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Shakespeare's Twelfth Night - Happiness and EthicsShakespeare's Twelfth Night - Happiness and Ethics


Twelfth Night


Key characters

Orsino, Duke of Illyria.

Viola (later disguised as Cesario), shipwrecked lady.

Sebastian, her twin brother.

Olivia, a countess.

Malvolio and Maria, Olivia’s servants.

Feste, Olivia’s jester.

Antonio, a sea captain and Sebastian’s travelling companion.

Sir Toby Belch, a fun loving gentleman.


Fun facts

• The only Shakespeare play with an alternative title (What You Will).

Music is vital to the play.


The story

Orsino, Duke of Illyria, is in love with Olivia, a countess.

But, mourning for her dead brother, she isn’t interested, also disappointing another suitor, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. 

Meanwhile Viola (Helena Bonham-Carter, pictured right, in a 1996 film) :Shakespeare's Twelfth Night - Happiness and Ethics

  • is separated from her identical twin brother (Sebastian) in a shipwreck.
  • believes he has drowned.
  • goes to Orsino’s court (disguised as a young man, Cesario).

Orsino likes Cesario and uses him (really her, of course!) as a go-between in his courtship of Olivia who falls in love with Cesario!

Viola (as Cesario)

  • obviously tells Olivia that she can’t return his love.
  • is later challenged to a duel by the jealous Sir Andrew Aguecheek

Another of Olivia’s suitors, Malvolio, hopes to win her by following the bizarre instructions in a love letter apparently sent by her (including her liking of yellow stockings and garters!).

But the letter was forged by Maria, Olivia’s maid, to trick him. Meanwhile Viola (Cesario) has fallen in love with Orsino.

Sebastian, thinking her twin sister (Viola) to be dead,  arrives with his friend, Antonio, who loves him and has looked after him since the shipwreck.

Sebastian is then attacked by Sir Andrew Aguecheek who mistakes him for Cesario (Viola). He retaliates but Olivia stops the fighting.

Olivia proposes marriage to Sebastian, thinking him to be Cesario. Though bewildered, he instantly falls in love with her and accepts.Shakespeare's Twelfth Night - Happiness and Ethics

Meanwhile Malvolio has been locked up because Olivia thinks he is mad.

Maria and Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch (aptly named because of his booziness) persuades Feste, Olivia’s jester, to:

  • imitate a priest.
  • exorcize Malvolio’s “demons”.

Orsino makes one final attempt to win Olivia, but she announces that she is married to Cesario who immediately denies it (remember, she actually married Sebastian). So Orsino threatens to kill Cesario.

The twins (Viola and Sebastian) finally recognize each other and Sebastian is reunited with Olivia and Antonio.

Orsino marries Viola and Sir Toby marries Maria.

Malvolio is released and vows revenge on everyone after being told of the trick on him.


Lessons on happiness and ethics

 Shakespeare's Twelfth Night - Happiness and Ethics

1. Make bereavement brief

Olivia is grief stricken by the death of her brother, but Feste, her jester, tells her to cheer up and get on with her life.

His wisdom is shown when Olivia is transformed by her love for Sebastian.

 Shakespeare's Twelfth Night - Happiness and Ethics

2. Keep on looking for the right partner

Orsino starts the play distraught that Olivia won’t marry him.

“If music be the food of love play on”, he tells his musicians.

But he gets over it and finds happiness with Viola instead.


3. Love can be painful

Despite its happy ending, the play shows the heartache and jealousy of unrequited love.Shakespeare's Twelfth Night - Happiness and Ethics

Olivia even describes love as a “plague” from which she suffers terribly

A jealous Orsino nearly kills the person (Cesario), whom he eventually marries (Viola)!


4. Your aims must be realistic but challenging

Challenge yourself to be a great person.

“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”, Malvolio says.Shakespeare's Twelfth Night - Happiness and Ethics

But your aims must be realistic.

Malvolio’s love for Olivia is doomed, because he is only her servant.

Antonio’s love for Sebastian is impossible, particularly as homosexuality is considered socially unacceptable.


5. Social class counts

Malvolio’s love life suffers because of his low social status.

This contradicts the feast of Twelfth Night (on the twelfth day of Christmas, from which the play’s title comes), when:

  • the social hierarchy was turned upside down.
  • posh people were made peasants and vice versa.


6. Self-centredness stinks

Malvolio is so preoccupied with himself that he forgets other people’s views and feelings.

He is described by Olivia as being “sick of self-love”Shakespeare's Twelfth Night - Happiness and Ethics


  • self-importance makes him easy prey for a practical joke (Maria’s forged love letter).
  • self-centredness contrasts with Antonio’s selfless service to Sebastian.


7. Beware of spongers

Sir Toby Belch, perpetually penniless because of his extravagant lifestyle, milks the rich (but stupid) Sir Andrew Aguecheek for all the money he can.

 Shakespeare's Twelfth Night - Happiness and Ethics

8. Don’t worry

Sir Toby may be reckless, but he has a relaxed, fun loving attitude.

“Care [i.e. worry] is an enemy to life”, he says about Olivia’s morbid reaction to her brother’s death.

He tells her servant, Malvolio, that the mourning must not stop the serving of “more cakes and ale”.


9. Doing is better than talking

“What great ones do, the less [i.e. inferior people] will prattle [talk] of”, says the Sea Captain, who rescues Viola from the shipwreck .

 Shakespeare's Twelfth Night - Happiness and Ethics

10. Be optimistic

The jester, Feste, always looks on the bright side of life.

When Maria tells him he might be hanged for his long absence, he tells her that good can come from bad.

Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage”,he says.


Key quotes on love

If music be the food of love play on, Orsino.

Love sought is good, but given unsought, is better, Olivia.

I was adored once too, Sir Andrew Aguecheek.


Key quotes on leadership

Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them, Malvolio.


Key quote on influencing people

What great ones do, the less will prattle of, Sea Captain.

Why, this is your midsummer madness, Olivia (to Malvolio).


Key quote on learning

There is no darkness but ignorance, Feste.


Key quotes on anxiety

Care is an enemy to life, Sir Toby Belch.


Key quote on health

Dost not thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?, Sir Toby Belch.


Key quote on relationships

None can be called deformed but the unkind, Antonio.


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