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Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” is used in Act II Scene 5 of Twelfth Night. 

Although it first appeared in Shakespeare’s play, this quote is now used in everything from television shows to movies and even conversations in everyday life. It is usually used seriously as a means of inspiring those listening. But, in the context of Twelfth Night, the quote is part of a joke played on Malvolio, the pompous steward in Olivia’s home. 

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them

Important Vocabulary to Know 

  • Greatness: fame, skill, and more. The “greatness” in this quote is still possible to achieve as it comes to people by chance sometimes. 
  • Thrust: forcibly given. In this case, the speaker is describing how some people arrive at greatest seemingly without meaning to. 
  • Upon: onto. In this case, the speaker is saying that some have the responsibilities and powers of “greatest” given to them without any forewarning. 

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” Meaning

This quote, out of context, suggests that even if one is at a low social level at this moment in their life, it’s possible to change that.

Some are born great and don’t have to work for it; others work hard and find greatness, while a third group is given the opportunity to be great in a surprising manner. It’s the latter of the three statements that are the most commonly quoted and effective outside the context of the play. It is often used when speaking about heroism in the face of unpredictable danger. 

Where Did Shakespeare Use this Quote?

This quote appears in Act II Scene 5 of Twelfth Night. It is part of a letter that was written by Maria (but forged in the name of Olivia) to Malvolio. It’s read out loud by Malvolio to the joy of the other servants. It is meant to make readers and audience members laugh and take the same pleasure in the well-devised prank. 

Within the context of the play, the quote is used as part of a joke. It is part of a letter that Olivia supposedly wrote to Malvolio, one of her employees. He reads it, thinking that it suggests Olivia is in love with him and is trying to encourage him to better himself. But, what he doesn’t know is that the letter was written by his fellow servants in an effort to play a joke on him. It encourages him to do the very things that annoy his mistress the most. Here is the quote in context: 

“M.O.A.I.” This simulation is not as the 

former, and yet to crush this a little, it would bow 

to me, for every one of these letters are in my name. 

Soft, here follows prose. 

]He reads.] If this fall into thy hand, revolve. In my 

stars I am above thee, but be not afraid of greatness

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and 

some have greatness thrust upon ’em. Thy fates open 

their hands. Let thy blood and spirit embrace them. 

And, to inure thyself to what thou art like to be, cast 

thy humble slough and appear fresh. Be opposite with 

a kinsman, surly with servants. Let thy tongue tang 

arguments of state. Put thyself into the trick of singularity. 

She thus advises thee that sighs for thee. 

Remember who commended thy yellow stockings and 

wished to see thee ever cross-gartered. I say, remember. 

Go to, thou art made, if thou desir’st to be so. If 

not, let me see thee a steward still, the fellow of 

servants, and not worthy to touch Fortune’s fingers. 

Farewell. She that would alter services with thee,

 After reading this, Malvolio declares that he is going to “be proud,” “read politic authors,” and “baffle Sir Toby.” He adds: 

I will wash off gross acquaintance, 

I will be point-devise the very man. I do not 

now fool myself, to let imagination jade me; for 

every reason excites to this, that my lady loves me. 

She did commend my yellow stockings of late, she 

did praise my leg being cross-gartered, and in this 

she manifests herself to my love and, with a kind of

 injunction, drives me to these habits of her liking.

Why Did Shakespeare Use this Quote?

Shakespeare used this quote as a joke that Malvolio’s fellow servants played on him. It appears in a letter that encourages him to better himself and continue to act in ways that annoy his mistress, Olivia. The servants chose to play this prank on him after becoming annoyed at his continual efforts to ruin their moments of levity throughout the day. They decide to make him think that Olivia is in love with him. 

Maria is the author of the letter, forging it in Olivia’s name. Throughout, he’s told to wear yellow stockings and crossed garters. He should smile all the time and refuse to explain his actions to anyone. These are the things that are going to help him better himself in the world and make Olivia love him even more. 

Perhaps the most interesting part of this quote and its surrounding context is the fact that today, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” is taken very seriously. Its context is not common knowledge. 

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