Twelfth Night Teaching Approaches
by William Shakespeare

Twelfth Night book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Twelfth Night Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Teaching Approaches

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. 

  • 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...

(The entire section is 2,099 words.)