Twelfth Night is a play by William Shakespeare that is believed to have been written and performed between 1601 and 1602. The performance was on the twelfth night after Christmas to close the festive season. Initially, the play was titled What You Will, but it was changed after John Marston performed a play by that title just before Shakespeare’s performance was premiered. The play was meant to coincide with a period of jovial festivities characterized by drinking, merry making and self-indulgence. The play was first recorded at Candlemas on February 2, 1602. However, the play was only published as part of the ‘First Folio’ in 1623.

Influences from Theatre History

Like most of Shakespeare’s other literary works, Twelfth Night is set on an unfolding drama of great conflicts of love, deception and disguise. Most of the main characters engage themselves in the abovementioned conflicts so as to attain their objectives, while the author uses this to bring out comedy and the themes of the play more effectively. Just like his other work, Romeo and Juliet, antagonism, conspiracies and sword fighting among the characters is used extensively to expound the plot. The presence of a jester, just like in Shakespeare’s most other works is used to enhance the comedy aspect of the play.

Structure, Theme and Purpose of the Play

The setting of the play is revealed in five acts, each of which is divided into several scenes. Each of these depicts a problem aimed at yielding a certain theme. The play is set in a chronological order that takes the reader from one point of the plot to the other. There are no repetitions, flashbacks, side acts or plays within a play. The chronological order of events helps the reader to transit from one theme to another more effortlessly. Past events and flashbacks are well captured in the words of the actors and their actions, more than in a narrative form. The themes of the play fall within this structure. The main theme of this play is the pain of love.

Pain of Love

This is evident from the agony and anguish what the Duke of Illyria named Orsino goes through as he pursues the hand of Olivia, a bereaved, rich, beautiful young woman who is not interested in him. The Duke even goes ahead to seek for the help of his messenger, Cesario, to help convince Olivia of his undying love to her. However, unknown to the Duke, Cesario is ‘himself’ a shipwrecked young, foreign lady, who worms her way into his service masquerading as a man with the intention of seducing him into loving her. Her real name is Viola. Ironically, thinking that she is a man, Olivia falls in love with her after she is sent by the Duke to deliver a message of love to her. For one, the Duke is in intense love with Olivia, who has no feelings for him. She is attracted to Cesario, whose love of the Duke goes unnoticed. The conflict creates an emotionally charged plot of love that is both interesting and one that creates great suspense.


This is evident from the character of Viola who masquerades as a man to get into the Duke’s service so as to be close to him with the intention of winning his heart. She maintains her character in respect of her twin brother, Sebastian, who she believed had lost his life in the shipwreck, but later appears alive. Their resemblance creates confusion that leads to her true identity getting revealed.

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This comes out when Maria, Olivia’s servant, forges a letter, apparently from Olivia addressed to Malvolio, Olivia’s steward expressing her love to him. The conspiracy is aimed at getting him away, as he thinks he is better than any other person in Olivia’s residence. Taken by the bait and fooled, Malvolio starts behaving in an annoying manner as instructed in the letter. This does not amuse Olivia. She orders her rather drunk uncle, Sir Toby Belch and his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, to take him away. They later lock him in a dark room with a belief that he might be out of his mind. 

Purpose of the Play

The play aims at delivering the message that human beings are ready to go for love and the pain that it sometimes brings. The Duke is so love-smitten by Olivia that he even brings in the services of a stranger, Cesario,  much unlike him,  to assist in running errands to her. He thinks that if this is what will help him win her heart, then it is meant to be. Viola, on the other hand, masquerades as a man and offers herself to the Duke’s service in the hope that she would get him to love her. She even changes her name to Cesario and runs his errands to Olivia. Olivia on her part is ready and willing to undergo the wrath of the Duke rather than marry him. She even tells him in his face that she had got married secretly to ‘Cesario’, and calls for the priest who had married them secretly to confirm her allegations. The intrigues and conspiracies that unfold help in attaining the purpose of the play so well and effectively.


Malvolio is an antagonist to both Maria and Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew. To settle scores, the three plot against him and he is thrown in a locked up dark room. Antonio, the ship captain, and the Duke have had a fight at sea earlier, and this creates bad blood between the two that only increases when they meet. Cesario and Sir Andrew become antagonistic over their ‘love’ to Olivia and even nearly end up in a sword fight.


Maria, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew gather to have Malvolio thrown into the dark locked room. Other protagonists are Viola, Antonio and her twin brother Sebastian; they stand by each other all the time even when matters seem to run out of control. On the other hand, Cesario and the Duke are great friends, whose aim is to win Olivia for the Duke.

Series towards the Climax

The arrival of Antonio and Sebastian in the scene is a turning point of this story. Antonio’s appearance leads to the revelation about Olivia’s love to Cesario. However, when Sebastian appears, Olivia confuses her with Cesario. She even gets secretly married to him. Later, it is revealed that Olivia married Sebastian and the Duke could not reverse that. This is the moment when he realizes that Cesario is a lady and loves her intensely. He ends up marrying her. Around the same time, the letter that baited Malvolio is revealed to have been a forgery by Maria. He is released from the locker and vows revenge. Around the same time, Maria and Sir Toby get married too. This brings a climax that is also the end of the play. 

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