Twelfth Night Characters
The main characters in Twelfth Night are Viola, Sebastian, Orsino, Olivia, and Malvolio.
Viola and Sebastian are twins who are separated after their ship wrecks near Illyria. Alone and believing that Sebastian is dead, Viola disguises herself as a man named Cesario.
Orsino is the Duke of Illyria. He initially deploys Cesario to woo Olivia but ultimately marries Viola once her identity is revealed.
Olivia is a rich countess being courted by Orsino. She falls for Cesario but is betrothed to Sebastian after mistaking him for his disguised sister.
Malvolio is Olivia’s steward. His pomposity makes him the target of pranks.
Last Updated on September 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1610
Viola is the protagonist of Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night. She is an aristocrat who disguises herself as a young man named Cesario after being shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. Viola is witty, resourceful, and charismatic. She shows self-control and dignity in contrast to the bombastic, overly sentimental performances of Orsino and Lady Olivia. (Read extended character analysis of Viola.)
Duke Orsino is the duke of Illyria. He is mercurial and passionate, and he is more in love with the idea of being in love than he is with any person. He passionately pursues Lady Olivia for the majority of the play while simultaneously revealing his personal thoughts and emotions to Cesario. (Read extended character analysis of Duke Orsino.)
Sebastian is Viola’s twin brother, who becomes lost in the shipwreck. Sebastian is pragmatic and kind. He is not as passionate as other characters in Twelfth Night and appears to be fairly calm in relation to the wildly loving characters surrounding him, such as Lady Olivia and Antonio. (Read extended character analysis of Sebastian.)
Lady Olivia is an upper-class, wealthy, and beautiful countess in Illyria. Olivia is judgemental and overindulgent. Much like Duke Orsino, Olivia is also quick to fall in love and makes rash decisions. She also claims to be in a seven-year, loveless period of mourning for her recently deceased brother. However, Lady Olivia’s mourning period appears to exist as an excuse to refuse Orsino’s advances. (Read extended character analysis of Olivia.)
Antonio is a sea captain and a friend of Sebastian’s. He is generous, kind, and loyal to a fault. His selfless nature leads him into trouble, as does his intense love for Sebastian. Antonio’s love for Sebastian is one of the only examples in the play of a love based on intimate knowledge of another person. Antonio spends three months taking care of Sebastian and getting to know him. As such, his love for Sebastian is based on a solid foundation of knowledge and friendship.
Antonio’s love for Sebastian leads him to follow Sebastian when he leaves for Illyria, despite the region being a dangerous place for Antonio. Antonio has “many enemies in Orsino’s court” due to his piracy against Orsino’s ships. When Antonio and Sebastian arrive in Illyria, Antonio is generous and gives Sebastian his coin purse to allow Sebastian to buy things for himself. Despite his lower social standing, Antonio gives money to Sebastian as if he were his benefactor.
Antonio, like other characters in the play, accidentally falls prey to Viola’s duplicitous disguise. When Antonio sees Viola in disguise as Cesario, he mistakes her for Sebastian and goes so far as to protect her from a duel with Sir Andrew. Viola, of course, does not know who Antonio is, and lets him be arrested by Orsino’s men. Antonio, still thinking that Viola, disguised as Cesario, is Sebastian, believes that Sebastian has betrayed him, despite his generosity and love. At the end of the play, Antonio is reunited with Sebastian, who rapturously greets Antonio with love: “how the hours have rack’d and tortured me / since I lost thee!” Despite their reunion, Antonio only appears confused and distrustful of the similarity between Viola and Sebastian. He is unsure if Sebastian is truly himself or someone else.
Sir Toby Belch
Sir Toby Belch is Lady Olivia’s uncle. He is one of the more comedic characters in Twelfth Night, engaging in tricks, jokes, and hijinks. Sir Toby is also a drunkard—which explains his surname—who is nearly always drinking with Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the silly and vain knight who wants to woo Lady Olivia. Sir Toby enjoys being entertained and will trick others for his own amusement. He is similar to Maria, Lady Olivia’s lady-in-waiting, who also looks for entertainment through tricks. Sir Toby and Maria engage in playful banter throughout Twelfth Night, and together they offer the audience playful respite.
Sir Toby’s playfulness—and arguably his duplicity—can be seen when he convinces Sir Andrew to duel Cesario for Olivia’s affection. Sir Toby knows that Sir Andrew will never gain Olivia’s affection, but he keeps him around for entertainment and as a friend to drink with. He believes that the duel will allow Sir Andrew to stay around longer. At the very least, it will entertain him. Sir Toby works with Fabian, Olivia’s servant, to purposely confuse and scare Sir Andrew and Cesario before the duel, adding further hilarity for those observing. Sir Toby also engages in romance, but in a much calmer and quieter way: Near the end of Twelfth Night, Sir Toby proposes to Maria, Olivia’s lady-in-waiting, as a reward for her wit.
Maria is Lady Olivia’s lady-in-waiting. She is witty, intelligent, and fast-paced. Maria is also the love interest of Sir Toby and banters with him throughout the play. She is another of the comedic and lighthearted characters, and she plays the role of a trickster in some respects. While she mostly engages in humorous conversations with Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste, the jester, Maria is also responsible for tricking Lady Olivia’s steward, Malvolio. She, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew trick Malvolio with a letter Maria wrote: the letter appears to be from Olivia, and it declares Olivia’s love for Malvolio. The group watches as Malvolio reads the letter and pompously believes he could marry the countess Olivia, who is very high above his social standing. The letter also includes directions for Malvolio that result in humor and bad consequences for him.
Near the end of the play, Sir Toby proposes to Maria, quietly and in the background. She and Sir Toby act as minor characters in this way, with a love story that contains little confusion or drama.
Sir Andrew Aguecheek
Sir Andrew Aguecheek—the word “ague” means shivering—is a foolish and cowardly knight. Although supposedly of a high social status, Sir Andrew lacks knowledge and often misspeaks throughout Twelfth Night. He is a source of ridicule and entertainment for Sir Toby, who keeps him around to drink with. Sir Toby even convinces Sir Andrew to duel Cesario (Viola in disguise) when Lady Olivia expresses affection for Cesario. When Sir Andrew tries to duel Cesario, he is blocked from doing so by Antonio, who is promptly arrested by Orsino’s men.
Malvolio is Lady Olivia’s dry and puritanical steward. He lacks humor and good nature. In fact, his name means “ill will.” Malvolio is a subject of ridicule in Twelfth Night and is representative of the madness that love can bring.
He is tricked by Maria into thinking that Lady Olivia is in love with him after he finds a love letter seemingly written by her. The letter claims that Lady Olivia loves him but wishes him to smile more, act proud, and wear cross-gartered yellow stockings. For Malvolio’s social position, acting proudly would be insulting to Olivia. Furthermore, cross-garters and the color yellow are Olivia’s least favorite things. Malvolio’s utter belief in the letter’s authenticity points to his vanity and lack of knowledge of Olivia. Furthermore, Malvolio’s following through with the letter's stipulations illustrates his irrational behavior. Despite his lower status, he is willing to act pompous and proud because the letter asked him to do so. He is also willing to wear horrendous and low-status clothing. Blinded by love, Malvolio cannot see the ridiculousness of the requests in the letter.
When Malvolio approaches Olivia, wearing the yellow cross-gartered stockings, smiling, and acting pompously, Lady Olivia believes him to be insane. Maria had previously warned Olivia that Malvolio seemed “out of his wits.” Thus, Lady Olivia leaves it to Maria to look after Malvolio, who urges Sir Toby and Fabian to lock him in a dark room. This act only stokes madness in Malvolio, who is tricked and mocked more while locked away. Feste, who disguises himself as a curate named Sir Topas, visits Malvolio and confuses him further. Malvolio is abused throughout the play in this way, and at the end of Twelfth Night, he swears revenge on all the characters.
Feste is Lady Olivia’s fool, or court jester. Feste is the only character who is willing and able to express the truth about others—a role exclusively available to fools. He creates humor and ridicule through his observations, often pointing out the hypocritical nature of those around him. Feste is also the most witty and intelligent of the characters. It is shown that for Feste to be a successful fool, he must be intelligent enough to read another person’s character and faults and to create a successful joke out of it. As said by Viola: “this fellow’s wise enough to play the fool.”
Feste interacts with multiple characters in Twelfth Night. He also uses more than one persona and dresses up as Sir Topas the curate when playing more tricks on Malvolio, who has been locked away. Feste does several performances in Twelfth Night as well, and although he is Lady Olivia’s fool, he flits between Orsino's and Olivia’s houses. Feste acts as a sort of background narrator, tying together all of the characters’ experiences through humor, truth, and song.
The Sea Captain rescues Viola after the shipwreck. He is the only character to know of Viola’s true identity after she disguises herself as Cesario.
Curio is one of the servants of Duke Orsino.
Valentine is one of the servants of Duke Orsino.
Fabian is a servant of Lady Olivia.
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