Critical Essays Major Themes


Explore the different themes within William Shakespeare's comedic play, Twelfth Night. Themes are central to understanding Twelfth Night as a play and identifying Shakespeare's social and political commentary.


Most of the characters in Twelfth Night are in a state of identity confusion. Thematically, Shakespeare sets up the plays to actions to reinforce that identity will always be fragmentary and incomplete until one is able to love, regardless of whether one is loved in return.

Mistaken Gender Identity

One level of identity confusion in Twelfth Night is gender identity. Viola embodies this confusion when she assumes the identity of a boy, Cesario. Of course, in Shakespeare's time, all female roles were played by boys, so in this case a boy actor plays a woman character (Viola) who dissembles herself as a boy (Cesario). In a patriarchal culture, sexual difference is held to be an immutable law; traditional gender role behavior was based on a natural biological fact rather than social convention.

The indeterminacy of Viola/Cesario's sexual identity would show that maleness and femaleness were just aspects of a role, qualities that are learned, not immutable physical traits. When Cesario and Sir Andrew face each other in a duel, it is revealed that both are acting the role of being a man. The biological fact of Sir Andrew's maleness is obsolete. Both characters are pretending.

Love and the Self

Shakespeare, especially through Olivia, gets to the heart of the relationship between self and love. When we fall in love, we almost necessarily lose our self-composure, cease to be able to see our actions with our own eyes. Yet even though Olivia fears that her attraction to Viola will come to naught, she is willing to risk it, because love, or at least intense attraction, allows her to leave her “mind” behind and give herself up to fate.

The Danger of Love

In Twelfth Night, love is seen as similar to death, because both prose a threat, or at the very least, a challenge to the singular self that is afraid of change. To be able to love another requires that one must accept change, to accept that one cannot entirely control one's fate, or even one's will. The very language that one uses to communicate with another may end up demanding more, or at least differently, than what one intended.

The characters in the play that cling to a singular sense of self that does not allow for change are often the ones for whom change happens most violently. Malvolio is the most notable example of this, but Orsino, too, although he claims to be open to love, is, beneath all his high rhetoric, deeply afraid of any mutual love relationship. In some ways, it's much easier for him to pine for Olivia and send middlemen to woo her, precisely because it flatters his ego to feel he loves more than she loves him back.

Back to Top