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Last Updated on August 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2099

Disguise and Performance: Appearances and disguises are central elements of the plot of Twelfth Night, and many characters use physical and verbal means to hide their true feelings or identities. The myriad disguises contribute to the confusion that drives the play’s plot, and thematically suggest that disguise and performance prevent people from forming meaningful connections. 

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  • For discussion: How does Viola’s disguise complicate her relationships with Orsino and Olivia? What does this suggest about how disguises impact interpersonal relations? 
  • For discussion: Consider how other characters might be performing. Do you think that Olivia’s grief over her brother’s death is genuine or a performance? What about Orsino’s love for Olivia? Do other characters engage in performance? Defend your answers using evidence from the text. 
  • For discussion: How is the confusion over identity resolved? Do you think that the characters will now be able to form more meaningful, honest relationships? Why or why not? 
  • For discussion: A recurring theme in Shakespeare’s works is that life itself is a performance and that people act out different roles in different scenarios. Do you agree with this idea? Why or why not? Are there moments in your own life where you feel like you have to put on a performance? 

Internal vs. External Identity: Themes surrounding identity in Twelfth Night manifest through the disparity between a character’s sense of self and the way they are perceived by others. The contrast between internal and external identity is particularly apparent in the case of Viola, as she is forced to grapple with her thoughts and feelings along with the external perceptions that result from her role as Cesario. And, although Olivia ends up heterosexually married to a man, it was a woman who first won her heart, calling into question the nature of gender, sexuality, and Olivia’s identity. 

  • For discussion: Why does Viola choose to disguise herself as a man rather than being honest about her identity? Do you think the Cesario persona is an authentic extension of Viola or is it simply an act? What evidence from the text makes you think so?
  • For discussion: By the end of the play, Cesario has become—in the minds of other characters—a separate entity from Viola. This is evidenced by Orsino’s claim that Viola will continue to be Cesario so long as she is dressed as a man. What does this suggest about the power of external perception in shaping identity? Do you agree with Orsino that clothes and external presentation can define a person’s identity? Why or why not? 
  • For discussion: How is Sebastian’s claim that Olivia has married both a “maid and man” a double entendre? What is the implication of this remark on his marriage to Olivia? To what extent can Sebastian be considered a replacement for the unobtainable Cesario? 
  • For discussion: How does the subplot describing Malvolio’s deception and imprisonment engage with the idea of external identity? How does the way Malvolio sees himself contrast with the way that other characters view him? What does he hope to accomplish by dressing and speaking the way he does? Does it work? Why or why not?

The Dangers of Unbalanced Love: For the majority of Twelfth Night, confusion, inequity, and dishonesty dominate the relationships between characters. Malvolio is tricked into believing that Olivia loves him, Viola reluctantly woos Olivia on Orsino’s behalf, and Olivia falls for Cesario without realizing that he is actually a woman in disguise. This confusion culminates in Malvolio being locked in a dungeon and Orsino threatening to kill Cesario and Olivia for seemingly marrying behind his back. Though all seems well after Sebastian and Viola reveal their identities, the suffering and jealousy experienced before that point highlight the perils of excessive or imbalanced love.

  • For discussion: Twelfth Night begins with Duke Orsino hyperbolically professing his love for Olivia. Why do you think Shakespeare chose to introduce Orsino’s romantic woes before any other plot elements? What tone does this set for the rest of the play? 
  • For discussion: How do different characters experience romantic love? Is it primarily a positive or negative experience? What about platonic love? To what extent is love associated with suffering? What does the play suggest is the cause of this suffering?
  • For discussion: The characters in Twelfth Night experience a variety of imbalances during their pursuit of love, including class differences, hidden identities, and a lack of reciprocation. What methods do different characters use in order to overcome these barriers? Are any of them successful? What does this suggest about the nature of unbalanced love? 
  • For discussion: What are some examples of balanced love—either romantic or platonic—in the play? Do you think that the couples who end up together at the end of the play have found balance? Why or why not? 

Metatheatre: Metatheatre refers to a dramatic work’s recognition of its own fictionality. From plays-within-plays to witty asides to the audience, Shakespeare’s body of work is filled with metatheatrical elements, and Twelfth Night is no exception. Metatheatre is established mainly through Viola, who is dressed as a man for the majority of the play. Viola’s disguise allows the audience to recognize her as an actress. Furthermore, though modern performances typically employ female actors, the role would have originally been played by a young boy, creating a visual reminder that Viola is not what she seems. 

  • For discussion: When Twelfth Night was first performed, Viola would have been played by a male actor. How does this impact your understanding of the play? Does your interpretation of the play change if Viola is played by a female actor? How so? What does this suggest about how gender is performed? 
  • For discussion: In act 3, scene 4, Fabian notes that if the events of Twelfth Night were “played upon a stage now, [he] could condemn it as an improbable fiction.” How is this statement ironic? What does it suggest about the relationship between fiction and reality? 
  • For discussion: How might a live theatre production of Twelfth Night differ from a film version in terms of metatheatricality? Imagine that you are the director of a theatrical production of Twelfth Night. How might decisions like casting, costumes, music, and props impact how an audience interprets the play? Would you choose to enhance or minimize the metatheatrical elements of the play? How would you do so?


Tricky Issues to Address

Shakespeare’s Diction and Syntax Are Unfamiliar: Twelfth Night may present a challenge for students because of its unfamiliar vocabulary and verse structure. Unfamiliar language can be especially difficult with a comedy, as much of the humor is found in Shakespeare’s wordplay. Helping students navigate conventions of Early Modern English will allow them to better engage with Twelfth Night’s themes and technical elements. 

  • What to do: Consider introducing students to the plot of Twelfth Night prior to reading the text. The added context will allow them to more easily parse the unfamiliar language. 
  • What to do: Read aloud the first section of the assigned reading as a class, allowing time for students to ask questions and grow accustomed to the style. Giving students a chance to hear the text read aloud introduces them to the concepts of meter, verse, and prose, and experience how those devices function within the play. 
  • What to do: Screen scenes from a filmed version of Twelfth Night to give students a better understanding of how tone and humor can be conveyed. Also remind them that actors can interpret the text in a variety of ways and that no performance can be considered definitive. 
  • What to do: Consider handing out vocabulary sheets prior to each section of assigned reading. Instruct students to write down unfamiliar words, phrases, or concepts and encourage them to research some of the items on their list. Have students share their research in small groups and consider addressing common difficulties as a class.

Twelfth Night Upholds Traditional Gender and Class Distinctions: Though Twelfth Night is often lauded for its subversive explorations of gender, its resolution upholds a traditional model of marriage and, by extension, of womens’ roles. The play also mocks the ambitions of the lower classes: Malvolio is humiliated for attempting to transcend his station. While students may feel confident contextualizing the outdatedness of the text’s sexism, for instance, they might be confused by the brutality of Malvolio’s treatment, given the play’s classification as a comedy.

  • What to do: Remind students that both gender and class are broad themes within Twelfth Night and encourage them to consider how the sexist or classist sentiments espoused by certain characters advance or complicate these themes. Ask students if they think these moments are meant to be interpreted straightforwardly, and whether or not the play provides refutations of sexism or classism.

Content Notice: Twelfth Night contains bawdy humor, and sanctions sexist and classist language and beliefs.


Alternative Approaches to Teaching Twelfth Night

While the main ideas, characters, themes, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving teaching Twelfth Night, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the play.

Focus on clothing as a motif. Clothing is a motif within Twelfth Night, from Viola’s “woman’s weeds” to Malvolio’s ridiculous yellow stockings and crossed garters. How do characters’ outfits influence their self-expression? How do clothes affect the way they are perceived by others? In what ways are clothes comparable to costumes in Twelfth Night? How does clothing as a motif support the idea of life as a performance?

Focus on the Malvolio subplot and class as a theme. Though Twelfth Night is a comedy, not every character is given a happy ending. Malvolio swears vengeance against the central characters after learning that he has been duped, creating a contrast to the otherwise joyful ending. Furthermore, unlike Viola, whose subversion of gender is readily accepted by the other characters, Malvolio’s efforts to defy his class are met with scorn and ridicule. 

  • For discussion: What does Malvolio’s treatment suggest about the privileges given to the nobility in terms of self-expression? What does it suggest about the limits of ambition? How is class enforced by the other characters in the play?
  • For discussion: Do you empathize with Malvolio, or do you think he got what he deserved? Why do you feel that way? How does the message of the play change based on whether the Malvolio subplot is read as comic or tragic? 
  • For discussion: What might revenge look like for Malvolio? (How) Do you think he will obtain it?

Focus on Feste as a character, and the legacy of the Shakespearean Fool. Shakespeare’s fools are some of his most fascinating and clever characters, from Touchstone in As You Like It to the Fool in King Lear. Though the fool was a common archetype in Elizabethan theatre, Shakespearean fools are known for diverging from their purely comedic roots. They often engage the other characters and the audience with meaningful questions and commentary relating to the themes of a play. Twelfth Night’s Feste continues this legacy, providing wise commentary and witty humor in equal measure. 

  • For discussion: Feste’s songs are often out of tune with the festive events going on around him. What might this suggest about the true message of the play?
  • For discussion: What does Feste mean when he says “better a witty fool than a foolish wit”? How is Feste’s intelligence established? Why do you think Shakespeare made Feste, a lowborn character, arguably the wittiest presence in the play? 
  • For discussion: Feste’s ability to travel between Orsino’s and Olivia’s estates gives him a near-omniscient presence within the play. He also has very little stake in the outcome of events. (How) Does this lack of investment enable him to be an honest reporter of events? (How) Does this honesty manifest itself during his interactions with other characters? 

Focus on Twelfth Night as a comedy. Mistaken identity, separated twins, and role reversal are comedic tropes that can be found across many of Shakespeare’s plays. How have comedy tropes changed between Shakespeare’s time and the modern day? Have you seen any of these tropes in more modern media? Do you find Twelfth Night funny? Why or why not? How might you update the play’s humor to be more accessible to a modern audience?

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