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Twelfth Night is a very traditional comedy. Aristotle defined comedy as having common elements, such as
Main character is a woman (In Twelfth Night, this is Viola.)
Impediments exist to attaining true love
Characters are taught to laugh at their foibles
A strong sense of community prevails
Play ends with marriage and the hope of babies (continuation of community)

Theme: Caprice -- a frivolous, whimsical attitude toward life and toward love. In a very real and pervasive sense, Twelfth Night is a satire on love, at least of Petrarchan love. Petrarch in his poetry created a distance, an unworthiness, between the loved one and the lover. The female is idealized and the male should be content to worship her from afar. The man places the woman on a pedestal – an unequal relationship is implied. This makes the last characteristic of comedy, i.e. procreation, impossible. A Petrarchan lover must be taught a more reasonable, more practical attitude toward love. This is a major theme in Twelfth Night.

Disguise has been an element in western comic theatre since ancient Greece and it continues full throttle even today. Cross-dressing takes this comic element up another significant notch. Remind students that there were no female actors in Shakespeare’s day. This compounded the humor for the Elizabethan audience. Their ‘disbelief was willingly suspended’ to believe that a male actor was portraying female characters such as Olivia, Maria, and Viola. Imagine the continually humorous component when a man pretends to be a woman (Viola) who then pretends to be a man (Cesario).

CLASS ACTIVITY: Defining Key Terms

1. Distribute dictionaries to selected class members; perhaps 10 dictionaries can be placed at random seats before the class begins. Each dictionary has a slip of paper with a word on it. The students with dictionaries should look up the following words:

1. epiphany
2. valentine
3. curio
4. belch
5. ague
6. mal (prefix)
7. fest/festival (as in ”Feste”)
8. motley
9. Viola

2. Begin the class with a definition of “12th Night” (see below).

Background extraneous to the play, but pertinent to the theme.


“Twelfth Night” is a common, pedestrian name for a period in the Church calendar called Epiphany (have a student with a dictionary read both definitions of the word “epiphany”). This is the time when the Magi (a.k.a. Wise Men) brought gifts of tribute to the Holy Family after the birth of baby Jesus. In many countries, Christmas is a “High Holy Day,” commemorated with church attendance, reverence, reflection, restraint, and, above all, seriousness. Epiphany, or Twelfth Night (traditionally celebrated on January 6th), is the day designated for parties and festivities. So, one might expect Twelfth Night to be a Christmas play, to have stories or themes relevant to the birth of Jesus – but it doesn’t. Twelfth Night, the play, was actually written for a party that occurred at one of the Inns of Court in 1602, an Epiphany celebration that was apparently absolutely secular and even quite bawdy. This was a time of masques, revels, defiance of authority, and general foolishness. Basically, the title of the play, Twelfth Night, has nothing to do with the content.

That brings us to the alternate title: What You Will. The alternate title evinces an even more flippant, carefree, attitude toward the content of the play: What You Will or “Call this Play Anything You Want, It Just Doesn’t Matter,” even “Whatever!” What the alternate title indicates is that Shakespeare takes nothing seriously in this play even before the action begins, nor should we – the audience and/or reader. From the maudlin song that starts the play even before the action begins, to the final, ostensibly frivolous song that ends the play, it is all for fun.

Shakespeare actually wrote a play quite similar to Twelfth Night (or What You Will) approximately two years earlier, entitled As You Like It. The title again is irrelevant. This is another madcap comedy written just ‘as you like it.’ It also contains a savvy woman, a quipping jester, and the potential for tragedy presented in a fanciful manner.


Illyria is an actual geographic region on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, currently part of northern Albania. Just as the title, Twelfth Night, has nothing to do with the content of the play, there is absolutely nothing particularly Albanian about this play either. Shakespeare probably chose the setting because Illyria has a more temperate climate and because it is a setting quite “remote and exotic and therefore suitable to a tale of disguise, intrigue, and romance” (Boyce 308).

When Viola is washed ashore, she states that although she has landed in Illyria, her brother is possibly in Elysium. Elysium in Greek and Roman mythology (also known as the Elysian Fields or the Islands of the Blessed) was the place for the afterlife of virtuous souls. The souls there enjoyed sunshine, flowers, dancing, music, and perpetual joy. Illyria, on the surface, may seem a very similar place; for the privileged classes like Olivia and Orsino, it might be a veritable paradise. Yet later in the play, Antonio states that “ these parts, which to a stranger, unguided and unfriended, often prove rough and unhospitable” (III, 3, 9-11). Perhaps Antonio is “reflecting on the unsavory reputation of the Illyrian coast, which was a notorious den of piracy until the 17th century. There are references to Illyrian pirates elsewhere in Shakespeare (2 Henry VI, IV, 1, 107; Measure for Measure IV, 3, 70) and in other Elizabethan literature (Boyce 308). This potential for great peril in Illyria certainly explains why Viola finds it is necessary to disguise herself immediately.