Introductory Lecture and Objectives

Twelfth Night eNotes Lesson Plan content

Introductory Lecture

William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was written in 1601. It is his only play in which there is a lesserknown alternative title, What You Will. Commercially oriented, Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night because he knew that Elizabethan audiences would like the play. To this end, he employed popular Elizabethan romantic conventions, such as mistaken identity and obstacles to true love. The plot is simple: romantic confusion ensues after a man, who is actually a woman in disguise, arrives in town. As in all of Shakespeare’s comedies, doubt is erased, any “villains” are disposed of, and everything ends happily by the end of the play.

Little is known about Shakespeare’s life despite the volume of his work. The chasm between Shakespeare’s fame and the quantity of his writing has fueled an argument by scholars since the nineteenth century that someone other than Shakespeare created the plays and poems attributed to him. Thus far, there have been seventeen alternate Shakespeares proposed by “anti-Stratfordians,” or those who believe there was another writer. Foremost among them is the author and scholar Charlton Ogburn, who has tirelessly argued for his theory that Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays and poems. 

The Earl was a flamboyant character whose life mirrored many of the events in several of Shakespeare’s plays. Ogburn’s primary argument is that Shakespeare was too parochial and uneducated to have written the body of work that he did. Other scholars reject this claim, citing the imaginative life of a writer who is able to create, for example, seemingly first-hand knowledge of Danish and French courts, as well as Italian cities. Additionally, the Earl died twelve years before Shakespeare, leaving many plays unaccounted for. 

What Shakespearean scholars do agree upon is that the Bard was notorious for borrowing stories from other writers. For Twelfth Night, an Italian play Gl’Ingannati (1530s) seems to have supplied the plot in which twins are mistaken for each other, and a platonic love triangle comprises part of the  narrative. Also, an English story “Apollonius and Silla” (1581) appears to have provided the elements of a shipwreck and a woman disguised as a man. 

Shakespeare named his play after the twelfth day of Christmas. During the Elizabethan era, people celebrated the Twelfth Night of the holiday with music, dance, banquets, and plays. The historical precedent for this celebration is the Roman Saturnalia festival. It is likely the Roman festival inspired some of Shakespeare’s themes in Twelfth Night, such as drowning and gender uncertainty. The Roman revelry also included much drinking and role reversal: servants played masters, masters played servants, wives pretended to be their husbands, and so forth. Contributing to Twelfth Night’s theme of gender confusion, women were not allowed to appear on stage during the Elizabethan era; young boys would play girls’ parts. Thus Shakespeare’s Viola would have been a boy dressed up as a girl pretending to be a boy. 

At the time Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night, modern English was less than one hundred years old. While much of the vocabulary Shakespeare used in his writing is now archaic or obsolete, prompting many readers of his work to feel intimidated by the language and his references, many of his expressions have become a part of our modern vernacular: such examples include, “neither rhyme nor reason,” “a wild goose chase,” “eaten out of house and home,” “brave new world,” and “dead as a doornail.” Modern readers discover these familiar expressions in Shakespeare’s plays with a mixture of relief and delight. These discoveries reinforce the notion that these plays, while written in the language of the sixteenth century and filled with references contemporary at the time but now obscure, are not an exercise for the intellect, as Twelfth Night exemplifies. 

This play is a fanciful, romantic comedy that has remained popular for over four hundred years because it amuses and entertains its audiences, just as the author intended. For those willing to practice “the suspension of disbelief,” as they follow the misadventures of the often foolish characters, Twelfth Night offers much to enjoy and to consider; after all, unlike language, human nature has not changed much at all. 

By the end of the unit the student will be able to: 

1. Identify and describe the plot for Twelfth Night

2. Identify the primary themes and motifs. 

3. Discuss the role of gender and cross-dressing and the ideas developed through them. 

4. Identify the various representations of love presented in the text and explain how they correspond to character development. 

5. Describe the role of the “fool” and discuss what Shakespeare may have intended to say through Feste. 

6. Recognize literary devices, such as dramatic irony and suspension of disbelief. 

7. Identify examples of iambic pentameter, rhyming verse, and prose. 

8. Determine and define those elements that make Twelfth Night an integral part of the winter holidays.

Instructional Focus: Teaching With an eNotes Lesson Plan

This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.

Student Lesson Guide

• The Lesson Guide is organized for an act-by-act study of the play. Lesson Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.

• Lesson Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each act and to acquaint them generally with its content.

• Before Lesson Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.

• Lesson Guide vocabulary...

(The entire section is 1172 words.)

Essay and Discussion Questions

1. Identify the main plot and subplots within Twelfth Night. Discuss whether the subplots complement or complicate the circumstances and actions within the play.

2. How does the locale contribute to the play’s imaginative distancing of its subjects from everyday life? How does an exotic setting reinforce the symbolic aspects of the Twelfth Night celebration?

3. Compare and contrast the types of love depicted in Twelfth Night. What can modern readers learn from the various examples and definitions of it? Is Shakespeare promoting romantic love or making fun of it? Why do you agree or disagree with any of the characters’ notions of love?

4. How are Orsino and Olivia...

(The entire section is 763 words.)

Act One, Scenes One and Two


abate: to lessen or decrease in intensity; to subside

abjured: to have renounced with an oath, and rejected solemnly

bounteously: generously

brine: water saturated with salt

eunuch: a man or boy deprived of his testes or external genitals

haply: by chance, luck, or accident

hath: archaic have

nought: nothing, a variant of “naught”

prattle: to utter or make meaningless sounds suggestive of the chatter of children

provident: making provisions for future needs, especially saving money

sovereign: a king or queen, or the person with the highest power in a country

surfeiting: archaic indulging to...

(The entire section is 821 words.)

Act One, Scenes Three and Four


bear-baiting: the practice of setting dogs loose to attack a chained bear

caper: any of a genus of low prickly shrubs of the Mediterranean region

coranto: a dance marked by quick running steps; modification of French word courante

coystrill: a base fellow

distaff: peculiar to a woman, related through a mother, derived from the female parent

ducat: a gold or silver coin

flax: a plant with blue flowers; fiber from the flax plant is made into linen thread

galliard: archaic gay, brisk, active dance

kickshawses: special delicacies, fancy dishes

pourquoi: French word for “why?”


(The entire section is 630 words.)

Act One, Scene Five


calamity: a disaster, a catastrophe

cantons: land divided into sections

cuckold: a husband whose wife is unfaithful

botcher: a bungler, a person who does poor work

divulged: revealed, told, disclosed

endue: to endow or to provide with quality or ability

fervor: ardor, passion, eagerness

gaskins: part of a horse’s hind leg

Lenten: of or pertaining to Lent, characteristic of Lent, suggesting that which is spare, austere, or somber

pia mater: the delicate innermost membrane enveloping the brain and spinal cord; used to imply a person is stupid (in context)

swabber: one who uses a swab, mops a floor

syllogism: an example of...

(The entire section is 951 words.)

Act Two, Scenes One and Two


betimes: in good season or time, before it is late

churlish: crass, brutish, surly, rude, intractable

extort: to obtain (money, information) through threat or intimidation, to blackmail

malignancy: a state or quality of being hostile or evil

1. What does the sea symbolize in Twelfth Night? Explain some possible interpretations.

For the twins Viola and Sebastian, the sea would symbolize death and tragic personal loss, since each believes the other drowned following the shipwreck. Because of their shipwreck, however, Viola meets Orsino and Olivia, and Sebastian meets Antonio, creating circumstances rife with the possibilities of friendship and love. In...

(The entire section is 674 words.)

Act Two, Scenes Three and Four


Cataian: a native of Cathay or China, a foreigner (formerly a term of reproach)

caterwauling: protesting and complaining loudly

consanguineous: related by blood, descended from the same ancestor

damask: a greyish-pink color

diluculo surgere: Latin “to get up at dawn”; the full phrase is diluculo surgere saluberrimum est, which means “to get up at dawn is most healthful”

doublet: a close-fitting garment for men

episties: plays on the idea of religious gospel

gull: to deceive, to trick, to defraud

knave: a rascal, an upstart

mellifluous: sweetly flowing, pleasing to the tongue or ear


(The entire section is 836 words.)

Act Two, Scene Five


champaign: an expanse of level, open country

cudgel: to club, to beat, to bludgeon

cur: a base or cowardly person

exult: to be happy, to rejoice

fustian: pompous, inflated, bombastic

inure: to accustom, to accept something unpleasant

jesting: joking

niggardly: in a stingy or cheap manner

point-devise: archaic marked by punctilious attention to detail; meticulous

prerogative: a right or privilege

scruple: a very small portion or amount

sinews: muscle; the force and vigor of a plan (in context)

yeoman: a man holding and operating a small, landed estate; a freeholder


(The entire section is 762 words.)

Act Three, Scenes One and Two


Brownist: a follower of Robert Brown of England who taught that every organized church is complete and independent in itself

cheveril: kidskin

Cressida to the Troilus: a reference to Shakespeare’s tragedy Troilus and Cressida

cubiculo: Italian cubicle; a bedchamber (in context)

dormouse valour: a small amount of bravery

heathen: one who is uncivilized, lacking culture

laudable: worthy of praise and honor

Lord Pandarus of Phrygia: Lord Pandarus was a Trojan aristocrat; Phrygia is also an archaic reference to sexual activity, suggesting reference here is a double entendre

pilchard: a small fish related to herring


(The entire section is 851 words.)

Act Three, Scenes Three and Four


anon: archaic soon, shortly

approbation: approval

arbitrement: compromise, arbitration

bawcock: archaic a fine fellow, a term of endearment

clodpole: a dolt, a stupid person

cockatrices: mythological creatures, half serpent and half cockerel, famed for killing at a glance

coffer: a sturdy chest or box in which valuables are stored

firago: Shakespeare variation on “virago,” a bold or quarrelsome woman

implacable: impossible to pacify

paltry: meager, scant

rapier: an extremely sharp sword

sanctity: the quality or state of being holy or sacred

scabbard: the sheath for the...

(The entire section is 861 words.)

Act Four, Scenes One, Two, and Three


beshrew: to curse, to wish evil on someone or something

chantry: a chapel for the saying of Mass

hyperbolical: exaggerated, overstated

King Gorboduc: a legendary King of the Britons

Lethe: Greek mythology the river of forgetfulness

malapert: archaic bold, impertinent

Pythagoras: a Greek philosopher

ruffian: a bully, a thug, a hooligan

tarry: to delay, to linger

ungird: to unbind; to divest of a restraining band or girdle

Study Questions

1. Describe how the comic subplot unfolds in Scene Four.

The comic subplot began with the tricksters Sir Toby, Sir Andrew,...

(The entire section is 961 words.)

Act Five, Scene One


beguiled: deceived, enchanted

Belzebub: a name for Satan

covetousness: greed or a desire for another’s possessions

coxcomb: a conceited, pretentious person

durance: detention, imprisonment

fulsome: overly plentiful, excessive

minion: a slavish person

panyn: Shakespeare’s publisher’s typo for “pavan,” which is a measure of music

scathful: harmful, doing damage

Study Questions

1. How does Antonio explain to Orsino why he is in Illyria?

Antonio claims he went to Illyria because he followed a boy whose “life I gave him and did thereto add / My love, without retention or restraint,”...

(The entire section is 304 words.)

Multiple-Choice Test and Answer Key

1. What is the crux of the plot for Twelfth Night?

A. misplaced love

B. mistaken identity

C. gender identity

D. fooling fools

E. misunderstanding

2. Which of the following is not a theme in Twelfth Night?

A. social hierarchy

B. love

C. gender

D. lunacy

E. identity

3. Which of the following is an example of dramatic irony?

A. Sir Toby, Maria, and Sir Andrew make fun of Malvolio’s love for Olivia; Shakespeare is holding the concept of love up for...

(The entire section is 891 words.)

Essay Exam Questions With Answers

1. In the literature of the Elizabethan period, the fool is a character, in contrast to other major characters, who can speak the truth without fear of reprisal. Citing specific examples, explain how Feste’s words cut through pretense to reveal truth.

Clowns and fools in the Elizabethan era fulfilled a unique role, entertaining the aristocrats while exposing their fallibilities in the disguise of comedy. Consequently, the character of the fool became a popular convention in the literature of the era. Feste is the fool in Twelfth Night, and through him Shakespeare makes the distinction between professional fools and those who are truly foolish but believe they are wise. Feste tells Olivia in Latin “the hood...

(The entire section is 2456 words.)