Critical Essays Major Symbols and Motifs


Explore the different symbols and motifs within William Shakespeare's comedic play, Twelfth Night. Symbols and motifs are key to understanding Twelfth Night as a play and identifying Shakespeare's social and political commentary.


Although no actual deaths occur in Twelfth Night, death haunts this play throughout. At the beginning, Olivia is mourning a dead brother. Sebastian and Viola have just survived a shipwreck, and each spends the majority of the play thinking the other is dead.

Later in the play, when the plot entanglements heart up, we learn of the other near-brushes with death. Antonio, captured by Orsino's men, is threatened with death. Pranks orchestrated by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew lead them perilously close to being killed by Sebastian. Most significantly, Orsino threatens to kill Cesario, and s/he is most "willing apt" to let him. Even though all these threats come to nought, they serve as a reminder of how eros (love), in Shakespeare, can so quickly slide over into thanatos (death).

Identity and Mistaken Identity

One of the central motifs of this play is identity and mistaken identity. Identity (like so many words in this play) has a double sense. On the one hand, identity differentiates one thing from another by noting the individuality of each. On the other hand, identity also implies likeness or resemblance. When we say two things are identical, we usually mean they are exactly the same, like identical twins. And this tension between likeness and difference generates much of the action in the comic and romantic plots.

Shakespeare’s ability to reveal the unstable nature of identity itself, however, is profoundly disturbing. All the characters in this play are either taken in by another character's disguise or perpetrate a deception regarding their own identity. The subtitle, or What your Will, may be this play's guiding principle: What you will in this play is the basis for who you are. In Illyria, characters (like actors) take on fictive roles, and the line between being someone and playing someone is as tenuous as the line between reality and illusion.

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