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So you’re going to teach William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, Twelfth Night has been a mainstay of English classrooms for generations. While it has its challenging spots—complicated language and complexly layered themes—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying Twelfth Night will give them unique insight into the concept of metatheatre and important themes surrounding gender, performance, and love. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance

  • Publication Date: Performed 1602; Published 1623
  • Recommended Grade Level: 9-12 
  • Approximate Word Count: 20,000
  • Author: William Shakespeare
  • Country of Origin: England
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Literary Period: Renaissance
  • Conflict: Person vs. Person, Person vs. Society 
  • Setting: Illyria, a fictional city resembling Italy
  • Structure: Five-Act Stage Comedy

Texts that Go Well with Twelfth Night

As You Like It (written 1599) is another stage comedy by William Shakespeare. Considered to be one of Shakespeare’s “mature comedies” alongside Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing, it explores metatheatre and themes surrounding gender and love through its crossdressing protagonist, Rosalind. Similar to Twelfth Night, As You Like It features an active heroine who must rely on her wits in order to find love and resolve conflicts.

The Great Gatsby (1925) is a novel written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It follows narrator Nick Carraway as he becomes entangled with the charismatic and mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby and Gatsby’s longtime infatuation with Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby’s idealized vision of Daisy and desperate desire to impress her mirrors Orsino’s dogged pursuit of Olivia in spite of her disinterest. Additionally, Gatsby’s desire to transcend his class, only to fall short, mirrors Malvolio’s scorned ambitions.

Hamlet (1603) is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. Though Twelfth Night is a comedy, it interrogates themes that have the potential to verge into more serious subject matter. The impact of disguise and performance on identity is explored as Viola pretends to be a male servant. Hamlet also engages with this theme but in a more dangerous setting, offering a glimpse at the multifaceted nature of themes.

Orlando (1928) is a novel written by Virginia Woolf. It explores the fluidity of gender through its protagonist, Orlando, who is transformed from male to female. Orlando’s experiences closely interrogate gender and the different experiences that accompany living as a man or a woman. The novel, like Twelfth Night, grapples with issues surrounding internal and external identity and the frustration entailed in being unable to align them. 

“What is our Life?” is a short lyric poem by Sir Walter Raleigh, written sometime between 1590 and 1618, that ruminates on the idea of life as a performance. Raleigh portrays life as a “short comedy” and asks readers to question whether the apparent insignificance of a human life is a blessing or a curse. Much like Shakespeare’s comedies, Raleigh’s poem considers an oftentimes depressing theme from a lighter perspective, encouraging readers to enjoy their brief moment on the stage.

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Key Plot Points