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"Twelfth Night" has two distinct Themes: how the complications of love often stem from various disguises which may hide one’s true intentions and it also explores the varying attitudes people have towards love. The major theme is based upon Viola's being compelled to disguise herself as Cesario, the Pageboy, for she is a young girl, shipwrecked and alone in a strange land. The complications arise when she takes up at the court of Duke Orsino and almost immediately falls in love with the Duke. She is however unable to express her love because of her disguise. The Duke too is in love, but with Olivia, whom he has seen just once. Olivia too falls in love with Cesario/Viola as soon as she meets Viola, who has come as the Duke's messenger. Hardly anyone in the play is impervious to the pull of love in one form or another, whether it is the self-love of Malvolio or the paternal love that Antonio has for Sebastian
It also reveals the myriad attitudes of the different characters towards the persons they love. The Duke is a romantic - a sentimental lover, in love with the idea of love. Olivia's love for Cesario/Viola is passionate. It is too strong and intense to accept any refusal. Viola's love, however, is true, selfless and deep.
Closely linked to the Themes of Viola's disguise and the ensuing complications is the confusion due to the close semblance between the twins Viola and Sebastian. The main plot becomes extremely complicated due to the love triangle and Viola's inability to reveal her true identity. Sebastian is introduced as a character linked to the main theme in order to resolve these complications. Olivia's haste in getting married to Sebastian, believing him to be Cesario/Viola, quickens the resolution of the love triangle. With the real identity of the twins established, Viola is free to marry the Duke. The easy manner in which Olivia accepts Sebastian as her husband, and the Duke shifts his affections to Viola, reflects the different attitudes towards love.
The subplot deals with the minor theme of self-love-- the comic element in the play, and the humor that is a result of the gulling of Malvolio. The minor characters plan to humiliate and ridicule Malvolio because of his pompous and conceited attitude. Malvolio believes himself to be superior to the other minor characters in every respect and it is this quality which makes him vulnerable to being duped. He does not hesitate to reprimand even Sir Toby, who is superior to him in rank and social status and has the audacity to think someone as beautiful and gracious as Olivia would be interested in him. It is Sir Toby and Maria who desire to take revenge for his snide comments, and Maria who provides the plan. This acts as a catalyst to the developing romance between Maria and Sir Toby as well. Their wits are matched in this particular ploy. Maria's letter and Malvolio's compliance with the instructions in the letter provide the humor and comic element of the play. The duel between Viola and Sir Andrew is also linked to the minor theme as they are supposedly battling over Olivia's love yet the duel has been conjured up by Sir Toby’s desire to have some fun and make a fool of Sir Andrew at the same time. Sir Andrew is gulled as well as he thinks he too is good enough for Olivia, not realizing that he is a dried up, sickly and cowardly man.
Although the two subplots evolve separately at times, they do meet in Act IV. The duel between Viola and Sir Andrew combines the major and the minor Themes by bringing together the characters of each theme --Viola, Olivia, and Sebastian from the major theme, and Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian from the minor theme. The resolution of the complications present in the two Themes at the end of the play again links them together. Throughout the play, Shakespeare skillfully interweaves the action of the major and minor Themes to provide a sense of totality and completeness to the play.