Twelfth Night

Questions on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 689-750).

1. Romantic-era critic William Hazlitt’s 1817 essay on Twelfth Night suggests that Shakespeare writes a “comedy of nature” in which “the foibles and follies of individuals are of nature’s planting, not the growth of art or study.” In Act 1, Scene 1, to what extent might Hazlitt’s statement be taken as a key to understanding Duke Orsino? To what excess or “foible” is he prone, and why, judging from what we learn of Countess Olivia in this scene, might she be an appropriate focus for Orsino’s affections?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, what is the situation on the Illyrian coast? That is, what has happened to Viola and her brother? What plan does Viola announce to the Captain when he mentions Countess Olivia, and in what sense does the principle underlying this plan distinguish her as this comic play’s central character?

3. In Act 1, Scene 3, what is Sir Toby Belch’s attitude towards his niece Countess Olivia’s insistence on mourning for her departed brother? What seems to be his philosophy of life generally? What accounts for his interest in Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and by means of what advice does Toby urge Andrew to pursue his courtship of Olivia?

4. In Act 1, Scene 4, what is the basis of the intimacy that forms so quickly between Duke Orsino and Viola (disguised as “Cesario”; from now on I’ll write “Viola/Cesario” since the disguise won’t be lifted until Act 5)? Why does the Duke think his suit to Olivia will succeed better if he employs “Cesario” as his intermediary?

5. In Act 1, Scene 5, we meet Countess Olivia. Why does Olivia disdain Duke Orsino’s affection for her, if we might conjecture a reason besides the stated one of loyalty to her departed brother? Why does she grant a hearing to the Duke’s current attempt? How does this scene represent Olivia’s falling in love with Viola/Cesario, and how much control does she have over her situation once she falls in love?

6. In Act 1, Scene 5, how does Viola/Cesario manage the task of wooing by proxy for Duke Orsino, and how does she/he respond to Countess Olivia’s defensive witticisms and other comments meant to deflect Orsino’s persistent attentions? In sum, how does Viola/Cesario conceptualize courtships between men and women?

7. In Act 1, Scene 5, we also meet Olivia’s maid Maria, her steward Malvolio, and the Clown Feste. Discuss Olivia’s bantering with the latter — how does each assess Malvolio? What argument does Feste advance to prove Olivia a fool, and more broadly, when he says to Olivia, “Any thing that’s mended is but / patch’d; virtue that transgresses is but patch’d with / sin, and sin that amends is but patch’d with virtue” (47-49), how might we take his observation as a means by which to judge the errors and excesses of the play’s characters, Olivia included?


8. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 2, first Antonio and Sebastian converse after the latter has been rescued from the shipwreck that he believes drowned his sister Viola. Characterize the affinity that seems to be struck up suddenly between Antonio and Sebastian. Moreover, in Scene 2, how does Viola/Cesario process the complication that has arisen since her proxy wooing of Olivia in the service of Duke Orsino?

9. In Act 2, Scenes 3 and 5, Sir Toby and Maria plot against Malvolio — what has he done to earn their scorn, and what exactly do they plan to do to him? What makes their plan appropriate to Malvolio’s character, and what’s the connection between this deception-plot and the larger action of the play (i.e. the love-pursuits of Viola, Olivia, and Orsino)?

10. In Act 2, Scene 4, Viola/Cesario is by now in as strong a state of passion for the Duke as the Duke is for Olivia. What advantages does Viola’s gender-disguise afford her in getting some perspective on the situation into which her own strong feelings have cast her? How much control does she have over her actions and her fate does she have at this point in the play (or elsewhere, if you want to refer to additional scenes)?

11. In Act 2, Scene 5, Malvolio falls head-first into the trap that Maria and Sir Toby have set for him. How does he interpret the alleged signs of Olivia’s affection, and in the process of doing that, how does he size up his own worth and his prospects going forward as well as reveal himself to be a hypocrite based upon the puritanism we have seen from him in earlier appearances?


12. In Act 3, Scene 1, how does Feste sum up for Viola/Cesario his role as a Fool? What is Viola/Cesario’s estimation of Feste’s qualities and speech?

13. In Act 3, Scene 1, characterize the impasse between Viola/Cesario and Olivia with regard to the latter’s passion for this servant of Duke Orsino. How might Olivia’s passion for Viola/Cesario be differentiated from that or Orsino for Olivia?

14. In Act 3, Scene 2, what advice does Sir Toby give Sir Andrew about his role as lover? What opinion of Sir Andrew does he hold by this point in the play, and why?

15. In Act 3, Scene 4, Malvolio is carted off to a “dark room” as a madman after his bizarre attempt to woo Olivia. By what words and gestures does he advance his suit, and how does Olivia take his ridiculous attempt at courtship? What does he think he has accomplished?

16. In Act 3, Scene 4, Sir Andrew is led to make his challenge against Viola/Cesario as a fellow suitor to Olivia. What limitations of her gender-based disguise does Viola run up against in this scene? As for Sir Toby, what evaluation does he offer regarding male rhetoric about honor and violence (see 3.4.176-96)?


17. In Act 4, Scenes 1 and 3, Sebastian is at first surprised to find Olivia enamored of him and then agrees to a very sudden proposal of marriage by Olivia since, of course, she mistakes him for Viola/Cesario. Why does he agree? What meditation does he offer regarding the affinity between love and madness, and how might his observations on this point be connected to the larger action of the play, which has been much concerned with this affinity and with the extent to which we can control or influence what happens to us?

18. In Act 4, Scene 2, Sir Toby and the Clown Feste have some more fun at the expense of the imprisoned Malvolio. What reservations is Sir Toby starting to have about the plot against Malvolio, and why? What observations does the “Fool” Feste (first as Sir Topas and then in his own person) make about insanity in the course of his chat with Malvolio? In particular, what seems to be the significance of Topas’s reference to Pythagoras and the doctrine of the reincarnation or the transmigration of souls?


19. In Act 5, Scene 1, how (by what device) does Shakespeare untie the comic “knots” tied in the first four acts — namely the confusion, frustration, and trouble caused by Viola’s gender disguising as well as the disillusionment and injury created by Sir Toby and Maria’s schemes against Malvolio and Sir Andrew? What insight/s about desire, courtship, and self-control might we gain from watching all this confusion and passion unfold and then be resolved before our eyes?

20. With regard to Act 5, Scene 1, some critics have taken Malvolio’s claims to victim-status rather seriously. It’s fair to say that Malvolio’s unhappy situation and parting threats inject a sour note into what is otherwise a symphony of happy marriages. But how might his punishment be interpreted as essentially just? How does Malvolio violate the comic spirit or impulse that otherwise reigns in this play–what quality does he lack that has helped the other characters get through their difficulties and arrive at happy endings?

21. The Clown Feste is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most interesting “fools,” and he’s quite a musical fool, too, with songs gracing Acts 2.3, 2.4, 4.2, and at the very end of 5.1. What significance do these songs (address at least the final song and any one other) hold for the play’s broader concerns? How, that is, do they relate to such broader topics as love, sanity and insanity, the inevitability of change, death, and any other issues you find relevant? What meanings do the characters for whom Feste sings seem to derive from his songs?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake