Discussion Questions for Twelfth Night on Tue, July 20

Dear friends,

The shakespeare@readingodyssey.org address is temporarily down, so I have sent a copy of this post to everyone through eventbrite.com, which you used to register for Shakespeare in the Spring.

Our next and final discussion will take place on Tuesday, July 20 at 8pm EST. This time, we will be looking at Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies–and a work, I will argue, that self-consciously tests the boundaries between comedy and tragedy…

You may remember that the RSC edition of Twelfth Night had not been published when our Odyssey began. It was finally published in early May, so if you haven’t bought a copy already, you may do so now on Amazon.com:


Below are several discussion questions to consider as you read and re-read the play. As always, I’d like one volunteer to prepare a kickoff response for each question. This month, I’m going to be a little more insistent about this and draft folks if I don’t get enough volunteers. 🙂

I’d also like to invite all of you to submit your own discussion question ahead of time, if there’s something you’d like us to think about before we convene. Feel free to post it here. If you could also email me your question (by next Sunday, July 18), I’ll collate them and send them around to the group. I’ve been amazed and inspired by your insights this spring (trickling into summer), and I hope to step back a little on the 20th and let you guys run the show.

Finally, while there are several film versions of Twelfth Night out there, one that I would especially recommend is the BBC production from 1980, directed by John Gorrie. The actor who plays the “madly-used Malvolio” gives a sublime performance, and I am perfectly in love with Sinead Cusack, who plays Olivia.

All best,





“…Give me excess of it, that surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die” (1.1.1-3). These are the famous first lines of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Moved to the core by a few bars of music, Orsino orders his musican(s) to play them: “That strain again, it had a dying fall” (1.1.4). As the musicians find their place, Orsino describes the music’s effect on him: “O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound / The breathes upon a bank of violets, / Stealing and giving odour” (1.1.5-7). But the music isn’t as sweet the second time around. At the musicians play, Orsino complains, “Enough, no more, / ‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before” (1.1.5-8). In the lines that follow, he reflects on the peculiar inconstancy of human appetites. “O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou, / That, notwithstanding thy capacity, / Receiveth as the sea. Nought enters there, / Of what validity and pitch soe’er, / But falls into abatement and low price / Even in a minute” (1.1.9-14).

Thus, in fourteen lines–not coincidentally, perhaps, the length of a love sonnet–Shakespeare introduces one of Twelfth Night’s central themes: the paradoxical nature of human desires, which frequently disappear the moment we attain our objects. How does Shakespeare develop this theme across the play? Where else do you see him grappling with it? More importantly, what questions about human nature and morality does it raise? Are our appetites and desires something to be embraced or rejected? Trusted or distrusted? How can we live in the moment without becoming bored with life? How can we forestall pleasure without becoming a “puritan” like Malvolio, whom the play and its characters mock wholeheartedly?


In Act 2, scene 4, Orsino and Viola (disguised as Cesario) discuss Orsino’s hopeless passion for Olivia, before turning to a more general discussion on the finer points of love. Olivia/Cesario hints at the love “she” bears for Orsino: “Say that some lady, as perhaps there is, / Hath for your love as great a pang of heart / As you have for Olivia. You cannot love her. / You tell her so. Must she not then be answered?” (2.4.93-6). Orsino is dumbfounded by the idea that a woman could love as deeply as he loves: “There is no woman’s sides / Can bide the beating of so strong a passion / As love doth give my heart, no woman’s heart / So big, to hold so much. They lack retention. / Alas their love may be called appetite, / No motion of the liver, but the palette, / That suffer surfeit, cloyment and revolt. / But mine is all as hungry as the sea, / And can digest as much…” (2.4.97-105).

In essence, Orsino redefines a woman’s love as “appetite,” something that “may sicken, and so die.” (1.1.3). A man’s love, he says, transcends the vicissitudes of human appetite. But wait, hasn’t Orsino just advised Viola/Cesario to marry a woman younger in years than s/he, precisely because a man’s affections are less likely to stick?

What questions is Shakespeare trying to raise through this debate? Whose side do you think he takes? Whose side do you take?


The deeper we read into Twelfth Night, the harder it appears to identify, pin down, and define abstract ideas like “love.” One place we see this is in the play’s treatment of the very stuff the play is made of: words shaped into art. The “immortalizing power of literature” is a common theme in our literary tradition; many of Shakespeare’s love sonnets focus on it. Other sonnets bring it into question, though, and there is no greater instance of this in his work than the moment in 1.5 where Olivia jocularly announces her plan to “leave the world no copy” (i.e. not marry and have children) and instead “give out diverse schedules of [her] beauty” (1.5.223-5). Does she really believe this will work? No, and it’s clear what she’s doing: by drawing attention of the impossibility of language to “capture” reality, she’s reinforcing her earlier point that Olivia/Cesario’s passionate message “from” Orsino (it’s not entirely clear who wrote it, but it seems Viola/Cesario did) may be just that–words–and that the more “poetic” they are, the more likely they are to be false. Consider this exchange a little earlier in the scene:

Viola/Cesario: I will on with my speech in your praise, and then show you the heart of my message.

Olivia: Come to what is important in’t. I forgive you the praise.

Viola: Alas, I tool great pains to study it, and ’tis poetical.

Olivia: It is the more like to be feigned. I pray you keep it in. (1.5.176-81).

Can you identify other moments in the play where Shakespeare calls into question the integrity of his artistic medium? Can you connect them with moments in other plays we have read this spring? How do you account for all these doubts Shakespeare casts on the character of words? How would you characterize Shakespeare’s relationship language?


Twelfth Night invites us to look at language, especially “poetic” language, with great skepticism. At the same time, though, it clearly relishes in the play of language–just as Hamlet enjoys his witty interchange with the first gravedigger, and the fool in King Lea
r exults in his verbal gymnastics. Furthermore, this love of wordplay we see time and time again in Shakespeare extends to something even bigger: the love of play, of plays, of play-acting, of impersonation, of disguise. How do you account for this? Is it Shakespeare celebrating his artistic medium? Questioning the nature of human identity (maybe we are all just a collection of roles)? Drawing attention to some deep need in the human spirit?

Additionally, for all the gaps highlighted by the play between the real world and the world of play, there is one absolutely beautiful moment when the two come together. As you may have noticed while reading Twelfth Night, Sir Toby’s expressions of love for Maria are often inspired by her cleverness in managing and directing the “play” on Malvolio. Is Maria’s dramatic genius the reason Sir Toby falls in love with her and marries her–the only marriage actually to occur during the play?


Scattered throughout this comedy are moments of intense hurt, frustration, and sadness. Some are obvious. The play begin’s with Orsino’s sadness; Olivia, the woman he pines for, can’t return his or any man’s love while she moans for her dead brother. Cast upon the shores of Illyria, Viola, too, believes she has lost her brother–likewise, her twin Sebastian believes he has lost a sister. Some of these moments of sadness are less obvious. Take the song “O Mistress Mine,” a love song sung by Feste in 2.3; in this song, pleasure tasted today is tinged with grief by the uncertainty about what tomorrow holds in store for us: “Present mirth hath present laughter. / What’s to come is still unsure” (2.3.46-7). At least, that’s how I read it. How would characterize the tone of the song? Can you find other moments in the play where you detect an undercurrent of sadness or grief flowing beneath the play’s antics? What is their dramatic purpose? Is it to provide “tragic relief,” as some readers like to say that scenes of mirth in tragedies provide “comic relief” for their audiences, or is Shakespeare doing something else?


In addition to its many instances of sadness or grief, there are moments in Twelfth Night where the action of the play comes close, even dangerously close, to something much darker, something much closer to tragedy. The practical joke played on Malvolio turns into something that has disturbed many readers: imprisonment in a makeshift “asylum” where everything Malvolio says in his defense is willfully construed as further evidence of his madness. (How would you direct this scene? Would you do it as straight comedy? Or would you draw attention to its darker features? How?) Near the end of the play, Malvolio storms off the stage vowing to “be avenged on the whole pack of you” (5.1.381). And then there’s the moment a little earlier in the final act where Orsino seems quite intent on killing Viola/Cesario, rather than allowing “his” love for Olivia to continue. Reread Orsino’s monologue at 5.1.15-29; Orsino’s language is really, really dark. This, I think, is where Twelgth Night veers closest to tragedy, and you see this kind of trajectory in other comedies as well, for example A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Shakespeare tests the boundary between comedy and tragedy in other ways as well. For example, there seems to be a recurrent question about whether mirth or sadness, happiness or sorrow serves as the “baseline” of human experience. Consider Feste’s songs: “O Mistress Mine” (2.3.30ff), “Come Away, Death” (2.4.54), and the deeply enigmatic closing song “When That I Was a Little Tiny Boy” (5.1.392ff). Using these songs as starting points, consider the relationship between comedy and tragedy as they pertain to the world we live in? Is it complimentary? Hierarchical? Is the real world, the world we live in, primarily comic or tragic, or does it contain equal amounts of both? Is comedy something that springs from tragedy, allowing us to deal with or forget it? Or is tragedy something that ensues when we let the comic spirit run on for too long?


In Act 1, Viola asks the Captain to disguise her as a man, so she can enter Olivia’s service: “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid / For such disguise as haply shall become / The form of my intent” (1.2.55-7). We never see “Viola” again; at the end of the play, she is still in her disguise, and she is not going to put on her woman’s weeds until her promised marriage to Orsino. What do you make of this? Many comedies are based on disguises and mistaken identities, and these typically end with unmaskings and a clearing up of confusion. In this play, we have a clearing up of confusion, but the unmasking is not complete. Why? We also don’t get to see a marriage, another conventional ending point for comedies. Viola is going to marry Orsino, and her brother is going to marry Olivia, but we aren’t invited to these celebrations. There IS one marriage in the play–Maria’s to Sir Toby–but it happens completely offstage. This “ending” has puzzled critics. What do you make of it?


“What’s to come is still unsure” (2.3.47). Is Twelfth Night a skeptical play? Does the play mock Malvolio’s “puritanism” because of his austerity and prudery–“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale” (2.3.104-5)”–or does the play express a deeper aversion to religion? Why or why not?

08. July 2010 by Arrian
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