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Theatre / Twelfth Night

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As the play is Older Than Steam and most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.
"Why, this is very midsummer madness!"
Click here for the Twelfth Night or What you Will 1996 movie poster. 

"If music be the food of love, play on."
Orsino, who is In Love with Love, music, and, ostensibly, the Countess Olivia. And bad puns. (Twelfth Night I.i.1)

Twelfth Night, or What You Will is a comedic play by William Shakespeare.

A woman gets shipwrecked, loses her Half Identical Twin, dresses as a boy to get a job, and gets involved in a bizarre Love Dodecahedron. A subplot involves yellow stockings.

Actually, that sums up William Shakespeare's play pretty well. Viola has been shipwrecked in Illyria, and the captain tells her that the wreck carried off her twin brother as well. Being a gentlewoman, Viola is bereft of skills aside from singing and other musical arts (at which she says she is proficient), and so decides to dress up as a young eunuch so she might find employment under the Duke Orsino (see above), of whom she has heard good things. (She would rather serve the Countess Olivia, but the lady, heartbroken by the loss of her father and brother, has sworn off male company and presumably is not hiring.)

After a mere three days in Orsino's service, the Duke is so charmed with the "boy" Cesario that he sends him off to woo the Countess on Orsino's behalf (citing how suspiciously innocently feminine he is). Olivia is not pleased to see Cesario as she has grown sick of Orsino's wooing, and answers sarcastically to the Duke's sentimental verses. Viola, however, can hold her own on the field of snarking, and refuses to see Orsino's suit so answered (in case one has not inferred, she has fallen hard for Orsino.) She banters with and challenges Olivia, who finds herself falling in love with the spirited "chap." When Viola's Half Identical Twin brother Sebastian shows up, the fun just gets started...

Now the subplot:[deep breath] Olivia has given over the management of her household to her Puritan steward Malvolio, whose new position causes him to look down on Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch. Sir Toby is taking advantage of a brainless rich boy named Andrew Aguecheek, by convincing the hapless Sir Andrew that Olivia would like to marry him. However, Olivia has no such intention; Sir Toby simply likes to use Andrew's money to fund his drinking and revelry. Malvolio comes down hard on Sir Toby, who, along with Olivia's handmaid Maria, decides to play a little trick on the lecherous social climber Malvolio...

Meanwhile, Feste, Olivia's father's jester, has returned to seek employment, and is tasked by Olivia to watch over Toby, but wanders here and there, watches everyone, and laughs in his sleeve and out of it.

All in all one of Shakespeare's lighter, sillier plays (albeit one with quite a dark undertone), but a classic of English literature nonetheless. It's been adapted multiple times for stage and television—a silent film in 1910, a 1969 British TV movie with Alec Guinness as Malvolio, and, more notably, Trevor Nunn's entertaining 1996 version which transported the characters into a setting reminiscent of Victorian England and/or Wilhelmine Germany. The plot was also the basis for the 2006 teen comedy She's the Man.

Tropes in Twelfth Night:

  • Actually, That's My Assistant: Olivia puts a veil over her face and pretends to be one of her maidservants to greet Cesario.
  • Adapted Out: Fabian, a lot, even in some stage versions. When this happens, his lines are usually given to Feste.
  • Aerith and Bob: Viola, Cesario, Sebastian, Orsino, Olivia, Malvolio, Feste, Curio, Fabian, Antonio...Andrew and Toby.
  • Alcohol Hic: Toby Belch, when he shows up drunk at Olivia's house:
    Feste: Here comes one of thy kin has a most weak pia mater.
    Olivia: By mine honor, half drunk. What is he at the gate, cousin?
    Toby Belch: A gentleman.
    Olivia: A gentleman! What gentleman?
    Toby Belch: 'Tis a gentleman here— a plague o' these pickle herring!
  • All Love Is Unrequited:
    • Viola loves Orsino, who loves Olivia, who loves Cesario, who is Viola. Eventually they get it all sorted out happily, though.
    • Depending on your interpretation, this is permanent for Antonio and/or Olivia.
  • All Periods Are PMS: Olivia dismisses "Cesario" by snapping, "'Tis not that time of moon with me to make one in so skipping a dialogue." Cue Olivia's handmaid Maria trying to usher Cesario out: "Will you set sail sir? Here lies your way!"
  • All There in the Script:
    • Viola doesn't get named in the play itself — as opposed to the stage directions — until the very last scene. It doesn't hurt that she spends most of the play as "Cesario"...
    • Similarly, Feste has exactly one use of his name in the show, and that over halfway through.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Viola and Olivia are quasi-love interests who may or may not actually be into each other.
    • Viola's definitely into Orsino, but some of her interactions with Olivia could very easily be read as her having feelings for her, as well. Most modern productions ramp up the subtext.
    • Olivia canonically falls in love with Viola, albeit while believing Viola is a man.
  • …And That Little Girl Was Me: When Orsino claims that women don't love as strongly as men, "Cesario" tells him a story about a young woman who suffered in silence for love of a man she couldn't have. Viola doesn't tell him that she's talking about herself, and Orsino doesn't figure it out. (He does ask what happened to the young woman in the end, and Viola replies truthfully that she doesn't know.)
    Viola: My father had a daughter loved a man,
    As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
    I should your lordship.
  • Artifact Title:
    • It's believed that the play is only called Twelfth Night because it was first performed on Twelfth Night. This is probably why its Either/Or Title is "or, What You Will," meaning "or whatever you want." The play really doesn't have a proper name, so you can call it what you want.
    • Alternatively, the title may refer to the fact that the play is about upending the established social order in various ways, which was also a major theme of Twelfth Night celebrations in Shakespeare's day (see the Trivia tab for more specific parallels). Either way, modern audiences won't bring the same associations to it that Shakespeare's contemporaries would have.
  • Big Fun: Sir Toby Belch, who likes to spend quite a bit of his spare time (as well as a sizable portion of Andrew's salary) eating and drinking, as contrasted to his foil, Malvolio, who tries to keep order in Olivia's household.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Feste's melancholic ending song aside, almost everyone got a happy ending, except for Antonio, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Malvolio. Some productions have Antonio freed by Orsino and might even have him stick around with the other characters, but as written, there's no way to give Andrew and Malvolio anything oher than sad conclusions.
  • Boisterous Weakling: Sir Andrew.
    Maria: ...besides that he's a fool he's a great quarreler, and but that he had the gift of a coward to allay the gust he hath in quarreling, 'tis thought among the prudent he would quickly have the gift of a grave.
  • Break the Haughty:
    • Maria, Feste, and a few other rabblerousers agree to take the arrogant steward Malvolio down a peg, and they arrange a fake letter to fall his way, saying his employer, Olivia, is in love with him. Under this delusion, he behaves and dresses like a lovesick loon, all the while thinking this is exactly what she wants, and ends up being locked in a dungeon for lunacy, before being released and told the letter was a sham. It started out funny, but by the end, even the rabblerousers aren't laughing.
    • Olivia herself goes through a downplayed version of this. At the beginning, she is stately, composed, and implacable, and, yes, very proud. But by the time the play is ended she has fallen head over heels in love, and has almost completely lost her dignity on account of it.
  • Butt-Monkey: Malvolio and Andrew Aguecheek. It's Played for Laughs for most of the show, but it eventually becomes clear that their respective treatments are overly mean spirited and they receive suitably sad endings.
  • Calling Me a Logarithm: Toby Belch, when he shows up half-drunken at Olivia's gate:
    Olivia: Cousin, cousin, how have you come so early by this lethargy?
    Toby [misunderstanding "lethargy"]: Lechery? I defy lechery! There's one at the gate.
  • Compressed Hair: Viola keeps her long hair tucked away while crossdressing.
  • Conveniently an Orphan: All we know about Viola and Sebastian's family is that their father is dead. By the sounds of it, they're all that each other has in the world.
  • The Cover Changes the Meaning: Feste's song at the end. Trevor Nunn's version makes it a fairly jubilant little number, but other versions range from bittersweet to plain sorrowful.
  • Covert Pervert: Despite his Puritanical tendencies, Malvolio's imagination is pretty deep in the gutter as regards Olivia: the letters he notices in her handwriting are "C's, U's, and T's" (try saying that aloud), and he daydreams about being married to her. The Trevor Nunn film has Malvolio wearing yellow stockings to sleep before he gets the fraudulent letter, treating yellow stockings as a kind of odd Illyrian kink.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • Feste. "Corrupter of words" indeed.
    • Not to mention Olivia. Her first appearance.
      Olivia: Give us the place alone: we will hear this divinity. Now, sir, what is your text?
      Viola: Most sweet lady—
      Olivia: A comfortable doctrine, and much may be said of it. Where lies your text?
      Viola: In Orsino's bosom.
      Olivia: In his bosom! In what chapter of his bosom?
      Viola: To answer by the method, in the first of his heart.
      Olivia: Oh, I have read it: it is heresy...
  • Deuteragonist: Viola is widely acknowledged as the show’s lead, but Olivia and Malvolio have often been called the show’s secondary and tertiary protagonists.
  • Dirty Coward: Andrew Aguecheek resorts to attacking Sebastian, whom he mistakes for Cesario/Viola (with Cesario denying Antonio's acquaintance), only for Andrew to get beaten and bruised by Sebastian.
  • Dirty Old Man: Malvolio chases after a woman twenty years his junior.
  • Diseased Name: Andrew Aguecheek has a name that evokes feverish ill-health ("ague" being an Elizabethan word for fever with shivering and chills). It would just mean numbed as an adjective, suggesting a slight facial impairment, as if Sir Andrew has had a stroke: one side of his face being without motion, which explains some of his speech.
  • Dispense with the Pleasantries: Olivia will not allow Viola to continue with Orsino's declaration of love to her.
    Viola: Most sweet lady...
    Olivia: ... a comfortable doctrine, and much may be said of it.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Feste, Sir Toby Belch, and Fabian have Malvolio locked up in a small, completely darkened room with no candle or food or water, because he's a presumptuous stick-in-the-mud who hates parties.
  • The Ditz: Sir Andrew. Fortunately for him, he's too stupid to realize how little everyone thinks of him until Sir Toby makes it explicit at the very end.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Orsino believes that Olivia owes him a return of his feelings because he's so persistent and passionate. Viola dutifully makes Orsino's case, but eventually she gets fed up and tells her master that no, you can't force someone to love you just because you love them.
  • Double Entendre: When Malvolio repeats the line "some have greatness thrust upon them!" to Olivia after he turns up in the yellow cross-gartered stockings.
  • Driven to Villainy: After getting yanked around the entire play, Malvolio loses it at the happy ending and vows revenge on the whole lot of them.
  • Dropping the Bombshell: When Olivia calls Cesario/Viola "husband" in the last scene.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: How well Orsino actually knows Olivia is questionable.
  • Either/Or Title: Played with, as the alternate title is What You Will — meaning it's left up to the director if they want to call it something other than Twelfth Night.
  • End of an Age: The theme of the play, as evidenced by the Bittersweet Ending.
  • Ensemble Cast: Viola is agreed to be the lead, but the focus is spread quite fairly amongst eleven principal roles, keeping this trope in play. Olivia and Malvolio are also occasionally classified as leading characters as well.
  • Excessive Mourning: Olivia plans to wear deep mourning and live in seclusion for seven years following her brother's death. Orsino argues that Olivia should resort to new means to remember her family. Like, having children.
  • Forged Letter: Maria writes a letter ambiguously making it seem that Olivia is in love with Malvolio, to trick him.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Even for an Elizabethan comedy (in which this trope was expected) Twelfth Night stands out: Orsino proposes to Viola the instant he learns that she is a woman. More ridiculous still, Sebastian marries Olivia — a woman he has literally just met — without even telling her his real name. Most productions will try to mitigate this this by blocking Orsino and Viola's scenes to show obvious physical chemistry they're trying to ignore, but with Sebastian and Olivia, you might as well lean into the absurdity.
  • Freudian Slip: When Orsino finds out that Olivia loves Cesario, he threatens to murder Cesario, comparing himself to an Egyptian thief who murdered his own lover to keep her from being tortured. He's inadvertently revealing that Cesario is the one he's in love with.
  • Fun-Hating Villain: Malvolio is defined by his Puritan aversion to fun and games. This was Truth in Television, as Puritans of Shakespeare's age were opposed to theater, so of course the Bard was quite dim on them.
  • Gaslighting:
    • Maria forges a letter in Olivia's handwriting, urging Malvolio to smile in Olivia's presence, wear yellow stockings and crossed garters. When Malvolio does these and makes amorous advances to Olivia, she has him confined to a dark room to recover his sanity.
    • Feste, Toby and Maria try to pull this on Malvolio during his mock-exorcism; Feste dresses up as Sir Topas the curate, asking Malvolio philosophical questions to test his sanity, and claiming that the bay windows are as transparent as castle walls and ebony
  • Girls with Moustaches: In many productions, Viola dons a fake moustache as part of her Cesario disguise.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Sir Toby and Fabian's plan to set Sir Andrew and Cesario up for a duel (and negotiate a settlement very amusing and profitable to themselves) falls to pieces when they accidentally find Sebastian, who is perfectly happy to hit back.
  • Green-Eyed Epiphany: Orsino has one as regards Cesario.
  • Half-Identical Twins: Viola and Sebastian seems to be this since many characters mistake them for one another when Viola masquerades as Cesario.
  • Happy Harlequin Hat: Feste wears one in some versions.
  • Haughty Help: Malvolio is the incredibly stuffy Puritan head of a countess's household. He is widely disliked across classes, and his underlings eventually take revenge on him for his mistreatment of them.
  • Hello, Sailor!: Antonio, a former pirate, has some pretty strong feelings for young Sebastian.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Antonio and Sebastian, although not necessarily heterosexual on Antonio's part, depending on the presentation. Make what you will of the part at the end where Antonio mentions:
    Antonio: Today, my lord, and for three months before, No interim, not a minute's vacancy, Both day and night did we keep company.
  • Hypocritical Humor
    Sir Toby: I hate a drunken rogue.
    • In Act 3, Antonio encounters Cesario/(Viola), who he mistakes for Sebastian, having entrusted his money to Sebastian's care. When Antonio is arrested by the officers, he asks Cesario for the money which he had entrusted to Sebastian, whom he rescued from the sea after the shipwreck. Unaware that he's actually been speaking with Cesario, Antonio is annoyed that Sebastian (actually Cesario) apparently treats him like a total stranger. Unaware of Sebastian's existence or friendship with Antonio, Cesario remarks that ingratitude is more abhorrent than lying, drunkenness, or any other flaw of human nature, infuriating Antonio as he is led away by the officers.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Orsino's reaction when he figures out that Olivia is in love with Cesario, more or less:
    Come, boy, with me; my thoughts are ripe in mischief:
    I'll sacrifice the lamb that I do love,
    To spite a raven's heart within a dove.
  • If I Were a Rich Man: Malvolio, in a daydream that he reveals to the audience.
  • In Love with Love: The Duke Orsino doesn't pay much attention to the messages he's actually getting from Olivia and seems to enjoy the misery of his hopeless suit.
  • Informed Ability: Viola tells the captain that she can sing well, and thus she inveigles herself into the court of the music-loving Orsino, but the play never calls for her to demonstrate her ability. Some productions will create opportunities for her; Trevor Nunn's film has her performing for Orsino several times (even rearranging the early scenes to let her be the musician in the "music be the food of love" scene), and the 2009 Shakespeare in the Park production with Anne Hathaway specifically cast singers, had the band Hem compose music for the in-show songs, and in general had so much music that they released a soundtrack album.
  • Insane Troll Logic:
    • Feste uses this to convince Olivia that she is the foolish one:
      Olivia: Take the fool away.
      Feste: Do you not hear, fellows? Take away the lady.
      Olivia: Go to, you're a dry fool; I'll no more of you: besides, you grow dishonest.
      Feste: Two faults, madonna, that drink and good counsel will amend: for give the dry fool drink, then is the fool no longer dry; bid the dishonest man mend himself: if he mend, then he is no longer dishonest: if he cannot, let the botcher mend him: anything that's mended is but patched: virtue that transgresses is but patched with sin; and sin that amends is but patched with virtue: if that this simple syllogism will serve, so; if it will not, what remedy? As there is no true cuckold but calamity, so beauty's a flower. — The lady bade take away the fool; therefore, I say again, take her away.
      Olivia: Sir, I bade them take away you.
    • A moment later, he asks Olivia:
      Feste: Good madonna, why mournest thou?
      Olivia: Good fool, for my brother's death.
      Feste: I think his soul is in hell, madonna.
      Olivia: I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
      Feste: The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.
    • Feste gets another occasion when he disguises himself as Sir Topas the curate to quiz Malvolio whom Toby and Fabian have put into a dark room.
  • Insistent Terminology: Used humorously by Feste. He's not Olivia's fool, he's her "corrupter of words".
  • Ironic Echo:
    • One of the most memorable ever employed.
      Malvolio: I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal: I saw him put down the other day with an ordinary fool that has no more brain than a stone. Look you now, he's out of his guard already; unless you laugh and minister occasion to him, he is gagged...
    • In the final scene:
      Feste: "By the Lord, fool, I am not mad." But do you remember? "Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascal? And you smile not, he's gagg'd." And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.
  • It Makes Sense in Context: In Act 2, Scene 3, Toby and Andrew have a brief discussion about going to bed early:
    Toby: Approach, Sir Andrew: not to be a-bed after midnight is to be up betimes; and diluculo surgere, thou knowest—
    Andrew: Nay, I know not; but I know, to be up late is to be up late.
    Toby: A false conclusion: I hate it as an unfilled can. To be up after midnight and to go to bed, then, is early; so that to go to bed after midnight is to go to bed betimes.
Since the next day starts at midnight, any time after midnight (e.g., 12:05 A.M.) would be considered part of the next day, which starts at midnight.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: A large part of why Viola continues to deliver Orsino's overtures to a woman who doesn't return his love, despite desiring him herself.
  • I Will Show You X!:
    • In Act II, Scene V, as Malvolio is deciphering a letter that reads "M, O, A, I doth sway my life", while Toby, Andrew and Fabian are hiding in the box-tree:
      Malvolio: "M", but then there is no consonancy in the sequel; "A" should follow, but "O" does.
      Fabian: And "O" shall end, I hope.
      Toby Belch: Ay, or I'll cudgel him, and make him cry "O"!
      Malvolio: And then "I" comes behind.
      Fabian: Ay, and had you any eye behind you, you might see more detraction at your heels than fortunes before you.
    • Later in Act V, when Feste reveals that he masqueraded as Sir Topas:
      Feste: ...and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.
      Malvolio: I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you.
  • Court Jester: Feste is one of Shakespeare's finest takes on this trope.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Malvolio's a fun hating puritan, but he's completely justified in calling out Toby and his friends for their behavior, given they don't stop to think of how their good time bothers everyone around them.
  • Jerkass:
    • Sir Toby Belch may be charming, but he's also the most actively malicious presence in the play. His hard-partying lifestyle proves to be a great annoyance to those around him, with Toby not caring a bit. While Malvolio's also a dick, Toby's plotting against him is at best, Disproportionate Retribution. Between his mooching for money and direct acts against him, he's also a pretty awful friend to Andrew. The worst of all his targeting though is when he goes after Viola, who hasn't done a single thing remotely wrong to him. He later tries to get into two fights with her (actually Sebastian) which winds up giving him a pretty well-deserved beatdown.
  • Karmic Trickster: Feste the jester embodies this role. He points out the logical flaws in Olivia's mourning, sees through even Viola's clever wordplay, and cuts the pompous, Puritan Malvolio down to size... and then some.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • The severity of Malvolio's imprisonment varies with production, but in general the level of Mind Screw that Feste and the others put him through is a little bit excessive, even if he is a Jerkass.
    • As his Establishing Character Moment Malvolio harshly puts down Feste by insulting his wit, casually implying he'd be better off with a debilitating infirmity. While Malvolio may not like Feste's jokes, his scorn comes in response to Feste trying to cheer Olivia up when she's mourning her dead brother, and Malvolio then scoffs disdainfully at Olivia for finding Feste amusing.
  • Kill the Ones You Love: Orsino threatens to do this to "Cesario" in the final scene, when he believes "him" to have betrayed him with Olivia.
    Orsino: Why should I not, had I the heart to do it, Like to the Egyptian thief at point of death, Kill what I love?
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: "If this were acted upon the stage I would condemn it as an improbable fiction."
  • Let's You and Him Fight: Sir Toby and Fabian urge Sir Andrew Aguecheek to fight Cesario (Viola in disguise) in a fencing duel, with the hopes that Andrew might have a better chance of gaining Olivia's hand. Toby and Fabian accompany Andrew as dueling seconds, urging Cesario to participate in the duel. Moments later, Antonio encounters Cesario, mistaking him for Sebastian and asking for the money which he had entrusted to Sebastian. Later on, Andrew attacks Sebastian, mistaking him for Cesario, only for Sebastian to thrash and bruise Sir Andrew and later Toby.
  • The Load:
    • Sir Toby Belch to Andrew, since he frequently borrows from Andrew's allowance. When Andrew offers Viola his horse Capilet to call off the fight, Toby mentions in an aside:
      Toby Belch: Marry, I'll ride your horse as well as I ride you.
    • Going the other way around, Andrew is this to Toby. While he does supply him money, he's ultimately of no use to him in their mischievous plots. Noticeably, Andrew winds up being absent from Malvolio's humiliations because Toby is instead working to humiliate him at the same time.
    • Toby is also this to Olivia and Malvolio, whose patience is worn thin by Toby's rowdy pranks, brawls and loud parties.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Orsino is pining after Olivia, who's got a thing for "Cesario," his actually-female servant, who invokes the ire of Malvolio, Olivia's steward who dreams of marrying her; meanwhile Cesario-actually-Viola tries to suppress her love for Orsino while dodging challenges from Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who is also courting the Countess, but who accidentally runs into Viola's twin brother...
  • Loving a Shadow:
    • Orsino for Olivia. He even says as much — he says he doesn't care about her fabulous inheritance and wealth, but for her beauty, without a hint of self-consciousness.
    • Viola, when she deduces that Olivia has fallen for "Cesario," pities her: "Poor woman, she had better love a dream."
  • Makeup Is Evil: Viola, first seeing Olivia's unveiled face, says that she's beautiful if there was no makeup; Olivia assures her that there's none, and it will not wash off.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Malvolio is derived from the term "ill-wisher" and Feste has the same root as "festival". Guess which roles they play in the story.
    • Viola's Half Identical Twin brother Sebastian. In Shakespeare's earlier play Two Gentlemen of Verona, Julia dressed up as a boy and played a highly Viola-like role...and "Sebastian" was the name of her alias.
    • "Antonio" may also refer back to Shakespeare's earlier work. The Merchant of Venice also has an Ambiguously Gay Antonio who ends up staking his reputation that Bassanio and Gratiano will never part with their wedding rings again.
    • Feste's disguise as Sir Topas the curate; "Topas" can be considered an alternate spelling of topaz, and according to English superstition, topazes were believed to have powers to cure lunatics, with Malvolio persistently protesting that he is not insane.
    • Sir Toby Belch.
  • Medium Awareness: Also The End. The last two lines of the play, sung by the Fool.
    But that's all one, our play is done,
    And we'll strive to please you every day.
  • Men Are Better Than Women: A belief of Orsino's, not uncommon in Elizabethan England. He's set straight by the end of the play.
  • Miles Gloriosus: Andrew Aguecheek, who attacks Sebastian after his attempted duel with Cesario/Viola is interrupted by Antonio, only for Sebastian to kick Andrew's butt to kingdom come. Toby Belch gets a similar treatment offstage.
  • Mirth to Power: Feste, after some time out of town, meets the Countess in a bad mood in Act I, Scene 5. Feste is warned to make her smile, fast, or else beat it. He then says what none of Olivia's faithful retainers will say: that her mourning is excessive and that her brother must be in Hell if Olivia is so goddamn sad. At first shocked, Olivia laughs at herself (and takes one step in her Character Development).
  • My Sibling Will Live Through Me: Viola doesn't only disguise herself as a man, she specifically dresses like her brother in memory of him. Needless to say, this makes mistaking them for each other even easier.
  • Narcissist: A running theme. Orsino thinks he's in love with Olivia, but actually he's in love with himself ("my desires, like fell and cruel hounds/E'er since pursue me.") Viola, hopeless in her love for him because he doesn't know that she's a girl, plays the role of Echo. In the subplot, Malvolio is also this. Even Olivia's excessive mourning is treated as being selfish. One professional production drove the point home by using a gigantic illustration of Narcissus as a backdrop.
  • Nice Girl: Viola is a very kind, very loyal, very likable individual; notably, she never uses her disguise to trick or deceive others beyond telling them she's male—she's simply interested in getting on with her life. She's also very sweet to both Olivia and Orsino, and genuinely wants the best for everyone. At least one literary critic has claimed that her straightforwardly good and kind personality is probably why Viola's one of the most well-liked of Shakespeare's leading ladies.
  • No One Could Survive That!: Shipwreck at sea, according to the old Sea Captain.
  • Non-Indicative Name: Twelfth Night does not factor into the plot. The name comes either from the play itself being written as entertainment on Twelfth Night, or from the fact that the plot mirrors certain traditions affiliated with Twelfth Night in Shakespeare's time.
  • Non-Ironic Clown: Feste, as a jester, who frequently engages in witty banter and joins in the pranks when he disguises himself as Sir Topas when he examines Malvolio.
  • Not So Above It All: Malvolio, who turns to the frivolity that he condemns when he believes that it is the way to win over Olivia.
  • Oh, My Gods!: The characters in the play frequently appeal to or praise Jove.
  • Only Sane Man: Sebastian thinks—not without cause—that everyone around him has gone mad.
  • Operation: Jealousy: It's possible to play Maria, during the scene when she meets Sir Andrew for the first time, as deliberately leading Sir Andrew on to try and make Toby Belch jealous.
  • Opportunistic Bastard: Toby Belch, who joins Maria, Fabian, and Andrew Aguecheek in a forged letter to get Malvolio to believe Olivia is infatuated with him, in addition to mooching hefty sums of money from Andrew in the hopes that Andrew might woo Olivia, only to desert him when Andrew's plans fall to pieces after Sebastian beats him up, and he ends up marrying Maria instead.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: A mild example, but Olivia has recently inherited the title of Countess from her dead father and brother, and at the start of the play is deeply mourning them both, and plans to spend the next seven years in mourning.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Viola as Cesario, depending on who's cast to play her. But even with a male actor, she's made up in the same way as other female characters.
  • Playing Cyrano: Orsino wants "Cesario" to act as such, not because Orsino is bad with words (far from it) but because Olivia might be more receptive to Cesario's delicacy.
  • Pride:
    • Viola's first appraisal of Olivia's character is, "I see you what you are, you are too proud." Viola might be speaking out of personal frustration, to see Olivia laughing at the man Viola loves, but the line does open up a suggestion that Olivia's arc from then on becomes a Break the Haughty plotline.
    • Malvolio's pride is his downfall, starting with his holier-than-thou attitude and presumptuous ambitions.
  • Pun: It's a Shakespeare play, so wordplay abounds.
    Viola (asking Feste if he makes a living playing music): Dost though live by thy tabor?
    Feste: No, sir, I live by the church.
    Viola: Art thou a churchman?
    Feste: No such matter, sir. I do live by the church, for I do live at my house, and my house doth stand by the church.
  • Rags to Royalty: Neither Sebastian nor Viola is stated to be of any great lineage and yet they marry a Duke and a Countess.
  • The Reveal: To someone just watching the play, sans playbill, Viola's name is not revealed until towards the end of the very last scene.
  • Seemingly Profound Fool:
    • Feste, who uses intricate discourse to convince Olivia that she's a fool by illustrating her folly in mourning for her brother whose soul is in heaven.
    • Later on, Feste disguises himself as Sir Topas the curate priest, quizzing Malvolio on Pythagoras and the doctrine of reincarnation.
  • Servile Snarker:
    • Maria...although she doesn't snark at Olivia, her employer. She does snark at Olivia's freeloading uncle Toby and his drinking buddy, since she's also stuck working for them ("A stoup of wine, Maria!")
    • And, of course, this is The Fool's job.
      Feste: Lady Olivia has no folly: she will keep no fool, sir, till she be married.
  • Shaped Like Itself: Almost to the extent of being a Running Gag.
    Sir Andrew: To be up late is to be up late!
    Feste: As the old hermit of Prague, that never saw pen and ink, very wittily said to a niece of King Gorboduc, 'That that is is;' so I, being Master Parson, am Master Parson; for, what is 'that' but 'that,' and 'is' but 'is'?
    Olivia: Tell me what thou think'st of me.
    Viola That you do think you are not what you are.
    Olivia: If I think so, I think the same of you.
    Viola: Then think you right; I am not what I am.
    Olivia: I would you were as I would have you be!
  • Shipwreck Start: The play starts with Viola getting shipwrecked and believing her twin brother, Sebastian, to have died.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: Played with when Olivia plans to have Feste kicked out, only for him to buy some time by tossing a bit of clever Word-Salad Humor:
    Olivia: Take the fool away.
    Feste: Do you not hear, fellows? Take away the lady.
    Olivia: Go to, you're a dry fool; I'll no more of you: besides, you grow dishonest.
    Feste: Two faults, madonna, that drink and good counsel will amend: for give the dry fool drink, then is the fool no longer dry; bid the dishonest man mend himself: if he mend, then he is no longer dishonest: if he cannot, let the botcher mend him: anything that's mended is but patched: virtue that transgresses is but patched with sin; and sin that amends is but patched with virtue: if that this simple syllogism will serve, so; if it will not, what remedy? As there is no true cuckold but calamity, so beauty's a flower. — The lady bade take away the fool; therefore, I say again, take her away.
    Olivia: Sir, I bade them take away you.
  • Slobs vs. Snobs: Malvolio, the snide, squeaky-clean manservant versus Toby, the lewd and belligerently drunken knight.
  • Smarter Than You Look: This sums up Feste's entire character; his clowning belies a keen intelligence. In particular, while no other character in the story seems remotely aware that Viola's a woman, Feste sees through her disguise almost instantly. Viola comments on it in an aside.
    Viola: This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, and to do that well craves a kind of wit.
  • Stepford Smiler: Malvolio, when he follows the letter's instructions, giddily begins to smile unnaturally, which does not please the melancholy Olivia one bit, since she is more accustomed to Malvolio when he is melancholy.
  • Sustained Misunderstanding: In Sir Andrew's first scene, Sir Toby encourages him to accost the maid Maria, but his unclear syntax results in Sir Andrew believing that "Accost" is the maid's name. When she corrects him that her name is Maria, he takes this to mean that her full name is "Maria Accost".
  • Sweet on Polly Oliver: Orsino seems to begin viewing Cesario more than platonically during Feste's mournful song.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Viola is a woman masquerading as a man — specifically a eunuch, presumably to explain her voice and feminine face — and going by the name Cesario. (As performed in Shakespeare's day, it would've been Recursive Crossdressing: a man playing a woman masquerading as a man.)
  • Title Drop: Olivia says, "Go you, Malvolio: if it be a suit from the count, I am sick, or not at home; what you will, to dismiss it.
  • Toilet Humor: Sir Toby is seized by an attack early on, and everyone flocks around him in concern—and then flee, because it was an attack of gas. (The Bard, everyone.)
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: In the later acts, Sir Toby baits on Sir Andrew to attack "Cesario" on sight. This backfires on them when they attack Sebastian, who, unlike Cesario, is a good fighter. Antonio, who loves Sebastian, enters the fray, which gets him into trouble with the local Duke, who is the real Cesario's employer. And the Duke loses his temper when he finds out that his beloved, Olivia, has married Cesario. This being a comedy, however, things work out all right.
  • Tree Cover: Maria, Toby, and Andrew hide in or behind a box tree according to the stage directions. Given boxwood refers to a small shrubbery or tree, this verges on Mobile Shrubbery in some productions.
  • True Art Is Ancient: In-Universe; Orsino describes the melancholy song that he has Feste sing as "antique," and he praises it for recalling the innocence of love, "like the old days."
  • True Art Is Angsty: In-Universe, for the same song, "Come Away, Come Away, Death." Orsino is very pleased when Cesario praises the song highly.
  • Twin Threesome Fantasy: Olivia's cry of "Most wonderful!" when "Cesario" and Sebastian finally appear onstage together.note 
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Sit Toby Belch, who marries Maria at the play's end.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance of the Half-Identical Twins variety (Sebastian and Viola)
  • The Un-Smile: Malvolio. Puritan fellow. Doesn't smile a lot. If he doesn't give off at least one horrifying grimace by the end of this line, you're doing it wrong.
    Jove, I thank thee: I will smile; I will do everything that thou wilt have me!
  • Upper-Class Twit: Andrew Aguecheek. Though with a name like that...
  • "Walk on the Wild Side" Episode: The rigid Puritan Malvolio lets it all hang out by dressing in flamboyant fashions meant for somebody twenty years younger and protests his love for his shocked female employer.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Even the stage directions seem to forget about Antonio by the end. While it's unlikely his love will be requited, we still don't know whether he'll escape punishment for his actions in the war.
  • Wimp Fight: Viola vs. Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Then subverted when Andrew's ready for a rematch — only to meet Viola's actually competent Half Identical Twin brother Sebastian instead.
  • Women Are Wiser: In Orsino and "Cesario"'s dialogue, Orsino seems to be much less mature in his love than Viola, who is entirely capable of actually working for her love rather than sitting around and moping.