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Twelfth Night, or What You Will

Twelfth Night, or What You Will


by William Shakespeare

Tools of Characterization

Character Analysis


What's in a name? A whole lot. Sir Toby Belch, the beer-guzzling party guy, is named after the noisy expulsion of gas from the body through the mouth. Gross or, hilarious, depending on your personality. In fact, Toby is kind of like a great, big, walking belch – he's noisy, explosive, obnoxious, and associated with excessive drinking and eating.

Toby's drinking buddy, Sir Andrew Aguecheek is also associated with bodily excess. "Ague" means "violent fever," which implies that Andrew's face or "cheek" is super red. At one point, Toby even makes a crack about the way Aguecheek's face is always flushed (because he's drinking 24/7).

Our girl Viola shares her name with the stringed instrument. The name is fitting, given that Viola's got a great set of pipes and disguises herself as a singing eunuch (a castrated man with a high-pitched voice). It's funny, though, because we never do hear Viola sing. What's up with that?

Valentine's name is also pretty appropriate given that he's Duke Orsino's original love messenger, the one who delivers sappy notes to Olivia before "Cesario" is given the job. We sort of love it that the first time we see Valentine in Act 1, Scene 1, he's delivering some not-so-loving news to Orsino – Olivia's not interested in the Duke, at all.

Speaking of unloving, let's talk about the name "Malvolio," which literally translates to "ill will." This pretty much sums up the way the character rides through life on a high-horse, criticizing just about everyone around him and raining on the play's parade.

Sex and Love

A person's love life can reveal some pretty significant information. In Twelfth Night, erotic desire is one of the most important tools we have for assessing character. But, before we go any further, it's important to note that Elizabethans didn't view sexual identity in black and white terms (homosexual vs. heterosexual), as is often the case today. The fact that characters like Duke Orsino and Olivia are both attracted to "Cesario" (a boy actor, cross-dressed as a female character, who is disguised as a young boy) doesn't necessarily imply that the characters are gay or straight or even gullible, for that matter. Critics of Twelfth Night have shown that Elizabethans would have seen the male and female characters' attraction to the androgynous "Cesario" as completely normal. For more on this, check out our section on the theme of "Love."

OK, now that we're clear on that, let's get to the juicy details. Duke Orsino claims to be totally into Olivia. But, when Orsino shares one of his erotic fantasies in the first act, we quickly learn the Duke is really into himself and loves the idea of being in love. The point? Orsino is self-centered and foolish.

Malvolio's also an interesting figure because he too fantasizes about hooking up with Olivia. The fact that Malvolio wants to marry the Countess as a way to climb the social ladder (not because he loves or lust after her) reveals his ambition for power. In fact, it seems that Malvolio is not interested in sex at all, which speaks to his prudish attitude and his aversion to bodily pleasure (sex, food, drink, etc.).

So, what about the ladies? Olivia's sort of another ridiculous case in the beginning. When we first meet her, she's in love with her dead brother's memory and has sworn off living men for seven years. Lots of critics compare this behavior to that of Malvolio and Duke Orsino. Olivia, they say, is just as self-involved as the men who claim to love her. But, as soon as Olivia sees "Cesario," she forgets all about her state of mourning and tries to sink her claws into the Duke's young page. Her boldness and willingness to propose to the man she believes is "Cesario" (remember when she drags the more than willing Sebastian to the altar?) make it clear that Olivia's not so weak and silly after all. She just needed a little nudge.

This brings us to Viola, who is kind of a "pleaser." You see, Viola is smitten with Orsino. In fact, she loves him so much that she continues to deliver his love messages to another woman, even though it kills her. Viola's also sympathetic toward Olivia when the Countess falls in love with her (as "Cesario"). What does this say about Viola? Well, she's a caring person who is more concerned about the feelings of others than she is concerned for herself. She's also like a magnet, as she draws Olivia and Orsino from their self-involved states and moves them toward loving relationships with living, breathing partners.


In Twelfth Night, characters' actions are pretty revealing. Take, for example, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, who spend all of their time drinking, eating, carousing, and seeking out entertainment (plays, masques, bear-baitings, cruel pranks, you name it). What's more, they never sleep and don't give a rat's behind if they wake up Olivia's sleeping household when they return home drunk. What does this say about them? They're self-indulgent, gluttonous, obnoxious, rebellious, and kind of mean-spirited.

How does Olivia spend her time? Well, at the beginning of the play, she's in the middle of a seven year stretch of mourning for her dead brother. She roams around her house, wearing a black veil, and shedding tears all over the ground. Sound excessive? It is and the play makes fun of her for being ridiculous and self-absorbed. It screams, "Hey, Olivia. Get outside and start living your life!" Good thing Olivia does just that. When she falls for "Cesario" she pulls out all the stops – sending him jewelry, professing her love, proposing marriage (to the guy she thinks is "Cesario" anyway). Olivia turns out to be aggressive.

What about Orsino? It's funny you should ask because we never really see him doing "Duke-ish" things, like running his dukedom. The guy lolls around his house, daydreaming about love and reciting clichéd poetry about a woman (Olivia) who doesn't give him the time of day. He's also pretty annoying when he orders around his musicians. "Play something!" "No, stop. I don't want to hear it anymore!" "No, wait. Play another song." The guy is fickle, self-absorbed, and moody.