In this lesson, our instructor Rebekah Hendershot teaches Twelfth Night. Youll go over the complete background of the play, the setting, and the characters. Rebekah explains each character in detail, including Viola, Sebastian, Orsino, Olivia, Malvolio, Maria, and everyone in between. Youll learn each element of the plot from the shipwreck to the happy ending. Themes, major passages, and essay topic jumping-off points are also discussed. With Rebekah youll discuss topics such as gender roles, the comical characters, and the idea of mistaken identity. The lesson concludes with a few secrets to make understanding Shakespeare a lot easier.
This lesson will teach you how to read and understand a play by William Shakespeare, one of the greatest playwrights in the history of the English language (and the man who invented quite a lot of it).
These videos are not a substitute for reading Shakespeare, listening to Shakespeare, or watching Shakespeare performed.
Seriously. Don’t be that guy.
Written for a Christmastime celebration
Lots of cross-dressing and craziness
Not published during Shakespeare’s lifetime (First Folio, 1623)
A response to the “boy- plays”?
Eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea
Viola / Cesario—A young noblewoman who assumes a male identity after being separated from her twin brother, Sebastian. Loves Orsino. Is loved by Olivia.
Sebastian—A young nobleman, twin brother of Viola. Friends with Antonio. Marries Olivia.
Orsino—Duke of Illyria and pompous blowhard. Woos Olivia (unsuccessfully). Falls in love with “Cesario.”
Olivia—A countess who refuses to marry on account of her brother’s recent death. Self-indulgent. Falls in love with “Cesario,” and later Sebastian.
Malvolio—Olivia’s priggish servant. His coworkers make him believe Olivia is in love with him.
Maria—Olivia’s clever maid. Plays pranks on Malvolio and eventually marries Olivia’s uncle.
Antonio—A sea captain who rescues Sebastian and seems to be in love with him.
Sir Toby Belch—Olivia’s drunken uncle. Marries Maria.
Sir Andrew Aguecheek—Suitor to Olivia and friend to Sir Toby. Fatuous idiot.
Feste—A jester. Probably the wisest character in the play.
Orsino in love
The twins separated
Viola goes to Illyria
A page in the service of Orsino
A visit to Olivia
Viola delivers Orsino’s message
Olivia falls in love with “Cesario”
The gift of a ring
A prank on Malvolio
Viola and Orsino—can a woman love a man as much as a man can love a woman?
Olivia tries to woo “Cesario”
Antonio and Sebastian appear in town
Malvolio tries to woo Olivia
Sir Andrew picks a fight with Viola
Antonio rescues “Sebastian”, and is arrested
Sebastian is challenged, courted, and married
The clown mocks Malvolio
The marriage and the beating are revealed
The twins are reunited (after Viola messes with Sebastian’s head)
Orsino falls for Viola
The prank on Malvolio is revealed
Everyone has a laugh and a song
Shape-shifting, disguise, and mistaken identity
Love as a cause of pain
Folly of ambition
“If music be the food of love, play on …”
-Act I, Scene 1, 1-15
“Make me a willow cabin at your gate …”
-Act I, Scene 5, 237-245
“…Make no compare Between that love a woman can bear me And that I owe Olivia.”
-Act II, Scene 4, 91-101
“… Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times Thou never shouldst love woman like to me.”
-Act V, Scene 1, 258-266
How does Shakespeare experiment with gender roles in this play? How does he portray the intelligence, power, and faithfulness of men and women?
Twelfth Night, the holiday for which the play is named, was a topsy-turvy time of cross-dressing and role reversal. How does this play out in the story?
What role do the explicitly comical characters—Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Feste, etc.—play in the story? Why did Shakespeare include them?
Is Malvolio a comical character, a tragic figure, or both? Explain.
By the end of Twelfth Night, everyone seems to have a happy ending—except Malvolio and Antonio. What effect does this have? Why do you think Shakespeare chose to write his ending this way?
Compare Orsino and Olivia. How are their attitudes toward love the same? How are they different? Both seem to be in love with the idea of being in love more than with any particular person. What statement is Shakespeare making about romantic love?
Shakespeare uses mistaken identity throughout the play, yet Sebastian and Viola are very different characters. How does their physical similarity highlight their personal differences?
The Secret of Understanding Shakespeare
Watch it performed (or on film if you can’t get to a theatrical production). All of Shakespeare makes more sense when it’s spoken by actors who have lived his words and know, bone-deep, what he’s talking about. Never underestimate the power of performance. Remember that this is how Shakespeare meant his work to be seen …
Lecture Slides are screen-captured images of important points in the lecture. Students can download and print out these lecture slide images to do practice problems as well as take notes while watching the lecture.
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