lief be a Brownist as a

politician.

The Brownists, named for founder Robert Browne, were a group of Protestant Christians who separated from the Church of England during the 1560s. A majority of Christian separatists who boarded the Mayflower in 1620 were Brownists. The movement was considered heretical by the Church of England, and many members were imprisoned and put to death. Sir Andrew's declaration that he would rather be a Brownist than a politician therefore emphasizes how much he truly loathes politics.

Later in the same scene, Sir Toby Belch makes a reference to a famous piece of English furniture:

Toby: [A]lthough the sheet were big enough for the

bed of Ware in England

The Great Bed of Ware is an enormous four-poster bed that was originally housed in the White Hart Inn in Ware, England. In this scene, Sir Toby encourages Andrew to fill his letter to Cesario with as many insults as possible, as if the paper were as large as the bed of Ware. Since the bed can reputedly accommodate a minimum of four couples, that makes for a truly extraordinary number of insults.

In Act 3, Scene 3, Antonio instructs Sebastian to meet him at an inn called The Elephant. The name of this inn is more than likely a reference to the Elephant Pub in London, which was located nearby the Globe Theatre and frequented by both actors and playwrights.

And in Scene 5, Act 1, Feste makes a reference to a well-known English landmark:

Fool: [O]r the bells of Saint Bennet

The Church of St Benet Paul's Wharf is a Welsh Anglican church in London located across the River from the Globe Theatre. Audience members attending a play at the Globe would have been able to hear its bells chiming out the hour. In 1666, several decades after Twelfth Night was first performed, the church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, although it was later rebuilt.

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Act 3, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Contemporary England:

Twelfth Night, although ostensibly set in the fictional, Italian-inspired nation of Illyria, contains numerous references to 17th century England.

In Act 3, Scene 1, Viola uses slang that would have been familiar to audiences in Shakespeare's London:

Viola: Then westward ho!

"Westward ho!" was a traditional call used by boatmen on the River Thames, who would shout "Eastward ho!" or "Westward ho!" to announce their intended destination to customers.

In Act 3, Scene 2, Sir Andrew Aguecheek makes a reference to a contemporary English religious movement:

Andrew: I had as lief be a Brownist as a

politician.

The Brownists, named for founder Robert Browne, were a group of Protestant Christians who separated from the Church of England during the 1560s. A majority of Christian separatists who boarded the Mayflower in 1620 were Brownists. The movement was considered heretical by the Church of England, and many members were imprisoned and put to death. Sir Andrew's declaration that he would rather be a Brownist than a politician therefore emphasizes how much he truly loathes politics.

Later in the same scene, Sir Toby Belch makes a reference to a famous piece of English furniture:

Toby: [A]lthough the sheet were big enough for the

bed of Ware in England

The Great Bed of Ware is an enormous four-poster bed that was originally housed in the White Hart Inn in Ware, England. In this scene, Sir Toby encourages Andrew to fill his letter to Cesario with as many insults as possible, as if the paper were as large as the bed of Ware. Since the bed can reputedly accommodate a minimum of four couples, that makes for a truly extraordinary number of insults.

In Act 3, Scene 3, Antonio instructs Sebastian to meet him at an inn called The Elephant. The name of this inn is more than likely a reference to the Elephant Pub in London, which was located nearby the Globe Theatre and frequented by both actors and playwrights.

And in Scene 5, Act 1, Feste makes a reference to a well-known English landmark:

Fool: [O]r the bells of Saint Bennet

The Church of St Benet Paul's Wharf is a Welsh Anglican church in London located across the River from the Globe Theatre. Audience members attending a play at the Globe would have been able to hear its bells chiming out the hour. In 1666, several decades after Twelfth Night was first performed, the church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, although it was later rebuilt.

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Act 3, scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Christianity:

The title of Twelfth Night is a reference to a Christian holiday—the Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany—and the play is accordingly filled with Biblical allusions.

In Act 2, Scene 5, Sir Andrew Aguecheek compares Malvolio to a villain from the Hebrew Bible:

Andrew: [aside] Fie on him, Jezebel!

Jezebel was a Phoenician princess and a worshiper of the god Baal. After becoming the queen of Samaria, the northern kingdom of Israel, she was responsible for the violent purging of the prophets of Yahweh. Her dynasty was later annihilated, and she herself was thrown from a window by her own servants. Over the centuries, Christian lore came to associate her name with false prophets as well as sexual immorality and promiscuity. Sir Andrew may deliberately be calling Malvolio a whore, but it's more likely that he doesn't know who Jezebel was, only that her name is used as an insult.

Act 3, Scene 4, in which Maria and Sir Toby Belch pretend to believe that Malvolio has gone mad, contains several references to the Christian devil. When Malvolio rebuffs them, Maria takes this as further evidence of his insanity:

Maria: [to Toby] La you, an you speak ill of the devil,

how he takes it at heart! Pray God he be not bewitched!

In Elizabethan times, if someone reacted negatively to people speaking ill of the devil, this was taken as a sign that they were at best under the effect of witchcraft and at worst a Satan worshipper.

Later, in Act 5, Scene 1, Feste carries on the charade with another reference to the devil:

Fool: Truly, madam, he holds Beelzebub at the stave’s

end as well as a man in his case may do.

In Christian sources, Beelzebub is another name for Satan, and he is known in demonology as one of the seven princes of Hell. The name Beelzebub appears in the Hebrew Bible, where it refers to a deity worshipped by the Philistines, and is mentioned numerous times in the Christian Bible.

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Act 4, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—The Afterlife:

For a play that on its surface seems all about the joys of living, Twelfth Night contains a substantial number of references to the afterlife. 

In Act 1, Scene 2, Viola alludes to Greek mythology when she speaks about her brother's supposed death:

Viola: My brother he is in Elysium.

The majority of souls in the Greek underworld are lifeless and miserable, while some notable inhabitants, like the legendary Tantalus and Sisyphus, endure never-ending punishment. Demigods and heroes, on the other hand, enjoyed a blessed existence in Elysium. This afterlife, which is also referred to as the Elysian Fields or the Isles of the Blessed, is separate from the rest of the underworld and somewhat akin to Christian paradise. Despite knowing that her brother has entered this paradisiacal afterlife, Viola nonetheless grieves for his death.

The conversation between Olivia and Feste in Act 1, Scene 5 contains a similar allusion:

Fool: Good madonna, why mourn’st thou?

Olivia: Good Fool, for my brother’s death.

Fool: I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

Olivia: I know his soul is in heaven, Fool.

Fool: The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your

brother’s soul, being in heaven.

Although the reference here is to the Christian afterlife, the situation is fundamentally the same: Olivia continues to mourn her brother's death despite knowing with confidence that his soul is in heaven. When Feste calls Olivia a fool for mourning her brother, he is observing that, at least for Christians, grief is inherently ironic. His finding humor in what is usually regarded as tragic echoes the absurdity characteristic of the Feast of Misrule.

Sir Toby Belch's mention of Tartarus in Act 2, Scene 5 is another allusion to the Greek afterlife:

Toby: To the gates of Tartar, thou most excellent devil

of wit!

While heroes in Greek mythology await a blessed afterlife in Elysium, the souls of the wicked endure endless torment in the abyss of Tartarus. This line emphasizes just how impressed Toby is by Maria's cunning—he is willing to follow her to the equivalent of Christian Hell. This line also foreshadows Malvolio's later imprisonment as a result of Maria's scheme: in addition to containing the souls of wicked mortals, Tartarus also serves as a prison for the mythical Titans.

Another notable reference to the afterlife comes in Act 4, Scene 1:

Sebastian: Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep

In Greek mythology, Lethe was one of five rivers that ran through the underworld. The other four were Acheron (the river of sorrow), Cocytus (the river of lamentation), Phlegethon (the river of fire), and the Styx (the river that separates the underworld from the mortal realm). In Classical Greek, the word lethe means "forgetfulness" or "oblivion," and the shades of the dead were required to drink the waters of Lethe in order to erase all memories of their earthly lives.

Sebastian is so confused by his situation with Olivia that he thinks he must be imagining it. But this apparent hallucination, in which a wealthy and beautiful woman has fallen in love with him, is so incredibly pleasant that he prefers to forget his sense of reality and have his "fancy" wash away his "sense" in the river of oblivion.

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Act 5, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Classical Allusions:

Although Twelfth Night takes its title from a Chistian holiday, the play contains numerous allusions to Greek and Roman mythology. At multiple points throughout the play, for example, characters make references to Jove, which is another name for the Roman god Jupiter.

In Act 1, Scene 1, Orsino fantasizes that his love for Olivia will one day be requited:

Orsino: How will she love when the rich golden shaft

Hath killed the flock of all affections else

That live in her

"Rich golden shaft" is a reference to Cupid, the Roman god of desire, who is depicted in art as a winged youth with a bow and arrow. Cupid is the son of the love goddess Venus and the war god Mars, and Cupid himself was the god of desire and lust. According to Ovid's Metamorphoses, Cupid's quiver contains two types of arrows: one with a sharp golden tip, and one with a blunt tip of lead. A wound from the golden arrow fills a target with uncontrollable desire, while a lead arrow produces an aversion to love. Orsino, of course, hopes that the former will strike Olivia.

Earlier in the same scene, Orsino makes a subtle reference to the myth of Diana and Actaeon:

Orsino: That instant was I turned into a hart,

And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,

E’er since pursue me.

Diana, in Roman mythology, was the virgin goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon was a mortal hunter who happened upon the goddess while she was bathing in the woods. Angry at the affront to her virginal modesty, Diana transformed Actaeon into a stag, and he was devoured by his own hounds. With this hunting metaphor, Orsino is ironically admitting that his desire for Olivia, who wishes to remain chaste, is unwanted.

Orsino makes another reference to Diana in Act 1, Scene 4:

Orsino: Diana's lip

Is not more smooth and rubious

This time, Cesario is the one being compared to the virginal goddess of the hunt. Orsino, who fully believes Cesario to be a man and not a maiden, is unaware of the accuracy of his description.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Feste makes a reference to another Roman God:

Fool: Now Mercury endue thee with leasing, for thou

speak’st well of Fools!

Mercury was the patron god of messengers, tricksters, and thieves. In this scene, Feste characterizes him as also being the patron god of professional fools. This characterization is apt, since although Apollo was the god of music, Mercury is credited with the invention of the lyre and associated with eloquence. Feste, who is known for both his wit and his singing voice, would have made an excellent follower of Mercury.

Other allusions in Twelfth Night refer to specific Classical myths and legends. In Act 1, Scene 2, the captain of Viola and Sebastian's ill-fated ship makes a reference to the ancient Greek poet Arion:

Captain: I saw your brother,

Most provident in peril, bind himself

(Courage and hope both teaching him the practice)

To a strong mast that lived upon the sea,

Where, like Arion on the dolphin’s back,

I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves

As a poet, Arion is credited with inventing a type of hymn known as a dithyram and was, according to some legends, the son of Poseidon. An account by Herodotus describes Arion's kidnapping by pirates and subsequent rescue at sea by dolphins. With this allusion, the ship captain suggests that Sebastian may have been saved in a similarly miraculous way.

Finally, Orsino's passionate monologue in Act 5, Scene 1 contains a reference to an ancient Greek novel:

Orsino: Why should I not, had I the heart to do it,

Like to th’ Egyptian thief at point of death,

Kill what I love?

The "Egyptian thief" is Thyamis, a character in the Aethiopica by Heliodorus of Emesa. Thyamis is the leader of a band of thieves who falls in love with the beautiful Greek maiden Cariclia, whom he is holding captive. During an attack by a rival band, Thyamis fears that he will lose the battle and resolves to kill Cariclia so that she will not be captured by the enemy thieves.

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Explanation and Analysis—Christianity:

The title of Twelfth Night is a reference to a Christian holiday—the Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany—and the play is accordingly filled with Biblical allusions.

In Act 2, Scene 5, Sir Andrew Aguecheek compares Malvolio to a villain from the Hebrew Bible:

Andrew: [aside] Fie on him, Jezebel!

Jezebel was a Phoenician princess and a worshiper of the god Baal. After becoming the queen of Samaria, the northern kingdom of Israel, she was responsible for the violent purging of the prophets of Yahweh. Her dynasty was later annihilated, and she herself was thrown from a window by her own servants. Over the centuries, Christian lore came to associate her name with false prophets as well as sexual immorality and promiscuity. Sir Andrew may deliberately be calling Malvolio a whore, but it's more likely that he doesn't know who Jezebel was, only that her name is used as an insult.

Act 3, Scene 4, in which Maria and Sir Toby Belch pretend to believe that Malvolio has gone mad, contains several references to the Christian devil. When Malvolio rebuffs them, Maria takes this as further evidence of his insanity:

Maria: [to Toby] La you, an you speak ill of the devil,

how he takes it at heart! Pray God he be not bewitched!

In Elizabethan times, if someone reacted negatively to people speaking ill of the devil, this was taken as a sign that they were at best under the effect of witchcraft and at worst a Satan worshipper.

Later, in Act 5, Scene 1, Feste carries on the charade with another reference to the devil:

Fool: Truly, madam, he holds Beelzebub at the stave’s

end as well as a man in his case may do.

In Christian sources, Beelzebub is another name for Satan, and he is known in demonology as one of the seven princes of Hell. The name Beelzebub appears in the Hebrew Bible, where it refers to a deity worshipped by the Philistines, and is mentioned numerous times in the Christian Bible.

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Explanation and Analysis—Contemporary England:

Twelfth Night, although ostensibly set in the fictional, Italian-inspired nation of Illyria, contains numerous references to 17th century England.

In Act 3, Scene 1, Viola uses slang that would have been familiar to audiences in Shakespeare's London:

Viola: Then westward ho!

"Westward ho!" was a traditional call used by boatmen on the River Thames, who would shout "Eastward ho!" or "Westward ho!" to announce their intended destination to customers.

In Act 3, Scene 2, Sir Andrew Aguecheek makes a reference to a contemporary English religious movement:

Andrew: I had as lief be a Brownist as a

politician.

The Brownists, named for founder Robert Browne, were a group of Protestant Christians who separated from the Church of England during the 1560s. A majority of Christian separatists who boarded the Mayflower in 1620 were Brownists. The movement was considered heretical by the Church of England, and many members were imprisoned and put to death. Sir Andrew's declaration that he would rather be a Brownist than a politician therefore emphasizes how much he truly loathes politics.

Later in the same scene, Sir Toby Belch makes a reference to a famous piece of English furniture:

Toby: [A]lthough the sheet were big enough for the

bed of Ware in England

The Great Bed of Ware is an enormous four-poster bed that was originally housed in the White Hart Inn in Ware, England. In this scene, Sir Toby encourages Andrew to fill his letter to Cesario with as many insults as possible, as if the paper were as large as the bed of Ware. Since the bed can reputedly accommodate a minimum of four couples, that makes for a truly extraordinary number of insults.

In Act 3, Scene 3, Antonio instructs Sebastian to meet him at an inn called The Elephant. The name of this inn is more than likely a reference to the Elephant Pub in London, which was located nearby the Globe Theatre and frequented by both actors and playwrights.

And in Scene 5, Act 1, Feste makes a reference to a well-known English landmark:

Fool: [O]r the bells of Saint Bennet

The Church of St Benet Paul's Wharf is a Welsh Anglican church in London located across the River from the Globe Theatre. Audience members attending a play at the Globe would have been able to hear its bells chiming out the hour. In 1666, several decades after Twelfth Night was first performed, the church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, although it was later rebuilt.

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