Twelfth Night does not use foreshadowing in the conventional sense. Important events are not overtly foretold in the early parts of the play. Rather, Shakespeare uses wordplay and imagery in order to punctuate or amplify later scenes, allowing them to reverberate in retrospect. Similar devices are used to prepare the audience for the advent of certain characters or the use of plot devices. Here are examples of themes and plot points foreshadowed in Twelfth Night.

The Role of Love, the Use of Disguises

Perhaps the most important force at work in Twelfth Night is desire and the many forms it assumes. This theme is often expressed literally through the outward disguises of characters. Shakespeare immediately introduces the mechanics of this theme with the first lines spoken by Duke Orsino in Act I, scene i: “Oh spirit of love! How quick and fresh art thou, /…So full of shapes is fancy, / that it alone is high fantastical.” (I.i.). This quote introduces the outsized role of love in the play. The mention of ‘fancy,’ which here means love, as full of shapes sets up the prospect of love and Eros assuming unrecognizable forms. The soliloquy prepares the audience for the entrance of Viola, whose disguise as Cesario introduces an unexpected love triangle. Orsino’s soliloquy portrays love as one of the primary movers of the play. We understand that some characters will function less as autonomous, free-willed agents and more as participants, buffeted by a power outside of their control. Sure enough, Orsino and Olivia shift easily from one love to another, and Malvolio falls for Olivia quite suddenly.

Patient Love vs. Fickle Love

The main characters’ drastic swings in affection are also foreshadowed throughout the first acts. In Act II scene iv, Orsino first declares that men are fickle and unreliable: “Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm, / More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn, than women’s are.” Later in the same scene contradicts himself, saying the love of women is less intense than men’s because their hearts “lack retention.” As Feste observes, Orsino himself is “a very Opal,” changing constantly. Later we will see Orsino easily transfer his love for Olivia to Viola. The scene foreshadows the two kinds of desire present in Twelfth Night: a constant, “patient” love (much like Viola’s) and a fickle one that darts about from place to place, like Orsino’s. Orsino’s conflicting observations about desire across genders foregrounds the play’s finale (where Orsino quickly forsakes his love for Olivia in order to marry Viola), making the sudden switch all the more poignant, biting, and comical.

Arrival of Sebastian, Mistaken Identities, and the Reunification of the Twins

Another important motif that enhances conflict in the play is mistaken identity. After Sebastian arrives in Illyria, he and his twin sister Viola (disguised as Cesario) are often mistaken for one another, creating many complications and tricky scenarios. This mechanism is craftily set up in the early sections of the play. When Viola is first introduced in Act I, scene ii, the Captain shares his belief that Sebastian might still be alive, because he saw him swimming away, “holding acquaintance with the waves.” This note of doubt regarding Sebastian’s death foreshadows his later arrival. Sure enough, once Sebastian appears in Act II, scene i, he too fears that his sister has drowned. Since the audience now knows that both Viola and Sebastian are alive and well, and since both are presently on the Illyrian mainland, chances are the two will reunite later in the story. Their reunion functions as the climax of the play, and triggers the resolution. Once Sebastian admits that Viola “much resembles” him (II.ii.), the audience is prepared for the antics that result from mistaken identities.