Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare, tells the story of a love triangle. The list of characters is very long. Since there are so many characters and story lines to explore, there are several themes to explore. The themes that are the most prevalent in Twelfth Night are mistaken identity, madness, and social standing.
Mistaken identity is prevalent throughout Twelfth Night. Since Viola disguises herself as a man, her true identity is not known until the very end of the play. She is mistaken for her brother, Sebastian, and vice versa. When Cesario (Viola) is challenged to a duel by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, they think Sebastian is Cesario. Olivia also thinks Sebastian is Cesario and asks her to marry him, thinking that he is Cesario.
Another theme that runs throughout the play is madness or insanity. Malvolio is a servant for Olivia who dreams of marrying her one day. He is known as the fun-crusher among the group of characters. Since he is constantly trying to spoil their fun, Maria plays a practical joke on him. She wants him to think that Olivia is in love with him, so she writes a fake letter that is supposedly from Olivia, but addressed to him. She tells him that if he wants to marry her, he should dress in yellow stockings and crossed garters, act crazy, and refuse to explain himself to anyone. Malvolio finds the letter and, since he dreams of marrying Olivia, does everything the letter instructs him to do. Olivia, who knows nothing about any of this, thinks he is mad.
Since Malvolio is supposedly mad, he is locked in a small, dark room. Maria, Sir Toby, and Feste torment him. Feste dresses up as a priest and pretends to examine him. Towards the end, Malvolio sends a letter to Olivia asking her to release him. By the end, once everybody discovers everyone else’s true identities, they remember Malvolio and let him out of the dark room. They come clean about the trick, but Malvolio doesn’t appreciate the joke. He runs off.
Class and social standing is also a recurring theme in Twelfth Night. Malvolio is obsessed with status, always condescending to the other servants for their lowliness and dreaming of marrying Olivia and becoming a Count. Sir Andrew also wants to marry Olivia, but stands no chance because of his vulgarity and crassness. In marrying Olivia, even the noble Sebastian is motivated by her wealth and social standing. Viola, at the beginning of the play, has lost her wealth in a shipwreck and in disguising herself as a man is impersonating a different class from her own.
All three of these themes – mistaken identity, madness, and social standing – are found in Twelfth Night which was written several hundred years ago, but they are just as relevant today. I have volunteered at Our Daily Bread this semester and found these themes prevalent there as well. Mistaken identity has brought people to Our Daily Bread. They have clients who have spent time in prison for crimes that they didn’t commit. However, they never recovered from the stigma of the wrong accusation and have found themselves at Our Daily Bread. They have clients who are so depressed that they act mad. When I first started, one gentleman actually scared me because he was preaching loudly but wasn’t making any sense. Social standing is definitely witnessed there as well. Prior to volunteering, I thought I was in a different social class than many of the clients served at Our Daily Bread. Once I arrived, I realized that no one, client or volunteer, is any different when he or she walks through the doors there. I also realized that some of these clients may have had their roles reversed in society because of a misfortune.
The most interesting thing that I learned from this class is to not judge others based off of outside appearances. This theme came up in several of our readings, and I witnessed it firsthand while volunteering at Our Daily Bread. Even though I had been to Our Daily Bread before, I had little interaction with the clients. I went into doing service with a perception of the people that I was going to be serving food to. I was a little scared because of what I thought the people would be like. This time, however, I went into the experience with more of an open mind. Once I looked past the outside appearances, I realized that these people that I served were very kind and genuine. They had some of the most interesting stories and life lessons that I have ever heard. It has greatly benefited my life and I clearly had different thoughts before taking this English class this semester.