CHARACTERS OF TWELFTH NIGHT
Have the class quickly look over the list of characters to recognize familiar words. Some characters are obviously described through their names, others are a bit more subtle. Those whose names are not evocative have been omitted from this list.
Orsino – When Shakespeare wrote the play, Twelfth Night, the Spanish Ambassador was named Orsino. Given the incredible rivalry between England and Spain in the Renaissance, it makes it much more fun to mock a foolish character who is named for Orsino, a Spaniard of high rank.
Ask the class if there is a political character whose very name appearing in a contemporary cast of characters would amuse an audience.
Valentine –Although he is a character of very little consequence to the action of the play, what better name for a character in a play devoted completely to love?
Curio– Definition: “a knick-knack.” Both Curio and Valentine are minor characters, but their appearance might enhance the comedic atmosphere.
Have the class suggest casting possibilities and possible costumes.
Sir Toby Belch – Belch is a synonym for ‘burp,’ and Toby was a traditional name for ale. The connection is obvious—ale makes one burp. An alternate, modern nameto suggest to the class would be “Sir Budweiser Belch.” Furthermore, the fact that this is Sir Toby Belch gives Shakespeare the opportunity to mock nobility. Show a picture of current collectable Toby Mug figurines based on Toby Ale (available online through a search engine).
Have the class suggest famous actors who might be well cast as Sir Toby.
Sir Andrew Aguecheek – Again, an opportunity to mock nobility, Aguecheek is an empty headed aristocrat. Have a student read the definition of “ague” (a sickness marked by fever and spasms; the [pl]ague). In essence, Andrew Aguecheek’s name might be modernized to Andy Plague-face – not the name for a handsome leading man.
Suggestions for casting?
Malvolio – The prefix “mal” means “bad.” A character in Romeo and Juliet> is named Benvolio, a name indicating ‘good will,’ ‘good feeling,’ or ‘good humor.’ Malvolio’s name implies ‘bad will’ or a perpetual feeling of crankiness. To compound the unattractiveness of this character, Malvolio is described as a Puritan. Puritans were the archenemies of dramatists, including Shakespeare. Play acting, and indeed drama in general, were regarded by Puritans as sinful, essentially a lie. Thus their desire to close the theatres threatened Shakespeare’s very livelihood.
Feste – The jester or clown. Have a student with a dictionary read the definition of “festival” and the root word “fest” – i.e. celebration. Feste’s traditional costume would have been “motley.” Have a student read this definition. The function of this character would be to mock characters, yet simultaneously for the audience to discern the worth of a character. If the character can laugh at herself/himself, the audience likes her or him. It is unattractive when people are unable to laugh at themselves. How a character reacts to Feste determines the worth of that character – if characters laugh, we like them; if they become angry, we want to see them brought down or humbled. In Shakespeare’s other great comedy, As You Like It, the similar jester is named “Touchstone.” Webster’s dictionary defines “touchstone” as “a test or criterion for determining the quality or genuineness of a thing.”
Viola – The main character. This name is pronounced VI – ol – lah. Viola is the leading character in the play, the one with whom readers/viewers most identify. Not just a stringed instrument, a Viola is also a flower. Have the student with a dictionary read the definition. A Viola is a small flower, similar to but smaller than a pansy – like a violet. Poets often use the violet/Viola metaphorically. A Viola is a flower that grows both in the shade and so close to the ground that its beauty often goes unnoticed. Since the Viola is not a flashy or showy flower, one has to be perceptive to notice its beauty; this is so very true of Viola, the character, as well. When Viola disguises herself as a male, she assumes the name “Cesario,” or “LittleCaesar.” This counterfeit male is reputed to be very handsome.
What famous actor or what attributes in a woman would the class seek when casting Viola?
Olivia – There is a strange phenomenon among the cast of characters that so many of them have similar letters in their names. Norrie Epstein says: “Note that several of the major characters’ names contain or are near anagrams of the word ‘volio,’ which in Italian means ‘will.’ . . . For the Elizabethans, ‘will’ meant desire, specifically sexual desire. The play’s subtitle, ‘What You Will,’ suggests the clichés of the 1960s: ‘Whatever turns you on’ and ‘Do your own thing.’
Characters love whom they will in this comedy: male, female, upper-class, lower- class – it makes no difference. It’s spring time, the mating season, and everyone must fall in love” (141).