Study Guide

Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare

Twelfth Night Analysis

Historical Background

Although fifteenth-century England had been a time of grave civil unrest and violence, by the time Shakespeare achieved prominence during Elizabeth and James’ reigns it was enjoying a period of socio-political security and respect for the arts. Queen Elizabeth’s reign extended from 1558 until 1603, when she was succeeded by the Scottish King James. Shakespeare received the patronage of both monarchs during his career as a playwright.

Elizabeth’s reign was not without its tensions. There was an intense religious climate in which the Queen had to act decisively. The religious tensions that existed during Elizabeth’s reign continued during James’ reign, when he was pitted against the Puritans. England had gone to war with Spain. In other foreign affairs, the Queen was moderate, practicing a prudent diplomatic neutrality. There were, however, several plots on her life.

There was also evidence of progress. The nation experienced a commercial revolution. Elizabeth’s government instituted two important social measures: “the Statute of Artificers” and the “Poor Laws,” both of which were aimed at helping the people displaced and hurt by changing conditions. Laws were passed to regulate the economy. Explorers started to venture into the unknown for riches and land. The machinery of government was transformed. The administrative style of government replaced the household form of leadership.

The Elizabethan Age was an age...

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Twelfth Night Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Illyria. Region on the east shore of the Adriatic Sea, between Italy and Greece. Its history is marked by waves of conquering invaders, from early Slavs to Ottoman Turks. In William Shakespeare’s time, Illyria—still part of the Ottoman Empire—was a group of city-states controlled by Venice. In the play, Illyria is distinctly Italianate, making for an atmosphere that is congenial to romance, with the seacoast providing an apt setting for plot conveniences of shipwreck, separated twins (Viola and Sebastian), and exotic adventures. At Illyria, fantasies and dreams are realized, and lessons are learned. There Viola is transformed from a woman to a man to “Orsino’s mistress,” and there she is finally able to live in an earthly Elysium.

Duke’s palace

Duke’s palace. Site of romantic sentimentality. The duke revels in wordplay and music, which feed his passion. The palace is also a site of ambiguous sexual identity, as shown by Viola’s disguise as Cesario.

House of Olivia

House of Olivia. House modeled on the English system of servants and retainers with prescribed duties. On one hand, there is the mourning figure of Olivia, and the humorless, austere, proud figure of her steward, Malvolio, the epitome of all puritans. On the other, there are Fabian and Maria, Olivia’s servants, and the faithful old retainer, Feste—a well-educated clown. Olivia attempts to live a cloistered life, but Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the two rowdy rioters, are unaffected by Olivia’s sadness over her dead brother.

In a room within this house, Malvolio is confined indarkness and cruelly mocked and tormented by a disguised Feste, at the instigation of Sir Toby and Maria.

Olivia’s orchard

Olivia’s orchard. Scene of Malvolio’s gulling by Maria’s faked letter. One of the comic highlights of the play comes from Malvolio’s strange cross-gartering and absurd posturings as Olivia’s would-be lover. However, the real point of the comedy is character revelation.

Twelfth Night Modern Connections

Twelfth Night is a holiday that occurs on January 6, which is the festival of Epiphany and the last day of the twelve days of Christmas. During Shakespeare's time, Twelfth Night marked the end of a period of seasonal festivities when dances, parties, and banquets were held and plays were performed, and the traditional social order was temporarily overturned— ideally to allow any tensions that had built up over the year to be safely released. A king or lord of misrule was crowned, and traditional social roles (master/servant, bishop/choirboy, king/fool) were reversed. Today, Halloween, New Year's Eve, and Mardi Gras perform a similar function: on these holidays, many people eat and drink whatever they want, go to parties until early in the morning, and temporarily lose their cares and sometimes their inhibitions by wearing costumes or masks, pretending for a short time to be someone else.

Although Shakespeare never makes it clear whether or not the play's action occurs during the Christmas season, Twelfth Night has been described as carnivalesque in plot and tone, and indeed, Sir Toby Belch, for example, seems to be perpetually drinking and partying until late at night with his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek. There are also plenty of role reversals in the play, including a fool speaking words of wisdom (Feste), a humorless steward made to look like a fool (Malvolio), and a woman (Viola) pretending to be a man.

Women were not employed in acting troupes during Shakespeare's time, so female roles—such as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet or Ophelia in Hamlet— had to be performed by boys whose voices had not yet deepened. This fact added an extra bit of humor to the action in Twelfth Night: Renaissance audiences knew that the part of Viola was played by a boy, and would find it amusing when Viola disguised herself as Cesario, thereby in reality becoming a boy playing a woman playing a...

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Twelfth Night Quizzes

Act I, Scene 1 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is the major theme of the play?

2. With whom is the Duke in love?

3. In what kinds of poetry does the Duke express his love?

4. Is it entirely true that the Duke is “in love with love”?

5. What type of metaphor does the Duke use when he addresses the “spirit of love”?

6. What is the subtitle of the play?

7. Toward what does the title Twelfth Night orient the reader?

8. What recreation does Curio ask the Duke about?

9. What is “Twelfth Night”?

10. What kind of part does love play in the festival atmosphere of the play?

1. Love is...

(The entire section is 209 words.)

Act I, Scene 2 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Where do we first meet Viola?

2. What happened to Viola’s brother?

3. What kind of nature does Viola have?

4. What does Shakespeare imply about love in his shift of thematic emphasis?

5. What device does Viola use to get into the Duke’s service?

6. Is it clear what Viola wants to achieve in the Duke’s service?

7. How does Shakespeare symbolize Viola’s practical side?

8. Is Twelfth Night the only play that involves a character putting on a disguise?

9. What other significant Shakespearean theme does Viola state?

10. What image that the Duke employs does Viola also use?


(The entire section is 199 words.)

Act I, Scene 3 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Do we meet Olivia in this scene?

2. What is Sir Andrew’s relationship to Sir Toby?

3. What did Maria hear about Sir Andrew’s purpose for being in the house?

4. What does the presence of Maria and Sir Toby as characters imply?

5. Who brings in a note of competition to the scene?

6. Does Sir Andrew seem an appropriate suitor for Olivia?

7. What else do Sir Toby and Sir Andrew illustrate in the play?

8. How does Shakespeare reveal Sir Toby’s free spirit?

9. What is “ploce”?

10. What type of imagery does Sir Toby introduce at the end of the scene?

1. No,...

(The entire section is 215 words.)

Act I, Scene 4 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is Viola’s male name?

2. What task does the Duke assign Cesario?

3. For whom does Cesario feel love for?

4. To what genre does the play Twelfth Night belong?

5. What kind of an ending do we expect in comedy?

6. What kind of vision does comedy have, according to Northrop Frye?

7. What is the community of Illyria doing about the Duke’s love?

8. How does the Duke respond to Cesario’s doubts that Olivia is too “abandoned to her sorrow” to listen to his suit?

9. Does the Duke change?

10. What does Orsino display at the end of the scene?


(The entire section is 192 words.)

Act I, Scene 5 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What does Maria threaten the Clown with?

2. What kind of attitude does the Clown evidence toward Olivia?

3. What does the Clown try to prove about Olivia?

4. What is the name of Olivia’s steward?

5. What does Olivia put on before speaking with Cesario?

6. Who falls in love with whom in this scene?

7. What do the two love twists we’ve witnessed suggest?

8. Which character serves to emphasize the subjective nature of “love” ?

9. In what manner are the Clown’s insults couched?

10. That type of metaphor does Cesario use to lend emphasis to the great love the Duke holds for Olivia?


(The entire section is 196 words.)

Act II, Scene 1 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is Antonio’s occupation?

2. What relation does Sebastian hold to Viola?

3. What does Sebastian think has happened to Viola?

4. Where do Antonio and Sebastian find themselves in this scene?

5. What purpose does this scene serve?

6. How would you characterize the style of the dialogue?

7. Where does Sebastian say he is headed?

8. What does Antonio want to do for Sebastian?

9. Name one source for Twelfth Night.

10. Essentially, what do the sources and the play Twelfth Night have in common?

1. Antonio is a sea captain.

2. Sebastian...

(The entire section is 166 words.)

Act II, Scene 2 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why does Malvolio seek Cesario?

2. Whose ring is it?

3. What kind of speech is it that Cesario utters?

4. What does Malvolio emphasize to Cesario?

5. Where does Malvolio put the ring?

6. What does Cesario feel about the ring?

7. Who has fallen in love with Cesario?

8. What does Cesario wonder in the latter part of the soliloquy?

9. What motif does Cesario repeat in his soliloquy?

10. What is the critics’ attitude toward Malvolio?

1. Malvolio seeks Cesario to give him a ring.

2. It is a ring from Olivia.

3. Cesario utters a soliloquy....

(The entire section is 146 words.)

Act II, Scene 3 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What does going to bed after midnight mean for Sir Toby?

2. What does Sir Andrew call Feste the Clown?

3. What ability of the Clown does Sir Andrew compliment?

4. What do Sir Toby and Andrew offer to Feste for his singing?

5. What two types of songs does the Clown suggest?

6. What does the Clown’s song define?

7. In keeping with the holiday tradition, what title can we apply to Sir Toby?

8. What plot is hatched in this scene?

9. What is Maria’s motive for the scheme?

10. What does Maria plan to drop in Malvolio’s way?

1. For Sir Toby, going to bed after...

(The entire section is 185 words.)

Act II, Scene 4 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is the first item the Duke requests?

2. Who is not immediately available to sing the song?

3. What kind of a lover does Orsino classify himself as?

4. What does the Duke surmise about Cesario?

5. According to the Duke, does the age of the man in a relationship matter?

6. What does the Clown’s song focus on?

7. Who does the Clown insult?

8. Where does Cesario go once again?

9. What warning does Cesario give to Orsino about Olivia?

10. In what does the lover of the Clown’s song wish to be laid?

1. The Duke requests some music.

2. The Clown is...

(The entire section is 185 words.)

Act II, Scene 5 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Who is Fabian?

2. What is his motive for tricking Malvolio?

3. Who has worked out the scheme?

4. Where will the spectators of the device hide?

5. What does Malvolio fancy himself?

6. What kind of intention do Sir Toby and Andrew evidence by their remarks?

7. In whose handwriting supposedly is the letter that Malvolio finds?

8. What four letters in the letter lead Malvolio to believe it is addressed to him?

9. What is the source of imagery used by Sir Toby, Andrew, Maria, and Fabian to characterize Malvolio’s situation?

10. From whom is Malvolio alienated?


(The entire section is 180 words.)

Act III, Scene 1 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What instrument is the Clown holding?

2. Where does the Clown say he lives by?

3. Why is the Clown upset with words?

4. Rather than Lady Olivia’s fool, what does Feste claim to be?

5. What does Cesario praise while waiting for Olivia?

6. Who declares love in this scene?

7. What is Olivia’s response to Cesario’s wooing for the Duke?

8. Between what two characters does Shakespeare establish a kinship?

9. What happens when wise men act foolishly?

10. According to Herschel Baker, what do the characters lack?

1. The Clown is holding a tabor.

2. The...

(The entire section is 164 words.)

Act III, Scene 2 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is Sir Andrew getting ready to do?

2. On whom does Andrew see Olivia bestow her affection?

3. What is Fabian’s explanation for that favoritism?

4. What element does Fabian think will stir Olivia’s passion?

5. What idea does Sir Toby come up with to help Sir Andrew?

6. What task does Sir Toby assign Sir Andrew?

7. What does Sir Toby not plan to do, though?

8. In what manner does Sir Toby hail Maria?

9. How does Maria describe Malvolio’s absorption in the letter?

10. What role does Sir Toby continue to play well?

1. Sir Andrew is getting ready to...

(The entire section is 197 words.)

Act III, Scene 3 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What does Sebastian say he will not do to Antonio?

2. Where do they meet?

3. What encouraged Antonio to keep up with Sebastian?

4. How does Antonio describe the area they’re in?

5. What does Sebastian desire to do in Illyria?

6. Why does Antonio have to decline Sebastian’s offer to see the town?

7. What does Sebastian reckon Antonio has done?

8. What does Antonio say he is guilty of?

9. Who is the missing link in the love strands?

10. With what character does Sebastian have a similar thematic function?

1. Sebastian says he will not chide him.


(The entire section is 170 words.)

Act III, Scene 4 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How is Olivia feeling at the opening of the scene?

2. What does Olivia commend about Malvolio?

3. What influence sways Malvolio’s mind as he speaks with Olivia?

4. In what words does Malvolio try to dismiss Sir Toby when he enters?

5. What does Sir Toby indicate his attitude toward Malvolio will be when the trick is done?

6. What does Sir Andrew return with?

7. How receptive is Cesario to Olivia’s love?

8. With what news does Sir Toby alarm Cesario?

9. What does the knowledge of Sebastian’s existence make of this scene?

10. How can we characterize Malvolio’s dialogue with Olivia?


(The entire section is 206 words.)

Act IV, Scene 1 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How does Sebastian react to Feste?

2. What does Sebastian tell the Clown to vent elsewhere?

3. Who tells the other to abandon his pretense?

4. Who fights in this scene?

5. When the Clown sees the fray, what does he do?

6. Who breaks up the fight?

7. How does Olivia characterize Sir Toby’s behavior?

8. To whom does Olivia issue an invitation?

9. How does Sebastian respond to Olivia’s invitation?

10. What does Maurice Charney say about Feste’s mind?

1. Sebastian dismisses the Clown.

2. Sebastian tells the Clown to vent his folly elsewhere.


(The entire section is 156 words.)

Act IV, Scene 2 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What two articles does Maria give the Clown?

2. Whom does she want Feste to play?

3. What label does Sir Topas greet Malvolio with?

4. What kind of room is Malvolio in?

5. What are the two sources of light in that room?

6. How does Malvolio perceive himself?

7. What items does Malvolio request from Sir Topas?

8. What kind of test does Malvolio ask for?

9. Why does Sir Toby feel compelled to put a stop to the trick?

10. What image in the scene suggests the cruelty of Maria and Sir Toby?

1. Maria gives the Clown a gown and a beard.

2. Maria wants Feste...

(The entire section is 188 words.)

Act IV, Scene 3 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why is the garden an appropriate setting for this scene?

2. What does Sebastian try to come to terms with?

3. What does the rapidity of the love match prevent us from obtaining?

4. What gift has Olivia given Sebastian?

5. Whom does Sebastian wish to speak with?

6. Does he accept or reject Olivia’s love?

7. What skill of Olivia’s does Sebastian praise?

8. What plans has Olivia made?

9. Who has she brought to carry out those plans?

10. What is the key symbolic element of this scene?

1. It is appropriate because a wedding is about to take place.


(The entire section is 170 words.)

Act V, Scene 1 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Whose letter does Feste refuse to show Fabian?

2. With what disparaging term does the Clown refer to himself and Fabian?

3. Whom does Antonio think Cesario is?

4. Why does Olivia call in the priest?

5. What has happened to Sir Andrew?

6. What does Sebastian’s presence signal?

7. Whom does Malvolio cast blame on in his letter?

8. With Olivia and Sebastian being the first couple, who make up the second couple?

9. Who make up the third pairing?

10. What satisfaction does Malvolio want for the trick?

1. Feste refuses to show Malvolio’s letter.

2. The...

(The entire section is 167 words.)