The Theme of Secrecy in Twelfth Night

Category: Twelfth Night
Last Updated: 20 Apr 2022
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Secrecy is an important element in any plot. It creates irony and sometimes situational comedy. The way in which a character keeps or reveals a secret affects the plot and adds to the main theme of the work. Viola, a character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, must keep the secret of her true identity. The play uses secrecy as an important element of the plot by creating irony, situational comedy, and tension, as well as affecting the plot and contributing to the overall meaning of the play. The plot of Twelfth Night is affect by the secret that Viola keeps and reveals.

Viola is a lady of Messaline who has been shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. Believing her brother Sebastian is dead, she wants to start a new life in Illyria, but the court of Lady Olivia is not accepting any new members because Lady Olivia is in mourning after her father and brother have died. In order to join the court of Duke Orsino, Viola must disguise herself as a boy named Cesario. Orsino accepts “Cesario” into his court and from that point on, secrecy is embedded within the plot. Secrecy is necessary because she cannot be revealed as a woman for several reasons.

Viola becomes close with Orsino, which causes her to fall in love with him, but since she has become so close to him, Orsino trusts “her” and sends “Cesario” to Lady Olivia’s house to try to convince her to accept his love. Even though Olivia has sworn off love, as soon as she meets Cesario she falls for him because he knows all the charming things to say to her. Since Cesario is actually Viola, the swooning words she says to Olivia is what Viola would want to hear if a man were confessing his love to her.

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Cesario says to Olivia, “Make me a willow cabin at your gate/ And call upon my soul within the house,/ Write loyal cantons of contemned love,/ And sing them loud even in the dead of night// Hallow your name to the reverberate hills/ And make the babbling gossip of the air/ Cry out ‘Olivia! ’ O, you should not rest/ Between the elements of air and earth/ But you should pity me” (43). This speech is what Viola would want to hear if she was being pursued by a man, which is why Olivia falls for Cesario. This complicates the plot because now Olivia is in love with Cesario who is actually Viola which creates a sense of situational comedy and irony.

This secret not only affects the plot, but it contributes to the overall theme of the play, love or the lack of. Olivia is not actually in love with Cesario and neither is Orsino with Olivia, they are both in love with the idea or concept of love. On the other hand, Viola is truly in love with Orsino, which is revealed to the audience when Cesario is discussing love with Orsino; Cesario says, “Sooth, but you must. / Say that some lady, as perhaps there is,/ Hath for your love as great a pang of heart/ As you have for Olivia. You cannot lover her:/ You tell her so.

Must she not them be answered” (73)? Viola, disguised as Cesario, is speaking about herself which creates tension and irony for the audience. Viola’s secret keeps her from openly loving Orsino and causes Olivia to be in love with Cesario. Viola’s brother, Sebastian, who is in fact not dead, represents two motifs in the play: mistaken identity and things are not what they appear to be. Sebastian is saved by Antonio, a man whose tenderness towards Sebastian turns into love. Sebastian travels to Illyria, not knowing that Viola is alive and living there.

Viola and Sebastian look very much alike, and now that Viola is impersonating a boy, they look identical. Sebastian is mistaken for Cesario by Olivia, which gives him two identities. Olivia begs “Cesario” to marry her and Sebastian seeing that Olivia was pretty and wealthy, accepts her proposal. Sebastian says to himself, “Yet doth this accident and flood of fortune/ So far exceed all instance, all discourse,/ That I am ready to distrust mine eyes/ And wrangle with my reason that persuades me/ To any other trust but that I am mad-/ Or else the lady’s mad” (155).

Sebastian’s situation represents mistaken identity and that things do not appear to be what they seem. Viola’s secret further complicates the plot; now Olivia believes she is married to Cesario who is actually Sebastian. Also this news infuriates Orsino who is in “love” with Olivia and causes major problems between Orsino and Cesario; Orsino says to Cesario, “O thou dissembling cub! What wilt thou be/ When time hath sowed a grizzle on thy case? / Or will not else thy craft so quickly grow/ That thine own trip shall be tine overthrow? / Farwell, and take her, but direct thy feet/ Where thou and I henceforth may never meet” (173).

Viola is heartbroken by Orsino’s speech because she is genuinely in love with him and she is not the one who married Olivia. Olivia mistaking Sebastian for Cesario, proves that she does not really love Cesario, she is in love with idea of love which is the overriding theme of the play. Identities and disguises are created by secrecy in the play. Viola’s and Sebastian’s true identities are revealed when she finds herself face to face with her brother Sebastian. Malvolio, another character in the play whose identity is lost due to secrecy, regains his identity by the end of of the play.

Viola’s necessity for secrecy leads to her choice of keeping the secret for most the play. Her secret complicates the plot, and develops irony and situational comedy throughout the play. Her secret did allow her to achieve her goal of joining Orsino’s court and starting a new life, but her revealing the secret allowed her and Orsino to be together. Viola’s secret contributed to the meaning of the play, that love is not always what it appears to be, sometimes love has two identities. Love can be just falling in love with the idea of the emotion or the real thing.

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The Theme of Secrecy in Twelfth Night. (2017, May 09). Retrieved from

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