Twelfth Night

Debatable points

Does Malvolio deserve his treatment?

One of the key plotlines of Twelfth Night is the baiting of Malvolio by other members of the household, namely Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Maria. Malvolio’s puritanical values and humourless behaviour are the antithesis of Sir Toby and Andrew’s love of drinking and revelry, and Malvolio is not shy in telling them what he thinks of them. It is true that Olivia, who Malvolio serves, is also sick of the revelry and has sent him as messenger to cease and desist. However Malvolio’s general unpleasantness and snobbish behaviour grates on those around him, and a revenge plot is planned against him. Sir Toby and crew use Malvolio’s desire to climb the social ladder to their advantage, and convince him that Olivia is in love with him. While it begins with forged handwriting of love notes, the unfolding scheme involves Malvolio being considered ‘mad,’ locked in a cell, tormented, and humiliated in front of Olivia and the entire household. Even Olivia states that Malvolio has been “most notoriously abused.” (Act 5, Scene 1) Malvolio ends the play vowing his own repercussions - “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”

While making fun of the strict puritanical character, a figure Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have been all-too familiar with, Shakespeare does appear to push the baiting beyond the realms of ‘fair play.’ The question remains, does Malvolio’s behaviour deserve this cruel treatment, or can it be argued that he was only doing his job in maintaining order in the household?

Is Antonio in love with Sebastian?

It is often argued that the sea captain, Antonio, is in love with Sebastian, who he rescues from the shipwreck. Antonio often expresses a deep affection for Sebastian, openly admitting “I adore thee so” (Act 2, Scene 1). Antonio decides to accompany Sebastian to Illyria, gives him money, and does not want to let him out of his sight, despite the great personal danger Illyria poses to him. His devotion to Sebastian is clear, and when caught in Orsino’s court, Antonio says of Sebastian: “His life I gave him and did thereto add my love, without retention or restraint, all his in dedication.“ (Act 5, Scene 1) While this relationship can be explained as a close friendship, or even a paternal love, many argue that there is something deeper in Antonio’s feelings.

Sebastian is overjoyed to see his friend again in Act 5, Scene 1 - “Antonio, O, my dear Antonio! How have the hours racked and tortured me since I have lost thee!” However, it does not appear that Sebastian requites his friend’s love romantically and, in fact, quickly marries countess Olivia after meeting her.

Is Shakespeare playing with gender fluidity and sexuality in a contemporary way?

Twelfth Night is a play that explores love in many forms. A young woman, Viola, disguises herself as a man, and as such inspires the affections of another woman in the form of countess Olivia. Olivia is clearly charmed by the feminine quality of Cesario and doesn’t shy away from her feelings, pursuing ‘him’ relentlessly.

Meanwhile, Viola, disguised as Cesario, has fallen for her master, Duke Orsino. Orsino begins the play with his heart set on Olivia, despite her not returning his feelings. As the play progresses, however, he and Cesario grow closer, conversing about the nature of love, and sharing how they feel. At the end of the play when it is revealed that Cesario is in fact the woman Viola, Orsino proposes almost immediately, suggesting that his feelings toward her had been growing, even when he supposed she was a man.

In this way, Shakespeare navigates attraction, sexuality and gender with ambiguity and fluidity, a concept more familiar to contemporary audiences. In modern productions it is common to see directors leaning into, and playing with, the attraction between characters in Twelfth Night that Shakespeare alludes to.