The Transformative Power of the Character of Sebastian in “Twelfth Night”

January 15, 2021 by Essay Writer

The character of Sebastian in “Twelfth Night” represents the dynamic factor in an otherwise static equation. Illyria is an immutable place, and the people who live and visit the land become ensnared in a stasis. Shakespeare uses the device of twins to resolve the static tension in “Twelfth Night”. Separated at sea, the twins end up shipwrecked in Illyria, each believing the other has perished. The first sibling, Viola, falls into the stasis that permeates Illyria. It is not until she is reconciled with her brother, Sebastian, that the stasis is dissolved.

As we learn from the character of Proteus in Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona”, the sea has transformative powers. Another of Proteus’s powers is his ability to change shapes. In “Twelfth Night”, Shakespeare applies both themes to Viola and Sebastian. As twins, they represent two halves of a whole. Separated, they are both powerless; reunited, they have the power to control their own destinies and break the static tension of Illyria.

The “static tension” in Illyria is most obviously manifested in the grid-locked situation of Duke Orsino’s unrequited love for the Countess Olivia. Orsino pines for the Countess, but she is lost in mourning for her brother, and has sworn herself from the company of men for seven year’s time. All other Illyrian characters in the play serve either Orsino or Olivia, and are thus pulled into the vacuum of their stagnant situation. When Viola is shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria and decides to disguise herself as a man, she falls into the trap. Although she loves Orsino, she cannot reveal herself to him, because he believes she is a man. It is not until her brother, Sebastian, appears in Illyria, that things begin to change.

Sebastian’s character is surrounded by a motif of sea-imagery. The first mention of Sebastian is in Act I, Scene II, when Viola laments for the loss of her brother. The Captain, in an attempt to comfort her, alludes to the mythological figure Arion: in classic mythology, Arion was a famous musician (music is another prominent theme in “Twelfth Night”) who escaped certain death by murder aboard a ship by diving overboard, lyre in hand. Hearing the beautiful melody, dolphins came to his rescue and carried him ashore. In Act II, Scene I, when Sebastian and Antonio are washed ashore, Sebastian refers to the sea as the power, which has separated his life from his sister’s: “[we were] both born in an hour. If the heavens had been pleased, we would so had ended. But you sir, altered that, for some hour before you took me from the breach of the sea my sister was drowned” (2.1.17-20).

The operative dynamic that first begins to disturb the ceaseless stasis of Illyria begins when Antonio and Sebastian are separated in Act III, Scene III. Sebastian wishes to explore the city; Antonio cannot safely accompany him on the streets of Illyria, due to his involvement in a sea-fight (3.3.26). Antonio, however, is the only variable that distinguishes Sebastian from Viola, who, disguised as a man, is almost identical to her twin brother.

In the following scene (Act III, Scene IV) Antonio mistakes Viola (as Cesario) for Sebastian, attempts to defend her in a brawl, and is incarcerated as result. When Viola refuses him the purse for which he implores her (and which he lent to Sebastian) he is confused and hurt by her refusal. After he has gone, Viola reflects:

He named Sebastian. I my brother know

Yet living in my glass. Even such and so

In favor was my brother, and he went

Still in this fashion, color, ornament,

For him I imitate. O, if it prove,

Tempests are kind, and salt waves fresh in love!


In this lyrical passage, Shakespeare alludes to the changeable powers of the sea, manifested in Viola and Sebastian. Viola also foreshadows her reunion with her brother. Moreover, the dual identity of the figure that appears to be one and the same in Sebastian and Viola – Cesario – ignites a dynamic changeability that effects the other characters in Illyria.

The major changes begin to occur in Act IV, Scene I, when Olivia mistakes Sebastian for Cesario. She implores him to come with her, and he responds, “What relish is in this? How runs the stream?/ Or I am mad, or else this is a dream./ Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep./ If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep” (4.1.58-61). As Feste articulates in Act II, Scene IV, the sea makes one’s destination “everywhere, for that’s it that always makes a good voyage of nothing” (2.4.76-7). The change here from sea to stream imagery (as in, “How runs the stream?” and “Lethe”, which is the “mythical river of oblivion”) thus implies a newfound sense of direction in the play.

This imagamatic language employed by Sebastian parallels the conceptual development of the plot. Now that Olivia has Sebastian to focus her attentions on, the static situation, which previously dominated, will be overthrown. Sebastian can requite Olivia’s love, a task that had been impossible for Viola, as Cesario. Also, with her brother present, Viola will be able to reveal her true identity. Thus, Orsino can break off his love for Olivia, when he realizes that love for Viola (to whom, as Cesario, he is already greatly attached) is possible. Sebastian foreshadows this multitude of events as “a flood of fortune” (4.3.11).

This “flood of fortune,” eventually comes to pass in Act V, Scene I when, amidst a myriad of sea references, Viola and Sebastian’s identities are revealed, each taking on their own shape, and dissolving the static tension. Both believed that they alone had survived the wrath of the stormy sea, whilst the other had been drowned. On seeing Viola, an astonished Sebastian asks, “I had a sister,/ Whom the blind waves and surges have devoured./ Of charity, what kin are you to me?” (5.1.226-8). Viola replies, “Sebastian was my brother… /So went he suited to this watery tomb” (5.1.231-2).

By reconciling their true identities with themselves and establishing for the other characters that they are in fact two separate individuals, they are able to break the static bond between Orsino and Olivia. In this manner, they free the other Illyrian characters, as well. Feste ends the play with a song about a storm, “the wind and the rain” – the element that catalyzed the main action in the play.

Shakespeare employs the power of the sea in “Twelfth Night” in a manner similar to the power of the forest in “As You Like It”. The sea has changeable, transformative powers, which allow people to disguise their true identities in order to ignite change in the other characters. The characters that are brought to Illyria from the water bring with them the power of the sea. Once they are reunited, that power is unlocked and it destroys the Illyrian stasis that has previously prevailed.

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