A Study Guide

By Adrienne L. Eastwood


Background and Themes:


First performed around 1600 or 1601, Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s later comedies.  The production dates suggest that it was performed around the same time as Hamlet, and a closer consideration of the themes of the plays indicates a deeper connection.  Both plays engage questions about excessive grief and mourning (Olivia, like Hamlet, is accused of mourning too much), the nature of madness, and the temptations of illicit love. It makes sense that Shakespeare may have wanted to explore such themes using a tragic frame (as in Hamlet) and a comic one (in Twelfth Night).  Whereas in Hamlet, audiences are haunted by questions about what happens to us after death, the nature of true madness, and the qualities of individual subjectivity, Twelfth Night employs the comic structure to purge such uncertainties and related emotions, celebrating instead festivity and community. 


The title of the play refers to the Christmas celebrations (January 6th, the twelfth night of Christmas) associated with the Feast of the Epiphany (the revealing of Christ).  In Elizabethan England, twelfth night was celebrated as a feast of misrule—a topsy-turvy party during which a commoner was crowned temporary “ruler” of the festivities.  Such celebrations featured music and dancing, excessive eating and drinking, costume and cross-dressing; people enjoyed being free from the rigid hierarchical structure that governed many aspects of their normal daily lives.  Some scholars have suggested that such feasts functioned as a way for the lower orders to release pent-up social tensions before being called upon to return to their “proper” places within the strictly hierarchical social order. 


In Shakespeare’s play, the sensuous excesses of festive celebration are foregrounded as the self-indulgent characters Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek team up with Maria and Fabian to play an elaborate prank on the stuck-up Malvolio (whose name literally means “ill will”), and the gender-inverting Viola wreaks love-havoc on Olivia and Orsino.  It is the function of the festive elements in this play to both literally and figuratively banish ill will, grief, and confusion by the final act.  But, as is typical in Shakespeare’s comedies, the playwright confounds the comic closure in act 5 with persistent gender confusion and the angry and threatening return of Malvolio in the final moments.  The clown appropriately named “Feste,” extends the play’s ultimate disquietude with the haunting lyric that serves as the epilogue:


When that I was and a little tiny boy,

With a hey ho, the wind and the rain,

A foolish thing, was but a toy,

For the rain it raineth every day.   


In the end, audiences are encouraged to take the advice Shakespeare offers in the alternate title for this play: make “what you will” of what you have seen.  You decide just how effective festivity is in banishing “ill will” and untangling the homoerotic love knots that threaten to disrupt the imposition of order that occurs in the final act.  You decide whether the play’s engagement with the darker themes of grief, death, and madness is dispelled when the curtain falls.


Plot Summary Links: 


For an informative website that includes information about Shakespeare’s life and times, go to the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Guide to Shakespeare:  http://search.eb.com/shakespeare/esa/660002.html

The Shakespeare Folger Library is a great general resource for teachers of Shakespeare: http://www.folger.edu/


The Main Characters:


Orsino is the indulgent Duke of Illyria who enjoys the finer things in life—and doesn’t seem to spend too much time worrying about affairs of state.  He is in love with Olivia, and does not want to accept her rejection of his overtures. 


Olivia is a rich countess who, when the play opens, has sworn to eschew the company of men for seven years while she mourns for her dead brother.  She seems to enjoy her power and autonomy, and without a husband or a living male relative, she gets to run her considerable estate exactly the way she wishes.  Until, of course, she falls in love…


Viola is young woman with means and a good singing voice who finds herself shipwrecked in Illyria.  She decides to pass as a “eunuch” called Cesario and serve on Orsino’s court.  In a very short time, she finds herself in love with Orsino but can’t express her feelings because she is passing as a male servant.  Viola is sharp and crafty, but she quickly finds that assuming the role of Cesario causes more problems than she can solve.   


Sebastian – Viola’s twin brother whom she believes has been lost at sea.  He, too, believes his sister has been killed. 


Antonio – a sea captain and friend of Sebastian’s who harbors very strong feelings for him.  For mysterious reasons, he risks his life to follow Sebastian into Illyria where he is a known fugitive. 


Malvolio – the haughty and supercilious servant of Olivia.  Malvolio is the play’s “wet blanket,” constantly trying to subdue the partying of Sir Toby and the other festive characters.  He is despised because of his smug sense of superiority and his apparent ignorance of his social station.


Sir Toby Belch – Olivia’s drunken uncle.  He is the echo of Falstaff, a character from Shakespeare’s earlier history plays, who is also a knight.  Sir Toby’s love of liquor, jokes, and song make him the most raucous of the festive characters in the play. 


Sir Andrew Aguecheek – Sir Toby’s good-natured but moronic sidekick. 


Maria – Olivia’s servant and the mastermind of the prank played on Malvolio.  Sir Toby marries her at the end of the play as a “reward” for being so crafty.  (Somewhat ironically, theirs seems to be most promising union.)


Feste – The play’s clown and the manifestation of festivity itself, Feste appears frequently throughout the play singing and engaging other characters in witty (often philosophically deep) repartee.  Like many of Shakespeare’s clowns, his lines make it clear that he is more than just “dumb show and noise” to entertain the “groundlings.”  He appears comfortably in both Orsino’s court and on Olivia’s estate, and is able to engage in conversation with both of these figures. 


Discussion Questions:


How do the themes and characters in Twelfth Night compare with those in Hamlet


How do you feel about the trick played on Malvolio?  Is this just a prank?  Or do you read it as cruel and unusual punishment?


Some scholars have argued that Antonio is the most constant lover in the play.  What are your thoughts on this point?


What does Feste mean when he says in act 1 scene 5: cucullus non facit monachum [the hood makes not the monk]: that’s as much to say, as I wear not motley in my brain.  (1.5.49-51)?  How does this comment relate to the play as a whole? 


What do you make of the fact that Cesario and Sebastian are apparently interchangeable for Olivia? 


Why does Olivia grant decide to grant Cesario an audience with her in 1.5? And at what point in the ensuing scene does Olivia “fall” for Cesario?


Why do you think Shakespeare doesn’t have Viola appear on stage at the end of the play in a dress?  Remember that Orsino tells her, “Give me thy hand, / And let me see thee in thy women’s weeds” (5.1.263-264). 


What does this play seem to say about love and about marriage as a social institution?