“Twelfth Night of What You Will” by William Shakespeare: Plots and Themes

Subject: Literature
Pages: 6
Words: 1732
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: Bachelor


Twelfth Night of What You Will by William Shakespeare is a romantic-comedy novel with intersecting plots and subplots. The major plot revolves around the love triangle between Orsino, Olivia, and Viola. The second plot is about the mistaken identity of Sebastian marrying Olivia thus breaking the love triangle. The subplot involves the ploy of Malvolio and the drama that surrounds his madness. The plots interlink through the themes of love, self-interest, and mistaken identity among others. Many novel readers have enjoyed the romantic and comic nature of the story while relating to modern issues such as same-sex attraction, impersonation, and love dilemmas. The sub plotting of this story is very normal for Elizabethan drama, especially for the Malvolio character. Thus, Twelfth Night has separate plots that intertwine to create one of the most thrilling and popular Shakespeare plays.

Separate Plots

The various plots of the play are separate but are connected to reveal common themes. The primary plot of the story involves a love triangle that is hidden between Orsino, Olivia, and Cesario. Orsino is overly smitten by Olivia but Olivia is still mourning her brother (Shakespeare 2). Orsino has been pursuing Olivia for some time yet she has not accepted his marriage proposal. Viola, disguised as a man is sent by Orsino to court Olivia on his behalf. Instead of accepting Orsino’s proposal, Olivia falls in love with the disguised Viola, Cesario (Shakespeare 2). Viola is reluctant to act as a mediator between Olivia and Orsino as she has fallen for Orsino.

In the second plot, Sebastian, without knowledge of the romance between Olivia and Cesario marries Olivia. Olivia, Sir Andrew, and Sir Toby think that Sebastian is Cesario. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew disgusted by the presence of assumed Cesario engages him in a fighting match (Shakespeare 86). Assuming that it is Cesario, Olivia interrupts the fight and asks Sebastian to marry her. In the third plot and subplot, Maria writes a letter to Malvolio pretending to be Olivia. In the letter, Olivia demands that Malvolio should express his love by dressing in crossed garters and yellow stockings, smiling constantly, acting haughtily, and explaining his actions to no one (Shakespeare 23). Malvolio, who hopes to marry Olivia reads the letter and acts accordingly. In Olivia’s house, everybody thinks that Malvolio is mad, so he is rocked in a dark room.

The three plots are jammed together to express the themes of love and ambition. Although expressed differently, the three plots share a common theme of love. In the first plot, three characters express feelings of affection and are hopeful of attaining the affection. In the plot and despite being turned down severally, Orsino is not giving up on his love for Olivia (Shakespeare 6). In the second plot, Sr. Andrew is also in love with Olivia and is not hesitant of fighting Cesario for her. Sebastian and Cesario are twins, and their common looks keep various characters confused. Olivia, smitten is Cesario and as a way of expressing love asks Sebastian to marry her (Shakespeare 87). The ambition here is shown by Sr.Andrew, who exchanges blows with Sebastian assuming that he is Cesario. In the subplot of Malvolio’s madness, Malvolio is ambitious to win Olivia’s heart, so he agrees to all her supposed terms of love. Maria also wins the heart of Sir Toby and secretly gets married.

Plots Intersection

The three plots interlink in a meaningful way by helping various characters find their purpose. The plot of a love triangle is solved by the second plot where mistaken identities are revealed (Clare 128). Viola or Cesario is in love with Orsino but because she wants to keep her disguise keeps her feelings hidden until when Sebastian shows up. Olivia, although has not expressed her love to Cesario keeps it under wrap until in the second plot when she asks him to marry her. Orsino thinks that he loves Olivia until the last scene when he realizes he loves Cesario as Viola.

The subplot also intersects with the first and second plots where Malvolio’s selfishness is portrayed in the first plot, punished in the subplot, and revealed in the second plot (Clare 129). Malvolio, although has an undying love for Olivia has other undesirable characteristics. He is displayed as a self-centered man who thinks he puts his needs before those of others. Malvolio also has a mean personality and verbally abuses other characters especially Maria, Sr. Andrew, Sr. Toby, and Feste. In the comic subplot, these characters punish Malvolio by rocking him in the darkroom citing that he is mad (Clare 132). Malvolio is set free in the second plot when all secrets related to his madness are revealed and he promises revenge. The three plots are interdependent in bringing a meaningful and whole story.

Thematic Linkage

The plots and subplots are thematically intertwined in terms of love, ambition, self-deception, and self-interests. The various themes are portrayed in the three plots but are shown by various characters. As discussed above, love and ambition are illustrated by Olivia, Cesario, Orsino, Sr. Andrew, and Malvolio. The theme of self-deception is shown in many cases in the various plots (Clare 125). In the first plot, Malvolio feels he is the worthiest of Olivia’s love yet is betrayed by his actions.

Malvolio, although is deceived by Maria’s letter, he allows his heart to believe that Olivia would fall for him despite his mischievous traits. Olivia also deceives herself by thinking that she loves Sebastian while it is Cesario she loves. Olivia asks Sebastian to marry him thinking that he is Cesario. However, even after all identities are revealed, Olivia still loves Sebastian and not Cesario. Cesario also self-deceives by allowing her feelings towards Orsino to stay hidden. Cesario has fallen in love with her master yet wants to believe that their love is impossible.

The theme of self-interest is portrayed across the three themes through Malvolio, Olivia, and Sebastian. Malvolio, serving his self-need accepts to be humiliated to win Olivia’s love. He agrees to wear ridiculous attires and act in a humiliating and aggressive manner to meet his desires. The extent to which Malvolio will go for love is an excellent expression of self-interest (Kelly 9). He shows self-interest in the first plot and subplot thus linking them thematically. Olivia also expresses selfishness when, although not interested in Orsino’s proposal keeps Cesario coming because she is interested in him. From this perception, Olivia uses Orsino to meet her needs (Kelly 12). Sebastian also illustrates selfishness when he marries Olivia because she is wealthy. According to Shakespeare, Olivia asks Sebastian to marry her assuming she is Cesario but Sebastian knowing the truth marries her (90). When Sebastian saw Olivia, he realized that she was a wealthy woman so when she proposed marriage, he did not hesitate to marry her.

Relationship with Elizabethan Drama

The chaotic plotting employed in this novel is normal for Elizabethan drama. Elizabethan drama plots are built with similar themes including humor, comedy, disguise, and revenge (Lebert 12). The drama is a tragedy centered on a heroic theme where a great personality is destroyed by his ambition and passion. Such a plot is similar to that of Twelfth Night’s subplot. Malvolio through the pursuit of self-interest ends up caged in a mad person. He is punished for his self-centeredness, proving that his ambition destroyed his life. The dramatic disguise in this play is common in Elizabethan drama (Lebert 16). Although experts classify it to represent homoeroticism while Elizabethan conservatism, the disguises stir equal drama for the plot. The disguises illustrate people’s desires compared to their realities.

People’s Reaction to the Play

People enjoyed Twelfth Night’s plotting and rated it as Shakespeare’s best comic play. According to Clare, the play was first performed for the closing of the Christmas season in 1602 (129). The plotting of the play matched the mood of the season where everything turned upside down in celebration, just like in the chaotic plots. The characters from the Olivia house make the plot more exhilarating and amusing. The ploy orchestrated by Maria to make Malvolio believe that Olivia loved him is hilarious. People liked how all Olivia’s household characters came together to punish Malvolio for his skimming behaviors (Clare 132). In the darkroom, the household characters torment Molvolio by making him feel more insane. Feste dresses like the priest, Sir Topas, and declares Malvolio insane. The audience also loved how these characters understood their comic boundaries (Clare 126). When Sir Toby realized that the joke was getting serious, he convinces others to let Malvolio write an apology letter to Olivia.

The play’s audience was also thrilled by the depiction of sexual attraction, class, and gender. The various aspects of the plot are relatable to the audience’s modern life. Other than the heterosexual form of attraction, the play illustrates same-sex attraction (Barr 12). Antonio is attracted to Sebastian and Cesario, though pretending to be a man is attracted to Orsino. At the end of the play, Orsino confesses to being in love with Cesario but promises to marry her when she dresses as a woman. Olivia displays an admirable socioeconomic class and Malvolio, Sr. Andrew, Orsino, and Sebastian cannot resist. Malvolio while in the darkroom imagines marrying Olivia and achieving a high social class (Barr 26). Sebastian also admires Olivia’s wealthy status and does not hesitate to marry her for the same reason. The gender aspect is prorated by the act of Viola disguising herself as a man.

Differences in Audience Concerns

While some people liked the chaotic plots, others criticized Shakespeare’s intentions. Viola disguises herself as a man to pursue love thus she is displayed from a female sphere. Critics hold that Shakespeare undermined the masculine role of Cesario (Kelly 4). This section of the audience would expect Cesario to pursue a more challenging masculine role. Other people feel that the romance between Olivia and Sebastian undermined the ambitious acts of pursuing love in the plots (Kelly 10). For example, Malvolio acts mad, Orsino uses Cesario as his page, and Sr. Andrew fights Sebastian all to win Olivia’s heart but when Sebastian appears in the play, he does not struggle to win Olivia’s love (Kelly 8). The romance between Maria and Sir. Toby is also said to have hideous intentions. The two quickly marry in a secret ceremony, making the audience question the need for such hurry and secrecy.

Works Cited

Barr, Ivey. “While I See You”: Transgressive Duality in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. The University of Texas at Dallas, 2020.

Clare, Janet. Shakespeare’s Hybrid Style. Lingue e Linguaggi, Vol. 27, 2018, pp. 125-138. EBSCO. 

Kelly, Maggie S. Mourning through Murder: The Role Of Psychic Mimesis in Early Modern Revenge Tragedies and Shut Your Trap: Hunting Metaphors and Verbal Violence in Twelfth Night. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 2018. ProQuest Dissertations.

Lebert, Phyllis Kay. ”A Woman’s Story”: Lady Macbeth and Performing Femininity in the Early 1600s-Late 1900s. University of Arkansas, 2019.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night or What You Will. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat & Paul Werstine, Simon & Schuster, 2019.