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Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Comedy. Definition – a comedic play has at least one humorous character, and a successful or happy ending. Characteristics of … The main action is about love .

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comedy
Comedy
  • Definition – a comedic play has at least one humorous character, and a successful or happy ending.
  • Characteristics of …
    • The main action is about love.
    • The would-be lovers must overcome obstacles and misunderstandings before being united in harmonious union. The ending frequently involves a parade of couples to the altar and a festive mood or actual celebration (expressed in dance, song, feast, etc.)  Twelfth Night has three such couples.
    • Frequently (but not always), it contains elements of the improbable, the fantastic, the supernatural, or the miraculous, e.g. unbelievable coincidences, improbable scenes of recognition/lack of recognition, willful disregard of the social order (nobles marrying commoners, beggars changed to lords), instantaneous conversions (the wicked repent), enchanted or idealized settings, supernatural beings (witches, fairies, Gods and Goddesses). The happy ending may be brought about through supernatural or divine intervention (comparable to the deus ex machina in classical comedy, where a God appears to resolve the conflict) or may merely involve improbable turns of events.
    • In the best of the mature comedies, there is frequently a philosophical aspect involving weightier issues and themes: personal identity; the importance of love in human existence; the power of language to help or hinder communication; the transforming power of poetry and art; the disjunction between appearance and reality; the power of dreams and illusions).
twelfth night what does the title refer to
Twelfth Night: What does the title refer to?
  • The play was written as a Christmas season production for presentation on Epiphany – the twelfth night after Christmas, when, according to religious tradition, Jesus was introduced to the world.
  • It is a time for celebrating, gifts are exchanged, and parties and other celebrations occur.
  • The full title of the play is Twelfth Night, or, What You Will – i.e. “Call it anything you choose.”
twelfth night
Twelfth Night
  • Type of work: play
  • Genre: comedy
  • Time written: between 1600-1602
  • Place written: England
  • Tone: Light, cheerful, comic; occasionally frantic and melodramatic, especially in the speeches of Orsino and Olivia.
  • Tense: Present (the entire story is told through dialogue)
  • Setting (time): Unknown
  • Setting (place): The mythical land of Illyria (Illyria is a real place, corresponding to the coast of present-day Yugoslavia, but Twelfth Night is clearly set in a fictional kingdom rather than a real one.)
twelfth night characters
Viola (a.k.a. Cesario)

Duke Orsino

Olivia

Sebastian

Malvolio

Feste

Sir Toby Belch

Maria

Sir Andrew Aguecheek

Antonio

Twelfth Night Characters:
dramatic structure
Dramatic Structure
  • Major Conflict (Problem): Viola is in love with Orsino, who is in love with Olivia, who is in love with Viola’s male disguise, Cesario. This love triangle is complicated by the fact that neither Orsino nor Olivia knows that Cesario is really a woman (Viola).
  • Rising Action: The mounting confusion, mistaken identities, and professions of love, leading up to Act V.
  • Climax: Sebastian and Viola are reunited, and everyone realizes that Cesario is a woman.
  • Falling Action: Viola prepares to marry Orsino; Malvolio is freed and vows revenge.
  • Denoument (Resolution): Everyone goes off to celebrate.
themes
Themes
  • Love as a cause of suffering
  • The uncertainty of gender
  • The folly of ambition
common motifs patterns in shakespeare s plays
Common Motifs (Patterns in Shakespeare’s plays)
  • Contrasting worlds
  • Rise of one person at the expense of another
  • Disguise and deceptions
  • The supernatural
  • Redemption / reconciliation
  • Disorder yields to order
  • Comic relief scene
  • Parallel characters / foils
  • Eavesdropping
1 contrasting worlds
1. Contrasting worlds
  • How does this device occur in the play?
  • What significance does it have in the overall plot or to the overall theme?
2 rise of one person at the expense of another
2. Rise of one person at the expense of another
  • How does this device occur in the play?
  • What significance does it have in the overall plot or to the overall theme?
3 disguises and deceptions
3. Disguises and deceptions
  • How does this device occur in the play?
  • What significance does it have in the overall plot or to the overall theme?
4 the supernatural
4. The supernatural
  • How does this device occur in the play? (Hint: trace Shakespeare’s notion of fate in the play.)
  • What significance does it have in the overall plot or to the overall theme?
5 redemption reconciliation
5. Redemption / reconciliation
  • How does this device occur in the play?
  • What significance does it have in the overall plot or to the overall theme?
6 disorder yields to order
6. Disorder yields to order
  • How does this device occur in the play?
  • What significance does it have in the overall plot or to the overall theme?
7 comic relief scene
7. Comic relief scene
  • How does this device occur in the play?
  • What significance does it have in the overall plot or to the overall theme?
8 parallel characters foils
8. Parallel characters / foils
  • How does this device occur in the play?
  • What significance does it have in the overall plot or to the overall theme?
9 eavesdropping
9. Eavesdropping
  • How does this device occur in the play?
  • What significance does it have in the overall plot or to the overall theme?
study questions
Study Questions

1. Notice how Shakespeare uses different types of language -- prose, rhymed verse and blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter, "Marlowe's Mighty Line") -- to differentiate between characters (i.e. serious and comical; nobility and social climbers) or to create other effects (increased solemnity or silliness; poetic effects; song).  Be sensitive to the way in which the type of language used adds to the meaning(s) Shakespeare is attempting to convey.

2. Twelfth Night moves from a potentially tragic situation (shipwreck and loss) into the joyous realm of romantic comedy (unions and reunions).  The movement from conflict, sterility and death (two women who mourn supposedly dead brothers) to fertility, harmony and life (three couples happily celebrate marriages that may lead to future births) is typical of Shakespeare's comedies and romances (e.g. The Tempest). What makes the three final couples "well-matched"?  How do they differ from the three potential couples that are not ultimately united in marriages?  What do these pairings teach about what Shakespeare and his audience viewed as an "appropriate" match?

3. Twelfth Night dramatizes the seduction scenario we have noted as a common thread in much lyric poetry of the Renaissance and early 17th century.  There are six distinct sets of potential or actual couples; three involve Olivia as the female object of desire; one has Olivia as the desiring female subject; one has Viola as the desiring female subject; and one links the comic characters Sir Toby Belch and Maria.  Know the characters (by name!) in each of these potential or actual couples, and be aware of the ways in which the characters and their real or imagined/potential love stories intersect and interact. Which of the couples are parallel to each other?  Which are contrasted?  How much do the different lovers (and love relationships) have in common? (e.g. equality or social inequity of the potential partners; motivation for desired union--social climbing? "love at first sight"-style physical desire? true knowledge of another's qualities and character?). How does Shakespeare use these parallel relationships and characters to unify the play as a whole? 

4. Consider the comical effect of the gender-bending caused by Viola's masquerade as a young man, "Cesario," who is later confused with her own (supposedly dead) twin brother, Sebastian.  (Given that women's parts in Shakespeare's time were originally played by young boys, the gender-bending gets even more complex.)  How does the gender-bending within the play add to our picture of what the Renaissance and early seventeenth century saw as "appropriate" behavior for women? (For a similar case of gender-bending, compare Rosalind in As You Like It.)

study questions cont d
Study Questions cont’d.

5. Notice the various uses of the theme of deception within the play (e.g. deceptive appearances, deceptive words/language, and the related theme of self-deception).  Which characters are most clear-sighted about their own qualities and motives?  Which are manipulating appearances in order to deceive others?  What are their motivations for doing so?

6. Note the imagery of hellfire, demons and damnation (particularly prevalent in the second half of the play).  Are these to be understood literally or figuratively? How is this imagery connected to the theme of deceptive appearances?  Compare/contrast with similar references/themes in other literature (e.g. Dr. Faustus, the Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost.).

7. Note the satire of Puritanism (personified by Malvolio).  What is it about Malvolio that the other characters so dislike?  Why does Olivia put up with him?  Is his punishment by the trickery of the comical "low lifes" deserved?  Why or why not?  Is the Malvolio subplot there only for comic relief, or does it convey a more serious message? If so, what? 

8. It is thought that Twelfth Night was first written for the "Carnival"-like festivities of the feast of the Epiphany (the "twelfth night" of Christmas, January 6); these raucous celebrations involved a temporary inversion of the established social order.  This "world upside-down" theme is reflected not only in some of the mismatched (potential) couples in the play, but in the themes of folly, madness and foolishness.  Which characters in the play behave most foolishly? What do you make of the official "Fool," Feste?  (Note that a court jester such as Feste, Touchstone in As You Like It, or the Fool in King Lear had the license to speak freely things that no one else would dare say openly). Is "folly" or "foolishness" an unavoidable part of being in love? Why is Malvolio punished so cruelly?  (Are his aspirations and behavior any more foolish than those of the other would-be lovers?)

9. Note the use of music and song in the play.  How do the various songs punctuate or comment upon the action?  Some of the songs may origianlly have been intended for Viola (who notes in 1.2.52-55 a talent for music that she had intended to use to get into the good graces of Duke Orsino).  What is the effect of giving the songs to Feste rather than Viola (or any other of the lovers)?  Do they suggest a special connection between Viola and Feste?  In what ways are they alike?  How do they differ?