Twelfth Night

by

William Shakespeare

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Twelfth Night: Imagery 2 key examples

Read our modern English translation.
Definition of Imagery
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking" contain imagery that engages... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines... read full definition
Act 1, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Taste and Smell:

When Orsino talks about his love for Olivia, he frequently uses olfactory and gustatory imagery—that is, imagery that involves the senses of smell and taste.

The opening monologue of Act 1, Scene 1, for example, contains extensive metaphor and imagery that engage these senses:

Orsino: If music be the food of love, play on.

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken and so die.

That strain again! It had a dying fall.

O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odor.

While your average person would describe music in terms of auditory imagery, Orsino declares it "the food of love" and compares the sound of it to the perfumed breeze that blows over a bank of violets. He hopes that, by indulging in an excess of love, he will lose his "appetite" for it, just as he would lose his appetite for a certain food if he ate too much of it.

Later in the same scene, Orsino uses olfactory imagery to describe the moment he fell in love with Olivia:

Orsino: O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,

Methought she purged the air of pestilence.

Rather than commenting on the visual aspects of Olivia's beauty, Orsino instead focuses on the way she appeared to purify the air around her, granting it a sweetened scent.

The fact that Orsino focuses so heavily on taste and smell indicates that his feelings for Olivia are more about lust than love. These senses are very grounded in the physical body, and taste in particular is associated with the act of eating, i.e. consuming, so Orsino's use of this type of imagery implies that he is more interested in indulging in Olivia's physical body than he is in pursuing a real romantic relationship with her.

The term aphrodisiac is used to describe a food or drink that either increases sexual desire or improves sexual performance. The scent of flowers, according to Orsino, is a type of aphrodisiac as well:

Orsino: Away before me to sweet beds of flowers!

Love thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers

In other words, the smell of flowers will intensify his feelings of love (or, more likely, his feelings of lust).

Act 1, scene 5
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 4
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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