Twelfth Night
Study Guide

Difficulty: Moderate

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Twelfth Night Overview

Scoring a spot in the top five of Shakespeare’s most performed plays, Twelfth Night is a fan favorite especially over the Christmas season. Its comedic formula of gender-bending disguises, lookalike twins, and intertwined subplots work to make chaos.

In the play, Viola disguises herself as the page Cesario and her crossdressing causes much confusion. By the end, her disguise has entangled the characters in a web of absurd predicaments and forbidden attractions. In many of his other comedies too, Shakespeare used the device of cross-dressing: Portia becomes the lawyer Balthazar in Merchant of Venice; Rosalind becomes Ganymede in As You Like It; and Imogen, Fidele in Cymbeline. A masculine avatar gives these heroines agency. In disguise, they are able to subvert gender roles, move independently, and partake in action like the men. And because English actors were all men, the gender bending took on yet another layer. To the audience, Cesario is really a male actor, playing a woman, disguised as a man!


Sources that inspired Twelfth Night include Gl’ingannati (“The Deceived Ones”) (1531). This Italian comedy of intrigue shares Twelfth Night’s use of twins and a love triangle. Barnaby Rich’s “Of Apolonius and Silla” (1581) is a darker short story that echoes certain plot elements like the shipwreck, love, and twins. There’s something incestuous about Shakespeare’s comedies too.

Twelfth Night recycles source material from The Comedy of Errors in which disguise is also a principal plot device. Personally, Shakespeare himself had twins, Hamnet and Juliet, who might have set a precedent for Viola and Sebastian. Just like Sebastian is assumed dead, Hamnet died young too.

The Title

The title refers to a holiday in England known as the “Epiphany,” held on the 6th of January. Twelfth Night was a day of licensed disorder, presided by a Lord of Misrule. Servants dressed as masters and ordered them around; women dressed as men. So too in the play, rigid patriarchal and social orders are inverted. The holiday served as a pressure valve, giving the disenfranchised members of society a temporary reprieve. Twelfth Night was a holiday of drunken revelry, and the play’s tone is equally festive thanks to Sir Toby, Maria, and Feste. (Feste’s name even means celebration). But more soberly, the church celebrated Christ appearing to the wise men on this day. It’s a similar revelation that resolves the chaos in Twelfth Night when Sebastian is discovered.

Study Twelfth Night

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