Play Of the Month: Twelfth Night 

Twelfth Night artwork by Elizabeth Schuh, Used with permission.


Movie pitch: “Tempests are kind, and salt waves fresh in love.” A duke’s daughter masquerades as a man and finds true love. Filled with catchy songs, dozens of colorful characters, and some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful poetry. This romantic comedy will put a song in your heart, and tickle your funny bone.

Rated PG for some innuendo, hijinks, drinking, and mild language.

My two cents

I’ve been in this play 3 times, each as a different character. I was also the text coach and tour manager for a summer Shakespeare company that performed this play in the summer of 2011. I would say the best two things about this play are its fantastic female characters, and the great party atmosphere it creates with all the jokes, songs, and pranks.

Famous Lines

  1. “If music be the food of love, play on!”
  2. “By the roses of the spring, by maidhood, honor, truth, and everything…”
  3. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em”
  4. “Foolery doth walk about the orb like the Sun; it shines everywhere.”
  5. “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool.”
  6. “After him I love, more than I love these eyes, more than my life, more by all mores…”
  7. “Most wonderful.”

For more quotes and analysis of the characters, click here:

General Data

Title: Twelfth Night

Playwright: William Shakespeare

Year Written: approx. 1600

Source: Probably derived from Shakespeare’s other shipwreck/ twin comedies such as The Comedy Of Errors.

Genre: Jacobean Comedy: Prose/ Verse

Play Data

Structure: Five Acts, 18 scenes, 3,185 lines (uncut)

Setting: Illyria, a fanciful country on the Adriatic Sea.

Characters: 18 characters- 6 definite male characters, 3 female characters, plus sailors, attendants, a priest, and officers.

Character Notes


One of the greatest if not the greatest heroine in the Shakespearean cannon. She is smart, witty, endlessly resourceful, and has a will of iron. When she is shipwrecked she doesn’t worry about herself at all, but literally hitches up her pants and gets a job as a male page. Viola attracts the affections of both the Duke and the Countess in her male disguise, and provokes the envy of all their underlings, even the clown Feste. Even more impressive, when Orsino tells Viola in disguise that he believes women to be less true and committed in love, she flat out rejects these sexist notions to his face, and subtly confesses in her male disguise that were she a woman, she would love ,,Orsino with all the depth and passion of a man, and do whatever it takes to keep him. Viola is perhaps Shakespeare’s most feminist role, and continues to attract the greatest actresses of each era. Words That Come To Mind: Indomitable, survivor, passionate, clever, free-spirit, chameleon.

Sebastian Viola’s twin brother who washes up in the same country without knowing his sister is alive and disguised as him. Since Viola has made friends with both Orsino’s court and Olivia, when they see Sebastian, they treat him like they would her, (to his utter confusion). Words That Come To Mind: Soldier, impulsive, leading-man.

Orsino A love-sick duke with an unrequited obsession with the Countess Olivia. Orsino keeps feeding his lovesickness with sad songs, dramatic behavior, and by sending gifts and messages to her, not knowing that the daughter of a duke loves him back, and would give anything to have him love her. Usually in Shakespeare, love-sickness is a virtue like in Romeo’s case, but in the case of Orsino, his unrequited love is something to be laughed at. Words That Come To Mind: Lover, love-sick, powerful, whipped.


A countess determined to mourn for her dead brother for 7 years. Olivia refuses to see or talk with any man, which is why she is so surprised when she falls in love with Viola in disguise as Cesario. Olivia becomes just as obsessed with Viola, as Orsino is with her, and employs many of his same methods to no avail. Her torment ends however, when Viola’s handsome brother arrives, and coincidentally falls in love with her as well. Words That Come To Mind: Proud, impulsive, beautiful, solemn, constant.

Sir Toby Belch Olivia’s drunken uncle who never takes anything seriously. He mooches off of his Neice and cons a foolish knight, (Sir Andrew). Words That Come To Mind: hedonist, Falstaffian. Note on performance: Shakespeare, for whatever reason thinks that big words are funny when the speaker is drunk, which is why half of Sir Toby’s dialogue consists of words like “consanguineous.”

Feste A clever and mercurial entertainer who sings and dances his way into people’s hearts. He is also a natural philosopher and makes jokes related to their natures. Words that come to mind: Clown, fool, joker, philosopher, Lord Of Misrule


An incredible comic part, his name means “Ill desire,” meaning he has a wicked desire to marry Olivia and become the Count of Illyria, even though he is only her servant. Malvolio has no time for fun or any kind of frivolity; he is focused only on working hard, impressing his lady, and feeding his own sense of pride and self importance. This flaw allows Toby, the maid Maria, and Sir Toby to ruin his pride, and turn the trusted steward, into a raving madman. Words that come to mind: Puritan, steward, butler, sycophant, party pooper.


A depiction of Olivia by Edmund Leighton from The Graphic Gallery of Shakespeare's Heroines

Figure 1 Edmund Leighton. “A Depiction of Olivia” from The Graphic Gallery of Shakespeare’s Heroines


Figure 2 R_Staines ”Malvolio From Shakespeare Twelfth Night


Figure 3 Francis Wheatley, “Scene From Twelfth Night”


Figure 4 W. Houghton. “Sir Toby Belch coming to the assistance of Sir Andrew Aguecheek” (c.1854).


Figure 5: Johann Heinderick Ramberg. “Malvolio Before Olivia From Twelfth Night” (1789).

Play Summary

All is not well in the country of Illyria; two women are in mourning for the death of their brothers. Viola, the daughter of a duke has survived a shipwreck, but is now awash in a strange country. To make her way in the world, she disguises herself as her lost brother, and becomes humble servant to Duke Orsino. The other mourner is the countess Olivia, who spurs all talk of love from the duke and chooses to mourn for 7 years. Mad with lovesickness, Orsino sends Viola as an ambassador of his love. Unfortunately, the countess falls in love with Viola instead of the Duke! Meanwhile in the countess’ household, the drunken Knight Sir Toby, the scheming maid Maria, and the ubiquitous clown Feste trick the steward Malvolio into thinking that the countess loves him, and try to make him proclaim his love in crass and ridiculous ways! Mistaken identities, love, song, dance, and hilarity ensue.


For Educators

Concerns for Directors

Like I said in Comedy Of Errors, the main concern for any director in a play like this is finding actors to convincingly play twins- they need to have matching outfits, similar height, and similar vocal registers. Of course, you can play the twinning for comic effect and have the twins wear the same outfit, but not look anything alike, allowing the audience to indulge in some inside humor. Unlike Comedy Of Errors, Twelfth Night requires a great deal of emotional commitment from the principal characters- the twins Sebastian and Viola, as well as their eventual spouses Olivia and Orsino need to go from the depths of grief and lovesickness to the heights of joy. In addition, Malvolio shifts from being a proud steward to a raving madman, and Feste plays a number of characters and is the most self-conscious actor in the play. This play will test every bit of your actors’ abilities and will reward them with the satisfaction of a supreme job well done.

Concerns for Teachers

  • As with all of Shakespeare’s shipwreck/ twin comedies, this play will test your students’ memory and credulity. It’s hard to keep track of who is who and where the action is. 
  • Probably in Shakespeare’s day, audience’s wouldn’t have considered Olivia’s love for Viola as heterosexual, (after all, she is in disguise as a man), but in this day and age it is hard to ignore the possibility that Olivia is attracted to Viola as a woman, not a mannish impostor. In any case, Twelfth Night undoubtedly touches on issues of gender identity and human sexuality, which the class can examine and address as they read the play.

Resources/ Lesson plans for teachers

  1. Full play (annotated):
  2. Royal Shakespeare Company
  3. American Shakespeare Center
  4. Folger Shakespeare Library
  5. Schmoop: Twelfth Night-


Discussion Questions

  1. Discuss the changing functions of gender and sexuality as it pertains to the characters of Olivia, Viola, Sebastian, and Orsino.
  2. Some characters in this play, like Sir Toby and Sir Andrew seem to care for nothing and only live for today, while Olivia and Orsino seem to be consumed by lovesickness. Does this play endorse any particular philosophy of how to live one’s life?
  3. Is Malvolio justly punished for his pride, or did he not deserve being locked away?
  4. In Shakespeare’s day, all the female characters were played by boys. Would it change your experience of the play to see the female characters played this way, why or why not?

If you liked this post, please consider signing up for my new online class, “What Was Christmas Like For William Shakespeare?” I’ll go further into the traditions of Elizabethan Christmas and add some insight into Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night.” Register now at!