Twelfth Night Teacher Guide

Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or What You Will, the story of a brother and sister, is an interesting blend of the sadness, romance, farcical comedy, gentle sarcasm, and irony. This guide to the play provides an act-by-act summary and activities to use while teaching the play in your classroom.
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Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare


Twelfth Night or What You Will is an interesting blend of the sadness of separation between brother and sister, romance as each of them falls in love, farcical comedy filled with mostly gentle sarcasm and irony, and a bang-up happy ending for the brother and sister, reunited and also now loved by the one each loves. In between there is the intriguing complexity of mistaken identities, plots to fool foolish characters, and a couple of pompous characters who get what they deserve.

Thus, although some of the conventions of Shakespeare's time give the play a twist different from a similar comedy of our own time, there is much in the play that resembles a light and entertaining movie or television special. Handled in this way rather than as an icon to be paid homage to, Twelfth Night has much in it to appeal to the sentimental, the silly, and the critical in most modern high school students. And, of course, there is the character of Malvolio, exactly the type of pompous prig that teenagers especially seem to love to see put down by those he has picked on and preached to.

As the play progresses, one can almost hear teenagers yelling, "But he's a she! Can't you tell, you fool!" It is equally easy to hear them warning Sebastian and cheering when Sir Andrew and Sir Toby and especially Malvolio get their just desserts and as the mix-up of brother and sister and who's in love with whom is straightened out at the end. And throughout, these teenage readers laughing, jeering, sighing at romantic spots perhaps, expressing enjoyable disbelief that anything so mixed up could ever really happen or – if it did, be straightened out so conveniently in five acts – will be reacting to the play as its original audiences did.

The title of the play seems to refer to the last twelve days of Christmas, as in the song we hear so often during that holiday period. The last day – or Twelfth Night – was in Shakespeare's time a day of celebration and foolishness. The subtitle, What You Will, sounds suspiciously like the currently popular "whatever" used to say more or less, "I don't care"; or, as has been suggested, when asked for a title, Shakespeare may have said "Twelfth Night or call it what you will." If this is the case – and there are other, more complex interpretations – then perhaps Shakespeare is saying to us and to our students, "Well, here it is in all its sentimentality, foolishness, lack of realism, insight into the folly of humankind or whatever you want to make of it." If he is indeed giving us that freedom, then we and our students can sit back, laugh, make fun of characters, and see them as just like so and so – perhaps a teacher who is just like Malvolio – and make of it what we will.

What follows in this guide is a look at the play act by act. (For a more idiosyncratic yet lively reading of the play, try O'Brien's Teaching Shakespeare, pp. 26-28.) After the summary, the guide makes suggestions for ways to get students ready for reading the play, a few activities designed not to interfere with the natural flow of the events but to involve students more fully in those events and with the characters, and a couple of activities that can help students think about what they just saw and read and go on from there to take some stabs at creating from the raw material the play has given them.


Identification of Characters

Orsino, Duke of Illyria: Loves Olivia; loved by Viola; groom-to-be of Viola (at the end of the play)

Lady Olivia: A rich countess; loved one of the Duke; loves Viola (as Cesario); bride-to-be of Sebastian (at the end of the play)

Viola: Twin sister of Sebastian; Cesario; page to Lady Olivia; loves the Duke; bride-to-be of the Duke (at the end of the play)

Sebastian: Twin brother of Viola; Roderigo; one who is confused with his twin sister (as Cesario); groom-to-be of Olivia (at the end of the play)

Sir Toby Belch: Olivia's uncle; a drunkard; coconspirator with Sir Andrew, Feste, and Maria

Sir Andrew Auguecheek: Suitor for Olivia's hand in marriage; a foolish man; coconspirator with Sir Toby, Maria, and Feste

Feste: Clown; coconspirator with Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria;
occasional commentator on what is happening

Malvolio: Olivia's steward (Manager of Estate); a vain and pompous man; object of the conspiracy to humiliate him

Maria: Servant of Olivia; coconspirator with Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste

Antonio: Sea captain; friend to Sebastian; old enemy of the Duke

Sea Captain: Friend of Viola

Valentine and Curio: Aristocrats in Olivia's court

Fabian: An aristocrat in the Duke's court


Act I, scene i
The play begins with what is one of its two most familiar passages (the other being Malvolio's sense of himself in Act II, Scene v), as the Duke of Illyria, Orsino, pining for the love of the Countess Olivia, says:

If music be the food of love, play on!
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! It had a dying fall.
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour. Enough! No more!
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute! So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

As he finishes that lament, the gentleman Valentine enters to tell him that Olivia thinks only of her dead brother and no one else.

Act I, scene ii
On the seacoast Viola has confirmation that she also has lost a brother, her twin Sebastian. Now in Illyria, she learns from a sea captain that the Duke Orsino is the ruler of the country and - an important piece of information dropped into the conversation - that he is a bachelor who loves Olivia. Viola decides that she wants to serve as a page to the Countess. When the captain makes it clear that Olivia is in seclusion, Viola decides to disguise herself as a man and seek to serve as a page in Orsino's court.

Act I, scene iii
The action shifts to Olivia's home, where we meet her uncle Sir Toby Belch, his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and the Maria, a servant to Olivia. Sir Andrew, we will learn, considers himself a possible suitor for Olivia. In the foolishness that follows, Sir Toby persuades Sir Andrew to continue seeking the hand of Olivia, and each of them in slightly different ways show that they mostly love parties and festivities.

Act I, scene iv
Having introduced us to most of the main characters directly or through references in the conversation, the play moves quickly ahead, as Viola enters, now dressed as a page and using the name Cesario. Viola as Cesario has become a favorite of the Duke Orsino. Still in love with Olivia, the Duke sends Viola on a mission to Olivia to tell her of his love. Speaking to herself, Viola reveals that she has fallen love with the Duke.

Act I, scene v
Back at Olivia's we meet Feste, the Clown, who will, from time to time, comment ironically on the characters and action; and Malvolio, the head of Olivia's household and a pompous ass, appears with the Countess. Sir Toby, now drunk, wanders in. At this point, Olivia gives in to Cesario's (Viola's) messages that he/she must see her. After Viola unsuccessfully represents Orsino's love and leaves, the Countess discovers that she is falling in love with - not the Duke - but Viola as Cesario and sends Malvolio to carry a ring to Viola and ask her to return the next day.

Act II, scene i
Back on the sea coast, Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, who has renamed himself Roderigo, considers himself cursed to suffer more bad luck, and sets off for Orsino's court with Antonio, a sea captain.

Act II, scene ii
On a street somewhere, Malvolio catches up with Viola, still disguised as a page, and delivers the ring, saying it must be hers left behind. After denying she left the ring, Viola realizes that the Countess is in love with her. The scene ends with Viola's version of the play's subtitle, What You Will: "O time! Thou must untangle this, not I./ It is too hard a knot for me t'untie!"

Act II, scene iii
Back at Olivia's, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste wander in after midnight still deep in partying. Feste sings one of Shakespeare's most famous songs, "O mistress mine, where are you roaming?" and the others laugh and make friendly fun of his singing. Maria joins them, and then Malvolio shows up to tell them off for their drunken loudness. When he stalks out, the three plan revenge by forging a letter from Olivia that Malvolio will find and, thinking he is the subject of the letter, believe that Olivia's letter is about him and she's in love with him.

Act II, scene iv
Back at the Duke's, Viola delivers the rejection from Olivia to the Duke. The two discuss love, its pain and joy; and Viola shares her own sadness, pretending it is the story of her sister. The scene ends, with the Duke sending Viola back to Olivia with a jewel and a new message of love.

Act II, scene v
Having given the plot against Malvolio a chance to develop, Maria drops the forged letter in Olivia's garden, where Malvolio is bound to find it. Malvolio then enters and, as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew listen, talks of how things would be if he married Olivia, whom, we discover, he already suspects is in love with him. He finds the letter and reads it aloud. Completely taken in, he leaves, having resolved to smile and smile as the forged letter suggests he should and dress in a fashion the letter praises but, in fact, Olivia dislikes. The letter contains the famous passage, "some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em," which Malvolio will quote to Olivia shortly.

Act III, scene i
The scene begins with an exchange between Viola, still masquerading as Cesario, and the Clown, that contains mostly joking but ends with a thoughtful passage by Viola about the Clown's insight into the people he mocks. Olivia joins them in the garden; and, when they are alone, Cesario attempts again to represent the Duke to Olivia. Olivia, however, tells Cesario that she has fallen in love with him, not the Duke. Still pretending to be Cesario, Viola tells her that "no woman has; nor never none/Shall mistress be of it, save I alone," a statement with strong double meaning.

Act III, scene ii
Sir Toby and Fabian convince Sir Andrew, who still sees himself as a suitor for Olivia, to challenge Cesario to a duel. Maria joins them to let them know that the plot against Malvolio is working: he's dressed himself as they suggested, in what they know - but he doesn't - are clothes Olivia detests.

Act III, scene iii
Sebastian and the sea captain Antonio discuss Sebastian's problems, and the sea captain gives him money for a room. They plan to meet later, and one might guess that brother and sister will soon be mixed up by the others.

Act III, scene iv
This scene rapidly moves ahead the several mistaken understandings that keep us wondering how and when it's all going to work itself out. Malvolio, now completely dressed in the clothes Olivia hates and acting with words and gestures that we know will offend her, speaks to her of the love he thinks she has for him.

Olivia, knowing nothing of the phony letter, thinks he has lost his mind. Then Olivia learns that Cesario is back and leaves, and Malvolio lets us know that he thinks he's done a great job of winning her and also leaves.

In come Sir Toby, Fabian, and Maria to move along the other plot, Sir Andrew's challenge of Cesario to a duel. When Sir Toby reads the letter challenging Cesario, he refuses to deliver it as too stupid to be believed, but, getting a chance to talk with the page, warns him that Sir Andrew is a bad guy and then warns Sir Andrew that Cesario is really tough. They then taunt Cesario and Sir Andrew, and the duel starts. But, as one might expect, it doesn't progress very far before something stops it: Antonio, the sea captain and friend of Sebastian, wanders in, thinks Cesario (Viola) is Sebastian and challenges Sir Andrew himself. That duel doesn't go very far either, because a couple of cops come in, recognize Antonio as an old enemy of the Duke, and arrest him. Naturally, Antonio asks Cesario for his money back. Cesario doesn't have a clue what he's talking about - but Antonio mentions rescuing "Sebastian" as he pleads for Cesario to do what is right and give him the money. That gives Cesario hope that his (her) brother lives.

Act IV, scene i
The Clown runs into Sebastian on the street and, thinking he is Cesario, tries to get him to go back to Olivia. Sebastian, not knowing what the Clown is talking about, gives him some money to go away. Just then Sir Andrew, Sir Toby, and Fabian wander in, think Sebastian is Cesario, and attack him. Sebastian proves to be a much stronger fighter than Cesario; but Olivia also comes by, stops the fight, and takes Sebastian away with her.

Act IV, scene ii
Malvolio, thought to be mad by Olivia, has been locked up in a dark room. With the help of Sir Toby and Maria, the Clown, disguised as the parson, Sir Topas, makes fun of Malvolio.

Act IV, scene iii
In the garden, Sebastian worries about Antonio, who didn't meet him as planned, and wonders about Olivia's love for him. She, of course, still thinks he is Cesario. Olivia then enters with a priest, and she and Sebastian go into her chapel to be married.

Act V, scene i
This act has only one scene, but what a scene it is! Starting with Fabian and the Clown, each of the characters enter in front of Olivia's home. Duke Orsino arrives with his page Cesario (Viola) to try once more to win Olivia. The cops bring in Antonio, who speaks angrily of Sebastian's lack of gratitude, thinking that Cesario (Viola) is Sebastian. Then Olivia appears and tells the group that she and Cesario (Viola) are married since she still believes that Sebastian is Cesario. Cesario (Viola) clearly doesn't understand and claims that he (she) isn't married to Olivia; but the angry Duke rebukes him (her) and fires him. At this crucial moment, Sir Andrew and Sir Toby arrive to complain that Sebastian has attacked them and hurt them. Sebastian comes in right behind them, wanting to apologize to Olivia for hurting her uncle. And there they are, the twins. All is resolved when Olivia decides she is happy with Sebastian as her husband and Duke Orsino realizes that he is in love with Viola, formerly Cesario. The clown brings a letter from Malvolio that begins to reveal the plot that has landed him in the dark room, and the Duke and Olivia have him brought before them. Malvolio has kept the letter he thinks was from Olivia and hands it to her. Then all is revealed as Fabian and the Clown confess. Malvolio rushes out vowing revenge; the Duke sends the rest after him to try to talk out his anger. The Clown, left alone, ends the play with a slightly cynical song.

Teaching the Play

Twelfth Night, like Shakespeare's other plays, is usually treated with a kind of reverence, much like standing in a gallery and looking in awe at a statue - looking with awe but with no other feelings. Wade and Sheppard in their study, "How Teachers Teach Shakespeare," make the point that "it is futile for teachers to impose their own experiences upon students, because, at best, responses will be uniform and diluted. Establishment of a personal relationship with the text must be the first step, and students' own responses and interpretations must be considered valid and worthwhile" (p. 23). They go on to conclude that "firsthand, dramatic experience leads to personal response and...exploration of a text through performance is an enjoyable way of illuminating communication between Shakespeare the playwright and his audiences" (p. 23). After an analysis of what a group of teachers indicated on a questionnaire, they conclude, "Despite recent changes, our findings are that for this sample of English teachers the most popular teaching methods remain the traditional and transmissional ones. The danger is that an elitist, high-culture, purely literary model of Shakespeare is presented through play-reading, literary critical analysis and scene summarizing" (p. 27).

Yet Shakespeare meant Twelfth Night to be a romance that is funny in itself because of the many mistaken identities: Olivia falls in love with Viola, thinking she's Cesario, and then marries Sebastian, who has been using the name Roderigo, because she thinks he is his twin Viola disguised as Cesario. And Cesario (Viola) has fallen in love with the Duke but, of course, being disguised as a man, can't admit her love. All this confusion and mistakes makes us feel superior to these dense characters and, so, we laugh at them. The play is meant to be a true comedy as defined by incongruity; that is, a character like Malvolio, so full of self love, falls into the humiliation of being duped and treated as insane, exactly the opposite of the lofty state he sees for himself.

Consequently, students should come to the play seeing it as a comedy where they laugh at the silly behavior of some characters with sympathy, like the Duke and Olivia, and others with none, like Malvolio and, to a lesser extent, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. As suggested earlier, if they can see the play as a modern mixed-up, slightly crazy movie in Elizabethan dress, the play is likely to succeed with them.

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