Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
When Olivia wants to let Cesario know that she loves him, she sends him a ring by way of Malvolio. Later, when she mistakes Sebastian for Cesario, she gives him a precious pearl. In each case, the jewel serves as a token of her love—a physical symbol of her romantic attachment to a man who is really a woman. The gifts are more than symbols, though. “Youth is bought more oft than begged or borrowed,” Olivia says at one point, suggesting that the jewels are intended almost as bribes—that she means to buy Cesario’s love if she cannot win it (III.iv.3).
When Sir Toby and Maria pretend that Malvolio is mad, they confine him in a pitch-black chamber. Darkness becomes a symbol of his supposed insanity, as they tell him that the room is filled with light and his inability to see is a sign of his madness. Malvolio reverses the symbolism. “I say this house is as dark as ignorance, though ignorance were as dark as hell; and I say there was never man thus abused” (IV.ii.40–42). In other words, the darkness—meaning madness—is not in the room with him, but outside, with Sir Toby and Feste and Maria, who have unjustly imprisoned him.
Clothes are powerful in Twelfth Night. They can symbolize changes in gender—Viola puts on male clothes to be taken for a male— as well as class distinctions. When Malvolio fantasizes about becoming a nobleman, he imagines the new clothes that he will have. When Feste impersonates Sir Topas, he puts on a nobleman’s garb, even though Malvolio, whom he is fooling, cannot see him, suggesting that clothes have a power that transcends their physical function.
More main ideas from Twelfth Night