Symbols in Twelfth Night

Music: Harmonic Resonance of Love

Music's enchanting notes resonate with love's themes from the outset of "Twelfth Night." Orsino's opening words – "If music be the food of love, play on" – establish an immediate connection between music and love. Throughout the play, music symbolizes love's nurturing essence. Viola, planning her transformation into Orsino's page, emphasizes her musical talents as a qualifying factor. Viola's hypothetical confession of love to Olivia entails composing affectionate songs. In Act 2, Scene 4, Orsino and Viola share an intimate moment while music underscores their interaction. The Fool's song about a "sad true lover" encapsulates the irony of Orsino and Viola's genuine love, unbeknownst to Orsino. Viola, as Cesario, reveals her preference for sincere words over celestial music when discussing her feelings for Orsino.

Jewelry: Manifestation of Desire

In "Twelfth Night," jewelry becomes a tangible representation of desire and affection. After meeting Cesario, Olivia sends Malvolio with a ring, symbolizing her love for him. Viola comprehends the ring's significance. Olivia gifts Viola (as Cesario) a "jewel" bearing her portrait in Act 3, Scene 4. Sebastian mentions Olivia presenting him with a pearl as a token of her feelings in Act 4, Scene 3.

In Elizabethan times, jewelry also denoted status or reward for servants. Malvolio's daydreams of being wed to Olivia include imagery of possessing valuable jewels and a watch. Orsino's "favors" bestowed upon Viola likely encompassed precious items like jewelry, possibly marking Cesario's favored status.

Clothing: Attire as Identity and Disguise

Clothing emerges as a potent symbol in "Twelfth Night," reflecting character traits or functioning as a facade for identity—particularly for Viola, Olivia, Malvolio, and the Fool. Viola's pivotal role involves successfully assuming the persona of Cesario. This cross-dressing initially assists her but becomes complicated when she falls for Orsino and when Olivia reciprocates her (as Cesario). In Act 5, Scene 1, as identities are clarified, Viola waits to don feminine attire before embracing her brother, Sebastian, and her beloved, Orsino.

Viola is not the sole character who strategically employs clothing. Upon meeting Cesario, Olivia dons her heavy mourning veil, symbolizing her emotional distance from him—a barrier she discards upon falling in love. Malvolio's comedic predicament hinges on his absurd appearance in cross-gartered, yellow stockings, a departure from his customary solemn attire. Clothing also serves the Fool, who masquerades as the hermit Sir Topas during his visit to Malvolio's dark chamber.

Each of these symbols—music, jewelry, and clothing—works in tandem to enrich the thematic tapestry of "Twelfth Night."

Study Guide

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