Literary Devices In Twelfth Night

Introduction to “Twelfth Night”

“Twelfth Night” is a Shakespearean romantic comedy among his most applauded works. It dramatizes the interplay of gentle humor, complicated romance, and misidentifications in full color for audience’s pleasure.

The play was written around 1601-1602. Twelfth Night, is named after the ending of Christmas, a festivity full of jokes and drowsiness. The play has a subtitle “What You Will”, which suggests its impulsive nature. The play also contains serious subject compared to what it appears to be, as the audience would enjoy interpreting all these with a free-minded and open mind.

Short Summary of “Twelfth Night”

“Twelfth Night” was staged in the fictional land of Illyria. The unfortunate incident of shipwreck separated the twins i.e. Viola and Sebastian.

Viola considers that her brother Sebastian has died in the shipwreck, so she disguises herself undertaking the role of Cesario (a young male), and continues to join the Orsino Duke.

The story develops and the Duke falls in love with the countess Olivia, who is mourning the death of her brother and refuses the Orsino’s advances.

The interesting fact which spelt it out from the story is that Olivia finds herself drawn in the love of Cesario, however she is unware of his/her true identity. Further, the Viola, as Cesario falls in love with the Duke. So, it develops a complex love triangle.

On the other hand, Sir Toby Belch, the uncle of Olivia along with Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Maria (the maid), and the clown Feste play a prank on Malvolio.

They convince Malvolio him that Olivia loves him. This leads to the humiliation of the Malvolio and his confinement as a madman.

The interesting situation arises when Sebastian, the twin brother of Viola arrives in Illyria. This adds the confusion amongst the characters.

Olivia decides to marry Sebastian, by considering him as Cesario. The play ends with revelations of true identities, reconciliations and multiple marriages, including Viola and Orsino, and Sebastian and Olivia.

Literary Devices in “Twelfth Night”

1- Wordplay and Puns

The play is famous for the extensive use of wordplay and puns. These literary techniques not only increase the comedic effect in the play but also explains the linguistic skill of the writer.

The characters in the play often employ the witty language and double meaning to create the comic effect. For example, in Act I and Scene V, Feste (the clown) involves in a comical exchange with Olivia:

Olivia: What’s a drunken man like, fool?
Feste: Like a drowned man, a fool, and a madman: one draught above heat makes him a fool, the second mads him, and a third drowns him.

In this short passage, Olivia is communicating with Feste. She asks him to explain the drunken man, who replies her in the wordplay and puns. He describes a drunken man as ‘a drowned man, a fool and a madman’ which makes an apt joke about the way alcohol affects people.

The pun on “draught” (meaning both a drink and a current of air) cleverly categorizes the stages of drunkenness: The first one makes a man a fool, the second one a mad man, and the third one commits the murder, symbolizing drowned man signifying complete loss of control.

This reflects Feste’s quick witted response and how he is the fool who makes point through humor and irony of a night of gluttony and of human kind.

2- Dramatic Irony

The dramatic irony in the play happens in Act II, Scene IV. The Duke Orsino speaks to Viola about his love for Olivia, unaware that Cesario is actually Viola, who is in love with him.

There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much; they lack retention.
Alas, their love may be called appetite,
No motion of the liver, but the palate,
That suffer surfeit, cloyment, and revolt;
But mine is all as hungry as the sea,
And can digest as much. Make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.
Viola (as Cesario):
Ay, but I know—
What dost thou know?
Too well what love women to men may owe:
In faith, they are as true of heart as we.
My father had a daughter loved a man,
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.

Orsino expresses how unlikely it would be for women to love the way men do and yet Viola loves Orsino with all her heart and soul.

Here, the dramatic irony is realized in the fact that although the audience knows that Viola is actually a woman and that she loves Orsino, even then, Orsino does not know any of this.

Viola’s speech right after – “My father had a daughter loved a man, As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman, I should your lordship” – is very touching in the context of the play because she isexpressing her desire for Orsino while talking about Cesario and his love for the Duke.

This creates a contrasting effect on the audience because they know the truth but the characters do not; it intensifies the emotions of the scene and reinforces the concepts of love and mistaken identity.

3- Soliloquies and Asides

The author uses soliloquies and asides to provide the deep analysis of the characters thoughts and motivations.

The soliloquy of Viola in Act II, Scene II, reveals her inner confusion and unexpressed love for Orsino:

Viola: I left no ring with her: what means this lady?
Fortune forbid my outside have not charm’d her!
She made good view of me; indeed, so much,
That sure methought her eyes had lost her tongue,
For she did speak in starts distractedly.
She loves me, sure; the cunning of her passion
Invites me in this churlish messenger.
None of my lord’s ring! why, he sent her none.
I am the man: if it be so, as ’tis,
Poor lady, she were better love a dream.
Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness,
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
How easy is it for the proper-false
In women’s waxen hearts to set their forms!
Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we!
For such as we are made of, such we be.
How will this fadge? my master loves her dearly;
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him;
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master’s love;
As I am woman,–now alas the day!–
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!
O time! thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me to untie!

The element of disguise is the main focus in this particular soliloquy. Viola contemplates the mess that Cesario is creating.

She realizes that Olivia has fallen in love with her as Cesario and thinks that all the flirting is real. Here, Viola expresses her regrets over the situation that she finds herself in; the theater of denial and how her disguise causes misery.

She admits that she understood the inner conflict which leads Olivia to fall in love with a fake person while she is in love with Orsino herself.

It features Viola and expresses her struggle in a complex web of love, lies, and identities, associating with the themes of love, deception, and social roles.

4- Symbolism

The famous example of symbolism in the play is the disguise of Viola as Cesario.

The disguise reflects the adaptability of the identity and the exploration of gender roles in the play.

Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke:
Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him:
It may be worth thy pains; for I can sing
And speak to him in many sorts of music
That will allow me very worth his service.
What else may hap to time I will commit;
Only shape thou thy silence to my wit.

Viola impersonates like a young man called Cesario to serve Duke Orsino. Her mask indicates an allegory to the nature and ambiguity of identity.

During the play, the masculine clothing helps Viola to fit in the man world and to deal with other characters in a manner that was not possible if Viola had dressed like a woman.

This disguise not only creates a number of misconceptions but also serves to expose more sincere sides of Viola and the other characters.

The use of gender and disguise indicates the theme of identity and tricks. It also reveals the absurdness of gender roles as well as the aspect of metamorphosis and self actualization.

This is the reason why Shakespeare chose this symbol to criticize the social arrangements of his society as well as the audience’s attitudes towards identity and reality.

5- Metaphors and Similes

The use of metaphors and similes enhance the poetic quality of the play:

If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

Here, Orsino relates music to food and thus hypothesizes that over-indulgence in music may resolve his lovesickness.

This makes a great introduction to Orsino as a personality and his attitude towards love.

See also:
Metaphor Examples in Literature
Simile Examples in Literature

6- Irony

The prominent example of irony in the play involves Malvolio and the prank played on him by Maria, Sir Toby Blech and others.

Malvolio finds a letter he believes is from Olivia, claiming her love for him. This leads to a chain of ironic events.

Malvolio (reading the letter):
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” Thy fates open their hands; let thy blood and spirit embrace them. And, to inure thyself to what thou art like to be, cast thy humble slough and appear fresh. Be opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants; let thy tongue tang arguments of state; put thyself into the trick of singularity. She thus advises thee that sighs for thee. Remember who commended thy yellow stockings and wished to see thee ever cross-gartered. I say, remember. Go to, thou art made if thou desir’st to be so; if not, let me see thee a steward still, the fellow of servants, and not worthy to touch Fortune’s fingers. Farewell. She that would alter services with thee, the fortunate-unhappy.”

This is a very ironic scene in the sense that there are several levels of irony present.

Malvolio is usually portrayed as an arrogant and stiff puritanical steward and one see him act completely out of character when he receives a letter that he thinks is from Olivia professing her love for him and insisting that he behaves like a peacock and walk daily with cross garters amongst other things.

Actually, it is a forgery committed by Maria to make Malvolio appear ridiculous.

Malvolio instead reads the letter and thinks that it is from Olivia and decides to wear yellow stockings and cross garters. He behaves like an arrogant clown which Olivia hates.

The audience is aware of the actual content of the letter and the fact that it is a prank organized by Maria and the others.

This creates irony as we see the misled Malvolio falls for this prank. The line ‘Some are born great some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em’ is particularly ironic because it is based on the fact that Malvolio believes that he is experiencing the arrival of greatness, while, in reality, it is humiliation that is coming his way instead.

7- Foreshadowing

What country, friends, is this?

What should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium.
Perchance he is not drowned: what think you, sailors?

Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke:
Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him:
It may be worth thy pains; for I can sing
And speak to him in many sorts of music
That will allow me very worth his service.
What else may hap to time I will commit;
Only shape thou thy silence to my wit.

The passage above reflects the shipwrecked, wherein the brother of Viola has been died and she disguises herself as Cesario in order to acquire work with Duke Orsino.

The moment foreshadows the various complications and misconceptions that will arise from her disguise.

Her decision sets the stage for the central conflicts of the play: romantic activities get intertwined with a wrong identification of the people and a subsequent uncovering of ‘real’ names and faces.

The audience knows that Viola is really a man while she is pretending to be a woman and rightly expects misunderstandings when men encounter her feminine disguise.

The initial scene also paves the way for the resolution of the play since Viola has a hope that her brother might still be alive while in reality he arrives and meets the identical twin initiating the wrong identity shift between the two twins.

This act of disguise proves to the audience that the theme of disguise and transformation will play an important role in the development of the whole play; in other words, this scene represents the key element that sets the background for the action and comedy that will later ensue.

8- Songs and Music

Music and songs are considered the literary devices in the context of literature and drama. They play a prominent role in the play. For example, the song in Act II, Scene III:

What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

The lyrics of the Feste song takes into account that love is fleeting and that so is youth. It illustrates how the love is meant to be enjoyed in the here and now since there is no guarantee that anything will last in the future, and while there is life there is no point in delaying pleasure.

The expression ‘What is love? ‘tis not hereafter’ serves to underline the fact that love is an emotion that should be enjoyed in the present rather than expected in future.

The phrase “present mirth hath present laughter” reflects the concept that present enjoyment leads to present fulfillment. The necessity of the action of “Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty” symbolizes the necessity of enjoying young delights as “Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”

It reminds us that the period of youth and all related positive events is short and intemperate. This song is a perfect fit for the play as it speaks of the idea of living for the moment and the certainty of death.

Themes in “Twelfth Night”

I- Love and Desire

There are multiple forms of love found in the play. The play illustrates the portrayal of the real meaning of love and its other forms, such as the romantic aspect and the idea of love as a kind of madness or folly.

Orsino’s love for Olivia, the true love of Viola for Orsino and Olivia misplaced affection for Cesario are perfect examples of love.

II- Mistaken Identity and Disguise

The play is classified as a comedy since two plot devices are used: disguise and mistaken identity.

In the play, the disguise of Viola as Cesario reflects the theme of misunderstanding and the comic situation arouse as a result thereof.

III- Madness and Folly

Madness is a significant theme in the play. Malvolio’s false perception of Olivia’s love for him coupled with the approach towards him as a mad character clearly alludes to the aspect of insanity and normality.

The elements of humor are also present due to the ridiculous actions and situations that the characters find themselves in and the consequent misunderstandings between the characters.

IV- Festivity and Revelry

The tone of the play is extensively witty and carnival as the title of the play refers to the festival of twelfth day.

In the play, Sir Toby Blech embodies this spirit. He uses to take drink, merrymaking and jokes. The play recognizes the joy and turmoil of festive occasions.

Literary Devices in Twelfth Night
Literary Devices in Twelfth Night

Overall, the play is the best comedy with a brilliant depiction of love, poetics, and distinct Shakespearean characters created by various literary techniques.

These devices not only make the play more admirable but also provide deep perspectives into human behavior and institutions of Shakespearean England.

In other words, “Twelfth Night” is still a shining example of a superb literary piece that many people can enjoy today.

See also: Themes in Metamorphosis

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