E316-W Shakespeare Twelfth Night Questions

Assigned: Shakespeare. Twelfth Night (442-74).

Twelfth Night

Act 1

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?

2. In Act 1, Scene 3, what is Sir Toby Belch's attitude towards his niece's (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?

3. 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?

4. 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? Also, how does this scene represent Olivia's falling in love with Viola/Cesario? How much control does Olivia have over her situation once she falls in love?

5. In Act 1, Scene 5, we also meet Olivia's maid Maria, her steward Malvolio, and the Clown Feste. What is Olivia's assessment of Malvolio's flaws? And when Feste 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?

Act 2

6. 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)?

7. 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)?

Act 3

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

9. In Act 3, Scene 4, Sir Andrew makes his challenge against Viola/Cesario, Malvolio is carted off to a "dark room" as a madman after his bizarre attempt to woo Olivia, and Antonio is arrested by the Duke's officers for an alleged past offense. What limitations of her 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 (3.4.176-96)?

Act 4

10. 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 what observations does the "Fool" Feste make about insanity in the course of his chat with Malvolio? Why does the latter want "ink, paper, and light" (109-10)?

11. In Act 4, Scene 3, Sebastian agrees to what is for him 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?

Act 5

12. In Act 5, Scene 1, how does Shakespeare manage to untie the comic "knots" tied in the first four acts -- namely the confusion and trouble caused by Viola's disguising of her gender and the disillusionment and injury created by Sir Toby and Maria's schemes against Malvolio and Sir Andrew?

13. Some critics have taken Malvolio's claims to victim-status rather seriously, as if Twelfth Night were one of Shakespeare's "problem comedies." 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, even if a bit "over-the-top"? What does Malvolio apparently lack that has helped the other characters get through their difficulties and arrive at happy endings?

14. 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: Evans, G. Blakemore et al., eds. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Houghton Mifflin, 1997. ISBN: 0-395-75490-9.