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Counterpoint Within Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Shakespeare uses counterpoint throughout Twelfth Night to create an interesting story that captures the reader’s attention. Counterpoint is a technique that incorporates multiple scenes happening simultaneously. These several scenes come together at the end of the work to produce a harmonious finish to an action-packed and appealing plot. In the Twelfth Night, these concurrent proceedings generate many misconceptions which provide the comical, somewhat ironic part of the play. The “love triangle” effect created by all the mistaken identities accounts for the main comic element in the play. It holds the audience’s attention while strengthening the plot at the same time. In the end, the “love triangle” gets straightened out and the play concludes with the marriage of Viola and Orsino, and the marriage of Olivia and Sebastian.

The play opens up with Viola shipwrecked on the Adriatic seacoast, possibly having lost her brother, Antonio, to the depths of the sea. This is where Sebastian and Viola are separated and go their own way until they meet once again at the end. Since she learns that she would not be admitted to Olivia’s household, she decides to disguise herself as a man, Cesario, and seek refuge in the residence of Count Orsino. She becomes Orsino’s messenger, going to Olivia to communicate Orsino’s love. Among one of Viola’s many visits to Lady Olivia, Olivia falls in love with the young boy, Cesario. Olivia is fully unaware that her love only appears to be a man but is truly a woman underneath her guise. When Cesario (Viola) has become the lady’s fancy, she, herself, confesses her love for Count Orsino.

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Meanwhile, Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s kinsman, decides that he will find Olivia a suitor. Sir Andrew Aguecheek now comes into the picture. Toby convinces Andrew to attempt to win Olivia’s heart, even though Sir Andrew himself knows he is incapable of such a task. Andrew efforts are futile because Olivia’s heart will have attached itself to a future acquaintance, namely Cesario. Later on, Sir Toby along with Aguecheek and Maria, concoct a plan to fool Olivia’s steward, Malvolio, into thinking that Olivia has fallen for him. Maria writes a letter, pretending to be Olivia, saying Malvolio should come to her in yellow, cross-gartered stockings with a smile on his face all the while. He follows the directions stated in the letter, but much to his surprise the sight appals Olivia. Se orders Sir Toby to take care of him, who in turn places Malvolio in a dark cell.

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While all this is going on Viola’s brother, Sebastian, is saved at sea by a sailor named Antonio. Sebastian decides he wants to go to Orsino’s city and seek a place of rest. Antonio explains to him that, because of prior circumstances, he cannot safely walk the streets of the Count’s city. Antonio gives Sebastian his money and retires to the inn where they are staying. Sebastian chooses to walk the streets and see what the city has to offer. On his stroll, through the city, Sebastian is encountered by the Fool, who mistakes him for Cesario. Sirs Toby and Andrew try to attack him, so the Fool goes to fetch Olivia. She ceases the scuffle and affirms her love for Sebastian, whom she thinks is Cesario. Sebastian is delighted by this proclamation. Olivia then asks him to enter an official betrothal with her, and he willingly accepts.

While Olivia and Sebastian enter a formal agreement, the page Cesario is ganged up on by Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek. Antonio seeing this goes to help out who he thinks is Sebastian, but is really Viola dressed as a male page. Orsino’s guards arrest Antonio, and he asks Cesario for his money. Cesario replies, saying that she knows nothing of this man’s money nor of him. Antonio can’t believe this, after saving Sebastian from death’s grip.

Finally, in Act 5, everyone comes together at Olivia’s estate. There is a lot of commotion because Viola and Sebastian are together, and one could be recognized as the other. Cesario proclaims her love for Orsino, but Olivia says this cannot be true, calling the priest to confirm their betrothal. Cesario admits to being Sebastian’s lost sister, and Count Orsino asks her to be his wife. They will be married on the same day that Olivia and Sebastian are to be married.

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Shakespeare’s use of counterpoint is most evident in the “love triangle” that is formed. Cesario falls in love with Orsino, while Orsino loves Olivia, who loves Cesario. After a series of mistaken identities and mishaps, the arrival of Cesario’s brother straightens out the triangle of love. Everyone is happy in the end after both young couples are married. Counterpoint can also be found in the three distinctive plots that are developed in the play. Orsino, Olivia, and Cesario have their own little plot from which a number of problems arise. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria take it upon themselves to make a fool out of Malvolio. This is a seemingly different aspect of the play; the others incorporate themes of love. Last but not least, Sebastian and Antonio appear to be on their own little journey, until they by chance come across the aforementioned characters. Although these three plots develop without appearing to be related in any way, they all come together in the end and make perfect sense.

Shakespeare’s ability to write is easily seen throughout Twelfth Night. He uses the technique of counterpoint, taking three separate plots and, after a number of misfortunes and much confusion, brings them together to create one smooth, as well as the fitting ending. Shakespeare’s use of counterpoint entangles the reader in a “comedy of errors,” captures his or her attention, and finishes strong with a balanced, appropriate climax.

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Counterpoint Within Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. (2021, Mar 05). Retrieved February 8, 2023, from